The Fear of the Lord
Fear. It’s a foul four-letter word. It causes tyranny of the soul, and sickness of the body. And I stand immobile. Teeth chattering like cattle stampeding. Sweet sweat beading on my upper lip and leaking onto my parched tongue. A wheezing breath with each rise and fall of my chest. And I stand immobile. Trembling.
Ever since the felt-board days of Sunday School, kids have been taught by well-meaning men and women “to fear the Lord.” If those kids attend Vacation Bible School each summer, they might also learn that such fear is the beginning of wisdom. But sadly, few kids ever learn Psalm 111:10 and even fewer know how to define “fear” in a theological context.
I was one of those kids. I dutifully colored all of the pictures of Elisha performing miracles, proudly recited my Scripture memory verse in exchange for a gold star on my performance chart, and could sing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. I was told to “fear the Lord” and as an obedient child, fear him I did.
I consciously understood that God was angry with me when I hit my little sister. I knew that he punished people when they failed to keep his commandments, which explained why so many people were afflicted and ill. And I distinctly remember the day that I received my education on death. Adam and Eve sinned and thus were rewarded with physical death. Never mind that they did not taste death for nearly a millennium. I either didn’t hear that part or it was never articulated to me. Instead, I heard, “Sin causes death.” I truly believed that if I upset God enough, that he would strike me dead— immediately. That day my heart, only the size of my sticky five year-old fist, began pulsating with fear.
Twenty-one years later I’m casually listening to a downloaded lecture on Exodus. I’m familiar with the narrative and so my thoughts are drifting as I soap the dishes in a circular motion. Israel was to consecrate herself for on the third day the Lord would appear in a cloud on Mount Sinai and address his chosen people. “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). “Ahh, the fear of the Lord again,” I thought. “They were so in awe of their God and overwhelmed at the notion of being his elect nation that they literally trembled in his presence. To have faith like that and know God with such intimacy!”
But, the scholar didn’t agree with my newfound theological understanding of the fear of the Lord. No. He avowed that the Israelites’ trembling was the physiological response to raw fear. Fight or flight fear.
“But why?” I plead with the recording. “Why where the Israelites afraid when they literally had God standing before them?” “Because they expected wrath. In spite of him leading them out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea, providing bread from heaven, and producing water from a rock, Israel still expected a God of destruction. They failed to remember the abundant loving-kindness of God and his long-suffering nature. They did not know him.”
I’m the Israelite. I stand immobile. Teeth chattering like cattle stampeding. Sweet sweat beading on my upper lip and leaking onto my parched tongue. A wheezing breath with each rise and fall of my chest. And I’ve stood immobile for the duration of my life—trembling before the Lord.
Today I took a step out of fear and breathed in grace. And my adult-sized heart pulsated a tiny bit slower.
“Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love…” Psalm 33:18