“Fear, fear attracts the fearful; the strong, the weak, the innocent, the corrupt” (Darth Maul, Star Wars series).
Fear makes the weak servile, turns confidence into folly. It preys on the innocent by empowering the corrupt. Fear turns strangers into threats; it makes the threatened conspire.
Fear creates harm from disagreement, turns scrutiny into disloyalty and accountability into betrayal. Fear turns slights into wounds, preferences into rights, and makes discernment discrimination. Fear turns memory into bitterness and remorse into resentment. Fear confuses justice with vengeance.
It is often said that we live in anxious times, but I think it is more important in the current climate to have an accurate understanding of fear – because there are things it is right for us to fear and others that are not. Anxiety is largely a matter of not being able to tell the difference between them.
Our Father hears
Psalm 3, we are told, belongs to the time when King David fled from Absalom, his son. Absalom conspires to steal the kingdom from under the nose of his father, exploiting the frustrations of those who despise the rule of law when it is not in their favour.
It is a tragic tale of royal family intrigue and decadence that rends the fabric of a nation: the sentimental foolishness of the aged on one hand and the treacherous pride of youth on the other.
When news breaks that Absalom has successfully staged a coup, rather than allowing the nation to descend into civil war and raising his military hand against his son, David gathers the closest of his royal household and flees into the countryside, barefoot like a common fugitive. Various characters from David’s previous adventures appear to appease or oppose him in his flight.
At times David seems to waver in his self-confidence, suspecting that the Lord is bringing a curse upon him. Yet throughout, he surrenders his plight to the mercy of the Lord. Eventually, but mournfully, David is restored to power and his son dies ignominiously, having been caught in the branches of a tree by his flowing locks.
In the opening verses of this psalm David laments his change in circumstances from treasured king to fugitive in his own kingdom. He goes from being Israel’s most successful military leader to refugee overnight. The bitterness of the situation is revealed in the way David’s enemies contest his relationship with God as Messiah: “Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him’” (Psalm 3:2).
So sure are David’s persecutors, or so cynical of his circumstances, that they speak confidently of God’s motives and intentions. Forget the promises God made to David (2 Samuel 7:16) – David’s enemies confidently assert that somewhere along the line God has rescinded his vow, gone back on his word or just changed his mind.
David himself has no such uncertainty and declares that, far from being absent, the Lord is the shield of his life (3:3) and answers when he cries out. The Lord delivers to David the most cherished sign of safety and significance – a good night’s sleep (3:5)
It is an extraordinary insight. Though life and limb seem to be completely at risk for David, though he leads a rag-tag collection of servants, wives, and children barefoot through the hills of Judea, the surest sign that God has not abandoned him, that he does not need to fear, is a peaceful night of sleep.
It is a simple fact, something in the hyperactivity of our Western lives that we would almost prefer to ignore. But the fact is that if you can lay your head on a pillow each night without being exposed to the elements, without risk to life and limb from creatures of the wild or rascals and ruffians, you are doing okay. God is looking after you.
Perhaps the best remedy for anxiety, especially among the peaceful and prosperous, is perspective. Psychologists and other health care professionals tell us that the single most productive treatment for anxiety is to take our attention beyond the thought loops and inner dialogues that channel our energies into smaller and narrower ways of living. We need perspective, and that’s what David calls for in Psalm 3.
Now it is true that David didn’t have a wearisome workplace to negotiate. He didn’t have to navigate the complexity of personal debt or rising interest rates – the painful reality that we must earn more or spend less. David was spared the exhaustive schedule required to realise aspirations for gifted and talented children. Instead, he had to deal with the not insignificant fact that his son had stolen his kingdom, leaving him an asylum seeker: harried, harassed and destitute.
Yet he writes, “I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me” (v4,5). Yahweh will rise on David’s behalf and vindicate him by striking the mouths of those who mock with their words – right at the source of David’s persecution. God will not let people speak against his chosen one or, at least, God will punish in a personal way those who use the gift of speech against the servant of the Lord.
What then, should we fear? David continues his thoughts in Psalm 4 with some rather uncomfortable words for those seeking justice from God.
Presumption upon the mercy of God
Psalm 4:1 returns us to the cry for God’s attention – answer, have mercy, hear. However, there is a significant addition when compared to Psalm 3. David calls out to God for help, yet the psalm reminds us that when calling upon a righteous God sinners must ask for mercy before they complain about justice.
No matter how right our cause might be, no one comes before God innocent. This is not to blame the victim for his or her circumstances – far from it. Rather, we need to recognise that if everyone has a claim on God’s justice, then someone must have a claim for justice against me – if not God himself. If nobody is perfect, then everybody is guilty.
In Psalm 4:2 David appeals to the people to consider that the Lord will hear, adding: “Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him” (4:3). These words are quite clearly a warning to those who would speak against the Lord’s anointed – God’s chosen king.
Nevertheless, David also encourages his followers to be a bit circumspect in the cries for justice – the way to rest easy at night, confident that the Lord hears our prayers, is to remember our need for the Lord’s mercy: “Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent” (4:4). Before you can be a victim, says David, you ought to consider the extent to which you are a perpetrator. It is a clear conscience that sleeps most peacefully.
You may be bullied in your workplace, you may have been rejected by family, you may have been abandoned by a spouse or abused as a child. As heinous as all those crimes are, suffering in one place does not justify us from our own sinfulness in every other. The peaceful rest of the righteous in the face of persecution comes from the mercy of God.
Assurance and rest
Now, all this can be confusing. Do we have to sort out every situation in life before we can call out to God for help? Are the heavenly courts as backed up with suits and litigations like our earthly ones? Is it worth even the effort of calling out to God? He might have heard David the king, but what assurance do we have that God will hear the likes of you and I – especially if, as I have just pointed out, our calls for justice are tainted with our own need for mercy?
As always, the perspective that we need to defuse our anxieties and calm our fears is the one that comes to us through God’s saving acts in Jesus. Consider what the Spirit has written to the Hebrews:
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
We need not fear that God will not hear because we know that he heard Jesus, the righteous one who intercedes for us. When we call on our heavenly Father through Jesus, we do not need to fear presumption upon the mercy of God because in Jesus’ suffering we are completely justified of any and every sin against God and any other. We may rest in the gift of righteousness that comes in the Spirit and through Jesus.
The Rev Dr David Höhne is the Academic Dean of Moore College and lectures in Christian Doctrine and Philosophy.