Does God Want Us To Fear Him?

by Lois Tverberg

Understanding the extended meanings of Hebrew words often corrects our misunderstandings of the Bible and explains things that seem to not make sense. Sometimes they can even change our attitude toward God! This is what happens when we understand the broader meaning of the word “fear,” yirah, in Hebrew, and especially in the context of the “Fear of God,” a common expression throughout the Bible.

The idea that we should “fear the Lord” is found hundreds of times in the Old Testament. To many people this is a source of anxiety, and may make us not want to read about the God who appeared to require fright and dread among his people.

It may surprise people to know that even in the New Testament, the “fear of God” is often found. The Gentiles who worship the God of the Jews are called “God-fearers” and the early church was said to be built up in the “fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). Paul even speaks of the “fear of Christ” in Ephesians 5:21.

This is because the “fear of the LORD” was an extremely rich idea that goes far beyond our literal understanding, and is wonderfully positive in application. By understanding the Hebrew meaning of “fear,” and the rich Jewish thinking about the “Fear of the Lord,” we can shed great new light on this issue.

The key to understanding the Hebraic idea of “fear” is to know that like many Hebrew words, it has a much broader sense of meaning than we have in English. To us, “fear” is always negative: it is the opposite of trust, with synonyms of fright, dread and terror.

In Hebrew, it encompasses a wide range of meanings from negative (dread, terror) to positive (worship, reverence) and from mild (respect) to strong (awe). In fact, every time we read “revere” or “reverence,” it comes from the Hebrew word yirah, literally, to fear. When fear is in reference to God, it can be either negative or positive. The enemies of God are terrified by him, but those who know him revere and worship Him, all meanings of the word yirah.

How Should We “Fear the Lord”?

Many Christians understand “the Fear of the LORD” as the fear of the punishment that God could give us for our deeds. It is true that everyone should realize that they will stand at the judgment after they die, but a Christian who knows his sins have been forgiven should not have this kind of fear of God anymore: although many still do.

People who have been steeped in this kind of “punishment mindset” have a very hard time loving God. This is what John speaks against when he says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18).

Interestingly, in rabbinic thought, fearing God’s punishment is also understood to be an incomplete and inferior understanding of the term Yirat Adonai, “Fear of the Lord.”1 At its core is self-centeredness: what will happen to me because of God’s knowledge of my deeds?

Knowing the broader implications of the word “fear” in Hebrew, the rabbis came to a different conclusion, that the best understanding of the term Yirat Adonai is of having awe and reverence for God that motivates us to do His will.

This helps many passages make sense and show why the “Fear of the Lord” is so highly praised in the Bible:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)

In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, and his children will have refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may avoid the snares of death. (Prov. 14:26-27)

The “fear of the Lord” in these passages is a reverence for God that allows us to grow in intimate knowledge of Him. It teaches us how to live, and reassures us of God’s power and guidance. It gives us a reverence of God’s will that keeps us from getting caught in sins that will destroy our relationships and lives.

A Sense of God’s Presence

One aspect of Yirat Adonai that the Jewish people have focused on is the idea that we should be constantly aware of the presence of God. Over the top of Torah closets in many synagogues is the phrase “Know Before Whom You Stand,” reminding the congregation that an infinitely powerful God is close at hand.

People sometimes tell stories of how on the death bed of a family member, they had a strong sense of the presence of God, and have felt great reassurance from it, bringing a sense of awe for him at that time. Or in worship, there is no greater thrill than to feel spine-tingling awe at the grandeur of God.

In this sense, to “fear” God is to be filled with awe, and it is one of the most profound experiences of our lives, spiritually. We can see why the “fear of the LORD” as an awesome sense of his presence around us is really the essence of our life of faith.2

In some areas of Christianity, there is a lack of thinking of God as present with us now. God is spoken of in abstract terms, as if he is a theory rather than a being, and we sound live like we don’t expect to have any interaction with him until we die.

This is partly because of our Greek heritage, which focused on the spiritual world as being utterly apart from the material world. While our culture may have taught us that, the biblical witness is that God’s Spirit is very much present in the world with us now.

There is an enormous difference between study of the Bible that has Yirat Adonai, reverence for God, and a purely intellectual approach. The emphasis on reverence for God in Judaism is illustrated by a famous quote from Abraham Heschel that says that while Greeks (Europeans and Americans) study to comprehend, Jews study to revere. Higher education in biblical studies in Western countries tends to be entirely intellectual, and Christians who take academic Bible classes often find them dry.

What they are looking for is God’s voice speaking through the scriptures, and to find it they need Yirat Adonai. The rabbis had an excellent saying: that a scholar who does not have Yirat Adonai is like a man who owns a treasure chest and has the inner keys but not the outer keys.3 He has a treasure but can’t get at it. To study the Bible without reverence is a dry enterprise that will never unlock its true meaning.

Our Moral Foundation

Another thing Yirat Adonai gives us is an inner moral foundation. When we know God knows our thoughts, we are compelled to act not just for what other people think, but for what God thinks. This is what Paul refers to in Col. 3:22 when he says “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” Reverence of God gives us an inward sincerity, because we don’t do things just for external appearances, but to please God who knows our heart.

One humorous old rabbinic story illustrates this point:

A great rabbi once caught a ride on a horse-drawn wagon, and as the wagon passed a field full of ripe produce, the driver stopped and said, “I’m going to get us some vegetables from that field. Call out if you see anyone coming.” As the driver was picking vegetables, the rabbi cried out, “We’re seen! We’re seen!” The frightened man ran back to the wagon, and looked and saw no one nearby. He said, “Why did you call out like that when there was nobody watching?” The rabbi pointed toward heaven and said, “God was watching. God is always watching.”4

An awareness of God’s presence will motivate us to obey him. We may still think of it as a fear of punishment, but it does not have to be this way in believers. When we have reverence for someone, we feel terrible to know we’ve disappointed them.

In times of my life when I’ve worked for someone whom I greatly respected, their praise for my work has been critical to me. Or, when we love someone, we earnestly want their approval on our lives. Indeed, the “fear of Christ” that Paul talks about should really be a sense of Christ’s majesty, and a longing to please him. When we know he is always with us, it causes us to try to live as the disciple he wants us to be.

Yirat Adonai – What God desires most

Amazingly, God says that what he truly desires is that we “fear Him”:

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut 10:12)

In this passage, the first words are to fear God, and they are equivalent with the rest of the passage — to fear God is to revere him, which will cause us to walk in his ways and serve him with all our being. Properly understood, there is no greater desire that we should have than to have a “fear of the LORD,” an awesome sense of God’s presence in our lives that will transform us into the people that he wants us to be.

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1 From “Fear of YHWH and Hebrew Spirituality” a lecture by Dwight Pryor, president of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies. This was from the monthly Haverim audio tape series, October 2003. These tapes are a very rich resource — see jcstudies.com to sign up.

2 In an effort to constantly have a sense of God’s care for us, the Jews from Jesus’ day up until the present have had a wonderful tradition of uttering prayers to “bless the Lord” many times a day to remind themselves that He is the source of every good thing. When I’ve tried this in my own life, sensing God’s immediacy becomes unavoidable. For more, see “The Richness of Jewish Prayer.”

3 From the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31b. See the article “Fear of God” at jewishencyclopedia.com.

4 As quoted by Joseph Telushkin in The Book of Jewish Values, p 10. Copyright 2000, Bell Tower. ISBN 0-609-60330-2. (This is an outstanding book on practical ethics and how we should live: a favorite of mine.)

Photos: Sonya [CC BY-SA 2.0], Mélody P on UnsplashJoshua Earle on UnsplashZac Durant on Unsplash

What’s the Good News?

by Lois Tverberg

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)

Some kinds of news have the power to change our lives overnight — the birth of a baby, the diagnosis of cancer, the closing of a factory. The news of the end of a war or toppling of an evil government can mean new life for millions. We remember with great joy the end of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. People who had lived in fear of torture and murder for decades said that they felt like they had been “reborn.” It was as if a nightmare was suddenly over and a new day had come.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word besorah, which we translate to “good news,” has exactly that connotation. It is news of national importance: a victory in war, or the rise of a powerful new king. The word was used in relation to the end of the exile (Isaiah 52:7) and the coming of the messianic King (Isaiah 60:1). Often it is news that means enormous life change for the hearer.

In Greek, there is an equivalent word, euaggelion, which we also translate as “good news, glad tidings, or gospel.” It also describes historic news of national importance. One place where this term is used is in the story of the angels who bring the news about the birth of Christ:

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

This announcement has a fascinating context. In Jesus’ time, there was a yearly announcement of the birthday of Caesar as “the euaggelion to the whole world.” The Roman Empire considered it great news to remind people of the ascendancy of this king and his reign over the known world. In the light of this, we see that the angels were doing the same thing, but in a much greater way — making an official proclamation to the all the nations about the birth of the true King of Kings, and the arrival of a new kingdom on earth.

When we learn that the word “evangelize” comes from euaggelizo (related to euaggelion), we can see the true power of the “good news” of the coming of Christ. Victory has been won in the war against Satan; and Christ, the true King, has come into power. This new King has come to extend an invitation to enter his kingdom and live under his reign. Like any regime change, the word “good” is far too bland to express the impact of this news that brings eternal life to its hearers. May the news of this King spread everywhere on earth!

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This article is an excerpt from Listening to the Language of the Bible, available in the En-Gedi bookstore

Photos: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Amen and Amen!

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting. And let all the people say, “Amen.” Psalms 106:48

It is interesting to note that the most widely known word on all the earth, across the most languages, is the word “Amen,” a Hebrew word. Jews, Christians and Muslims all use this word in prayer, and it generally moves unchanged from language to language. Even in the Greek of the New Testament, the word was written literally as “amen” rather than a Greek translation being used.

The word “amen” is related to the Hebrew words “emunah” (faith, belief, trust) and “emet” (truth). It means something like, “This I affirm,” or “Let it be so.” It was used throughout the Old Testament as a response, as when blessings or curses were read as part of a covenant, and all the people said “Amen.” When psalms were sung, the people would respond, “Amen.” The leader didn’t say it – it was a way of the people to proclaim their agreement with the liturgy they heard. (See today’s verse.) In Jewish prayer today, this is still done. After the leader recites the prayer, the audience follows with “Amen,” in effect saying, “I affirm this prayer also, let it be so for me too.”

Some scholars believe that there has been confusion in our understanding of Jesus’ use of “amen.” He often began speaking with an “amen,” which has been thought to be a way to emphasize his own words. In the King James, it is translated “verily” and modern translations remove it altogether, and substitute “I tell you the truth.”

Robert Lindsay, a scholar of the first century Jewish context of Jesus, believes that Jesus actually used “amen” as it was used by the rest of h is society – as a response of affirmation of something else that precedes his words. For instance, when the centurion tells him that by just saying the word, Jesus can heal from afar, Jesus says, “Amen! I tell you, I have not seen such great faith in Israel.” (Matthew 8:10) The beginning “amen” is an exclamation of enthusiasm in reaction to hearing the man’s statement of faith. Jesus responded to the people and situations around him with a loud “amen” sometimes, and didn’t just underline his own teachings with that word.

“Amen” isn’t just the natural end of a prayer, it is a way of saying “I most certainly agree!” Whether we say it at the end of our own prayers, or use it to agree with the prayer of another, may all our prayers reflect this wholehearted agreement with the words we have prayed, and our response of faith to God’s answers.

Learning About Prayer From Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. Luke 6:12

Jesus was a man of prayer. He stayed up all night in prayer, arose early to pray, and taught his disciples to pray. How did people pray in Jesus’ time, and how did he probably pray? Understanding the traditions of Jewish prayer adds depth and meaning to Jesus’ teachings on the subject.

For instance, the prayer that Jesus probably prayed before he broke the bread at the Last Supper was probably something like, “Blessed is he who brings forth bread from the earth.” If the very next thing Jesus says is “This is my body, broken for you,” could he be hinting that just as God brings bread from the ground, he will bring Jesus, the Bread of Life out of the ground? It is an interesting thing to ponder. Our understanding of that passage is enriched by knowing the prayers of Jesus’ day.

Jesus also teaches many parables on the importance of prayer – about the persistent widow, and about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We can learn much about the mind of Christ on prayer by grasping his teachings as they would have been understood in his time.

We can be especially enriched by understanding the prayer that Jesus taught us. Although we know it by heart, many struggle with some of the phrases like, “thy kingdom come” and “keep us from evil” that may seem foreign to us. Understanding his prayer in the context of the other prayers of his time will help us pray as Jesus intended for us to pray.

Of course, we need to be not just hearers of the word but doers as well. These articles will only be worthwhile if they inspire you to a new level of prayer, and a more intimate walk with your Heavenly Father.

Get Yourself a Friend

by Lois Tverberg

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matthew 18:20

In Western Christian culture today, a common approach to studying the Bible is to have a quiet time where we isolate ourselves in solitary study. In Jesus’ community-oriented culture, however, they had a very different approach. From Jesus’ time until today, students in Jewish religious schools have always studied in pairs – discussing, arguing and grappling with the text together. When one doesn’t understand, the other explains, and together they think of possible interpretations and other Bible texts that help in understanding.

Men Studying Talmud They said that if you want to truly study the scriptures you should “Get yourself a teacher (rabbi) and get yourself a friend (haver).” (Pirke Avot 1:3). The word haver (hah-VAIR) is loosely translated “friend”, but more specifically refers to a partner in studing God’s word. Anyone who has been a part of a good Bible study group knows that the bonds between haverim are often deep and strong. By spending time discussing God’s word and praying for each other’s burdens, people quickly become very close. Their testimonies of how their lives are impacted by their studying reinforces the text, giving real-life examples to inspire others.

Sometimes we feel we need to be alone to hear God’s voice, not realizing that God’s Spirit often speaks best through other people. God desires that we live in community and love him together — not turn inward, ignore others, and seek him alone. The rabbis of Jesus’ time had a fascinating way of describing this. They said, “When two sit together and exchange words of Torah, then the Divine Presence dwells with them.” (Pirke Avot 2:3) It seems that Jesus wanted to reinforce this to his own followers, telling them that for eternity, his Spirit would be with them in their assembling as a body too. He said,”Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matt 18:20)


Photo: Roylindman

Living Water On a Rock

by Lois Tverberg

“Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of the insolent; rather, the teaching of the LORD is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives. ” Psalm 1:1-3, JPS Tanakh

Tree by water

Jewish readers of the scriptures over the centuries have enjoyed examining the images of scriptures, and how they can speak to our lives today. In reading the above passage about the one who studies God’s word as being a tree by water, they have meditated on God’s word as “pure water” or “living water.” From this they have found a remarkable number of lessons1:

  1.  Just as rain water comes down in drops and forms rivers, so with the scriptures: one studies a bit today and some more tomorrow, until in time the understanding becomes like a flowing stream.
  2.  Just as water has little attraction unless one is thirsty, so too, God’s word is best appreciated when one has great yearning for it.
  3. Just as water leaves a high place and flows to a low one, so too, God’s voice speaking through the scriptures goes past one whose spirit is proud and remains with one whose spirit is humble.
  4.  Water is a great equalizer — no matter your station or class, all can drink water. So, too — a scholar should not be ashamed to say to a simpler fellow, ‘Teach me a chapter, a verse or a letter’.
  5. Just as water is a source of life for the world, as it says, A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters (Song of Songs 4:15), so God’s word is a source of life for the world.
  6.  Just as water is cleansing, the words of the scriptures are purifying.

Water on a rockAn interesting story is told about water’s amazing effects. One day a a great rabbi of around Jesus’ time, Rabbi Akiva, came across a stone by a river that had been greatly worn away by a slow drip of water falling on it over the centuries2. He remarked, “What has hollowed this stone? Is it not a small drop of water falling on it day after day? If soft water can wear away hard stone, how much more should the words of the Scriptures, which are like iron, carve their way into my heart, which is flesh and blood?

It is interesting to note that it was not one drip of water, but the constant force, drip after drip, year after year, that had a great effect. Often times we as Christians think a big event like a powerful speaker or weekend conference will change peoples’ lives. But most of the time, God’s Spirit tends not to work through big “splashes.” Instead, through the slow drip of study and prayer, day after day, year after year, he shapes into what he wants us to be.


(1) From a Jewish commentary from about 900 AD, Song of Songs Midrash Rabbah, quoted at the following site: http://www.saratogachabad.com/mainpages/water.htm

(2) From Avot de Rabbi Natan, written before 200 AD, quoted by J. Telushkin in The Book of Jewish Values,Copyright 2000, Bell Tower, New York, p.1.

Photo: Stefan Czapski and Katyare