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.


Theme of the psalms for Lent Year A : penitence

Pattern in the psalm sequence

Last year I looked at the flow of psalms through Lent Year C, to see whether there was an overarching theme or narrative. That post started out general, as I was planning to compare and contrast the three liturgical years, but I had to restrict it to one year to keep it a reasonable size. Now the year has gone completely round and Lent Year A is coming up from March 1st, so I am seizing the chance to look at the sequence of psalms for this year.

Classic words of penitence - miserere mei domine
setting the mood for Lent A
Different years have different themes

The theme for Lent C was mercy; we were following the readings of Luke’s Gospel, where mercy and forgiveness are one of the main messages.   Year A follows the Gospel account of Matthew, with a lot of solid teaching on various subjects.  It also takes some sections from John’s Gospel : a series of significant encounters (the woman at the well, the man born blind, the household at Bethany). I know I always emphasize that the psalm is a response to the First Reading, but in Lent particularly (as in Advent), it’s important to be able to see all the readings in a sort of interlinked dance of significance.  Even in the run-up to Lent this year, the links between the Old and New Testament readings have been very clear.

interwoven narrative arcs
Year A : the overarching theme of penitence

So the theme running through the psalms for Lent in Year A is penitence, which seems a bit obvious.   Of course Lent is the season of penitence, but the Church chooses to emphasize different aspects in Lent from year to year in the choice of different readings, and just as last year (C) is the year where we concentrate on mercy, this year (A), partly because it’s the first in the sequence, is more straightforwardly penitential.  This is clearly emphasized from the beginning, when we repeat for the First Sunday the same psalm that we used for Ash Wednesday.  Here is the call to repentance and its echo; or, if you can’t make it to church on Ash Wednesday, the Church does not want you to miss out on this bass note which will run through the whole season.

First Sunday of Lent : Psalm 50/51

Psalm 50 is one of the classic penitential psalms.  Traditionally there are seven penitential psalms :  6, 31/32, 37/38, 50/51, 101/102, 129/130, and 142/143.  Some are more positive than others, some are sadder.  Although I think the theme of the Lent A psalms is penitence, only two of these specific psalms come in the line-up for the Lent A Sundays.  Year C does not use any of the penitential psalms at all.  Year B only has one penitential psalm among its Sunday prescriptions, and it’s this one, 50/51 again, though at the end of Lent rather than the beginning.  More on that next year.

What makes Ps 50/51 stand out, even among the penitential psalms, is its frankness and directness of tone.   It describes one state of mind, pure contrition.  Some of the other psalms move from admission of guilt to thanksgiving within the course of a single psalm (e.g. Ps 31/32), but this one acknowledges guilt, expresses compunction, asks for help and looks forward to better things in the future, but stays with the expression of penitence to the end : a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn (v 19).

Traditionally, this is the psalm David composed after Nathan rebuked him for seizing Bathsheba and having Uriah, her husband, conveniently killed.  I say, ‘traditionally’, because there is no specific internal evidence for this.   But the psalm demonstrates a generous and frank admission of guilt, no attempt at any excuses and an absolute confidence in God’s mercy, however undeserved, which all make it a good psalm to follow on from the account of the Fall.  It is a much better response than Adam’s, when God questions him in the garden.  The second reading is St Paul explaining the parallel of Adam/sin and Jesus/redemption,  before we move on to a replay of the tempter with the encounter of Jesus in the desert with the three temptations and his answer to them.  Temptation – sin- repentance; temptation – victory – glory.

Second Sunday of Lent : Psalm 32/33

This is the next psalm after one of the penitential psalms, and it asserts the trustworthiness of God, because it follows the reading where God makes promises to Abram.   The Responsorial Psalm as set here is only a small part of a joyful thanksgiving psalm, but it keeps the emphasis firmly on the Law of God and the agreement between him and his people.  As long as they do what they promised, so will he.  The Gospel is the Transfiguration : this is the way God behaves with those who keep the covenant set up so long ago.

This is a solid cheerful psalm which comes up quite often.  We will have it again during the Easter Vigil and in the Sundays after Easter (where the emphasis is more on the thanksgiving aspect), and it appears in Ordinary Time as well.  It appears with several different Responses and with different selections of stanzas.   The Response here, Let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you, and the stanzas which refer to God’s love of justice and right, and the perils from which he will save his people (death and famine), continue the penitential theme in a low-key way.

Third Sunday of Lent : Psalm 94/95

Real water, symbolic water and the springs of everlasting life are the themes of this Sunday, and all the readings hang closely together.  The  First Reading and psalm however have a note of warning about them.  The story is of Moses striking the rock to find water for the grumbling and resentful people whom he led out of Egypt.  It’s a wonderful story which we almost miss because of all the resentment and grumpiness being expressed.  Moses is at his wits’ end (you have the clear feeling that they have been nagging at him for a long time), he knows no more than they do, and there is almost a note of exasperation in the way he talks to God.  But God doesn’t waste time explaining or persuading, he just gives clear instructions, and Moses simply performs the miracle with no more discussion.  Then they name the place , not after the miracle or the water, but after the grumbling.

And on to the psalm, which starts Come, ring out our joy to the Lord, but the words, and above all the repeated Response (….Harden not your hearts), indicate very clearly that we are here in the character of the resentful people who are causing trouble by not listening to what God is trying to tell us.  St Paul emphasizes the point by reminding us that Christ died for us while we still sinners; and then the water theme is picked up again and transformed by the Gospel.  This is the fascinating and wonderful encounter at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, one of the rare examples of a talking woman in the Bible.  This reading is borrowed from John’s Gospel.

Jesus talking with woman at the well - penitence
Sir, give me some of that water
Fourth Sunday of Lent : Ps 22/23

Mid-Lent Sunday, Pink Sunday, and traditionally an easing of the Lent gloom.  The First Reading is the choosing of David the young shepherd boy to be the King chosen by God to lead Israel, and the psalm is the shepherd-king psalm, so loved and familiar.  Who are we in this psalm?  We are the sheep.  The psalm itself lets us down fairly gently, but if you think of some of the other translations, penitence is warranted (Perverse and foolish oft I strayed from the paraphrase ‘The King of Love my shepherd is’ out of Hymns Ancient and Modern).  St Paul tells us that we were in the darkness but now we are in the light; and this leads into the Gospel of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind.  Again, we are borrowing from John’s Gospel.  This whole discussion is about sin, the causes of sin, the results of sin, who is a sinner, and so on.

Fifth Sunday of Lent : Ps 129/130

In the First Reading, God speaks directly to his people, calling them up out of their graves and bringing them back to the land which he promised to them. It is a short but very arresting reading, especially taken in conjunction with the Gospel we will hear.  The psalm to follow it is another of the penitential psalms, Ps 129/130, the great De profundis.  From being sinful sheep, we have become confident supplicants.  We are still aware of being sinful (If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand? ), but we ask for forgiveness with full confidence and trust, repeated in the Response.  St Paul emphasizes the Spirit raising the dead to life, and the Gospel is the raising of Lazarus.  It is also Martha’s declaration of faith and Jesus’ calling himself the resurrection and the life.  Again, this Gospel is borrowed from John.

This is a glorious high note to end the run of Lent Sundays, and just like last year, the psalm for Palm Sunday will come as a crashing shock.  Last year we came down from a crest of joy; this year we have not been joyful, but we have moved with penitence to confidence and assurance of God’s mercy.  Out of the depths; but with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.  There is also an indication that we will need to wait and have faith (Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord).

Our place in salvation history
Jesse tree with descendants pictured
the patriarchs in order

There is another shaping thread running through the First Readings.  Like the Readings at the Easter Vigil, they are carefully chosen to move us through salvation history.  So we start with Adam in Week 1, move on to Abram’s mission in Week 2, see Moses in action in Week 3 and the choice of David in Week 4.  All of these are forerunners or types of the Messiah.  In Week 5, the protagonists are God himself and the people of Israel.  Again the interaction between the early readings and the Gospels is not hard to pick out.  Jesus mirrors the patriarchs.

Christ on cross superimposed on tree in Paradise
Jesus in the Garden of Eden

Jesus overcomes the tempter in Week 1, is picked out for mission in Week 2 (the transfiguration, God’s voice, and so on), gives living water to the thirsty in Week 3, and brings sight to the blind in Week 4, fulfilling the prophecies about the coming of the Kingdom and the true King in Isaiah and elsewhere.  Then in Week 5, he raises the dead and redeems them, only as the psalms indicate, by now it’s not ‘them’, it’s us.

The next Sunday will be Palm Sunday.  We are the people who sing Hosanna and wave palms;  we are the people who call out,’Crucify him!’ during the Gospel.  In Holy Week, we are part of the action on stage.  Lent has been our preparation, and the psalms have placed us into our role.

© 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.