In a world where power, money and recognition mean so much to most people, it is not surprising that they are more fearful of those who appear to have control over such things than God. The image of a kind and merciful God also makes Him less fearful than the evil and cruel princes of this world.
However, Jesus taught: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28; Luke 12:5) Jesus’ teaching tells us not to conform our lives to appease people around us, but rather to follow God’s commandments and counsels (Acts 5:29). If one dies at the hands of men or society, it is only a temporary death. If God deems a person unworthy to be in His kingdom or if a person chooses not to be part of God’s kingdom, the person will be separated from God for eternity.
Examples of the fear of man more than God can be found everywhere in Scripture, this includes early Christian leaders. Let us take a look at some of these examples so that we can learn how their encounters with God helped to change their lives.
Let us start with Abram, the founding father of the Jewish nation of Israel. Abram had not yet come to an adequate grasp of the power of God to provide and to protect him, even in spite of His promise in Genesis 12:1-3. When there was a famine in the land of Canaan, Abram feared that God could not provide for him, and so he fled from the land of promise to the land of Egypt (Gen. 12:10). Once in Egypt, Abram began to fear for his life because his wife Sarai was beautiful. He sought to protect himself by deceitfully telling the Egyptians she was his sister (and therefore eligible for marriage), not his wife (Gen. 12:11-13). Graciously, God delivered Abram in spite of his weaknesses. It was only when Abram came to a more complete trust in God that he could offer up his son (his security in the ancient world) in faith, trusting in God to provide and protect (Gen. 22).
Let us move on to one of Abraham’s descendants, King David. David’s actions in fleeing to Achish from Saul were not at all commendable (see 1 Samuel 21). We need not make any effort to excuse or explain them. From our own experience we can readily understand why David would act in the way he did. David, under the pressure of the pursuit of Saul, had begun to weaken in his fear of the Lord and had come to fear men instead (in particular, Achish). This led to acts of deception for it was more important to David in his present state of heart to satisfy Achish than to please God.
David fled to the Philistines because he didn’t believe God could spare his life any other way. His actions were based upon pragmatism rather than on principle. He was willing to make an alliance with Israel’s enemies in order to feel safe and secure. The Philistines who once fled from David, the warrior of Israel (1 Sam. 17:50-52), were now David’s allies to whom he looked for protection from Saul. In order to win Achish’s favour, David convinced him that he was conducting raids upon Israelite towns, while actually he was attacking the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites (27:8-12). David even told Achish that he would fight with him against the Israelites (28:1-2) which it appeared he was willing to do until a protest was raised by the Philistine commanders (29:1-5).
These events provide a backdrop for David’s predicament in 1 Samuel 21. In all previous incidents, violence and deception seem to have been more the rule than the exception. In continued flight from Saul, David left Judah for Gath, the home town of Goliath (1 Sam. 17:4,23) and one of the five principle cities of the Philistines (cf. Josh. 13:3; 1 Sam. 6:17; 17:52). David apparently wished to remain anonymous, but such hopes were futile. He was soon recognized as the rightful king of Israel and a great military hero about whom songs were sung by the Israelite women (1 Sam. 21:11). These things were all reported to Achish, king of Gath.
The superscription to Psalm 56 suggests that David was placed under house arrest. David probably wondered if he was doomed to spend his life as the prisoner of Achish. After all, Israel and the Philistines were enemies and at war as nations. David was the enemy’s king (1 Sam. 21:11), or at least was going to be. And David was the one who had put their home-town hero Goliath to death. Things did not look good for David. It is not without reason that we are told, “David took these words to heart, and greatly feared Achish king of Gath” (1 Sam. 21:12).
An ingenious plan then came to David’s mind. Concealing his sanity, David began to manifest the symptoms of a lunatic. He scribbled on the walls and drooled down his beard (v. 13). How could such a maniac possibly pose a threat to Achish? In his present state of mind David would not be an asset to Achish in any armed conflict with Israel (cf. v. 15; 29:1ff.). The result was that David departed, not voluntarily as 22:1 might allow, but by force. The superscription to Psalm 34 indicates that this Philistine king “drove him away.”
It was David’s fear of Saul that prompted him to flee to Gath to seek the protection of the Philistines (cf. 1 Sam. 27:1). It was David’s dread of man which caused him to deceive others with his lips (e.g. 1 Sam. 20:5-6; 21:1-2, etc.). It was David’s panic that led him to the conclusion that he must feign madness before Abimelech if he were to survive. Psalm 56 focuses on David’s fears, which prompted him to flee from Judah and to seek to preserve his life by deception. In Psalm 56 I believe David came to see his problem as that of fearing man rather than God. With a renewed trust in God (a fear of God), David now realizes that “mere man” (vv. 4, 11) can do nothing against him while God is his defence (vv. 3-4, 9-11).
We need not be surprised that David can praise God for his deliverance in Psalm 34 any more than we need be dismayed that he even goes on to teach us about personal and practical holiness. David could praise God because his heart was now right with God (as seen in Psalm 56). David could teach others about the fear of the Lord because he had come to understand it more fully from his own failures.
St. Peter was a man very much like David in my view. Both seemed to be impulsive, and yet both had a heart for God. Peter was also more fearful of men than God when he disowned Jesus three times before the cock crew (Luke 22:61). I believe his turning point was when Jesus asked him three times whether he loved him by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:15-17). The death of St. Peter is attested to by Tertullian at the end of the 2nd century, and by Origen in Eusebius, Church History III.1. Origen wrote: “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.” This is why an upside down cross is generally accepted as a symbol of Peter, who would not have considered himself worthy enough to die the same way as his Saviour. The martyrdom of St. Peter had proven that he no longer feared man more than God.
From the above examples we can see that God is gracious. He has chosen to use fallible men to serve and to worship Him. God never takes our sin lightly, and we are warned of the dire consequences of sin, yet it is often through our failures that the greatest lessons of life are learned. We need not excuse David’s sins any more than we should attempt to excuse Peter. Yet what we can do is to praise God with them for His gracious deliverance. Furthermore, we should learn from these men that God is a gracious deliverer for us as well.
Let us praise God with a song based on Psalm 34: