"Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied." (Acts 9:31)
It was the winter of 1973-74, just two years after I had made my decision to follow Jesus and be a disciple. I was living alone in the country, about twenty miles from town, in an old dilapidated house that I rented for $35 a month. (That might sound like a bargain, but if you had seen the house, you probably wouldn't think so.) The Christians with whom I fellowshipped met on Friday nights and Saturday nights, so every Friday afternoon I drove to Peoria and stayed with some other single brothers for the weekend. I got my fellowship on Friday and Saturday evenings, and went to my third-shift job in Peoria on Saturday and Sunday nights from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. I worked just sixteen hours a week and earned around $65 a week after taxes, which enabled me to live quite comfortably in my primitive country villa during the weekdays.
Each week from Monday to Friday, I stayed holed up in my house with no company except my dog. I spent much of that winter wrapped up in a blanket, sitting at the kitchen table with my Bible, my Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, and a notebook. I spent most of my waking hours studying the Bible and praying. During this season of seeking the Lord, Acts 9:31 sent me on an in-depth study of the fear of the Lord.
In Acts 9:31 I noticed some things that I longed to see, both in my personal walk with the Lord and in the Body of Christ as a whole: rest, edification, comfort, and multiplication. There was something else I noticed in this verse. The churches that experienced rest, edification, comfort, and multiplication were churches that were walking in the fear of the Lord. I realized that these things I longed to see would not come about without walking in the fear of the Lord. So I set out to learn what it means to walk in the fear of the Lord. I took the instructions in Proverbs 2:1-5 to heart:
"My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee, so that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God."
To understand the fear of the Lord, I used my Bible as my road map and the Holy Spirit as my guide. Using my Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, I wrote down every verse of the Bible that spoke about fear, or even remotely suggested fear, words like afraid, affrighten, awe, dread, dreadful, fear, feared, fearful, fearfully, fright, frighten, horror, quake, scare, shake, terrible, terrify, terror, tremble, etc. I looked up hundreds of verses and wrote them all down by hand. I wrote out the entire verses, not just the chapter-and-verse reference numbers. Then I spent time reading, re-reading, and prayerfully meditating on all these verses I had compiled.
After some time, I began to see some common threads, themes that would make it possible to place these many verses into specific categories. I ended up with a four-point outline:
Definition: verses that define what the fear of the Lord is;
Reasons: verses that explain why we should fear the Lord;
Instructions: verses that tell us how to fear the Lord;
Results: verses that describe some effects of the fear of the Lord.
Using this outline, I was able to place each verse under at least one of these four headings. So I rewrote all the verses, this time writing each verse under one or more of the outline's four headings. I ended up with 43+ hand-written pages, which I bound together in a three-ring notebook. I know there were at least 43 pages, because I still have the cover page, which has a note about something on "page 43." Unfortunately, I no longer have anything other than the cover page of my in-depth study of the fear of the Lord, because a friend of mine wanted to borrow it and read it. He borrowed it and I never saw it again. If I had known he was going to lose it, I would have made a photocopy of the study.
The paper-and-ink content of my in-depth study is gone, but the important things I learned about the fear of the Lord that winter of 45 years ago are not gone. I want to share some of those things here.
First of all, what does the Bible mean when it speaks about the fear of the Lord? The Scriptures of God must define the fear of God. If we want to understand what the fear of the Lord is, we need to make sure that we are not letting it be defined by the precept of men. God says of false teachers, "their fear toward Me is taught by the precept of men" (Isa. 29:13). When the fear of God is defined by the precept of men, it is usually watered down and made to sound less scary. When men speak of the fear of God, many prefer to substitute words like "awe," "reverence," or, as the Scofield Bible defines it in a footnote, "reverential trust with hatred of evil." All of these terms can be correctly thought of as things that relate to the fear of God, but if used as alternative terms to replace the scary word "fear," they water down the intensity (and the scariness) of the fear of the Lord.
The word "awe" might have been a suitable synonym many years ago, but not anymore. While once limited to describing things that were truly awe-inspiring, the term "awesome" is now used to describe things as mundane as good food, as in "This pizza is awesome!" (The same thing has happened to the Hebrew word norah, a word used in the Bible to describe God's awesomeness, as in Psalm 47:2, "For the Lord most high is terrible," and as in Exodus 15:11, "fearful in praises." Some Israelis now use norah as slang for "awfully [good]," as in "This pizza is norah!")
The word "reverence" is an unsuitable synonym for the fear of the Lord, because most people do not understand the full meaning of the word. Webster's defines the word revere as "to regard with mingled fear, respect, and affection." The problem with the word "reverence" is that most people think that respect and affection for God qualifies as reverence. They do not know that respect and affection must be mingled with fear to qualify as reverence.
What then does it mean to fear the Lord? Does it actually mean to literally fear Him? Yes, absolutely. Yahweh is a God to be loved, but He is first a God to be feared. The Hebrew and Greek words that speak about fearing God are the same words that speak about fearing other things, so the fear of God is actual fear. You do not even need to know Hebrew and Greek to see this; you can use a Strong's Exhaustive Concordance to see how the words are used throughout the Bible.
The fear of the Lord involves genuine fear. Its immediate effect is often an unexpected, terrible awareness of one's sinfulness. This awareness of sinfulness makes a person very uncomfortable in the presence of the holy.
"Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord," Peter said after witnessing a Yeshua-directed miraculous catch of fish.
"Fear not," Yeshua replied. "From henceforth thou shalt catch men."
Many passages in the Bible repeat this same pattern, in which the fear of God is immediately followed by a comforting "Fear not." Just about every encounter with an angel brought first of all fear, then the comforting words, "Fear not." It seems as though the Scriptures command us to fear God, and then when we do it, the Lord in effect says, "Okay, you did it. You showed some fear of Me. Now fear not." This pattern of fear followed by comfort is seen in Acts 9:31, when the churches were "walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost." Fear is balanced by comfort in other verses, like Psalm 130:4, "But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared," and Psalm 2:11, "Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling." After Yeshua's Resurrection, the women "departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy" (Matt. 28:8). In all these examples, the comfort, forgiveness, rejoicing, and great joy were real, but the accompanying fear was no less real. So don't let anyone tell you that the fear of the Lord does not include genuine fear.
"But Daniel, what about 1 John 4:18? John wrote 'There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.' That sounds like we're just supposed to love God, not fear Him. How can we love God if we fear Him?"
A better question is: How can you love Him if you do not know Him, and how can you claim to know Him if you do not fear Him, because to truly know Him is to fear Him. We love Him only after His perfect love casts out the tormenting fear that we feel in His presence because of our sinfulness. The Apostle John who said that there is no fear in love is the same man who fell like a dead man at the feet of Yeshua when he saw Him in His glory on the isle of Patmos. When John saw Yeshua as the risen, glorified Son of God, he did not say, "Hey, it's my old fishin' buddy Jesus! Praise the Lord, Jesus, it's great to see you looking so glorious!" When John saw the Lord, he fell at His feet with so much fear that he became as a dead man. "And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not..." (Rev. 1:17).
Peter and John were not the only holy men who felt unholy in the presence of the Holy One. When Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on His throne, high and lifted up, with the seraphim above it, he cried out, "Woe is me! For I am undone [or, as we might say in modern English, 'I'm done for!']; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts" (Isa. 6:5).
Jeremiah said, "I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine hath overcome, because of Yahweh, and because of the words of His holiness" (Jer. 23:9). Ezekiel seems to have fallen upon his face every time he beheld the glory of God. (See Ezk. 1:28; 3:23; 9:8; 11:13; 43:3; 44:4.)
The Prophet Daniel experienced real fear. When Gabriel approached him, Daniel said, "I was afraid, and fell upon my face" (Dan. 8:17). Another vision caused Daniel to experience trembling, loss of strength, loss of breath, loss of consciousness, and dumbness. In the presence of the holy, Daniel's high opinion of himself underwent a change which he described by saying "my comeliness was turned in me into corruption" (Dan. 10:8). Even Daniel's good qualities, his "comeliness," looked rotten to him in the light of God's holy presence.
Moses experienced the fear of God so intensely that he was literally frightened out of his wits. That's the definition Strong's gives ("to be frightened out of one's wits") for the Greek word in Hebrews 12:21, where Moses is quoted as saying, "I exceedingly fear and quake." The phrase "exceedingly fear" is a translation of ekphobos, a word formed by attaching the prefix ek- (the same as ex-, "out of; beyond," the source of English exit, excel, etc.) to the stem phobos ("fear," the source of English phobia). Hebrews 12:21 is a quote of Deuteronomy 9:19 in the Greek Septuagint version. The same Greek verb ekphobeo, translated "exceedingly fear" in Hebrews 12:21, is used a few other places in the Septuagint. Job 7:14 speaks of God sending dreams and visions that frighten Job "out of" his wits: "Then Thou scarest me [ekphobeis me] with dreams, and terrifiest me through visions."
Habakkuk describes the effect that the fear of God had on him: "When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered my bones, and I trembled in myself" (Hab. 3:16).
But all these examples are from the Old Testament. By the time of the New Testament, God had mellowed out, hadn't He? He wasn't into scaring people anymore, was He? If you believe that, here are a few things in the New Testament for you to consider. Get a Strong's Exhaustive Concordance and look up the word fear. You will find around ten places where there is a direct commandment to fear God, and several other places where fearing God is presented as the normal response to an encounter with God's holiness. In the New Testament you will see that fear fell upon Zachariah when he saw an angel; the disciples fell on their faces and were "sore afraid" at Yeshua's Transfiguration; great fear came upon all who heard about Ananias and Sapphira dropping dead in church; Saul on the road to Damascus trembled, was astonished, and could not eat or drink for three days.
"Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? For Thou only art holy." So says the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb in Revelation 15:4. "Thou, even Thou, art to be feared," wrote the psalmist Asaph, "and who may stand in Thy sight when once Thou art angry?" (Ps. 76:7).
Fearing God is not a negative thing. It is a positive thing, because "Yahweh taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, in those that hope in His mercy" (Ps. 147:11). When I compiled my in-depth study of the fear of the Lord 45 years ago, I found and listed 96 blessings that are promised to those who fear the Lord. I no longer have the list, but several of the blessings are listed in Psalm 112. This psalm begins with the words "Praise ye the Lord. Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth greatly in His commandments." Then the remainder of the psalm lists the different types of blessings that such a man will receive. These blessings in Psalm 112 are not promised to just anyone and everyone; they are promised specifically to those who fear the Lord and delight greatly in His commandments.
The fear of the Lord brings the presence and blessing of the Lord. Job said, "For the thing that I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me" (Job 3:25). Job was speaking about the tragedies that had come upon him. I have heard this verse quoted by "word of faith" preachers for the purpose of criticizing Job for his alleged "lack of faith." There is a more positive and useful lesson that can be gleaned from this verse, though. If, as some preachers suggest, greatly fearing tragedies will cause tragedies to come upon you, then greatly fearing the Lord will cause the Lord to come upon you. So greatly fear the Lord, and let His Holy Spirit come upon you with the blessings that are promised to the man that feareth the Lord and delighteth greatly in His commandments.
I hope that everyone reading this fears the Lord and delights greatly in His commandments, because I want everyone to experience God's blessings. Perhaps someone reading this is saying, "I can't really say that I fear the Lord and delight greatly in His commandments, but I want to." That's good. A desire to fear God is a start. When Nehemiah prayed at the start of his work, he referred to himself and his generation as servants "who desire to fear Thy name" (Neh. 1:11).
Fearing the Lord is something that you choose to do or not do. Proverbs 1:29 talks about people who "hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord," so fearing God is definitely something you can choose to do. God is pro-choice when it comes to fearing Him. Proverbs 2:1-5, quoted near the beginning of this article, tells you what you have to do to understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.
Psalm 34:11 is another verse that tells you how you can learn the fear of the Lord. "Come, ye children, hearken unto me," David said, "I will teach you the fear of the Lord." David was a man after God's own heart, the Bible says (1 Sam. 13:14). If we come to David and hearken unto him, he can teach us the fear of the Lord. But David is dead. How can we come to David and hearken unto him? Simple. By reading David's psalms and prayerfully meditating on them.
Through his psalms, David can teach us the fear of the Lord. It's all right there in the psalms. As Bob Dylan once said when questioned about his religious beliefs, "It's all right there in my music," so the same can be said of David's heart. It's all right there in the psalms. If you want to see the heart of a man who was after the heart of God, you can see it in the psalms of David.
David saw the glory of God expressed in two different ways in two different vessels: majestically in the natural creation, and linguistically in the written Scriptures. Throughout his psalms, David wrote about the glory of God as it is manifested in nature—in the sky, in the seas, in the mountains, in the rivers, and even in the plant and animal kingdoms. David also wrote about the glory of God as it is manifested in God's Torah—in His commandments, in His judgments, in His testimonies, in His statutes, in His precepts. This dual manifestation of God's glory in both nature and Scripture can be seen in many psalms. It is especially clear in Psalm 19. The first half of Psalm 19 speaks about the glory of God that is revealed in nature: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handywork," etc. Then the second half of the psalm speaks about the glory of God as it is revealed in the written Scriptures: "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul," etc. Those who understand the fear of the Lord know that the revelation of the written Scriptures is just as necessary as the revelation of God's glory that is evident in nature. The glory of God that we see in the creation can fill us with awe and wonder and inspire us to fear and worship the Creator. The creation can inspire us, but it cannot by itself inform us how the Creator wants us to live. For that information, we need the testimony of the written Scriptures. The glory of God's creation cannot convert us, but "the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul" (Ps. 19:7).
We need the written Scriptures to understand how to fear and worship the Lord. However, if we just mechanically follow written instructions without experiencing inspiration, it can soon turn into dull drudgery. For inspiration, David tells us to look at the wonders of God's glorious creation. "I meditate on all Thy works," David said. "I muse on the work of Thy hands" (Ps. 143:5). "When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained, What is man, that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?" (Ps. 8:3f).
I'm no tree-hugging environmentalist nature boy, but I can get very inspired to worship the Creator when I behold the glory of His creation. I was once moved to tears by noticing the colors on a red-winged blackbird that flew past me. Sometimes I think that secular poets are more aware of the wonders of creation than many Christians are. Emily Dickinson, who evidently was no church-goer ("Some keep the Sabbath going to church; I keep it staying at home," she wrote) penned lines like "Inebriate of air am I, and debauchee of dew." William Blake wrote about seeing "a universe in a grain of sand." Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was no saint in her later years, celebrated the glorious wonders of creation in her poems, writing things like the following from "God's World":
Thy winds, thy wide gray skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day,
that ache and sag
And all but cry with color! ...
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart.
Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world
too beautiful this year...
Even though David urges us to consider the wonders of nature to learn the fear of the Lord, I don't remember hearing any sermons telling people to meditate on the creation to learn the fear of the Lord. Most preachers who tell you to fear God will tell you to do it because God will send you to hell if you don't repent. While it is true that the unrepentant will go into everlasting fire (Matt. 25:41), if you have repented and made your peace with God, you can learn to fear Him like David did, by meditating on the glory of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures and as it is revealed in creation.
I could write more about the fear of the Lord, but this article must come to a conclusion sometime, so: "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil" (Eccl. 12:13f). And that alone is a very good reason to fear the Lord.
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Hermeneutics - A Practical Guide to Understanding & Interpreting The Holy Scriptures presents principles and examples in context, language, linguistics and literal vs. non-literal approaches to studying God’s Word.
Image (Top): Psalm 19 an original piece by Daniel Botkin in his Psurrealistic Psalms series. View all his galleries on his art website, DanielBotkin.com