The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,The Bible repeatedly tells us to fear the Lord, but it never clearly defines it. Is it a reverence or awe of God? I don’t think that really covers it. Is it living in abject terror of God? That doesn’t match up with what we see in the Bible, either. There is a passage of the Bible that I think neatly sums up what it means to fear the Lord, and that's what I want to examine.
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov 9:10)
Moses has asked God to show him his glory, and God has agreed to do so and to “proclaim his name.”
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 34:5-8)The LORD
The very first thing we need to see is that the text says “the LORD” not just “the Lord.” What’s the difference? Most Bible translations use “LORD” in place of the proper name of God — YHWH.
This name is related to the name God originally gave Moses. In Exodus 3 Moses asks what name he should give the Israelites when that ask who sent him. God replies, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
So God’s name YHWH means something like “I AM.” It means that God is the one who is self-existent. He, and only he, simply is. Everything else is dependent — specifically, it is dependent on him.
God made everything that exists. Therefore, everything that exists belongs to him, and he can do with it as he pleases. At this point in the Bible, God has given Israel the Ten Commandments, and he is going to give them many more rules. When they wonder, as people do today, why God has any right to make rules, the first answer is “I made you, and you are mine.”
Compassionate and gracious
Now this is what the Great I AM says about himself: “the compassionate and gracious God.” After telling Moses HE IS, he wants him to know that he is compassionate and gracious.
God is compassionate. Some translations render it merciful. Matthew Henry said it speaks of God’s father-like concern for the well-being of his creatures. This is the compassionate God Jesus taught about: The God who knows that we need food and drink and clothes and is happy to give them to us.
God is also “gracious.” Grace is described as undeserved favor. Closely related to his compassion, it’s God’s tendency to give us far better than we deserve. Grace is God seeing nothing of value in us and valuing us still.
It’s been said that God’s people are not choice, just chosen. God takes people who are utterly unlovable — rebellious and filthy — and chooses to love them anyway. That’s just who he is.
Slow to anger
The next thing God says about himself is that he is “slow to anger.” If there were only one thing the Bible showed clearly about God, this would be it.
It’s worth noting that this passage takes place after the golden calf incident: God had just brought these people out of Egypt, showing miracle after miracle and then speaking to them audibly. And as soon as Moses is gone for a few days they make a golden calf saying “this is the God that brought you out of Egypt.” That they were not barbecued on the spot is testimony to God’s great patience.
The Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet 3.9). God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and is instead pleased when they repent and live (Ez 18:23, 32).
Abounding in love and faithfulness
Next God tells Moses he is “abounding in love.” This is the first of two contrasts that are highlighted in this passage. God is slow to anger but abounding in love. Another way to put it is God is stingy with punishment but lavish with love. In the OT, even brief periods of obedience brought rest from their enemies and great wealth. In the NT, God’s lavish love is even more apparent: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1John 3:1)!
God also says he is “abounding in ... faithfulness.” He keeps his promises, and not stingily but lavishly. God promises Judah that if they will just obey he will “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Mal 3:10, see also Lev 26:3-13).
New Testament believers don’t live under the covenant with Israel, so we’re not promised material blessings for obedience. We’re promised something better: Him. Just obey, Jesus says, and he’ll make himself known to you (John 14:21, 23, Luke 11:13). Much like he promised the Levites, he is our inheritance and that is better than any material wealth. He is a God who keeps his promises in spades.
Forgiving wickedness ...
Now I want to skip around a little, for a reason. The next thing I want us to see is that God describes himself as “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” It’s said that there are two kinds of “sin” in the Bible — one is falling short, unintentionally missing the mark, and the other is outright rebellion. This list clearly covers both of those. God isn’t just saying that he forgives mistakes. He forgives wickedness and rebellion, too.
He’s not just saying he forgives those little slips we make when we choose poorly in the heat of the moment. He’s saying he will forgive those who look God in the eye and say, “I’m going to do what I want to do.” And when he does punish, it is to bring us to repentance (Lev 26).
And yet God’s patience has its limits. He says he “does not leave the guilty unpunished.” If we refuse to repent, the time for punishment will come. “The Lord is ... patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2Pet 3:9-10). When we’re not expecting it, when people have convinced themselves that God will never judge, he judges.
God eventually punished Israel for years of idolatry, removing them from the promised land. He removed Ananias and Sapphira from this world (Acts 5) and punished many Corinthian Christians for taking part of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner (1Cor 11:27-30) — some, apparently, even unto death.
The children and their children
Which leads us to the most difficult part of this passage. Sometimes when God is punishing the guilty, “he punishes the children and their children ... to the third and fourth generation.” That understandably gives people pause, but God is not saying that he will punish the children for their parents’ sins. Rather “the one who sins is the one who will die.” (Ez 18:1-4)
So what is the passage saying then? God does not punish the child in place of the parent, but he does sometimes punish the child with the parent.
The covenant between God and Israel was a corporate agreement. When the people at large disobeyed, the people at large were punished. When the Jews refused to obey God and invade Canaan, the whole nation, young and old, wandered in the desert for forty years. When Israel persisted in their idolatry, the whole nation, young and old, was taken into captivity.
Today we do not have that kind of collective agreement with God. But the people around us still suffer for our sins. The children of adulterers or abusers will suffer both immediately from their parent’s sin and later in damaged relationships. The children of convicted criminals suffer during their parent’s incarceration and probably before. Our sins are visited on our children and their children, but it is our fault, not God’s.
Maintaining love to thousands
And here we need to double back to earlier in the passage and look at the other contrast that is painted. God says he maintains “love to thousands.” Pretty much every translator and commentator agrees that there is an implied “generations.” So God maintains love “to a thousand generations” but punishment for sin falls “to the third and fourth generation.” The wandering in the wilderness lasted forty years. The exile from Judah lasted seventy. God says if they will obey, his blessing will flow for a thousand generations.
So the message is that God will eventually punish the unrepentant, but he will not be angry forever. His punishments are designed to lead to repentance, and when we repent he delights in forgiving and restoring his people.
The fear of the LORD
So what does this have to do with “fearing the Lord?” The fear of the Lord first of all obeys. It recognizes that God has a right to make demands of us and desires to meet them. We revere him as our Creator and King by obeying him.
Next, the fear of the Lord will rely on God to provide. He is compassionate and faithful, abounding in love. He knows what we need and wants to give it to us. And it responds to his love with love.
Then the fear of the Lord will trust God when we sin. We know he is patient and forgiving. We should honor and respond to God’s patience and love with prompt repentance.
Next the fear of the Lord really does fear. When we sin, or even are tempted to sin, we know that God’s patience is not infinite. We should not presume upon his patience because God may decide to punish.
Finally, the fear of the Lord has hope. It knows that God does not stay angry forever. It knows that he responds to repentance, casting our sins into a sea of forgetfulness. The one who fears the Lord knows that, like the prodigal, he can go home.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (Is 55:7)