Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49 -- By: Daniel J. Estes

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 161:641 (Jan 2004)
Article: Poetic Artistry in the Expression of Fear in Psalm 49
Author: Daniel J. Estes


Poetic Artistry
in the Expression of Fear
in Psalm 49

Daniel J. Estes

Daniel J. Estes is Associate Academic Vice President and Professor of Bible, Cedarville University, Cedarville, Ohio.

As poetic texts the psalms are typically marked by the expression of emotions. The Psalter evidences the full range of feelings, from the most tender to the most turgid sentiments experienced by humans. One recurrent emotion in the psalms is fear. Most frequently the object of fear is God, as His worshipers demonstrate respect for Him, as in Psalm 115:11: “You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.” It is not, however, unusual for the object of fear to be human or impersonal enemies, as in Psalm 56:2–5 (English, 1–4).1 “Be gracious to me, O God, for man has trampled upon me; fighting all day long he oppresses me. My foes have trampled upon me all day long, for they are many who fight proudly against me. When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?”

Psalm 49 offers an instructive case for analyzing the expression of the emotion of fear in the Psalms. After his initial proclamation addressed to all of humanity in verses 2–5, the psalmist asked a rhetorical question in verses 6–7 that sets forth the problem: “Why should I fear in days of adversity, when the iniquity of my foes surrounds me, even those who trust in their wealth, and boast in the abundance of their riches?”

This question “communicates a real situation of distress; it introduces us to the fearful perplexity of those who are helplessly

at the mercy of the rich and powerful.”2 In verses 8–16 the psalmist probed this problem, and by this means exposed its logical and theological flaws. His conclusion (vv. 17–21) begins with the prohibition, “Do not be afraid,” in verse 17, which provides a corrective balance to “Why should I fear?” in verse 6.

There are numerous Hebrew terms for fear,3 but the two uses in <...

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