“Fear of God” – What Does It Really Mean?
God is love. So why does the Old Testament, and even the New in a few instances, encourage humans to have “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” time and time again – 70 or more times throughout the Bible?
By the same token, fear of and by itself is discouraged more than 70 times. What is the difference, and what is the fear of God that we are supposed to cultivate as opposed to the wrong kind of fear, which God’s perfect Love casts out?
Let’s examine the Bible texts that mention this mysterious “fear” and find out what they say.
What Is the Fear of God?
When the Bible refers to the “fear of the Lord,” it means having a deep respect, reverence and awe for God’s power and authority. Rather than causing someone to be afraid of God, a proper “fear of the Lord” leads one to love Him. A healthy fear of God includes the fear of the consequences of disobedience. There may be times of temptation or trial when we may forget some of the reasons for obeying God, and that is when we had better think of the consequences (Exodus 20:20).
The main Hebrew and Greek words translated fear in the Bible can have several shades of meaning, but in the context of the fear of the Lord, they convey a positive reverence.
The Hebrew verb yare can mean “to fear, to respect, to reverence” and the Hebrew noun yirah “usually refers to the fear of God and is viewed as a positive quality. This fear acknowledges God’s good intentions (Exodus 20:20). … This fear is produced by God’s Word (Psalm 119:38; Proverbs 2:5) and makes a person receptive to wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10)” (Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament, 2003, pp. 470-471).
The Greek noun phobos can mean “reverential fear” of God, “not a mere ‘fear’ of His power and righteous retribution, but a wholesome dread of displeasing Him” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, “Fear, Fearful, Fearfulness”). This is the type of positive, productive fear that Luke describes existed in the early New Testament Church: “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (Acts 9:31, emphasis added).
One resource includes this helpful summary: “The fear of God is an attitude of respect, a response of reverence and wonder. It is the only appropriate response to our Creator and Redeemer” (Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible, 1997, note on Psalm 128:1). (Source)
How Can We Cultivate the Fear God
- Seek God (Ps. 34:4)
- Hold fast to God (Deut. 10:20)
- Praise, honor and reverence God (Ps. 22:23; 33:8; Ps. 111:10)
- Acknowledge God’s steadfast love (Ps. 118:4)
- Serve God only, avoid idolatry (Deut 6:13; 10:20)
- Listen to God and don’t be wise in your own eyes (Prov. 1:33; 3:7)
- Keep God’s laws and decrees (Deut 6:1-2, 24)
- Avoid sin, evil, pride and arrogance (Ex. 20:10; Prov. 3:7; 8:13; 16:6)
- Be upright and blameless (Job 1:8-10)
Here are a few relevant quotes:
Deut 10:12-13 And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’S commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
Jos 24:14 “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
Ps 118:4 Let those who fear the LORD say: “His love endures forever.”
Results and Benefits of the Fear of God
Being in harmony with the spiritual laws that govern the universe has some wonderful benefits.
- The fear of God is the fountain of life (Prov. 14:27)
- It is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10)
- It results in wisdom, understanding and humility (Job 28:28; Prov. 15:33)
- It will bring a long life with contentment, honor, prosperity and fewer problems (Deut. 6:1-2; 24; Prov. 10:27; 19:23; 22:4)
- It results in delivery from fear (Ps. 34:4)
- It brings great blessings and protection (Job 1:8-10)
- All needs will be provided (Isa. 34:4-10)
- It is a gift of God’s Spirit (Isa. 11:2)
- It is the key to God’s salvation (Isa. 33:5-6)
Ps 34:4-10 I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. … This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
Isa 11:2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him [the Messiah] —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 33:5-6 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.
Fear of God is Learned
As with most things, we have to be instructed regarding the proper fear of God. This occurs
- Through the teaching of God’s Law (Deut. 31:12-13)
- By seeing or hearing about God’s mighty deeds (Jos. 4:24)
- By considering God’s workings and blessings in our lives (1 Sam. 12:24)
Deut 31:12-13 Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.
1Sam 12:24 But be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.
Ps 34:11-14 Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Prov 2:1-5 My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
Result of No Fear of God
- Sinfulness of the wicked (Ps. 36:1)
- Despising wisdom and discipline (Prov. 1:7)
- Bad outcomes in life (Ecc.8:13)
- Gross corruption (Rom. 3:15-18)
Prov 1:29-33 Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.
Rom 3:13-18 Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Difference Between Fear and Fear of God
Fear can result from, among other things, doing wrong (fear of punishment), circumstances (fear of the future), and illness or advanced age (fear of death). It is negative, paralysing, demoralizing, tending toward negative expectations if not hopelessness, producing physical, mental and emotional discomfort, anxiety, worry, dismay, and even terror. It is overall destructive and the opposite of love. (Ideas adapted from here and here.)
The fear of God can be seen as an antidote to fear. It has many benefits and blessings (see above), including knowledge, understanding, wisdom, peace and love. It is positive, hopeful and leads to edification and a purer, more righteous life. It keeps us from sinning and hence we are spared unnecessary suffering as a result of sin and disobedience. The fear of God is not incompatible with the love of God, and we can trust the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Rom 8:38-39 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, d nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The fear of God is a healthy awe and reverence for our Creator, Life Giver, Sustainer, Provider and Saviour. We are nothing without God – we wouldn’t even be in existence or have physical life without his Spirit, and we definitely cannot save ourselves from our sins. So God is certainly due awe, worship and reverence. This is totally different from the negative, tormenting, paralysing fear that many are experiencing – fear of the future, of eternal damnation, of not having enough, of getting sick, and on and on. In fact, the “fear of God” can be seen as an antidote to the unhealthy human fear. It involves a relationship with God, submission and obedience to God, asking for and receiving of God’s help, and reaping God’s blessings. The highest form of this both reverential and intimate relationship is being open to God’s offer of the Divine Love which results in a soul transformation into true children of God possessing divine nature and immortality and a life of unlimited growth in the Celestial Kingdom of God. And this is the Love that ultimately casts out all fear.
For more on this topic, see the booklet Antidote to Fear and Anxiety — Fear of God.