Yi'at Adonai
The Fear of the Lord

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There is a picture which I have seen hanging in a few homes in Italy which has made a real impression on me¹. In fact, I think it is profound, and, assuming such a classification is meaningful, it is currently my favourite piece of Christian art. The subject of the painting is an elderly man, hands clasped together in prayer whilst saying grace over some simple bread and soup, which are in front of a large closed Bible also on the table. There is a great strength visible in this man. He is simple and uncomplicated, and may almost be despised as such by middle-class persons like I from a complex and sophisticated world.
Yet, you are drawn in admiration to him, for in your heart of hearts you know that you would rather be more like him than yourself. He would not notice you, not out of indifference but because he is focused so much on God that he is almost oblivious to your very existence. Although the pressure and wear of life is etched onto his face, and this a man who has clearly lived a full life, there is a simple but pervasive trust in the provision of his creator. His table is almost bare, his possessions undoubtedly few, but he does own what matters. The nature of his relationship with God will surely ensure that all his needs and critical desires will be met by him; therefore there is no need to resort to any covetousness. This is a man who really does fear the Lord, not because God is his tyrant, but because the man acknowledges who the Lord is in such a way as to determine his thought and conduct, and his whole life is focused on serving and obeying him. Even if the hardest of situations were to come his way, his faith would not be shaken, since he knows that any human predicament is best lived in the Lord’s presence rather than outside it. He fears the Lord, and it is impossible to shift his life out of balance from this axis. In the midst of scarcity he has absolute confidence in the Lord’s provision, and even if it were not so he would decide to serve him anyway. I find him to be both an inspiration and a challenge. Why? Because he fears the Lord, a necessary prerequisite for the Believers life, but one I have heard taught little.

Throughout the Wisdom Literature of the Bible² the fear of the Lord contributes significantly to critical areas of human life. Firstly, it is the basis of the believer's security and protection. The Lord "stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk uprightly” (Proverbs 2:7). The Lord supports the Godfearer, but in what way? King Solomon asserted that, “In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, and his children will have a place of refuge” (Proverbs 14:26). As a military ruler, Solomon would have known all about the art of constructing high defences that could not be breached. And he compares the fear of the Lord with such a defence. It has the capacity to completely frustrate any external attacker. Solomon is safe within it. His dependence on the Lord is demonstrated by his fear of the Lord as opposed to man, and this dependence on the Lord for protection, allows the Lord to put up defences around him. Furthermore, Solomon, who depends on the Lord, puts his own dependents (his children) into the refuge which is represented by the fortress of the fear of the Lord. The clear implication of all this is that those who serve and please the Lord, will find their protection under him. The fear of the Lord orders our life in such a way that it becomes a fortress around us. The fear of the Lord provokes us to trust him to the extent that we cannot be successfully assaulted. In a treacherous world full of danger and destruction our fortress cannot be broken down, for within the boundaries of the Lord’s protection both the humble man and his family are safe. However, we should “serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in him” (Psalm 2:11,12). Clearly, security or destruction, life or death, depend on our practical acknowledgment of God and his provision. Therefore we are commanded to “Obey the LORD, and you will live a long life content and safe from harm” (Proverbs 19:23).

This is because the humble dependence on the Lord which provides us with security is also the act of living itself for the fear of the Lord is the basis of life. So, we are told, "The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to avoid the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27). This illustration of a fountain has strong nuances of abundance and continuity, for there are implications of an extravagant water flow bubbling up from a limitless source. In the context of the Ancient Middle East this fountain could be an effective oasis surrounded by a parched desert. It is a source of life itself surrounded only by death. Solomon appears to regard drinking from this fountain as an alternative to the snares and ways of death to be found in the desert. The desert is vast but this fountain is in a specific location - the fear of the Lord. Within the desert there are many ways in which your life could be taken, it is a dangerous place; whereas the fountain is a place not only for survival but also for life itself. We not only survive in the fear of the Lord we also thrive as well. The fear of the Lord is the point at which we choose life over death, living over dying, for when we serve and please the Author of Life in humility we find access to eternal life in abundance. The promise is that “by humility and fear of the LORD are riches and honour and life” (Proverbs 22:4). The quality of life is transformed for those who fear the Lord, particularly those whose life gets into the right pattern whilst they are young and have time on their side. The Psalmist asks, “Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:11). It appears that the moral choices, which the man who fears the Lord acts on as imperative, actually reduce stress and add longevity! “The fear of the LORD preserves days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened” (Proverbs 10:27).

It is ignorant not to fear the Lord (Proverbs 1:29). In fact, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years of life will be added to you. If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, and if you scoff, you alone bear it” (Proverbs 9:10-13). As well as abundance of life, wisdom is another quality which flows from the fear of the Lord: in fact King Solomon states, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). For when we look beyond humanistic philosophy that is so prevalent in our society, this is so obvious! God made all, and knows all - if we acknowledge him he will want to share his wisdom and knowledge with the humble! In fact, “The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, and before honour is humility” (Proverbs 15:33). Those who fear the Lord are always learning in the school of their creator. “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). These three come from knowing him, not merely about him for, “The secret of the LORD is with those who fear him, and he will show them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14). It is in relationship with God that wisdom is accrued. But this relationship is based on our obedience in fear. True intimacy with God has its roots in us acknowledging his royal rule not in being “chummy”! Not only is the fear of the Lord the basis of a healthy relationship with him, it also drives out the need to fear the world for if “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1-2). The most practical and effective way of fearing man less is by fearing God more! If it is God who we are pleasing and serving we are safe on the right path. One logical consequence of the fear of the Lord is that a life based on humble service of our creator will lead to a rejection of the wrong path, for “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13). Our relationship with him will lead to an acquired taste for the understanding and application of good since, “Behold, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). As well as stimulating the believer to opt for holiness the fear of the Lord also assists the believer in not being envious of evil, even when it seems to be succeeding in the world. We are warned in Scripture, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but in the fear of the LORD continue all day long” (Proverbs 23:17). This because no matter what evil is done, planned or even contemplated, “in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God” (Ecclesiastes 5:7). Therefore, as well as the stresses of life, evil plans and lives cannot outflank God’s ultimate veto and judgment; Babylon will be burnt and come crashing down. So why envy evil in a society which is absolutely accountable to God! Thus, pleasing God is what matters not getting away with exploiting others, for “better is a little with the fear of the LORD, than great treasure with trouble” (Proverbs 15:16). Furthermore, unlike the transient nature of sin and its works, “the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever” (Psalm 19:9).

There were many points in David’s life where he failed as an ideal king. For example he committed adultery with Bathsheba, was an accomplice in the murder of Uriah the Hittite, took to many wives, indulged his sons, took an illegal census and promoted forced labour projects. Yet, he always seemed to know and be known by a creator whom he ultimately always feared and worshipped. Therefore, he could always approach God on the basis of mercy rather than merit no matter what he had done. And, David also knew how to repent. Once when repenting of sin David stated, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul. I cried to him with my mouth, and he extolled my tongue. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the LORD will not hear. But certainly God has heard me; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away from my prayer, nor his mercy for me!” (Psalm 66:16-20). Even when he was being bad rather than good David always knew to approach God in fear, accept any consequences from his hand, repent and move forward. Obviously, prevention is better than cure, and it is clearly best not to do some of the things David did, but we can learn a lot from David on the topic of how to deal with our shortcomings. When we are in the seat of sin it is very natural, but disastrous, to want to shrink back and distance ourselves from God. We would only want to know God if he was approachable, soft and nice, but that is not what the reality of our sins deserve! It is true that we need to ultimately know God’s love but in reality we often need a revelation of the fear of the Lord which is powerful enough to break our pattern of sin before we experience his love casting them out as our fear of man is broken and displaced by a greater reverence towards God.

The fear of the Lord is a neglected subject, but nevertheless a precious one. Those who fear the Lord find their protection and security in him, have an abundance of life, become wise, and discover the capacity to fear man less, and do the right thing more often. These are all critical areas of practical holiness where we are being impeded by neglecting the fear of the Lord. I want to be more like the man in the painting I mentioned, and would like this article to primarily honour God but also thank some Italian brothers who have recently challenged the nonsense that my life became when I did not fear the Lord. We should always fear the Lord, serve and please him, be always in gratitude to our creator and never presume what we do not know.

¹Grace by Enstrom
²Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs

An edited version of this article first appeared in the September 2006 edition of the Herald

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