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Hebrew Spirituality: The Jewish Roots of Fearing God (part 2)

Post Title: Building a Robust Biblical Vocabulary

I want to focus specifically on the biblical terminology that gives us insight into the fear of the LORD, in Hebrew, yirat Adonai, (sometimes called the fear of heaven in Rabbinic writings). The Bible also uses the phrase fear of God (yirat Elohim). The moment we say that in English, there is almost an instinctive withdrawal, maybe even a revulsion. Seldom anymore do we speak of the fear of God; it is just not politically correct.

When this subject has been addressed in the history of our faith, often it's been presented in a way that instills anxiety regarding one's relationship to God, resulting in great fear and fright about the punishment that God might exact upon you. Yet we find that spirit does not characterize the Bible of Jesus.

As is typical with Hebrew terminology, one level of meaning doesn't begin to exhaust the reality.

In Exodus chapter 20, we are going to see that the term fear of God has a whole range of meanings. To begin, I want you to notice something very interesting in verse 20, "Moses said to the people, 'Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.'" One might think this is odd but it is a typically Hebraic way of thinking. On the one hand, fear not, on the other hand, in order that you may have the fear of God.

Do not be afraid, says Moses, God has come to test you in order that the fear of God may remain with you. Clearly, there is something more to fearing God than just fright. God is not saying "Don't be afraid, but I want you to continue being afraid the rest of your life." No. Something more profound than that is involved. Perhaps we get the clue from Abraham himself. When we see the phrase "to test you" in Exodus 20:20, we need to know the Hebrew word for test (nasah) has to do with that which lifts up.

As I observed in my series on the binding of Isaac and the testing of Abraham, God tests the best. He doesn't tempt us (James 1:13), but he does test us because testing is that which brings you up to a higher level than you were before. It brings out of you what is latent within you. God tested Abraham ten times, culminating with the giving of his son. In Genesis 22:12, notice what the angel on God's behalf says after Abraham responds in trust, in faith, in obedience to God's word,

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

One of the points here seems to be that the higher you go with God, the higher you are lifted up by God, the greater will be the yirat Adonai.

Probably the best single passage to see fear operating in its Hebrew setting is found in Deuteronomy 10 starting with verse 12. When you turn there, you will see a list of parallelisms. At the head of the list is the fear of the LORD followed by a series of parallel terms that begin to show us the fullness of what it means.

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?

Remember, this was given to Israel before they go into the land of promise. Moses recapitulates all that God has commanded beginning with a question, in good Jewish tradition. What does God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God.

There is a sense in which everything can be summarized under the category of the fear of God.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says the same thing. He concludes, "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." I hope you're getting the idea that understanding this correctly is very important to having right thoughts about God, which will lead to right actions toward God.

What does it mean to fear the LORD, your God? Let's go back to the parallelisms in Deuteronomy 10:12: it means to walk in all his ways, it means to love him, it means to serve the Lord, your God, with all your heart and soul. In other words, with all that you are. It means to keep the commandments of the Lord, your God, the decrees that he's commanding you for your own well-being.

Go down to verse 20 for a moment. Moses says, "You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear." This is important, the fear of God is somehow related to worship (service). He continues, "He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen." He has proven himself faithful, he has done for you these great and awesome things that you have witnessed.

"Circumcise then the foreskin of your heart" (Dt 10:16).

In other words, internalize the covenant and do not be stubborn any longer. "For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe."

Surely we are beginning to grasp what it means to walk in the fear of the LORD. It is the very foundation and basis of all Hebraic, biblical spirituality. As the writer of Proverbs says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." Though we have more to say on the subject, we could summarize our study to this point thusly, the first principle of wisdom is yirat Adonai.


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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.


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