The word “fear” is typically used in a negative concept. When we are afraid of something, it’s usually because that particular something is bad or negative in some way.
But what about when we are talking about the fear of the Lord? God isn’t bad or negative — we know God is a good God. He is our heavenly father, our creator who loves us and who made each of us in His image.
So why are we supposed to fear the Lord? What is the fear of the Lord?
What Is Fear?
First, let’s take a look at what fear means. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “fear” as “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger; anxious concern; or unpleasant alarm” — but it also notes it means “profound reverence and awe, especially toward God.”
Fear is used throughout the Bible, as well. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary tells us fear means terror or awe depending on the context. For example, in the Book of Proverbs, Mounce’s tells us, “The fear of God is central to the acquisition of wisdom…. In this sense, fear is a positive quality and something to be pursued in the life of the believer.”
What Does the ‘Fear of the Lord’ Mean?
The “fear of the Lord” can mean two things: First, it can serve as an adjective, meaning the fear and awe that is God Himself, His immense and formidable nature — not only His wrath but also His power in general.
As we know, God is all powerful. He created the heavens and the earth and everything in it (Genesis 1). In His power, He is able to move mountains and put stars in the sky. He even made a sky where there was none before!
Truly, the vast, raw expanse of all He can do and be is measureless, and we cannot begin to fathom it.
But “fear of the Lord” can also mean the fear, awe, and respect we as human beings have of the Lord, and the relationship we have with Him. This is the fear we most commonly think of, for as human beings, it’s difficult for us to look at the world in any perspective beyond our own.
How Is the Fear of the Lord Used in the Bible?
The word fear appears in the Bible hundreds of times. Often, we see it in verses of assurance, such as, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” from Isaiah 41:10, or, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go,” from Joshua 1:9b (NIV).
But in the Book of Proverbs, the concept of fear is of particular focus. Thought to have been written by King Solomon and filled with much wisdom about how to live a life in line with God and God’s principles, Proverbs details how — because we fear (respect, admire, love) God — we should want to be wise and live well. The Book of Proverbs starts by saying,
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young — let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance — for understanding proverbs and parables (Proverbs 1:6a).
Indeed, these are good reasons for wisdom. We all want to do right and be insightful. But there is more to this, Solomon says, and it’s in this next verse that he makes his larger point.
As he writes in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Indeed — fear is the beginning, the catalyst. Fear is the motivator. This is echoed in Psalm 111:10, which notes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.”
And again, later on in Proverbs, we’re reminded, “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27).
A careful reading of Proverbs finds nuggets of wisdom all rooted in reverence of God. That fear, that reverence, is our “why,” and the book then is filled with the “how.”
Where Else Is Fear in the Bible?
Respect for God is not only a focus of Proverbs but reverberates throughout God’s Holy Word. The Bible tells us over and over, sometimes explicitly and sometimes indirectly, that we should be in awe of and fear the Lord because he is, after all, God: The Great I Am. Certainly, He created the world.
But beyond that, He is also the source of everything. James begins his book by pointing to the Father foremost, noting, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
God is the ultimate source, the start from which all things come. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding,” Proverbs 2:6 tells us, and those words are echoed by Jesus, who tells His followers, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
The Apostle Peter says much the same, noting in 2 Peter 1:3-4,
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
What if We Do Not Fear the Lord?
There are consequences if we do — or do not — heed God’s wisdom and word.
As it says in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”And in James,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do (James 1:22-25).
And finally, in 2 Peter 1:10b we’re told, “For if you do these things, you will never stumble.”
God isn’t some harsh, mean tyrant showing off His power to impress us or because He has some inferiority complex. God, the Great I Am, is all-powerful and almighty.
We should recognize the fear of the Lord — this powerful nature — and also have a fear of the Lord.
For in our reverence for Him, we praise and honor Him as Lord over our lives, over the world, and over all things now and forever.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.