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The Fear of the Lord

Category Articles
Date January 4, 2002


Historically, when the people of God take God seriously, the result is true and enduring growth in the Church

I am certain that a deep chord was struck in all of us who attended a recent prayer meeting at which we considered a section of the long Psalm containing a most searching verse. Psalm 119:120 reads: My flesh trembles for fear of Thee and I am afraid of Thy judgments. Prior to his writing this verse, the psalmist had repeatedly indicated his strong and constant commitment to the Lord, and his adamant opposition to the enemies of God and His people. Why then, should a man who was nurturing no high-handed or hidden sin be in such fear of the Lord? Nor is his a mild fear. The word translated, trembles, is a strong word meaning to bristle up, indicating that his flesh crawled or quivered in view of the Lord. The word occurs in the Bible only here and in Job 4:15. Is this a right attitude for a believer to have toward his redeeming God?

Fear and faith are mutually exclusive except with respect to their exercise in relation to God. If we have faith in God, we shall have no other fear…except the fear of God. We, however, are living in a day where our therapeutic society pressures and conditions us to avoid any form of fear, as though all fear, especially godly fear, were psyche-damaging. Thus, whenever we Christians encounter in Scripture the phrase, the fear of the Lord, we feel impelled to inform ourselves and to teach others that fear does not really mean fear, but filial reverence. But surely fear, dread, and awe form parts of true reverence.

When men as holy as Moses, or Isaiah beheld visions of the Lord, they fell before His awesome majesty. Yet, while we must grant that these Old Testament saints obviously feared the Lord, we can glibly and wrongly assume that we who live in the light and love of God in Christ need not have such fear. We read of perfect love casting out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). However, who in this vale of soul making is perfected in love? The love of God in Christ is manifested more explicitly in the New Covenant, but is our grasp of that love and our reflection of it ever perfect in this pilgrimage? And does such love, even if perfected, prelude our trembling before our Lord? See, as an answer, the reaction of John, the beloved disciple, when he beheld on Patmos the vision of the ascended Christ (Rev. 1:10-18). At the sight, John fell at the feet of Jesus as a dead man (v.17).

Surely we cannot rightly assume that Moses, Isaiah, and John manifested such fear of God because they apprehended less clearly and deeply the love, still less the holy glory, the sovereign majesty, and the awesome power of God than do we. So we return to the words of the psalmist in Ps. 119:120. Was he blinded to the grace and love of God, or did he see those blessed qualities without losing sight of the glorious and awe inspiring majesty of the Holy One of Israel? Indeed, we are left to conclude that these men beheld something essential in God of which we have largely lost sight.

Is the fear of the Lord a soul-crippling, psyche-damaging conception which our enlightened age has outgrown? The Word of God declares it to be a potent force which purifies and converts the soul from wayward and sinful thoughts and doings (Ps. 19:8,9). Let us be honest and ask ourselves: How many wicked thoughts and transgressing deeds of ours would have been nipped in the bud had we a right fear of as well as love for our God? A right fear of the Lord is a preventative good. It prevents us from entering into sin, keeps us from nurturing sin, and drives us out of sin when we do fall into it. Positively, the fear of the Lord is the height of wisdom (Ps. 1:7), not a low and damaging superstition.

Has an absence of the fear of God had a beneficial or adverse effect upon our evangelism? Many would say that we must not scare people away from their initial consideration of Jesus with talk of holy reverence and fearful trembling before the Lamb of God. It must be admitted, also, that those churches which are seeker friendly do tend to fill up with people. But do any who are dead in sin seek to tremble before an awesome God? I have my doubts that the members of those large companies swaying to giddy music and refusing to feed on anything but glib sermons, heavily laced with humor, will stand in the day when the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the earth and its works will be burned up (2 Pet. 3:10).

Historically, when the people of God take God seriously, the result is true and enduring growth in the Church. Read in Acts 14:31 how the early Church increased as the people grew in the fear of the Lord, and as outsiders, through the believers’ testimony, came rightly to see their serious plight. The pity and guilty failure of our day is that much so-called evangelism does not save men from the wrath of God to come, but rather helps treat the mere symptoms of sin, giving immediate, temporary, and relative relief from the miseries of this cursed world. We can too readily believe that we can improve on the evangelism of Jonah, by our not declaring the coming day of the Lord, but rather winsomely warning beach vacationers to beware of large, man-swallowing fish.

I, for one, am convicted by my own lack of fear for my Lord. It is a lack I intend to do something about. At this season of our asking for, giving, and receiving gifts, would we not do well to place the fear of the Lord at the head of any list of things we hope to receive?

William Harrell

Minister of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia

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