The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
If you have grown up in the church, perhaps you have heard this verse often enough to be thinking already, “It’s not really fear though. We’re supposed to have a healthy respect for God, but we’re not supposed to run away screaming at the thought of Him.”
Well, there is a bit more to it than that.
True, we aren’t meant to dash out of the room when we start praying because we felt the presence of God (though I have been in the place of feeling that way, as well I should have at the time), but we cannot simply treat God the same way we would a tame fire in the fireplace. We know not to touch the fire because of its power, but having that casual respect is not the relationship God wants with us either.
Here is an example that may help to shed some light on the topic. I love animals, and am often very good with them. I have never been afraid of dogs because, since I was a kid, even the big hyper ones listened to me when I told them what to do. None of the local wildlife scares me, because I know enough about them to know how to react to them to make the most of the situation. Deer won’t hurt you unless they’re cornered, coyotes get timid if you make loud noises and wave a stick, black bear will charge you if they’re really scared, but if you hold your ground, they lose their nerve. All of these creatures have their own comfort zones, and I respect that and don’t go out of my way to bother them, but none of them have ever really scared me.
However, I was at a museum recently, and met a creature that made me feel rather differently from my relationship with the locals. It was a tiger with paws the size of my head and a head four times bigger. The fact that it was stuffed did not keep my stomach from dropping. As I stood in front of a hunter that was all muscle in life, and as long as a small car, I knew I had no tricks that could save me. I just stood there a moment and thought that if I had met this tiger in life, there would be nothing I could do to be in charge of the situation. I like knowing that I have a way to be in control of things, but I wouldn’t have in that case. If I were to survive, it would have to be his choice, not mine.
The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom,
And before honor comes humility.
That tiger gave me a very small hint of what it is like to fear the Lord. Still, admitting that we are not in control is only scratching the surface.
I was curious to see if there were different words used in the Greek and Hebrew for fearing God than there were for fearing other things. Often the original languages add so many helpful visuals because of how specific words can be in their original context. There are dozens of words for fear in the Bible. Here are a few that I found most interesting: (If you’re a nerd like me, I hope you enjoy these, but if things like this overwhelm you, just meet me at the bottom of the list.)
‘arats: fear, oppression, to break (Joshua 1:9)
Charadah: take care of, dread, extreme anxiety, trembling (Proverbs 29:25)
Chuwl: dance, writhe, wait anxiously, suffer torture, pain of childbirth
Dechal (Aramaic): fear, make afraid, awesome, dreadful (used only in the book of Daniel [which was Aramaic in part] to refer to the greatness of the king, the statue, terrible dreams, and fear of God)
Giyl: rejoice, be glad, tremble with fear (Psalm 2:11; Psalm 51:8)
Guwr: be a stranger, sojourn, dwell, stir up trouble, dread, stand in awe
Zachal: to shrink, crawl away (sometimes used as a word for reptiles [called crawling things])
Did any of those give you a picture of different kinds of fear? It was hard for me to keep the list short… Now, I’m not a Hebrew scholar (yet), but every word I found but one was used to refer to fearing God as well as to fearing other things. ‘arats is used in a positive way when fearing the Lord, even though it is a horrible thing when fearing man. The words that mean “reverence” are also used to mean being utterly terrified, even in the Greek, where we get words like Phobeo. Yare’ is a form of the most common word for fearing the Lord. It literally translates as a feeling in the pit of your stomach. It is the word used in Proverbs 31:30.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty if vain,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
The only word that I found which did not refer to fearing the Lord was chath. It is only used twice in Scripture. Once in Genesis 9:2, speaking of how all creatures will be afraid of mankind, and in Job 41:33, to refer to fear that God does not have. Every other word seems to be used to refer to being afraid of God Himself. Now, sometimes that is the difference between enemies being afraid of God, and God’s people being afraid of Him. The creeping away describe in zachal is not used in the same way as the fearful joy of giyl. Neither is deilia, the Greek word used in 2 Timothy 1:7 used in a positive light. We are not meant to flee the presence of God, but if we are pursuing sin, we will want to hide when He is in the room. Even that fear is a gift to remind us that we must become right with Him again.
One last thought before we leave the linguistic discussion.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
~1 John 4:18
This is a verse where we love to take comfort, but it can also be tricky. To help understand how it fits in with fearing the Lord, remember that it uses the same words as this next passage, phobos and phobeo.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Does it feel kind of like we’re back at square one? Fear involves punishment, so we should not be afraid if we love God, but Jesus Himself said that we should fear God because of… punishment?