The Fear of The Lord (A Clarification)

Wow! When you start talking about “the fear of the Lord” you better expect people to get riled up enough to begin a holy war against you. I received more emails about that issue than any other, some accusing me of having no understanding of Grace! Look, when you read my messages, please read the messages. I choose my words very carefully and say exactly what I mean.

In yesterday’s message, I discussed our need to have (or regain) what the Scriptures call “the fear of the Lord.” I specifically mentioned Psalm 36:1, and in my defense I even highlighted the fact that the Psalmist was making an observation of the “wicked person who has rebellion in the depths of his heart.” Now if that does not include you, then you misunderstood what I was saying. However, if it does include you, then you should re-read the message because the Lord is trying to reach you.

So to clear up this misunderstanding we should study this “Fear of the Lord” more. I truly hope I can ease your concerns. So let’s turn to Deuteronomy 10:12. It declares:

Yahweh your Elohim wants you to fear him, follow all his directions, love him, and worship Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12)

Now this is clearly what the LORD requires of each of us: fear, obedience; love and worship.  But notice that the very first thing He mentioned is that we are to “fear” Him. In Hebrew: yirat HaShem. So before you send out more emails, please try to investigate the phrase and understand what it implies. Once we understand, we will be able to walk peaceably in His ways, sincerely love Him, and serve Him with all our heart and soul. Just remember that the requirement to “fear the LORD” is placed first in this list.

As I explained yesterday, the word translated “fear” comes from the Hebrew word yirah, which has a range of meaning in the Scriptures. Sometimes it refers to the fear we feel when we anticipate danger or pain, but it can also mean “awe” or “reverence.”  In this latter sense, yirah includes the idea of wonder, amazement, mystery, astonishment, gratitude, admiration, and even worship (like when you gaze from the edge of the Grand Canyon).

Interestingly, the Hebrew word yirah (יִרְאָה) is sometimes linked with the word for seeing (רָאָה). You may not know Hebrew, but you should be able to see the similarity. When we truly see life as it is, we are filled with wonder and awe over the glory of it all. Every bush becomes aflame with the Presence of God; we see as Holy the very ground we walk on (study Exodus 3:2-5). We no longer view things as small, trivial, or insignificant. Our “fear and trembling” becomes a description of the inner awareness of the sanctity of life itself (Psalm 2:11, Philippians 2:12).

A few years ago, I was introduced to the writings of a renowned Jewish theologian and philosopher by the name of Abraham Heschel. In his book, God in Search of Man, he wrote,

“Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe”

He continued by quoting Psalm 11:10, “The awe of God is the beginning of wisdom” and pointed out that such awe is not the goal of wisdom, but rather its means. What he was saying is that we start with awe, and that leads us to wisdom. For the Christian, this wisdom is ultimately revealed in the love of our God when he sacrificed His Son. The awesome love of God is the actual goal of Torah. We were both created and redeemed in order to know, experience, love  and worship our Father forever.

According to Jewish tradition, there are three “levels” or types of fear. The first level is where many of us begin a pursuit of our God, and it is the fear of unpleasant consequences or punishment. We anticipate pain of some kind and want to run as far away from it as we can.  But I am not only talking about physical pain, it can also come from what you believe others might think about us. People often do things (or don’t do them) so they can gain acceptance in a group (or to avoid rejection). All of you are aware of peer pressure. That is when we are “pressured” to do things we would not normally do so we can avoid being ostracized or rejected.

Plato wrote that, “people will value justice, not as being good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity” (Plato: Republic). Now stop and think about this. Pretend someone gave you a magical ring that could make you invisible. Are you going to act any differently? Don’t give me that snap response, think about this. No matter what you did, it would be done with absolute impunity. Is it going to cause you to at least consider doing things you would otherwise not do? If you are, then you might be acting under the influence of this kind of fear.

The second type of fear is an anxiety about breaking God’s law (in Hebrew, yirat ha-malkhut). This is where you do good deeds, but only because you are afraid that if you don’t, the Lord is going to thump you on the head (and when He thumps you on the head, you will know it). This is what karma is all about (you know, the cycle of moral cause and effect).

Self-preservation is what guides this kind of fear. Oh sure, in some cases our motives might be mixed with a genuine desire to honor our God (or avoid His righteous wrath for sin). For instance, when we read that we are not to curse the deaf or place a stumbling block in front of the blind, the Torah adds, “you shall fear the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:14). Hmm. It appears that Yahweh does not wink at evil or injustice, and those who practice wickedness have a genuine reason to be afraid (see, Matthew 5:29-30; 18:8-9 & Galatians 6:7-8). He is our Judge and every deed we have done will be made known:

“Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (I Corinthians 3:13).

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Messiah, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (II Corinthians 5:10).

When we consider Yahweh as the Judge of the Universe, it is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

The final (and highest) kind of fear is a profound reverence for life, and this comes from rightly seeing. Remember, I mentioned this above and it is when we are able to recognize, or “see” the Presence of God in everything and is sometimes called yirat ha-rommemnut, or the “Awe of the Exalted.”  This is where we can see God’s glory and majesty everywhere and are elevated to the level of reverent awareness, holy affection, and genuine communion with God’s Holy Spirit.

This kind of fear creates a dislike, a hatred of evil, and coincidentally, a hatred of evil is a way of fearing God. That is what Proverbs 8:13 tells us:

“To fear Yahweh is to hate evil”

Then we see how fear and love connect with each other:

“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:20-21)

This is where love draws us near, while fear holds us back . . . so let’s go back to our original verse. What does the word yirah mean in Deuteronomy 10:12? Are we supposed to understand it as fear or as awe? Should we be afraid of our God in the sense of being threatened by Him for our sins and wrongdoing, or are we are to supposed to view Him in awe, reverence, and majesty? This is probably the most important question we can ask ourselves. since how we answer it will affect how we are to walk in God’s ways, how we are to love Him, and how we are to serve the LORD with all our heart and soul (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Well, it all depends on which side of the cross you choose to stand. Both Jewish and Christian traditions have tended to regard the “Fear of the Lord” to mean that we are afraid of our God’s retribution for our sins. We can certainly find support of this in the New Testament:

“For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’ (Hebrews 10:30)

Yahweh is the Judge of the Universe, and people will indeed be either rewarded or punished according to their deeds. Don’t discount this. That text in Hebrews says that He will judge his people. It doesn’t say anything about judging those outside of His family. Interesting, huh? Our lives should indeed be governed by the rewards and punishments that await us in the world to come. We should tremble before the LORD because we are entirely accountable for our lives. As I pointed out yesterday, we should fear sin in our hearts. Our actions do matter, and we should dread the thought of angering our God because there will be a final day of reckoning for us all.

However, the Chofetz Chaim, which is a book that deals with the Jewish ethics and laws of speech, and is considered the authoritative source on the subject, warns that even though the fear of God’s punishment may deter us from sin in the short run, by itself it is insufficient for spiritual life. That is because it is based on an incomplete idea about our God. It only sees Him in terms of His justice but overlooks the Compassionate Savior of life. After all, if you are avoiding sin just because you are afraid of punishment, you will end up cleaning the “outside of the cup” while the inside is still full of filth. Instead of dealing with the sin in your life, of accepting responsibility and repenting of it, you instead try to rationalize and excuse yourself from any “legal liability.” Good luck with that one!

As a result, you may appear outwardly religious, but inwardly you are all messed up in your alienation and rebellion.  Brothers (and sisters), just remember “The heart is deceitful above all things . . .”

Jesus taught that we need a spiritual rebirth in order to see the Kingdom of God. This is the new principle of life that operates according to the “law of the Spirit of life.” Yahweh loves His children with “an everlasting love” and draws us to Himself. But I want you to notice that the phrase translated “I draw you” comes from the Hebrew word mashakh, meaning to “seize” or “drag away.” What Jesus actually said was, “No one is able to come to me unless he is ‘dragged away’ by the Father” (John 6:44). God’s chesed seizes us, takes us captive, and leads us to the Savior . . . Spiritual rebirth is a divine act of creation, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). God is always preeminent.

Here is why it is helpful to learn Hebrew. I gave you a new word in chesed. The significance is that chesed is usually translated as “Kindness.” Which would lead us to believe that our God seizes us because of His “kindness.” But chesed goes beyond that to God‘s steadfast commitment to the covenants and promises He made to Israel. In fact, the Hebrew word chesed, as used here, is almost a direct synonym for the word B’rit, which means covenant. So, we are saved through mercy―according to His great covenant!

Those who understand the mission of Jesus understands yirah in the highest sense of reverence and awe. It is only at the Cross where you can say: “love and truth have met, righteousness and peace have kissed” (Psalm 85:10). At the Cross we see both God’s fearful wrath for sin as well as God’s awesome love for us. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe – for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Love and truth have meet;
    righteousness and peace have kissed.
(Psalm 85:10)


With these Morning Messages, I take you on guided tours to, as Bunyan described, the Celestial City. At times we linger at corners familiar and unseen. And explore the depths of our faith along the way.

The trail is long, but there’s no hurry. Though we do need to stock up on supplies for the way, and that’s where I need your help. If you enjoy these messages, please consider becoming a contributing member of this tour group. It will be very much appreciated.

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