Generally fear is not considered a virtue. Fear leads us to avoid what we ought to face, hide from what we ought to confront and deny what we need to affirm. We often link fear with cowardice, timidity and weakness. Yet one kind of fear is a strength rather than a weakness. Psalm 111:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that is definitely a virtue.
Wisdom is not only good, but necessary. It is the right way of doing things. Wisdom tells us how and when to act. It tells us whether it’s time to go or stay, to talk or pray. Wisdom tells us what lies beyond a smile, a frown or an exclamation of pain. It tells us when to comfort, console, admonish or just be quiet. It helps us get the most out of life, serve the Lord and know how to love those who need our love.
Wisdom is not a resident virtue but one that must be acquired. Some may be born with a greater capacity for intelligence than others, but no one is born wise. Wisdom comes only through a learning experience or an encounter that leads to an understanding of the nature and value of life.
The wisdom the Bible describes is produced and facilitated in us through fear of the Lord. It requires that we first acknowledge God’s existence and His claim on us. This leads to acceptance of His value system upon which we can build attitudes that become the basis of everything we do. Fear of the Lord leads to knowing and obeying His ways.
Fear of the Lord focuses attention on what really matters. It teaches us what we ought to respect and what we ought to disregard or avoid. It keeps us from stumbling over the blocks of folly placed in our path by the world, the flesh and the devil.
The scriptural phrase fear of the Lord” conveys positive tones of reverence and proper behavior. Nehemiah 7:2 records that the charge of Jerusalem was given to Hanani and to Hananiah the leader of the citadel, “for he was a faithful man and feared God more than many.” Proverbs 8:13 teaches that “the fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:13 admonishes: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
The fear these passages describe is based more on awe or reverence that results in worship and obedience than on dread. Another aspect of fearing God does border on dread, yet it involves a healthier, more positive emotion than abject terror. This “fear of God” is a motivational force. We revere God and obey His precepts because we know the dire consequences of disobedience.
We see this kind of healthy fear in Scripture. In 2 Samuel 6:9 we read of King David’s emotions after Uzzah’s death. Uzzah died when he touched the ark of God merely to keep it from falling. The passage tells us, “David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?'”
Yeshua (Jesus) warned, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, cf. Luke 12:5). By this, Yeshua meant God, for Satan does not have the power to send anyone into hell. He can only tempt his prey to step beyond God’s grace by renouncing Jesus Christ, the only way of salvation. Only God has the right to judge and discard those who deny His provision for salvation, and that judgment is greatly to be feared.
The author of Hebrews wrote of a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God (10:27). Again, in verse 31, we read, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
In a sense, this is fear. Yet it contrasts with the fearfulness some might harbor concerning unpleasant people, circumstances and situations. Above all, it contrasts with the ultimate dread felt by all humanity—the fear of our last enemy, death. The Bible describes this fear of death as spiritual slavery. Yet Scripture also assures us that in Christ we are freed from such bondage.
In Romans 8:15 Paul wrote, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.'” In Hebrews 2:14-15 we read, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”
At times, “fear of the Lord” in Scripture can be a positive rather than a negative expression yet merely indicate a formal ritual without implications of godly living. The Book of 2 Kings (chapter 17) describes the pagan nations whom the king of Assyria settled in Samaria after Israel went into captivity. Verse 33 sums up the account with, “They [the pagan nations] feared [worshiped] the Lord, yet served their own gods—according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away.”
A parallel exists between that pagan worship and the “lip service” some offer to God while exalting materialism, fame, fortune and even relationships above commitment and obedience to Him. God spoke out through Isaiah concerning such idolatry: “Inasmuch as these people draw near to me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men…the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden” (Isaiah 29:13, 14). (Sadly, this prophecy came to pass when the priesthood and Jewish leadership of Yeshua’s day failed to recognize Him as the long-awaited Messiah.)
Proper fear of the Lord requires full trust and obedience, and that puts everything into perspective. The knowledge of God’s perfect righteousness shows us our sin and unrighteousness. The knowledge of His power and might shows us our weakness. The knowledge of His forgiveness and mercy drives us to the foot of the cross. The fear of the Lord that brings us to that point sets us on the path to repentance and commitment. Then we gain a relationship with God through Christ that enables us to serve Him and our fellow humans with humility.
True and lasting wisdom is rare in this world because few truly fear the Lord. Fear of the Lord is the baseline of human orientation. The intelligent and thoughtful person asks, “Who am I? What am I? What should I be doing? What is the meaning of life?” The answers to these questions are found in the person of God. If we are ever to identify ourselves, our mission in life and the meaning of life, we must begin with the Creator. Part of the fear of God or respect for Him comes from considering the vastness of the universe and the power it took to create it. In view of that, we see ourselves as less than specks of dust. Then we remember that the Creator has set His love on us, that He has every hair on our heads numbered and knows our every thought and care. Such knowledge inspires awe. Ultimately it brings great comfort.
Nevertheless, appropriate fear of the Lord requires courage. It takes courage to admit that in this hostile world every moment of every day we are completely at God’s mercy. It takes courage to acknowledge that He who holds all things together has the power to obliterate the universe in one split second. It takes courage to admit that in our frail humanity we are just one pulse beat, or one breath away from extinction. It takes courage to acknowledge the existence of a sovereign God and to admit that He has a claim on our lives.
The human heart longs for self-sovereignty. In a world that values independence, it takes courage to admit that we are dependent. Many would rather deny God than admit such helplessness.
Fear of the Lord, then, is not fear at all, but a proper regard of and for the Almighty. In contrast to the fear of the Lord, a pernicious attitude exists that is best described as the fear of man.
Fear of man is a vice rather than a virtue. It hampers Christians from godly living because they fear being considered “too religious” by colleagues and associates. It keeps Christians from telling others about Jesus, the way of life. Fear of offending others, especially those of another faith, stifles their witness for the Lord. This is particularly true in the context of witnessing to Jewish people.
Fear of the Lord pertains to Jews and Jewish evangelism in another way. It is an obstacle to Jewish people considering Christ. Many Jews are afraid to listen to the gospel because of an underlying fear that it just might be true. They know that if they found that Jesus is the promised Messiah, they would have to confess Him openly. That would lead to rejection by family and friends. The believers would be reviled for their faith and might lose their spouses and children. Jews find this is a very fearful prospect.
In contrast to fear of man, fear of the Lord provides a firm foundation for a life of obedience to God. It supplies courage to do what needs to be done. This outworking of the Christian life entails telling others about salvation in Christ. Not every Christian can be a profound speaker or a Bible teacher, but every believer can be, and is commanded to be, a witness for Christ. In telling the good news to others, we fulfill God’s commandment to witness, and this compliance generates the joy of fulfillment. As we exercise this obedience, we gain even more courage to speak out for the Lord. Then, as we shine out for Him, we discover that the fear of the Lord has led us to the joy of the Lord.