Volume 29, Issue 2 | March 2023
by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher Southern View Chapel
Fear is a normal part of life. We fear many things, and some fears are baked into our DNA by God to protect us from true dangers. It is not a phobia to fear jumping into a river full of piranhas or alligators; it is a self-preservative fear. There are hundreds of such healthy fears. Entertainer Dean Martin said, “Show me a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear, and I’ll show you a dummy who gets beat up a lot.”[i] But the concept of fearing God is largely foreign to our modern minds and culture. Our emphasis today is on the love of God and not the fear of God. Who wants a God that they fear? Surely such a concept is something leftover from pagan superstition or medieval days and is unfit for our sophisticated culture.
However, we must face the fact that the Bible speaks of the fear of God directly more than 150 times,[ii] and we cannot merely dismiss what the Bible has to say to fit our modern sensibilities. The fear of God is an important part of life. As Solomon draws Ecclesiastes to a close, he writes, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Every reader of Scripture knows that the fear of God is a common theme, but Christians often debate exactly what it means and how we should be apply it. Should we fear God in a dreadful way, hiding under our beds to avoid His hot temper and judgment, or is the fear of the Lord just another way to refer to respect and awe for Him? In this article, we will search the Scriptures for answers to these questions and try to determine what it means to fear the Lord. In the process, we will unravel the biblical concept of the fear of the Lord by examining six related issues.
Fear in General
Leaving aside the healthy fears that God has given us, we need to turn to other fears we face in life before considering the subject of fearing the Lord. Our world is riddled with such fears, but we usually call them phobias. Common phobias include the fear of spiders (arachnophobia), the fear of flying (aviophobia), the fear of elevators (elevatophobia), the fear of heights (acrophobia), the fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), the fear of crowded public spaces (agoraphobia), and the fear of homosexuals (homophobia). These are relatively uncommon fears while others are more prevalent and revealing. As we quickly list these fears, we should keep in mind that what we fear often reveals what we love, what we are most concerned about losing, and what we worship.
According to recent surveys, public speaking is the number one fear in America. Number two is the fear of death. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld questioned these statistics, saying that, if they are true, then the average person, who goes to a funeral, thinks he would be better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.[iii] Nevertheless, fear of public speaking is high on the list because so many are concerned about what other people think and fear disapproval. Some would rather die than be criticized. Others are afraid to die because they do not know what lies beyond. Having staked everything on the present life they do all in their power to dismiss, ignore, or minimize death.
In addition to public speaking and death, we fear suffering. We fear physical and emotional pain; we fear losing what brings us comfort; we fear losing the things we enjoy. We also fear the future. We long for a secure tomorrow, including having the possessions we think we need, a substantial retirement account, and good health to enjoy it all. But deep down, we know we cannot be absolutely certain that all will go well for us in the future, and we are afraid.
Finally, we fear that our culture and our world are crumbling all around us, and we have no idea how to fix them. One study claimed that 74% of Americans fear government corruption.[iv] Many among us, for example, live in constant fear of anything we can’t control. Fear is such a powerful force that our media and government leaders have become masters at weaponizing it. CNN and Fox, and every form of media, have learned that if they just throw “breaking news” at us, then we will stop everything we are doing to pay attention. If some financial guru says we are going into a recession, people panic and click the link. The more outrageous the comment, the more fear it evokes, the more clicks the site gets, and the more people can be manipulated. We live in a world saturated with fear.
The Fear of God – What Is It?
What are we to do with all these fears? There is only one solution, according to Scripture—we must shift our focus from our common fears and insecurities to the fear of God. Understood this way, the fear of God is not a negative thing; it is the most positive thing imaginable. It is the fear to end all fears.[v] If the fear of the Lord is such a wonderful remedy to the fears of everyday life, why do we hesitate to talk about it? For one thing, we are “afraid” that we will be accused of being some hellfire-breathing, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal so we skip the topic and go straight to the love of God. After all, everybody is open to love. In a search for modern Christian hymns and songs on the fear of the Lord, I came up virtually empty handed. By contrast, the Jewish hymn book (the Psalms) references the fear of the Lord fifteen times and the fear of God ten times. It is no wonder almost everybody’s favorite Christian book of the year in 2021 was Gentle and Lowly, a description of Jesus’ caring nature. While He is in fact gentle and lowly, and we must celebrate that aspect of His character, He is also magnificent and fearsome, and we must celebrate that trait as well.
So what is the fear of God? We are ready for a definition. We start first with the Greek and Hebrew words for fear. The primary Hebrew word yare denotes a sense of terror and dread, sort of a state of panic. This word is used in Genesis 3:10 to describe Adam’s fear. “He said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.’” Yare implies a strong emotional and intellectual reaction to something. The word can also speak of awe or reverence, depending on the context,[vi] as it appears in Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “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 and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?”
The Greek word for fear is phobia. This word can be used for “bone-melting dread”[vii] as it is in Matthew 10:28: “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” However, as it appears in Acts 9:31, it can also describe ecstatic jubilation. “So the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed peace, as it was being built up; and as it continued in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it kept increasing.” Whenever phobia is used, it is in a strong statement.
On the one hand, we can wrongly view God our buddy or life coach. But on the other hand we may dread God because He is not like us. We do not comprehend Him, and we cannot manage Him.[viii] Often, we soften the definition of the fear of the Lord to mean respect or reverence. While these terms are not wrong, the fear of the Lord is far more intense than these English words imply. Jerry Bridges suggests that there are three elements to the fear of the Lord: respect (or reverence), admiration for His glorious attributes, and amazement at His infinite love.[ix] Tozer wrote, “God wants to cultivate within us the adoration of which He is worthy. He wants us to be astonished at the inconceivable elevation and magnitude and splendor of Almighty God.”[x] Michael Horton offers another thought: “The fear of God is sanity. It is living with the grain of reality. Not accepting reality makes us crazy. We want to be God, but we are not good at it.”[xi] I think Horton has tapped into our problem. We want to be the star of our own show rather than honoring God. As the opening lines of David Copperfield state, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Dickens understood human nature.
Jerry Bridges, in his book The Joy of Fearing God, recites a poem that reflects how most people see themselves:
When you get what you want in your struggle for self,
And the world makes you a king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what THAT man has to say.
For this isn’t your father or mother or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass;
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass….
He’s the fellow to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the man in the glass is your friend.[xii]
If we are our own god, then there is no place left for the true God—or so we think. This is why Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and Proverbs 1:7 adds that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” There is no true understanding of life, of God, or even of ourselves, unless we begin with the fear of the Lord.
Two Kinds of Fear of God
Having defined what we are talking about, we must now look at two different ways Scripture uses the fear of the Lord. In Exodus 20:18-20, we read of both a fear that caused Israel to flee God and a fear that drew Israel to Him.
And all the people were watching and hearing the thunder and the lightning flashes, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it all, they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but do not have God speak to us, or we will die!” However, Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you will not sin.”
In 1 Samuel 12:20-24 we find the same distinction when the prophet instructs the people not to hide from the Lord, even though they deserved judgment, but rather to serve the Lord in fear because of His goodness.
Samuel said to the people, “Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. Indeed, you must not turn aside, for then you would go after useless things which cannot benefit or save, because they are useless. For the Lord will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because the Lord has been pleased to make you a people for Himself. Furthermore, as for me, far be it from me that I would sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way. Only fear the Lord and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you.
Note then the two different applications of the fear of the Lord:
A Fear that Rightfully Evokes Terror
For the unbeliever, the fear of the Lord should be terrifying. Those who do not belong to God need to skip all the ideas of such fear being mere reverence, attraction, or respect or any such thing, and move straight into terror. Examples supporting this truth abound in Scripture. Adam and Eve rightly hid from God and were chased out of the garden. In James 2:19, we see that just as we believe God is one, “the demons also believe, and shudder.” As rebels, all they can do is tremble in His presence. We are given an example in Revelation 6:16-17 of the Tribulation rebels who “said to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the sight of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of Their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’” These sinners see firsthand the display of God’s power and of His wrath against sin, and what do they do? They try to hide in total fear and, if they are going to continue in their defiance, they are wise to do so.
Before his conversion, Martin Luther was challenged about loving God and said, “I did not love Him, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.”[xiii] Without Christ, we see nothing in God but an angry and terrible judge. For the unbeliever, “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). This is because, as we see in Revelation 20:15, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Yet the hallmark of the unbeliever is that “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). Do we see fear when people curse in His name or live in total defiance of His commands? Certainly not.
John Bunyan wrote, “It is the devil’s work to promote a fear of God that makes people afraid of God such that they want to flee from God.”[xiv] Therefore, anyone fleeing from God does so because they have been deceived by the devil. The Lord does not desire us to flee but to come to Him in repentance.
A Fear that Draws Us to Him
On the other hand, Bunyan wrote, “The Spirit’s work is the exact opposite: to produce in us a wonderful fear that wins and draws us to God. It is to this happy, Scripture-commanded, Spirit-breathed fear that we turn now.”[xv] William Ames nailed it when he said, “Sinful fear is that fear which scares men away from God, or which drives them to fly away from him…. In contrast, the fear that Scripture commends is that where the principal cause of our fear is not any evil which we are in danger of, but the excellent perfection of God.”[xvi] For the believer, then, the fear of the Lord is equivalent to delighting in the Lord because of His splendor. We see this fear exemplified in Isaiah 11:1-3:
Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch from his roots will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And He will delight in the fear of the Lord,
And He will not judge by what His eyes see,
Nor make decisions by what His ears hear.
At the giving of the Ten Commandments, we see an excellent example of the difference between the two kinds of fear: “However, Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you will not sin’” (Exodus 20:20). Godly fear, in fact, turns out to be synonymous with love.[xvii] Psalm 147:11 tells us that “The Lord favors those who fear Him, Those who wait for His faithfulness.” Aristotle claimed that “no one loves the man whom he fears.”[xviii] By contrast, no one loves the Lord who does not have a proper fear of Him.
Consequences of Not Fearing the Lord
Scripture tells us that “just as it is destined for people to die once, and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), those who do not fear the Lord will “pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Besides the obvious fact of the judgment of God and eternal destruction of the lost (Hebrews 9:27; 2 Thessalonians 1:9), there are also temporal consequences. For one, a society as well as individuals, that has lost its fear of the Lord will become increasingly neurotic, ever more anxious about anything and everything.[xix] Therefore, we will either fear God, or we will be at the mercy of our fears and circumstances.[xx] This truth explains why we see countless people enslaved to anxiety, phobias, insecurities, and every form of neurosis. It is also why we have countless people trying to escape from and cover up their fears by using drugs, alcohol, immorality, and even suicide. We live in a fearful, anxious, neurotic world of fear because people, including some Christians, fear the wrong things.
Characteristics of the Right Fear of the Lord
The first and foremost characteristic found in those who rightly fear the Lord is obedience. Solomon in closing Ecclesiastes (12:13) specifies: “The conclusion, when everything has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.” Moses also makes the same association in his instructions to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:1-2.
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, so that you may do them in the land where you are going over to take possession of it, so that you, your son, and your grandson will fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged….”
God will tolerate nothing less than total commitment to Him.[xxi]
Other characteristics of righteous fear include:
- Wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).
- Direction: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:5-7)
- True life: “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, by which one may avoid the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27). “The fear of the Lord leads to life, so that one may sleep satisfied, untouched by evil” (Proverbs 19:23).
- Peace and contentment: “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure, and turmoil with the treasure” (Proverbs 15:16).
- Turning from evil: “By the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil” (Proverbs 16:6b).
The fear of the Lord is an active, motivational force, from beginning to end.
Benefits of Fearing the Lord
The right fear of the Lord frees us from fear of everything else. Michael Reeves writes in his book Rejoice and Tremble: “It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful, happy, and wonderful fear.”[xxii] Horton writes, “The fear of God drives out all other fears…. God does not frighten us into submission. Instead, he draws us by cords of love. Godly fear, in fact turns out to be synonymous with love.”[xxiii]
Jonathan Edwards says it well: “If men fear God as they fear the devil, they flee from Him, but if they fear Him as the being He really is, they will flee to Him. It is the wrong fear or ‘servile fear’ which is cast out by love.”[xxiv] If what we have determined from Scripture in this article is true, and it is, then there is nothing more vital, more urgent, or more important than for us, His people, to recover the fear of the Lord. It is perhaps the missing piece in the lives of many of God’s people today.
[i] As quoted in James Dobson, Hide or Seek, 3rd ed.(Fleming H Revell Co; 1999), p. 161.
[ii] Jerry Bridges, The Joy of Fearing God (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2006), p. 27.
[iii] As quoted in Michael Horton, Recovering our Sanity (Grand Rapidsm MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2022), p. xi.
[iv] Ibid., p.3.
[v] Ibid., p. xi.
[vi] William Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 244.
[vii] Michael Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), p. 57.
[viii] Horton, p. 61.
[ix] Bridges, p. 26.
[x] A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship (Wingspread; New Edition, (April 10, 2012)), p. 26.
[xi] Michael Horton, p. 54.
[xii] Jerry Bridges, p. 158.
[xiii] As quoted in Reeves, p. 39.
[xiv] Reeves, p. 43.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 60.
[xvii] As quoted in Horton, p. 73.
[xviii] As quoted in Leadership Vol 1#3, p. 43.
[xix] Reeves, p. 20.
[xx] Bridges, p. 57.
[xxi] George Zemek, A Biblical Theology, Exegetical Considerations of Key Anthropological, Hamartiological and Soteriological Terms and Motifs (Little Rock, AR: R.T.D.S.G.), p. 213.
[xxii] Reeves, p. 16.
[xxiii] Horton, pp. 17, 73.
[xxiv] As quoted in John Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 86.