Today, I figured it would be fun to do a little word study out of the Bible. Maybe you have heard the term, “Fear God.” I struggled with this for a lot of years because I thought it meant I was to be afraid of God, as if He is some vicious supernatural that is out to get me. I don’t really think that anymore, and here is how I got there.
I had to realize that every word has a range of meanings. Let’s take the word hand for example: my right hand, the hands of an enemy, on the other hand, my hand in marriage, I tried my hand at sailing, dealt a bad hand, and the work of my hand.
For many of us, we don’t even think twice about the different meanings. We can keep them all straight. But for whatever reason, I lost that when it came to reading the Bible, and would often land on one single meaning of a word.
If we look at “fear” as we do “hand,” it might be surprising what we find out. “And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” Exodus 14:1
If you thought hand had a lot of different meanings, did you know there are at least 15 Hebrew nouns that are translated about fear in the Old Testament? We know what fear means in English; does it mean the same in Hebrew? Let’s go a little further.
“Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 25:17 We have our fears: snakes, heights, spiders, etc. They terrify us. So is this what fear your God means? Should we be afraid of him? I can flip a few more pages and you see this is Deuteronomy 6:13: “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” And then this in Proverbs 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
At this point, I start thinking to myself, “I just need to stick to the New Testament.” But I flip some more and read this in Philippians 2:12: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling …”
I’m supposed to fear God, but does that mean God is scary, does that mean He’s angry, does that mean He’s powerful? What does it mean to fear? Then the next day I show up at church and I hear this in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
At this point, I felt thoroughly confused. What is this “fear God” thing? This is where one of my friends stepped in and gave me a little clue that has helped me out.
He said, “We do not determine the meaning of a word, we discover it.”
From there I went on this little journey, which I like to call a word study. First, I identify the word. This is where I look for repeated words, puzzling words, and stand out words.
Second, I look up the range of meaning by using tools like biblegateway.com or biblehub.com. Third, I analyze the context. How has the author used this word before? Finally, I attempt to answer the question: Which meaning is the best fit?
If I do this with “fear” it can mean: afraid of a person, feeling of terror, dread of punishment, trust with reverence, proceed with caution.
I’ve identified the word, I’ve documented the range of meaning, so it’s time to analyze the context. The context with this phrase, since it spans the entire Bible, is more than just one author. The Bible as a whole gives us this context: God is powerful, God judges evil, God is sovereign, and God is loving and God is for us. As we seek the best fit for “Fear of the Lord” it would be trust and reverence.
Or you could say it this way: A deep sense of awe resulting in a relationship of trust with humble respect. With all this in mind, we’ve done a word study and now know what the Bible means when it talks about fear.
The reason I think this is important is because for some of us, the idea of fear of the Lord is not about trust and reverence but about punishment. Maybe you see God as a dictator type deity and He is taking away your freedoms and out to get you. Friends, this just isn’t the case. We have a loving, relational God, who deeply, personally wants a relationship with you.
Understanding how big and powerful He is makes, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life,” an even more exceptional fact of how far Jesus is willing to go for us.
Just some thoughts I had percolating in my head. See you out there!
Phil Wiebe is the lead pastor at Lakeview Church in Stansbury Park.