What, then, does the Bible mean when it says that we are supposed to “fear” God and be His “God-fearing” people? You can even find that in the first of the Three Angels’ Messages, Revelation 14:7: “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come” (RSV). Not only does this verse tell us to fear God, it even gives us a good reason to fear Him, the Last Judgment. So before we go any further, we need to understand the biblical meaning of the word “fear.” If you will forgive the Greek, it’s pronounced phobos, from which we get the English word “phobia.” But the biblical word doesn’t always mean terror. Sometimes it means respect or reverence. Look at Psalm 128:1-2, for example: “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord. You shall be happy, and it shall be well with you” (KJV). Surely the Psalmist isn’t saying, “Happy is everyone who is scared of God.”
So the biblical word “fear” has another meaning. Blessed is everyone who reveres and respects the Lord. You will be happy if you do and it will be well with you. Note, for example, Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (KJV). Does that mean that being terrified of God is the beginning of wisdom and learning? No, there again the context determines the meaning of the word. So the translation in the Good News Bible is to be preferred: “To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord.”
Where there is no respect there is no reverence, and very little learning can take place. Think of the lengths to which God has gone through the centuries to gain people’s respect and hold it long enough to tell them more truth about Himself. Perhaps the most famous example is the one provided at Mount Sinai. God came down to speak to His people. Did they all line up quietly to listen? No. They were noisy. They were complaining. They were fussing about the food and the water. There was no respect for God. So God could not speak to them softly that day. Instead, there was thunder and lightning, fire, smoke, and an earthquake. And God said to Moses, “Put a fence around that mountain. Don’t let the people come too close to me” (based on Exod 19:12-13). Today we sing “Nearer, Still Nearer,” but on that day no one wanted to get close:
The people were afraid and they trembled; And they stood afar off, and said to Moses, `You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’ But Moses said to the people, `Do not fear; for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of Him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin.’ (Exodus 20:18-20, RSV)
Notice the use of the word “fear” with both meanings in the same sentence. “Do not fear,” at the beginning of the sentence, means the same thing as “There’s no need to be afraid.” But further on, “That the fear of Him may be before you” uses the word with the meaning of “reverence.” So the very same Hebrew word can carry different meanings in the very same sentence. Notice also that Moses could stand in the middle of the earthquake and the fire and say that there is no need to be afraid. Why? Because he knew God, and he knew why God was raising His voice on that occasion.