Every now and then, people ask me why the Bible talks so much about fearing the Lord. Isn’t it odd to speak of serving God using a word like “fear”? It is a good question, and one worthy of a careful answer.
The Hebrew word translated “fear” (yare’) does indeed mean just that. “Fear” is indeed a good English translation for the word. But we in the West understand the emotion fear a little differently than the Hebrew understanding of that same emotion. To explain, let me talk about a completely different English word for a moment: the English word passion.
What does the English word passion mean? Well, if I were to speak of God’s passion for his people, we would understand the word as an expression of great love. But if I were to speak of Christ’s “passion week,” the same term is being used in reference to his intense suffering. The English word passion is defined in the dictionary as “any powerful or compelling emotion such as love or hate.” You see, the word passion really does not define the kind of feeling a person is experiencing; it rather defines the intensity of that feeling. Passion is a powerful word the describes intense emotion, whether that emotion is moving us in a positive direction (love, devotion, etc.) or in a negative direction (hatred, suffering, bitterness, etc.) It is the context that tells us which direction the intense emotion is pointing, positively or negatively.
The Hebrew concept of fear is different from passion because yare’ does refer to a specific emotion (it does not refer simply to the intensity of feeling experienced, as passion does). So Hebrew fear is not the same thing as the English word passion. But, the Hebrew understanding of fear is similar to our concept of passion in this sense: fear can compel us in either a positive or negative direction.
Fear is, in ancient Hebrew thought, the most compelling of all human emotions. Whatever other emotions one feels toward the many other experiences of life, when fear is present that fear dominates all other feelings. We see this vividly in our own lives, when in a moment of fear for ones security, all other desires or priorities suddenly take a backseat to the terror that overwhelms us. So the Hebrew concept of fear is of that most powerful and dominant emotion that overwhelms all others.
This, indeed, is also the American concept of fear. But in our culture, we tend to use the word fear only to describe that overwhelming emotion when it is pointing in a negative direction. We only think of that powerful emotional experience as being fear when it is something evil that inspires it. That is where the Hebrew concept of fear differs. For the Hebrew concept of fear moves in both directions (like the English word passion). When something threatening, menacing, or dangerous appears, fear subjugates everything else we had been thinking about and compels us to escape that dread. But, likewise when something of awesome power appears in goodness, something with that same potential to devastate or deliver appears with a purpose to save, in the face of such an experience it is the same overwhelming emotion that subjugates all others. But now that fear is positive. It is the exact same fear, but now it is colored by devotion and marvel rather than hatred and devastation. Thus, the Hebrew word for fear (yare’) refers to the exact same emotion as the English word fear, but the Hebrews understood fear as able to compel us in either of two directions: positively or negatively. The English use of fear only thinks about the negative form of that emotion.
A great illustration of the “two-directional” nature of fear in the Bible is in the first chapter of the book of Jonah. Early in that chapter, the sailors fear the storm that sweeps over them. When they learn that Jonah fears the Lord, and that Jonah’s Lord sent this storm, they begin to “fear with great fear” (v10). Finally, when the Lord stills the storm and the sailors discover the Jonah’s God is even more powerful than the storm—and that he exercises that power for their salvation—the sailors turn their fear to him and “greatly fear the Lord” (v16). It is the same emotion which they experienced toward the mighty storm and then turned toward the even more mighty God of that storm. But the character of that fear takes on a different hue when turned toward someone merciful in his might (God) rather than something destructive in its power (the storm).
The word yare’ in its various forms appears 435 times throughout the Old Testament. Of those uses, almost eighty percent refer to the fear of the Lord. Obviously, Scripture wants us to know that God is indeed the most powerful object ever to be faced and he is greatly to be feared. If we are under his wrath, how great that fear must be in its dread, terror, and anguish. But if we are resting in his mercy by penitent faith in his provision for our forgiveness, we behold his power with awe that warms our hearts and causes us to bow in love. But it is love which takes precedence over every other emotion and desire in our hearts, so that it is indeed a fear-inspired devotion, since it is fear that subjugates all other priorities.