What does it mean to “fear the LORD”?

Psalm 128:1 “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.”

What does it mean to “fear the Lord?” Does it mean to be “afraid” of God? Does it mean to have a feeling of reverence and awe? I decided to look through Scripture to see how this phrase was used. While there are certainly more thorough explanations out there, here’s what I discovered:

First, the fear of the LORD is the attitude that comes from a recognition of God’s greatness

Occasions in Scripture in which “fear the LORD” appears often coincide with descriptions of God’s unparalleled greatness. Deuteronomy 10, which includes commands to fear the LORD also includes descriptions of his character: “To the LORD you God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (10:14). “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome” (10:17). “He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes” (10:21).

Other passages of Scripture also directly relate the manifestation of the power of God with the fear of the Lord. After crossing the Red Sea Exodus 14:31 says “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” And again, after God dried up the Jordan for the Israelites to cross: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4:24). The fear of the LORD is also tied to a recognition of him as Creator, as the one who made the heavens (1 Chronicles 16:26), the one who spoke all things into existence (Psalm 33:8-9), and the one who established the boundaries for the sea (Jeremiah 5:22).

What sort of attitude are the writers describing here? “Reverence” is probably the best description. Psalm 102:15 says “the nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.” The nature of Hebrew poetry invites us to draw a close parallel between “fear” in the first half of the verse and “revere” in the second half (see also Psalm 33:8-9). Jeremiah links “fear” with “trembling” (Jeremiah 5:22), showing that the sort of reverence intended is that which shakes us to the core.

Does the fear of the LORD imply fear of God’s judgment? While God certainly warns Israel frequently of impending judgment if they should turn away from Him, the phrase “fear the LORD” is not often linked with a threat of judgment. The closest connection comes in 2 Chronicles 19:9-10 where Jehoshaphat warns the judges whom he is appointing that they should “serve carefully and wholeheartedly in the fear of the LORD,” doing justice, or risk the LORD’s wrath coming on them and their community. Again, in Isaiah 8:13, Isaiah says that “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” So, while there is a sense in which fear the LORD has the possibility of judgment for sin in view (indeed, those who lack the fear of the LORD are also those who sin because they do not expect God to judge), it does not appear to be the dominant meaning of the phrase.

Instead, the fear of the LORD is connected with the attitudes of hope and trust. The psalmist parallels the fear of the LORD with “hope in his unfailing love” in both Psalm 33:18 and 147:11. Psalm 40:3 and Exodus 14:31 connect the fear of the Lord with trust in him. It makes sense that the people of God would see the power of God – and the reason for the reverent awe described above – as a reason to put their hope and trust in God, since God so often used his power on their behalf.

Second, the fear of the LORD is equated with obeying God’s commands

But the command to “fear the LORD” does not just describe an attitude, but a concrete action – obedience to the commands of God. Our opening text, Psalm 128:1, shows this parallelism immediately: “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.” Deuteronomy 10:12-13 expands on this: “to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to serve the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees.” Deuteronomy 10:20 connects the fear of the LORD with serving him and taking oaths in his name. This is the pattern throughout. See Deuteronomy 6:2 (“keeping all his decrees”), 6:24 (“obey all his decrees”), Joshua 24:14 (“serve him with all faithfulness”), 1 Samuel 12:14 (“serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands”), 12:24 (“serve him faithfully with all your heart”), Job 28:28 (“shun evil”), Psalm 111:10 (“follow his precepts”), Psalm 112:1 (“find great delight in his commands”), Proverbs 3:7 (“shun evil”), and Proverbs 8:13 (“to fear the LORD is to hate evil”).

This obedience to God’s commands is then tied to the blessings of God (again, see Psalm 128), long life in the land, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding (which leads to even greater blessings). But the question of what it means to receive the blessings of God is a question for another day.

In summary, then, to fear the Lord begins with an understanding that He is the Creator God who is mighty and powerful. This understanding ought to lead us to a place of reverent awe, even trembling, though this is not the same thing as “being afraid.” (This is especially true for those who are “in Christ” and therefore should no longer have the fear of final judgment.) Finally, this attitude should lead us to love God, serve Him, shun evil, and obey his commands as we hope and trust in Him.

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