One of the most common expressions we meet in Scripture are those well-known words, “the fear of the Lord.” It would prove impossible in one short article to quote all the passages, particularly in the Old Testament, where the expression appears. But a closer examination of a few of these passages proves as interesting as it is profitable.

There are various words used in the Hebrew original for Tear’. The word ‘yirah’, which is most commonly used in reference to God, has the meaning of reverence and awe. The word ‘pachad’ is also used occasionally, which means dread or terror. The first word is used almost exclusively when speaking of the reverential fear of God that fills the heart of the righteous. When rarely it is used in speaking of the wicked, it stresses the awe that prostrates them before Him because of His power and divinity. The second word could better be translated as terror or dread. It is used for the righteous and the wicked alike. When referring to the righteous, it expresses their holy fear for the dreadful majesty of the Most High, which causes them to humble themselves in the dust before Him, acknowledging that He is holy and righteous. In the New Testament the word ‘phobos’ is used to express both the idea of reverence and of terror, and is also applied to wicked as well as to the righteous. Yet always with this marked difference that the believer fears with an upright fear, while the ungodly are filled with wicked, rebellious fear.

Although Scripture occasionally speaks of “the fear of God”, the expression “fear of the Lord” is much more common. The Lord is none other than Jehovah, Who is the almighty, unchangeable, sovereign God, who has no need of men’s hands to be worshipped by them, and who cannot possibly give His glory to any other. He is infinite in power, glorious in majesty, sovereign over all the earth, so that He works all things according to the purpose of His will, that they may serve in a most perfect way unto the glory of His Name. His fullness fills all things, His love is eternal, His goodness has no limitations. Holy and righteous is the Lord, the God of infinite perfections. He makes His people eternally blessed with the assurance, “I am thy God.” For to know Him is nothing short of life eternal.

In speaking of the fear of the Lord, we realize at once that this fear has its origin in God Himself. The true and upright fear of the Lord is a gift of His grace. It is impossible for the sinner to possess that fear, for his heart is at enmity with God, so that he continually banishes God from all his thoughts. When the heart is evil, the fear of the Lord is absent. As it is stated, for example, in Deut. 5:29, “O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep My commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!” Therefore Scripture teaches concerning the wicked that “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” Ps. 36:1, Rom. 3:18. This passage from the Psalms, which is quoted in Romans, is especially significant. It proves beyond a doubt, that a godly fear is entirely strange to wicked men. They know nothing of it. But it does more. For the word that is used can well be translated as dread or terror. So that we can well read, that there is not even a dread of God before their eyes. They are not even filled with terror because of Him. They are not as much as afraid of Him. In the following verses the sinner is described as follows, “He flattereth himself in his own eyes, until his iniquity be found to be hateful. The words of his mouth are iniquity and deceit: he hath left off to be wise and to do good. He deviseth mischief upon his bed, he setteth himself in a way that is not good, he abhorreth not evil.” This is entirely in harmony with the thought of Romans 1, where we are told that “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge,” and as a result, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things that are not fitting.” The sinner imagines that he can sin with impunity. He sins, and does not immediately experience the dire consequences. He becomes bolder and defies the living God. He proves that the unjust must become unjust still and the filthy must become filthy still, even until the measure of their iniquity is full.

But that does not mean that the wicked can ever succeed to entirely banish God from his thoughts. God makes His power and godhead known in all the works of His hands, but especially in His judgments. Nor does God leave Himself without witness in their hearts. In the old dispensation, the terror of the Lord fell repeatedly upon the heathen nation round about Israel. Think of the people of Jericho whose hearts melted within them when they heard of the mighty works of the God of Israel. Joshua 2:9-11. The same terror is felt whenever the Lord sends His visitations upon the earth. And the time is coming when the wicked will cry to the rocks to cover them from before the face of the living God. Also this is from the Lord, Who is mighty in power and glorious in majesty.

But the fear of the upright is a gift of His grace. It is the fruit of the operation of the Holy Spirit within the heart. This is expressed in so many words in Isaiah 11:2, 3, “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; and shall make Him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and He shall not judge after the sight of His eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of His ears.” Here the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of the fear of the Lord, who works that fear in the heart. The objection might be raised, that this passage has reference to Christ, since the first verse speaks of the rod and the branch that shall grow out of the root of Jesse. But even though this is true, what applies to Christ in this case, applies also to His people, who are filled with the same Spirit.

That fear of the Lord has its source in God, but it also has God as its object. It consists of reverence and awe before Him Who alone is worthy of the name of God. This is not the fear of a slave who shudders at the very thought of his master and trembles when he stands in his presence, so that he obeys him only because there is no escape. In that sense, the apostle John assures us, all fear is gone. For “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” I John 4:18. The Spirit of Christ is not the spirit of bondage again to fear, but is the Spirit of adoption, which causes us to cry, Abba, Father. Therefore the fear of the believer is the fear of sons and daughters, the holy awe and reverence that causes us to rejoice even as we tremble in His presence. The Psalmist says in Psalm 2:11. “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” While Acts 9:31 states, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” This fear comforts the heart, but at the same time fills it with a dread of sinning against the glorious majesty of the Most High. As we read in Psalm 119:120, “My flesh trembleth with fear of thee, and I am afraid of Thy judgments.” That causes the believer to work out his salvation with fear and trembling, for God it is which worketh in him both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Phil. 2:13.

Therefore it follows, that the fear of God is more than a mere consciousness of awe and reverence before the face of God. It manifests itself in sanctification and true piety. The believer, whose heart is filled with holy fear, walks humbly before God and seeks to be well-pleasing to Him. He seeks the Lord with a perfect heart. From this aspect the book of Proverbs speaks repeatedly of this godly fear. Proverbs 1:7 calls the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom. Just because it is the beginning, the basic principle of all true wisdom, wicked men are fools who despise wisdom and instruction. They hate knowledge and do not choose the fear of the Lord. (Prov. 1:29). On the other hand, “the fear of the Lord is to hate evil, for God hates pride and arrogancy, the evil way and the froward mouth.” Prov. 8:13. “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.” Prov. 16:6.

Also the Psalms speak of this fear as a holy walk before God. Psalm 19:9, “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Psalm 34:11, “Come, ye children, hearken unto me; and I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”

Therefore also rulers must walk in fear. In David’s last words, the man of God teaches us, “The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” 2 Sam. 23:3[1]. While Jehoshaphat admonishes the chief of the fathers, “Thus shall ye do in the fear of the Lord, faithfully, and with a perfect heart.”

Those who are privileged to possess this gift of grace must also experience the blessedness of it.

The first benefit derived from it is a true and abiding confidence in God. He who fears the Lord works out his salvation with fear and trembling. Which does not mean that he doubts all his days whether he will ultimately reach the goal of salvation for which he is striving. That would be the very opposite of the confidence that fills our hearts through godly fear. The believer knows that God works in him both to will and to do according to divine good pleasure He is confident that the same God Who has begun a good work in mm will also surely finish it in the day of Christ Jesus. That confidence is rooted in fear. For he can only marvel in awed wonder at that great and glorious work of salvation which is being wrought in him. And he knows that none other than God is busy with that mighty work in his heart. He worships his God in holy reverence. He trembles at the thought that his clumsy and sinful hands might in some way mar that work. “Is not this thy fear, thy confidence, thy hope and the uprightness of thy ways?” Job 4:6. “In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence: and his children have a place of refuge.”

Moreover, the lasting benefit of this, grace is none other than the blessedness of eternal life experienced already in this present time. Prov. 22:4 says, “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honor, and life.” According to the spiritual-ethical nature of this book of Proverbs, these riches and honor are not mere earthly benefits, but belong to the blessings of eternal life, which God bestows on those who fear Him. Therefore Isaiah 33:6 assures us, “And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the Lord is his treasure.”

In conclusion, we can briefly sum this all up by saying, that the fear of the Lord is God’s own gift of grace, whereby we experience the beauty of the Lord in awed wonder, which becomes evident in a holy walk, and fills us with confidence and peace unspeakable and full of glory unto the praise of our God.  

[1] An informative article on this subject by the Rev. R. Veldman appears in the Standard Bearer, volume 22, number 4, page 90.