‘How blessed are they who fear the Lord’ Deuteronomy 5:23-33 May 3, 1992
After repeating the ten commandments which God delivered to Israel by the hand of Moses, Moses recalls the scene at the foot of Mount Sinai after the law had been given. The glory of God’s presence was still surrounding the mountain, the majesty of God was displayed in fire, thunder, and darkness and the people cowered in fear. They pled with Moses to approach the Lord and to speak on their behalf. They felt that they could not stand further close exposure to the glory of God, that it would literally kill them. They had discovered that day that one could hear God speak and survive. But they had no desire to go further. They were afraid. Even the fact that Moses himself had already gone up into that fire and darkness and survived was not enough to make them willing to approach themselves.
Now, some of this fear, was clearly the result of the faithlessness of this people. They did not have a true and living trust in God or love for him as events would subsequently demonstrate. They feared God the way guilty people fear God, for his justice and his wrath and his power. We will see this still more clearly in Deuteronomy chapter 9.
But that is not the whole explanation. For God does not dispute the request which the people made of Moses. Indeed, he commends it, as we read in v. 28. And then he goes on to say in the next verse that he would have his people always fear him as they feared him then at Sinai. Indeed, he says that if only they would fear him in that way, they would be blessed and things would go well with them and their children forever.
Now, it can hardly be denied that this message is not being widely proclaimed in our day. People today do not want to hear that they must fear God, still more that it is right that they should have such a reverence for the Almighty, that they should hold him in such awe, that it would be, should be a very big thing, even a risky thing in a certain way to draw near to his presence. This sense of God is alien to the typical Christian in our day. But, it is not alien to the Bible. There is a great deal about fearing God and in the New Testament as well as the Old.
Before we go any further, let me briefly distinguish this holy fear of God which the Bible is always recommending to Christians from other kinds of fearing God. There are good fears and bad fears, healthy and unhealthy fears. We know this. Fear of fire and of the edge of a cliff protect us from danger. But some people are paralyzed by irrational and unhealthy fears: fear of the dark, of leaving one’s home, of flying, and the like. There are fears which however rational are cruelly oppressive and demoralizing. These are fears the believer in Christ is definitely not to have or to submit to — perfect love casts out such fears as these, the Bible says. But the believer is very definitely supposed to fear God in a certain way or manner. What is the difference?
First of all, the true fear of God is a positive, not a negative thing; it is an expression of high regard for God not of alienation or of repulsion. It is taking God as seriously as his majesty requires, not hating to be near or with him.
The Bible often enough illustrates a fear of God which is slavish, which is really dread. There was some of this, as I said, in the attitude of the Israelites at Sinai, even if the formal request they made was proper. The Scriptures depict the unbelieving men and women as someday to be terrified by the drawing near of the Judge of all the earth. In Revelation 6: 16, for example, we read of those sinners who catch sight of the Lamb of God as he prepares to judge the earth: ‘And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.'” This is a perfectly rational fear for the unsaved, for they ought to be terrified of the wrath of God which is against them because of their sin, but it is nothing like the fear of him which God desires to find in the hearts of his children.
We do not see much of this kind of fear in our day, so seared has become the conscience of mankind. Hardly a sentence in all of Scripture better describes modern American society, whether central Los Angeles or elsewhere, than ‘there is no fear of God before their eyes.’ But, whenever the Spirit moves as he has in the past in days of revival, when the Spirit descends with power and attends the Word of God with convicting power, it is precisely this fear that suddenly appears: many for the first time seeing how desperately dangerous, how frightening it is to be so sinful and facing a God of such justice and wrath. [Aberdeen revival]
But this is not the fear of which the Lord was speaking in Deuteronomy 5:29. He did not want his people to have a craven fear or dread of him, however appropriate that kind of fear may be for those who are still in their sins. How could we believe that Christians should dread the Lord and his presence when so often in the Bible the Lord calls upon his children to love him, to trust him, to seek him, to draw near to him, to take comfort in him, to find peace and rest with him, and the like. Even here in Deuteronomy 5, the true fear of God is the path to his blessing and God desires that we fear him precisely because he loves us and wants the best for us.
Now Christians can sometimes be afflicted with a fear of God which has too much of dread and terror and repulsion in it. John Bunyan gives beautiful expression to this fact in the character in Pilgrim’s Progress whom Bunyan calls Mr. Fearing. Poor Mr. Fearing had so weak a faith and so strong a sense of the divine majesty that he was never sure whether God would save him or damn him. But Mr. Fearing is not Bunyan’s idea of what a Christian should be, but rather what some Christians are because of the difficulty they have in laying claim to their privileges as the children of God.
So, we can say that the fear of God that we ought to have is not a negative thing, a terror or dread. It is not distasteful and unwelcome such as fear of the dark or of heights, or even the fear of a sinner whose guilt has been unmasked in the presence of God.
The second thing we may say in distinguishing this true and holy fear of God from fear which is improper for Christians to have is that this holy fear does not drive out all other emotions before it or displace all other emotional states. The terrible thing about most fear is that it is all-consuming. Some of you know what it is like to be captive to fear and how it sets its foot upon your neck and will not let you up. People can be both physically and emotionally paralyzed by fear.
But the fear that is recommended here is not like that. The fear which is holy and proper for God’s people is a state of mind which is perfectly agreeable, perfectly congenial to many other states of mind at the same time. Fear and joy are not two things we think of as going together. We are inclined to think that the one rules out the other, and with many fears this is true. No one with claustrophobia can be happy in a dark closet. But the believer’s holy fear of God is not like this. For example, in Proverbs 28:14 we read: ‘Happy is the man who fears the Lord.’ The women who were the first witnesses of the empty tomb on Easter morning left the tomb, we read, ‘Afraid, yet filled with joy.’ In 1 Peter 1 Peter writes to his Christian friends: ‘Though you have not seen Christ you love him and believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy…’ but he goes on to tell the same Christians: ‘since you call on a Father who judges every man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.’
Or what of fear and love? At first we cannot easily think of loving what we fear. But this is and must be so for the Christian who is both to fear and love God. How does Psalm 118:4 read: ‘Let those who fear the Lord say: “His love endures forever.'” Or what of courage and fear? They seem at first glance to be opposites, but both biblical history and church history since often demonstrate that men and women who fear God have almost unlimited courage. When David says that ‘the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them,’ he seems to be saying that those who fear God have no one and nothing else to fear.
How all of these various states are compatible in the same soul at the same time is perhaps not so easy to explain, but real Christians know it very well from their own experience. This is, I think, what John Newton, the author of ‘Amazing Grace’ meant when he wrote: ‘How to fear, and not to fear, at the same time, is, I believe, one branch of that secret of the Lord which none can understand but by the teaching of his Spirit.’ [Works, vol. 6, p. 339]
When I was growing up I loved my Dad, but I feared him too. And far more it is right and good that God’s children — those who are at peace with him through Christ — should genuinely fear him and yet also passionately love him and delight in him and draw strength from him.
The fear of God of which the Lord is speaking here in Deuteronomy 5, this holy fear of God which all his children ought to have, we could define as an apprehension of the true majesty and glory of God. It is the awe which men ought to have in the presence of God’s greatness and wonder, it is the reverence, the high reverence which is appropriate to creatures before their Creator, finite persons before the infinite and Almighty God.
It was easy for Israel to have such reverence and fear. For they had with their own eyes seen terrific, breathtaking, heart-shuddering manifestations of the divine majesty. They knew in an instant the vastness which separated them from God; they knew well how the divine glory overwhelmed mankind and how it felt to be so small before something so infinitely great. They had come face to face with what later writers would call the mysterium tremendum, God the All-terrible.
But, we are not given to see such physical manifestations; and so our fear of God must be by faith and not by sight.
If we truly fear him, as we should, — for he is the same God today, with the same majesty and the same glory as terrified the people of God at Sinai — we too will be helped by that fear as God said Israel would be. Nothing leads to obedience more certainly than a true reverence for God, than some sense of his majesty, his immensity. Before such a God, a God who sits enthroned in the heavens, whom no man can see or has seen, before whose glory angels, whose own glory would shatter us, are themselves unable to look up, I say, before such a God, all our calculations are null and void. All the reasons why we were so sure that it was acceptable for us to do this or that, or not so important if we failed to do this or that, simply vanish. Suddenly, all that matters is that we do the will of this great God, that we obey him come wind, come weather. Catch one sight of the glory of God and any and all disobedience seems absurd, irrational, unquestionably wicked. It was for this reason that Bernard of Clairvaux said that the fear of the Lord was the janitor animae, the door-keeper of the soul. Sin is not likely to find much welcome in a soul often overwhelmed with the sublime splendor of God. Paul was speaking to the same effect when, in 2 Corinthians 7:1 he urged us to ‘purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of fear of God.’ No wonder Thomas Boston once referred to some sermons he was preaching as an effort ‘to terrify the godly.’
As the Lord said of his people then, at Sinai, would that we always had such a sight of God, and had such fear and reverence for him. How differently we would live; with what purity, circumspection, holiness. How sturdily we would resist temptation. How much our minds would be captivated by the glory of God and how eagerly we would seek to reflect that glory ourselves. How readily we would do even the most difficult things we were called upon to do.
I remember that when William Fare! wrote John Calvin to return to Geneva to continue the work of reformation there, Calvin expressed a decided reluctance to leave Strassbourg, where he had spent three happy and very fruitful years, to return to the opposition and bickering which had marked his first period of work in Geneva. He communicated his reasons for reluctance in a letter to Fare! and the reasons he preferred to stay where he was. But he then added: ‘I am well aware that it is with God that I have to do.’ And, as you know, he returned to Geneva to live and work there for the remainder of his life. ‘It is God with whom I have to do.’ And once one gets some sight of that God, once one has had to turn away his gaze from the brilliance of the divine glory of that God, all other considerations pale into nothing compared to this: ‘it is with God that I have to do.’
Charles Spurgeon in a sermon preached in 1857 asked this: ‘Did you never, in the silence of the night, look up and view the stars, feeding like sheep, on the azure pastures of the sky? Have you never thought of those great worlds, far, far away, divided from us by almost illimitable leagues of space? Did you never, whilst musing on the starry heavens, lose yourself in thoughts of God; and have you never felt, at such at a time, that you could say with Jacob, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the very gate of heaven.” Have you never seen the craggy hills lift their summits to the skies? Have you never marked the tempests sailing over them, and seen the thundercloud burst upon the mountain, and heard the heavens shake beneath the tramp of the Most High, and seen the skies all glaring red with fire, when God hath sent his thunderbolts abroad; and have you not trembled that God was there, and in other and happier seasons have you not in your chamber been so wrapt in devotion, have you not so manifestly known the presence of God that you were filled with trembling? Fear took hold on you and made all your bones to shake, not because you dreaded God, but because you then saw some of his greatness….God is so great a being, that the rightly constituted mind must always fear when it approaches into his presence.’ [NPSP, vol. 3, pp. 331-332]
Oh, it is a wonderful thing to have such a fear of God in our hearts, to feel the weight of his glory, to have that shudder pass often through our souls for but a glimpse of the majesty of the Almighty. What will the full sight be? How purifying, how strengthening, how ennobling of life is this true reverence for God.
And how then are we to seek and obtain it? Many things could be said. John Bunyan, in his ‘Treatise on the Fear of God’ gives us twelve directions for gaining and enlarging our reverence for the Lord. Certainly paramount among all these things is, by faith, to contemplate the glory of God, to consider and ponder in our souls the majesty of the Holy One. We think so little of God and our thoughts of him are so often so little; yet the Bible and the world around us are full of things which, if applied to our hearts in sincere meditation, would wonderfully deepen our fear of the Lord. Try this from the NT for example: ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ Or “For our God is a consuming fire.’
Another thing we must do is to pray for such a right reverence of God. If that reverence comes from an inner sight of his glory, then he alone can give it to us and we should be asking him for it always.
Another thing we must do, for ourselves and for one another, is to begin taking greater care of the way in which we use the Lord’s name and the way in which we address him. We are too familiar with God! We are not too intimate with him; we are not nearly intimate enough. That is a different thing. We are too familiar with God, too casual. We treat him too much, far too much as an equal and not as the God he is, whose glory would literally consume us in an instant were we to be given a clear sight of it. In a day when children do not speak respectfully to parents, or students to teachers, or minors to adults, perhaps it is only to be expected that human beings would be disrespectful in speaking to and about God. But that does not make it less a great evil.
Walking through the parking lot the other morning, before the Tacoma Prayer Breakfast, I passed a car with two bumper stickers side by side. One said ‘Jesus’; the other ‘Seattle Seahawks.’ I think, brothers and sisters, that ought to offend us and concern us much more than it does. And that kind of familiarity, bordering on contempt for the Lord’s name, ought to be rooted out of our speech. We ought always to refer to God as if we were seeing him at that moment. And how different we would speak then! I think of John Owen. If you read his works you will quickly discover that his favorite name for the Savior was ‘the Lord Christ.’ It is a good name. We would do well to use it more often. It would help ourselves and others keep a proper view of him in our hearts. After all, it is important for us to remember that we will never know the Lord Jesus as the disciples knew him during his ministry. His divine glory was hidden then as part of his humiliation. But it is hidden no longer and never shall be again.
In the upper room the night of the last Supper John laid his head on Christ’s breast. When John first encounters the Lord after his Ascension, on the Isle of Patmos, John tells us that when he saw him he fell at his feet as though dead. The Lord is not less loving, kind, or gentle for that glory; but he is as much to be feared as he is to be loved. And if you love him truly, you will want to give him the honor, the reverence, and the fear that is his due. And, beloved, that is a very very great deal of honor, reverence, and fear.