The Fear of the Lord: To Please…or to Appease?

In my daily Bible reading this week, a story in 2 Kings 17 seemed to leap off the page at me. Some years ago I went through a time of being challenged by the concept of the fear of the Lord. How to understand, define, and embrace the biblical fear of the Lord in a culture that sees all fear as “bad”—this was the problem.

This story provides some very probing insights and raises thoughtful questions concerning our own understanding of the fear of God and what that looks like in our personal lives.

So here’s how it goes:

The king of Assyria captures Samaria and removes the Israelites (ten tribes) from their land, replacing them with men from other countries (Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim). This is now a very mixed lot of men as far as religious beliefs are concerned; we’re talking quite the hodge-podge collection of idols—and a visit to Samaria would provide quite the multi-cultural experience. Despite their differences, they apparently manage to get on together just fine.

Then disaster strikes.

“And so it was at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the Lord: therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which slew some of them” (vs. 25).

This calls for action. The first thing they do is hit up the king who coordinated this poorly-planned relocation project: “Hey, we’ve got problems. We don’t know anything about the God of the land you’ve just dumped us in and apparently He’s not happy with us.”

The king, being the handy problem-solver that he is, snaps his fingers and says, “Don’t sweat it, I’ve got you covered. I’m sending one of the priests of the people I removed. He should know something about appeasing that strange God.”

Cool. They’ll wait. But in the meantime life insurance premiums are rising…

Soon after the Israelite priest arrives he teaches them “how they should fear the Lord” (vs. 28). What a relief. Now they can continue to safely worship their own gods while offering a sacrifice to the Israelite God now and then.

Because that’s exactly what they do.

So they feared the Lord, and made unto themselves of the lowest of them priests of the high places, which sacrificed for them in the houses of the high places. They feared the Lord, and served their own gods… (vvs. 32-33).

Talk about syncretism. These people are literally offering sacrifices to God while burning their children in fire to Adrammalech and Anammalech (vvs. 29-31)!

So that’s the puzzling story of the settlers of Samaria. But what appears to be a contradiction arises in this passage. Verse 34 tells us “Unto this day they do after the former manners: they fear not the Lord…” and verse 41 says “So these nations feared the Lord, and served their graven images…so do they unto this day.”

They “fear not” the Lord to this day. And they “feared” the Lord to this day.

Isn’t this a contradiction?

Not if we’re talking about two very different kinds of fear.

These people had a good case of the collywobbles: a knock-kneed, pee-your-pants paranoia of a powerful God of wrath. They had no desire to know Him or please Him, they simply wanted to appease Him. They knew He was big. They knew He was powerful. They had no intention of actually serving Him, but He was scary to them so they needed to find some way to appease this foreign Deity. Ordaining a paltry handful of low-life characters from the seedy side of town to go through the motions of offering a few meaningless sacrifices to this burdensome but nevertheless scary God—that would do the trick.

Like a charm…which was literally all they were looking for: a charm to “keep the spirits away.” And lions. Lions too.

And that was the extent of their “fear” of God.

Solomon tells us that the biblical fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil…” To hate sin and turn from it is the fear of the Lord. Those who fear the Lord are exhorted to trust in the Lord: these two things (fear and trust) are not considered mutually incompatible, but rather complimentary when taken in their biblical sense (Psalm 115:11). The biblical fear of God actually frees us from the fear of man and circumstance—destructive fears in our lives.

Many have a fear of God that is not biblical. Because they entertain a “fear” of Him that does not engender faith and trust in Him, they seek to reform some of their actions or to offer Him some vestiges of “service” in order to “appease” Him, so that they might continue on with their lives as they see fit. Or they may be genuinely “scared” of God, and feel that they cannot approach Him, but it’s the wrong kind of fear altogether and does not produce the fruit of holiness in their lives.

Those who fear the Lord with a biblical fear delight in Him, trust Him, and seek to please, not appease Him. They are not paranoid of the wrath of God: they know that’s been satisfied in Christ, having already been poured out on Him. They know God is big and not One to be trifled with, and they serve Him in reverence (see Hebrews 12:28-29, 1 Peter 1:13-21). But their fear of God draws them closer to Him, rather than pushing them away from Him into a corner where they cower in the shadows, afraid to approach Him. I’ve come to believe that this is the defining difference between a biblical fear of the Lord and its fraudulent counterpart.

In a world where people are awakening to the widespread reality of the fear and abuse that many individuals in destructive relationships experience everyday, the very concept of the “fear of the Lord” has gained a bad rap. God is a God of love. Why would He want us to fear Him? Isn’t that abusive and legalistic?

The problem is that our concept of fear is often viewed through broken, twisted, human experience—or knowledge of human experience. When a man seeks to abusively control his wife or children he employs fear to scare them into bowing to his will. He controls them with it. The fear they have for him is not a reverent one. They do not willingly submit to him because they respect and love him; they submit because (for the moment at least) he’s bigger and stronger—and meaner—than they are.

This is a fear from hell, not from God; it’s not the kind of fear He seeks from His people. He seeks a love that is characterized by deep reverence for Who He is: He’s not a teddy bear, a “pet,” or a grandfather figure handing out candy; He’s the holy God of the Universe. C. S. Lewis had it right:

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“Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”

—The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Do we love and reverence this great King, this Lion of the tribe of Judah? Does our fear of Him cause us to draw near Him or to shy away from Him? Does it cause us to walk in holiness or to begrudgingly go through the motions of religion? Do we seek to please Him or to feel we must appease Him? Do we trust Him and find our peace and joy in Him, or do we cower like a beggar in His presence? When we are in sin, does our fear of Him lead us to repentance or to sulk in perpetual guilt?

The nations inhabiting Samaria feared God with a disdainful, irreverent, cowardly fear. They did not fear Him with a biblical fear. Their fear was the same kind of fear enemies—not friends—of a king may have.

Does our fear of God more resemble that of the heathens, or of His own dear children for whom He sent His Son to suffer and die?