What Does it Mean to Fear God?

My son, fear the Lord and the king – Proverbs 24:21

It is very common to see the phrase ‘fear the Lord’ in the Bible. This is true both in the Old and New Testaments. However, it is not a subject oft spoken about and it is definitely a subject that is not well understood.

Oftentimes, in our zeal, we get in one ditch or another. I remember when I first became a Christian, I was very critical of Christians and Christian denominations that I perceived to be cold or lukewarm. Therefore, I sought to be different from them in everything. I perceived them as stuffy and cold, so I wanted to be free and on fire. They sat still, I wanted to move. They prayed quietly, I wanted to pray loudly. They were reserved, I wanted to be unreserved. You get the point. I didn’t know a lot about being a Christian, but I knew I didn’t want to be like them.

And another thing I didn’t like about these other Christians was that I felt like they gave the world an entirely wrong impression of who God is. When I came to Christ, I encountered a God of love. I was rocked with a revelation of a God that I had never known. I experienced a love from another world. And it changed me dramatically. I wanted the world to know that God, the God I had experienced; not the stuffy God that I felt others were portraying.

Because of this, the ‘fear of God’ was not something that I thought much about. Why would we be afraid of God? What was there to fear? What does it mean to fear God?

Now that I’m a little older and wiser (hopefully), I see that the ‘fear of the Lord’ is very much needed in the church today. What I didn’t understand as a young Christian is that there is more to God than just love. He is also the great Judge of all the earth. And one biblical author, while pondering this very thought, said this: “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

What does it mean to fear God?

Then Samuel said to the people, “Do not fear. You have done all this wickedness; yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart…Only fear the Lord, and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you.

If you search for the word ‘fear’ throughout the Bible, you’ll find that it is used in two primary ways: “Do not fear” and “fear the Lord.” Sometimes you’ll find them in the same passage together, like the passage above. In the passage above, Samuel tells the people not to fear the Lord and then tells them to fear the Lord in the very next sentence. What is he doing?

The people of Israel had sinned greatly by rejecting God as their king and asking for a human king. Samuel called upon God to send great thunder and rain as a sign to confirm their wickedness. As the people stood there in the rain with the booming thunder, they were filled with great fear. They feared God’s judgment upon them for what they had done. It was immediately after this that Samuel said, “Do not fear.”

What was he saying? He was saying, “Do not be afraid of God’s judgment. He isn’t going to punish you.”

Then, however, Samuel gives them a stern warning: “Only fear the Lord, and serve Him in truth with all your heart.”

Did Samuel just forget that he told them not to fear? Why is he now telling them to fear the Lord?

Now it’s very evident that Samuel is speaking of a different kind of fear when He tells the Israelites to fear the Lord. They were already afraid. They felt afraid. He wasn’t wanting them to continue to feel afraid. If that was the case, he could have said nothing. No, he didn’t want them to feel afraid. The command to ‘fear the Lord’ does not so much concern the sensibilities. How can it be? Our sensibilities aren’t really under our control.

It’s important to understand that whenever the Bible commands us to do something it is always a command to do and not to feel. For example, when the Bible says, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,’ this is not a command to feel feelings of love towards God. Not at all. It’s impossible to simply make yourself feel this way or that way about a certain thing. When the Bible commands an emotion it simply means to act like the corresponding emotion. What does love do? Love honors, respects, cares, gives, etc. We can do those things without any feelings. The Bible commands us to the same regarding our neighbor: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Do you really think the command is to feel love for your neighbor? I don’t think so.

The same thing is true for fear. When the Bible says to ‘fear God’ we must ask, “What does fear do?” God knows that we understand the emotion of fear. But what if we are to take the emotional part out of it and just do the things that fear invokes? What would we do?

Fear is a natural response to what is perceived as dangerous. Think, for example, that you are placed on a very high ridge and must walk very close to the edge. Most normal people would experience a certain amount of fear in such a situation. What would that fear cause you to do? It would cause you to focus, to be cautious, to be serious, to be careful.

Think also, for example, that you have met the girl of your dreams (reverse the pronouns if you are a woman). She wants to date you but only if you first meet and get approval from her father. How will you feel when you first approach the house? How will you act as you sit down with her father? If you were smart, you would dress nicely, sit properly, speak properly and respectfully, say ‘yes sir and no sir,’ etc. You wouldn’t be checking your phone, chewing gum, or putting your feet on the couch. That fear would cause you to be focused, cautious, serious, and respectful. Your goal at the moment would be to please her father and nothing else. Nothing else would be important.

This is the way we can understand the fear of the Lord.

How should I act knowing that the eyes of the Lord are on all the earth? How should I conduct myself knowing that all my words and deeds are recorded in His book? We should be focused, cautious, serious, and respectful.

We would also be obedient.

Indeed, the greater our understanding is of the fear of God, the quicker our obedience will be.

In our title passage, the proverb is: ‘fear the Lord and the king.’ This should help us to understand what it means to fear the Lord. We don’t live in the age of monarchs so much anymore, but most of us understand how it works. The king is in charge. What the king says, goes. Life and death are at his command. With that being the case, how should you act around the king? You’d be careful about what you say and do, would you not?

This is what it means to fear the Lord. It means to live and speak and act in a manner that always considers God and His role as King and Judge.

Most people aren’t this way, unfortunately. Most people don’t seem to care what God thinks. Most people care more about what people think. This is one reason so many fall in times of temptation. Many people fall under the pressure of the fear of ridicule or exclusion. Instead, we ought to respond to with, “I’m not going to do that—I fear God.”

We also must learn to fear God in response to our own lusts. When we are tempted with sins of the flesh—to look at what we should not, to touch what we should not, to indulge what we should not—we ought to say to ourselves, “Do I not fear God?”

The Bible says that by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil (Proverbs 16:6). A healthy dose of the fear of God is what we need to help us overcome sin. We should fear the judgment of God. We should fear the wrath of God. These things are healthy and good. It doesn’t take away from the love of God. It’s part of who God is. He is love, but He is also a consuming fire (Deut 4:24, 12:29).

Jesus taught this very emphatically. He said:

“Don’t fear those who can kill the body, but after that have no more that they can do. Rather fear Him, whom after He has killed, has power to cast into hell. Yes, I say unto you, fear Him!” – Luke 12:4-5

He also said that if your hand or foot offends you, cut it off. It’s better to enter life without a hand or foot than to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Mat 18:8).

Jesus taught us to think this way. This is the fear of God.

It would be good for us to have the fear of God back as a nation. But we are far from having the fear of God. The common accounts of murder-suicides that happen in our country show us that there is no fear of God. The filth on our screens, the rampant sexual infidelities, the constant swearing—these all testify to our lack of the fear of God. It is as the psalmist wrote:

they have not set God before them. – Psalm 54:3

And that’s the key to understand this. God is there, no doubt. His eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth, but men do not consider it. Men do not ‘set God before them.”

Have you set God in your view? Do you consider that He sees and knows and brings everything to account? God doesn’t force His way into anyone’s view. If you are going to see God then you’re going to have to make a conscious decision to do so. God gives us enough truth so that we have plenty to live by if we choose to, but He also withholds Himself enough for those who want to go their own way. It is in this way that He tests the hearts of all mankind.

It is essential that we learn to fear God once again. We must do so on a personal level, a church level, and on a national level.

Of course, personally is the place to start first.


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