Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
Of some ten Hebrew nouns and eight verbs that are regularly translated "fear, " "to fear, " "to be afraid, " and the like, only one of each is commonly used in the Old Testament and they both spring from the root yr (the noun being yira or mora and the verb yare. The New Testament employs phobos and phobeo almost exclusively as noun and verb, respectively, and these are the terms consistently used by the Septuagint to translate Hebrew yira or mora and yare.
The fundamental and original idea expressed by these terms covers a semantic range from mild easiness to stark terror, depending on the object of the fear and the circumstances surrounding the experience. There is no separate Hebrew of Greek lexeme describing fear of God so presumably such fear was from earliest times, the same kind of reaction as could be elicited from any encounter with a surprising, unusual, or threatening entity. In time, however, fear of God or of manifestations of the divine became a subcategory of fear in general and thus developed a theological signification pervasively attested throughout the Bible. While the normal meaning of fear as dread or terror is retained in the theological use of the terms, a special nuance of reverential awe or worshipful respect becomes the dominant notion.
Fear of God or of his manifestations appears in the Bible either in the abstract, in which just the idea of God alone generates this response, or in particular situations such as theophany or miracle, the occurrence or performance of which produces fear. Examples of the latter are Israel's fear of the Lord following the exodus deliverance ( Exod 14:31 ) and the fear of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, when he saw the angel of the Lord ( Luke 1:12 ). More common by far are the reactions of fear by God's people as they contemplate who he is and what he has done.
Fear as a response to God and his deeds is so important an aspect of biblical faith and life that Fear actually occurs as an epithet of God himself. Jacob describes the Lord as the "Fear of Isaac" his father ( Gen 31:42 ; cf. v. 53 ), suggesting that Isaac had such reverential submission to the Lord that the Lord, to him, was the embodiment of fear. Usually, however, the fear of the Lord is an inducement to obedience and service: to fear God is to do his will. This equation appears most prominently in covenant contexts, especially in Deuteronomy, where the appeal is to serve the Lord as evidence of proper recognition of his sovereignty. The Lord as King demands and deserves the awesome respect of his people, a respect that issues in obedient service.
Fear of God also lies at the heart of successful living in the world. Wisdom literature makes it clear that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a fear equated with the "knowledge of the Holy One" ( Prov 9:10 ; 1:7 ; Psalm 111:10 ). To fear God is to know him and to know him is to fear him. Such healthy fear enables one to praise God ( Psalm 22:23 ; Rev 14:7 ); to enjoy benefits and blessings at his hand ( Psalm 34:9 ; Psalms 103:11 Psalms 103:13 Psalms 103:17 ); to rest in peace and security ( Psalm 112:7-8 ); and to experience length of days ( Prov 10:27 ; 19:23 ). But fear of God also produces fear of wrath and judgment in those who do not know him or who refuse to serve him. There are, thus, two sides of the fear of the Lord — that which produces awe, reverence, and obedience, and that which causes one to cower in dread and terror in anticipation of his displeasure.
Eugene H. Merrill