This concept is one which is scarcely understood anymore. Yet it is vitally important. Without it, our lives are vain. The Bible makes that plain. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes his exploration of human existence at a time when he was less under the influence of the fear of God than he once had been. His recollection of that exploration brought out his repeated lament: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity”. A life which does not have the glory of God as its main aim is, in the final analysis, vain, empty, pointless. No wonder then that Solomon brings this Book to an end with these memorable and emphatic words: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (12:13f).
What then is the fear of God? Solomon himself explains: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov 8:13). The hearts of those who fear God have been so moulded by the Holy Spirit that they hate evil. It follows that they keep Gods commandments. They have turned their backs on sin; their desires are after holiness; they are departing from evil. This fear is not to be thought of as terror. It is the fear of those who have been adopted into the family of God and who therefore love Him. They have seen the evil of sin and its offensiveness to a holy God. Accordingly, they are afraid of displeasing Him. So they desire not to sin; like Job, they eschew evil; they carefully avoid it as if they would get as far away from it as possible.
Those who are still in the kingdom of Satan may give up some sins and hold on to others; they may give up committing various outward sins and yet hold on to them in their hearts. But “by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil” (Prov 16:6). Those who fear God are sincerely turning away from sin, not only outwardly, but from the heart. The emphasis here is not on fear of the consequences of sin; those who fear God are afraid of sinning because they have seen the holiness of God and His commandments, and they wish not to break them. No one else departs from evil effectively. Yes, this fear will be imperfect in this world, but it will not always be so. These people are on their way to a state of absolute perfection, where they will do the will of God from the heart for ever and ever.
The Messiah, and He alone, had a full measure of this fear. “The Spirit of the Lord”, said the Prophet Isaiah, “shall rest upon Him . . . and shall make Him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord” (Is 11:2f). Accordingly, those who have been recreated in His image have begun to walk in the same fear of God. The Spirit of the Lord came to dwell in them at the time of their regeneration and He will continue His work of sanctification in them until, at the time of their passing into eternity, He will make them perfectly holy, and fit to dwell in the presence of God for ever.
How were Israel, Gods people in Old Testament times, to live? It was made clear to them in the following question: “What doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and His statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?” (Deut 10:12f). The fear of God then will issue in loving, full-hearted obedience to all Gods commandments. This kind of obedience is what God requires. This is what we in New Testament times also are duty-bound to conform to. The two ideas: the fear of God and keeping His commandments, are put side by side because they are so intimately connected; the one naturally flows from the other. It is only where the fear of God exists that an individual will, in any worthwhile sense, begin to keep the commandments of God from the heart. Paul makes it plain: “They that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8).
What was demonstrated in the life of Abraham by that supreme act of obedience when he was willing to offer up his only-begotten son? It was this: in his heart there was the fear of God. The Lord told him, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen 22:12). Says Matthew Henry: “God knew it before, but now Abraham had given a most memorable evidence of it. He needed to do no more; what he had done was sufficient to prove the religious regard he had to God and His authority.” It is that religious regard to God and His authority that is the essence of the fear of God.
John Preston, one of the earlier Puritans, counselled: “Learn to fear the Lord, to tremble at His words and, seeing He will endure no uncleanness in His own people, stand in awe and sin not. Labour to bring your hearts to such a constitution, to such an awful respect, as to fear to omit any known duty or commit the least sin; and this had need to be urged upon you, for it is the cause of all laxness and looseness in our profession that we do not fear the Lord as we should. If we had the fear of God before our eyes, as the Apostle speaks (Rom 3:18) that is, if we saw the Lord so as to fear Him we should walk warily, and look how and where we set every step; and the reason why you are so uneven, and not like yourselves, is from want of the fear of the Lord.
“Now the reason of that phrase of the Apostle, that the fear of God is said to be before your eyes, is from the nature of fear; as if a man be busy about anything, if there be anything that he fears, he will still have an eye to that, and he watcheth lest it should come with some bye blow when he thinks not of it. And so doth the fear of the Lord work where it is, it fasteneth our eyes on Him; and if the Lord were thus before our eyes to fear Him, it would make us walk more evenly and more constantly with Him. And therefore, when the Holy Ghost in Scripture would choose to commend a man, He singles out this property of fearing God, as that Job was an upright man, fearing God. . . . If a man stand in awe of the Lord, he would be afraid of every sin; he would be afraid of vain thoughts, of being vain in his speeches and of giving way to the least wickedness; afraid of every inordinate action; he would be afraid how he spent the time from morning till night, and how to give an account thereof.”
As we get glimpses in the Scriptures of the lives of Gods children, we repeatedly see evidence of the fear of God that religious regard to God and His authority. Yet perhaps, in the whole of the Bible, there is no clearer manifestation of the fear of God than Josephs reaction when he was tempted by Potiphars wife to commit adultery: “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen 39:9). Joseph might well have had other things in view, especially the consequences of that sin from Potiphar of course and, above all, from the Lord Himself. But Joseph, as a true child of God, could see clearly the supreme evil of sin and the unspeakable dishonour to God which every sin brings. While Potiphar would indeed be dishonoured by this sin, it was above all dishonouring to God.
No doubt it is because this generation has so largely lost sight of the authority of God as Creator that people today so readily break the Seventh Commandment. “There is no fear of God before [their] eyes” (Ps 36:1) is the conclusion that must be drawn from the lifestyles which are common in modern society. Well might we use Abrahams words almost everywhere today in view of the almost universal disregard for God and His commandments: “Surely the fear of God is not in this place” (Gen 20:11).
This was first use of the expression the fear of God, although Abraham was himself found lacking in his trust in God at this point. But again and again this expression is used to describe true piety. Abraham clearly had that fear, albeit the fruits of his piety were less easily to be seen on some occasions. Yet the fact remains that possession of the fear of God does make an observable difference in the believers life. Believers bear fruit, more or less obviously, and that fruit distinguishes them from those who do not have the fear of God. Their lives are different.
Nehemiah as Governor of Judah was mindful of the poverty of the people. Previous governors had provided themselves with food and wine, and a salary, at the expense of the people. Nehemiah could have done so too; but, he tells us, “so did not I because of the fear of God” (Neh 5:15). Those who fear God have a new nature, and this new nature will show itself, more or less clearly, in the way they live. In passing, let us note Matthew Pooles comment on Nehemiah words: “This he speaks, not to commend himself, but rather to diminish his praise, and to show that this was no heroical action, nor work of supererogation, to be admired rather than imitated; but only his duty in that case, which for his own sake he durst not decline; and consequently that it was their duty also now to relinquish even those rights which in other times and conditions they might lawfully require”.
Nehemiah lived as one who was never out of Gods sight and this influenced his relationships with others. David might have been describing him when he sang of the man who shall dwell in Gods holy hill: “He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not” (Ps 15:2-4).
Moses might have chosen the pleasures of this world when he grew up. No doubt, the prospect of life in the Egyptian palace would have been very attractive to any carnally-minded Israelite. But, by the time Moses reached adulthood, he had been given a spiritual mind; the fear of God reigned in his heart. Faith was uppermost, not the spirit of the world. So we read that “by faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaohs daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb 11:24f).
The Children of Israel were a despised people; if he joined them, Moses would have to give up much that was attractive to the flesh. The friends of his younger days might have hurled after him reproaches which were loud and sharp. They would have thought it absurd for him to give up the rosy prospects which were bound up with a life at court. But Moses knew otherwise. He had chosen the God of Israel as his God in spite of every worldly consideration; earthly prospects did not mean much in comparison with the blessing of God. We are told that he esteemed “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward”.
Moses has entered into that reward. He is experiencing eternal blessedness. He now knows the full meaning of the truth: “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth greatly in His commandments” (Ps 112:1). All who fear God experience His blessing in this life. At death, their souls will enter into a state of perfect blessing. And at the judgement they will hear Christ say to them, “Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mat 25:34).