I feel like the theme of the fear of the Lord has been coming up a lot lately in my studies, and I’ve always found it to be a difficult subject. So, I thought I’d write about it.
The Bible has quite a bit to say about the fear of the Lord, describing it as…
- The beginning of both knowledge (Proverbs 1:7) and wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)
- Hating evil (Proverbs 8:3)
- A cause for “trembling” (Exodus 20:18; Psalm 19:9)
- Preventing sin (Exodus 20:20)
- Requires us to serve and obey God (Deuteronomy 13:4; Joshua 24:14; 1 Samuel 12:14)
- Tied to worship — somewhat like “reverence”, “honor” or “awe” (Psalm 22:23, 33:9; Ecclesiastes 8:12-13; 1 Peter 1:17)
- Does not to keep us from approaching God’s throne with boldness (Hebrews 4:16)
- Related to what strikes us dead if we attempt to even so much as look at God (“no one may look upon me and live”, Exodus 33:20)
- And much more
So, I ask… What does it mean to “fear the Lord”? It’s an extremely foreign and challenging phrase to our modern ears. How do we understand it biblically?
When I hear this phrase, the first image that comes to my mind is that of God as a great and powerful Warrior-King, the ultimate military general, engaged in a fierce cosmic battle. He is invincible … unstoppable on the battlefield. He brings crushing defeat to His enemies — demonic hordes, even death itself — in every engagement. He commands men like a hammer commands steel on an anvil. His sword is lightning fast, double-edged and razor sharp, His arm is incomprehensibly strong, His horse is unequaled in speed, His strategy and experience are unmatched and unmatchable. If all the powers in all the universe were combined into one hideous beast, He would slay it effortlessly. God is terrifying.
But the terrifying power of God is not uncontrolled. He is not unstable or unpredictable or wrongly spiteful in His wrath. God is purely and only good, and guided exclusively by that goodness. He is right and just in everything He does. Only those who deserve His judgment and anger receive it.
We, by contrast, are wicked and deceitful — deserving death. As sinful, broken, flawed human beings desperately compare ourselves to other sinful, broken, flawed human beings, so that we can feel better about ourselves and declare ourselves “good enough”. But God is under no such delusions. He compares us to His own perfection, and by that standard we are all found wanting. All are guilty, and deserve death.
God has made the choice very clear: Those who shake their fist in God’s face and declare themselves to be doing just fine on their own (thank you very much) have no hope of escaping the wrath of God, which they themselves have justly incurred with every sinful thought, word and deed. There will come a day when they will meet this great Warrior-King on the battlefield, and that will be a horrifying day indeed. God is terrifying.
But all those who fall at the foot of the cross and beg for mercy because they feel the weight of their darkened hearts… To those who see that Jesus died to take their place and make them clean, doing for them what they could never have done for themselves… To all who receive God’s only Son, to those who believed in His Name… God gives the right to become His children (John 1:12-13). If this is you, then you are God’s adopted child. You will never meet the Great General on the battlefield. Instead, you will know Him as the Father who laughs with you at the dinner table, tucks you into bed at night, holds you during thunderstorms, reads to you, and kisses your tears away.
God is utterly terrifying … but not to you. At least not in the same way.
If you are His child, then the wrath of God, justly poured out upon His enemies, will never be turned on you. You will only know His love and grace. Though you had declared yourself to be His mortal enemy, He loved you when you didn’t deserve it, sacrificed His Son to pay your debt to Him, and made you His family.
So, in a sense, your fear has been conquered by love (1 John 4:18). But lingering in the back of your mind, the fear is still there. Changed, but present. You aren’t afraid God will throw you out of His house or run you through with His sword. You aren’t afraid He’ll suddenly decide your adoption was a bad idea and turn on you. At least you shouldn’t fear these things; it would be irrational and foolish, and deny God’s character. I declare to you, in the Name of the Great King, that if the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed (John 8:36). And if that’s true, then God is your perfect Father. When it comes to your sinful, rebellious, disobedient heart, He has already poured out His wrath on Another. So there’s no more wrath, no more punishment left for you to fear (Romans 8:1).
But that doesn’t make God tame. He’s not weak. He’s not in any sense deceived or duped or distracted. Objectively, He has lost none of His scariness. He’s still the God of angel armies, who holds galaxies in His right hand. And every son or daughter of this great King knows it. They would never, knowing Him as they do, approach Him flippantly or disrespectfully. If you think God is your homeboy, then you don’t know Him as well as you think you do, and you might not be as justified as you think you are helping yourself to drinks from His fridge. You might actually be trespassing.
Anyone who actually knows God — over and against whom God’s position has changed from terrifying Warrior to treasured Father — actively remembers God’s magnificence. No child of the King forgets that He is still, in fact, the King. The truth is, we rejoice in it. I think this is where the idea of “the fear of the Lord” has been frequently morphed into “awe” or “reverence” or “deep respect”, but I don’t think any of these terms go far enough. They all apply, but I think what we’re really talking about is “worship” — the only response the child of God would consider in reaction to God’s majesty and love.
Saying that the fear of the Lord is in fact “worship” means we’ve traded one term for another. But this is intentional, because in my mind, they are closely linked. If you were to corner me and demand that I define “the fear of the Lord” in a single phrase, I think it would be “the right worship of God”. Perhaps they’re synonyms? We demonstrate that we fear God when we properly worship Him, and we worship God properly only when we fear Him. When God is in His proper place in our hearts — Lord and King, Master, Father, Lover, Unquestioned Ruler who holds absolute and immediate sway over our thoughts, words and deeds — and we are in our rightful place before Him — servant, child, beloved, unquestioning follower, quick to joyfully obey, submitted and humble … only then are we truly worshiping the Lord. Why? Because of that fear … the knowledge of who God really is, amplified by a gratitude which radiates in our whole being for what He’s done for us. Worship is not ultimately about singing certain songs, playing specific instruments, or saying the right words, though all those things can be involved. Worship means God is lifted up and we are bowed down. Very high contrasted with very low.
Taking God Seriously
Put another way, the fear of the Lord means that we “take God seriously”. We know the power God wields. We know how small and insignificant we are, but for His compassionate grace. We know that our Father is a strong tower (Psalm 61:3), mighty in battle (Psalm 24:8). We approach Him with sobriety, in reverent awe, in humble submission, in holy fear. His love for us, His adopting us, His personal outreach to us, His drawing us to Himself… None of this brings Him down to our level nor elevates us to His. It humbles us and fills us with grateful worship. If you understand these things, you will bow lower not less.
Ah, but I thought we are to boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16)? Yes. Boldly, but not flippantly. This “bold” approach is in gratitude, aware of the safety of redeemed brokenness, not in the misplaced confidence of a perceived lack of desperate need.
A Fear That Leads to Life
To know and live this in our daily lives — the knowledge of who God really is, the reverence of a child of God, the humility of worship, taking God seriously, rightly understanding the ground for our “boldness” before God — is to fear the Lord. To fail to do so is to stand before the leading edge of the shock wave of a nuclear explosion. In a few seconds, this foolish person will be devastated by God’s wrath and spend eternity regretting their wrong-headed, rebellious self-confidence. If this sparks fear in your heart, then embrace it and run to God. It means there’s still time. If it doesn’t, then the tragic reality of your life is that you aren’t enough afraid.