I Kings 2:10–12; 3:3–14
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10).
What does it mean to fear the Lord?
I spoke about this briefly last week, and I am glad that I now have the opportunity to explore the subject further.
It’s not an easy subject. Why should we fear God? “There is no fear in love,” it says in 1 John 4, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (v.18).
If perfect love drives out fear, how is it that we are to fear God? Is this just an element of old time religion? Is this just another feature of the patriarchal world in which the Bible was written? Did they suppose that God demands that his creatures fear him in the same way that self-important fathers want their families to fear them?
Many have made such conclusions, and so when they come to the saying about the beginning of wisdom, they just disregard it. It was another time, the thinking goes. They had different ideas about how we should think of God. We know better now.
I, however, do not think we can make such a move. I think we should feel more compelled to listen to and respect the teaching we encounter in Scripture, especially when it says, “This is the beginning of wisdom”!
It is for this reason that I also cannot follow those who choose to leave the teaching to the side because they can’t make sense of it. When I wrote a research paper on the fear of the Lord during my undergraduate program, I couldn’t believe how may biblical scholars neglected it. Books with titles like Old Testament Wisdom or Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms spent less than a page dealing with the fear of the Lord, despite the fact that the Old Testament again and again says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!
And these are biblical scholars!—people with PhD’s, charged with the task of digging into the difficult terrain of this ancient literature. If they’re not comfortable speaking about the fear of the Lord, how can we hope to gain some understanding of it?
So maybe we should just drop it. We see only in a mirror dimly. God’ll forgive us for not understanding what this teaching means, so let’s just move on.
Sorry, but, again, that just doesn’t cut it for me.
Throughout the Old Testament, the writers used “fear God” the way we might use “believe in Jesus.” Whether or not a person feared God was understood as the decisive thing about that person. The decisive choice a person had to make was whether to fear the Lord, or to follow evil. The Israelites didn’t have the saying, “What would Jesus do?”—but they did have the saying, “fear the LORD, and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:7).
So “the fear of the LORD” is not an insignificant biblical topic. It’s not one of those things we can just gloss over, or neglect in favor of other things we like more, or things we find more palatable. If we take our commitment to God seriously, we will take this teaching seriously.
Many who have taken this teaching seriously found an easy way of resolving this issue—with one word: reverence! To fear the Lord, they say, means to revere the Lord, to respect and honor and stand in awe of the Lord.
Okay. Good. Respect and honor and revere God. Nothing wrong with any of that. But how is that the beginning of wisdom? What does it mean to revere God? Is it possible that we make recourse to the word “reverence” in order to stop thinking about the command to fear God?
I personally have found that this rendering of the command carries less weight, that it doesn’t actually inspire much action. Revere God. Okay, I can do that. Easy enough. And then we go back to our lives. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
Does the word reverence actually help us much, or are we still left with the question: What does it actually mean to revere God?
I think of a scene from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life. A priest is leading a church service and he leads the congregation in prayer: “Let us praise God. O Lord, oooh you are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you. ... You are so strong and, well, just so … super.”
Is this what it means to revere God? To shower him with compliments and contemplate how awe-inspiring he is? That seems a little too easy.
The Hebrew language has words for “respect” and “honor” and “glorify,” but when the biblical authors talk about the fear of the Lord, they use a word that can suggest anxiety and terror as much as it can suggest awe and respect.
Now, let me be clear, I don’t think the fear of the Lord means being afraid of God. Perfect love drives out that kind of fear. But I do think there is something in the word choice that is supposed to trouble us—only, trouble us in a good way.
It is a good fear, not a threatening one, not one that inspires anxiety, not one of the many debilitating fears we tend to experience in life.
When pastors and scholars try to explain the kind of fear that is proper to the fear of the Lord, there is one Bible verse that usually doesn’t get quoted. It’s a line from a Psalm that we often hear, but one that I’ve never really heard talked about much. It’s the one from Psalm 139 that says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Its meaning is fairly simple to grasp: we are works of art—God’s poema, as it says in Ephesians 2:10. But isn’t it interesting that the Psalm uses the word “fearfully”?
We are “fearfully” made. Think about that. God created us “fearfully.” It is the same word used for the fear of the Lord.
God did not create us willy-nilly. God did not throw us together at the last minute. Creation was not the work of relaxed, careless hands. It was not done flippantly or frivolously.
On the contrary, God created us with utmost care and attention to detail, with intentionality and precision, with purpose and skill, with artistry and, yes, caution.
God was careful when he created us, like a painter is careful with his painting, or a pianist is careful playing Mozart. We are special. God was cautious in creating us.
Similarly, God asks for the same caution from us.
“Be careful how you live,” Paul says, “not as unwise people but as wise” (Eph. 5:15).
Similarly, II Chronicles 19:7 says, “Let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the LORD our God.”
To fear the Lord means to be careful with how we live our lives, to do so cautiously, knowing that how we live matters.
For we are only alive for a short time. We have only a short time to show what we are made of. Karl Barth calls life our “unique opportunity.” We must take it seriously.
This is our moment in history, the decisive time for us. Which side are we on: God or evil? Justice or injustice? War or peace? Love or hate? Every day, it is our turn to choose one way or the other.
And it truly matters which side we choose. Our choices have real consequences for the world in which we live. Choose evil, and evil spreads. Choose love, and love spreads. Our actions have definite, concrete effects on other people.
So be careful! We need to live cautiously, considering our actions, weighing our choices.
If we do not care how we treat the people in our lives, then it shows we are not concerned about what will happen to them or to us if we do not do right by them. It shows we are not properly fearful concerning our effect on them.
If you think you can just snap at your friends out of anger with impunity, then you don’t really respect the fact that you could actually hurt them, and that they might stop being your friend because of it.
If you think you can cheat on your spouse, or even just flirt and philander with other people, then you are not properly fearful of the fact that doing so could wound your spouse and potentially destroy your relationship.
But if we really love our friends, if we really love our spouses, we will be considerate of them.
And yet sometimes we actually think the opposite. Sometimes we think that because the person loves me and knows me really well, he or she can deal with my crap. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I can snap at my wife. It’s okay if I do something wrong to her, because we have a deeper bond and she’ll forgive me.
But that’s not always true. Sometimes, what we do has more of an effect than we would like. Sometimes, my carelessness could mean genuinely damaging my wife and our relationship.
Maybe I say something to her in the heat of anger, something extremely hurtful, and maybe I think that it’ll just blow over and she’ll forget about it—but maybe she won’t. Maybe I’ve just created a wound that will fester for longer than I had thought possible.
But if I love my wife, I will be careful with her. As that old song goes, “Be careful, it’s my heart.”
The same goes for our disposition toward God.
Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” If you truly hate evil, you will carefully choose between one action and another, hoping that nothing you do favors evil.
That is why Paul warns against drunkenness. I’m sure we all know that drunkenness makes it extremely difficult for us to be careful. We suddenly become very careless, even reckless and flippant. The more we drink, the less we consider our words and actions, and so the more susceptible we are to foolishness and sin.
The fear of the Lord, on the other hand, drives us to cautious with how we live our lives. Such care and caution come out of a heart that is committed to God’s goodness and love.
Proverbs 16:6 equates the fear of the Lord to “loyalty and faithfulness.” And II Chronicles 19:9 says, “This is how you shall act: in the fear of the LORD, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart.”
The fear of the Lord comes from being earnestly devoted and committed to God and his justice. Just as God, as it says in our Psalm, “is ever mindful of his covenant” (111:5), so we should be ever mindful of our covenant.
Søren Kierkegaard says, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” If we are pure of heart, we will fear God and avoid evil, because we will one thing—we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).
To be pure of heart and to fear God does not mean to be perfect. It does not mean you do everything right and you never make a mistake. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to mess up. God knows that.
We don’t have to live like we’re trying to deactivate a timed bomb. We don’t have to be superego, anxiously suppressing all our thoughts and feelings out of a fear of acting wrongly or out of order.
The fear of the Lord is not an anxious fear. God does not inspire anxiety. Rather, God asks after our heart. What is our heart like? What kind of people are we? Are we the kind of people who care about our neighbors? Or are we the kind of people who only care about ourselves? Are we the kind of people who grieve injustice? Or are we the kind of people who delight in wrongdoing?
God is more concerned with your disposition than your track record. God is more concerned with your heart than your purity stats.
If you love your children, you protect them, care for them, feed them, etc. That is just what you do. It is inscribed on your heart. It is in your nature. That doesn’t mean you don’t make any mistakes, but it means, at the end of the day, your heart is for your children. At the end of the day, you raise them fearfully—seeking the best for them, keeping them safe, always wanting to do right by them, never wanting to lead them astray or put them in a dangerous situation, or neglect them.
That is the kind of “fear” that God wants. You don’t have to be perfect, just be careful. God wants us to care so much about his justice and righteousness and mercy and love that they really, seriously matter to us. God wants us to earnestly, passionately seek after his good things—not out of fear of punishment, or out of an anxiety about purity, but out of love.
Martin Luther wrote, “When a husband and wife really love one another, have pleasure in each other, and thoroughly believe in their love, who teaches them how they are to behave one to another, what they are to do or not to do, say or not to say, what they are to think? Confidence alone teaches them all this, and even more than is necessary. For such a man there is no distinction in works. He does the great and the important as gladly as the small and the unimportant, and vice versa. Moreover, he does them all in a glad, peaceful, and confident heart, and is an absolutely willing companion to the woman. … Thus a Christian who lives in this confidence toward God knows all things, can do all things, ventures everything that needs to be done, and does everything gladly and willingly, not that he may gather merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God in doing these things.”
If we really love the Lord, if we really love the things of the Lord, then we will live our lives carefully.
So to ask, “Do you fear the Lord?” is to ask: Do you love mercy? Do you seek justice? Do you passionately long to see God’s goodness in the land of the living?
And if we do, then, as our Psalm says, we will “act accordingly” (111:10). Just as our love for our friends or our children or our spouses means we are concerned about their well-being, so our love for the things of God means we will be concerned about reflecting them in our lives.
And so I will end as it is good for a preacher to end—with the words of Jesus:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6).
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon for the
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 19, 2018
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 19, 2018
Karl Barth, CD III.4, 564-94.
Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1956).
Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, 1520, in vol. 1 of The Annotated Luther, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 271f.