The Fear of the Lord - Part 2


There are both proper, godly fears and improper, sinful fears. On the one hand, God has given us the ability to respond to rightly perceived fears. When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea, he “was afraid” to go there with Mary and Jesus (Matt. 2:22), and God directed him to go to Nazareth instead. On the other hand, Scripture gives us many examples of people who were overcome by sinful fear. After Adam had sinned, he heard God coming to him in the garden, and he said, “I was afraid . . . so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). Abraham was afraid for his life, so he pretended that Sarah was his sister (Gen. 20:2). King Saul disobeyed God’s explicit commands because he “was afraid of the men” (1 Sam. 15:24). Fear can be both sinful in and of itself and something that leads to other sinful responses.


God understands our struggle with sinful fear and knows that we need someone who is stronger than our fears: God himself. David says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Ps. 56:3). Ultimately, our hope is in Jesus Christ, who came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). The author of Hebrews goes on to tell us how we are to experience this victory through Christ: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16).


Paul asks the question “Who [or, we could add, ‘what’] shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Rom. 8:35), and then gives his classic answer: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38–39). The reality of a sovereign, loving God rules out any possibility that his people will ever find themselves in situations outside of his love and control. For the believer, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (8:28).



There is a popular saying: “The fear of God is the one fear that removes all others.” God wants to free people from wrong fears so that they can fear the one person really worth fearing: God himself. Jesus warned, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5). Indeed, the one appropriate fear mentioned well over a hundred times in Scripture is a proper fear of God. The author of the book of Ecclesiastes concludes his wrestling to find meaning and purpose in life with these words: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (12:13).


God’s frame of reference. What can a proper fear of God do for us? The answer from the book of Proverbs is that a proper fear of God is foundational to everything else in life: “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7) and “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Every area of life needs to be lived under the direction of God and for his glory, and without a proper fear of God, living a life pleasing to God becomes impossible. Having a proper fear of God involves seeing and responding to all the daily circumstances of life from God’s frame of reference. It is this proper fear of God that involves catching a glimpse of life as it truly is, and especially of God as he is in all his glory and splendor, that gives people the strength and encouragement they need to go through all the difficult experiences of life. Although there are many unanswered questions regarding the various tragedies and difficulties we experience, life does not begin to make sense until a person catches a glimpse of who God is and how he is at work behind the scenes in history and world events. No one can ever go far in a relationship with God apart from a proper fear of him. Instead, “the fear of the LORD is a fountain of life” (Prov. 14:27) that strengthens and sustains us.


Knowing and seeking God. What does fear of God look like? Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” places “fear” and “knowledge” in poetical parallelism. Apparently, knowing God and fearing him are really one and the same, like two sides of a coin describing the same reality. Similarly, not fearing God is simply another way of saying that a person does not know him. It is no surprise to discover that to fear God or be a “God-fearer” is one of the standard biblical descriptions for being a follower of God (Acts 10:2). In one sense, having a proper fear of God is simply one way of describing how one is in a proper relationship with God. Scripture is clear that for the ungodly, or even for the disobedient believer, there is a fear in the sense of terror or panic as one contemplates the coming judgment of God (Heb. 10:27, 31). But the believer should have confidence in God’s love and in the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, so that this kind of negative fear is out of place. For the believer, the fear of the Lord is a respectful, reverential awe of God’s glory and majesty, leading inevitably to a changed life. This positive kind of fear should involve a positive seeking out of God and a new desire to please him, combined with a new dread of displeasing him. Proverbs is also very explicit about this purifying aspect of the fear of the Lord: “Through the fear of the LORD evil is avoided” (16:6).


Having a proper fear of God has an ongoing, moment-by-moment quality in much the same way that a spouse or parent naturally thinks about others in the family and wonders how they are doing. Whereas the wicked person does not seek God, and “in all his thoughts there is no room for God” (Ps. 10:4), the opposite is true of those who fear God: they regularly and inevitably find themselves thinking about God, reflecting upon him, respecting him, looking to him for his help and sustenance, valuing his view of things, and actively seeking to please and obey him in everything they do. Fearing God means that we trust him more than we trust ourselves or anyone else. Fearing God is both deciding for (Prov. 1:29 speaks of those who “did not choose to fear the LORD”) and living out an ongoing commitment of giving God the place he deserves in our lives. As Paul tells us, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). A person who has come to fear the Lord is never the same afterward.