Sep 14, 2023

What Is the Fear of God?

4 Min Read

Psalm 130:4 is one of those verses that makes your eyes screech to a halt on the page: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” It sounds all wrong. “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be loved” would make sense. So would “But with you there is judgment, that you may be feared.” But that is not what it says.

Stranger still is the fact that the psalmist just doesn’t look afraid of God. Quite the opposite. Straight after verse 4, he goes on to write of how “his soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen [wait] for the morning” (Ps. 130:5–6). He fully embraces the fact that “with the Lord there is steadfast love” and “plentiful redemption” (Ps. 130:7).

That is because the fear of the Lord that Scripture commends and which the gospel produces is actually the opposite of being afraid of God. See, for example, Exodus 20, where the people of Israel gather at Mount Sinai:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Ex. 20:18–20, emphasis added).

Moses here sets out a contrast between being afraid of God and fearing God: those who have the fear of Him will not be afraid of Him.

A Filial Fear

The right fear of God is, quite explicitly, a blessing of the new covenant. Speaking of the new covenant, the Lord promised through Jeremiah: “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jer. 32:39–40).

In Jeremiah 33, the Lord goes on to explain the nature of this new covenant fear in words so striking they overturn all our expectations. He promises: “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it” (Jer. 33:8–9, emphasis added).

The right fear of God is, quite explicitly, a blessing of the new covenant.

This is not a fear of punishment—of what God might do if His people turn away from Him. Quite the opposite: in Jeremiah 33, the Lord reeled off a catalog of pure blessing. He would cleanse them, forgive them, and do great good for them. And they fear and tremble precisely because of all the good He does for them.

Here is not a fear that stands on the flip side of the grace and goodness of God. It is the sort of fear Hosea describes when he prophesies how “the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days” (Hos. 3:5, emphasis added). It is a fear “to the Lord and to his goodness.”

In fact, it is Jesus’ own filial fear that believers are brought to share. Jesus is the Spirit-anointed Christ who Isaiah prophesied would come forth from the stump of Jesse:

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord
. (Isa. 11:1–3, emphasis added)

Now, it is not that He loves God and has joy in God but finds, unfortunately, that to fulfill all righteousness He also must fear God. Quite the opposite: the Spirit who rests on Him is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord, and His delight is in the fear of the Lord. This filial fear is part of the Son’s pleasurable adoration of His Father; indeed, it is the very emotional extremity of that wonder.

Forgiveness is the Soil of Fear

What Psalm 130:4 teaches us is that forgiveness is the fertile soil for growing a right fear of God. Without God’s forgiveness we could never approach Him or want to. Without the cross, God would be only a dreadful Judge of whom we would be afraid.

It is divine forgiveness and our justification by faith alone that turns our natural dread of God as sinners into the fearful, trembling adoration of beloved children.

“Oh! that a great God should be a good God,” wrote John Bunyan, “a good God to an unworthy, to an undeserving, and to a people that continually do what they can to provoke the eyes of his glory; this should make us tremble.”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 3, 2021.