I opened Twitter to discover that the hashtag #fearGod was trending in the United States. I’m not sure the source of the trend but I thought it was interesting. I know that the fear of the Lord is a difficult concept for many. God is good, loving, and kind but we’re supposed to fear him? Why? Isn’t fear a negative emotion that should be reserved for evil beings such as Satan and his angels?
And even if you vaguely understand the concept of the fear of the Lord because you grew up in church, maybe you still don’t quite get it. The fear of the Lord is often briefly explained and we’re told to do it but rarely are we taught what it fully means and how we can do it well. Yet, scripture consistently tells us to fear the Lord. If we are going to obey God’s word, we’ll need to understand this important biblical concept.
What does it mean to fear God?
In the Old Testament, the term “the fear of the Lord” is used to refer to genuine piety. The Hebrew term for fear is yirat. Yirat Hashem is the general term for the fear of the Lord. Yirat actually has a wide range of meanings. It can speak of an anticipation of danger or pain but it can also refer to awe and reverence. When one fears the Lord, they have an “overwhelming sense of the glory, worth, and beauty of the Lord”. The new testament term for fear is phobos/phobeo. It also has a range of meanings including timidity, fearfulness, and the fear of God.
Many people explain the fear of the Lord as respect or reverence towards God rather than the dread or terror one would feel in the presence of someone wanting to harm them. This is a pretty good explanation for the fear of the Lord, though it does go a bit deeper. The term is complex because it does not simply mean one thing.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia tells us that fear is a natural feeling awakened in the presence of danger as well as in the presence of superiors. We know that God is powerful but we also know that he is just and kind. We are not necessarily afraid of God but we fear him, knowing that while he is kind, he has the power to destroy us in an instant.
This takes me back to my High School Advanced Placement Physics class. We discussed energy a lot in Physics. There’s potential energy and kinetic energy. If I pulled a slingshot back and aimed at you, you’d be correct to fear. The slingshot has great potential to do much damage. However, if we’re good friends and you know my character, then you know I’d never release the slingshot at you. Still, you have healthy fear because even though my intentions are good, I still have significant power to do harm.
In the case of the slingshot, there is a chance I can make a mistake and accidentally release it. But, in God’s case, he is all-powerful. He’s in control. You know his character, that he is good and kind and you also know that he will not make a mistake and accidentally harm you. You fear his power but you are also in awe of his goodness.
However, God is just and he uses his power to judge sin. We can see many examples in the Old Testament where God judged his people for their sin and the damage was severe. The Israelites were right in dreading God in these moments because they were perpetually sinning against him. When we choose to reject God and his ways, we should be fearful of judgment to come.
Why is it important to fear God?
We need to fear God because the bible commands it. If we want to be in right relationship with God, we should honor him as God. He’s a good, loving Father but he is also the powerful creator of the world.
The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the LORD is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel.Joel 3:16 ESV
The prophet Joel poetically communicates God’s power by saying that he “roars” from Zion, utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and earth quake. I can tell you that nothing quakes when I speak. I’m sure you can say the same. God is so powerful that the universe shakes at his voice.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:1-3 ESV
God was present at the beginning of creation, we were not. He created the heavens and the earth, we did not. He spoke and the earth was filled with light. Can any of us do that?
The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble;
He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!
The Lord is great in Zion,
And He is exalted above all the peoples.
Let them praise Your great and awesome name;
Holy is He.Psalm 99:1-5 ESV
The Psalmist calls the people to tremble before the Lord. Yes, it is good to thank God for his love and mercy in worship and thankfully, we’re pretty good at doing this. However, we should not fail to praise God and stand in awe of his greatness.
Many of us struggle with the fear of the Lord because we struggle with authority. We don’t want to be submitted to anyone in this world and we certainly don’t want to be submitted to God. We want to acknowledge God as a friend but not as Lord. It’s true, he is our friend and Father but he is also our Lord. We need a healthy fear of God.
What does the Bible say about the fear of the Lord?
I want to share a few Bible verses about the fear of the Lord and give a brief explanation of what each means in context. We will look at Proverbs 9:10, Deuteronomy 10:12, and Luke 1:50.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.Proverbs 9:10 ESV
This phrase is actually a common motif in Proverbs. The book of Proverbs is a collection of short sayings that provide insight and wisdom concerning the world. Throughout the ages, people have sought out wisdom and knowledge. However, many seek the wisdom of the world and do not recognize that they are in error. Proverbs lets us know that true wisdom comes from fearing the Lord.
The wisdom Proverbs speaks of is not just related to knowledge or education. It relates to everyday choices and decisions we make as we live this life. The reality is that the fear of the Lord helps us in the so-called ordinary and mundane tasks we do. Being rightly oriented towards God, helps us to be rightly oriented towards everything else.
Fear the Lord your God, walk in his ways, love him, and serve him with all your heart (Deuteronomy 10:12)
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, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,Deuteronomy 10:12 ESV
Moses instructed the Israelites on the correct way to relate to God. They were required to fear God, to love him, and to serve him with all their heart and soul. We aren’t just called to love or serve God, though these are both important. We also need to fear him. Again, this encompasses reverential fear, awe, respect, and acknowledgment of God’s power over all creation. In fact, we can’t truly love God if we don’t fear him. Our service to God isn’t genuine unless we acknowledge the greatness of the God we serve.
His mercy is for those who fear him (Luke 1:50)
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.Luke 1:50 ESV
This verse is actually a part of Mary’s song in response to God choosing her to be the mother of Jesus. Mary is an excellent example of someone who truly feared the Lord. When she heard that she was pregnant with the Son of God, she simply responded, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be… according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
She knew what a great honor this was and praised the Lord for what he was doing through her. Verse 50 says, “his mercy is for those who fear him…” God is merciful to those who are humble before him. In fact, James tells us that God actually opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). It’s not a secret that the proud do not fear God. They put themselves in the wrong place rather than recognizing that the Lord is God and they are not. When we are clear about our place in the world — as servants of the Lord — we receive his mercy.
But, doesn’t the Bible say we shouldn’t fear?
Yes, that’s true. But, it’s referring to specific things and people that we shouldn’t fear. Read what Jesus says about the fear of God:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28 ESV
We should not be consumed by fear, nor should we fear people more than we fear God. When scripture says, “do not be afraid,” it’s often in response to specific things in light of the truth that God is with us. If God was not with us, then we would have a reason to fear those things.
Benefits of fearing God
There are many incredible benefits of fearing God. First and foremost, fearing God enables us to be in right relationship with him. We have access to his presence. It also gives us peace. It leads to life rather than death. Proverbs tells us that it leads to wisdom and knowledge. When we fear the Lord, we make the correct choices in life.
Consequences of not fearing God
Likewise, there are many consequences of not fearing God. We are separated from God. It leads to spiritual and moral failure. We end up having a reason to be in dread and terror of the Lord because it leads to judgment. Next, we experience disharmony in our relationships. We endure toil and excessive struggling. And finally, it leads to destruction.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes sums it up well. The whole duty of mankind is to fear God and keep his commandments. While the fear of the Lord is a complex topic that can have many meanings, ultimately it is the reverential awe and respect for an all-powerful Creator who loves us and desires a relationship with us. May we fear the Lord as long as we live.