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Be Wise about Your Fear
The ‘Fear of the Lord’ in Proverbs
I was in New Zealand this last summer, doing something I knew Beth would not be excited about. I was standing at the top of a river, looking 154 feet down. My toes were literally on the edge of the overlook, and I was about to jump.
I don’t normally have a fear of heights, but this was scary. It looked so far down. And I was thinking about intentionally launching myself out into the air and down to the water. Jonas Tracy was about ten feet behind me and the rest of our team was far away watching.
I felt fear. But we were bungie jumping and I knew there was no turning back. So I jumped–it was crazy. That is the most fear I have felt in years.
What do you fear? Four years ago, Chapman University did a major study on fear in America. Public speaking was #1, followed by a fear of heights, then a fear of animals, drowning, needles and many other things. Raise your hand if you see something on the list that you are afraid of–I hope it’s not zombies.
Everyone has fears and most everyone thinks that fear is a bad thing. But fear isn’t entirely bad. Fear keeps you from sticking a fork into an electric socket. Fear keeps you from eating every berry you find on a hike. Fear keeps people from driving as fast as their car can go. Fear alerts you to danger.
But people often fear the wrong things. They fear a needle with a vaccine. They fear spiders that eat bad bugs. They fear planes that will take them to loved ones. Fear is not a bad thing. But our fears are often misplaced.
This morning I want to look at what the Bible says about fear. Specifically, I want to look at what it means to fear the Lord. If there is a God and He is more powerful than our president, and He is able to control the weather, the nations and even the universe–if He is the Creator of all things, then we need to understand what it means to fear Him.
What do you do when you read passages that describe fearing God? If you’ve been following FBC’s Bible reading plan, you read a lot of passages that talk about fearing the Lord. Let me read a few.
Proverbs 15:16, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure and turmoil with it.”
Proverbs 19:23, “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.”
Proverbs 22:4, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.”
What is the fear of the Lord? You might think that it’s just an Old Testament thing, but it is something that shows up in the Church Age as well.
Acts 9:31, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
Colossians 3:22, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.”
And just in those few passages, we have heard that the fear of the Lord . . . is better than great treasure, is rewarded with honor, leads to life, is connected to a church’s growth and is the ground of a healthy work environment. Do you know what it means to fear the Lord?
Today, we are starting a five-week series on Proverbs, looking at major topics and themes in them. Chris, Shawn, Nigel and myself are all going to preach, digging into what the Proverbs say about purity, listening, parenting and more. Today is the start and it seemed fitting to start by looking at the fear of the Lord, because when you read Proverbs, this is what you are immediately and repeatedly challenged by.
Open your Bibles to Proverbs chapter 1. The Proverbs are mainly penned by Solomon, a king over Israel, widely acknowledged to be the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs are bits of wisdom. They are not promises, but maxims–things that are generally true. The first six verses introduce the whole book of Proverbs and the first one we encounter is in verse 7.
Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
We don’t call people fools anymore. But in the Bible, in the book of Proverbs, a fool was someone who ignored wisdom. It does not refer to someone who lacks intellect or has mental issues. The fool describes the person who rejects instruction and rejects counsel. They make twisted judgments and justify themselves as right. Solomon wants you to know at the outset of Proverbs that this is the choice before you.
Proverbs 1:7 asks, “Will you be wise or foolish?” That is the question of all the Proverbs. Will you fear the Lord or will you despise wisdom? There is no middle ground. Will you fear God? Will you refuse wisdom and instruction this morning?
I want to help you know what it means to fear the Lord. Like Inigo Montoya once said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So what exactly is the fear of the Lord?
Do you remember a time you were in absolute terror? Not a fear that makes you courageous, but one that makes your body shut down. When we talk about fearing God, the Bible says that there is a real sense in which you should be afraid of him–not because He’s volatile. Not because He’s arbitrary. But because He is a vengeful enemy. Because His wrath is terrible.
Isaiah 8:13, “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.”
I remember lying awake at night as a kid in Georgia, hearing these booming thunder claps that shook the house. Lightning would strike so close that the forest near our house caught fire a few different times. As a child, I believed that there was a God and I knew that He would come back to judge all people. I lay there afraid that God was coming in the loud booms of thunder.
If the Creator of the universe cares at all about how you live, then you should be very afraid. Scripture says this over and over. And it also says that the One who is a source of terror is also a place of refuge. That if God is for you, who can be against you?
Proverbs 14:26, “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.”
In seminary, I had Dr. Robert Thomas, who was legendary. Alex Montoya had him as professor in 1968. I had him thirty years later. He taught for 55 years and was brutal. Back in the 60s, he was said to be “the sweetest little old man that ever slit a throat and scuttled a ship.” And it’s true.
I had heard how hard his classes were and how savage his grading was–so I connived a way to join his discipleship group, because I wanted to do more than fear him. When I sat with him, I saw a man who cared for people, who loved and prayed for you. Even though he was merciless in class, he wanted the best for you.
It is possible to fear and to love–to fear and to find confidence and refuge. To fear the Lord involves genuine fear, respect and affection. In fact that emphasis in your own heart will shift over time.
A young man fears disappointing his girlfriend with his birthday present, not because he fears she will dump him, but because he wants her delight. A young wife fears burning her new husband’s food, not due to his anger, but from a desire to please him.
The believer is to fear the Lord like a child fears his father. If you had a bad father, don’t use him as your example. I am describing a loving and sweet father.
To be raised in a loving home does not mean that discipline is absent. A parent who loves their child does not allow them to have their way, right? My 4-year-old needs to know that eating packets of Tide is not healthy. My 8-year-old needs to know that playing with fire is dangerous. My 10-year-old needs to know that a bacon-only diet is bad for you.
You may remember the terror of hearing, “Just wait till your dad gets home.” You still loved him, but you also feared him. Jerry Bridges wrote this great definition of the fear of the Lord. He said it is “reverential awe, in which dread, veneration and wonder are variously mingled.”
To fear the Lord means that you dread, worship and are in loving wonder of God simultaneously. Do you fear the Lord? You are commanded to.
Proverbs 23:17, “Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.”
Proverbs 24:21, “My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise.”
Over and over, the whole Bible and especially the Proverbs exhort us to fear the Lord. The consistent message is that there is only one worthy of your fear. Proverbs gives us three major encouragements to fear the Lord more.
1) Misplaced Fear Is Terrible
Have you ever had to talk through an unreasonable fear with someone? There was a time when our girls would freak out over a bug in the bathtub–not a tarantula, not scorpion, not a black widow, but a small fruit fly. That was enough to elicit a scream of terror.
You know the feeling of looking at someone else’s fear and thinking, “That’s it?! That’s all you’re afraid of?” We look at that as misplaced fear. I would comfort my girls by saying, “It’s tiny. It’s just a fly. Step on it!”
When we have fears placed on lesser things, they grow more terrible and they distract us from what is truly fear-worthy. Proverbs portrays misplaced fears as terrible. It says that the one who doesn’t fear the Lord is afraid of the wrong things.
Proverbs 14:2, “Whoever walks in uprightness fears the Lord, but he who is devious in his ways despises him.”
The one who does not fear the Lord despises Him. He considers Him unworthy of fear and instead is devious, scheming to get ahead in this life and fearful that others are going to take advantage of him.
Proverbs 3:32 says that the devious are an abomination to the Lord. But that man walks through life ignorant that the Creator is angry with him. He will meet with a terrible surprise. The same promise is found in . . .
Proverbs 28:14, “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.”
The person who chooses to fear lesser things hardens his heart against God. The end result of that misplaced fear is calamity. That’s an old word and it means physical pain and misfortune.
So am I saying that your fear of spiders is unreasonable? No–it might be unreasonable, but that’s not what Scripture is saying. The Bible’s point is that your greatest fear should be of the Creator. Your awe and wonder and worship and dread should only settle upon God.
Matthew 10:37 says that your love for Him should eclipse all other loves. If you are more in love with creation and people, then you don’t love God. In the same way, your fear of God should eclipse all other fears.
Does your love of God exceed your other loves? Does your fear of God exceed your other fears? He is the one most worthy of your fear and your awe and your worship. You can still fear clowns, but they should pale in comparison to your fear of the Lord. Misplaced fear is terrible. There is only one worthy of your fear and worship and awe. It is the Lord, Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
2) Fearing God Changes You
If you genuinely fear God, then it changes how you live. An excessive preoccupation with who likes your picture is going to be replaced with a weightier concern for God’s pleasure. You will stop spending all your money on yourself and begin to consider what God wants you to do with it. You will think about your relationships in a different way and want to live in a way that pleases God.
When someone comes to know and fear and worship God, then all of their life changes. This is indicated at the very beginning of Proverbs.
Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
When Solomon says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, he is not saying that it’s the starting point and then you move on. He is describing the fear of the Lord as the first principle, the controlling thought, the undergirding presupposition to all true knowledge. When you try to divorce knowledge from the fear of the Lord, what you know becomes distorted and leads you to wrong conclusions.
Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. He became bishop of Smyrna in a city dedicated to worshiping Caesar. He was a great teacher and respected by many. In 160 AD, the Roman ProConsul sought Polycarp to recant. He brought him into a stadium before the crowds and asked him to recant. He refused spectacularly—but that’s another story.
So the ProConsul began to up the ante, “I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.” “Call them,” Polycarp replied. “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.” “If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.” “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
The fear of the Lord changed Polycarp’s thinking. He knew what was worthy of fear. The way you look at life changes when you fear the Lord.
We live in the Information Age. Most of what is written today has no fear of God whatsoever. This means that while their critiques may be valid, their conclusions will often be wrong.
Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Wisdom is knowledge applied to life. It is using true knowledge to make good choices. Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom. If you want to be wise, if you want to make good choices in life, the starting point and foundation for those choices is the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord will change you. Many Proverbs describe that as “turning from evil.”
Proverbs 3:7, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”
Proverbs 8:13, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.”
If you have a secret sin, something you do privately that you hide from everyone, the reason that you continue in that sin is that you don’t fear the Lord. When you think you’re all alone and that it’s safe to do what you want, you know that God is there but you do not fear Him.
When someone entices you to sin, whether by pleading with you or by angering you, your awe in God is replaced with a greater fear that denying yourself will result in real pain. In your Bible, would you turn to Proverbs 16:5 to 7? I want you to see something amazing here.
Proverbs 16:5 to 7, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished. 6 By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil. 7 When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”
This three-verse passage declares the truth of the Gospel so clearly. In verse 5, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord.” Those who are proud in heart are hated by God–this is all of us. The promise is that “he will not go unpunished.”
Verse 6 says steadfast love and faithfulness will pay for sin (that’s the meaning of atone). Only One has ever been entirely faithful. Only One has had unwavering, unflinching love. Only One has lived in a way to atone for sin.
Then verse 7 says, “When a man’s ways please the Lord,” (speaking of Jesus), “He makes even his enemies be at peace with him.” This is what happened on the cross. A sinless, perfect man named Jesus died on the cross to reconcile His enemies to God. And because Jesus was not just a man, but also God, He defeated death and atoned for the sins of all who would believe in Him.
That is the Gospel, found even here in Proverbs–and sandwiched in the middle of that amazing truth are these words. “By the fear of the Lord, one turns away from evil.” When you genuinely fear the Lord, you will turn from evil. When your fear is a reverential awe, in which dread, veneration and wonder are variously mingled, then the fear of the Lord changes you and leads you to life.
Proverbs 19:23, “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.”
Whoever fears the Lord is changed. Unlike those around him, he experiences true contentment. Because the Lord is his shepherd and Heaven is his destiny, there is no real harm that can come to him.
If you fear the Lord, you are going to be radically different than the people around you. Your time will be spent differently. The things that entertain you will be different. The things that make you happy will be different. The concerns you have will be different. The fears you face will be different. Your marriage will be different. Your parenting will be different. Your retirement will be different.
Fearing the Lord changes you. Do you fear the Lord? Are you different than the world around you? There is only one worthy of your fear and worship and awe. It is the Lord, Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
3) Fearing God Brings Lasting Joy
Non-Christians often think that becoming a Christian means giving up fun. They assume that Christianity is joyless and uneducated. But the truth is something radically different. The reality that every true Christian knows is that there is more true and lasting joy to be found in your relationship to God than in the most sensual pleasures this world offers.
There is more reward in this life for fearing God. There is more happiness in this life for fearing God. There is more praise from others when you fear God. When you fear God, your groundless fears and troubles cease. Your priorities and values are radically altered. Your concerns for this life are diminished. Your interests shift from what they were. You change and you find true joy. Three Proverbs reveal this very clearly.
Proverbs 22:4, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” This is not a future promise but a present one. There is reward in this life for fearing the Lord.
Proverbs 31:30, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Others will praise the woman who fears the Lord–not for charm, not for beauty, but her personal honor for God will lead others to praise her. Even more strongly . . .
Proverbs 28:14, “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” As you may know, the word “blessed” means happy. Happy is the one who fears the Lord always. Happiest is the one who maintains a childlike fear of His heavenly Father.
LZ Granderson is a columnist for CNN and ESPN. He has won many journalistic awards by gay and lesbian alliances. A few years back he wrote an article to parents about kids who run crazy in public places.
“I have what could be some rather disturbing news for you. I do not love your child. The rest of the country does not love your child either. …you have unilaterally decided for the plane, the restaurant, and the store to serve as an extension of your toddler’s playpen because you lack the fortitude to properly discipline them, in public and at home.
“And we know you don’t discipline them at home because you don’t possess ‘the look.’ If you had ‘the look,’ you wouldn’t need to say, ‘Sit down,’ a thousand times…
“(You) are not doing anyone, including (your) children, any favors. They are actually making things worse. Not only are (your) children allowed to interrupt social events and settings when they are young, but they often grow into disruptive forces… later. And nobody likes them for that.”
Here is his point. A parent who loves his child corrects his child. And a child who both loves and fears his parent will be happier in life. LZ is just agreeing with what the Proverbs teach. Blessed/happy is the person who fears the Lord. Fearing the Lord will bring lasting joy to you. We see it again in . . .
Proverbs 14:26 to 27, “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge. 27 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.”
An old Puritan (Charles Bridges) said about this verse. “The true fear of God is a holy, happy, reverential principle. It is not the fear that throws out love, but that which brings love in. It is reverence tempered with love. We fear because we love. We fear, yet are not afraid.”
The fear of God doesn’t just bring you joy, but the passage says that even your children experience the blessing of your fear of God. If you grew up (or are growing up) in a home where your parents love Jesus, you are receiving a special grace from God. Your home is more of a refuge than you even realize. Fearing God brings lasting joy to those who fear Him and even to their families.
If you find that you are beset by worries . . . if you are continually in despair . . . if you do not have joy in your life–Scripture tells us that your fear of the Lord may be lacking. You are consumed with lesser fears. Your awe is misplaced and absent from the Lord. You do not worship Him for all that He is.
If you do not fear God today, I am pleading with you to repent. This is the continual plea of Scripture. Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.” God Himself is warning you through His Word this morning.
Misplaced fear is terrible. Stop fearing lesser things. Do not fear those who can only hurt you. Fear the one who is in control of eternity. You see, you don’t become a Christian by knowing the right stuff, doing the right stuff, desiring to be saved, a past confession you made, a past experience you had, or going to church. That’s what most people think makes God love them, but that’s not what it means to fear the Lord.
The good news of the Bible is that we can be saved from God by God. If God really exists, and you know He does–then you should live in abject, total, consuming fear of Him, because you have been living in denial of Him and His ways. You are more full of sin and rebellion than you even realize. And God is more full of fury, wrath and anger at your sin than you can imagine.
The good news of the Bible is that God has made a way for you to be saved. Since you couldn’t save yourself, the Son of God came to earth as Jesus. He lived the perfect sinless life you never could. He took God’s terrible wrath on the cross for all the sins of everyone who would ever believe. Then He rose from the dead to show His power over death and now is in Heaven, waiting for the time when the Father asks Him to return to Earth to judge all those who continue to reject Him.
The One who is most worthy of fear is offering you total forgiveness. Jesus is the only answer for when you stand before God. He offers you forgiveness and the opportunity to move from a dreadful fear to a loving fear.
Psalm 130:4, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” The Gospel is that your sins can be traded for His perfect obedience. And His death for sin will be counted as yours. By God’s own doing, you can be reconciled to God. Just confess your sin and ask for forgiveness to be granted to you through Jesus’ work. When you do this, God will help you to change your lifestyle.
All those misplaced fears are done away with and the fear of the Lord will change you. The reverential awe, in which dread, veneration and wonder are variously mingled will fill you with joy. And once you’ve done that, once you’ve repented of your sin and put your hope in Christ, then ask God and He will help you to lovingly fear Him.
Proverbs 2 is all about how the Lord responds to our pleas for wisdom–that when we ask, when we initiate, when we pursue Him . . .
Proverbs 2:5, “Then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” God will help you to grow in your fear and love for Him. He will change your heart and you will want to change your behavior.
Your love and thankfulness to God result in a lifestyle of obedience. Freedom from sin will result in radical changes in your passions. You will find incredible joy as you delight in knowing and obeying Jesus. And you will go and tell others. You will naturally talk about what you love. You will warn others of what you most fear. You will tell others of the One who is most dangerous. You will talk about the One you most enjoy. This is what drove Paul and the apostles to speak.
Second Corinthians 5:11, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” If you fear the Lord, tell others of the amazing mercy we have in Jesus.