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Holman Bible Dictionary
Terminology The English word “fear” is used to translate several Hebrew and Greek words. In the Old Testament, the most common word used to express fear is yir' ah , which means “fear, “terror” (Isaiah 7:25; Jonah 1:10,16 ). In the New Testament, the word used most often to express fear is phobos which means “fear,” “dread,” “terror” ( Matthew 28:4; Luke 21:26 ).
Secular Fear rises in the normal activities and relationships of life.
Human Fear Animals fear humans (Genesis 9:2 ), and humans fear the animals (Amos 3:8 ); individuals fear individuals (Genesis 26:7 ), and nations fear nations (2 Samuel 10:19 ). People are afraid of wars (Exodus 14:10 ), of their enemies (Deuteronomy 2:4 ), and of subjugation (Deuteronomy 7:18; Deuteronomy 28:10 ). People are afraid of death (Genesis 32:11 ), of disaster (Zephaniah 3:15-16 ), of sudden panic (Proverbs 3:25 ), of being overtaken by adversity (Job 6:21 ), and of the unknown (Genesis 19:30 ). Fear can reflect the limitations of life (Ecclesiastes 12:5 ) as well as the unforeseen consequences of actions (1 Samuel 3:15 ).
Fear can be the regard the young owes to the aged (Job 32:6 ), the honor a child demonstrates toward parents (Leviticus 19:3 ), the reverential respect of individuals toward their masters (1 Peter 2:18 ), and to persons in positions of responsibilities (Romans 13:7 ). Fear also can be the sense of concern for individuals (2 Corinthians 11:3 ) as well as the respect for one's husband (1 Peter 3:2 ).
Fear as consequence of sin Fear may come from a strong realization of sin and disobedience. Man and woman were afraid after their act of disobedience (Genesis 3:10 ). Abimelech was afraid when he realized that he had committed an offensive act by taking the wife of Abraham to be his wife (Genesis 20:8-9 ). This sense of estrangement and guilt that comes as consequence of sin produces in the heart of individuals the fear of the day of the Lord because they will appear before the judgment of God (Joel 2:1 ).
Freedom from fear Freedom from fear comes as individuals trust in the God who protects (Psalm 23:4 ) and helps them (Isaiah 54:14 ). The New Testament teaches that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18 ). Christians are no longer slaves of fear, for Christ has given them not a spirit of
timidity or cowardice, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7 ).
Religious Fear is the human response to the presence of God.
Fear of God A prominent element in Old Testament religion is the concept of the fear of God. Most often the sense of fear comes as individuals encounter the divine in the context of revelation. When God appears to a person, the person experiences the reality of God's holiness. This self-disclosure of God points to the vast distinction between humans and God, to the mysterious characteristic of God that at the same time attracts and repels. There is a mystery in divine holiness that causes individuals to become overwhelmed with a sense of awe and fear. They respond by falling down or kneeling in reverence and worship, confessing sin, and seeking God's will (Isaiah 6:1 ).
God as a fearful God The God of Israel is an awe-producing God because of His majesty, His power, His works, His transcendence, and His holiness. Yahweh is a “great and terrible God” (Nehemiah 1:15 ); He is “fearful in praises, doing wonders” (Exodus 15:11 ); His name is “fearful” (Deuteronomy 28:58 ) and “terrible” (Psalm 99:3 ). The fear of God comes as people experience God in a visible manifestation (Exodus 20:18 ), in dreams (Genesis 28:17 ), invisible form (Exodus 3:6 ), and in His work of salvation (Isaiah 41:5 ). God's work, His power, majesty, and holiness evoke fear and demand acknowledgment. The fear of God is not to be understood as the dread that comes out of fear of punishment, but as the reverential regard and the awe that comes out of recognition and submission to the divine. It is the revelation of God's will to which the believer submits in obedience.
The basis for God's relationship with Israel was the covenant. The personal relationship that came out of the covenant transformed the relationship from a sense of terror to one of respect and reverence in which trust predominated. This fear which produces awe can be seen in the worship of Israel. The Israelites were exhorted to “serve the Lord with fear” (Psalm 2:11 ). Fear protected Israel from taking God for granted or from presuming on His grace. Fear called to covenant obedience.
Fear as obedience Deuteronomy sets out a relationship between the fear of God and the observance of the demands of the covenant. To fear the Lord is one of the ways by which Israel expresses its obedience and loyalty to Yahweh and to His divine requirements: “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13; compare Deuteronomy 6:24-25; Deuteronomy 10:20; Deuteronomy 13:4 ). Fear becomes a demand that can be learned (Deuteronomy 17:19 ). Fear of God was part of the religious life of every Israelite, where the acknowledgment of it required a specific behavior from each individual. Fear of God was a requirement demanded from every judge (Exodus 18:21 ). The kings of Israel should rule in the fear of the Lord (2 Samuel 23:3 ); even the messianic King would live in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2 ). To fear God was the beginning of wisdom and thus of the pathway to true life (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 15:33 ).
“Fear not” The expression “fear not” (also translated “do not fear” or “do not be afraid”) is an invitation to confidence and trust. When used without religious connotation (15 times), “fear not” is an expression of comfort. These words come from an individual to another providing reassurance and encouragement (Genesis 50:21; Ruth 3:11; Psalm 49:16 ). When “fear not” is used in a religious context (60 times), the words are an invitation to trust in God. These words appear in the context of the fear and terror that follows divine revelation. God invites His people not to be afraid of Him (Genesis 15:1; Genesis 26:24 ); the angel of the Lord seeks to calm an individual before a divine message is communicated (Daniel 10:12 ,Daniel 10:12,10:19; Luke 1:13 ,Luke 1:13,1:30 ); a person acting as a mediator of God invites the people to trust in God (Moses, Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua, Joshua 10:25 ).
The “God-fearers” The “God-fearers” were those who were faithful to God and obeyed His commandments (Job 1:1; Psalm 25:14; Psalm 33:18 ). Those who fear God are blessed (Psalm 112:1 ); they enjoy God's goodness (Psalm 34:9 ) and God's provision (Psalm 111:5 ). In the New Testament “God-fearers” became a technical term for uncircumcised Gentiles who worshiped in the Jewish synagogue.
Fear in the New Testament Some Christians tend to de-emphasize the fear of God in the New Testament by placing the love of God above the fear of God. There is indeed a greater emphasis on the love of God in the New Testament. However, the element of fear was part of the proclamation of the early church.
Paul admonished believers to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 ). The early church grew in number as they lived “in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31 ). The fear of God is related to the love of God. The revelation of God to people in the New Testament contains the element of God's mysterious otherness calling for reverent obedience. The New Testament church stands in awe and fear in the presence of a holy God, for fear is “the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 ).
Claude F. Mariottini
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Fear'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/f/fear.html. 1991.