Rejoice and Tremble, the Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord

In this insightful book, Michael Reeves, president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in the United Kingdom, tackles the complicated and often misunderstood topic of the fear of God. All students of Scripture know that the fear of the Lord is a common theme throughout the Bible, especially in the OT, but exactly what it means and how it is to be applied is often debated. Should Christians, for example, fear God in a dreadful way, living in obedience to avoid His hot anger and judgment? Or is the fear of God merely respect and awe for Him? Or perhaps it is an OT relationship with God, which has been replaced by love for those regenerated in the NT era? After all, Christians have not been given a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but a spirit of adoption by which we cry out, “Abba! Father” (Romans 8:15). Reeves wants to unravel these issues and bring clarity to what it means to fear the Lord. He writes, “My aim now is to cut through this discouraging confusion. I want you to rejoice in this strange paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful happy, and wonderful fear. And I want to clear up that often off-putting phrase ‘the fear of God,’ to show through the Bible that for Christians it really does not mean being afraid of God” (p. 16).

The author dismisses substitute words such as awe, respect and reverence as inadequate to truly capture what it means to fear the Lord (pp. 48, 55). And he believes a dread fear of God is condemned by Scripture as it drives us away from Him (pp. 31-41), resulting in serving Him as a slave (p. 34), turning to other gods for comfort (p. 35), and even hating Him, as was the case of Martin Luther (pp. 33, 96-97). By contrast, correct fear turns us to God (pp. 43, 60, 67). Ultimately, Reeves insists, the fear of God and the love of God unite (pp. 50-52). “It is not because we are afraid of Him, but because we delight in Him, that we fear Him” (Spurgeon, p. 52). Reeves makes his case through the use of three approaches:

  • Word studies: the two primary Hebrew words for fear are both used, in referring to God in the OT, as right fears and sinful fears, depending on the context.
  • Scriptural texts: noting that throughout the Bible, God is feared as both Creator and Redeemer (pp. 70-90), Reeves traces many texts associating the fear of God with joy, abundance, praise and adoration (e.g. Jeremiah 33:8-9; 17:5-8; Psalm 145:19-20). In addition, we are reminded that Proverbs declares that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom and knowledge (pp. 134-136). Unfortunately, the author presses too hard by using an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon to support his thesis (pp. 151-153). Doing so is both unnecessary and a demonstration of poor hermeneutics.
  • Quotes from past saints such as Calvin, Spurgeon, Edwards, and a host of Puritans: this is, of course, the weakest form of proof, as humans can be wrong and it is a bit unsettling that the author chose no examples past 1890. Still, the testimony and insights from reliable witnesses and students of Scripture are helpful, and many excellent quotes and examples are supplied.

Reeves writes that what we fear reveals what we love (p. 131), and the more we want something the more we fear its loss (p. 19), and that all our fears are a foretaste of either hell or heaven (pp. 166-168). A good summary of the message of Rejoice & Tremble is supplied by the author: “It is the adoration of God that dreads sin itself, not just its punishment, for it has come to treasure God and so loathe all that is ungodly” (p. 102).

Rejoice & Tremble is a valuable book which unpacks and explains the meaning of the fear of the Lord better than anything else I have read.

by Michael Reeves (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 179 pp., hard $15.79

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel