The Fear of the Lord - some comments from Al
A couple of weeks ago I spent three days with some other clergy at Wydale Hall for the final part of the ‘York Leadership Programme’. Being a bit of a naughty boy, I decided to have some time on my own instead of joining the others in the chapel, and I’m glad I did. As I read the Bible, I was struck afresh by the importance of living in ‘the fear of the Lord’.
This is often regarded as a problematic idea in our modern church. We don’t think living in fear of anything could ever be good. There are much better motives than fear; surely God wants us to be relaxed and at ease before him. We like to take the edge off the phrase by explaining that what the Bible really means is that we should be in awe of God, we should have a reverent attitude towards him.
Well, maybe there’s a bit in that, but then again
how much difference is there really between being ‘in awe of’ something and ‘in fear of’ it? There’s a reason why pretty much every English Bible uses the word ‘fear’ in translating these many, many verses: that’s what the word means!
Three times, the Bible tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, while Isaiah 33.6 says “the fear of the Lord is the key to the treasure… of salvation, wisdom and knowledge”. I assume that all of us want to know how to live life well, and that’s what wisdom enables us to do. There is only one way to find that wisdom, only one starting point – and that is the fear of the Lord. If we want to live well, we cannot do that by ourselves, but we need to come to the point of trusting that God knows best in every situation.
When we take an overview of how the Bible speaks about ‘fearing the Lord’, several themes come through. In the Proverbs, having the fear of the Lord is “a fountain of life”; it leads to life, and steers us away from evil and from “the snares of death”. God’s desire is indeed for us to know abundant life, and living in fear of him is crucial to our attaining just that. Paul writes in Philippians 2 of how we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”: the fear of God energizing us towards our great prize.
Psalm 36, meanwhile, tells us that the mark of those who act wickedly is that “there is no fear of God before their eyes”. When our awareness of the power and holiness of God is heightened – and we rightly fear him – we will not be likely to fall into sin. You don’t do those things you would only ever do if no one was looking when you are keenly aware that the Mighty God sees everything.
But those sins which God wants us to avoid are not only to do with what we might call ‘personal morality’; they are also about social justice and the wellbeing of the poor. In Leviticus (especially chapter 25) there are several commands given to the people of Israel to look after he poor and never to take advantage of the weak, “but [instead] fear your God”. “I am the Lord your God,” they are reminded, and the implication is that they should care for the poor just as he does.
We do not, I think, come away with a picture of a God who is insecure, subduing his people with fear; but rather of a God who cares deeply that his creatures would live good lives for their own sake as well as for his. If only we would remember who he is, we would begin to live wisely and would see the world around us being restored.
And we should remember that the fear of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom”, the starting point. While we should never lose that life-changing and awe-inspiring fear of God before our eyes, we also hear the words of Jesus, “do not be afraid.” This is not a fear which paralyzes, but one which transforms; not a fear which drives us away from God, but one which causes us to run to him as our refuge and strength.
“Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear the Lord lack nothing.” (Psalm 34.9)