The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
–Proverbs 1:7 NIV
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I looked forward to Saturdays, not only for the Saturday morning cartoons, but for the Saturday afternoon monster movie matinees. Yes, my siblings and I would sit for hours glued to the TV on any given Saturday, especially when the upstate New York weather put the kibosh on romping around in four-foot-deep snow drifts, or hiking through the woods because it was pouring down rain.
I loved those old black-and-white movies like The Crawling Eye, The Blob, Them, King Kong, The Monolith Monsters, and all the Godzilla movies. The theme of monsters being created by radiation rang loud and clear back then, as the nation slogged through the Cold War, and the fear of nuclear annihilation hung like a pall of neutrons over our heads. We even practiced air raid drills in elementary school. But my favorite movie at the time had nothing to do with being vaporized by an H-bomb, but being scared to death by the ghostly skeleton of a woman dressed in a white wedding gown. I remember watching the 1958 classic, The Screaming Skull, at my friend Kevin’s house one Saturday afternoon after a sleepover in their big, creepy two-story house in the woods, complete with a graveyard hidden deep in the shadows of the backyard copse.
So on that fateful day, when the ghost of Marion, the murdered wife, appeared in snowy black-and-white on Kevin’s television, I hid behind the sofa in utter fear until he somehow coaxed me out and convinced me to watch the rest of the flick with him. After recently renting The Screaming Skull through Netflix, and inviting Mary to watch it with me, I now know how campy, stupid, and poorly-acted that movie really was, but back then, to such a young and impressionable pre-adolescent mind, it scared the bejeezus out of me! That, to me, was the definition of fear–plain, simple, and all-too-real. I don’t remember spending very many more nights at Kevin’s house after that.
Thus my initial confusion when I first started reading the Bible and came across the phrase “fear of the Lord.” Fear of the Lord? Really? I mean, I feared screaming skulls, being in the woods at night, driving in a blizzard, the crawl space in the basement, going to confession, talking to a girl, reading out loud in class, and getting a B in a third-year engineering class, but fear of the Lord? I thought God was supposed to love me, protect me, and wrap me in peace, provision, and security; why should I be afraid of Him? It wasn’t until recently that the true meaning of the term “fear of the Lord” came into the light–it was an “ah ha” moment which brought into focus my theological understanding of fear.
The Hebrew word for the noun “fear” in this context is yir’âh, which can mean both fear or terror and reverence or respect, depending on the context. In Isaiah 11:1-3a (NIV), one of Isaiah’s prophecies about the birth and ministry of the Messiah includes the noun yir’âh as one of the outpourings of the Holy Spirit:
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 might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
This Old Testament passage is the source of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (the “Spirit of the Lord”), of which the gift of “fear of the Lord” is stated, then reiterated as something to be delighted in–to take joy in!
Likewise, in the New Testament, the Greek word for the verb “to fear” is phŏbĕō, which also has a multi-faceted meaning: to fear, to frighten, or to be afraid and to reverence or to venerate. And the Greek word for the noun “fear” is phŏbŏs, meaning fear or terror and (interestingly) reverence for one’s husband. In his first epistle, the apostle John wrote:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
–1 John 4:18 (NIV)
Because the fear John is writing about here is phŏbŏs, i.e., terror, this kind of fear cannot stand up to God, the Source of perfect love and perfect security; on the contrary, since perfect love drives out phŏbŏs, fear of just punishment is replaced by awe, wonder, reverence, and respect. This reverential joy, this fear inspired by redemption and fullness of relationship with God is the kind of fear He desires from His adopted sons and daughters. “Serve the LORD with fear,” the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 2:11, “and rejoice before him; with trembling pay homage to him.” (Psalm 2:11a NASB).
Copyright ©2013 by David C. Hughes