The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Part 2)
In the first part of this post, we saw that the Old Testament, rather than contrasting the fear of God with the love of God, closely connects them (along with obeying the commandments). This connection, in conjunction with other factors we are about to explore, makes it difficult to reduce “the fear of the Lord” to being afraid of God.
Look to the Parallels
Most of the instances of “the fear of the Lord” in the Old Testament appear in the poetic writings, especially Psalms and Proverbs. One of the key features of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, in which two lines are closely tied together. For example:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
In this verse, the second line restates the first. Another common type of parallelism contrasts the two lines, as with the following:
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
When a poetic text speaks of “the fear of the Lord” (or comparable language), that with which it is compared or contrasted should prove highly instructive as to how the biblical writers understood the meaning of fearing God.
Consider these examples:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
— Proverbs 1:7
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and depart from evil.
— Proverbs 3:7
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.
— Psalm 130:4
How abundant are the good things
that you have stored up for those who fear you,
that you bestow in the sight of all,
on those who take refuge in you.
— Psalm 31:19
The Lord delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.
— Psalm 147:11
Blessed are those who fear the Lord,
who find great delight in his commands.
— Psalm 112:1
To parallel “the fear of the Lord” with a spirit of humility and openness to instruction is helpful but not particularly surprising. More striking, however, is its connection with God’s nature as one who forgives (Wouldn’t God be more fearsome if he was unforgiving?), who provides a source of refuge, whose unfailing love inspires hope, and whose commands bring delight.
It would be possible to substitute “love” for “fear” in these last few parallels. In fact, this substitution would probably make more sense to a contemporary reader. The fact that this is the case reaffirms the close association between loving God and fearing God in the Bible.
A brief examination of these parallels further demonstrates that defining “the fear of the Lord” as being afraid of God does not fit the biblical evidence. Interestingly, some words of Jesus in the New Testament appear to challenge this conclusion.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Notice, however, the words that immediately follow:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Jesus is attempting to encourage disciples who fear sharing the same kind of persecution directed toward him. He does so through a touching reference to “your
Father’s care.” As in this passage, the call to fear God is actually a means of removing fear. Since the call not to fear is the most frequent command in the Bible, it would be surprising if “the fear of the Lord” were to mean, “be afraid of God.”
Next: Some closing thoughts on the limitations of fear.