The Fear of the LORD
All the books in the Bible are important, but each of them has a particular way of conveying a message from God.
❖Some are prophetic in character, detailing events that were or are to come to pass.
❖Some are mainly narrative: telling the story of an individual or the nation of Israel, showing the way in which God communicated to His people along the way.
❖Some are books of poetry, like the Psalms that were the hymn books used by God’s people when they were worshipping in the land.
❖Others are books of wisdom and proverbial sayings – like the Book of Proverbs, most of which was written by wise King Solomon.
Add them all together and you have a very diverse library of books from God, suited to all our circumstances and inclinations and designed to get across the essential things we need to know about God’s love for each of us and His desire to work with us, as we embark on a spiritual journey through life.
In March 1933, during the Great Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd president of the United States and in his inauguration address he made the following comment, which has since becomefamous:
“First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
His aim was to give the nation new hope and he wanted to encourage people to go forward with a measure of optimism and enthusiasm, despite the grim economic situation. His analysis was shrewd, for he perceived that if people were too afraid to try anything new, nothing would get done.
Of course, people who are absolutely fearless are just as bad. They never assess the risk, but go forward regardless, hoping for the best. That is another way of achieving nothing worthwhile. There has to be a middle course. A measure of concern and anxiety is no bad thing; too much of it renders a person powerless. And what is true in national politics or in family life is equally true when we think about our spiritual life – how to live with God and to be responsive to His Word. The inspired writer says:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).
What Sort of Fear?
Some words contain a range of possible meanings. Just as “love” can be used as a friendly form of greeting “Hello Love”, or as a way of describing intense and deeply felt emotion, so “fear” can range between respect and terror. What sort of fear is the wise man describing as“the beginning of wisdom”? When faced by an issue as serious as this, we have to let the Bible be its own interpreter, and we need to look at how this fear is described in Scripture and at the various examples that are given of people who lived in the fear of the Lord.
When God rescued the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery they were pursued into the Sinai Peninsula by an enraged Pharaoh and his speeding army. They had plenty of reason to be afraid, and so they were (Exodus 14:10), but Moses said:
“Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Exodus 14:13).
They were to have faith in God and to trust in His salvation, and they did for a while, but soon they lost that faith and had to embark on a long journey to the Promised Land.
Israel at Sinai
Moses brought them to Mount Sinai where they made a solemn agreement – or Covenant – with God, but once again they were afraid. For the mountain shook as though there was an earthquake and the top burned like a volcano. Everybody was afraid at first, even Moses, but then he made this enlightening comment:
Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
There are slightly different Hebrew words in the original language of Exodus, but the distinction is not linguistic.
What Moses was saying is that God didn’t want to frighten them, for fear itself is debilitating. He wanted to fill them with a sense of awe and reverence, so they would realise the sort of God He is. Elsewhere God is described as “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), but He is also described as a God of love, mercy and great compassion.
Thus, although Moses was initially overawed at the sight of God’s resplendent glory, he later discovered that God’s glory was expressive of His mercy and grace towards mankind.
It follows that the expression “the fear of the LORD” is really a call to approach God with awe and reverence, remembering who God is, so that we can learn from Him and thus develop a relationship with Him, before becoming a member of His family. That is why the inspired writers in Bible books like the Psalms and Proverbs describe this attitude as the beginning of a relationship based on knowledge and understanding:
❖“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psalm 111:10);
❖“The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8:13);
❖“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10);
❖“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge” (Proverbs 14:26);
❖“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27);
❖“The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Proverbs 19:23);
❖“Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day” (Proverbs 23:17).
Wise King Solomon, who wrote many Proverbs, also wrote a book of the Bible about the real meaning and purpose of life. In Ecclesiastes, he explains that there are various obstacles in life that prevent us getting full satisfaction, and that this is part of God’s design, so that we turn to Him for answers. Step by step, he follows a logical set of arguments until he comes to this final conclusion about the reasons why we are here:
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
The way that Solomon has used this expression throughout the book shows us that when he writes about the fear of God he really means that we are placed on earth so that we can worship God and we should do so mindful of the fact that God will, one day, summon people to His judgement seat. Thus the Psalmist can say:
“I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you” (Psalm 5:7).
❖God wants us to reverence Him and to always be aware of His greatness and goodness.
❖That is how we must start when we seek to find Him.
❖Fearing God in that way is the beginning of wisdom but God wants us to have a relationship with Him.
❖That requires some effort on our part as we must read His Word the Bible and understand how God is working in the world and with us.
We enter into a relationship with God when we are baptized into the saving name of the Lord Jesus Christ and begin to worship God in the way that He has shown us in His Word.
By Timothy James