“Fear of the Lord” Means “Fear”

by Matthew Raley

For many American evangelicals, “fearing God” has come to mean respecting Him a bunch. God is a coach. He knows what he’s doing, and you should keep that in mind if he makes a decision you don’t like. You should also keep in mind that Coach’s blustering is just drama to keep you on your toes.

So when Solomon says (Proverbs 1.7) that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” he’s not talking about fear-fear; he’s just saying, “Show some respect! You might learn a thing or two.”

The problem is that, both in the Old and New Testaments, human behavior in the presence of God is consistently desperate. When Isaiah saw the Lord (Isaiah 6.5), he exclaimed literally, “I am annihilated!” Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory put him in a stupor for a week (Ezekiel 3.15). John saw the resurrected Jesus (Revelation 1.17), on whose bosom he had once reclined, and “fell at [Jesus’] feet as though dead.”

Respect isn’t a believable reaction to the awesome nature of God’s presence. Fear is.

Solomon is saying that fear — real fear — is the beginning of knowledge because it’s the right emotional response to the power and holiness of God. It’s the starting-point for measuring life, the foundation of safety and health.

But how can you relate to God without being paralyzed?

When my dad taught me to use a lawn mower, the first thing he did was start it, turn it on its side, and show me the blade. He wanted me to be afraid of it, and I was. Then he showed me how to be safe: never pull the mower toward my feet, etc. Once I knew how to use the mower, I pushed it confidently — even though my fear of the blade remained vivid.

Think of this kind of fear more personally.

When a man is abusive, you fear him because you never know what he’s going to do. You try to judge what mood he’s in, to discover early warnings that he’s about to go off, because his anger could flare instantly.

The fear of God is not like that.

I feared my dad, and still do, not because he was unpredictable and abusive, but because he had integrity and consistency. His reaction toward wrong was nothing to trifle with.

We fear God not because he is abusive — because we never know what he’ll do — but because we know exactly what he will do. The scriptures reveal his nature for just that reason. So for me, there is no contradiction between fearing God and having an intimate confidence in him. In fact, the right kind of fear is the foundation of confidence.

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