We’ve been preaching through Nehemiah in our church over the last few months. I’ve been struck by Nehemiah’s motivation for the way he leads. He states twice in chapter 5 that his reason for pursuing justice and maintaining integrity as governor of the people was fear of God (Nehemiah 5:9, 15). And the fear of God is not just a theme in Nehemiah: it’s all the way through the Bible. The most notable place is in the wisdom literature, where “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. Fear of God is the headline of Proverbs 1, and the conclusion of Ecclesiastes 13.
So what does it mean to fear God, and in what way does this fear motivate us? Does it mean we should live our lives cowering under his gaze, terrified of doing anything that might displease him?
It doesn’t sound a very enjoyable way to live. And as a result it is easy to explain away the fear of God by watering it down – replacing it with “reverence” or “respect”. Fear sounds a bit archaic and, well, scary. But we cannot get away from the fact that all the way through the Bible, when people come face to face with God, they are terrified. When God’s voice thunders from Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 and 20 the people plead with Moses to intercede for them, so that they are not consumed. When Isaiah sees a vision of God in Isaiah 6 his response is “Woe is me!” When Jesus reveals himself to John in a vision of dazzling light in Revelation 1, John falls flat on his face as though dead.
God constantly reminds us in his word that he is not like us. He is God; we are not. He is the Creator; we are the created. He is the One who sits above the heavens; we are as tiny in comparison to him as a drop of water in the ocean. That is why when people meet the living God in the Bible, they are gripped by raw fear. If we dilute this, we will miss who God really is. Our God will be too small.
A proper understanding of God’s ‘otherness’ is a corrective we all desperately need. Ever since the moment in the Garden when Adam and Eve set themselves up in the place of God, all of us have operated on the basis that we are the centre of our own universe. God is reduced to our level and placed in the dock, answerable to us and subject to our judgement. But nothing could be further from the truth, and we need to know that. That is why the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. If we are to relate to God and his world properly, the first thing we must do is understand properly who he is.
So does this mean we should live in dread of his greatness? Did Nehemiah’s fear of God mean he lived his life scared witless?
Well, no, not exactly. In his prayer in chapter 1 Nehemiah describes himself as one of those “who delight to fear your name” (Nehemiah 1:11). Doesn’t sound filled with dread to me. Why not? Because Nehemiah knows that the “God of heaven, the great and awesome God” (Nehemiah 1:5a) is also the God “who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him” (Nehemiah 1:5b).
Yes, God is further from us than we could ever imagine; but at the same time he comes closer to us than we dare think possible. He came and lived among us in the person of Jesus, and because of his steadfast love he freely offers us life in the new covenant. And not only that, as we respond to God’s unconditional promises in faith the Spirit unites us with himself in the closest bond possible – a bond which leads us to call God himself Father, or more literally “Daddy” (Gal 4:6).
So yes, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And yes, our engagement with God and his world will only make sense if we start with a right fear of who he is. But the good news of the gospel is that this is not the end goal. The end goal is being united with him in a relationship of love by the Spirit through the Son. Fear of God just makes this even more mind-blowing.