I remember sitting in the back of my grandmother’s church one summer Sunday morning as a little girl—my small feet dangling from the pew, not quite touching the floor. I can’t remember most of what the pastor said that morning, but I do remember his loud voice bellowing out from the pulpit as he talked about a topic that at once left me confused and afraid.
What was that topic that triggered both reactions in my mind? The fear of God.
As a young girl who grew up in the church, I felt like I knew a lot about God. But I’d never heard anyone say that we should fear Him before. The idea didn’t make sense to me.
After all, my Sunday School teachers had faithfully taught me that God is love (1 John 4:16). I knew He was good and kind and that He wanted a relationship with me. Why would I ever fear someone like that? It felt impossible for God to be both perfectly loving and worthy of my fear—right?
Perhaps you, too, have wrestled with similar thoughts. The fear of the Lord can be a confusing concept to wrap our minds around. Yet it is key to our understanding of God’s character. So, to better understand what it means to fear God, let’s turn to Scripture. While there are many passages that could aid our understanding, let’s start with Exodus 14.
Israel’s Fear of the Lord
Exodus 14 describes the young nation of Israel’s miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt. After a series of gruesome plagues, the Egyptian pharaoh finally let the Israelites go free—only to change his mind and send his army after them. The Israelites became terrified when they saw the Egyptians approaching (Exodus 14:10–12). Yet the Lord reassured them through their leader, Moses (Exodus 14:13–14), and then miraculously delivered them. He led them through the Red Sea on dry land while Pharaoh’s army was swallowed up in defeat (Exodus 14:15–30).
What did the Israelites do in response to this amazing miracle? Scripture tells us in Exodus 14:31: “When Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and believed in him and in his servant Moses.”
Did you catch that? In response to God’s great power, glory, and deliverance, the Israelites feared Him. They feared God because of what they’d seen him do—because of who they knew Him to be and how He had saved them in the face of the impossible.
And the same is true for us. As Christians, we fear God because we know who He is and what He has done. We fear God because we know His power and His might that has saved us, too, from the impossible. Without Christ’s saving work, we would be condemned to death. But through Christ, we are released from slavery to sin and death and brought to life (Romans 6:6–10).
But practically, what does it mean to “fear God”? For the unbeliever, fearing God rightly looks like terror and dread, for unbelievers stand guilty and condemned before a holy God. But for the believer, the fear of the Lord doesn’t look like terror or dread. Instead, for the Christian, fearing God looks like reverence, awe, and worship because of His power, glory, and goodness.
To understand this, we can return to our passage in Exodus. What did Israel do after they “feared the Lord” at the end of Exodus 14? The answer might surprise you. They didn’t run and hide in terror; instead, they sang. As recorded in Exodus 15:1–21, the Israelites lifted their voices in worship, praise, and adoration to their great God. The Israelites’ fear of the Lord led to their worship of Him.
Again, the same should be true for us. As we get to know God more—as we discover more of His character, learn about His great works, and ultimately receive the gift of salvation He has provided for us in Christ—we grow in reverence and worship. We lift our voices in praise to Him, just as the Israelites did in Exodus 15. Indeed, it is good and right for believers to fear the Lord in this way.
Scripture has much more to say about the fear of the Lord—including that it is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, and it is a fountain of life (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, 14:27). Scripture also gives us many examples of faithful saints who feared the Lord (Genesis 22:12, 42:18; Job 1:1, 8; Acts 9:31, Hebrews 11:7). While none of these individuals were perfect, their lives were marked by reverence of God. May the same be true of us.
Though my young mind couldn’t quite fathom it that Sunday morning as I sat in the church pew, it is possible for God to be both completely loving and completely worthy of our fear. So, let us praise God for every aspect of who He is as we grow in our fear of Him—because this is what our loving and mighty God deserves.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary