The Fear of God
by Wilhelmus A'Brakel
The Word Fear Defined
Fear is either expressive of reverence or terror. Fear as terror is generally expressed by the Hebrew words magor, and pacadh, and by the Greek word phobos. Fear as being reverence is denominated in Hebrew as yirah, and in Greek as eulabeia. However, these words are occasionally also used without this distinction.
Fear issues forth from love—either for ourselves or for God. Self-love engenders fear when something occurs which could deprive us of something good or whereby some evil could befall us. We fear deprivation, or the evil itself, and whatever or whoever would deprive us of that which is good, or whereby evil could be inflicted upon us.
God has created self-love in man and wills that we make use of it. The law requires that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Mat 22:39). It is therefore not sinful to fear deprivation and evil. This fear was inherent in Adam's nature prior to the fall, even though there was no occasion for this fear to arise in him. The Lord Jesus also had such fear (cf. Mat 26:37; Heb 5:7). One may indeed be fearful of death and other discomforts, and thus also of wild animals and evil men.
This fear becomes evil, however, if it begets the use of evil means—either to preserve or acquire that which is good, or to avoid evil. This is true if we fear man more than God and, in neglecting both the fear of God and obedience toward His commandments, we seek to get man on our side in sinful ways. We then give no heed as to whether we displease God; as long as we can please men in order that they will do us no evil, but good. "Do not fear not those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mat 10:28).
Since we must have love for ourselves, and fear issues forth therefrom, we must have more fear for evil which relates to the soul than to the body. Since, the soul's well or woe is dependent upon God, we must be fearful out of love for our own salvation, and must fear God's judgments. "My flesh trembles for fear of You; and I am afraid of Your judgments" (Psalm 119:120). An unconverted person must also, by fear for the eternal wrath of God, be persuaded to believe (2 Cor. 5:11). A converted person must, for fear of spiritual harm, stir himself up to be earnest. "Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it" (Heb 4:1).
The Definition and Nature of Filial (godly) Fear
Filial fear is a holy inclination of the heart, generated by God in the hearts of His children, whereby they, out of reverence for God, take careful pains not to displease God, and earnestly endeavor to please Him in all things. It is a motion of the heart. The noble soul is gifted with emotions, and dependent upon what the objects are, is moved to either joy or sorrow, love or hatred, fear or fearlessness. As far as the fear of God is concerned, man is insensitive, hard, and without emotion. "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:18). In regeneration, however, the heart of stone is removed and a heart of flesh is received, which is soft and pliable, and is very readily moved upon beholding God, dependent upon the measure in which God reveals Himself to the soul. If God is perceived as being majestic, a motion immediately arises within their soul—a motion which is befitting to the creature, in respect to God.
It is a holy motion. Since an unconverted person is in essence nothing but sin, also all that proceeds from him is distorted. The ability to fear is directed toward an erroneous object and is exercised in a disorderly fashion. Believers, however, having been sanctified in principle, are also sanctified as far as their inner motions are concerned. Their fear has a proper object and consequently functions in a holy manner, that is, in faith and love. They are devout and fear God (Act 10:2).
God generates this holy motion. By nature man is totally unfit for any good work. He finds no delight in God and has no desire to fear the Lord. He may be terrified of God, but he cannot fear Him rightly. However, God enables His own people to fear Him. "I will put My fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from Me" (Jer. 32:40).
The Holy Spirit is therefore called "the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord" (Isaiah 11:2).
This filial fear is found in the hearts of God's children. The heart is the seat of all motions—evil as well as good. God has enclosed this precious gift in the hearts of His children, and all the motions relative to fear proceed from the heart. Their fear neither consists in talk, refraining from evil and doing good, nor in the appearance of fear—but rather in truth. The heart, intellect, will, and affections are involved here, and the heart brings forth various deeds which manifest the fear of God. Only God's children truly fear the Lord, and therefore those who have this virtue are called God-fearing people. "...the same man was just and devout" (Luke 2:25); "...devout men" (Acts 2:5); "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial" (Act 8:2).
Filial fear is engendered by reverence for God. God is the object of this fear. "O fear the Lord, you His saints" (Psalm 34:9). God is eminent, glorious, and majestic within Himself—even if there were no creatures. "Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty" (1 Chr. 29:11). Hereby God is awe-inspiring in and of Himself. With the advent of intelligent creatures who observe the brilliance of His glory, it cannot but be that they have reverence for Him, who is both infinite and majestic.
A natural man does not know God. Therefore he may be fearful of His judgments, for calamities, and sometimes may acknowledge God to be solemn (although he generally does not progress this far), but he cannot have reverence for Him. That is the privilege and blessedness of believers. A sinful person cannot tolerate God's majesty. He would flee in terror from God, for He is to him a consuming fire. However, in Christ—God is a reconciled Father to His children, and therefore they simultaneously love and revere Him. "Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling" (Psalm 2:11).
The Serious Consequences of Being Void of the Fear of God
(1) Be assured that God will give you a fearful and trembling heart as long as you do not fear Him, so that you will find neither rest nor safety anywhere. Rather, your own heart and conscience will be continually tormented. The wish of David will come upon you. "Put them in fear, O Lord" (Psalm 9:20). Be assured that the curse which the Lord threatens—will come upon you. "The Lord will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your lives will hang in doubt. You will live night and day in fear, with no reason to believe that you will see the morning light. In the morning you will say, 'If only it were night!' And in the evening you will say, 'If only it were morning!' You will say this because of your terror at the awesome horrors you see around you." (Deu 28:65-67); "You will live there in such constant fear that the sound of a leaf driven by the wind will send you fleeing. You will run as though chased by a warrior with a sword, and you will fall even when no one is pursuing you" (Lev 26:36). "His enemies will crawl with fear into holes in the ground. They will hide in caves in the rocks from the terror of the Lord and the glory of his majesty. They will abandon their gold and silver idols to the moles and bats. They will crawl into caverns and hide among the jagged rocks at the tops of cliffs. In this way, they will try to escape the terror of the Lord and the glory of his majesty as he rises to shake the earth" (Isaiah 2:19-21).
(2) Be assured that if you continue on without fear for the Lord—even though you may peacefully approach your end—the terror of the Lord will at last come upon you. When you will be forsaken by everything, the Lord will be a terror to you and strike terror into you. Oh, how many are there who breathe their last breath with consternation and full of terror! Remember Belshazzar, and consider that you will also experience this. "Then the king's face turned pale with fear. Such terror gripped him that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way beneath him!" (Dan 5:6). In that condition he departed from life.
(3) And even if no terror were to come upon you in this life and at death, you will nevertheless be overcome with fear on every side after your death. Then wrath and anger, oppression and consternation will eternally be upon you. Then you will know what it is to fall into the hands of God. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb 10:31). Give heed to what is expressed in Psalm 76:7, "You, even You, are to be feared: and who may stand in Your sight when once You are angry?" It is in this manner that the prophet presents this terror, "The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness has surprised the hypocrites. Who among us will dwell with the devouring fire! who among us will dwell with everlasting burnings!" (Isaiah 33:14). Oh, that you would quietly reflect upon, and apply all this to yourself—and that you would believe it!
The Fear of God in Believers
We shall now turn to you, believers. You will indeed observe your deficiency in this, but you will also be able to perceive that the Lord has put the principle of His fear within you.
(1) Do you not desire that disposition of the fear of God as we have described it in the foregoing? You do not only acquiesce in this, judging it to be good and fitting, but you grieve that you have so little of it and are desirous for a greater measure of it. This is an indication that you are already a partaker of it, for the servants of God are described as such. "...Your servants, who desire to fear Your name" (Neh 1:11).
(2) Do you not perceive heartfelt intentions and initiatives to walk in the fear of the Lord? Can you find any delight in having subdued a sin and in having done some good, unless this has been done in the fear of God? And perceiving your deficiency and impotence toward that which you love, is it not frequently your earnest prayer to God—that He would fulfill His promise to you in putting His fear in your heart? Behold, there you have evidence that you have the nature of those who fear God. This was David's prayer: "Unite my heart to fear Your name" (Psalm 86:11).
(3) Is your desire for the fear of God entirely impotent and your prayer entirely fruitless, or do you perceive the principles of it in your actions? Does not God reveal Himself to you in His majesty? Does not your heart say that the Lord is indeed worthy to be served? Are not reverential motions stirred up within you toward God? Do you not at times bow in reverence before Him? Has it not been your experience that, due to a sense of His majesty, you have cast your eyes downward, closed your eyes, and covered your face with your hands? Did not a holy trembling come upon you at times, and was it not your delight if these motions became more sensitive—yes, did it not cause you to rejoice when thinking upon this afterwards, wishing it to recur and that it would always be thus? Would you not have committed many sins, and neglected many holy things—if the fear of the Lord had not prevented you? Does not the fear of God nip many sins in the bud, and does not this motivate you to perform your duty? If these things are within you—you must be convinced of the truth, even though the measure is yet small. You will observe your disposition in Job: "I dreaded destruction from God, and for fear of his splendor I could not do such things" (Job 31:23). Such was also true for Nehemiah: "...but I did not do so—because of the fear of God" (Neh 5:15). Acknowledge therefore this received grace, and it will render you capable to read the following rebuke and exhortation, with benefit.
The more clearly you will be convinced of the principles of the fear of God within you—the more you must grieve over your deficiency in the fear of God. These manifest themselves in the disposition of the heart, the penetration of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds contrary to the revelation of God's presence, and in the fear of man whereby the fear of God must consequently yield.
First, we are to be severely reprimanded, if, knowing that God is majestic, having experienced how good it is to humbly walk with the Majestic One, and knowing how invigorating it is to walk in the way of uprightness, we nevertheless neglect to thus focus upon the Lord and fear Him continually. This makes us vulnerable to all kinds of sin. When the doorkeeper sleeps with the door wide open—every lust can then enter without any impediment! And even if we are aware of this, there is nevertheless no strength to oppose it, and we are overcome before realizing it. If then, with Samson, we wish to offer resistance, we shall have lost our strength.
Secondly, this is followed by a disposition which is yet more evil, namely, when we even proceed to satisfy this lust, doing so not only when our conscience points out its evil, and counsels us not to begin; and upon having begun, counseled us to desist from and subdue the lust, to be silent in the midst of an evil discourse, and to refrain from the sin which we are currently committing; but also when our conscience causes us to reflect upon God and His majesty.
Indeed, this is especially true (which is most abominable) when God God manifests Himself to the soul, sensibly discourages the soul from sin, and, so to speak, shakes His finger and says, "Behold! I am here, and I certainly see what you are doing! Cease sinning—or else I shall cause you to feel My displeasure!"
It is a setting aside of the fear of God, a grieving of the Holy Spirit, and the inflicting of a deadly wound upon the soul when, due to the agitation of sin, we are driven onward and seek to hide ourselves from the presence of God in order to be able to proceed, and then actually prevail in carrying out the sin which is at hand. If God were not infinitely longsuffering and immutable, He would cast away such impudent souls!
The third sin committed, is to fear man—a sin to which the godly are still vulnerable. If we have not yet fully denied ourselves in regard to honor, love, advantage, and pleasure, nor are much inclined to acknowledge the insignificance of man (that is, that man can neither stir nor move, can do neither good nor evil to us), and we have not accustomed ourselves to see the hand of the Lord in all things, thus perceiving that God alone does everything, and that all men are but instruments in His hand, being used either to do good or evil unto us—this will engender a looking unto man.
In time of war we consider the multitude and courage of the soldiers and we stand upon our sword (Ezekiel 33:26). "Who shall come down against us? or who shall enter into our habitations?" (Jer 21:13). If, however, we perceive that the might of the enemy supersedes ours, we are fearful and the heart is moved "as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind" (Isaiah 7:2).
We fear man when in sickness, legal cases, business transactions, in the plying of our trade, in pursuing our desire which must be attained to by the instrumentality of men, etc.; we look to men and, in our thoughts end in them—as if it had to come from them. We vehemently seek to have them on our side, and we are fearful of losing their favor. In our association with men we fear the one for his wisdom (which is no match for ours), the other for his status and imposing personality, the third for his wickedness, and the fourth for his benevolence which we would not like to lose. Now if such a person has no desire for godliness and would become angry if you were to manifest the image of God and perform your duty, and if, out of fear for him, you were to hold back and accommodate him in the commission of sin, behold, then the fear of God is rendered inferior and must yield. There God is on the one side, and man on the other side. There the fear of God is on the one hand and the fear of man on the other hand. If, however, the fear of man motivates us to do something which is contrary to the fear of God, then we reject the fear of God because of the fear of man.
This is a dreadful sin, for first of all God has forbidden it. "Do not fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell!" (Mat 10:28). "Who are you, that you should be afraid of a man that shall die?" (Isaiah 51:12).
Secondly, it is the greatest act of contempt toward God—if He must yield to man for you. It is idolatry and a sin of the heathen. "Who...worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator" (Rom 1:25).
Thirdly, it is a denial of the providence of God—as if God did not reign; as if the creature could function independently.
Fourthly, it affects and troubles you continually.
Fifthly, it causes you to fall from one sin into the next, and you ought therefore to be ashamed of your previous fear of man. Be warned and give heed to the exhortation of the Lord: "Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?" (Isaiah 2:22). Follow David in his noble courage. "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear—what can man do unto me?" (Psalm 118:6).
Incentives for the Fear of God
It is not sufficient to be on guard against the sins which are contrary to the fear of God; rather, it is our great duty to conquer them all by the fear of God. The livelier the fear of God is—the less power will sin have over you. Therefore in the future commit yourself fully to tenderly fear the Lord your God—in order that the fear of God may guard you and direct your thoughts, words, and deeds. Oh, if only I could make you more lively in this! Give careful attention to the following incentives; may you be tender and pliable.
First, does not God have all the perfections within Himself which are able to engender reverence? He is majestic, glorious, omnipotent, holy, good, and awe-inspiring; that is His nature. How can anyone therefore be in the presence of God—without fear and reverence?
Consider what has been expressed in the Word of God: "Who is like unto You, O Lord, among the gods? who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?" (Exo 15:11); "That you may fear this glorious and fearful name—the Lord Your God" (Deu 28:58); "For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised: He also is to be feared above all gods" (1 Chr. 16:25); "O Lord God of heaven, the great and dreadful God" (Neh 1:5). His wrath upon the sinner is dreadful. "Who knows the power of Your anger? even according to Your fear, so is Your wrath" (Psalm 90:11). His goodness begets reverence in order that He may thus be feared in love. "But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared" (Psalm 130:4). Is it not proper, befitting, and requisite—that you, having been created by God and having received grace from God, fear this majestic God and tremble before Him?
Secondly, the root of the matter is indeed in you. You desire it and you cannot hear the fear of God mentioned, and your heart is inclined to it and your desires are stirred up. Why would you subdue this desire? All that has a principle of life is desirous for growth and perfection—which is thus also true for you in this respect. It is indeed natural if a servant fears his master and a child his father. You have chosen the Lord to be your Lord, and has not He given you the Spirit of the adoption of children and set you among His children? Have you not entered into covenant with Him—that He would be a God unto you and that you would be the recipient of His favor? This must stir you up to fear your Lord and your Father. "If then I am a Father—where is My honor? And if I am a Master—where is My fear?" (Mal 1:6). Acknowledge this relationship, and it will beget filial fear in you.
Thirdly, the fear of God is the fountain of all the holiness which delights you. Sinful lusts will lose their potency, corruptions which surface will readily be subdued, you will be stopped in the middle of sinning, and you will find yourself inclined toward the practice of all manner of virtues. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Pro 9:10); "The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom" (Pro 15:33); "The fear of the Lord is clean" (Psalm 19:9); "The fear of the Lord tends to life:" (Pro 19:23); "...perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1).
Fourthly, the Lord has pleasure in those who fear Him. It ought to be a very precious matter to us—that God is pleased with us. It ought to be our great desire and earnest endeavor—to be pleasing to the Lord. God is, however, pleased with the fear of God, for therein the acknowledgment and the glorification of His perfections coalesce. "The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him" (Psalm 147:11). How lovely it is when man delights himself in God—and when God finds pleasure in man!