Godly Fear

And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. Exodus 20:20 


The children of Israel had seen the most fearful sight.  Mount Sinai had shaken, burned, and spoken.  The huddled masses decided that the front seats to this performance belonged to other people.  They instantly headed for the back pews.  They wanted to be as far from the visible presence of God as possible.  The fact that the Lord had appeared in such a display dismayed them terribly.


You would have thought that they would be accustomed to the power of God.  Had they not seen the terrible plagues He had unleashed on Egypt?  Had they not observed the first Passover, when the destroying angel had killed all the firstborn except the ones at their houses that smelled of dried blood and roast lamb?  Had they not seen the way God tore wheels off Pharaoh’s chariots and blinded him with darkness?  Had they not walked through the Red Sea on dry ground between walls of water?  Had they not seen bitter water become sweet after Moses went through that ridiculous affair of throwing the tree into the water?  Had they not eaten the manna?  Had they not drunk from the water out of the rock?  Had they not seen God triumph over Amalek?  How then did this appearance of God trouble them so?


Exodus 20:18 tells us that, “all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.”  Sure, the Lord had worked for His people and done great acts in the past, but now the Lord had come!  That dreadful presence from which all those deeds of deliverance sprang now occupied the mountain.  We may appreciate the electric power of a nuclear power plant 50 miles away, but we wouldn’t want one in our back yard.  The proximity to that power reminds us of its danger.


God does not seem interested in condescending to their felt need of comfort.  The Lord doesn’t want the people comfortable with His presence.  Rather, He seems to exacerbate the aversion to His presence.  In our New Testament freedom in the presence of the Lord, this seems unnatural.  Why is God so abrasive to His people?  Why does He seem to delight in their terror?


Moses explains to the people why these things occurred.  When he says, “fear not,” his words are not indicative of a permanent injunction.  Rather, he indicates that this display will not kill the people.  However, the fear inherent in the people has a divine purpose.  The Lord perpetuates that fear in order for the people to obey.


Parents understand the necessity of fear of punishment.  We would all rather have our children obey from love than fear.  I have yet to see that truly work.  God understands that although obedience from love is the goal, obedience from fear is the present reality.  We ought to obey due to love and fear, but our tendency in our age is to forget the fear and make love indulgent.


We have lost the terror of the Lord.  We no longer fear God.  We no longer enter into His presence with that weakness in our knees.  We no longer see the thunder, the lightning, the noise, and the smoke.  We no longer remember the character and the power of the God with whom we deal.  We sing “our God is an awesome God” interpreting “awesome” in the manner of Wayne and Garth instead of understanding God as the one whose power cannot be calculated.


This lack of fear leads to dire consequences.  We treat God’s law as suggestions.  In the immediate context of these verses, God gives Israel the Ten Commandments.  The lack of fear leads to vice.  As we look around us, we cannot escape the conclusion that even the church has lost the fear of God.  Unless we recover that godly fear, we will never recover piety.


Godly fear is not inimical to grace.  Hebrews tells us, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” (Hebrews 12:28)  We have received the kingdom.  That does not prevent us from remembering to fear God that we may serve him acceptably.


The wisest man in the Old Testament said, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 12:13)  The wisest man in the New Testament said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)  If you have experienced the love of God, has it led you to obedience, or have you lost the fear of God?  Both love and fear guide the Christian’s feet into the path of obedience.


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