Fear of God (2)

In the first part of this study we looked at scriptures taken mainly from the New Testament; in this second part we are going to look at scriptures taken mainly from the Old Testament.

Adam's fear

The first reference to the fear of God in the Bible is found in Gen 3:8–10:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, 'Where are you?'

He answered, 'I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.'

Why was Adam afraid of God? He was afraid of him because he was naked. He'd been naked since he was created, without being afraid, so what was different?

Adam's fear of God was nothing to do with his physical nakedness. He was afraid of God now because he'd become spiritually naked. The Bible uses nakedness to depict sin (Rev 16:15), whereas righteousness is a covering, or garment, that we wear (Job 29:14a; Rev 19:8).

When Noah drank wine and became drunk he lay uncovered (naked) in his tent (Gen 9:20–21). Drunkenness is sin (1Co 6:9–10) and his nakedness symbolized his sin.

Shem and Japheth didn't want to look at their father's nakedness (sinfulness) so they covered him with a garment (Gen 9:23). That was a prophetic act and showed that one day God would cover people's sinfulness with his Son's righteousness (1Co 1:30).

Shame is the feeling of humiliation that comes from the consciousness of having done wrong. Prior to sinning Adam had been naked but had felt no shame (Gen 2:25) because he'd been clothed with his righteousness. Now his righteousness was gone, he felt spiritually naked and ashamed before God.

The tree that Adam ate from was the tree of the knowledge (the awareness) of good and evil (Gen 2:17a). When he ate from it, not only did he sin, but he became aware of his sin (Gen 3:6–7). That is why everyone is born with a sinful nature and a conscience (the awareness of right and wrong). We inherit both of them from Adam.

As we saw in the first part of our study, one of the reasons people fear God is because of punishment (1Jo 4:18). Adam knew he'd disobeyed God—he'd eaten from the tree he was told not to eat from. Now he was afraid of the punishment that would follow (Gen 2:17b) and the God who would implement it.

Moral uprightness

The next reference to the fear of God is found in Gen 20:11:

Abraham replied, 'I said to myself, "There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife." '

Abraham told the people of the area in which he was living that Sarah, his wife, was his sister for fear that Abimelech (who was king of the area) would kill him and take her for himself.

Abimelech didn't touch Sarah, but the principle Abraham stated was true—and is still true today—that if people don't fear God they are more likely to commit crimes and to do evil. The rocketing crime rate, gross immorality and general lawlessness in society at the moment, shows how few people fear God nowadays.

The next reference to the fear of God is found in Gen 22:12:

'Do not lay a hand on the boy,' he said, 'Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.'

The angel of the Lord told Abraham that he'd proved how much he feared God by doing what he'd been told to do—ie preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on the altar.

So we have two consequences of fearing God revealed in the early chapters of the Bible:

The next scripture to look at is Exo 18:21:

'But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.'

Moses' father-in-law advised Moses to select capable men who feared God—trustworthy men who hated dishonest gain. They were to be appointed as officials over the people to lighten Moses' workload. What can we learn from this? That people who fear God are more likely to be trustworthy and upright; they want to do what is right because they fear God.

Neh 7:2 teaches the same principle:

I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.

The two quoted attributes of Hananiah—the fact that he feared God and was a man of integrity—are linked. Hananiah's moral uprightness was influenced by his fear of God. A true fear of God will always have a positive moral effect upon a person's life and conduct.

See and fear

Exo 20:18–20 are interesting verses to meditate on:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, 'Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.'

Moses said to the people, 'Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.'

When God descended on Mount Sinai to give his law to Israel, he did so with loud trumpet blasts and with smoke and fire. 'Don't be afraid,' said Moses, 'this is happening to make you fear God.' That sounds like a contradiction, so what did he mean?

Moses was saying that there was no need for the people to be afraid because they were not in imminent danger. A normally silent God was demonstrating his power to the people so they would fear him in the future and keep the laws he was about to give them.

A similar event occurred in the New Testament. When Ananias and Sapphira fell dead before the Lord after lying to the Holy Spirit, it says that 'great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events (Act 5:11)'.

The church met with the God of the Old Testament that day, who had opened the ground and swallowed up Korah, Dathan and Abiram when they sinned against him (Num 16:25–34). I'm sure that no lies were told in the church for a long time after that.

Despite what people may think, God is no softer on sin in the New Testament than he was in the Old Testament. He says that he doesn't change (Mal 3:6).

His attitude to sin hasn't changed since the Garden of Eden, it's just that now, in the New Testament, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1Jo 2:1–2).

Reverential fear

The Hebrew words translated 'afraid', 'fear' and 'feared' in the scriptures we've looked at so far mean to be frightened, to be terrified or to fear in the sense of reverencing someone. They all describe a person's fear of God. If we reverence someone we greatly respect them, and if we greatly respect them we are more likely to obey them.

I think most Christians fear God in this reverential way. Jesus said that we are to be afraid (Greek: fearful, afraid, terrified) of the One who has the power to throw us into hell (Luk 12:5), and such fear does stop us from sinning. But I believe it's our reverence for God more than anything else—our deep respect and love for him—that makes us want to obey him (2Co 7:1).

Insights from Isaiah

We learn most of what we know about Jesus from the Gospels, but Isaiah contains some revealing prophecies about our Lord.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isa 11:1–3a)

V3a tells us that Jesus will delight in the fear of the Lord. The Hebrew word translated 'delight' means, literally, to delight in the odour of something. Jesus delights in those who fear God; they are a sweet aroma to him.

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure. (Isa 33:5–6)

V6 says that the fear of the Lord is the key to the treasure—the treasure being that of salvation, wisdom and knowledge.

Pro 9:10a says:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…

Pro 1:7a says:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…

The Hebrew word translated 'fear' in those verses means to reverence someone, and the Hebrew word translated 'beginning' means the chief; the head; the first in order, or time, or rank. That means that to fear and reverence God is the first and chief thing we must do. It's the key to all spiritual wisdom, to the knowledge of truth, and to salvation itself.

Holy fear

Isaiah said that the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of the knowledge and the fear of the Lord (Isa 11:2b).

That means that the Holy Spirit brings the knowledge of God and the fear of God to people—a holy fear (Heb 11:7) based on the truth about God, and about ourselves—that God is holy, we are sinners, and we need a Saviour.

Only Christians can fear God in the way prescribed by Scripture because we, alone, have the Spirit of God to give us that fear.

Michael Graham
January 2005

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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