Throughout the Scriptures — both Old and New testaments — God’s people are told to fear him, which at first glance seems to be an odd response to a God full of grace and love. Perhaps the most puzzling statement comes when the people of Israel first meet God at the mountain in Exodus 20. Notice what Moses says to the people in response to their fear:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18-20)
On the face of it, Moses’ words seem so strange as to verge on contradiction. What could the fear of the Lord possibly be, that he can speak about it like this?
Perhaps the most common way of making sense of the phrase is by saying that it simply refers to the reverence of the Lord. While I don’t deny that it involves this, I struggle to see how this could be the whole story. Often the fear of the Lord is explained in genuinely scary terms, like our destruction or like the thunder and lightning in the above passage. These show us that God’s greatness can be a real danger to his people. It seems to me that we need a more satisfactory account that does justice to this, without collapsing into the opposite error of denying God’s graciousness.
We mentioned fear in an earlier post on faith and hope, where we said that fear is uncertainty with dissent. That is to say, we fear something because we are uncertain as to whether it will be good or bad for us. Naturally, this often results in us wanting to avoid the thing we fear, lest the bad thing happen. We saw an example of this in that earlier post when the disciples are confronted by Jesus’ power in calming the storm:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)
The disciples can see that Jesus is powerful, but they are uncertain whether he is good powerful or bad powerful and so they fear him. Note, however, that the fear here is not the right way to respond to Jesus. This is why he asks in exasperation why they are still afraid as opposed to having faith.
Closely related to fear is dread, which is thinking with dissent. When we dread something we are not uncertain about whether it is bad but are convinced to some degree it is. For the sake of illustration, imagine we commit some crime. Initially, we fear being caught, since we’re uncertain about whether it will happen or not. Once we are caught, however, we dread the punishment because we’re pretty confident it will happen.
So we have these two notions, neither of which seem adequate accounts of the fear of the Lord. In both cases, we are repelled from the thing we fear or dread, but the Lord whom we are to fear wants us to draw closer to him. Nevertheless, this sense of fear does seem to be what Moses has in mind when he says, “Do not fear” to the people of Israel. Having been confronted with God in the thunder and lightning, their (quite understandable) response was to stand far off and avoid talking with him. They were repelled from the object of their fear. Moses then urges them not to respond to God in this manner.
As I see it, the fear of the Lord should be understood as follows. God is the source of all goodness, making him unequivocally good for us and something we should be drawn towards. Furthermore, because of his grace, he will accept us and bless us if we come to him. But if we turn away from him — if we turn away from the giver of life — we will die; if we make ourselves his enemies, we will be destroyed. And this would be something very bad for us indeed.
So the fear of the Lord stands somewhere between fear and dread as we’ve outlined them above. There is no uncertainty here, for God has made these terms abundantly clear. And our destruction is only anticipated if we choose to turn away from him. Perhaps we should say, then, that fear of the Lord is conditionality with dissent: the badness of punishment remains an open possibility so long as we are capable of turning away from God, but will not happen so long as we cling to him. We don’t have a word for this — and presumably neither did the author’s of Scripture — so we use the word “fear” as the best alternative.
The most significant difference between the fear of the Lord and fear in the typical sense is this: instead of being repelled by him, we are drawn to him and repelled by his absence. We are drawn to live with the giver of life and serve creator of everything, and we are repelled by what will happen if we choose death over life and something created over the creator.
This reading fits well with how the phrase is used throughout Scripture. We see this in Moses’ words above. There he explains that the fear of God must be before them so that they may not sin. And we see something similar in his sermons in Deuteronomy:
Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long… It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you — for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God — lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth… And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us. (6:1-2, 13-15, 24-25)
And again we see the same ideas coming up in the Psalms:
Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!… Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. (Psalm 128:1, 4)
And finally, in the New Testament we see it most clearly in Paul’s words to the Philippians:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phillipians 2:12-13)
The verses that follow make it clear that Paul’s intention here is to urge them to continue living lives pleasing to God while they looked forward to “the day of Christ” (v16). This amounts to the same idea as we saw in Moses and the Psalms, but also taking into account the work of Christ.
Examples can be multiplied, but these passages show that understanding the fear of the Lord as conditionality with dissent does justice to its use in Scripture. Most importantly it explains why such fear is a good thing for the people of God to have, without undermining his greatness or his graciousness.