The Fear of Men
“King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me’” (v. 19).- Jeremiah 38
Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., shows us the trouble that ensues when individuals fear men instead of God. Instead of ruling in justice and holiness, he followed the poor counsel of foolish advisors. He turned a blind eye when his officials went back on their promise to free their slaves according to God’s law (Jer. 34:8–22; see Ex. 21:2). Zedekiah also allowed his servants to bring false charges against Jeremiah, and to beat and imprison him (Jer. 37). Zedekiah gave the prophet some freedom while he was a prisoner in the court of the guard (v. 21), but the king did not stand in the way of his advisors’ conspiracy to leave Jeremiah for dead in a cistern when Babylon temporarily abandoned its siege of Jerusalem to fight Egypt (38:1–5; see 37:11).
Yet though Zedekiah often allowed his counselors to determine how Jeremiah would be treated, the king was smart enough to see that the prophet’s words were not to be taken lightly. Zedekiah sent help to get Jeremiah out of the cistern, and asked for the prophet in hope that he would hear a message from God while he watched Judah crumble all around him. Apparently, Zedekiah knew it would be only a matter of time before Babylon resumed its siege of Jerusalem, and he wanted to have all the information needed to make an informed decision about how Judah should respond (38:14–16). Jeremiah gave the same instruction from the Lord that he had given before, namely, that Zedekiah and his officials had to surrender to Babylon if they were to be preserved (vv. 17–18; see 27:1–15).
In Zedekiah’s response we see how his fear of men controlled him. Apparently, some Judahites had believed Jeremiah’s words and had already surrendered to the Babylonians (Chaldeans). Zedekiah feared—with good reason—that if he were to capitulate to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar would hand him over to those Judahites, who would harm him (v. 19). He held a precarious position in Judah to begin with because Babylon put him on the throne, undermining the legitimacy of his reign (2 Kings 24:10–17). Logically, some Judahites might have viewed a surrender to Babylon as treason. Still, it was also logical to believe God would keep His word to protect the king if he were to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar as Jeremiah said. Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem proved that Jeremiah was the Lord’s prophet because his words were coming true (Deut. 18:15–22; see Jer. 25:1–14). In the end, Zedekiah’s fear overcame any faith he did have, and the results were disastrous (Jer. 52:3b–11).
The fear of men is perhaps the strongest obstacle to doing the will of God faithfully. Whether we fear what men will say about us or what they will do to us, we are prone to act on that fear and refrain from keeping God’s commands. However, if we fear the Lord more than we fear men, there is nothing that can keep us from serving Him faithfully. Let us cultivate a true fear of God, meditating on His holiness and sovereignty, that we might be ever ready to serve Him.
Passages for Further Study
1 Peter 2:17