“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
—Proverbs 9:10 NASB
The fear of the Lord—that is a startling basis for wisdom. More than that, this fear, when rightly understood, is a delight for believers.
As unexpected as the concept of fearing God may seem, it permeates Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, and denying its proper place in our lives deprives us of delight in our relationship with God.
Answering the following two questions will help keep the fear of the Lord integral to your Christian walk—and keep you on the path of wise living.
- What is the fear of the Lord?
- Why should it be our delight?
What Is the Fear of the Lord?
In order to understand what the fear of the Lord is, we need to know the reason why we should fear God. To do so, we must distinguish between God’s immanence and His transcendence.
God’s immanence refers to His intimacy with us and nearness to us. His goodness, grace, and love allow us to know Him and experience His presence. It is how we abide in Him, and He in us (John 15:4). This is an important category in Scripture, but it is only half of the picture.
God’s transcendence refers to His immensity and unfathomable sovereignty. It is His power, holiness, and majesty (1 Chronicles 29:11). We often overlook this side of God’s nature because it highlights our smallness and sinfulness compared to God’s greatness.
The fear of the Lord is a reverential awe for God because of His overwhelming otherness but a delight because of His intimate relationship with us.
Our knowledge of the fear of the Lord comes from holding God’s immanence and transcendence in balance. The fear of the Lord is a reverential awe for God because of His overwhelming otherness but a delight because of His intimate relationship with us.
The Fear of the Lord for Unbelievers
Part of the difficulty in understanding how the fear of the Lord can be a delight comes from conflating the fear of unbelievers with that of believers.
Unbelievers ought to fear the wrath of the Lord, for “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18a), and the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:4b).1
Because their faith is in something other than the saving work Christ, they remain under the condemnation of God. Therefore, they should fear the punishment of God in a way that leads them to repentance.
The Fear of the Lord for Believers
Believers, on the other hand, experience the truth that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Saving grace is the crucial difference between unbelievers’ fear of punishment and believers’ fear of the Lord. It is the reason Scripture tells us, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).
Saving grace is the crucial difference between unbelievers’ fear of punishment and believers’ fear of the Lord.
For believers, the fear of the Lord is not a fear of punishment or condemnation because Jesus Christ has taken the wrath of God on Himself. His redemption saves us from punishment, though God will still discipline us out of love because we are His children (Hebrews 12:7–11).
Instead of fearing punishment, believers have a reverential awe before the majestic, holy, and awesome God who has saved us and drawn us to Himself. In His presence, it is all we can do to fall to our knees before Him in a posture of humility and worship Him.
In that humble orientation, we acknowledge that all of life is gift and grace. Our utter dependence on Him leads us to forgo the futile quest of arrogant autonomy and experience the richness of a life surrendered to Him (Proverbs 22:4).
The Majesty and Holiness of God
Being in the presence of God’s majesty and holiness demands humility, but why do we need fear?
Part of the reason is that humility and fear go hand in hand to combat pride. Because we cannot grasp the grandeur of God, we try to minimize His majesty to a more manageable size. But God has no rival, no equal (Isaiah 40:25). His power is far above our understanding. This is why the writers of Scripture refer to Him in terms of earthquakes, thunder, lightning, and consuming fire.2 Even His presence mediated through creation leads to mountains trembling and the earth splitting open.3
When God is manifested in a less mediated way, our reverential awe of Him only grows.
Think of Isaiah’s reaction when he saw the Lord sitting on a throne—the holiness of God overcame him, and only God’s forgiveness of His sins enabled him to live (Isaiah 6:1–7). Or meditate on Daniel’s response to his vision of the glorious Lord. He lost his strength and became like one who was dead in the presence of God (Daniel 10:8–9, 15–17).
Overwhelming Majesty Elsewhere in Scripture
2 Chronicles 5:14
Again, we need to see that this awe is not a fear of punishment. Instead, it is a response to and praise of the overwhelming greatness of God. We “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) because of His majesty, recognizing our dependence and His grace.
Delighting in the Fear of the Lord
As believers, our reverential awe comes from beholding the greatness of God’s power and righteousness. Because of His grace, this is not a terror of His wrath. Instead, it is a delight:
O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name . . . (Nehemiah 1:11 ESV, emphasis added)
When we behold God’s power and righteousness in light of the forgiveness of the cross, we can marvel at His greatness with gratitude and awe because of our shelter in Jesus. We come with a contrite heart, trembling at His Word (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 66:2) while delighting in our position as His children (Romans 8:14–17).
The fear of the Lord, then, is fundamental fuel for worship. Rather than the terror of punishment that unbelievers have, the fear of the Lord that Proverbs tells us is “the beginning of wisdom” is a reverential awe from a posture of humility and gratitude. It is a dependence on the sovereign God and a holy aspiration to please Him like a child longs to please a father. Fearing the Lord is delighting in His will and wisdom, living out of a desire to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:23 ESV).
Hear Ken teach about the fear of the Lord in his series on wisdom: