I have a confession to make. There is a Bible word I have read many times without actually knowing what it meant. How can it be, you ask, that having spent somewhat more than 45 years on this planet (give or take a few months) I am just now learning the meaning of this word? It’s not that I glossed over it, uninterested in its meaning. It’s that I read it, thought I knew what it meant, and consequently missed its application to my life.
It’s a little like driving in another country where the road signs are in a (to you) foreign language. Misunderstanding the meaning of a word on a sign could send you in the wrong direction. Similarly, since I misunderstood the meaning of this word, I took a wrong turn, mentally, and travelled down the wrong road, meditatively – blissfully unaware of my ignorance. In my defense, I did know what the English word meant. I just didn’t know that the Hebrew word meant something different. Here is a verse containing the word:
“Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity” (Psa 37:1).
I had always assumed that the first verse of Psalm 37 was an injunction telling me not to worry. After all, the English word “fret” conjures up the mental image of someone’s walking back and forth, wringing his or her hands in mind-numbing anxiety. But I was wrong.
I think we can all agree that no one should ever begin a sentence with the horrible and prosaic statement, “Webster says…” So what does “fret” mean? Webster says “fret” has to do with emotional strain. Consequently, whenever I saw that word I thought, as I said, that God was telling His people to refrain from worrying over the seeming success of the wicked and their dishonest endeavours.
Again, not so. Here is the meaning of the Hebrew word: “to grow warm…be angry, burn, be displeased”. Scores of times it is used to describe the “kindling” of anger. It is used in Genesis 4, “Cain was very wroth.” In Genesis 32, when Rachel complained to Jacob about her not having any children, it was in frustration that “Jacob’s anger was kindled”. Two chapters later it is the word the Spirit of God employed to describe the emotions roiling in the hearts of Dinah’s brothers at the news that their sister had been humiliated. In Exodus 32, when Moses saw the Israelites dancing around the golden calf, his “anger waxed hot”. Trust me…Moses was not immobilized by “worry”. When he saw what the people had done, he was “fretting” in the Biblical sense. The people were soon fretting in the Webster’s Dictionary sense.
You get the picture – far from its suggesting hopeless apprehension or anxiety, it conveys, instead, a deep stirring of emotions bordering on anger. Whereas I thought it nothing more than another way of saying, “Fear not”, its meaning was much different and embraced a much deeper human emotion. I suppose it could be said that the command “Fear not” is intended to allay our anxiety, but the command “Fret not” is designed to assuage our anger – to put out the fire before it is kindled any further!
Now I know we dare not base theology on etymology, (lest our ideas seem more in keeping with the realms of entomology and ornithology), but look, again, at its repetition in Psalm 37. It forms something of a hard-to-break three-fold cord:
• Verse 1, “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity”
• Verse 7, “Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.”
• Verse 8, “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.”
All of this means that just at about the time I was getting a handle on my worries, I learned I have to get over my annoyance and anger as well. Christianity is such a disturbingly daily thing, isn’t it!
“Fret not!” This admonition has relevance because we live in an unjust world. Our longing for justice is native to us as moral creatures, let alone as regenerated believers. The inevitable clash between what the world is like and what we know it ought to be like can be jarring and vexatious. Here are some facts that will help us to preserve our mental equilibrium.
God: Rather than judging injustice presently or immediately, God displays His forbearance and grace. The Lord Jesus said in Matthew chapter 5, “… that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” That God will not overlook sin indefinitely is evident from Peter’s words: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished” (2 Pet 2:9).
Us: We were once unjust ourselves. Thankfully, it was for the unjust that Christ died. He once suffered for sins, “the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). Remembering God’s grace to us should preserve us from the Pharisaic attitude, “I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are…unjust …” (Luke 18:11).
The World: Paul questioned the Corinthian believers: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?” (1 Cor 6:1). His words remind us that we should not be surprised at finding injustice in the highest circles of power. Zephaniah captured what is often the attitude of wrong-doers in contrast to the righteous character of God: “The just LORD is in the midst thereof; He will not do iniquity: every morning doth He bring His judgment to light, He faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame” (Zep 3:5).
So, looking once more at the repeated usage of this word in Psalm 37, it seems clear that the Psalmist is telling us, despite the injustice around us, to be careful about:
- Guarding our mental attitude (“…neither be thou envious”) This has to do with our feelings, attitude, and emotions.
- Calming our disquieted spirits in the presence of the Lord, conscious that He will correct all this in His own time (“Rest in the Lord…wait patiently for Him”). This involves faith, confidence, and patience
- Regulating our behaviour as those who know the Lord so that we do not adopt the behaviour of the wicked in response to their injustice (“…fret not thyself in any wise to do evil”) This controls our behaviour, conduct and actions
There may be many things in 2021, (however much or little of it we are here to witness), that could cause us to fret. There is more than a little injustice being practised by powerful people just now. As believers, we need to keep in mind that this is not our world, that we are not here to clean up things in any other way than through the preaching of the Gospel and the impact of righteous living. Psalm 37:10 reminds us that in a comparatively “little while” the Lord will right the wrong, end the injustice, and bring righteousness and peace to a lawless, restless world. Instead of fuming, steaming, burning, and smoldering at how things are in our government, in our country, or in our world, we can:
“Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him: fret not…”
Eugene Higgins (Haddonfield, NJ, USA)
Jan 5th 2021