Does God Want us to Fear Him?
Recently we have been showing how understanding
the extended meanings of Hebrew words often corrects our misunderstandings
of the Bible and explains things that seem not to make sense. Sometimes
they can even change our attitude toward God! This is what happens when
we understand the broader meaning of the word "fear" (yirah)
in Hebrew, and especially in the context of the "Fear of God",
a common expression throughout the Bible. The idea that we should "fear
the Lord" is found hundreds of times in the Old Testament. To many
people this is a source of anxiety, and may make us not want to read about
the God who appeared to require fright and dread among his people.
It may surprise people to know that even in the New Testament, the "fear
of God" is often found. The Gentiles who worship the God of the Jews
are called "God-fearers" and the early church was said to be
built up in the "fear of the Lord" (Acts 9:31). Paul even speaks
of the "fear of Christ" in Ephesians 5:21. The reason is because
the "fear of the LORD" was an extremely rich idea that goes
far beyond our literal understanding, and is wonderfully positive in application.
By understanding the Hebrew meaning of "fear", and the rich
Jewish thinking about the "Fear of the Lord" we can shed great
new light on this issue.
The key to understanding the Hebraic idea of "fear" is to know
that like many Hebrew words, it has a much broader sense of meaning than
we have in English. To us, "fear" is always negative - it is
the opposite of trust, and its synonyms are fright, dread and terror.
In Hebrew, it encompasses a wide range of meanings from negative (dread,
terror) to positive (worship, reverence) and from mild (respect) to strong
(awe). In fact, every time we read "revere" or "reverence",
it comes from the Hebrew word "yirah", literally, to
fear. When fear is in reference to God, it can be either negative or positive.
The enemies of God are terrified by him, but those who know him revere
and worship Him, all meanings of the word "yirah".
How Should We "Fear the Lord"?
Many Christians understand "the Fear of the LORD" as the fear
of the punishment that God could give us for our deeds. It is true that
everyone should realize that they will stand at the judgment after they
die. But a Christian who knows that his sins have been forgiven should
not have this kind of fear of God anymore, although some do. People who
have been steeped in this kind of "punishment mindset" have
a very hard time loving God. This is what John speaks against when he
says, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear,
because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected
in love." (1 John 4:18).
Interestingly, in rabbinic thought, fearing God's punishment is also understood
to be an incomplete and inferior understanding of the term Yirat Adonai
(Fear of the Lord)1. At its core is self-centeredness - what will
happen to me because of God's knowledge of my deeds? Knowing the broader
implications of the word "fear" in Hebrew, the rabbis came to
a different conclusion - that the best understanding of the term Yirat
Adonai is the idea of awe and reverence for God that motivates us to
do His will.
This helps many passages make sense and show why the "Fear of the
Lord" is so highly praised in the Bible:
The fear of the LORD is
the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, and his children
will have refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one
may avoid the snares of death. Prov. 14:26 - 27
The "fear of the Lord" in these passages is a reverence for God that allows us to grow in intimate
knowledge of Him. It teaches us how to live, and reassures us of God's
power and guidance. It gives us a reverence of God's will that keeps us
from getting caught in sins that will destroy our relationships and lives.
A Sense of God's Presence
One aspect of Yirat Adonai that the Jewish people have focused
on is the idea that we should be constantly aware of the presence of God.
Over the top of Torah closets in many synagogues is the phrase "Know
Before Whom You Stand", and this is the idea of realizing that
an infinitely powerful God is close at hand. People sometimes tell stories
of how on the death bed of a family member, they had a strong sense of
the presence of God, and have felt great reassurance from it, and awe
for him at that time. Or in worship, there is no greater thrill than to
feel spine-tingling awe at the grandeur of God. In this sense, to "fear"
God is to be filled with awe, and it is one of the most profound experiences
of our lives, spiritually. We can see why the "fear of the LORD" as an awesome sense of his presence around us is really the essence of
our life of faith.2
In some areas of Christianity, there is a lack of thinking of God as present
with us now. God is spoken of in abstract terms, as if he is a theory
rather than a being, and we sound like we don't expect to have any interaction
with him until we die. This is partly because of our Greek heritage which
focused on the spiritual world as being utterly apart from the material
world. While our culture may have taught us that, the biblical witness
is that God's Spirit is very much present in the world with us now.
There is an enormous difference between study of the Bible that has Yirat
Adonai, reverence for God, and a purely intellectual approach. The
emphasis on that in Judaism is found in a famous quote from Abraham Heschel
that says that while Greeks (Europeans and Americans) study to comprehend,
Jews study to revere. Higher education in biblical studies in Western
countries tends to be entirely intellectual, and Christians who take academic
Bible classes often find them dry. What they are looking for is God's
voice speaking through the scriptures, and to find it they need Yirat
Adonai. The rabbis had an excellent saying: that a scholar who does
not have Yirat Adonai is like a man who owns a treasure chest and
has the inner keys but not the outer keys.3 He has a treasure but can't
get at it. To study the Bible without reverence is a dry enterprise that
will never unlock its true meaning.
Our Moral Foundation
Another thing that Yirat Adonai gives us is an inner moral foundation.
When we know God knows our thoughts, we are compelled to act not just
for what other people think, but for what God thinks. This is what Paul
refers to in Col. 3:22 when he says "Slaves, in all things obey those
who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who
merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord." Reverence of God gives us an inward sincerity, because we don't things
just for external appearances, but to please God who knows our heart.
One humorous old rabbinic story illustrates this point:
A great rabbi once caught a ride on a horse-drawn
wagon, and as the wagon passed a field full of ripe produce, the driver
stopped and said, "I'm going to get us some vegetables from that
field. Call out if you see anyone coming." As the driver was picking
vegetables, the rabbi cried out, "We're seen! We're seen!"
The frightened man ran back to the wagon, and looked and saw no one
nearby. He said, "Why did you call out like that when there was
nobody watching?" The rabbi pointed toward heaven and said, "God
was watching. God is always watching." 4
An awareness of God's presence
will motivate us to obey him. We may still think of it as a fear of punishment,
but it does not have to be this way in believers. When we have reverence
for someone, we feel terrible to know we've disappointed them. In times
of my life when I've worked for someone whom I greatly respected, their
praise for my work has been critical to me. Or, when we love someone,
we earnestly want their approval on our lives. Indeed, the "fear
of Christ" that Paul talks about should really be a sense of Christ's
majesty, and a longing to please him. When we know he is always with us,
it causes us to try to live as the disciple he wants us to be.
Yirat Adonai - What God desires most
Amazingly, God says that what he truly desires is that we "fear Him":
"Now, Israel, what does the LORD your
God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all
His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your
heart and with all your soul... (Deut 10:12)
In this passage, the first words
are to fear God, and they are equivalent with the rest of the passage
- to fear God is to revere him, which will cause us to walk in his ways
and serve him with all our being. Properly understood, there is no greater
desire that we should have than to have a "fear of the LORD" - an awesome sense of God's presence in our lives that will transform
us into the people that he wants us to be.
1 From "Fear of YHWH and Hebrew Spirituality" a lecture by Dwight Pryor, president of the Center for Judaic-Christian
Studies. This was from the monthly Haverim audio tape series, October
2003. These tapes are a very rich resource - see www.jcstudies.com
to sign up.
2 In an effort to constantly have a sense of God's care for us, the
Jews from Jesus' day up until the present have had a wonderful tradition
of uttering prayers to "bless the Lord" many times a day to
remind themselves that He is the source of every good thing. When I've
tried this in my own life, sensing God's immediacy becomes unavoidable.
For more, see The
Richness of Jewish Prayer.
3 From the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31b. See the article "Fear
of God" at www.jewishencyclopedia.com.
4 As quoted by Joseph Telushkin in The Book of Jewish Values, p 10.
Copyright 2000, Bell Tower. ISBN 0-609-60330-2. (This is an outstanding
book on practical ethics and how we should live - a favorite of mine.
Available at Barnes & Noble or online.)
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Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.