Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” Exodus 20:20
A couple of weeks ago, when I was planning our Concert of Prayer around “fear,” I was reminded how many times the Old Testament talks about the “fear of God” as a good thing.
That’s surprising to us New Testament people, because we know that in Christ God came near to us, to show us his love. We remember that in Christ we are being made new and thus we enter his very throne room, so to speak, with Jesus, to pray and receive grace and mercy. We read in 1 John that perfect love casts out fear, and that there is no fear in love. The angels are always and forever telling the people of the New Testament not to be afraid.
So why is the fear of God good, and what is going on in the verse above, in which we are instructed both not to be afraid, but to have the fear of God to help us?
The context is interesting: it happens when the children of Israel, having been brought out of slavery by God via Moses, having walked on dry land through the sea, etc, etc, finally arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses meets with God to receive the Ten Commandments, the ‘ten words’ which are the terms of the Covenant God is making with Abraham’s, Isaac’s and Jacob’s descendants.
You may recall that God didn’t make this meeting easy! The mountain was covered in clouds and smoke and darkness and fire with thunder and lightning, and the officials were instructed to put a cordon around the bottom so no human or beast would accidentally step on the mountain and thus die instantly!
Encountering Yahweh in this place was terrifying – and it was meant to be. Why? Well, God’s covenant with them was for not only their sake, but for the sake of the world, and he wanted them to take its commandments seriously. It’s safe to say that he did want them to be afraid that day, that this God with whom they were dealing was no pussycat.
But what was the Covenant and the Law? It was the safe place to be, to deal with God. Living within its confines was the place of peace.
Exactly as Paradise was for Adam and Eve, a lush garden of shalom where everything was good, and living within its requirements (don’t eat from that tree) was peace…if they could keep it.
But God didn’t want his people to live in terror of being arbitrarily destroyed! God wanted Israel, as God wants us, to live in LIFE, which could be found in the parameters God set. This is indeed how David speaks of it: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.” (Psalm 19) David’s not afraid of the demands of God; they make him happy, because within them, God is found.
This makes more sense to me when I read of the circumstances within which the Bible says “there is no fear of God.” In Romans 3, Paul is describing something we all see in the world, too: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (he’s quoting from Ps 36). The picture is clear of people who act as though they will never have to account for the injustices they do, who act as though they themselves are the pinnacle of the universe. This is true, also, of people who are arrogant about their lack of faith, who are so sure they can make up for themselves what is good and right, because there is no one higher.
It is easy to point at others, but then I realize that sometimes I live that way, even though I don’t feel that way. Will we not have to give account for the words we say, the contempt for others we thought, and even the ways we’ve used the world we were given without caring for it? Is there no God before our eyes?
That’s what fear of God means. Not that we hide from him in fear because he might hurt us, but the right “fear of God” puts ourselves into perspective. It is a reverent awe of the Creator of the Universe, the eternal one who knows everything there is to know, and everyone there is to know, and has a purpose for his creation.
This fear of God rightfully teaches us humility! And gratitude for his grace toward us, his forgiveness of our sin, and his offer of restored relationship with him. It teaches us astonishment at Jesus enduring human mockery of him while at that very same moment he was dying for their sin, at their lack of “fear of God.” It makes us eager to confess our sin, not because we might go to hell, but because we are sick at our sin, up against God’s greatness and his great love for us.
There is no fear in love, in the sense that once we understand God’s love for us, we no longer fear him being fickle or careless toward us. His perfect love casts out fear, in case we thought he was monitoring us, looking for the first chance to blast us for missing a rule or regulation. His perfect love teaches us that against all logic, God finds us precious!
But there is a reverential awe for God that is healthy, that comes from the “right relationship with God” that Jesus bought for us. It comes from trust for God, beyond understanding. It is then, the fear of God that ‘keeps us from sinning’ as Moses explained, because we do trust him, and his ways, as Jesus displayed them to us and continues to teach us by his Spirit.
And in that, the fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of great wisdom.
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