Then he said with a booming voice from the heavens, “fear the Lord thy God!” So, the question from modern day Christians is a bit of a conundrum. God never changes, right? But the New Testament discusses a loving Fatherly relationship with God. The Old Testament contains a dozen different Hebrew words for fear, many used when discussing man’s relationship with the Father. Fear God then love God, isn’t that different? The real question we should ask is what is the meaning and translation of “fear God” and how is it used throughout the Bible, verse by verse? We must define fear to discover God’s infinite perfection and unchanging ways.
Let’s Be Honest, Hebrew is Very Different than English
Unlike English which borrows a majority of words from Greek, Latin, Germanic, etc., Hebrew is an ancient language with many of its words and roots coming from observations, combining other Hebrew words, or even sounds. This means that many of the words in the Bible have roots that could mean something totally different, so looking into their root words could pull meaning that would have been in the minds of early Hebrew writers but then lost over thousands of years. As an example, the English definition for fantastic originally meant “existing only in the imagination” making it very similar to the word fantasy. Today, it has taken on a totally new meaning. Understanding the roots of words and origin can help us truly understand the meaning back when it was first written down.
The Early Hebrews and How They Saw the ‘Fear God’ meaning
In English, there isn’t much confusion over the words fear, afraid, or frighten. These are all explaining a feeling. An emotional response to a thing or a thought that induces dread, anxiety, and fight or flight. Throughout the Old Testament there are a dozen words that, within context, mean exactly that. “Striking fear in the hearts of your enemy,” “do not fear for I am with you,” etc. But then there are some Hebrew words that are a little more ambiguous. The issue is that widely used translations uses words like fear, dread, fearful, etc. A great example of this is the Hebrew word “yare,” (pronounced yaw-ray’).
Fear God, not Man
We find this word regularly paired with man’s relationship with God. So, early translations into English said to “fear God,” “be afraid and know that I am God.” We are now seeing newer translations change the context of this from “fear God” to “revere God.” Reverence is a deep respect or admiration. An example is moral reverence like Adam saying, “I heard you in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.” (Gen. 3:10) Was Adam truly fearful? Probably! Anyone who gets caught with their pants down is going to get a little awkward! But was he morally ashamed in the presence of a morally perfect God? Definitely would fit the context in this case, right?
In Genesis 22:12, Job 1:8, and throughout the Psalms (examples 25:14 and 31:19) the Bible uses “yare” to describe “God fearing men.” This has never really made sense and seemed to be outside the character or God. As a father myself, do I really want my children to fear me? Or do I want them to look up to me and respect me as a source of authority, wisdom, guidance and nurture. Perhaps if we are prepared to dive deeper into context and scripture, we can discover that the image of God we create through words may be the doing of man’s limitations translating, not a question of God’s unchanging perfection. We use fear, and that may be part of it, but we cannot limit God to one word. Perhaps that is why he chose Hebrew?
The New Testament and the Fear of God in Greek
If you are wondering, Greek follows this same translation path. A word like phobos (fob’-os) is used in Matthew 14:26 as the disciples think that the risen Jesus is a ghost. He calms them by saying “don’t be afraid,” or “don’t fear me.” Which makes complete sense, how would you feel if you saw what you thought was a ghost?
Then there is phobeo (fob-eh’-o) as seen in Mark 4:41 when Christ woke up during the raging storm and told the winds, rain and waves to “be still”. The disciples were “terrified” asking “who is this man?” “even the wind and waves obey him!” There way have been a feeling of alarm, but their fear was more shock and awe. In that moment they were exceedingly reverent of the Son of God.
Defining, not Assuming
We still have a sense to fear God even as new translations are correcting the very Biblical words we build these misconceptions on. This is why we must continue to study, dive deep into the word and never question God. If something seems off, and we have faith that God is perfect and never changing, those are variables we can remove from our research to find the true purpose of apparent contradictions. God’s word is perfect, but not all of us speak Hebrew or Greek. God will direct us to the answer. If something feels like it speaks against the character of God, research it! The more you know God the less there is to fear because you will find safety and shelter in Him. Salvation is a gift we cannot earn, but sanctification is a process of learning, studying, and cleansing to bring us closer to our loving Father. Amen.
Writing and Photography by Jon Frederick
Part of the Defined Series