There’s a phrase in the Bible that can be tough to get our heads around.
It’s the concept of “the fear of the Lord.”
25 times the Bible uses the phrase “the fear of the Lord.” 29 times the Bible tells us to “fear the Lord.” 18 times the Bible tells us to “fear God.” In fact, 300 times the Bible uses the word “fear” in reference to God.
It’s a weird concept. Our whole lives we are taught that fear is bad, that we should conquer our fears, that fear holds us back. Even the Bible tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear” and to “fear not”.
So why, 300 times, would the Bible talk about the fear of the Lord as a good thing?
For example —>
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (in Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10, & Proverbs 15:33)
You shall fear the Lord (in Deuteronomy alone you find this in chapter 6:24, 10:12, 10:20, 14:23, 31:12, 31:13… not to mention Joshua 4:24, 1 Samuel 12:24 and a bunch more)
Psalm 115:13 promises that God will bless those who fear the Lord
Proverbs 22:4 promises that the reward of the fear of the Lord are riches, honour and life
Proverbs 19:23 says that the fear of the Lord leads to life
Proverbs 16:6 says that by the fear of the Lord we keep away from evil.
Ecclesiastes 8:12 says that it will be well for those who fear God
1 Peter 2:17 literally commands us to fear God.
And I could go on and on. Scripture after Scripture after Scripture encouraging us, even commanding us to fear the Lord.
In fact, in Romans 3, Paul talks about how all of humanity is under the power of sin, and he describes our chief sin as “having no fear of God”.
So if the Bible talks about this 300 times, it’s probably pretty important that we know what it means to fear God.
Fear has been my nemesis my entire life. From childhood I was always afraid of the people close to me dying. It sounds irrational but for me it was very real. Whenever my parents went away, or even just went out for the evening, I would be gripped with fear that I would never see them again. Fast forward to when I married Dave, and the fear only intensified. If he went surfing, I would be convinced something was going to happen and I would be left alone. And if he got home late (which he always did!), we would have huge blow-ups because my fear that his being late meant he was dead, suddenly converted to fury when he didn’t understand what his being late did to me.
Now I got victory over this fear about 3 years into our marriage… I still had to fight it, and I still have to fight it. But these days I win the battle. It doesn’t consume me or overwhelm me. It still lurks, trying to take me out - because the devil is a liar and a thief and he will do anything he can to steal my joy. But these days I am able to trust God and give Him my fear, so it doesn’t rule me anymore. Do I still have to fight it constantly, especially with all the travel Dave does, and with a 16 year old son learning to drive? YES. But I make sure, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that it does not win. EVER.
So all of that to say - fear is loathsome. Fear comes from the pit of hell. Fear is designed by the devil to disqualify us, to paralyse us, to render us weak and cowering.
Fear is not of God.
God is LOVE. And the Bible promises us that His perfect love casts out all fear.
So - then why would the Bible tell us to “fear God”?
Some people say that the fear of God is just “reverence”, or “awe”. But that sells it short. There is so much more to the fear of the Lord than reverence or awe.
There are three words for “fear” used when the Bible talks about the fear of God. Two are Hebrew words, from the Old Testament, and one is a Greek word found in the New Testament. All three literally mean fear, terror, dread, reverence and respect.
So if we whittle down “the fear of the Lord” to only mean reverence or respect, we have lost the depth of meaning that is in the Hebrew and Greek originally.
Fear. Dread. Terror. Reverence. Respect.
Why would fear, dread, terror be associated with God?
Part of our issue with understanding the fear of the Lord, comes from our one-dimensional view of God. In our 21st century me-centric worldview, we sometimes view God as our cosmic Santa Claus… As a God of love who just wants me to be happy. He wants my dreams to come true…
This is a really dangerous view of God. Coz it puts ME at the centre of the me-God relationship, instead of having GOD at the centre.
It creates a God formed in MY image instead of me becoming conformed to the image of Christ.
The goal of Christianity is not for God to fulfil all my desires, and make me happy. The goal of Christianity is that I become more like Jesus.
The fear of God involves recognising and submitting to the truth of Who God is.
It’s the difference between irrational fear and healthy fear.
I said earlier that fear is not of God… but actually, some fear is of God.
It’s the difference between my completely irrational fear of huntsman spiders, versus a healthy fear of a funnelweb spider.
For the non-Australians reading this, you may need to pause and do some googling at this point. Suffice to say that huntsman spiders are the WORST. I am deathly afraid of them. They are large, they can be the size of your hand, they have long brown legs that curl around like claws (in my head at least), and they RUN. They run so fast. And they don’t run away from you, they will run towards you. They appear from nowhere, coz they don’t live in webs. They live to terrify us. And they are impossible to kill.
Now rational people always remind me at this point - but they are non-venomous! They can’t hurt you!
I. DON’T. CARE.
I hate them. I am deathly afraid of them. Even as I type this it puts me in a cold sweat. I feel shivery all down my spine. My eyes start darting around the room looking for them.
Recently a friend of mine tried to tell me that she could fix this fear for me. I told her to literally stop talking. I didn’t even want to hear her plan. The fear of what her plan might involve, and the fear that if I do try to get over this, it might mean a huntsman comes near me, is so great that I don’t even want to consider getting over my fear. I’m too afraid.
I would rather have a redback spider ON MY BODY than a huntsman in the room.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of irrational fear.
This is not godly fear. I’ll freely admit it. This is the fear that holds us back, that stops us achieving our dreams because we are paralysed by fear. This is the fear that means I will NOT go camping in Australia, despite having camped in New Zealand with their wetas (google that too) and despite having camped in Arizona with their tarantulas (never saw one thank goodness)… I will NOT camp in Australia because Australia has huntsmans. End of story.
Funnelweb spiders are a different story. Funnelweb spiders are highly venomous. People have died from funnelweb bites (although thankfully, not since scientists developed antivenom). If you get bitten by a funnelweb, you have to treat it like a snake bite and get straight to hospital.
And funnelwebs live in Newcastle, where we live. They like to live in a small dark spaces, which means shoes are a favourite spot. Occasionally we would see one on the bottom of the pool, and you have to be careful because they can survive a long time under the water… so if you see one, don’t assume it’s dead. You might get a nasty surprise.
But the fear I have of funnelwebs is different. It’s a healthy fear. I don’t have the cold sweats just thinking about them. I don’t feel the shivers down my spine. I don’t live in constant fear of one appearing in my house.
I do check the inside of our shoes, especially if they’ve been left outside, but it’s a precaution that is very different from the way my eyes are constantly skirting the walls of a room in a case a huntsman appears.
The fear I have of a huntsman is based on an irrational fear of them being on my skin with those horrible legs and the way they run at me. In other words, they can’t hurt me at all but I am gripped with terror. The fear I have of a funnelweb comes from knowing what they are and what they are able to do. It’s not emotional, it doesn’t paralyse me. It activates me to be diligent to keep my family safe.
Irrational fear paralyses me. Healthy fear guides me.
Irrational fear is not of God. Healthy fear is of God.
Healthy fear of God comes from knowing WHO HE IS.
He is not Santa Claus, here to grant your every wish. He is actually the all-knowing, all-powerful, God of the universe, who breathes stars into existence and gives us our very breath.
Ezekiel had a vision of God, and saw an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. He described a figure like that of a man, from the waist up looking like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and from the waist down he looked like fire, and brilliant light surrounded Him. Ezekiel said “like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around Him.”
When Moses met with God on Mt Sinai, the entire mountain was covered in lighting and thunder and fire. Anyone who touched the mountain would die, simply from getting too close to the glory of God. Five times in the Bible, God is described as a consuming fire, including here at Mt Sinai, where to the people of Israel the appearance of the glory of God looked like a consuming fire on the mountain.
When John saw Jesus in heaven, John who had been Jesus’ best friend on earth, who had spent every day with Him, laughing and hanging out for three years… when John saw Jesus in heaven he described Jesus’ face as “like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” And John fell at the feet of Jesus as if he was dead.
Revelation 19 describes Jesus like this:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice He judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns. He has a name written on Him that no one knows but He Himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and His name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following Him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.
Coming out of His mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written:
KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
This is a picture of God we often neglect. But this is our God!
When I was a kid, I discovered God through the Narnia series by C.S Lewis. If you haven’t read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, please don’t be fooled into thinking it is just a kids book. I really encourage you to read it, because it reveals facets of Who God is, that are missing from so many of our lives.
In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund & Lucy, hear the name “Aslan” for the first time. (Now for those of you not familiar with the story, Aslan is a Lion. He is the creator of Narnia. He is a picture of Jesus, our God.) Mr Beaver says to the children these simple words, “Aslan is on the move”…
“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning — either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into the dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump inside.”
A few chapters later they encounter Aslan face to face for the first time.
“As for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly. . . .
His voice was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them. They now felt glad and quiet and it didn’t seem awkward to them to stand and say nothing.”
I love this. This is the fear of God. Knowing that He is good, and knowing that He is God.
He is love and He is judgement. He is mercy and He is truth. He is gentle and He is ruler. He is embracing and He is righteous. He is compassionate and He is holy. He forgives sinners and punishes sin.
He is the God that is full of wrath at man’s sin. And He is the God of love who takes that wrath upon Himself, dying for the sin we committed.
When you encounter this God you discover that fearing God and loving God go hand in hand.
To reference The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe one more time - the fear of God is best summed up by the words of Mr Beaver. Prior to encountering Aslan, Susan tells Mr Beaver, “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
She asks Mr Beaver if Aslan is safe, to which Mr. Beaver replies:
“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”