There was a time when David ran for his life from murderous Saul. At that time, he fled to Philistia to find refuge with the king of Gath (1 Samuel 21:10–15). When he arrived in Gath, the Philistine king’s servants were suspicious. They believed that David had come as a spy to infiltrate their intelligence. They warned Achish that this man who had come to him for refuge was, in fact, Israel’s king, who had struck down many Philistines. Realising that things were quickly going south, David “was much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behaviour before them and pretended to be insane” (vv. 12–13). Achish was angry and ordered David removed from his presence. He then escaped to a cave, where a group of people discontented with Saul’s reign joined him.
Psalm 34 was written out of that experience. It was a dark—even disgraceful—time in his life. The great man of faith, who had formerly stood fearlessly against Goliath and had singlehandedly slain two hundred Philistines to secure the bride price for Michal, now cowered before King Saul and King Achish. Psalm 34 reveals that he eventually came to his senses. He realised the unbelieving folly of his fear and embraced instead a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind (see 2 Timothy 1:7).
Fear plays a major role in this psalm. The word is found five times in its 22 verses. But the trajectory is important, for it shows that David moved from fear of men to fear of God. Indeed, it was as he embraced a healthy fear of God that he was able to overcome the fear of man.
Thomas Aquinas argued that fear has a contracting power on the soul. That is, fear forces a person to focus inward and embrace a position of self-protection. Like a city under siege, said Aquinas, in which citizens horde their resources and barricade themselves within the city walls, fear causes Christians to think only of themselves. When we are afraid, we forget what it means to give of ourselves. When David was afraid, he acted insanely. He was of no use to God or those he led when he cowered in fear of men. But when he came to his senses and embraced a healthy fear of God, he was able to overcome his fear of man and was able to stand once again as the leader God had appointed and the people needed.
We are living in a time and a place where we are trained to be in fear. We live behind locked doors, high walls, and electric fences. Media reports all the scariest news: farm attacks, violent crime, a rising death toll due to COVID-19. Social media thrives on bad news—and on fake news that poses as bad news. Fear-inducing news quickly makes headlines. We are trained to expect the worst and, if we believe it, can easily become paralysed with fear and start acting insanely. But if we do that, we will find ourselves so inward focus that we are of no use to those around us. We become more like cowering peasants behind strongholds than confident soldiers of God taking them.
Those struggling with fear would do well to meditate on Psalm 34. David, once paralysed with fear, sings with the vigour of a man who had experienced the worst but had discovered the faithfulness of God in the midst of fear. He knew what it means to fear men but had learned what it means to fear God. Rather than allowing himself to barricade himself in fear, he was able to reach out and offer much needed leadership to those who looked to him.
We do not overcome fear by acting recklessly. We take necessary precautions for our own welfare and the welfare of others. But Christians are called to minister to others and we cannot allow fear to paralyse us from doing that.
As you reflect on Psalm 34, allow it to help your fear of man to fade as it gives way to a healthy fear of God, which will enable you to reach out to others in a way that is genuinely helpful to them.