“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10). The fear of God is a central biblical motif. “Of all things that are to be known,” writes Matthew Henry, “this is most evident, that God is to be feared, reverenced, served, and worshipped. This is so the beginning of knowledge that those know nothing who do not know this.”[i] But what exactly does it mean to fear God?
Years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. On the spur of the moment, we decided to go kayaking, and our guide organized a breakfast for us on the banks of the beautiful Zambezi River. He then provided a brief training session, followed by a stern warning: “This is a wild river. You’ll have no problem with the crocodiles, as long as you remain in your kayak. But the hippos are another matter entirely. If they feel threatened by you, they’ll strike from below!” He proceeded to snap a twig, and announced (with what I think was a twinkle in his eye): “A hippo will vaporize your kayak!” I was ready to back out, but the peer pressure was too great, and so, we proceeded on our kayaking adventure.
It was delightful, until near the end of the trip when we entered a narrow stretch of the river. Suddenly, four sets of eyes appeared on the surface of the water. According to John Flavel, what I experienced at that moment is known as natural fear: “The trouble or perturbation of mind, from the comprehension of approaching evil or impending danger.”[ii] This kind of fear is an essential part of human nature – we fear what threatens us and, in response, we avoid what we fear.
But is this what it means to fear God? Are we supposed to view Him as a danger to be avoided? To work through this, it’s crucial to note that Scripture speaks of fearing God in two very different ways. This distinction is evident, for example, in Exodus 20. The Israelites are gathered at Mount Sinai, where they could see the fire and smoke, and hear the thunder. As a result, they’re afraid. But Moses says to them, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may sin not” (v. 20, italics mine). In short, Moses commands the people not to fear God, yet to fear God. How do we explain this apparent contradiction? “Mark it,” says John Bunyan, “here are two fears: a fear forbidden and a fear commended.”[iii]
To put it another way, there’s a wrong way and a right way to fear God: ungodly fear and godly fear. Ungodly fear flows from God wrongly perceived, whereas godly fear flows from God rightly perceived. Ungodly fear compels us to run from God, whereas godly fear compels us to run to God. Ungodly fear is based on a legal relationship we want to escape, whereas godly fear is based on a family relationship we want to cultivate. Making sense?
To get right to the point, ungodly fear flows from hate. When we think something threatens us, we hate it, and we seek to avoid or destroy it. Sadly, that’s how many people fear God. They regard Him as hazardous to their well-being. This kind of fear doesn’t make any lasting impression upon the soul but causes people to amend their lives while secretly wishing God would go away. In marked contrast, godly fear flows from love. It doesn’t arise from a perception of God as hazardous, but glorious. When the soul feels “a sweet taste of God’s goodness,” William Gouge says, and finds “that in his favor only all happiness consists, it is stricken with such an inward awe and reverence.”
We realize we’ve placed ourselves where God deserves to be – on the throne. We realize God has placed Himself where we deserve to be – on the cross. By sovereign grace, He has made us one with His beloved Son. As a result, we enjoy the benefits of the cross. His forgiveness supersedes our sinfulness, and His righteousness supersedes our filthiness. From a deep sense of awe and reverence, we fear Him. We seek to do what pleases Him and avoid what displeases Him. In other words, we seek to walk in His ways.
That’s what it means to fear God and, according to the psalmist, such fear is “the beginning of wisdom.”
 William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties: Eight Treatises (London, 1622), 8.
[i] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, n.d.), 3:793.
[ii] John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel, 6 vols. (London: Banner of Truth, 1968), 3:245.
[iii] John Bunyan, A Treatise on the Fear of God (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 29.