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The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, part 6

Derek Caldwell

The Fear of God is good, wise, and loving.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

all who follow his precepts have good understanding.

To him belongs eternal praise.

Psalm 111:10

The Bible says some very odd things about the fear of the Lord, which it recommends highly. In Psalm 111:10, it says that the “fear of God” is the “beginning of wisdom.” Why should I fear God if He loves me? How is fear the beginning of wisdom? How are these things even related? The connections do not make sense until we discover more about fear in biblical usage.

In his book Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord, Michael Reeves points out an interesting event that happened right after God had given the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai:

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.” (Exodus 20:18-20)

Notice that last sentence. To fear or not to fear, that is the question! Reeves explains that Moses is attempting to contrast the difference here between being afraid of God and fearing God. The same Hebrew root for fear is used in both instances. It appears as if, Reeves explains, “those who have the fear of him will not be afraid of him. … [T]here is a fear of God that is good and desirable, and there is a fear of God that is not.”[1]

God’s people are to live in the liberating fear of God, then, rather than being afraid of God. Out of the fear of God, which Reeves defines as something greater than awe or wonder—it is the “sheer intensity of happiness in God”—we delight in God and are emboldened.[2] And this fear should result in a deep joy. Again, Reeves explains:

As our love for God is a trembling and wonder-filled love, so our joy in God is, at its purest, a trembling and wonder-filled—yes, fearful—joy. For the object of our joy is so overwhelmingly and fearfully wonderful. We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity that is fitting for him. And what more befits his infinite magnificence than an enjoyment of him that is more than our frail selves can bear, which overwhelms us and causes us to tremble?[3]

This is not a crippling fear, but an awe-filled reverence toward God. In some contexts, this awe-filled reverence, this “intensity of happiness in God,” can also turn to a great fear because of what we are doing, the reality of our hearts before Him, and His vastness, omnipotence, and utter goodness. But it is a motivating, heart-vivifying fear. It may be a fear unlike any other you’ve ever experienced.

In order to get an even greater sense of this fear, which is of a different kind altogether, let’s look at how the Old Testament portrays this type of fear:

  • it is the hatred of evil (Prov. 8:13)
  • it is synonymous with standing in awe of God (Psalm 33:8)
  • it is a fountain of life to which one may turn to escape the snares of death (Prov 14:27)
  • it is a refuge from harm (Prov 19:23);
  • it is for His friends (Psalm 25:14);
  • it fills with plenty (Psalm 34:9);
  • it builds confidence (Prov 14:26);
  • it brings humility (Prov 3:7).

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes. Likewise, sometimes a word is worth a thousand words. So it is with the Hebrew word for “fear” of the Lord. It is complex and multi-faceted. Seeing its full meaning emerge, I can’t help but to think of it in terms of attachment theory, which is a concept used for understanding certain aspects of human behavior based on human relationships. Essentially, an attachment should be, in the words of Bessel van der Kolk, “the secure base from which a child moves out into the world.”[4] Fear of the Lord, properly understood with negative connotations of the word “fear” stripped, seems to be an integral relational component between God and man that allows one to move about in the world, to persevere in the face of suffering and to always seek love over hate and serving over being served. It is a relational component that inoculates against the worst of our human traits and prevents the worst of our atrocities.

The Fear of God as Life-giving Attributes

In the end, yes, God is jealous. He hates. He is wrathful. And we are to fear Him. However, these attributes are oriented to give life. We fail to recognize this because we have difficulties recognizing and deferring to God in our lives.

It’s helpful to remember that all the words we have discussed are from a different culture, time, and place. The words jealousy, hatred, wrath, and fear did not exist in Israelite society because they had not been invented yet. Similar concepts did, but even those are shaped by different contexts. So, God did not speak these English words: “Do not worship any other God, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). Rather, what He said was rendered as

כִּ֛י לֹ֥א תִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה לְאֵ֣ל אַחֵ֑ר כִּ֤י יְהוָה֙ קַנָּ֣א שְׁמ֔וֹ אֵ֥ל קַנָּ֖א הֽוּא׃


While we can have confidence that our modern translators have rendered this passage correctly, we have to be aware that hearing or reading words alone is often not enough. All words are more than words on a page. They are pregnant with meaning from our personal experiences and the cultural milieu from which one has emerged. This is true for both the reader (that’s us) and the original author. Careful consideration of those facts should give us caution before we accuse this God of being guilty of the very things He is against.

All articles in this series:

Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction

God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2

God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3

God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4

God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6

Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7

Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8

Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9

Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12

Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14

Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15

To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16

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Image: Francisco Goya (1746-1828), “The Madness of Fear,” 1819-1823

[1] Michael Reeves, Rejoice & Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 29.

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., summarizing the work of John Bowlby, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 113.

[5] Exodus 34:14.