Why is the Lord to be feared?
The summary of God’s character in Proverbs chapter 16 is preceded by the proverb, “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 15:33). The Message likens the “Fear-of-God” to “a school in skilled living…” We have seen the glorious character of God testified by the writers of Proverbs. And yet the very notion of fearing God has completely fallen out of favor. To the ancients, fearing God and more specifically their god, goddess, or gods, was just part of the deal. Human history is littered with accounts of human sacrifice to appease an angry deity, pleas to bring rain to end a drought, and a variety of acts designed to put the divine in a better mood. Fearing a deity was common.
However, with our more modern sensibilities, the concept of fearing God seems dated, cold, intimidating, patriarchal, and just downright wrong. We long for a god who is understandable, pliable, willing to negotiate, and even turn a blind eye to certain trespasses and sins. Actually, we don’t even like the idea of sin. So we prefer a god who is whatever we so choose him or her to be in that moment. Yet “the fear of the Lord” is exactly the theme and foundational idea of Proverbs. Fearing the Lord is the “beginning.” We can’t even get started without this most basic understanding. What does it mean to fear the Lord? Well, in an attempt to soften this, we undermine the simple word to mean deep respect or admiration. But the word is FEAR! It’s really simple and really clear. It is actual fear, terror. In each account of a person seeing or standing before God, there is no doubt as to what they are feeling.
“And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:6)
“And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped.” (Joshua 5:14)
“When I saw it, I fell on my face.” (Ezekiel 1:28)
“So I was left alone and saw this great vision, and no strength was left in me. My radiant appearance was fearfully changed, and I retained no strength. Then I heard the sound of his words, and as I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground.” (Daniel 10:8-9)
“And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41)
“And falling to the ground…” (Acts 9:4) (This was Paul’s Damascus Road conversion.)
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” (Revelation 1:17)
In my personal favorite account, found in Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet is given a glimpse of the glorified God of the universe. His response is not initially one of encouragement or comfort, but terror. “Woe is me,” Isaiah records, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). What has happened to “the fear of the Lord?” Even to Christians, God has become our buddy, our faithful confidant, “the man upstairs,” and someone we should keep in touch with once in a while, especially in crisis. What I think has happened is we have conflated and confused the “fear not” passages of the Bible as negating, softening, and even eliminating the whole Old Testament idea of fearing of the Lord. It’s almost like we are relieved that Jesus came so we don’t have to deal with that grouchy God in the Old Testament.
In the early parts of the Gospel story, angels are busy delivering news to unsuspecting recipients. Joseph is told “do not fear” to marry his betrothed, Mary. Yes, she is pregnant, but it’s from the Lord. Mary is told, “Do not be afraid,” because her pregnancy is a blessing from the Lord and she will carry the Messiah. When the birth takes place, a majestic host of angels are dispatched to declare the news to some unknown shepherds. The angelic messenger begins with “Fear Not” (Luke 2:10). In the Old Testament, when the Lord commissions Joshua, He says, “Do not be frightened” (Joshua 1:9). The Psalmist writes, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6, Quoted in Hebrews 13:6). The Apostle Paul is told by the Lord, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent” (Acts 18:9). Proverbs says, “The fear of man lays a snare…” (29:25). A benefit of wisdom is fearlessness in any circumstances. Solomon writes, “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes, for the Lord will be your confidence” (Proverbs 3:24-26).
In each of those cases, God’s people are commanded not to fear angels, prophecies, circumstances, enemy armies, or the persecution of man. Even when it’s the Lord telling someone not to fear, He never says, “Hey, don’t fear me.” It’s actually the opposite. Jesus declared, “have no fear of them…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26, 28).
Here are a couple of working definitions of “the fear of the Lord.”
“The fear of the Lord is openness to him, eagerness to please him, humility to be instructed by him (Proverbs 15:33). The fear of the Lord is a willingness to turn from evil and change (Job 28:28). The fear of the Lord is surrender to his will (Genesis 22:12). The fear of the Lord is one way we love him (Deuteronomy 6:2, 5). The fear of Christ is meekly fitting in with one another (Ephesians 5:21, literally translated). The fear of the Lord is when we realize, ‘I am not the measure of all things, I am being measured.’ That reverence toward God, perhaps surprisingly, builds our confidence and flows out as a ‘fountain of life’ into everyone and everything we care about (Proverbs 14:26, 27). It takes us to that place of maturity where no one has to follow us around with a tedious list of do’s and don’ts, constantly telling us what to do. We are motivated from deep within. We know what is right, and it is what we love, because it is of God.”
We are commanded to fear the Lord, precisely because of what Proverbs reveals about Him. He is the Sovereign Ruler of Kings, the Righteous Judge, Creator, Avenger, Savior, and without Him we can have no peace. The more that we study Proverbs and the Scripture as a whole, the more clearly the genuine character of God comes into view. At the same time that we learn more about Jehovah the more that we fear Him, and the more that we fear Him, the more of Himself He graciously reveals to us. Fearing the Lord leads to wisdom and knowledge.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)
“Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord…” (Proverbs 1:29)
“…then you will understand the fear of the Lord.” (Proverbs 2:5)
“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6)
“Be not wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” (Proverbs 3:7)
“The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.” (Proverbs 8:13)
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10)
“The fear of the Lord prolongs life.” (Proverbs 10:27)
“Whoever walks in uprightness fears the Lord.” (Proverbs 14:2)
“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.” (Proverbs 14:26)
“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.” (Proverbs 14:27)
“Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.” (Proverbs 15:16)
“The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.” (Proverbs 15:33)
“The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” (Proverbs 19:23)
“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” (Proverbs 22:4)
“Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.” (Proverbs 23:17)
“My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise.” (Proverbs 24:21)
“Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always.” (Proverbs 28:14)
“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” (Proverbs 29:25)
“Lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:9: Passage asking for not wealth or poverty, because either way, I’d defame the Lord.)
“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30)
Even the Psalmist and the suffering servant Job declare that “the fear of the Lord” is the beginning and source of wisdom.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10)
“And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:28)
In the wisdom writing of Ecclesiastes, Solomon as the Preacher/Proclaimer makes “the fear of the Lord” a central theme.
“I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.” (Ecclesiastes 3:14)
“God is the one you must fear.” (Ecclesiastes 5:7)
“Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before Him.” (Ecclesiastes 8:12)
“The end of the matter; all that has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
Years ago, I sat with a couple for marriage counseling. Now I need to admit, I am a bad counselor. I like to listen just long enough to figure out the problem, find a solution, and then implement a couple of action items. I’m a fixer, so long, multi-meeting, meandering, unproductive counseling sessions are my least favorite part of ministry. No joke. I can think of lots of pretty annoying and tough things I’d rather do than counseling. But anyway, there I was counseling a couple that I genuinely cared about. I knew from previous conversations that their young marriage and blended family had its share of challenges. What transpired in my office that day is one of the most haunting events in my ministry. As the specifics of their marital challenges came into clear view, I asked a question that I had never before or since asked. I honestly can only attribute the prompting and courage to ask the question to the Holy Spirit. I looked at this couple who were clearly hurting, frustrated, and angry. I asked, “Do you fear the Lord?” The response that day still sends shivers down my spine. “Not really,” was the answer given. What happened to this couple over the next few weeks and months was an absolute nightmare for them, their children, and their extended family.
“The fear of the Lord,” as Kidner defines it, is “a worshipping submission.” It is bowing down before the Sovereign Creator of the universe, recognizing He, and He alone, is wise. He is the source and fountain of wisdom. A true fear of His judgment is what keeps our hearts clean and our feet on the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14). The beginning of our journey, the start of a wise, safe, and successful trip, begins with the Lord.
Claire, Belle, Maverick, Ruby, Mavis,
I have loved you from the first moment I saw two lines on that little stick. I may have questioned the Lord a time or two, but my love for you has always been fierce. Raising you to be Jesus-loving, God-fearing children of the Lord has been my number one goal. I have prayed for you all to know and profess Jesus as your Savior. The Lord answered that prayer. From my little ones learning the books of the Bible, to my older ones taking their biblical worldview into our lost and broken world, I love to watch you all grow in your walk.
As always, there are a few things you need to remember. Like Solomon said, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.” My verbiage – Hey listen up, pay attention and don’t forget all of those things we’ve been trying to teach you over the years. They are a prize to be had, cherish them, not everyone gets wisdom and instruction from their parents. I know sometimes it may seem annoying when Dad and I give instruction. You may get tired of hearing it, you might feel like we don’t trust you, and that we want to torture you, but we take this job of being your parents as a privilege. The most important task that the Lord has commissioned us with.
Proverbs 16:3, “Commit your works to the Lord and your plans will be established.” You have been making plans since you were little to be bakers, pilots, ballerinas, opera singers, gardeners, Batman, doctors, archeologists, history teachers, artists, designers, and detectives. I have been telling you over the years… I don’t care what you do in life as long as you know the Lord and serve Him always, do what He has called you to do and nothing else. If you do anything else you will be miserable.
Proverbs 16:4, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose.” The Lord is our Creator. He created you and He created me. Nothing fills my soul more than sitting outside on a warm sunny day soaking up the sun, working out in the garden, or with the cows. To feel the sun on my skin, the warm breeze blowing. I feel the closest to the Lord when I am experiencing His creation. Smelling the fresh mountain air, watching the stars twinkle at night. Even in the winter when a fresh blanket of snow is on the ground, bundling up and listening to how the snow insulates the Earth’s sounds. I stand in awe. In the quiet, His creation speaks to His Majesty. Don’t be so busy in life that you miss the Lord in all that He has created. Stop and smell the roses if you will, He made those too.
Questions for Reflection
What facet of the character of God is most amazing to you?
What part of God’s character is most personal to you?
What part of God’s character do you struggle to believe is true?
What are you afraid of?
A quote that is often referenced in many commentaries when talking about God is from C.S. Lewis’s, “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” As four siblings find their way in the enchanted world of Narnia, they hear about Aslan. They hear that he’s “a lion – the lion, the great Lion.” Susan is terrified at this idea and asks if he is safe. Mr. Beaver responds, “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.” Why is a lion such a fitting visual for the Lord?
What does it mean to fear the Lord?
Has the Lord ever had to “put the fear of God” back into you?