The fear of God is a highly doctrinal term, and thus should not be understood in the sense of everyday common language.
The first imperative of the everlasting gospel as described in Revelation 14:6 to 13 is plainly expressed: “Fear God” (Greek: fobethete ton theon). The context of this command is the announcement of God’s judgment, which leads to three imperatives. The notion of fearing God plays a primary role among these commands: “‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’” (vs. 7).* This command may be disturbing for at least five reasons:
1. It sounds negative and may produce a phobic reaction. Humans are naturally full of different fears, and this statement may create even more fear.
2. It contradicts many biblical encouraging proclamations not to fear. God exhorts, for example, through Isaiah: “‘I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, do not fear; I will help you’” (Isa. 41:13).
3. It creates a distorted picture of God and true religion. It makes it sound as if God is a fearful Deity, and Christianity should be a religion of fear.
4. It is significant to observe that the Bible portrays fear as the result of sin. It was actually one of the first consequences of sin. So why cultivate it? After eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were hiding from God in the Garden of Eden because they were afraid of Him. Instead of enjoying God’s presence, they were avoiding Him in dread. Fear was a product of their disobedience. When God, the Lord, asked in His search for lost humanity: “‘Where are you?’” Adam’s answer reveals their feelings of shame and guilt: “‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid . . . and I hid myself’” (Gen. 3:10, NKJV).
5. Satan’s strategy is to lead people into different fears. He uses fears of various kinds—including those of persecution, abuse, and violence (1 Peter 3:14; Rev. 2:10; Matt. 5:10–12) to lead people away from God, into dependence upon him, and into false worship (Rev. 13:4, 7, 8).
Thus, it is apparent that the meaning of the phrase, “Fear God,” is a puzzle. How to make sense of it? How to understand it?
It is true that many times in the Holy Scripture, God cheers His people with the divine command: “Do not fear” (Isa. 35:4; 41:10, 14; 43:1). Note that these appeals are God’s encouragements against our personal existential fears that may be of various kinds: relational, financial, healthful, occupational, social, emotional, spatial. Fears of death, guilt, pain, and bad conscience are the worst phobias. Our fears are an integral part of our circumstances of life.
These different kinds of fear can be overcome only by trusting God. David expressed it very eloquently when he stated: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Ps. 56:3). The divine exhortations of trusting and confidence are supported by His numerous promises that He is with His people, they are in His loving and caring hands, and no one can snatch them from His embrace (John 10:28, 29; Isa. 49:15, 16; Matt. 28:20). We belong to Him; we are His, for He is always for us and never against us (Rom. 8:31). No one and nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:35–39). We can be assured that our past, present, and future are secured in Him. God teaches His followers not to be self‑centered but to trust in Him fully.
Indeed, God commands: “Do not fear,” and then surprisingly instructs: “Fear!” However, this call to fear is different because it is very specific with a different object. We have to fear God! Life becomes God‑centered instead of anthropo‑centered, which means that the direction of fear dramatically changes; it is aimed toward God. We should fear the Person who is our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, Lord, and King. We should fear the Ruler and Director of the entire universe who loved humanity so much that Jesus Christ could become our Redeemer (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6, 8, 10, 11). Thus, we should not be preoccupied and distracted by fearing people, institutions, things, or the future. It becomes evident that this type of fear is focused toward God and is completely different from the various personal fears previously described.
This crucial observation leads to a significant recognition that the command “Fear God” is a theological and relational notion in sharp contrast to existential fears. And because this relationship with God is expressed theologically, one must interpret this terminology from that perspective, and only then can this specific phrase be properly understood. The word fear in our modern languages has a different connotation from the one found in this biblical word. The biblical vocabulary reveals that this category is actually very positive. The scriptural teaching regarding the fear of God should build constructive thinking, evoke joyful emotions, and empower our will to follow God. It should draw people closer to their God, motivate them to be better persons, and transform their character. In this way, believers need to make a clear distinction between their personal, existential fears, on the one hand, and theological fear as the divine command, on the other hand. The fear of God is a highly doctrinal term, and thus should not be understood in the sense of everyday common language.
It is important to note that the command to “fear God” is expressed in the context of the eternal gospel (Rev. 14:6, 7). The term “everlasting gospel” suggests that this good news, which is preached at the end of time, is not something new. On the contrary, it is the gospel that was always valid, never changed, and its acceptance or rejection brings eternal consequences. Fearing God is a result of God’s judging activity that has as its goal to justify, save, deliver, and vindicate those who honestly and sincerely commit their lives to Him. This divine positive initiative motivates the believer to fear God.
Imperatives of the gospel always follow the indicative of the gospel. This is reflected also in our text: First comes the indicative, namely recognition that the time of God’s judgment is here, and then comes three imperatives of the Good News: fear God, give Him glory, and worship the Creator. God first justifies, saves, liberates, and vindicates people because He died for them on the Cross to redeem them, and then He tells them what to do. He is the warrant of the future, the Giver of eternal life, because He is the Judge. This provides for the right motivation: gratitude and thankfulness to God for the wonderful gift of salvation. The more people know the loving Lord, the more they want to serve Him. Fearing God results in accepting and responding to God’s grace, and experiencing His forgiveness: “With you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:4, ESV).
Unique Phrase and Dominant Biblical Teaching
It is astonishing that the particular form of this Greek phrase in Revelation, most often translated as “‘Fear God,’” occurs only once in the entire Bible. Yet, it appropriately summarizes a rich biblical teaching on this topic. It is not reflecting John’s invention or originality. This imperative is saturated with Old Testament teaching and taken from a cluster of texts. One can find very similar Greek statements in LXX.
A few examples suffice to demonstrate that the fear of God is a fundamental and frequent teaching of the Bible and appears in all three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. It occurs at crucial places in God’s revelation. Consider carefully the following representative samples:
1. The nonverbal expression “fear of God” appears for the first time in Genesis 20:11 in the statement of Abraham to Abimelech when he laments: “‘“There is surely no fear of God in this place.”’” It is interesting that Abraham’s statement reveals his mistrust toward God and his fear of the king.
2. At Mount Sinai, God spoke in a very powerful and direct way to Israel, and the people were afraid. Moses explained to them why God did it: “‘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’” (Ex. 20:20).
3. For the first time, the verb “to fear” as part of the expression “to fear God” occurs in God’s appraisal of Abraham’s faith after he was willing to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son’” (Gen. 22:12).
4. For the second time, the verbal expression “fear God” is used by Joseph when he encouraged his brothers in Egypt to do what he commanded: “‘Do this and you will live, for I fear God’” (Gen. 42:18, ESV).
5. Fear of God is a dominant feature, crucial theme, and highly stressed concept (15 times) in prominent places in the Book of Deuteronomy. In addition, the reference to fear without connection to the fear of God is used 23 times (out of 38 of the total occurrences in Deuteronomy). The Lord is an awesome (i.e., fearful) God (Deut. 7:21; 10:17).
6. People of God need to learn how to fear God; therefore, the Lord gives directions on how to properly do so. It was God’s desire to teach His people how to revere Him so they could teach their children the correct attitude toward Him. Moses declared to them: “‘the Lord said to me, “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so”” (Deut. 4:10, ESV). Also, the plain summary of the purpose of the book is thus expressed several times within the book. Moses proclaimed to the whole nation that they would learn how to fear God and to maintain the proper relationship with the Lord their God in love and obedience to Him: “‘so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law’” (31:12). This idea was reinforced in the following verse: “‘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’” (vs. 13).
7. This teaching will have a great impact and influence on the historical books (Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles) as well as the prophetical books (Isaiah and Jeremiah).
8. By design, the theme of fearing God is most elaborated in the Wisdom Literature, thus underlining that we can be wise only if we cultivate a personal relationship with God. Many verses speak of it because one cannot be wise unless one cultivates the fear of God. Actually, it is the beginning of wisdom; it is a necessary prerequisite (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 4:7; 9:10). The fear of God is thus a starting point as well as an essential factor for acquiring wisdom. “Who is the man who fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose” (Ps. 25:12, ESV).
9. In the introduction to the drama of the Book of Job, it is stated four times that Job fears God (Job 1:1, 8, 9; 2:3).
10. It is not difficult to find references about fearing the Lord in Proverbs because this is a dominant theme in this book. The term “fear the Lord” is used six times (1:29; 3:7; 8:13; 14:16; 15:33; 24:21); the phrase “the fear of the Lord” occurs 10 times (1:7; 2:5; 9:10; 10:27; 14:27; 15:16; 16:6; 19:23; 22:4; 23:17); the book commends everyone who “fears the Lord” (14:2, 26); and culminates with praise for the woman who “fears the Lord” (31:30). The very foundation of wisdom is the “fear of God.”
11. The concept of fearing God is found in five passages of the Book of Ecclesiastes, even though this key word occurs seven times: “I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere [fear] him” (Eccl. 3:14); “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of [fear] God” (5:7); “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all [extremes]” (7:18); “Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow” (8:12, 13—the term is employed three times): “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man” (12:13).
12. Nehemiah cultivated the fear of God in his life. His success lay in God and his relationship with Him, namely, in exercising the presence of the Lord in his heart. His life flowed toward God and depended upon this vertical relationship with God. Nehemiah stated that God’s servants “delight to fear” Him (Neh. 1:11, ESV), that is, they “delight in revering” (NIV) His name. When Nehemiah discovered that the leaders of God’s people were exploiting the poor, he openly charged them: “‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?’” (5:9, italics supplied). Nehemiah also explained that he never used his right to be served and get financial support for himself as governor nor for his brothers (5:14, 15) and gave a clear reason for it: “‘But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work’” (5:15, 6 ESV; italics supplied). Accepting and responding to God’s grace results in fearing God.
What Fearing God Does Not Mean
The imperative of fearing God is often misunderstood; therefore, it is useful to clearly state what this command does not mean. It does not refer (1) to be afraid of God; (2) to be scared of Him; or (3) to tremble before Him with fear. However, we should not quickly dismiss the notion of physical fear or trembling from the concept of the fear of the Lord, because a proper trembling is an experience of awe before God, when we understand that we as sinners are in the presence of the Holy Lord. People of God are rightly overwhelmed by God’s holiness. Moses’ experience on Sinai was transparent: “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear’” (Heb. 12:21).
There is a fine balance and tension between fearing and trembling. Fearing God means having a sense of God’s holiness, His otherness and purity, and our human sinfulness, impurity, and imperfection. In the setting of theophany, it’s impossible to stay “calm” because His presence is overwhelming. A proper balance is needed in the tensions of life: “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps. 2:11, 12, ESV). Even as we stand in awe of God, we can rejoice (Isa. 12:6); therefore, this emotion does not mean to be terrified but to tremble in awe before His holiness and word (Isa. 66:2).
We do not naturally know how to fear God and have lost the relevancy of doing so. Consequently, we need to learn how to experience this type of fear (Deut. 31:12, 13). God is holy, we are sinful, and this leads to humility. He is the God of love, the God of truth and justice, thus we admire, follow, and worship Him, for no one is like Him (Ex. 34:6–8). The fear of God is closely connected to worshipping God as different translations of Jeremiah 32:39 indicate: “‘I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever’” (ESV, NIV, NKJV, italics supplied); but NLT renders the result of having one heart in the following way: “‘to worship me.’”
Fear is often mentioned in the context of theophany where God reveals Himself or the angel of the Lord appears to humans (Gen. 3:10; 15:1). The presence of God creates overwhelming awe, and sinners (fragile human beings with sinful natures) are overpowered by the solemnity of the occasion because they are in the presence of the holy God. When Isaiah received the vision about the majesty of God and heavenly beings adoring God as three times holy, he cried: “‘Woe to me!’” (6:5). It is highly significant that before Isaiah freely uttered the many woes upon the wicked (1:4; 20–22), he was confronted with and encountered God’s holiness, and then saw that he himself was also lost and that he could only be cleansed by God Himself as an expression of His grace (6:6–8).
Reflective students of the Bible understand that fearing God points to respecting and revering God. Beyond this basic understanding is a fundamental question: What does it mean to fear God in practical terms?
Definitions of Fearing God
Every diligent disciple of the Word of God understands that reverence to God is a theological expression. Four definitions of this phrase may help to grasp its profound meaning:
Definition No. 1. To fear God means to make all our decisions in respect to God and His will. This means that whatever we do, we should do in high regard to Him, His law, His teaching, and consequently in respect of our neighbor and nature. To fear God means to do everything in close relationship with Him.
To understand this meaning, imagine that you are going on a mission trip to India, and after three weeks you return and your spouse asks you: “When you were India, did you always think about me?” If you are honest, you would answer, “No,” because you know that you did not engage your thoughts around your spouse the whole time. Then, when you see a frown and inquiring eyes of your beloved one, you may quickly add: “Do not worry, Honey, because anytime I have to make a decision (and you are part of this decision process), I always do it in respect to you!”
As we are unable to always be thinking of our parent, spouse, or child, likewise we are unable at all times to think about God. However, faithful children, parents, or spouses will always make their decisions in regard to and respect for their loved one. Similarly, we ought to make all our decisions in regard to God, His word, His law, and His will.
Biblically speaking, to fear means to revere and worship God. Fearing God has a close connotation with adoration. “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him” (Ps. 33:8). It is a loving reverence for God built on total submission to Him as the Lord and King (Mal. 1:14) and to His will (John 14:15).
Definition No. 2. To fear God means to fear to grieve Him or to make Him sad. Fear is a relational term because it is about fearing God. Relationship is actually everything in life. True relationship is built on trust and respect. One cannot claim to be in a loving marital relationship and cheat on a spouse. Faithfulness is expected, and hating to do what would complicate such a relationship is naturally anticipated. King Solomon declared: “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13).
A simple illustration may illuminate this aspect: When my daughters were small, around age 6, they would ask: “Daddy, whom should we marry?” This was a perfect age to teach them in response to such a good question. My answer was straightforward and simple: “Marry someone who fears to grieve God, who is afraid to make Him sad!” Then I explained why: “Because only if that person who wants to marry you fears to make God sad, will he fear to make you sad. If that person will fear to grieve God, he will fear to grieve you. If he will not fear to make God sad, he will not fear to make you sad. If he will have no respect for God, he will have no respect for you. If he does not care about God or have respect for God, he will not care about you or have respect for you!” Not showing kindness to a friend is to deny the fear of God: “‘Those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty’” (Job 6:14, NRSV).
We cannot be a measure of what is right in ourselves because in our sinful nature we are self‑centered and selfish. We need to accept respecting a higher authority than ours if we want to be successful and build lasting relationships. Law and authority must come from outside of us. Otherwise, we will always give preference to our own wishes and desires. This is why respect for God, His teaching, and His law is so crucial and important. Keeping His instructions in our hearts is a way to success (Joshua 1:5–9; Ps. 1:1–6).
Our relationship with God is the most important relationship in life; all other relationships spring from it. On it depends everything meaningful. David, the servant of the Lord, powerfully explained: “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes. In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin. The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good. Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not reject what is wrong” (Ps. 36:1–4).
One can put it positively: To fear God means to make God happy. As children will seek to do many things to see their parents happy and smiling, so we should similarly do in our relationship with God. Maybe one says this is so simple. Be reminded of the words of Jesus: “‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt. 18:3). “‘I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’” (Mark 10:15). “‘Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt. 18:4, ESV). What does make God happy? “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NRSV).
Definition No. 3. One can define the fear of God as loving and obeying the Lord. The concept of love in the notion of fear is no longer present in modern languages. Unfortunately, this dimension disappeared and has been lost. It is preserved, however, in the biblical Hebrew. It appears to be the only language in which it is explicitly stated.
Study very carefully the following verse, which with several terms explains the meaning of the fear of God: “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?” (Deut. 10:12, 13). Moses underlined that to fear God means to love Him and obey. See also the following text: “But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children” (Ps. 103:17) Consider a parallelism in Proverbs 16:6 where fear of the Lord corresponds to love and faithfulness: “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil.”
To fear God means to be in love with Him, in total submission, dedication, and admirable obedience. “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isa. 50:10, ESV). “But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:35, NKJV).
Fearing God and keeping His commandments, laws, and statutes is closely associated in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 5:29; Eccl. 12:13). Deuteronomy 12:10 makes it explicit: To fear the Lord means “‘obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees.’” Obedience goes hand in hand with a respect for God. Revering God leads to taking seriously His law and carefully listening to and following His precepts. It is impossible to fear God and disregard His law, instructions, and teaching. Fearing God means loving and trusting Him and relying on His Word!
Definition No. 4. To fear God means to see God. It leads to cultivating the keen awareness that we always live in His presence. It means to live constantly in God’s atmosphere and be aware that He is here. It means to be conscious/mindful that God sees us and to have an assurance that He is present with us.
However, we need to remind ourselves that God is not a heavenly policeman seeking to punish us, but a loving, caring parent helping us to grow. He watches over us as a loving parent who watches, cares for, and protects his or her children.
There is a play in Hebrew between two Hebrew words: to see (ra’ah) and to fear (yare’). This observation is supported by several biblical texts where those who fear God are constantly aware of God’s eye upon them: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you” (Ps. 32:8). God always sees us. We cannot flee from His presence, and His eye is constantly on us. This does not mean that He is a heavenly Controller, but instead He is a gracious, understanding, and compassionate Friend! “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him” (33:18). Thus, the fear of God is an acute consciousness of God’s eye upon us and having the full assurance that we are living in His presence. Job declared: “‘for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters, when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm, then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it. And he said to man, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding”’” (28:24–28).
In order to cultivate a sense of awe before God, we need to enjoy His presence, sense His holiness, and maintain a correct trembling before His grace and love! “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty!’” (Isa. 6:3). God is not our equal Partner or a sentimental God but a consuming fire and the God of faithful love. The fear of God is the solemn awareness of God’s presence and His caring sight on us!
Once I visited an old woman who was cooking for a youth group. When I arrived, I heard singing. “Are you having worship now?” I asked.
“No,” she answered, “I was just singing while cooking: just Jesus and me!”
We need to cultivate a relationship with the Lord at all times, even while working, so we are always in tune with Jesus (like listening to the radio). One cannot always think about God, but we can be in the same frequency with Him every second of life. As I need to turn my TV to a specific channel to view the BBC news, so we need to be in a constant conversation with our Lord. We need to turn all our activities into our devotional time.
This was the way David experienced the fear of the Lord. When he engaged in a right imagination, when he saw God before him, he was unconquerable; but when he lost the Lord from His sight, he was vulnerable. David proclaimed: “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8). Contrast this with his observations: “The arrogant are attacking me, O God; a band of ruthless men seeks my life—men without regard for you” (86:14). This is opposite to the fear of God.
Moses did what seems impossible from the human perspective: “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). This is a paradox of faith. He saw Him who is invisible. This seems like an impossible possibility! Moses did not fear Pharaoh, but he feared God—and by the inner sight of faith he saw the invisible God.
Some Christians do this in a very tangible manner to remind themselves that God is present, to imagine Him alongside them: When they eat, they put another plate on the table to remind them that Jesus is eating with them. When they drive, they invite Jesus to sit in the car with them. When they read, watch TV, or work on their computers, they place a chair for Jesus beside them to represent His participation in these activities. They just turn everything they do into a conversation with God. One is not obliged to do it in this way, but it is important to transform all our activities into a prayer and dialogue with God. Thus, the fear of God is the keen awareness that we live in His presence, and we willingly want to live in harmony with Him. We were created into that fellowship with God who is We, the plural of fellowship.
Wisdom of Life
Godly wisdom is explained in the Book of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon in 7:15 to 20 describes the close connection between true wisdom and the fear of God on the basis of his own observations: “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Do not be over-righteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes. Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city. There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (italics supplied).
The texts invite the reader to understand that true wisdom avoids two extremes: to be over‑righteous or to be over‑wicked, because both contrasts bring destruction. The meaning of these two opposites is explained on the basis of the Hebrew parallelism: To be over‑righteous means to be over‑wise, and to be over‑wicked equals being a fool. Solomon does not intend to state that doing a little bit of wickedness is all right or being self‑centered is within religious tolerance. The text itself states that there is no righteous human being, because we all have sinned. Self‑righteousness is ruled out completely because we are sinners. The parallel thoughts help to decipher the sense of these puzzling terms: What is behind being considered as over‑righteous or over‑wicked? One needs to ask: What is the biblical understanding of being a “fool,” or being “over‑wise”?
The fool is defined in the Scriptures as a person who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good” (Ps. 14:1, ESV). Solomon himself stated that “doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding” (Prov. 10:23, ESV). It means that fools live wickedly; they are actually over‑wicked because they are oriented toward evil and doing harm to others to gain from it. They live according to their own views, without respect for God, His will and law. Such a life without God, with permissive attitudes and a worldly lifestyle, is focused on the now and governed by reason. It can be characterized as liberalism or secular religion.
If wisdom is defined as discernment between good and evil, and following what is right, then an “over‑wise” person is one who is over‑right or over‑righteous, as verse 16 states. In other words, over‑wise people are self‑centered, righteous in their own eyes, going beyond the biblical teaching of God’s Word, focusing on their piety and self‑righteousness, over-stressing their own experience and feelings, as well as over‑emphasizing the requirements of the law and obedience as they interpret it. They are always right, and others must do things according to their opinions; otherwise, they are not good or pious enough. Thus, this extreme position can be described as legalism. On the other pole is libertinism or liberalism. Both attitudes are self‑centered and such egocentrism is always dangerous and deadly. These individuals lack the joy of life and inner peace. To play with the terminology of Solomon, one may say that on the one side are those who have “too much fear,” and on the other extreme are people who have “no fear” of God. However, true wisdom is marked by the “right dose of the fear of God,” which brings balance in life and acceptance of the fact that there is “not a righteous man on earth” (Eccl. 7:20, ESV).
The fear of God makes believers humble, and thus wise, and leads them to the elimination of all kinds of extremism. On the one hand, they will avoid perfectionism (but accept the biblical teaching of perfection in Christ); on the other hand, they will escape a temptation to disregard discipline and God’s transparent instructions. Extremists fall into the trap of ultimately deciding for themselves what is right or wrong. Those who fear God depend on God’s revelation, which is not interpreted in isolation, partisanship, or destructive criticism.
Thus, wisdom shuns all kinds of fanaticism or stubbornness, because those who are wise listen carefully to others, and know that they do not know everything. The proper fear of the Lord leads to harmonious life in the loving presence of God and avoids the over-emphasis on the measurable externals, and avoids mechanistic or ritualistic religion. Relational religion is the only one that can satisfy and fulfill the needs of the broken human heart. This is why God calls His followers to this personal type of fellowship by bringing them to Himself and His teaching them (Ex. 19:4; John 8:31; Rev. 3:20).
Either we fear God, or our own fears will overcome us: “‘I also will choose harsh treatment for them and bring their fears upon them, because when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen; but they did what was evil in my eyes and chose that in which I did not delight’” (Isa. 66:4, ESV). If we fear God, we do not need to fear anybody: “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17). Because these midwives feared God, they did not fear the Pharaoh of Egypt and disobeyed him. This resistance was possible because they respected above all the living God. Because they were bowing before God, they had courage not to bow down before the mighty ruler. One can state that a person who kneels before God can stand tall without fear before anyone. David proclaimed: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1, ESV). “When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?” (56:3, 4, NIV).
Fearing God is the fruit of the Spirit, the result of the presence of the Holy Spirit in life. It is stated that Jesus Christ was filled with the Spirit of the Lord who was bringing the fear of the Lord into His life besides wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, and knowledge: “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” (Isa. 11:2).
In the Bible, there is a close connection between the fear of God and joy. In a prophetic statement about the Messiah, the prophet Isaiah explained that “He will delight in the fear of the Lord” (vs. 3). Note carefully the following texts that connect happiness with God’s fear: “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in his commands” (Ps. 112:1). “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways” (128:1). “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity” (Prov. 28:14, ESV).
The fear of God is the best protection against sinning. When God brought His people Israel to Mount Sinai, He was not only liberating them from slavery and saving them from the influence of the Egyptian gods (Ex. 12:12; Num. 33:4) but also bringing them to Himself: “‘“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself”’” (Ex. 19:4, NKJV). By His spectacular and majestic presentation of Himself on Sinai, He wanted to help them to stay out of sin. Moses expressed that very precisely: “‘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’” (20:20, NIV).
At the end of this biblical overview regarding the meaning of the divine imperative of fearing God, it appears clear that to fear God is not a concept God’s followers need to believe in, nor is it an activity one needs to add to a religious performance list because it is not our achievement. Neither is it a doctrine we should accept as true, but rather to fear God is a lifestyle, a daily walk with God.
Thus, the fear of God describes a religion. Jonah answered a question about who he was by saying: “‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’” (Jonah 1:9, ESV). It means he was worshipping the Creator God by fearing Him. In a similar way, Joseph said to his brothers: “‘Do this and you will live, for I fear God’” (Gen. 42:18, ESV). The principal characteristic of devoted people is that they fear God (Mal. 3:16; 4:2). These believers are faithful to the covenant they entered into with God (Ps. 25:14; 103:11, 17; 147:11).
There is no neutral ground. One either fears God or not. God cannot accept external rituals and manipulations, pretending to be godly and religious. True religion is a matter of our choice to follow God from our heart: “Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of Lord” (Prov. 1:28, 29, ESV).
In reality, the scriptural appeal “fear God” is not a command. This imperative is His loving invitation to enter into a personal relationship with Him in order to enjoy His presence in life. His friendship is something we cannot miss if we want to live a harmonious, balanced, and meaningful life. If we do it, then we return back to God’s original design for humanity according to the Creation pattern of Genesis 1 and 2, namely, to cultivate a relationship with God, live in total dependence on God, enjoy His presence in life, and rely on His Word. This invitation is God’s welcome to live constantly in His company. It is His beatitude for us resulting in the rich benefits of a transformed life.
In Psalm 139, David reflects on God’s omnipresence and realizes that God knows everything and is everywhere. One cannot hide and should not live outside of His presence. Thus, David longed for the transforming presence of God in his life because the God who knew him perfectly could change him. He desired that no evil thinking or feelings would be present in his life. The whole psalm culminates with David’s special request in verses 23 and 24, which should be also our deep desire and prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” God gives a beautiful promise for those who respect Him, love Him, and make their decisions in regard to Him: “Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing” (34:9).
Jiří Moskala, ThD, PhD, is Dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A., and Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology.
* Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
* Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.