Why does “the fear of the Lord” appear so often in the Bible?
Fear is basically the human reaction to a real or imaginary threat. If the threat is understood to be supernatural, beyond human control, fear manifests itself as despair, which anticipates one’s death.
1. NATURAL FEAR OF GOD
With respect to God, fear is the natural human response to His presence and actions following the Fall. When God descended on Mount Sinai, the people were terrorized by what they saw, heard, and felt, and considered it a life-threatening experience (Ex. 20:18-20; 19:21). Even seeing Him in a dream was enough to cause fear in the human heart (Gen. 28:17). In fact, anything supernatural was considered a possible threat to human life and caused fear (Job 4:12-16). Realizing that one was in the presence of the Lord created fear of death (Judges 6:2-23).
Even God’s actions in history terrorized people (Jer. 32:21; Deut. 26:8). When humans were afraid of God’s presence, they trembled (Ex. 20:18; Isa. 19:16), and were shocked and terrorized (Isa. 33:14; Acts 7:32). This is how fear expresses itself, showing a wholistic understanding of human nature according to which the inner emotions are expressed in bodily reactions. Under such circumstances the common human reaction was to run away from God out of fear, while at the same time realizing that He was the only one who could preserve life.
2. LEARNING THE FEAR OF THE LORD
The solution is not to eliminate fear, because sinful human beings fear God by nature. The solution is to bring under control the reactions propelled by fear. Consequently, the Lord decided to teach the people how to express their fear of Him in a way that would build up communion and fellowship. Thus came into existence a positive phrase found throughout the Bible: “the fear of the Lord” as a characteristic of those who were pious. It is grounded in a positive understanding of the glorious Lord as a loving and merciful God (Ex. 34:6, 7) who seeks to give life, not take it away, and who is the Redeemer of His people (Isa. 43:1, 5). This new understanding is not natural, so it has to be learned (Ps. 34:11).
It is learned by being loyal to God’s covenant law (Deut. 14:23; cf. 4:10; 17:19; Ps. 34:11-14) and by submission to the Lord in worship (Deut. 6:13, 14). When confronted by the Lord, fear expresses itself in obedience (Lev. 19:14, 32; Neh. 5:9, 15) and devotion to Him (Ps. 119:63), instead of trembling and terror and hiding from Him. It is a turning away from evil (Prov. 3:7; 16:6; cf. Acts 10:35) because of the goodness of the Lord. To fear Him is to love Him (Deut. 6:2-5).
Therefore, those who fear God do not anticipate death but are motivated by His loving-kindness (Ps. 147:11). The fear of God express itself in terror and trembling but in hoping/waiting for God’s faithfulness and mercy. It is no longer the fear of death but “a fountain of life” (Prov. 14:27) and “leads to life” (Prov. 19:23). God is no longer perceived as the enemy who seeks to destroy life, but as the one who preserves it (Ps. 33:18, 19).