The fear of the Lord

By Stephen Green

(First published in Christian Voice April 2015)

Proverbs 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.

It isn’t very fashionable to talk about the fear of the Lord these days. It used to be a badge of honour to be described as a ‘God-fearing man’ but to which captain of industry or politician in the Western world could you attach such a label in our day? And which one would actually want it?

Even in today’s Christian circles, certainly in Europe, America and the Antipodes, we are more used to hearing about the love of God than the fear of God. It was Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887) who first preached a “Gospel of Love” that emphasised God’s absolute love rather than human sinfulness. Sinners, as the Puritan Jonathan Edwards preached a century earlier (1741 to be precise), were no longer in the hands of an angry God.

Beecher doubted the existence of Hell and accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution. He also rejected his father’s prohibitions against various leisure activities as distractions from a holy life, stating instead that “Man was made for enjoyment.”

Well, the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes does indeed tell us that it is a divine principle to enjoy the fruit of our labours at the end of each day, especially in the home:

Eccl 2:24 There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.
Eccl 9:9 Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

Beecher, sadly, went rather too far, taking his teaching perhaps to its logical conclusion by embarking on a series of affairs, leading to two trials and to historian Barry Werth stating, “it was standard gossip that ‘Beecher preaches to seven or eight of his mistresses every Sunday evening’.”

FROM MILK TO MEAT

They say a heresy exalts one theological truth to the exclusion of other balancing truths. In an age starved of true love, an age of family breakdown and its dreadful aftermath, the knowledge that God is love or the idea of Jesus being a friend may do good by leading people to faith.

But I am speaking to those who have moved on from milk and want some meat on their theological plate. In an effort to bring some balance to doctrines that paint God as indulgent, or to those who expect to give Jesus a hug when they meet him, let us therefore explore what scripture says about the fear of the Lord.

Firstly, what does it do?
Secondly, what is its nature?
Thirdly, what does it look like?
Fourthly, what does its absence look like?
Fifthly, where does it lead?
Sixthly, what are its benefits?

FIRSTLY, WHAT DOES THE FEAR OF GOD DO?

Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Whatever we want to know, when we start with a holy fear of God, we are beginning at the right place. Scientists began wanting to know more about God’s creation, and they discovered more and more of the laws which make the universe work and hold everything together. By rejecting the fear of the Lord, biology in particular has gone up a blind alley in which every discovery must be made to fit the theory of evolution.

Oddly enough, in an age which despises the fear of the Lord, some still want to feel fear, but at a scary movie or on some nail-biting ride in a theme park. Thus they try to keep their fear compartmentalised and manageable. If they want fear, they’ll buy it. In reality, they are afraid of everything, from losing their job to being too long in the parking place.

But having a fear of God puts everything else into perspective. The famous sign in the Cockspur Street exit from the Bakerloo line at Charing Cross Tube told us Britons after the Battle of Trafalgar to ‘Fear God, fear sin, and then fear nothing.’

The injunction to fear God is a constant thread through Scripture. The Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 36 when he says of sinners:

Romans 3:18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Dr Russell Kirk wrote:

‘What raises up heroes and martyrs is the fear of God. Beside the terror of God’s judgment, the atrocities of the totalist tyrant are pinpricks. A God-intoxicated man, knowing that divine love and divine wrath are but different aspects of a unity, is sustained against the worst this world can do to him; while the goodnatured unambitious man, lacking religion, fearing no ultimate judgment, denying that he is made for eternity, has in him no iron to maintain order and justice and freedom.’

Moses had the fear of God before his eyes. Because of that, the Pharaoh of Egypt held no terror for him. In response to Pharaoh’s furious tirade, Moses did not flinch, but just flung it back at him:

Exodus 10:28 And Pharaoh said unto him, Get thee from me, take heed to thyself, see my face no more; for in that day thou seest my face thou shalt die. 29 And Moses said, Thou hast spoken well, I will see thy face again no more.

A famous trio who possessed the fear of God were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, renamed in Babylon as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. So he gave them an ultimatum:

Daniel 3:15 … but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?

The response is outstanding. The children of Israel have such a fear of God that nothing in this world terrifies them, let alone Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace:

Dan 3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.

When Paul wrote to Timothy concerning a ‘spirit of fear’ it was not the fear of God but the fear of man he was warning the notoriously timid Timothy against.

2Tim 1:6 Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. 7 For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

The fear of God also draws us closer to the heart of God. It brings about a state of repentance. We recognise our sinful nature and are brought to trust in our lawgiver, protector and saviour. In the towering Psalm 119, the psalmist says:

Psalm 119:120 My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; and I am afraid of thy judgments.

Three verses earlier, he said:

Psalm 119:117 Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe: and I will have respect unto thy statutes continually.

SECONDLY, WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE FEAR OF GOD?

You may fall into thinking that the fear of God is something bad, something ‘Old Covenant’, something to be avoided and not thought about in this ‘dispensation of grace’. The Bible says something quite different:

Psalm 19:9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

Not only is the fear of God ‘clean’, it endures ‘for ever’, in the heart and in God’s plan of salvation. To emphasise its New Covenant continuity, the Prophet Isaiah shows that the Lord Jesus would carry the spirit of the fear of the Lord:

Isaiah 11:1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;

From the book of Proverbs, we find out that we can choose to fear the Lord or choose not to, and what will happen if we go the wrong way:

Prov 1:29 For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD: 30 They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof. 31 Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.

The fear of the Lord is also teachable and carries a promise to which we shall return:

Psalm 34:11 Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 12 What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? 13 Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. 14 Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. 15 The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.

THIRDLY, WHAT DOES THE FEAR OF THE LORD LOOK LIKE?

When we go through scripture, we find numerous examples of the fear of God affecting people and we can read their reaction. In every case, in involves them falling on the face on the ground:

Gen 17:3 And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,
Gen 17:17 Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?
Numb 16:4 And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face:
Numb 22:31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
Joshua 5:14 And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my lord unto his servant?
Joshua 7:6 And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the LORD until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads.
2Chron 20:18 And Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground: and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell before the LORD, worshipping the LORD.
Ekek 1:28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
Dan 8:17 So he came near where I stood: and when he came, I was afraid, and fell upon my face: but he said unto me, Understand, O son of man: for at the time of the end shall be the vision.

Are we better or more mighty in the faith than them?  Are modern believers exempted from due reverence to the Almighty?  Not at all.  In the New Testament, the pattern continues. At our Lord’s transfiguration this was the reaction to the voice from heaven:

Matt 17:6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.

Even the Lord Jesus fell on his face as he prayed in the garden:

Matt 26:39 And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

People coming to be healed fell on their faces before the Lord Jesus:

Luke 5:12 And it came to pass, when he was in a certain city, behold a man full of leprosy: who seeing Jesus fell on his face, and besought him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
Luke 17:16 And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.
And in Revelation, did the Apostle whom Jesus loved run up to him and give Jesus a hug? No, he fell at his feet:
Rev 1:17 And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:

FOURTHLY, WHAT DOES A LACK OF THE FEAR OF GOD LOOK LIKE?

Psalm 36:1 To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD. The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes. 2 For he flattereth himself in his own eyes, until his iniquity be found to be hateful. 3 The words of his mouth are iniquity and deceit: he hath left off to be wise, and to do good. 4 He deviseth mischief upon his bed; he setteth himself in a way that is not good; he abhorreth not evil.

Without the fear of God men drift into every evil. The Lord Jesus gave an interesting teaching which shows that without the fear of God, there is no regard for our fellow man either and no desire for righteous judgment:

Luke 18:2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:

Too many people today replace the fear of God with the love of God, as if they were mutually exclusive. But by throwing out the fear of God, together with his righteous law, we remove the ability to respect each other and to behave in the way we ought to:

Prov 16:6 By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.

FIFTHLY, WHERE DOES THE FEAR OF GOD LEAD?

Scripture declares the fear of the Lord leads to life, contentment and protection from evil. That is quite a promise:

Prov 19:23 The fear of the LORD tendeth to life: and he that hath it shall abide satisfied; he shall not be visited with evil.

Isaiah writes of the fear of the Lord as treasure:

Isa 33:6 And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the LORD is his treasure.

And later, after saying that the Most High does not live in temples, he speaks about the sort of man he is looking for. It will come as no surprise that this is a God-fearing man:

Isa 66:2 … but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.

When the Apostle Paul was converted, the persecution of the church came to an end, temporarily at least. In countries with a Christian heritage we can have a romantic longing for the church to be persecuted, as if this will deepen our faith. But the new-found absence of persecution in the early church brought the fear of God before them. They knew as well the comfort, the counsel and the exhortation of the Holy Spirit. As a result, they increased:

Acts 9:31 Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.

Cornelius the centurion sent men to see the Apostle Peter with these words:

Acts 10:22 And they said, Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews, was warned from God by an holy angel to send for thee into his house, and to hear words of thee.

Cornelius became the first gentile convert. His fear of God led to his salvation.

For Peter, there was no tension between the grace of God and the fear of God. Because God has poured out his grace upon us, and Christ has shed his blood for us, we are duty-bound to owe him fear and a desire for holiness as we turn from what we were to what we can now become:

1Peter 1:13 Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 14 As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: 15 But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; 16 Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy. 17 And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: 18 Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; 19 But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:

AND LASTLY, THE BENEFITS OF THE FEAR OF THE LORD

We have already seen many of the benefits of having a holy fear of God. It removes the fear of man. It increases wisdom. It gives us a thirst for justice and enables us to deal properly with our fellows. It tends to life, to increase and allows us to face everything else with equanimity. It also brings the mercy of the Lord upon us:

Psalm 103:17 But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; 18 To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.

And when the leaders of a nation are God-fearing men, justice and peace are the result. The righteous and God-fearing king Jehoshaphat carried out numerous reforms in Judah, bringing about a revival of the fear of the Lord:

2Chron 19:4 And Jehoshaphat dwelt at Jerusalem: and he went out again through the people from Beersheba to mount Ephraim, and brought them back unto the LORD God of their fathers. 5 And he set judges in the land throughout all the fenced cities of Judah, city by city, 6 And said to the judges, Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the LORD, who is with you in the judgment. 7 Wherefore now let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.

I was a member of the panel of BBC’s Question Time programme one night in September 2005. There was a question about the leadership election which the Conservative Party were holding. Kenneth Clarke MP was also on the panel.  I quoted the advice Jethro gave to Moses:

Exod 18:21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:

I was never invited back. But unfashionable as it is to be God-fearing today, who of us could say that our nation is not in need of some men like that?

A PROPER BALANCE

Not all of us are leaders of nations, but more of us are leaders, at least in some respect, than we might think. Every one of us can make an impact somehow and somewhere. By maintaining a proper balance between the love of God and the fear of God, the Holy Spirit will be able to use us better and that impact will be greater and deeper and our life, by the grace of God, more enjoyable than we can ever imagine.

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