Fear of the Lord

Throughout Scripture — 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 fear of the Lord is to say that it amounts to reverence for the Lord. While I don’t deny that it involves this, I struggle to see how this could be the whole story. After all, often the fear of the Lord is explained in genuinely scary terms, like our destruction or like the thunder and lightning in the quote above. These show us that God’s greatness can be a real danger to his people. It seems to me, then, 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 authors 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.

Biblical passages dealing with God’s Providence

Earlier in this blog I promised that I’d do a series on God’s providence. If you look at the “preliminaries” post, the schedule looks like this:

  1. Biblical passages that deal with God’s providence
  2. God’s control and our free will
  3. The question of suffering
  4. Why a proper understanding of providence is important

Here we attempt the first of these topics. I find that too regularly that discussion about God’s providence goes on without any explicit discussion of the relevant biblical passages. This post is meant serve to fill this “gap” in my discussion on this blog. I don’t claim that this is the most comprehensive collections of passages (if you know any others then, by all means, let me know in the comments), but it’s a start and a sturdy enough foundation for rest of the series. Ok, with that slight disclaimer out the way, off we go 🙂

What is God’s providence

Before we consider passages talking about God’s providence, it’d be a good idea to define what exactly we mean by the term. I guess that the term “providence” could refer to a number of things, but here we’re concerned with God’s control and direction of all history. So we’re asking questions like, “Does God have control over the choices humans make in their day to day lives?” and, “How does God achieve His purposes in history?” Another name that sometimes used for this doctrine is “God’s sovereignty”. In these posts we’ll use the terms “providence” and “sovereignty” interchangeably. We’ll also be most concerned with God’s control and direction of humans, as opposed to nature in general.

Biblical passages discussing God’s providence

Two questions can be asked on the outset of our adventure through the scriptural passages dealing with this topic:

  1. Does God have the ability to control or direct human choices and actions?
  2. How often does God exercise this ability?

I’ve tried to categorise the following scriptural passages into broad sections. More will be said in coming posts about how we make sense of them and the issues involved in God’s providence. Note that I’m quoting from the ESV translation and that passages marked with a “*” might need some context to see the providence in action more clearly.

God working his plan, without any mention of a means

*Genesis 45:4-9 – “So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt.”

Genesis 50:20 – “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

1 Samuel 2:25 – “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.”

*1 Samuel 9:1-16 – “Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed to Samuel: ‘Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.’”

2 Samuel 12:11-12 – “Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’”

2 Samuel 24:1 – “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:1, Job 1:6-12)

Ezra 7:6 – “He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD the God of Israel had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.”

Proverbs 16:4 – “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

Proverbs 16:9 – “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (the NET Bible notes say that the verb kun (“to establish; to confirm”) with tsa’ad (“step”) means “to direct” (eg. Ps 119:133, Jer 10:23). And that the purpose here is to contrast what people plan and what actually happens – God determines the latter.)

Acts 4:27-28 – “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”

Luke 22:22 – “’For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!’”

Ephesians 1:11 – “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will”

Philippians 2:12-13 – “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as inmy 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.”

God moving a king’s heart for good

Ezra 1:1 – “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:”

Ezra 6:22 – “And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”

God hardening hearts

Exodus 4:21 – “And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”

Also Exodus 7:3-4, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, 17

Deuteronomy 2:30 – “But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.”

Joshua 11:20 – “For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses.”

*Psalm 105:24-25 – “And the LORD made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.”

Judges 9:22-24 – “Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.”

God moving armies against Israel

2 Kings 24:1-4 – “In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. 2 And the LORD sent against him bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by his servants the prophets. 3 Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the LORD, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, 4 and also for the innocent blood that he had shed. For he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD would not pardon.”

2 Chronicles 28:5 – “Therefore the LORD his God gave him into the hand of the king of Syria, who defeated him and took captive a great number of his people and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who struck him with great force.”

*2 Chronicles 33:10-11 – “The LORD spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon.”

Jeremiah 25:8-14 – “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations… This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the LORD, making the land an everlasting waste. I will bring upon that land all the words that I have uttered against it, everything written in this book, which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations. For many nations and great kings shall make slaves even of them, and I will recompense them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.”

And Exodus 33:2, 1 Kings 16:34, 2 Chronicles 11:4, 12:8, 24:24, 25:16, 20, Isaiah 5:25-29, 10:5-6, 44:28, 45:1, Jeremiah 51:20-23, Lamentations 1:17 and lots more.

Enabling, not burdening

When we read the Bible we can see a pattern in the way God deals with those he saves. In the Exodus, God saves the Israelites and then gives them the law, telling them how they are to act as God’s people (Ex 20ff). Similarly, when we are saved as Christians we are called to repent from our sin and turn to God (eg. Romans 6, James 2:14ff).

Now initially I can sympathize with the person who gets the impression that God is, in some sense, “trapping” his people. Like he’s imposing these rules after they get saved.

But once we think about it a bit we realize that both Jesus and the authors of the new testament are quite clear that repentance is a central aspect of being a Christian. In fact, the definition of Christian is someone who trusts in the power of the resurrection and follows Jesus as Lord according to Paul (Romans 10:9). A Christian is someone who believes and repents and follows Jesus according to Jesus himself (Mark 1:15, Mark 8:34) and if a Christian claims to have faith without deeds then whatever that faith is is dead without deeds according to James (James 2:14ff). Also, Peter (and YHWH) sees it like this: the one who calls us is holy, so be holy like him (1 Peter 1:15-16).

So far from trapping or burdening the person once they believe, repentance is part of the belief in the first place!

Recently I’ve been thinking about this and there seem to two more things we can add by way of interpreting the whole “giving the law and expecting good works” thing:

  1. Far from burdening us, God is showing us how we were designed to live in the first place. By giving us his law, he tells us exactly how we were designed to relate to him and to our neighbor. So really, God is enabling us to reach our full potential (excuse the cliché) and lifting the burden and corruption imposed by sin (this thinking fits quite well with Paul’s thinking in Romans: we are no longer slaves to sin, but are able to honour and glorify God [as we were made to]).
  2. We read many of the 10 commandments (for example) individualistically not realizing that God is enabling not only us but a whole community to follow him and his precepts. So while we might be bleak because now we shouldn’t steal, murder, etc. God has placed a punishment for anyone who does that to us too. So we should be thanking him for imposing this order on his community so that we can feel safe. Just like in Martin Luther’s prayer on the 6th commandment (“do not murder”), where he said, “I give thanks for such ineffable love, providence, and faithfulness toward me by which he has placed this mighty shield and wall to protect my physical safety. All are obliged to care for me and protect me, and I, in turn, must behave likewise toward others.”