The Fear of the Lord | Exodus 20:18-21
Brian Hedges | February 19, 2023
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles this morning to Exodus 20.
While you’re turning there, let me read an excerpt to you from Kenneth Grahame’s delightful children’s book The Wind in the Willows. It is the story of these four animals who are friends—Rat, Toad, Mole, and Badger—and there is a chapter where Rat and Mole go seeking the forest god named Pan.
They come into the forest, they recognize it is a holy place, and we read these words:
“Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently.”
Then, when they finally encounter Pan and see him, Grahame says,
“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!’
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”
Though that is a fantasy story for children about talking animals searching in the woods for a pagan god, it illustrates beautifully what the theologian Rudolph Otto called “the idea of the holy,” the numinous, the transcendent, the sense of fearful wonder and dreadful delight that comes into our hearts when we come into the presence of the divine, the supernatural, the transcendent.
It illustrates for us what the Scriptures describe as “the fear of the Lord.”
We’re studying together this wonderful book of Exodus. It is the story of redemption in the Old Testament, and as we saw during the first half of this series in the fall, it reveals to us the God who delivers his people from slavery and bondage and brings them to himself through mighty wonders and through great acts of judgment and sacrifice.
Now we’re a couple of weeks into the second half of the series, and we’re seeing that Exodus also reveals to us the God who dwells with his people. We saw it in Exodus 19 when the children of Israel come to the mountain of God, Mount Sinai. It is this inferno of fire, a blaze; there’s smoke, there’s cloud, there’s lightning, there’s thunder, there’s the sound of a trumpet, and all of it is there to call them into the presence of this God who reveals himself in a mighty theophany.
Then, in chapter 20, God speaks, and what he speaks are the Ten Words, the words from the fire, the Ten Commandments, the very law of God, as we saw last week.
Today I want us to look at just a few verses following this giving of the Ten Commandments, and I want us to focus in on the response of the children of Israel. Our focus will be on the fear of God.
We’re looking at Exodus 20:18-21. Hear the word of the Lord.
“Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.’ The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”
This is God’s word.
What an amazing scene, as the children of Israel tremble in the presence of the holy God. It was actually an invitation for them to draw near to God. Exodus 19:13 said, “When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” But the children of Israel draw back instead. Instead of coming up the mountain, they say, “Don’t let God speak to us, Moses! You do the talking. If God speaks to us, we’re going to die.” They’re scared. They’re afraid. They’ve seen these accouterments of the glory of God, the thunder and the lightning and the smoke, and so on, and they draw back. They’re trembling and they are afraid.
Moses responds in verse 20 by saying, “Do not fear, but God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” It is one of the key verses and one of the earliest verses in the Bible about the fear of the Lord.
I want to take that theme and trace it through different parts of Scripture, and ask three questions this morning: 1. What Is the Fear of the Lord? 2. Why Should We Fear the Lord? 3. How Do We Grow in This Fear?
1. What Is the Fear of the Lord?
I think the first thing that you notice in verse 20 is there are actually two kinds of fear. Do you see that? In verse 20, the people are afraid; they’re drawing back. “Moses, don’t let God speak to us!” And Moses says to them, “Do not fear! Don’t be afraid of this God. Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you.” “Do not fear, but fear.”
There are two kinds of fear; there’s a good fear and there is a bad fear. It’s the same word in Hebrew, but throughout Scripture you can see this contrast. There’s a contrast between an ungodly kind of fear that draws back from the Lord and a godly, holy fear that draws near to him.
The Puritans spoke a lot about these two kinds of fear. They contrasted sinful fear with religious fear (John Flavel), or servile fear—that is, the fear of a slave—with filial fear, the fear of a child (George Swinnock). Or slavish fear versus holy fear (William Gurnall), or, in John Bunyan’s words, ungodly fear versus godly fear.
What’s the difference between the two? Ungodly fear can be illustrated by those who wish that God was not God, or that there was no God at all, that there is no kind of being like this who is all-knowing and all-powerful and everywhere present. Michael Reeves, in his book on the fear of the Lord, quotes Christopher Hitchins, who is one of the four most prominent new atheists. He quotes Hitchins and his words about the possibility of God’s existence, and they’re sad words, and they’re sad because Christopher Hitchins died a couple of years ago still in unbelief. He said,
“I think it would be awful if it was true [that God existed]. If there was a permanent, total, round-the-clock divine supervision of everything you did, you would never have a waking or sleeping moment when you weren’t being watched and controlled or supervised by some celestial entity from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death. It would be like living in North Korea.”
That’s an ungodly fear of God, the wish that God did not exist. The ungodly fear is a fear of punishment; a godly fear is a fear not so much of punishment but of grieving the very heart of God. An ungodly fear would be a fear of sin’s consequences; a godly fear is the fear of sin itself.
It’s one thing to fear hell and punishment, but such fear in and of itself will never convince someone to repent. It may be an awakening moment, and certainly we should fear the judgment of God, but it’s not sufficient. There has to be something more. There has to be something in our hearts that, even if there were no hell, even if there were no judgment, even if there were no punishment, we would still hate sin and we would still reverence God, we would still love him, because we see in him his holiness, his goodness, his beauty.
An ungodly fear has no love for God in it; no love for righteousness or holiness or anything that God loves, no love for God himself. An ungodly fear views God as a cosmic killjoy, the divine sadist, the celestial ogre who is out to spoil everyone’s fun. But a godly fear—gospel fear, as we might call it—is something entirely different. So what is it? Let’s try to define it.
Jerry Bridges, in a wonderful book called The Joy of Fearing God, suggests three essential elements to this fear. He says it includes reverence for God—that’s respect for God—reverence for God’s august, majestic, holy character. But also admiration for God; admiration of his glorious attributes. Also amazement at his infinite love.
I think that’s helpful because it shows us that this fear of God is not simply the sense of awe, though it includes that, but it’s also awe combined with joy, with delight. In fact, we might define the fear of the Lord as a trembling, reverence, awestruck, delighted, joyful fear.
The Scriptures over and again combine these ideas of reverence with joy. Nehemiah 1:11 speaks of God’s servants “who delight to fear his name.” Psalm 2:11 says, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” In Matthew 28:8, after the two women had seen the empty tomb and had heard from the angel that the Lord Jesus had risen from the dead, they depart from that garden with fear and great joy.
Fear and joy—those two things combined together—that’s the fear of the Lord.
Let me give you a more lengthy definition, this time from Michael Reeves. Michael Reeves wrote a wonderful book a few years ago called Rejoice & Tremble. It’s the best thing I’ve read on the doctrine of the fear of the Lord, and much of what I’m sharing this morning I’ve learned from Reeves. Reeves says,
“This right fear of God is not the minor key, gloomy flip side to proper joy in God. There is no tension between this fear and joy; rather, this trembling fear of God is a way of speaking about the sheer intensity of the saints’ happiness in God. In other words, the biblical theme of the fear of God helps us to see the sort of joy that is most fitting for believers. Our desire for God and delight in him are not intended to be lukewarm; our joy in God is, at its purest, a trembling and wonder-filled, yes, fearful joy. For the object of our joy is so overwhelmingly and fearfully wonderful. We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity that is fitting for him. What more befits his infinite magnificence than an enjoyment of him that is more than our frail selves can bear, which overwhelms us and causes us to tremble?”
Have you ever experienced the fear of the Lord? Do you know what it is to live before the face of God? To know his presence with you, overshadowing you, watching you? The holy God, who is also full of tender mercy and compassion and grace, and to be so awestruck by the sense of that holiness and that grace that you are struck by wonder that thrills your soul to the very core of your being, so that you tremble with joy in the presence of God. Have you ever experienced that in corporate worship? There comes a moment where there comes a sense that we’re doing more than just going through motions. This is more than just singing a song. We are in the presence of the Holy One.
Or maybe with your Bible open, in your personal devotions, you’re reading the Scriptures and the word comes to life in your heart, and the reality of it strikes you in a way that causes you to delight in God and yet also to feel a profound reverence for him.
Or maybe on your knees in prayer, in a dark room. All distractions are shut out, and you have the sense that you are in the very presence of the Creator of the universe. The fear of the Lord.
2. Why Should We Fear the Lord?
We tried to define it. In some ways you almost have to experience it to know it. But why should we fear the Lord? Why is this something that is desirable for us?
To tell the truth, we could spend several sermons answering this question. I’m going to give you a lot of texts; don’t feel like you have to write them all down. They’ll all be in the transcript in a week. You can get all of this later. Just let the word of God wash over you, and what I want you to feel is the weight, the cumulative weight of what the Scriptures say about the fear of the Lord and why we should fear him.
We could summarize all of this in two broad reasons.
(1) The first is this: we should fear the Lord because of his greatness and his goodness. As we think about the character of God, the majesty of God, the holiness and sovereignty and glory of God, the splendor of his holiness, it should cause us to wonder and to rejoice with trembling before him.
This is a dominant theme in the Psalms. Psalm 47:1-2: “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.”
Or Psalm 96:3-4: “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.”
Or take Revelation 15:4. “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.”
When we think about God’s transcendent otherness, the beauty of his holiness, the extent of his sovereign reign, the magnitude of his creative power, all of it should provoke us to fear God. He’s God. To know him is to fear him.
But we should also fear him because of his goodness—not just the greatness, but his goodness. This is what is maybe surprising in Scripture. It’s not only at mentions of God’s holiness and sovereignty and power and justice that the saints fear God, but also the goodness of God. Listen to this text; you can follow this one on the screen. It’s less familiar, perhaps. Jeremiah 33:8-9 is where God, in his promises to his people, says,
“I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.”
Isn’t that amazing? Here it’s not so much the fearful, awesome justice and greatness of God, although that’s true and should provoke our wonder, but here it is the kindness of God, the mercy of God to forgive his people’s sins, to cleanse them, to restore them to himself, and to do good to them. He says, “Because of all the good I will do for them, they will fear and tremble.”
It shows us that there is something about the very mercy of God and the goodness of God, the grace of God, that when it profoundly touches your heart it causes you to fear his name with delighted, awesome wonder.
We could go on and on, showing how the Scriptures speak of the character of God and how that should provoke our joy. That’s one reason, one broad reason why we should fear the Lord: because of his goodness, because of his greatness.
(2) But here’s the second broad reason: we also need this fear because of the immense blessings promised to those who fear him. Once again, just hear the word of God. Let the Scriptures wash over you.
Proverbs 19:23: “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” Or Proverbs 14:27: “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.”
Do you want life? Do you want joy? Do you want deep satisfaction of your soul? You’re made for this! You’re made for wonder, you’re made to lose yourself in worshiping something greater than yourself. You’re made for joy, you’re made for satisfaction. How do you get it? Where do you find it? You find it in the fear of the Lord. It’s a fountain of life.
That great twentieth century evangelical pastor and mystic A.W. Tozer—who the biographies tell us would sometimes lay prostrate before God for hours at a time in prayer and in worship—Tozer said, “I believe that the reverential fear of God, mixed with love and fascination and astonishment and admiration and devotion, is the most enjoyable state and the most satisfying emotion the human soul can know.”
Oh to know it! We were made for this, to be satisfied with God.
The fear of the Lord is the key to repentance. You see it here in our main passage, Exodus 20, when Moses says, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” An impediment to sin is the fear of the Lord, and it’s not only the fear of judgment, but it is the fear of displeasing so great and merciful and gracious a God.
Proverbs 16:6 says, “By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil.” Are you struggling with sin, maybe struggling with habitual sin? Whatever your struggles with sin are, in our struggles with sin the one thing we need more than anything else is a deeper fear of God, a fear of grieving him, of hurting him, of wounding him, of dishonoring him.
The fear of the Lord is also the beginning of wisdom. This is the theme of the wisdom literature of Scripture. Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy one is insight.”
“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Proverbs 25:14). There is a special communion with God for those who fear the Lord, who know him. In fact, Psalm 147:10-11 says that God’s delight “is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.”
Listen, this concept of the fear of the Lord is not just an Old Testament thing, an Old Testament concept. This is a New Testament reality. This is something for us today. Mary, the mother of our Lord, in the great Magnificat in Luke 1, says that God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. The apostle Paul exhorts us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, “for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
He calls us to holiness in 2 Corinthians 7:1, with motivation not only from the promises of God but from the fear of God. “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
One of Paul’s chief motives for evangelism in 2 Corinthians 5 is the fear of the Lord. He says, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” He also says, “The love of Christ constrains us.”
The writer to the Hebrews tells us that we are to serve God or worship God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, “for our God is a consuming fire.”
The early church in the book of Acts multiplies, we read in Acts 9:31, as they were walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
In the final book of the Bible, almost at the very end, Revelation 19:4-5, the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fall down and worship God, seated on the throne, saying, “Amen! Hallelujah!” And from the throne there comes a voice saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants who fear him, small and great!”
We could say that our worship, our holiness, our evangelism, church growth that is legitimate and real, is all something that comes from this wellspring: the fear of the Lord.
One more thought here that I think is quite profound. I learned this from Michael Reeves’s book. Jesus himself was characterized by the fear of the Lord. Luke tells us that Jesus as a boy “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” He couldn’t have grown in wisdom without having the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom. But even more directly, Isaiah, in one of his prophecies of the Davidic king who will come, this shoot from the stump of Jesse, this branch from his roots that will bear fruit, he describes it this way. This is Isaiah 11:2-3.
“And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”
Jesus, the word made flesh, the perfect human being, the Son of God incarnate among us, lived his days delighting in the fear of the Lord.
Brothers and sisters, your whole duty before God can be summed up as fearing God. Ecclesiastes 12:13: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
Why should we fear the Lord? Because of his greatness and his goodness, and because of the immense blessings that are promised to those who fear him.
3. How Do We Grow in This Fear?
The final question, then, is, how do we grow in this fear? I hope I’ve said enough that you want this, and I hope that God’s Spirit is doing something in your heart as we hear these passages of Scripture that stirs and that makes you want this, so that you say deep in your soul, “I want to know this! I want to know God like this, I want to fear God like this, I want to rejoice in God with this kind of trembling delight. But how do I get it?”
The short answer is grace. It’s all of grace! But let’s break it down into three aspects of God’s grace.
(1) The first aspect is the grace of forgiveness. I hope you know Psalm 130:3-4. I think Psalm 130—I haven’t really counted, but I think it may be the psalm that I have prayed more than any other psalm. The psalmist says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”
Have you ever prayed that? Have you ever thought about your sins when you come into the presence of God? Do you start to number them and they seem that they are beyond numbering? It’s a multitude of sins. Like Jonathan Edwards, that old Puritan, you look at your sins and all you can think is, “Infinite upon infinite! My sins are infinite! I’ve sinned against this infinitely good, wise, just, and holy God.”
Do you think about your failures of the last week or the last few days? Do you think about sinful thoughts, sinful words, losing your temper, giving in to some temptation, some besetting sin? Maybe it’s sins of neglect. You think, “You know, I was doing really well at the beginning of the year; we were doing the Abide series, and I was doing devotions and I was reading the word and I was praying, and now we’re in February and my heart is like the temperature outside; it’s cold.”
If you ever feel that way, pray this prayer: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”
Isn’t that surprising? “There’s forgiveness that you may be feared.” The forgiveness of God is something that leads to the fear of God. It is this sense of having all of our sins forgiven. How are they forgiven? They’re forgiven through the cross of Christ.
Spurgeon said, “When a man really receives the pardon of all his sins, he is the man who fears the Lord. This is clearly the case, for pardon breeds love in the soul, and the more a man is forgiven the more he loves. Where great sin has been blotted out, there comes to be great love. Well, is not love the very core of the true fear of God?”
Listen; if you want to grow in the fear of the Lord, study the cross. Look at his wounds, his hands pierced for you with nails, the thorns in his brow, the sword in his side. Behold the agony of his love, the heart-melting mercy for sinners that took him all the way to death, that held him there on the cross to purchase your forgiveness, to buy your pardon at the price of his own blood! Look at him in his dying, bleeding love, and then say to your soul, “How can I sin against love like that? How can I wound a Savior who loves me like that?” Fear to sin against such mercy, such costly grace.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the old spiritual asks. “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” Tremble before the cross, the grace of forgiveness purchased by the blood of Christ.
(2) Secondly, we grow in this fear through the grace of regeneration or new birth. This is the grace of the Holy Spirit, who comes into our hearts and changes us, transforms us from the inside out.
Maybe you already made the connection, but our assurance of pardon this morning was from Jeremiah 32. It’s one of those passages in Jeremiah that’s giving us the substance of God’s covenant promises for his people, a new covenant that he will make in Jeremiah 31, called an everlasting covenant in Jeremiah 32. Look at what he promises. In verse 39, “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever.” Then in verse 40, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”
He puts the fear in you! How does he put the fear in you? He does it by his Spirit. His Spirit comes and indwells us, writes the law in our hearts, as we saw last week, and puts the fear of God in us.
Once again, it’s not just dread of God, but it is this delightful awe and reverence of God that fears to sin against him.
John Newton put it this way: "’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved."
(3) Finally, one more thing: we grow in this fear through the grace of ongoing spiritual renewal through God’s word.
The psalmist prays, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. Unite my heart to fear your name.”
Maybe you know this wonderful psalm, Psalm 19. It’s a psalm that in many ways extols God’s revelation of himself through the word of God.
“The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes . . .”
And then a curious name for the word of God in verse 9:
“. . . the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.”
The word of God. This is why we need Scriptures—one of many reasons. The Scriptures cultivate in us the fear of the Lord that has been implanted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the fear that has been purchased for us through the cross of Christ.
Do you know this fear? Do you have this? Do you know what it is to be lost in wonder, love, and praise as you live before the face of God with dreadful, delightful joy in your heart? If you don’t know that, then maybe you’ve gotten just a little taste this morning. Look to the cross of Christ. Study there the love of God, the character of God, his holiness and his grace, demonstrated there at the cross, and may today be for you the day when you begin to fear the Lord and to love him and to cherish him.
If you are a believer today, grow in this fear, and do that by praying this prayer, or something like it. This is a prayer from Charles Wesley. He said,
I want a principle within
Of watchful, godly fear;
A sensibility of sin,
A pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel
Of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wandering of my will
And quench the kindling fire.
Would you pray for that? Pray that God would give you a watchful, holy fear; fear that is so full of love for God that it would turn your heart away from sin, that it would expel from your heart the very desire for sin, because you have something so much better in him. Let’s pray together.
Gracious and merciful God, we thank you that you are who you are, that you are a God of both greatness and goodness, a God of holiness and of grace, faithfulness and steadfast love. We thank you that you have revealed yourself to us through your word, the holy Scriptures, and supremely through your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his doing and dying on our behalf.
We thank you this morning for the cross, which gives us confidence that our sins can be forgiven. We thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit, who renews us in your image and implants within our hearts the very fear of God.
Lord, we pray that you would do a work this morning in us that is above and beyond what we can engineer or manufacture in any way. Do more than my words can do, more than mere teaching and preaching can do. By your Spirit would you come and implant within us this fear? Cultivate it, grow it, so that there is something in us that is so awestruck in the presence of God that we know what it is to tremble with joy in your presence.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, may we come with this sense of holy fear and joyful wonder, as we reflect on what Christ our Lord has done for us to purchase our pardon. So Lord, draw near to us in these moments as we draw near to you, and be glorified in our hearts and in our worship together this morning. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.