What does it mean to fear the Lord? The Bible uses the word fear at least 300 times in reference to God. But we are told God is love, so how do we fear and love God at the same time. How do we deal with this seemingly contradiction? While the Bible is filled with examples that fearing the Lord is a positive, rather than a negative, thing. In Genesis 42:18, Joseph wins his brother’s trust when he declares he is a God-fearing man. I think we need to look at the Hebrew word for fear, yirah, and discover what it means in the context of our relationship with God. According to Jewish tradition, there are three levels of fear.
First, yirat ha’onesh is the fear of unpleasant consequences or punishment. This fear is usually what we think of when we read to fear God. It is the anticipation of pain if we do something wring, therefore, we try to run from it. This is also the type of fear we could have when we think of what others might think of us if we do or don’t do an act. For example, as kids, if we think about stealing from the store, a child might think of what his or her friends might think when they hear he or she stole. That same child might think of what his or her parents might think when they discover their child has stolen something. Which opinion will win out if that child would steal and would it be enough to keep the child from stealing? If the child anticipates pain from punishment from the parents, he or she might think twice.
Second, yirat malkhut is the anxiety caused by breaking God’s law. It is the fear that motivates us to do good because we fear God’s punishment in life or in the afterlife. The Bible tells us that God is our judge for every deed we’ve ever done. First Corinthians 3:13 says “his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.” Second Corinthians 5:10 says “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” This is the fear is the due to self-preservation to avoid God’s rightful wrath. This fear is the basis of good deeds get rewarded while bad deeds get punished.
Third, yirat ha-rommemnut is the most important and highest form of fear. It is a profound reverence for life that comes from rightly seeing the presence of God in all things. It is the Awe of the Exalted. We behold God’s glory and majesty in all things and we are elevated to a level of reverent awareness and genuine communion with God’s Holy Spirit. It is the love of God which creates a loathing for all evil. Proverbs 8:13 says “to fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.” Therefore, the more a person fears and respects God, the more he or she will hate evil. In John 3:20-21 Jesus says “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
You may be asking “ok, so do I fear the Lord or do I love him?” Both. According to the Chofetz Chaim, a book of Jewish ethics by Rabbi Yirsael Meir Kagan, the fear of God’s punishment may deter you from sin in the short term but by itself is insufficient for a full and meaningful spiritual life. We need to completely see God as the bringer of justice as well as the compassionate savior. We must fear the Lord as our Judge and be in awe of him as our redeemer. You may think it sounds like a contradiction. But think of your parents. You may fear punishment from your parents for whatever you may have done wrong and yet you look to them as a source of love and comfort. So why is it wrong to see God that same way? Why does he have to be one or the other? We need to draw close to God while regarding him with exalted reverence.
In conclusion, we need all levels of yirah in our hearts and our lives. We all have fallen short of the Glory of God. Our sin keeps us separate from God. However, though the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, we can be reconciled with him. Through Jesus, we can come to God as we would a loving parent, fearing the consequences of our sin and yet feeling the love of his forgiveness. The judgment and our punishment of our sin was made at the cross and now we can be declared righteous by faith. Therefore, it is the combination of fear and love that leads us to the place of genuine awe and complete communion with God.
The Awe of The Lord further thoughts on Parashat Eikev by John J Parsons http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/Summaries/Eikev/Yirah/yirah.html