😨 Many of us would have read about “fearing God” in the Old Testament and wondered if God wants us to approach Him in love or in fear. For example, the author of Ecclesiastes says, “Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.” (Eccl 12:13)
📜 Scholars have looked at the context of these verses and have found similar usage in other cultures living around ancient Israel like the Assyrians and the Canaanites. Their conclusions suggest that this “fear” language might not be related to the emotional aspect as much as we expect.
⏪ Swipe left to travel through the Holy Bible to look at some different usages, some of which might surprise you.
The text of the graphic is also provided and expanded below –
What Is The Fear of God?
All over the Bible, we find very clear commandments and advice calling us to “fear God” (e.g. Deut 10:12, Eccl 12:13, Is 8:13, Matt 10:28, 1Pet 2:17). This is an extremely important concept in the Holy Scriptures that helps us understand how we relate to God and how God wants us to relate to Him.
Whenever we find an Old Testament verse referring to the fear/fearing God, we will most likely find a derivative of the Hebrew root yr’ (ירא) being used there.
Normally, we would assume that we are dealing with just emotional responses to God, but our English translations don’t do justice to the original context.
Much More Than We Think
When we analyze the context of similar “fear” passages with help from the Hebrew/Greek originals, we can better understand how ancient cultures understood “fear”.
Besides the obvious meanings of terror/dread and reverence/awe, we also observe that “fear” language might also be used to indicate greatness, hierarchy and specific patterns of behavior. This is also confirmed by scholars who analyzed the other cultures which lived around ancient Israel like the Assyrians and the Canaanites.
What does the Bible say?
Throughout the Holy Scriptures, we find references to fearing God –
In the Old Testament –
- “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10, Job 28:28)
- “Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him.” (Deuteronomy 8:6)
- “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)
- “If you fear the Lord and serve Him and obey His voice, and do not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then both you and the king who reigns over you will continue following the Lord your God.” (1 Samuel 12:14)
- “But the Lord your God you shall fear; and He will deliver you from the hand of all your enemies.” (2 Kings 17:39)
- “Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” (Psalm 34:11)
- “But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting On those who fear Him, And His righteousness to children’s children,” (Psalm 103:17)
- “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, Who delights greatly in His commandments.” (Psalm 112:1)
- Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
- So he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9)
- “The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; Let Him be your fear, And let Him be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:13)
In the New Testament –
- “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
- “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)
- “but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:18-21)
- “Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people— saying with a loud voice, “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.” (Revelation 14:6-7)
I/ The Greatness of God
Looking at the passages below, we can clearly see that the “fear” language, represented by the same Hebrew root yr’ (ירא), is used to describe the great and awesome (fearful) acts or nature of God.
- “He is your praise, and He is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome (root: yārē’) things which your eyes have seen.” – Deuteronomy 10:21
- “Let them praise Your great and awesome (root: yārē’) name— He is holy.” – Psalm 99:3
- “And I prayed to the LORD my God, and made confession, and said, “O Lord, great and awesome (root: yārē’) God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments.” – Daniel 9:4
II/ Supremacy Over All
In the next example passages, we see that the “fear” language, represented by the same Hebrew root yr’ (ירא), is used to describe hierarchical relations, referring to the supremacy of Yahweh over other gods or the entire earth.
- “For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared (root: yārē’) above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, But the LORD made the heavens.” – Psalm 96:4-5
- “For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is also to be feared (root: yārē’) above all gods.” – 1 Chronicles 16:25
- “For who in the heavens can be compared to the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened to the LORD? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, And to be held in reverence (root: yārē’) by all those around Him.” – Psalm 89:6-7
III/ Behavior of Subjects
The “fear of God” was also understood to be the service and worship of a god. A good example is from 2 Kings 17 right after the northern kingdom of Israel is conquered and exiled by the Assyrian Empire –
- “Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, “Send there one of the priests whom you brought from there; let him go and dwell there, and let him teach them the rituals of the God of the land.” Then one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the Lord (root: yārē’).” – 2 Kings 17:27-28
- “So these nations feared the LORD (root: yārē’), yet served their carved images;” – 2 Kings 17:41
In the earlier passage, there is a clear parallel made between “how they should fear God” and the “rituals of the God of the land [i.e. Yahweh]”. This also tells us that this “fear” is something that could be done wrong and needed to be taught by an expert. This doesn’t match well with emotional responses, which are usually spontaneous and unpredictable.
In another example, Moses instructs the people of Israel before they enter Canaan to teach their descendants –
- “Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the LORD your God (root: yārē’) and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God (root: yārē’) as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess.” – Deuteronomy 31:12-13
It is clear that the Biblical “fear (Hebrew yr’ ירא)” cannot be interpreted simply as the spontaneous or involuntary emotion we think of today. Most importantly, we should realize that most of these passages might not involve emotions at all, but instead specific actions of worship or ethics. This is very helpful for us as modern readers of scripture.
- Pfeiffer, Robert H. “The Fear of God.” Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 1955, pp. 41–48., http://www.jstor.org/stable/27924596.
- Arnold, Bill T. “The Love-Fear Antinomy in Deuteronomy 5-11.” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 61, no. 4, 2011, pp. 551–569., http://www.jstor.org/stable/41309096.
- Lasater, Philip Michael. “Fear.” Oxford Encyclopedia of The Bible and Theology, Oxford University Press, 2015, https://www.academia.edu/40167958/Fear.
- Lasater, Philip Michael. “‘The Emotions’ in Biblical Anthropology? A Genealogy and Case Study with ירא.” Harvard Theological Review, 2017, https://www.academia.edu/40167929/_The_Emotions_in_Biblical_Anthropology_A_Genealogy_and_Case_Study_with_%D7%99%D7%A8%D7%90_.
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