Fear of the Lord
This topic, Fear of the Lord, has come up a number of times in recent months. I’ve naturally, understood that the term ‘fear’ can mean different things, depending on the context. Consequently, I was more than a little perplexed when at a Bible Study Group meeting, there appeared to be a stubborn insistence by those, who exercised some authority at the meeting, that the meaning of the word ‘fear’, as used in Scripture was predominantly the state of being scared.
Definition of fear
Now, let me establish some basic assumptions. In the Oxford Dictionary, we read that the verb ‘fear’ means to be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful or harmful. And the noun is similar; an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. Basically, most people understand fear as being scared of something and that usually results in a desire to flee. It’s one of our basic emotions and it often causes physiological changes – resulting in a flight or fight response.
The only latitude given at the meeting was that sometimes the word could mean ‘holy fear’ or ‘reverential fear’ depending on the context. I considered these two terms to be rather meaningless to a new Christian in the early stages of learning Scripture. What do these terms actually mean, to the average person?
I think the final straw for them, was when I said that I was not scared of my Lord, that is, I did not want to flee from His presence, and quoted part of verse 18 from the following:
1 John 4:16-18 (NIVUK): “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Coincidentally, at the same time my main church community was doing a series of sermons, with the title: ‘To not be a fool … ‘, which included studies on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. In this series, verses like Proverbs 1:7, were referenced: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” One definition of ‘The fear of the Lord’, was expressed in the notes for the sermon, as follows: “An understanding of the awesome power, fearsome holiness and unending love of God that leads to obedience, love and relationship with God.”
In a certain context, the term fearsome holiness conveys a better meaning in today’s world, than a term like ‘reverential fear’. I can understand that God’s perfect holiness is an excellent reason for rebellious people to be extremely afraid.
So, after a lot of prayer, I thought I would look deeper into this issue.
After some analysis, I reached this conclusion regarding the approximately 268 uses in the Old Testament (NIV) of the word ‘fear, fearful, etc.’: in the majority of cases the word ‘fear’ is better replaced with the words, ‘overwhelming awe and reverence’, it is the sublime awe experienced by a created being when they come into the presence of their loving, perfect and holy Creator.
However, it is true that 48% of cases (by my calculations) in the Old Testament, the word takes its normal meaning: ‘to be scared’, either to be afraid of God (30%), or to be afraid of other nations, people, or things.
To help with this discussion, let us focus on the third category, as listed below:
- One, those people who do not know God, and this group includes those people who don’t believe God exists. These people, in general, do not fear God, because of their ignorance.
- The second group are those people who believe in God but they don’t have a personal relationship with Him, and this is usually demonstrated by their lifestyle.
- The last group comprises those people who do have a personal relationship with Jesus, the Christ. That is, people of the new covenant.
I hope to show that it’s the second group in the Old Testament , and most of the time it’s the rebellious and sinful Israelites, who have reason to be afraid of our holy, righteous and just God. Likewise, my aim is to illustrate that we as Christians, who through faith in what Jesus has done on the cross, cannot be scared of God to the extent that the dominating emotion is a desire to flee from Him.
For me, these verses from Luke 12:4-7 (NIV) (similar words are found in Matthew 10:28-31), capture this tension between the various meanings of fear: here Jesus provides the general reason for fear, and then highlights the truth that the saved children of God should not be afraid of persecution as He sees us as valuable, as we should be confident that He will always be with us.
These two apparent conflicting statements need to be understood or else we can never be really be assured of our loving relationship with God. And, we must believe through faith that we do have such a relationship.
Luke 12:4-7 (NIV): ‘I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?
Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’
I’ll come back to this truth, a number of times; in general, ‘fallen’ humanity should fear God because He has the power to send rebellious people to their eternal death. Yet, we have the confidence to approach our Father’s throne as children and coheirs with His Son (Hebrews 4:16) Because – Jesus has restored our relationship with our Father.
Fear in the Old Testament
In the Psalms and Proverbs, we find many mentions of ‘fear’; perhaps the better known instances, are ones, like Proverbs 1:7, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge but fools despise wisdom and discipline.’ In all, there are 23 cases in Proverbs where we can find the word ‘fear’ [NIVUK]. The vast majority convey the meaning that ‘fear of the Lord’ has a direct relationship with wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Proverb 9:10, is a perfect example: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
A point to notice is; we find that the words revere(nce) or awe(some) are unusually scarce in Proverbs, yet there are a few instances in the Psalms; what’s going on? Is there an issue with the translation of the Old Testament, Hebrew word for ‘fear’?
Let’s examine this issue before having a detailed look at the Psalms. The Hebrew word for fear is ‘yirah’; this word is used in three different ways. The first use is the common meaning of the word – an emotion caused by danger or pain that gives rise to the desire to flee. The second meaning is associated with the fear of punishment. The third meaning is overwhelming awe – an awe that carries with it – amazement and astonishment of the glory of God. It’s not a coincidence that some of the Hebrew sages linked this latter meaning, with the Hebrew word, ‘for seeing’, which has a similar Hebrew spelling.
We are filled with overwhelming awe when we start to see (to understand) the fantastic glory and power of God. Such an understanding leads to the beginning of wisdom and creates in us a desire to worship the one, true God.
In conclusion, the awe we feel is the means by which we come to understand our (reverence) relationship with our Creator; and this wisdom does not give rise to a desire to flee from His presence – it’s the exact opposite. We crave His presence so that we can worship Him with all our heart, mind, strength and spirit. To completely love Him.
Now that we have some understanding of how the word ‘yirah’ (fear) is used in the Old Testament. Let’s now look at the Psalms. In the latest edition of the NIVUK, there are 266 instances of the word ‘fear’, and 64 of these are found in Psalms, more than any other Old Testament Book.
All three variations of the word ‘yirah’ are to be found in the Psalms, and you often need to look at the Psalm’s theme, to determine the word’s intended meaning. Take Psalm 2, verse 11 – in isolation, does not tell us much, until you look at it in context, then we can see it’s associated with punishment.
Psalm 2:10-12: “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.”
Now let us look at Psalm 36, verses 1 to 3: “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes. In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin. The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good … “. Here we see that those who are blind to God’s awesome majesty, also fail to see the judgment that will inevitably come. These people should fear God but they are blinded by their ignorance.
Perhaps in Psalm 111, verses 9-10, we see the dominant use of the word ‘yirah’, in many of the Psalms (15:4; 19:9; 22:23,25; 25:12,14; 31:19; 33:8,18; 34:7; 34:11; 40:3; 60:4; 61:5; 64:9; 66:16; 85:9; 89:7; 103:11, 17; 11:5; 112:1; 115:11,13; 118:4; 128:1,4; 139;14; 145:19, 147:1): “He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant for ever – holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” In addition, the few times we find the words, awesome and reverence, they are often found in association with the Hebrew word, ‘yirah’.
Many of the other remaining occurrences, to be found in the Psalms; I think are examples of the normal (to be scared) use of the word ‘fear’.
To achieve a clearer understanding of this issue, we need to spend some time on examining the differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, in regard to the confidence a person can now have in their relationship with God.
A very brief look at the Old Covenant
In Old Covenant times, there were restrictions placed on the Israelites in regard to who, when, where, why and how, people could approach their divine King. In addition, we find numerous rules in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy on the requirements and processes to be followed for sin offerings. It could never be taken for granted that a sin offering was always going to be acceptable to God.
The Israelites were only too aware that sometimes sacrifices were not acceptable to their Lord. The earliest account is to be found in Genesis 4:4b-5, “The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour.”
In some cases, the Lord was very precise about His rejection of certain people’s sacrifices. 1 Samuel 3:13-14, “For I (the Lord) told him that I would judge his family for ever because of the sin he knew about; his sons uttered blasphemies against God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”’
Later, in the history of the Israelites, when many had turned away from their Lord, we find a number of reference like this one, Jeremiah 6:20b, “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.”
In summary, if a person’s heart was not right with their Lord, it did not matter if they observed all the rules regarding sin sacrifice, they never could be assured that their sacrifice was going to please God.
The New Covenant
This is a huge topic, so I’ll only deal with a few key points.
The Book of Hebrews contains all the information one needs to explore the topic of sacrifice. The Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, and Paul’s letters (for example Romans) echo the same message.
Hebrews 2:17 “For this reason Jesus had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
Jesus is the only high priest who makes perfect atonement for our sins.
Hebrews 9:24-28 “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
Jesus was sacrificed ONCE to take away the sins of many.
Hebrews 10:8-18 “First Jesus said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’– though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second.
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: ‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.’ Then he adds: ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.’ And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”
When we believe in Jesus, our sins are forgiven. He has taken upon Himself our punishment, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary – we, as children of our loving God, now, should not have a fear of punishment.
Hebrews 12:18-24,28 “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.
You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. …
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”
Notice the contrast between the mountain Moses approached, and the heavenly Mount Zion that we, whose names are written in heaven, approach, to join the joyous assembly. Could there be a greater contrast? The last verse is especially relevant – we worship our God of love – with reverence and awe, but we must be aware that He is also a consuming fire who will destroy all those, whose names are not written in the book of life. Those people, who don’t have a relationship with Jesus should fear God, if they only knew their fate.
Now, to bring together some important points; in Hebrews 4:16, we read: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We are able to be confident in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, such that our relationship with God has been restored. If we were to ‘fear’ God, in the sense that we wanted to flee from His presence because we were scared, then we would not be able to approach His throne with confidence – make sense?
Finally, back to 1 John 4:16b-19, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.”
Jesus has taken our punishment upon Himself, there is no reason to fear (that is, wanting to flee from) God. As our understanding of God matures, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we do fall to our knees in love, overwhelming awe and reverence – it becomes the natural thing for us to do, when our new nature is fully transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
Do you agree?
One last thought:
Revelation 1:17-18 (NIVUK): “When I saw Jesus, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”