What Does It Mean to “Fear the Lord”?

In my last post, we looked at the biblical definition of “wisdom.” True wisdom is knowing God’s design for how his creation works, and living rightly in light of that design. It’s “heavenly perspective with earthly application.”

Wisdom isn’t just about making a smart choice; wisdom is about making a God-honoring choice. Of course, God-honoring choices also happen to be smart choices, since going against the designs of the One who created everything is, by definition, foolishness. It would be like putting water into the gasoline tank of your car — the results won’t be pretty. Far better to respect the maker’s intentions.

And that’s why the attainment of wisdom begins with the “fear of the Lord.”

But, just like “wisdom,” the “fear of the Lord” is another concept that needs careful definition.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” — Proverbs 9:10 (NIV)

As someone who has grown up in the so-called “Bible Belt” of America, the phrase “fear of the Lord” most often comes up as a bit of Southern slang about the need to shape up. If you don’t behave, you’re “gonna get the fear o’ Gawd put in ya!”

While it’s often just a harmless colloquialism, this careless usage tends to minimize the depth and goodness of the biblical concept. Such usage tends to be more about getting people to fall in line with human authority and less about honoring God.

Rather than focus on the cultural baggage that we’ve picked up from church or culture, we should look at the places in the Bible that use this phrase and see how it’s used in context. That’ll give us a better picture of what Proverbs is talking about.

To Fear the LORD Is . . . .

To find out how the phrase is used in Scripture, I went to a searchable online Bible concordance (in this case I used Biblegateway.com) and I typed in “fear Lord” in the search bar and looked at every passage that had those words in a statement together. I also searched “fear God.” (This is a simple but useful method you can try any time you want to study a biblical concept. It gets you immersed in the actual words of Scripture before jumping to a commentary or someone else’s interpretation to check your work.)

The first passage that search turned up was Exodus 9:27-30. It’s a tense scene – Pharaoh is begging Moses to end the plague of hail coming upon Egypt, and in return he says he’ll finally let the Israelite slaves go free (spoiler alert: he’s lying). Moses knows Pharaoh is lying, so he essentially says, “Okay, fine. I’ll pray to the Lord and the hail will stop, so that you may know that the earth belongs to the Lord. But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.”

So in this case, fearing God means recognizing his authority; it means you take him seriously enough to do what he says (see also Psalm 2:11).

Another interesting thing in this same passage: earlier, in Exodus 9:20-21 (this is before the plague of hail), it says, “Then whoever feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the LORD left his slaves and his livestock in the field.”

Did you catch the parallel? Whoever “feared” the Lord’s word paid attention to it and responded appropriately (see also Deuteronomy 13:4).

If you search “fear God,” on the other hand, that phrase shows up even earlier, in Genesis 20:11. In that passage, we’re told that Abram lied to Pharaoh about Sarai being his wife because he thought, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”

In other words, the fear of God is what keeps people from murdering and doing other evil things. This moral aspect of the fear of the Lord is the aspect most emphasized in Proverbs:

“Don’t be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil.” — Proverbs 3:7 (CSB)

“To fear the Lord is to hate evil. I hate arrogant pride, evil conduct, and perverse speech.” — Proverbs 8:13 (CSB)

“Iniquity is atoned for by loyalty and faithfulness, and one turns from evil by the fear of the Lord.” — Proverbs 16:6 (CSB)

From these references, we can start to put some things together. Fearing God means recognizing what he can do and acknowledging that he’s in charge. It means paying attention to his words. And it results in moral integrity.

More simply put, it’s about having a deep respect for the Lord and seeking to honor him in all of your choices. Fearing the Lord means realizing that because he is the center of the universe, you are not, and therefore your decisions cannot be merely about what’s most expedient for you.

This is the foundation for making wise decisions in life. Want to get more wisdom? Fear the Lord.

See you down the path.

 

P.S. — For now, we’ve only looked at how the Old Testament talks about the fear of the Lord. The theme continues in the New Testament, but that’s a subject for another post! 😉



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  1. Does the New Testament Teach Us Not to Fear God? – Theology Pathfinder

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