The fear of the Lord (and other sorts too)

Fear, awe (-> wisdom), terror, panic

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9. 10, and Psalm 110/111), but one of the things God says most often to people when he appears (in both Testaments of the Bible) is ‘Do not be afraid’, ‘Fear not’.

Seismic shift (Michelangelo, of course, conversion of St Paul)

We can see immediately that fear is a sensible reaction to something as huge, powerful and mysterious as God. ‘It is a fearful/fearsome/terrible/terrifying/dreadful/awesome [and other; choose your translation] thing, to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews 10.31), as St Paul tells us, having done precisely that thing.  Pascal memorably evokes the same fear, but roots it in scale : ‘Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie’ (Pensees fragment 201).

Be wise, but don’t be afraid

But God doesn’t want us to be afraid.   In Paradise garden, Adam is not frightened to encounter God until after he has sinned, when he hides.  God calls him out of his hiding place so that he can talk to him.  After the Fall, God usually sends messengers (angels) to talk to people, or he entrusts his words to the prophets.  When he deals with the Israelites, he is careful not to alarm them, he disguises himself (clouds, pillars of fire, burning bushes, still small voice) and arranges meetings with Moses so that everyone else can stay away at the bottom of the mountain and not feel at risk. We will need to be in our glorified bodies before we can cope with the sight of God face to face.

Fear to keep you safe

God does not want us to be afraid because fear either paralyses human action or leads to bad choices for action.  It is why bullied people often turn into bullies themselves.  In the New Testament, Jesus and any angels very often begin with ‘Do not be afraid’.  This is because they usually want people to do something or listen to something, rather than being totally overtaken by fear.  Fear is not useful except to protect us from immediate danger.

So why does the Bible tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (repeatedly)?  Does it just mean ‘respect’ or ‘awe’?   I have heard that argued, but I think it’s too easy an answer.  There is real fear in many good people’s attitude to God, especially in the Old Testament.  It is one of the things which Jesus came to alter, but I think George Macdonald makes a very good point : ‘Until a man has love, it is well he should have fear.  So long as there are wild beasts about, it is better to be afraid than secure’ (quoted in George Macdonald, an Anthology by C.S.Lewis, p 123).  Lewis himself describes this function of Fear in the spiritual life as ‘low and primitive, yet often indispensable’ (Preface, ibid., p.20).  In the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton (whose own life is also amazing, if you click on the link) shows the same sequencing :”Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,/ And Grace my fears relieved’ (second verse).

1847 copy of Amazing Grace
Feel the fear

Obviously there are different sorts of fear.  There is fear of the known and fear of the unknown (and the combination is possibly the worst).  There is sensible fear (a burnt child fears the fire), which we try to pass on to our children because it keeps them safer crossing roads etc, – and blind panic, which is not helpful.  There’s a wonderful, if long, poem by Francis Thompson called The Hound of Heaven, where the poet chronicles his headlong flight from a pursuing God ‘down the nights and down the days’.  There’s real power and menace in the chase, reinforced by a pounding rhythm,  and he flees ‘across the margent of the world’, trying every different safe place he can imagine, every possible ally, but nothing works.  Eventually he literally runs out of road;  God runs him to ground like a cornered fox, and he cannot escape : ‘I am defenceless utterly’.   Then of course he discovers that the dreaded pursuer is Love itself.  It’s totally over the top and gorgeously excessive, full of classic pre-Raphaelite imagery and I love it dearly.  I must have read it at exactly the right age, so now I have it forever.  Here’s a link to a recording of Richard Burton reading it.

Justified fear of the wicked, lack of fear for the justified

The fear of the Lord in the Psalms covers most of the different sorts of fear.  The wicked man fears God for entirely prudent and sensible reasons : he fears retribution for his evil deeds, he fears God’s righteous anger.  But the psalmist himself is rarely afraid of God, because his conscience is clear.  He enjoys thinking of how terrifying God is for his enemies, because he is so confident that God is on his side.  Of course the psalmist expresses other fears –  of his enemies, of sickness, of disaster, of plots to undermine him ( I have not put references because this is such a common thread in the psalms);  but nearly always, he knows that he and God are a team, so his fear is contingent not existential.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
things can get tough
Fear a natural part of the human condition

It is strangely comforting that the psalmist does not pretend that there is nothing to be scared of.  In many ways, fear has always been people’s natural condition, as there are so many dangers to our fragile selves which we cannot control.  There are natural perils everywhere in the psalms, earthquakes, storms, floods, drought, war and pestilence, all of which we still have to deal with today.

one way to deal with danger

The psalmist worries about dangers from wild animals, which at least I don’t usually have to worry about so much, and there are huge possible dangers from other people, which I cannot imagine we will ever not have to worry about.  The psalmist’s enemies dig traps for him, they inform against him, they use weapons against him.  The fear is real and justified.  When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he does it as someone who is going to be betrayed, tortured and killed,  and could see it coming towards him;  when Paul talks about it, he is talking in a time of terrible persecution (Nero and human torches, martyrs in the Colosseum etc.,  plus the shipwrecks and the beatings-up).  The threats are real, which means that the reaction and the confidence also have to be : ‘yet in all this, we are more than conquerors’ (Romans 8.37).

terrible things can happen to good people
Fear of the Lord when the wicked is myself

The exception to the confident tone of the psalmist is the penitential psalms, where he has to recognise that he has not been on the same side as God.  He makes no excuses, he admits his fault and asks for forgiveness.  Some of the seven penitential psalms move on to the next stage, where he thanks God and praises him (e.g. Ps 31/32);  some keep him in the position of a supplicant for the entirety of the psalm (Pss 37/38, 50/51, 129/130). And the psalmist asserts always that God is the just judge, the Law-giver who cannot be bribed or deceived.  This is a fearful position to be in, and the psalmist can only admit his fault and throw himself on God’s mercy, in which he has total faith.

Modern plagues and scourges

I have been thinking a lot about fear recently as the coronavirus spreads across an increasing number of cases and countries.  Historically it’s fascinating and really helps us to understand the human reaction to sickness and epidemic in past centuries.  No-one nowadays can personally remember the Spanish flu epidemic, and there has been nothing like it in Europe since.  With modern vaccines and medical progress, I can now protect my own children even from some of the illnesses which I had as a child (measles, mumps, chicken pox).  We forget what it is like to feel helpless and vulnerable, we read Victorian novels and are amazed at how often people used to die from illnesses which we can now shrug off.  But for so many people in different parts of the world, that fear and vulnerability is still the norm, and we are all learning to recognise it.

Beautiful tents
Opulent, but not safe

Psalm 90/91 is very comforting in these circumstances, because it names what we are afraid of in terms : You will not fear the terror of the night,/ nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the plague that prowls in the darkness nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.  […] Upon you no evil shall fall,/ no plague approach where you dwell (vv5-6, 10).  The psalmist is exact in his understanding of fear.  It can come from afar off, or creep up on you where you least expect it, in your own dwelling.

Not just a good-time religion

Of course bad things happen all the time, and they happen to good people; but the message of the psalms is that whatever happens, God knows about it and he is on your side, however hard it may feel to believe it.  The psalmist explains that we have to do everything that God has asked of us and then trust him for all the rest.  Encouragingly, he also recognises that this is not easy, and he harangues God to get a move on and save him from whatever danger he is in, reminding him that unless he hurries to help,  the psalmist is doomed, and dead people won’t be able to praise him : ‘Save me[…]for in death no-one remembers you,/from the grave, who can give you praise? ‘(Ps 6),  ‘Will you work your wonders for the dead?/ Will the shades stand and praise you?’ (Ps 87/88).   God’s punishments are always righteous, but these are the moments when the psalmist clearly feels that he is making a strong point which God must answer.

Comfort and reassurance

There is a lot of reassurance in the Psalms.  They celebrate not only joyful moments of victory, but also peace and tranquillity, by the restful waters in Ps 22/23 or like the child on its mother’s lap in Ps 130/131.  Confidence and hope are the underlying bass notes which keep recurring.  ‘The Lord was my support. […]He saved me because he loved me‘ (Ps 17/18).  However much fear we may be feeling, we have something else to hold on to.  The psalmist encourages us to keep calling out, and never to despair.  Repeatedly he tells the stories of past crises and disasters, because the Lord has always come to the rescue in the end.   With him we actively wait for the Lord.  Psalm 26/27 is a great one for this. The Lord is my light and my help;/ whom shall I fear? […] Though an army encamp against me/ my heart would not fear. […]  I will sing and make music for the Lord. (always a good idea, very good for morale as well, and can remind us about the advice on handwashing)  [….] Hope in him, hold firm and take heart.  The fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom; but we don’t need to fear anything else.

peaceful sheep in a green field, with music

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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