The Fear of God: Seven Attributes

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The Fear of God

Seven Attributes

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The Fear of God: Seven Attributes

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What does the Bible mean when it mentions fearing God or the fear of God? It’s an extensive subject, one that is mentioned more than 300 times in Scripture.

As we know, fear can be either a positive or a negative emotion. A healthy fear will keep us out of trouble and danger. This is especially so with a cautious and holy awe and reverence toward God. Yet there is also a cowardly type of fear that holds people back in the wrong way, which the Bible condemns. Both kinds are found abundantly in God’s Word. And it’s vital to know the difference between the two kinds of fear and to develop the right kind while avoiding the wrong.

An example of the wrong kind of fear

We have a biblical example of the wrong kind of fear when, as the Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, 10 of the 12 spies sent in brought back a pessimistic report. Their report was so discouraging that the people became filled with fear and discouragement to the point that they were ready to rebel against Moses and return to Egypt!

The account is found in Numbers 14:1-4 Numbers 14:1-4 1 And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. 2 And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said to them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! 3 And why has the LORD brought us to this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt? 4 And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.
American King James Version×
: “So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’”

Because of the negative report, the people were ready to quit, return to Egypt, and again become slaves. Remember, this was the generation that had recently witnessed the mighty miracles of the plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. They had been led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and had witnessed the awesome display of power at Mount Sinai. They were being miraculously fed and sustained in the wilderness! But when faithless fear gripped their hearts, they forgot about God’s presence and promises and wanted to give up.

The right kind of fear which Joshua and Caleb had

On the other hand, two of the spies had the right kind of fear—Joshua and Caleb. This is the type of fear that deeply respects God and His promises.

They told the congregation: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them” (Numbers 14:6-9 Numbers 14:6-9 6 And Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, which were of them that searched the land, rent their clothes: 7 And they spoke to all the company of the children of Israel, saying, The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land. 8 If the LORD delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which flows with milk and honey. 9 Only rebel not you against the LORD, neither fear you the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defense is departed from them, and the LORD is with us: fear them not.
American King James Version×
).

God would reward the living faith of these two young men. While all the rest of that generation were not allowed to enter the Promised Land, Joshua and Caleb were able to go in because they had “a different spirit,” meaning the right attitude of trusting in God (Numbers 14:24 Numbers 14:24But my servant Caleb, because he had another spirit with him, and has followed me fully, him will I bring into the land into where he went; and his seed shall possess it.
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; Numbers 14:38 Numbers 14:38But Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, which were of the men that went to search the land, lived still.
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).

So it’s very important to distinguish godly fear from the cringing and paralyzing fear that abandons faith. In fact, God says that if we allow cowardly and faithless fear to dominate us, the kind of fear that makes us shirk from godly duty and responsibility, we simply won’t be in His Kingdom.

As God said, “But those who are full of fear and without faith, the unclean and takers of life, those who do the sins of the flesh, and those who make use of evil powers or who give worship to images, and all those who are false, will have their part in the sea of ever-burning fire which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8 Revelation 21:8But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
American King James Version×
, Bible in Basic English, emphasis added throughout).

The primary words translated “fear” in the Bible

Two main words in the Bible describe fear, whether good or bad. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word yirah is most often translated “fear.” In the New Testament, it is the Greek word phobos, from which we get the English word phobia —an extreme or unreasonable fear of something in particular.

The biblical King David, who had a way with words, wrote a lot about the fear of God. He used the word yirah once to describe a normal fear of being persecuted. He said, “ Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me, and horror has overwhelmed me” (Psalms 55:5 Psalms 55:5Fearfulness and trembling are come on me, and horror has overwhelmed me.
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). However, the majority of times he used the word yirah, he meant it as a positive fear of God that included deep reverence for Him and His Word.

For instance, he exclaimed: “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments. His descendants will be mighty on earth; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches will be in his house, and his righteousness endures forever” (Psalms 112:1-3 Psalms 112:1-3 1 Praise you the LORD. Blessed is the man that fears the LORD, that delights greatly in his commandments. 2 His seed shall be mighty on earth: the generation of the upright shall be blessed. 3 Wealth and riches shall be in his house: and his righteousness endures for ever.
American King James Version×
). 

With this background, let’s look at seven attributes of godly fear in the Bible.

1. The fear of God is a gift from Him

Genuine fear of God accompanies real conversion and comes from yielding to Him and receiving His Spirit. Notice how Isaiah 11:1-3 Isaiah 11:1-3 1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
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describes some of the qualities of the Messiah, Jesus Christ:

“There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. 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 of the fear of the Lord. His delight is in the fear of the Lord, and He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, nor decide by the hearing of His ears …”

The apostle Paul also shows that God is involved in our having a proper fear and respect of Him while we do our part in this. As Paul points out, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 Philippians 2:12-13 12 Why, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
American King James Version×
).

2. The fear of God produces godly humility

When someone truly fears God, it makes the person yield to Him—no matter what. This person is in awe and properly trembles before God and His Word—for it’s not a passing thought. As David wrote, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (Psalms 33:8 Psalms 33:8Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
American King James Version×
).

Through the prophet Isaiah, God showed He desires this kind of attitude from us: “But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit [that is, humbly repentant], and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2 Isaiah 66:2For all those things has my hand made, and all those things have been, said the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at my word.
American King James Version×
).

We see this in Noah, who showed a respectful fear of God when he received the daunting instructions to build a huge ark. As Hebrews 11:7 Hebrews 11:7By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.
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tells us, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.”

Proverbs 22:4 Proverbs 22:4By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, and honor, and life.
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points out the blessings that result from this type of reverential attitude toward God: “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life.”

This kind of fear recognizes how small we are before the infinite majesty of God and keeps us from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to. It further helps us to be considerate and not haughty toward others, especially when speaking about our faith and beliefs. As Peter explains, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15 1 Peter 3:15But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:
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).

3. The fear of God instills obedience

The fear of God creates a deep desire to obey and please Him above all things, not wanting to disappoint Him and also taking into consideration having to give an account of ourselves before Him. So godly fear is more than mere respect for God. It goes far deeper, acknowledging there is a reckoning that will take place.

As Paul wrote: “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror [or fear, the Greek word phobos used here] of the Lord , we persuade men …” (2 Corinthians 5:9-11 2 Corinthians 5:9-11 9 Why we labor, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad. 11 Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest to God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.
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).

David understood the connection between the fear of God and obedience when he wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments” (Psalms 111:10 Psalms 111:10The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endures for ever.
American King James Version×
). This obedience and reverence toward God also made David want to fellowship with others who had this same godly fear. He declared, “I am a companion of all who fear You, and of those who keep Your precepts” (Psalms 119:63 Psalms 119:63I am a companion of all them that fear you, and of them that keep your precepts.
American King James Version×
).

This fear of God led David to dedicate one of the Psalms to obeying the Fourth Commandment—to rest on and honor the Sabbath day. Notice the superscription at the beginning of Psalm 92 followed by the first verse: “ A Song for the Sabbath Day. It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High.”

And note what the Keil and Delitszch Commentary on the Old Testament states about this verse: “The Sabbath is the day that God has hallowed, and that is to be consecrated to God by our turning away from the business pursuits of the working days … and applying ourselves to the praise and adoration of God, which is the most proper, blessed Sabbath employment. It is good, i.e., not merely good in the eyes of God, but also good for man, beneficial to the heart, pleasant and blessed.”

God’s way of life can be summed up by this verse: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 Ecclesiastes 12:13Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
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).

4. The fear of God develops godly courage

Another attribute that the fear of God produces is godly courage.

David again expressed it well: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear ? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … Though an army may encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war may rise against me, in this I will be confident” (Psalms 27:1-3 Psalms 27:1-3 1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 2 When the wicked, even my enemies and my foes, came on me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. 3 Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.
American King James Version×
).

When you fear God more than man, then you will fear man less than God. We see an example of this when the apostles went before the powerful Jewish leaders and were threatened with violence if they continued preaching about Jesus. Peter and the other apostles responded, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 Acts 5:29Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.
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). They then received a beating and were told to cease speaking in the name of Jesus, but they didn’t back down—they continued to do the right thing before God!

Paul also encouraged his young fellow minister Timothy to have godly courage and to avoid cowardly fear. Paul exhorted him: “Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands [this being the means to conferring God’s Spirit and authorization to spiritual office]. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:6-7 2 Timothy 1:6-7 6 Why I put you in remembrance that you stir up the gift of God, which is in you by the putting on of my hands. 7 For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
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).

5. The fear of God helps us avoid sin

Another quality that accompanies godly fear is the shunning of sin and following God’s way of righteousness.

As Proverbs 8:13 Proverbs 8:13The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogance, and the evil way, and the fraudulent mouth, do I hate.
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tells us, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate” (Proverbs 8:13 Proverbs 8:13The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogance, and the evil way, and the fraudulent mouth, do I hate.
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). Proverbs 16:6 Proverbs 16:6By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.
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later adds, “In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity [lawlessness]; and by the fear of the Lord one departs from evil.”

Paul admonished the Christians in Corinth when he wrote, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1 2 Corinthians 7:1Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
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).

We should strive for and never lose that godly fear that causes us to flee from sin and its deadly consequences!

6. The fear of God builds and encourages godly leadership

One of the requirements to serve God is to rightly fear Him. Moses, following the wise advice of his father-in-law, set up leaders with the following qualities: “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness” (Exodus 18:21 Exodus 18:21Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
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).

Jehoshaphat, one of the righteous kings of Judah, did the same. “He set judges in the land throughout all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, ‘Take heed to what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment. Now therefore, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care and do it, for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, no partiality, nor taking of bribes’ … And he commanded them, saying, ‘Thus you shall act in the fear of the Lord, faithfully and with a loyal heart’” (2 Chronicles 19:5-9 2 Chronicles 19:5-9 5 And he set judges in the land throughout all the fenced cities of Judah, city by city, 6 And said to the judges, Take heed what you do: for you judge not for man, but for the LORD, who is with you in the judgment. 7 Why now let the fear of the LORD be on you; take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts. 8 Moreover in Jerusalem did Jehoshaphat set of the Levites, and of the priests, and of the chief of the fathers of Israel, for the judgment of the LORD, and for controversies, when they returned to Jerusalem. 9 And he charged them, saying, Thus shall you do in the fear of the LORD, faithfully, and with a perfect heart.
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).

Those who possess godly fear will resist the urge to take advantage of others by abusing their positions of authority. The Jewish ruler Nehemiah recorded an excellent example of this when he wrote: “But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people, and took from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver. Yes, even their servants bore rule over the people, but I did not do so, because of the fear of God” (Nehemiah 5:15 Nehemiah 5:15But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable to the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yes, even their servants bore rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God.
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).

On the other hand, there is a wrong type of fear that is not appropriate for leadership. We see this when God told the Israelites through Moses: “The officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart’” (Deuteronomy 20:8 Deuteronomy 20:8And the officers shall speak further to the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return to his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart.
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). We see here that those who lack faith and are faint-hearted can discourage others and create instability, which indicates they are not fit to lead God’s people.  

7. The fear of God leads to loving God and those like-minded

The early Church was characterized by godly fear and love that led to an affectionate fellowship among the brethren. As Acts 9:31 Acts 9:31Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.
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describes: “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.”

So the fear of God must grow into the love of God in us and toward other Christians. The apostle John showed we should avoid having cowardly and paralyzing fear and worry, and that we should instead have confidence in God’s love toward us and of our love toward God and to those who truly fear Him.

As John wrote: “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:16-19 1 John 4:16-19 16 And we have known and believed the love that God has to us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him. 17 Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love him, because he first loved us.
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). We see here that godly fear and love expel the wrong type of fear.

In sum, may we all develop that vital and proper fear of God that leads to loving Him and others and avoid cowardly fear by putting God first in our lives. This is what the Bible means in telling us to have the fear of God!