Monday, May 4, 2009

the fear of the LORD (2b) the fear in fear

Has "the fear of the LORD" got anything to do with fear?

There are many kinds of fear in the Bible, from respect to terror.
In the Old Testament, children are commanded to "fear" their parents (Lev 19:3) and nations to tremble with "fear" at God's judgement (Ps 76:7, 90:11, Isa 19:16, Mal 4:5). In the New Testament, wives are encouraged to "fear" their husbands (Eph 5:33) and Jesus tells his disciples to "fear" the One who can "destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt 10:28, Lk 12:5).*

What kind of fear is "the fear of the LORD"?

Some say that "the fear of the LORD" means obedience, and has nothing to do with feeling scared. Others say that "the fear of the LORD" means just that: feeling scared. I don't think either gets it quite right.

There's definitely an element of fear in "the fear of the LORD". Look at the reasons we're told to "fear the LORD":*

Most of these are what you might call God's scary attributes: his awesome majesty, limitless power, absolute holiness and dreadful judgement. And it's God's very own people who are said to fear him because of these things.

I only found one verse which uses the technical term "fear the LORD" for the unrepentant enemies of God - on the day of judgement, they will "hide in the ground from dread [fear] of the LORD" (Isa 2:10).**

If his enemies are said to "fear him", it's generally because they have bowed the knee to his authority (e.g. Ex 9:20, 2 Chron 6:32-33, Ps 64:9, 2:15, Isa 59:19).

But 99% of the time, it is God's own people who are said to "fear the LORD". And we fear him with trembling! (Jer 5:22, Ps 119:120, 2 Cor 7:15, Phil 2:12)

Remember when God spoke out of fire and darkness on Mount Sinai? The Israelites were so afraid that they begged Moses to speak to God for them, so they would not hear God's voice and die.

God doesn't say, "Oh, don't worry, I'm really quite safe." He says, "Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me!" (Deut 5:22-33). God wants them to fear him!

But he also tells them not to be afraid. Moses says "Do not fear. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning" (Exod 20:20).

God wants them to be scared enough of his judgement to trust and obey him. But he also wants them to remember that they have no reason to be afraid of judgement as long as they fear God by trusting and obeying him.

The "fear of the LORD" is not a fear which drives us from God, but a fear which drives us to God. We flee from God's judgement to the arms of his mercy and love. Yet we still fear with trembling. We have escaped God's judgement, but we never take God lightly!

Here's our definition so far (keep in mind it's not finished yet!):

To fear the LORD is to take seriously his awesome majesty, limitless power, absolute holiness and dreadful judgement, and so to submit to him as the one true God, with trust, love, worship, honour, service and obedience.

Next time, I want to talk more about what it means to fear God without being afraid.

* The words generally translated "fear" are the Hebrew word yare and related words, and the Greek word phobos and related words. One is used to translate the other: see Rom 3:18. If you look up the references I've given you in the NIV, you'll notice the word "fear" is translated in a number of different ways, including "fear", "dread", "afraid", "respect", "revere", "awe" and "worship". If I've given you the verse, the word in the original is "fear" (or "fearful" for "awesome" and "dreadful").

** If you know Hebrew, you can confirm this for me!

images are from stock.xchng; the imais from The ten commandments

1 comment:

Hon said...

Thank you for this post, Jean! Glad to be reminded that God is God and we should not take him lightly.