What does the Bible mean when it tells us to fear God?

This is a question that I’ve been mulling over this week, inspired by a family debate over the weekend! What does the Bible mean when it tells us to fear God? Does it just mean awe and respect? Or something more?

One of the ladies in the Bible study this week added an additional question to be answered – How does fearing God fit in with loving him as our Father?

Well I think these are some formidable questions to wrestle with! So I’ve spent some time looking at Scripture, and some big old commentaries and dictionaries and here are some thoughts – let me know what you think!

I warn you now that it’s a bumper post today – but a subject that’s worthy of our exploration!

The word most commonly used for the fear of the Lord in Hebrew is “Yare” – To fear/ Honour/ Be in awe of. And in Greek the root word is “Phob-“which means fear/ reverence/ respect. (Hmmm wonder where the word phobia originated?)

What kind of fear are we talking about here?

Should we simply understand this to mean that we respect God – that we are in awe of him? Or is there more to it?

Psalm 2:11 tells us to
Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. 

And the Apostle Paul, instructing the Philippian church saysTherefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and tremblingPhilippians 2:12

So here we have verses from the Old and the New Testaments that pair fear with trembling. This didn’t just sound like being respectful to me…

Si I went back to my Bible to see how people who saw or spoke with God acted in his presence:

When Job speaks with God he says:
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42)

This verse has come back to me over and over as I’ve thought about this subject. My heart wants to stop at simply ‘respecting’ God, because it doesn’t ask too much and it’s not scary! But when I look at Job I see a man who knows God well, who has suffered much without cursing his maker, but who is humbled in a moment as he comes face to face with God. He despises himself in comparison to the glory and perfection of God!

Isaiah, when he sees the Lord in a vision cries “Woe to me!… I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Daniel and Ezekiel both fall on their faces when they are confronted with the glory of God.

Add that to the reaction of many others in scripture who fear that they will die when they see the Lord – and I think we have a case for not downgrading ‘fear’ too much!

What does fearing God look like in day to day Christian life?

We are talking about a kind of fear that produces several things of worth in the life of a Christian – and you’ll notice them mentioned in scripture in relation to our fear of God.

1. Reverence for, and submission to God’s authority:

Hebrews 12:28-29 warns us: Let us…worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”

And the Apostle Paul says: Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. 2 Corinthians 7:1

The reason Paul gives here for seeking holiness, is because of our reverence for God. That surprised me, I’m not sure I have really thought about my holiness being tied in with my fear of God.

Yet surely a genuine right fear of God must include submission. It’s not respect between equals, or lip service to one more powerful, and it’s not simply submission out of love. God’s status as sovereign, Lord of All – A “consuming fire” – should inspire awe in us as we understand who he is, compared to who we are! (Psalm 8 comes to mind “What is man that you are mindful of him?”)

2. Obedience to his commands: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. Psalm 111:10

Here we see fear of the Lord leading to obedience, because obedience to such a God brings wisdom and understanding. Our God inspires us with such awe and wonder, why would we not want to follow his wise commands?

We are told that Abraham did not withhold his only son Isaac from God because he feared him. If we truly fear God it will be shown by the way our lives match up to what he says in his word. Our fear and awe results in obedience to God’s commands.

3. Turning away from wrongdoing and hatred of evil: Proverbs 8:13 tells us that To fear the Lord is to hate evil. If we fear God we will hate what he hates, and we won’t seek to cultivate or love things that he despises.

But how do we get away from the negative connotations of fear?

It’s worth saying that as Christians we no longer live in fear and terror of God’s wrath and judgment. Our fear of God is not the fear of Adam and Eve as they hid from the Holy One in the Garden of Eden. But it is fear nonetheless. One Bible dictionary put it like this: “Knowing that God’s wrath has been satisfied in Christ relieves the believer from the fear of condemnation but not from accountability to a holy God”

C.S Lewis captures this tension for us beautifully when he describes Aslan in his Narnia series:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Why fearing God is a very good thing…

One of the things I have become more convinced of as I’ve studied some of these passages, is that fearing God is not a burdensome task that we long to shake off. It’s actually a wonderful thing!

The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. Psalm 147:11

God delights in those who fear him! Notice also how fear is linked here with hope in his love, it’s not a cold oppressive fear, inspired in downtrodden people ruled by a powerful dictator!

Isaiah confirms this with these sumptuous verses:

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure. Isaiah 33:5-6

Wow, not a harsh tyrant then, but a good God who fills his kingdom with justice, righteousness and salvation, wisdom and knowledge. And the key to this store of blessing and treasure? It’s the fear of the Lord!

Jeremiah 32:40 gives us another reason that the fear of the Lord is something we should want to cultivate:

“I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.”

As God speaks to Israel (and now to us) we see that in his mercy he will inspire them to fear him. Why? Because it will keep them safe, it will prevent them from leaving their God – the One who will never stop doing them good!

My prayer is that God would inspire a right fear in me that keeps me walking closely with him, he is the exalted king, ruling over a kingdom that brings blessing to its citizens, and I want to possess the key that opens up the riches of his blessing, the key that brings wisdom.

Of course we fail so badly at this on all counts – we fear Man instead of God, we don’t submit to him, we love wrongdoing, and fail to fully obey his commands. These scriptures should be a warning to us. We can get comfortable using the language of father, saviour and friend, while forgetting that God is God – Holy, powerful, perfect, opposing sin. We must learn to hold these things in tension, and not downplay the fear of God too much.

Nevertheless, the best news of all is that Jesus delights in the fear of the Lord! (See Isaiah 11:2-3)

Jesus Christ fears God his Father perfectly on our behalf!

So we live every day seeking to fear the Lord, for our good and his glory. But when we fail, Christ succeeds, delighting in fearing the Lord, in our place.


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