Vol. XX, No. 2
The Fear of the Lord
A Biblical Understanding
by Bishop Arthur Serratelli
Fear: an emotion that hardly seems desirable! At least, that is what most people think. Francis Bacon once said, “Nothing is terrible except fear itself.” Edmund Burke believed that “no passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”
Because of this negative understanding of fear as a disabling emotion, many people reckon fear a detriment to our relationship with God. Some would banish the very mention of fear of the Lord from any liturgical text. Others would exorcise it completely from our religious vocabulary. How could we possibly speak of fear in approaching a God who loves us so much? After all, does not the Bible itself say that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7)?
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle defined fear as a pain arising from the anticipation of evil. He said that “fear is caused by whatever we feel has great power of destroying us, or of harming us in ways that tend to cause us great pain” (cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book, Chapter 5). For Aristotle, fear is opposed to love. Thus, he concluded that “no one loves the man whom he fears.”
Yet, contrary to this understanding, Sacred Scripture tells us that the God whom we are to love, we are told also to fear. “Now, therefore … what does the Lord, your God, ask of you but to fear the Lord, your God, to follow in all His ways, to love and serve the Lord, your God, with your whole heart and with your whole being” (Dt 10:12). In defining our relationship with God, Deuteronomy places fear of the Lord first. And not by accident.
At least 300 times, the Bible uses the word “fear” in reference to God. In Genesis 22, the idea of the fear of God, not as dreading God, but as reverencing and obeying Him, is found for the first time. The aging patriarch Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. For Abraham, this means the end of the promise that he would be father of a great people with progeny as numerous as the sands on the seashore (cf. Gen 32:12). But, at the very moment when Abraham is about to do as he has been commanded, the angel of the Lord stays his hand with these words: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son” (Gen 22:12). In this instance, fear means obedience, not slavish or feudal, but filial. It is the obedience of faith that stands in awe of God and trusts God, who is always beyond our human understanding.
When the patriarch Joseph wishes his brothers to know that he would do them no harm, he assures them that he fears God (cf. Gen 42:18). When a violent storm threatens to destroy the ship on which the prophet Jonah is traveling, the sailors question his goodness. He responds by saying, “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Both Joseph and Jonah stand in awe and reverence before the will of God. They are to be trusted.
Nehemiah was the governor of the Jews when they returned to their land after the Babylonian Captivity. He describes himself as a man who desires to fear God (cf. Neh. 1:11). In other words, he holds God as the “great and awesome God” (Neh. 1:5, 4:14). He has nothing but the highest respect and reverence for Him.
In the events leading up to the Exodus, Pharaoh commands the Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. But, instead, they spare the boys’ lives. Because the midwives fear God, they disobey the unjust civil authority (cf. Ex 1:17-20). Fear of the Lord is not an emotion. It is the acknowledgement by word and deed that the world is in the hands of God.
The author of Psalm 111, like the author of Proverbs, highly values the fear of the Lord as an incentive to a righteous walk with God (cf. Ps 111:10; Prov 9:10). Qoheleth goes as far as to sum up our entire relationship with God by saying, “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Eccles 12:13). In 27 places, the Bible commends the fear of the Lord as something positive, helpful, and enabling.
The biblical understanding of fear, therefore, is much different from the one we find among philosophers and in common use. Its meaning is rich and varied. The Hebrew word yirah (fear) means more than the feeling of dread or anxious anticipation in the face of danger. It includes reverence, wonder, awe, amazement, astonishment, and even worship. Some Jewish sages make an etymological link between the word yirah (fear) and the word ra’ah (seeing). For them, seeing reality as it truly is means being filled with wonder and overcome with awe (cf. John J. Parsons, Parashat Eikev; The Fear of the Lord).
When we truly fear the Lord, we stand in awe of His mystery, and realize, as Abraham Herschel has said, “that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.... It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe” (Abraham Herschel, Who Is Man?, Chapter 5).
The Scriptures affirm that this awe, this reverence, this fear of the Lord, is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Is 11:2-3). They understand it as the beginning of wisdom (cf. Prov 1:7, 9:10, 10, 27; Ps 111:10). It is not the beginning in the sense that, once we progress in our relationship with God, fear gives way to love. Not at all!
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of any authentic relationship with God in the same sense that conception is the beginning of life. We begin to live as a person the moment we are conceived in our mother’s womb. But our life does not end when we are born and mature. In the same way, fear of the Lord is the beginning, the starting point, the foundation of a right relationship with God. When that right relationship reaches its full measure in heaven, our hearts will be bursting with joy. In the court of heaven, we will be overwhelmed with awe and wonder before the divine majesty of God. Amazed, astonished by His love, we will truly understand that “the fear of the Lord … endures forever” (Ps 19:9).
The concept of the fear of the Lord is deeply biblical. Thus, to delete the Scriptural expression “the fear of the Lord” from liturgy and catechesis would be to impoverish our understanding of a fundamental truth of our relationship with God. On the other hand, using the expression “the fear of the Lord” means safeguarding and handing on the language of faith that we inherit from the Word of God itself.
The very use of the expression “the fear of the Lord” helps to move beyond too simplistic and overly rational explanations of our relationship with God. It directs our minds and hearts to the very mystery of our loving God who leaves us in awe and wonder before His ineffable presence.
Bishop Arthur Serratelli, of Paterson, New Jersey, is president of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), and a member of Vox Clara. He is currently chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. (He had served as chairman of this committee from 2007-2010.) Bishop Serratelli is also chairman of the Sub-Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations and serves on the Task Force for the Review of the Lectionary, the Ad hoc Committee for the Review of the Catechism, and the Ad hoc Committee for the Spanish Bible for the Church in America.
This article was originally the bishop’s weekly column in the diocesan newspaper, The Beacon; and it appears here with Bishop Serratelli’s kind permission.
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