I saw this on Facebook yesterday. Although it’s a command, it feels more like a promise and no doubt that is why people enjoy the thought that it occurs 365 times in the Bible. I’ve even heard that it occurs 366 times, so leap years are included too!
Fear is one of those things that is necessary for survival, but when it runs wild it can be devastatingly restrictive and energy-sapping. So it’s pretty cool to think that God does not want us to give way to unhealthy fear and that he underlines the point by having ‘Do not be afraid’ popping up in the Bible once for every day of the year!
Except that the numbers don’t add up!
I did some searches with the help Accordance on my computer, and here are some numbers (based on the ESV translation):
- ‘fear not’ – 33 mentions in 33 verses
- ‘do not fear’ – 37 mentions in 35 verses
- ‘do not be afraid’ – 33 mentions in 33 verses
Putting those three together, there is a total of 103 mentions in 101 verses. Nowhere near 365 (or 366).
However we could add the 5 references to ‘will not fear’ (there are another 2, though they don’t really count in this context – e.g. ‘Who will not fear God?’) and there are a further 4 along the lines of ‘will not be afraid’. Which gets us up just over 110.
But then not all the references are commands or promises. For example, Psalm 55 talks about people who do not fear God. And then not all of the occurrences are spoken by God. For example, Boaz tells Ruth not to fear, for he will look after her; David tells Mephibosheth not to be afraid because he wants to treat him well.
At this point some of you may think that I might as well have denied the authority of Scripture. Like a liberal scholar, picking holes in the Bible, I have picked holes in that wonderful promise of a ‘fear not’ for every day of the year.
But we don’t really do anyone any favours when we make statements about the Bible that are simply not true. Besides which, does God really need to say something over 300 times for us to believe him? How many times would he need to include ‘do not be afraid’ in the Bible for us to pay attention to it, or to believe his promises? 50? 100?
Much better, I would suggest, to dig into some of the passages that actually do contain a ‘fear not’, either spoken directly by God, or by one of his representatives. Here are a few to be getting on with:
- Abram, in Genesis 15:1. It’s the first time the expression occurs in Scripture. It comes after Abram has obeyed God in leaving his home to head off to a place that God would show him, and it was spoken as the introduction to God’s promise to Abram that his reward will be very great. That leads Abram to ask God about his lack of a son, which God answers by pointing Abram to the stars. ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Scripture adds that Abram believed the Lord.
- Moses. Not only was Moses the recipient of God’s promise (God told him not to fear the hostile king, Og), on several occasions he spoke these words to others. Sometimes to the people of Israel, for example when they stood on the shore of the Red Sea as Pharaoh closed in on them; elsewhere notably to Joshua as he commissioned him.
- On several occasions the Lord spoke directly to Joshua, as he did to that reluctant leader, Gideon.
- He spoke to the nation through the prophet Isaiah:
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God
- On more than one occasion Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid: for example, when he came to them, walking on the water, while the disciples battled adverse conditions.
- He had the same message for the women who had gathered at the empty tomb.
- Paul heard the same words in a vision while he preached in Corinth.
- And it’s what John heard (Revelation 1) when he was overwhelmed by the vision of the majesty of Jesus, the Lord of the church.
And then there is this, from Hebrews 13:
He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’
It was Joshua who originally heard the Lord speak the promise that he would never leave him. The writer of the book of Hebrews was happy to claim it and share it with the Hebrews. I doubt that either they or Joshua were counting up to 300.
They probably thought that ‘never forsake’ was good enough to cover every day.