The Fear of the Lord: The Forgotten Doctrine

The book of Proverbs gives us a look into the wisdom of King Solomon. When we open this biblical book we get more than pithy, spiritual sayings, but it is as if we are given an invitation to peer into his personal beliefs, and the importance they had in the rearing of his children. It is in these pages where we, like a fly on the wall, hear him engage in several fire-side chats with his sons. In these personal conversations he discusses with his boys the issues of life. He covers a range of topics from religion to sex. Subjects that, if obeyed, will set them on a course to live their lives for God’s glory. Solomon’s goal was not only to prepare them to rule future kingdom’s, but to first have them rule their hearts, by understanding who it was that was to be the supreme sovereign of their lives.

“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Proverbs 16:32 ESV

Therefore, the first issue of importance he talks about is for them to recognize who the sovereign ruler is and the position one takes before him.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Proverbs 1:7 ESV
king solomon

Solomon does not point to himself as the primary sovereign, though his world-renown status would have made it easy for his son’s to believe so. Even though Solomon’s rule and responsibility reached beyond being the head of a household, he was the king of an entire nation. Yet, he learned from his father, David, that Yahweh was the supreme Sovereign of more than just the nation of Israel but of everything in heaven and on earth.

“O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.” Isaiah 37:16

In ancient times, king’s demanded wholehearted obedience and demanded the highest respect. Their magnificent palaces declared their power and wealth. And their thrones represented their unquestioned authority and absolute law. To break their laws was to fear their punishment. Ancient monarchs decreed laws autonomously, and held total sovereign control over the subjects of their kingdom. Kings were feared because of their royal status and autonomous power. When Solomon began his instruction on who the sovereign is that is first and foremost to be feared he said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”

This statement would have been understood by Solomon’s son’s, especially in light of the fact that their father was the monarch over all the tribes and lands of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah. Israel’s enemies feared Solomon for the greatness, power and scope of his kingdom. The son’s of Solomon would have no doubt heard or seen the administration of justice carried out by their own father many times, and had witnessed how the Jews as well as foreigners highly revered him. When Solomon spoke of “fearing the Lord”, his son’s would have had no misunderstanding about the weight of that statement. The primary sovereign they were to fear, above all other king’s, including their father, was Yahweh God.

This verse, with the instruction to fear the Lord, may sound strange to modern ears. And the teaching to fear the Lord is seldom heard in the modern church for fear that it might not sit well with what the average congregant wants to hear. Much of today’s evangelicalism has sadly sought to employ the marketing methods for corporate growth. With a need to be relevant, the message of the Gospel has been whittled down, promoting a one-sided view of God- an all loving, all forgiving Savior. Lordship is out, friendship with God is in. Many believer’s are more comfortable not talking about doctrines of sanctification (personal holiness), repentance (transforming the way we think) or omnipotent sovereignty (the fear of the Lord). Contemporary Christianity has toned down this primary and fundamental doctrine of God- the fear of the Lord. So it comes as no surprise that some think that we shouldn’t fear the Lord but we, as New Testament Believer’s, are only to love him, and that our relationship to Him is based solely on mutual love. After all isn’t “fearing God” an Old Testament teaching?

We need to look no further than the New Testament to find exhortations and allusions to fearing God by Jesus Christ and the apostles. Here are just a few:

St. Peter said:
“And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile…” 1 Peter 1:18

St.Paul said:
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” 2 Corinthians 7:1

“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.” 2 Corinthians 5:11

Jesus Christ said:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” Luke 12:4,5

I think where the confusion in the modern mind occurs is because we think that love and fear are conflicting emotions. We also tend to look at these two emotions only from the natural frame of mind, or as human feelings. We equate fear as something that happens when a person is threatened at gunpoint. Additionally, we think that love are feelings we have for our spouse and children. And though this is true, humanly speaking, there is a biblical understanding about God that unites these two emotions at a deeper spiritual level. What looks like emotional opposites to us, were not understood to be so by the ancient Israelites. Fear and love were complimentary emotions not contradictory. These two emotions went hand-in-hand. But how? The emotion of fear naturally triggers in us a kind of cautious terror and gives us the feeling to “stay away”; whereas, love causes us to become unguarded and trusting, giving us the feeing we are safe “to come near”.

King Solomon’s instruction, however; which was inspired by the Spirit of God, tells us clearly that in order to have knowledge, or wisdom in living a meaningful life as God intended, the place to start was to fear Yahweh.

So how do love and fear equate? Or complement each other? It may not be as strange a thing as we might think. We experience the blend of fear and love perhaps more than we realize. I’ll mention three examples: one that is personal, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.

If you love the outdoors you probably have experienced the feeling I’m about to describe. Standing at the edge of VernalVernal-Falls Falls, in Yosemite is a love/fear relationship. From a distance it seems to beckon you to the top. So you hike to the falls all for the sheer joy of closely witnessing the power and beauty of it. As you walk up the rocky incline the wide, shower of water cascading down the mountain is always in view. The feeling of being close to something so powerful, beautiful and grand is exhilarating. You love to hike, you love the outdoors, you love to watch as the magnificent curtain of water crashes to the canyon floor. Once you are at the top of the falls, you lean over the rail and look down as the thunder of water hurls downward just a few feet away from where you’re standing. You’re awe struck. We might say it fills you with awe, or that it is awe-full. This awful sight strikes you with a kind of fearful beauty. You feel it’s power, and witness it’s beauty. And you know to be careful. The rail is the only thing keeping you from perishing headlong into it’s crushing arms. You lean over the rail, as if to challenge this mighty force. You love the experience. It seems to be calling you to experience more of it’s beauty and power so you lean over even more, looking down as tons of water torrentially rush down into the river below. But as you do, fear is rising as well. All it takes is for someone to come behind you and play at pushing you, or for someone to shake the rail for your heart to pound with panic. Your love to get near something far more powerful than you also brings with it- cause to be fearful.

Every year people die in accidents at Yosemite. People fall into rushing rivers, or from mountain sides. Why? Not because the mountain, the river, or the waterfall is angry with them. Not at all. Their beauty (which you love) and power (which is to be feared) is what they are by nature. They are not out to get anyone. But either by accident or daring there was an unexpected miscalculation or a momentary lapse of respect for this terrifying beauty. One’s fear for it’s grandness and glory was diminished enough in one’s mind for them to perish by the very thing which gave them great exhilaration. In our love to be near something so magnificent and beautiful as Vernal Falls, we must always be mindful that it requires our deepest respect for it’s awe-full power.

This blend of love and fear in my example of a person’s encounter with nature, is what I believe the bible is telling us about fearing God in a spiritual sense. If we are to be so emotionally affected in the presence of so great a natural wonder, how much more should our inner affections be arrested and astonished at the fearful wonder of so glorious a God? He is by his very nature the quintessential being in whom all power resides and all pure and holy perfections exist and find expression. When he manifests his presence to someone, even the smallest degree of his brilliant glory is enough to have cause for great fear.

The English preacher John Bunyan comments that even in bringing joyful news, God’s presence invokes a dreadful fear. Bunyan said, “His presence is dreadful, and that not only his presence in common, but his special, yea, his most comfortable and joyous presence. When God comes to bring a soul news of mercy and salvation, even that visit, that presence of God, is fearful.” [1]

In the Old Testament, Moses was beckoned towards a supernatural sight which caught his attention. A bush that was burning but not consumed. Here is what happened:

“He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Genesis 3:2-6 ESV

burning_bushGod immediately stopped Moses from coming near the burning bush and then instructed him to take off his shoes. He was standing not on common soil but on holy ground. When God said that it was holy ground, there wasn’t anything different about that piece of ground from any other area nearby. But the mere fact that God’s presence occupied that particular piece of ground where the bush was burning, that is what made it holy. Because God had manifested his presence at that particular place, that is why it was holy. Therefore, Moses’ first lesson about approaching the Hebrew God was it was not done in a casual or flippant manner. Because of God’s presence Moses was afraid to look at the Lord who appeared in the flaming bush. He was not just standing on the precipice of some mighty waterfall or natural wonder, but he was standing near the sight of the most awe-full being in all the universe. One mis-step in his approach towards the Almighty could mean disaster. Moses was drawn to this miraculous spectacle and was entering the Holy Presence not on his terms but on God’s. A holy reverence accompanied his steps toward the ineffable “I AM.” (Exodus 3:14)

“And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

Though Moses feared the Lord he knew that Yahweh was a God of steadfast love. And that anyone who was called to covenant relationship with Yahweh God learned that having a high and holy fear of God was evidenced by committing all of themselves to loving him. Thus, the Jewish people stated their love for Yahweh in what was called the Shema:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” Deuteronomy 6:4,5 ESV

Though the Hebrew nation was to have a high view of God, displayed by their reverence and holy fear for His great name, they knew God to be a loving and gracious Sovereign. His love for them was spoken in words of deep affection. They were holy or set apart, they were especially chosen, they were His treasure and possession. Nothing in them made them any more attractive to God than any other nation. He simply chose to bestow and lavish his love on them. After God had delivered the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery Moses spoke to God’s people about why God had delivered them:

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…” Deuteronomy 7:6-9 ESV

Here is another look at the fear/love relationship in the New Testament book of the Revelation. In the opening verses we are given St. John’s account of his experience at the voice who spoke behind him while he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” (Revelation 1:10). Upon seeing the glorified Son of God in all his resplendent power and glory, John fell at his feet as dead. Standing in the presence of Christ was enough to slay him. He buckled under the magnificent beauty and glory of the resurrected Christ.

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Revelation 1:17,18 ESV

The sight of Jesus Christ was so fearful and yet magnificently beautiful it was more than the apostle could bear. Like Moses, John was now standing on holy ground. He found himself in the presence of the holiest, most glorious, and fearsome of all beings in the universe. The face of the Son of God shone as bright as the noon-day sun. His voice roared like the powerful waves of the ocean, and his eyes burned with flames of fire (Revelation 1:13-16 ESV). The sight of His manifest glory was so dreadful that John crumpled as dead at His feet. But because Jesus Christ is the most loving of all beings in heaven or on earth he tells the apostle to fear not. And Jesus extends a gentle and loving hand on John in order to comfort and quell his fears.

John had a fear/love relationship with the King of Creation. He never doubted that Christ loved him. In fact, during the Savior’s earthly ministry, John mentions three occasions in his gospel, pointing out that he was the one whom Jesus loved (John 13:23, 19:26 and 20:2). And of all the apostles, he gave more emphasis to the importance of Christian love. As well, the central theme of his epistles is the love of God.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  1 John 4:8

Even though John was confident of God’s love for him and that he too was loved by the Savior, it never meant that he could forget who it was that he was in covenant relationship with. He knew that the Lord Christ was the God of all life and the only Sovereign worthy of all adoration and reverence. And because His name is above every other name (Ephesians 1:21,8 Philippians 2:9), He is to be highly praised. John understood that Christ the King is the Supreme Sovereign and because of the saving grace of a loving God he could stand with confidence in His presence; both with awesome fear and the deepest love.

“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us…” Psalm 90:17a  KJV

© Steve Covarrubias 12/2014

1- The Fear of God by John Bunyan. Diggory Press Ltd. 2007

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