Fear of the Lord

The idea of “fear” in relation to God is often downplayed as consisting in merely reverence or awe, especially in the New Testament. But while these are no doubt part of it fear, they are inadequate accounts of it on their own. Scripture routinely pairs fear of God with terrifying things and people’s trembling at them, which is not necessarily the case with reverence. And it often connects fear of God with an active response, whereas being in awe of something is mostly (if not entirely) passive. In this post, I want to give a more nuanced analysis of fear and explore its outworkings in passages drawn from both the Old and New Testaments, in order to arrive at a deeper and more biblical account of it.

Fear is when (1) we are aware of a possibility that (2) we take to be painful or bad in some way. It’s not that we believe this thing will happen, only that we are aware of its possibility. If, on the other hand, we thought it would happen then that would be dread.[1] The object of our fear can be the active imposition of some bad thing, such as a violent attack, or it can be the loss of something good, such as the loss of our savings. We could say that there are two “kinds” of fear, distinguished by the response they motivate in us. On the one hand, if the object is entirely set on the imposition of something bad, then fear will drive us to rid ourselves of it, through destroying it or fleeing it. On the other hand, if the object is something good we may lose, then fear draws us towards it rather than drives away from it, to cling to and safeguard rather than destroy or flee.

Let us now consider some passages in scripture that mention the fear of God.

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 [shaking] 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.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Ex 20:18–21)

This is one of the more intriguing passages on the fear of the Lord. At first glance, Moses’s words seem to be almost contradictory, but we can understand what’s going on here in terms of the two kinds of fear we have mentioned: Moses is urging the people not to have a fear of God that causes them to flee from him, but rather to have a fear of God that draws near and remains faithful to him. This aligns well with the surrounding narrative, but also with the juxtaposition of how the people stand far off while Moses draws near. God had chosen Israel to be his treasured possession among all the nations, that they could maintain this “holy zone” within the world where God could be accessed once again (Ex 19:1–6). But God is powerful and hates sin, making him dangerous to a people prone to sinning and turning away to other gods (Ex 20:22; 32). Thus, turning away from God in disobedience would result in both the loss of something great (life with the creator himself) and the imposition of a great pain (punishment by the creator himself). A double reason to fear God and cling to him rather than make oneself an enemy of him. We see these ideas borne out explicitly in Deuteronomy:

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. (Deut 6:10–15)

The question here is not whether or not the people fear, but who they fear. The typical practice in the Ancient Near East was for invading tribes to take on the gods of the people they conquered, including them in their pantheon. But God distinguishes himself from these other gods by being jealous—he alone is to be feared, not alongside these other gods. He alone is the supreme creator over everything, who can wipe the people out completely if they go against him—the possibility of pain which grounds the fear his people are to have of him.

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? …  For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome [fearful] God, who is not partial and takes no bribe… You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying [fearful] things that your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. (Deut 10:12–22)

English translations tend to use different words to translate the Hebrew words which share the same root as “fear”, which has the unfortunate effect of obscuring the connection between the command to fear God and the basis for this in his dealings with Israel. Something we see from this passage is that fear of God is not the only motivating force for the people of God. It may at first seem strange or even manipulative to combine fear with love, but as Whitney explains in his excellent essay on the topic, it is only when these two work together that they can have a truly beneficial effect on us:

The Scripture evidently regards love, toward God or man, as the highest motive of its list, but it expects, in a multitude of cases, to be able to commit man to the guidance and tutelage of love only after he has been caught and conquered by fear… it is, indeed, true that fear alone does degrade. It is also true, and it is a truth that often needs much more to be insisted on, that love alone softens men into weakness or lets their passions grow strong for rebellion by-and-by. But fear, wrapped about by love… makes the tender and obedient and yet strong Christian man.[2]

Whitney notes that fear plays a role alongside other motives in all social settings, whether they be familial, social, or civil. It is most important where reason or some other higher motive is not enough to curb all pathological behaviors, as anyone who has needed to supervise a young child for more than a short time will tell you. Perhaps we make the mistake of thinking the same is true even of adults and even in the case of religion, for in many respects we maintain our self- and other-destructive tendencies and our disregard for the goodness of God.

Now then, let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the LORD our God, or partiality or taking bribes. (2 Chr 19:7)

These are the words Jehoshaphat said to the judges he had appointed, and they are of interest because they show that the reason God is to be feared not because he is fickle or unjust, but because he is just. The fear of God is quite unlike the fear of men, who are proud, corrupt, or cruel. In these cases, we might do all the right things and yet still be “punished” for our actions, but with God we are to fear precisely because he is not like this. The punishment of men might be averted through bribery or favoritism, but not with God. There is no recourse or court of appeals as there are in our error-prone judicial systems, for he does not make mistakes and he will not subvert justice.

O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. (Neh 1:11)

At first glance it may seem somewhat paradoxical to delight in fearing God, since we have said that fear has to do with pain and loss. There are two ways of understanding what is meant by Nehemiah’s statement. In the first place, we might take him to be speaking metonymically, where “fear of God” is used to refer to all aspects of obedience and proper living with God that we saw listed earlier. In this case, Nehemiah is simply referring to those who take pleasure in living in harmony with God. Another way to take him is as speaking in relation to the effect of the fear of God, rather than the experience of fear itself. That is, while the object of fear is something bad, the purpose of fear is to draw us towards God and safeguard our life with him. So, we take pleasure in the fear of God knowing that it will keep us on the straight and narrow, protecting us both from the negative influence of others and from ourselves. This is no doubt what the Psalmist has in mind when he says that God’s rod and staff comfort him (Ps 23:4). In the metaphor of God as shepherd and us as sheep, his rod is a tool for discipline whereas his staff is a tool for softer guidance. These both comfort us because these are both means by which God keeps us on the path that is truly beneficial, even when our passions would have us mistakenly believe otherwise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Pr 1:7)

Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices. For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster. (Pr 1:29–33)

… if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Pr 2:3–6)

Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Pr 3:7–8)

I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion. The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. (Pr 8:12–14)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Pr 9:10)

The fear of the Lord is a regular motif within Proverbs. Above I have selected just the explicit mentions of it within the opening prologue of the book (chs. 1–9), although even here there are still more implicit mentions. Throughout this prologue we see the repeated refrain for the reader to listen to the guidance of their parents, of wisdom itself, and ultimately of God. While going the way of the scoffers, the sluggards, and the fools might at first seem appealing, it will really lead to their destruction. By contrast the wisdom gained from humbly listening to others will protect the attentive listener and help them to flourish in life. It’s within this context that the fear of the Lord Proverbs speaks of is to be understood. The author no doubt has in mind the law of Moses, given the mention of the covenant with God (2:17) and prolonging their time in the land (2:21–22). But there also seems to be a broader focus to his warnings: the object of fear is not only God’s judgment for rejecting him, but also the natural consequences of living without regard to God’s instruction. God has created the world to function in a particular way, and disregarding his guidance will corrupt ourselves, be ultimately unfulfilling, and perhaps even lead to our eventual downfall. The fear of this is the fear of loss, loss of the good life we could have within a well-functioning society if only we followed God’s instruction.

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (Eccl 3:14–15)

Ecclesiastes is in basic agreement with Proverbs, but the approach is somewhat different, leading to a different nuance of the fear of God. A major aspect of Qohelet’s aim in Ecclesiastes is negative, arguing against prevailing sentiment about how we should achieve happiness—or “the good life”, or how we should live “under the sun”. Rather than grasp happiness by our own power through folly, or in wisdom, or as the outcome of wisdom we should instead find it in the toil God has already given each of us to be busy with. God “has made everything beautiful in its time… there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” (Eccl 3:11–13) He is not only giving one option among others, however, but argues that this is the only viable option. The reason for this is expressed in the quoted passage above: God has designed reality to work like this, and there is nothing we can do to change that. Any attempt to seek happiness by our own power apart from this radical reliance on God will hit up against hevel—a Hebrew word literally meaning “vapor”, but used by Qohelet to convey the inevitable failure of such pursuits.[3] Thus, the fear of God Qohelet considers here is not necessarily based on punishment (although this does come up immediately after this), but on the inevitable squandering of happiness by going against his design. In this regard it is similar to Proverbs, in that it sees this loss as issuing from the natural consequences of our actions rather than some externally-imposed punishment. But because these natural consequences are the result of God’s design, Qohelet can conclude that true happiness is found only in the joyful toil in the fear of God.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:14–15)

Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (Rom. 11:19–22)

As we come to the New Testament, the tendency is to suppose that Jesus did away with the fear of God. We might attempt to justify this mistaken idea by pointing to passages which clearly say we are not to fear, as Paul does in the first passage above. But we have seen from our brief survey of some Old Testament passages that such statements are perfectly compatible with, and sometimes even implied by, the fear of God. As the quotes above show, this is true in Romans as well. The fear in chapter 8 arises from falling back into slavery to sin, for as long as we continue in this state we await God’s wrath as his enemies. Such a fear is of course no longer applicable now that we have adoption through Christ. However, this does not exclude fear tout court, for the judgment of God remains a live possibility so long as we are at risk of abandoning him, and with this will now also come the loss of this new and glorious life we have been brought into. Thus we have Paul’s warning against presumption of grace in chapter 11.

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. (Phil 2:12–13)

The exhortation to work out our salvation in fear and trembling is a consequence drawn both from God’s work through Christ (2:1–11) and from God’s work in us (2:13). At first glance, neither of these things seem like they would instill fear in us. Again, we might be tempted to paper over this by saying that the fear in view here is simply a sort of reverence, but this would both ignore the biblical context we have been considering so far and ignore the pairing of fear with trembling in this particular passage. Paul must have judgment in mind to some extent, as he proceeds to urge the Philippians to be blameless, innocent, and without blemish (2:15). Yet we still need to explain the connections he explicitly draws between fear and the work of God. One way to understand this is that God’s work makes plain how seriously he takes the matter of whether we live in accordance with him. If God had left us to our own devices, then it could be taken as an indication of his ultimate indifference to us. But if Christ humbles himself to the point of death and God transforms us internally into a people who live according to his good pleasure, then we can be sure that God is anything but indifferent. We best not squander these great gifts, then, for God will surely hold us more accountable the more grace of his we reject.[4] So, then, rather than remove the fear of God, the grace given to us in Christ strengthens it!

[1] We have discussed these in some detail before: https://thinkingthoughtout.com/2016/11/30/faith-and-hope/

[2] Henry M. Whitney, “The Place of Fear Among the Motives of Religion”, Bibliotheca Sacra Vol 63 Iss 250 (1906).

[3] This word is variously (but unhelpfully) translated as “vanity” or “meaninglessness” or “futility”. I think it best to think of the word as a term of art, coined by Qohelet in his discourse, just as Aristotle used the Greek word hyle for “matter”, even though it literally means “wood”. If pressed for a single-word translation, I like “intractability”, but this is admittedly not a particularly common word. A friend of mine has defended the translation “illusive”, which is better.

[4] This is the flip side of a principle commonly used to explain how God treats the unevangelized: God will hold us accountable in proportion to the knowledge we have been given and our power to properly respond to it.

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