“I’m gonna put the fear of God in ya!”
That’s an old saying that often preceded spankings. And oddly enough, it probably had nothing to do with God. It just ended up creating fear within the one receiving the spanking. And it often caused kids to see God as an angry, insecure parent.
The “fear of God” raises interesting questions. Some preachers insist that we should be afraid of God and not to cross him, lest he unload on us. Psalm 2 paints a vivid picture:
“Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
Fear, trembling, angry, destruction, wrath, flare up. Whoa. When this was first written, King David (likely the son in this psalm) was on the throne. He was getting quite a reputation around the Ancient Near East as a warrior king not to be messed with. Warring nations sang songs like this about their gods so their god would give them victory. And God certainly expanded David and Solomon’s kingdoms, causing much fear all around them.
Because of our limited human understanding, we resort to describing encounters with God as we do ones with other people. Hebrews 1 tells us that Jesus is the fullest representation of God’s being. But we are still stuck describing the Creator of the universe in human terms. So, let’s think about how “fear” looks among people.
Ancient kings were notorious for being flighty and flying into rages over the least provocation. And value for human life was not always, shall we a say, a thing. People were disposable. Remember the story of Queen Esther? There was a queen prior to her. King Xerxes had a six-month-long party for vast numbers of important people in his kingdom. The last seven days put the stereotypical trash-the-house-while-your-parents-are-away party to shame. The king ordered an open bar for everyone in the city. In the boredom that comes from days of drunken feasting, the king was bragging about how beautiful his queen was. And, of course, he had to show her off. He ordered Queen Vashti to parade before the drunken men. And she refused! She’s lucky she wasn’t executed. But she was deposed. And this led to a long search for a suitable replacement.
Esther, who was in a family exiled from Judah, was chosen as queen. When she heard of a plot to murder the Jews throughout the Persian empire, she knew she had to act. She prayed with her servants for three days that the king would have mercy on her for coming to see him without being summoned. Not even the queen could approach the king, or she risked death! You can read the rest of the story in the book of Esther, but the point is that ancient kings were 100 percent in charge and did as they pleased. Deities were seen the same way, only perhaps more so. As we saw in Psalm 2, people often saw the God of Israel as one whose anger flared up instantly. And that put the fear of God in them.
Another interpretation is that “fear of God” is a healthy respect for Him. That is a good understanding, especially where we sit after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As we noted, He is the exact representation of God’s being. Often enough in the Gospels, His anger flares up. But He is angry with the leaders who oppress people and keep them from being close to God. Otherwise, He shows compassion to everyone in need, healing them and providing for them. He commands people’s respect, but ultimately, He doesn’t strike them down. He warns them of the judgment at the hands of the Romans coming in AD 70. Then He takes the consequences for Israel’s sin and the sin of the whole world onto Himself as he dies on the cross.
One beautiful passage in Jeremiah 33 shows the kind of fear and awe that God most desires for people to have:
“Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to [Jerusalem]; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.”
Sometimes we are overtaken by a holy awe when someone is profoundly kind. There are just no words, and we can only gracefully and gratefully accept the kindness. That is the picture here. The Hebrew word for trembling is often used in passages telling about absolute fear. But the fear in this passage comes only as a result of God’s shalom—his utter peace and justice where everything is as it should be. No reason to be afraid. But profound awe, love, respect, and gratefulness can lead one to say with deep emotion, “Who is this God who will forgive and lavish such peace and prosperity on people who utterly abandon him?”
There are many interpretations for the “fear of God.” In order to know which one is the right one, compare it to what you know of God’s character. Is he is a vengeful, angry God looking to bring down His wrath upon you? Not so much. So, what is the right way to fear God? Whatever way brings love, not fear or punishment.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” – 1 John 4:18