Much of the way we present the gospel emphasizes the love and grace of God, and rightly so. Hellfire and damnation sermons, once common, are far less so today. Given the scandalous abuses of power that have plagued the church in recent years, one could be forgiven for wondering whether overly fiery preachers have personal axes to grind (whether they know it or not).
But as much as the idea of God’s righteous wrath against sin makes us cringe, we can’t simply expunge it from the Bible. It’s all there in black and white, underwriting the most vehement and vengeful curses of the Psalms. What’s more, these angry words sit cheek by jowl next to words of the deepest devotion and praise. In Psalm 63, for example, the psalmist speaks eloquently of his joy in God’s steadfast love, then turns suddenly to curse the people who want to hurt him:
Let them go into the bowels of the earth!
Let their blood flow by the sword!
Let them be food for wild jackals! (Ps 63:9b-10, CEB)
The psalmist, apparently, envisions a battlefield strewn with the corpses of his persecutors, their carcasses being torn apart by wild animals.
Um, have a nice day?
Similarly, in Psalm 103, the psalmist has no difficulty in calling himself and all of creation to bless God, while simultaneously encouraging the fear of God. As we’ve seen, the psalmist says “Bless the LORD” a full six times in the one psalm, and portrays God as a steadfastly loving and compassionate father. That love and compassion, however, are for “those who fear him” (vss. 11, 13, 17, NRSV).
Some of us have had fathers whose wrath we feared; would we describe them as loving and compassionate? If not, how does this apply to God?
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What does it mean to fear God? The book of Proverbs is a good place to start: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov 9:10, NRSV). Here, the fear of God is associated with wisdom, with a right understanding of and orientation toward reality. All of the psalms revolve around a worldview that is set out for us from the very beginning of the Psalter. Psalm 1 assumes that (a) there is a God, (b) one can live in a way that pleases God, which is the path of righteousness, wisdom, and blessing, and (c) one can live in a way that rejects God, which is the path of wickedness, folly, and destruction.
One can think of the rest of the psalms as being in conversation with Psalm 1, showing that life isn’t quite as simple as that psalm would seem to suggest. The praises celebrate the moments in life when righteousness and blessing coincide; the laments complain when they don’t. But even in the midst of lament, the psalmist always knows what should be: righteousness should have its reward, wickedness its punishment.
In this context, the fear of God means knowing that God exists, is holy and righteous, and is not to be trifled with. He is loving but not apathetic; he is merciful, but never indifferent. God’s power, glory, and majesty are beyond imagination. We get only glimpses, but such glimpses should inspire awe.
This is why blessing God and fearing God can sit side by side as part of right devotion. The Hebrew word for “bless” can also mean “kneel,” and this suggests the posture of true blessing. It’s not the automatic, mindless pleasantry of saying “Thanks” to a random stranger who holds the door open for you; it’s gratitude conjoined with awe.
Think of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. You know the story. A highly-placed servant has lost an enormous sum of the king’s money and knows the king has him dead to rights. He begs for mercy; what else can he do? And quite unexpectedly, he receives it: the king wipes the debt off the books and lets him go. That servant, who already feared the king, should now bless him wholeheartedly and jump for joy. But he didn’t, and Jesus doesn’t explain further. Suffice it to say that the servant doesn’t seem to receive the king’s mercy as such. Blessed with a free, undeserved gift of forgiveness, motivated by the king’s boundless compassion, the servant should bless others in turn. Instead, he goes about putting fear into them, earning him the royal wrath he deserved in the first place.
To fear God is not to be afraid of God — not when we know God as a compassionate, loving, merciful father. But neither can we ignore that the one who gives us such grace is also the one who holds the stars and the very power of life and death in his hands. His mercy is worth infinitely more than the nickel we find on the sidewalk, or even the unspeakably huge debt we have been forgiven.
When we truly understand that, then we will say with the psalmist, “Bless the LORD, O my soul.”
And we will do it with wise and proper fear.