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Casting Out Fear

What does it really mean to “fear” God?

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. – 1 John 4:18

Fear. It is a word that appears in the English translations of the Bible some 450 times with approximately 350 of those occurrences in the Old Testament alone. And several of these refer specifically to the “fear of God” or the “fear of the Lord.” This fact has caused many readers (particularly non-Jewish readers) to ask why. Why is there so much fear in the Bible? 

Solving this mystery ultimately requires looking beyond the English and into the Hebrew language behind it. The Hebrew word is yirah and is much broader in meaning than our English word fear. Indeed, “Our English word fear narrowly focuses on being afraid. To us, fear is the opposite of trust and is synonymous with worry, dread, or fright. But yirah encompasses a much wider range of meanings, from negative (dread, terror) to positive (worship, reverence) and from mild (respect) to strong (awe).”[1] In fact, there are many instances in the Bible where yirah isn’t about being afraid at all but instead it conveys honour and respect. In Leviticus 19:3, for example, we are instructed to revere (or yirah) our mother and father. Similarly, in Leviticus 19:30 we are commanded to keep God’s Sabbaths and to revere (to yirah) His sanctuary.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction….The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

Proverbs 1:7, 9:10

Yirah is also used in a strong, positive sense in Proverbs when it declares that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). Even though this type of fear refers to a humble reverence and awe, due to our narrow understanding of this word many Christians tend to see it as a negative thing— “fearing the punishment that God could give us for our deeds.”[2] Of course, we will all stand before God’s judgment seat one day but those who’s sins have been paid for by Jesus Christ shouldn’t have this kind of fear anymore (1 John 4:18). Rather, our fear should be “a shrinking back in recognition of the difference or holiness of God and the drawing close in awe and worship. To fear the Lord is not to experience a dread that paralyzes all action, but neither is it just a polite respect. It is an attitude of both reluctance and adoration that results in a willingness to do what God says.”[3] And, according to the teachings of Proverbs, “This proper attitude of the creature toward the Creator is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom.”[4] That is, true knowledge and wisdom flow from the fear or reverence of the LORD.[5]

Clearly, yirah isn’t exclusively negative. Like many other Hebrew words, it has a double-edged-ness to it. “[It] can be either positive or negative, depending on the context. God’s enemies fear Him, but His people show Him reverent, worshipful awe.”[6]

Ryan Hembree is a daily co-host, speaker, and writer of Bible Discovery. He also hosts a YouTube channel that shows the unity of the Bible and how science and Scripture fit together. Ryan also has an honorary Masters of Ministry in Creation Science from Phoenix University of Theology.

[1] Lois Tverberg, Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Kindle Location, 805.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, Love God or Fear Him?, 284.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Lois Tverberg, Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Kindle Location, 829.

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