Psalm 56: Fear

Be merciful to me, my God,
    for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
    all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
    in their pride many are attacking me.
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
    In God, whose word I praise –
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?

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Psalm 56

Fear is a common human emotion. It is not a bad thing either. There are plenty of times when a good dose of fear is a very healthy and appropriate reaction. At the time of writing there was a brutal attack on a train where a passenger was knifed to death in a random attack. With the killer on the loose, fear was a perfectly healthy and reasonable reaction as people in the vicinity acted with far greater caution than normal.

At other times fear can be an unreasonable and unhealthy response. There are people who are so fearful that they cannot get out the door – agoraphobia is a serious and debilitating condition.  

Fear is a key theme of this Psalm and David seems to say two things which might, on face value, seem to contradict one another. 

In v. 3 David says that when he is afraid, he will put his trust in God. In v. 4, however, he says that he will not be afraid. Perhaps he is just referring to different occasions: there are times when he is fearful and so he turns to God and no longer feels afraid, that is one possibility. Another possibility is that David was both afraid and unafraid at the same time. Maybe David was internally fearful, anxious about what might happen, but he did not let those feelings prevent him from acting. That’s what courage is. Courage is not feeling unafraid – at times a lack of fear can just be recklessness or stupidity, not adequately understanding the danger of the situation and there is absolutely nothing praiseworthy in that. Courage is feeling the fear, realising the danger and yet still going ahead and doing the right thing, even if it is scary.

Our model for this is Jesus in Gethsemane. Luke tells us that Jesus was in anguish as he prayed to his Heavenly Father (Luke 22:44). The Greek word for anguish is ‘agonia’ and it was characteristically used to describe the feelings of gladiators as they waited to step into the arena. Like the gladiator, Jesus was engaged in mortal combat, offering his life to defeat the powers of death and darkness. And Jesus was scared, fearful of the physical pain that he would be put through because only an idiot would not be.   Jesus was scared of the emotional pain, the howling grief of his mother, the heartbreak of his disciples who did not and could not understand what was going on. And Jesus was scared because of the spiritual pain: he had always walked so closely to the one he called ‘Abba, Father’, but in the darkness of Golgotha that intimacy would be challenged like never before.

Yet Jesus prayed, ‘Not my will but yours be done’ and he showed courage as he actively did his Father’s will, laying down his life that we might live. 1 John 4:18 says perfect love drives out all fear and that’s a good text to meditate upon when we feel anxious. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every feeling of apprehension will disappear but it does mean that fear need no longer paralyse us from doing what is right.

Twice in the Psalm David asks, ‘What can mere mortals do to me?’ (vv. 4, 11). The answer is, ‘Quite a lot,’ but beyond the fear there is the assurance that God knows what we’re going through. And the God who records our tears (v. 8) is the one who will deliver us from death that we might walk before him in the light of life (v. 13).