The Fear of the Lord

Written by Drew on September 23rd, 2005

The fear of the Lord is an important biblical concept carrying coveted promises. Solomon said, “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecc. 12:13). Furthermore, “riches, honor, and life” are promised to all who demonstrate this attitude in their lives (Prov. 22:4).

Obviously, then, believers want to come to an understanding of what this kind of fear entails. The old explanation we’ve all heard is, “The fear of the Lord is completely removed from the anxiety we commonly refer to as fear; it is, rather, reverence for the Lord.” While it is true that, in the end, the fear of the Lord is a deep respect for God, can we say it is completely detached from common fear (i.e., terror or fright)?

A clue to the nature of the fear of the Lord is found in Nehemiah 7:2, where Nehemiah is preparing to leave Jerusalem in the hands of his brother, Hanani. He commends this man, describing him as “a faithful man, [who] feared God above many.” There is evidently some sense in which Hanani feared God more than others. The implication is that the fear of the Lord is not an immediate philosophy towards God to be seized, but rather an attribute arrived at by a process of maturation.

A study of this subject reveals that there are actually four stages involved in the fear of the Lord. Every person who develops this trait matures through each of them before he gets to “reverence.”

Stage #1: Natural Fear

In the beginning, when a person first becomes aware of the wrath of God, he reacts with a natural fear. This is often referred to as terror, fright, dread, or horror. At this point, fear is nothing special. It is the same reaction we give to heights, bogey men, and yellow jackets. Belshazzar felt it when he witnessed the fingers of a human hand writing on the plaster of the wall of his palace. Daniel 5:6 states, “Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” Also, the demons, who know God but refuse to show Him any respect, “shudder” according to James (2:19).

At this early stage, fear is the result of an incomplete relationship with God. Those who are at this level are immature in their faith and only recognize that their sin stands between them and an Almighty God who will not stay His hand of wrath. It is a mistake to deny this emotion as a part of the development of faith, for it is recognized in many places in the New Testament (Lk. 12:5; Rom. 11:22; Heb. 10:27, 31; Rev. 6:15-17).

Stage #2: Productive Fear

Dean Martin said, “Show me a man who doesn’t know the meaning of fear and I’ll show you a dummy who gets beat up a lot.” Fear is not an end to itself; it is productive, instructing those who experience it on how to avoid danger up ahead. At the second stage of the fear of the Lord, the believer starts to do something about his situation. Seeing that his sin is responsible for sparking the wrath of God, he begins to develop an abhorrence towards evil (cf. Prov. 3:7; 8:13; 16:6).

We know that godly fear produces more than just the hating of evil itself. In order for someone to develop this abhorrence, he has to work at it. For one thing, he must learn the difference between good and evil through studying the Bible. The Psalmist said, “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Ps. 119:104). So then, at this level fear becomes more positive.

Stage #3: Awesome Fear

A kindergarten teacher told everyone to draw a picture of what was important to them. In the back of the room Johnny began to labor over his drawing. Everybody else finished and handed in their picture but he didn’t. He was still drawing. The teacher graciously walked back and put her arm around Johnny’s shoulder and said, “Johnny, what are you drawing?” He didn’t look up; he just kept on working feverishly at his picture. He said, “God.” “But Johnny,” she said gently, “no one knows what God looks like.” He answered, “They will when I’m through.”

No man has ever seen God (Jn. 1:18). Moses came closer than anybody. At his request, the Lord granted him an opportunity to see his back. Of course, seeing the face of the Lord was out of the question; anyone who gazed upon the Divine face would die (Ex. 33:18-23).

What’s strange is that when the actual time comes for Moses to see God, the narrative does not describe God’s back. Rather it focuses upon His “name” (i.e., the sum of His attributes), that was declared to Moses at that time: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7). Why this emphasis? As Moses looked back on that pivotal event in his life, he realized that God’s attributes were more awe-inspiring than any form He might present to man.

When we consider the nature of Jehovah–His power, His righteousness, His compassion, His mercy–hope begins to surface in our hearts, and for the first time we realize who wonderful He truly is! With the sons of Levi, we fear God and stand in awe of His name (Mal. 2:5).

Stage #4: Reverent Fear

At this stage the believer has established a relationship with God. No longer afraid of the wrath reserved for scoffers, he has made God the ruler of his life and has completely submitted himself to His will. In the Bible, the respect shown to earthly kings is often described in terms of “fear” (Josh. 4:14; 1 Kgs. 3:28; Rom. 13:7). It is only natural that the Lord receive the same honor. Accordingly, the apostle Paul called Him “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Tim. 6:15-16).

Not enough people have come to this stage in their fear of God. C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Problem of Pain, “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘likes to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”

Perhaps the problem is that we try to jump to reverence instead of working towards it through spiritual growth. The man of God must fear the Lord–through all the stages described in His Word.


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