“What does it mean to ‘Fear the Lord?’”
October 4, 2021
“Who is God?” “What is God like?” Have you ever been asked this question by your child? How about a friend or acquaintance? How would you answer it? Consider, this is probably the most loaded question anyone could ever ask! Indeed, how you answer this question reveals the foundation for how you would answer (and see) everything else. Pastor and theologian AW Tozer put it this way: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. ... the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”
People will answer the question, “Who is God?” in a variety of ways. For example, some envision God as a vindictive judge, while others see Him as a jolly grandpa or Santa Claus figure. Sadly, many who perceive God in this way are merely grasping at straws, basing their definitions on their subjective ideas, experiences, or the opinions of others. How dangerous it is to be fickle or uncertain in answering this most important question of life! To answer such weighty questions, we must not begin with subjective opinions, but with the most objective and authoritative source possible. In this case, it would be God’s revelation of Himself- in the Bible.
Now, as we ponder our theme: “The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom” we are led to another important question about God- “What does it mean to ‘fear the Lord’?” As with defining who God is, before one just starts asking for opinions on this, we must start with the most authoritative source, the Bible. Therefore, is this concept “the fear of the Lord” defined, or illustrated, in the Bible? Let’s see.
The exact phrase “the fear of the Lord” comes up dozens of times in the Bible, but the concept of fearing God hundreds of times. For the sake of clarity, we will look primarily at where the specific wording can be found and see if we can derive a definition grounded in Scripture.
Hatred of Evil
Proverbs 8:13 “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” This is a straightforward definition. The person who fears the Lord despises what God despises- evil, pride, arrogance, perverted speech, etc. If you tolerate or handle sin casually, you don’t fear the Lord.
Humility and Softness of Heart
Proverbs 28:14: “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” Proverbs 22:4 “Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life.” Again, this is very clear and straightforward- the one who fears the Lord has a high view of God and a lower, subservient view of self. Fearing God is contrasted with having a hardened or proud heart. It should be noted that Biblical humility doesn’t mean a debased, inferior view of self in comparison to others, but in comparison to God. We will revisit this critical virtue of humility in a later post.
Expressed by Obedience
Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Psalm 112:1: “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!” One who fears the Lord demonstrates reverence for His word and thus His commands. This person holds God’s words and instructions in high esteem, and their life reflects it in obedient action.
Expressed in Love and Enjoyment of God
Nehemiah 1:11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who delight to fear Your name.” 1 John 4:18: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because He first loved us.” Those who know the Lord realize that He is good and full of lovingkindness. The practice of reverencing Him leads to delight, for one then beholds the goodness and love of God.
Having said all of this, one may still ask, “Why use the word, ‘fear’? Why not say the ‘love’ of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom?” Many have contemplated this, and I would venture to say that the ‘fear,’ not ‘love,’ of God is the necessary starting point for grasping more completely who He is. To understand the enormity of God’s love and goodness, we first need to see those qualities in light of His holiness, and our sin. Paul put it this way in Romans 5:8: “but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God’s love is most manifested, and thus celebrated, in light of His sacrifice for undeserving sinners.
In conclusion and to further illustrate this point, I invite you to contemplate this helpful illustration from Pastor John Piper:
“I picture myself climbing in the mountains, say the Himalayas. And I’m on these massive rock faces, and I see a storm coming. It is going to be a massive storm, and I feel unbelievably vulnerable on these mountain precipices. And so, I am desperately looking for a little covert in the rock where I won’t be blown off the side of the cliff to destruction. And I find a hole in the side of the mountain, and I spin quickly, and suddenly the holiness, and justice, and power, and wrath, and judgment of God breaks over me like a hurricane, but I know I am totally safe, which means all that horrible danger is transposed into the music of majesty, and I can enjoy it rather than fearing it. And I think that is what the cross is. Jesus died for us to provide a place where we could enjoy the majesty of God with a kind of fear and trembling and reverence and awe, but not a cowering fear.”
In summary, the ‘fear of the Lord’ is cultivated in one’s life to the degree that they behold the awesome splendor of God’s holiness and power, followed by the magnitude of His love and grace, revealed most clearly in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
In the next article, we will see how this understanding of God lays the foundation for all learning and wisdom.