If anyone should have known the fear of God, it was the Israelites.
They had front row seats as he plagued Egypt with all kinds of insects, amphibians, and diseases. He turned the Nile River to blood, covered Egypt in darkness, and even took away all the Egyptian’s firstborn sons. The God of Israel led his people out of Egypt with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He parted the Red Sea, letting his people pass through unharmed. And as Pharaoh’s armies pursued, he joined the seas back together so the waters swallowed them.
But Israel didn’t learn their lesson.
Seven weeks after this great deliverance, these newly freed slaves were preparing to be in God’s presence at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:9–11). God instructed Moses to set limits around the mountain so that the people would not go up on it lest they die (Exodus 19:12–13). He showed himself to his people, descending upon the mountain in fire and enveloping it in smoke (Exodus 19:18). There was also a thick cloud on the mountain with shots of lightning, peals of thunder, and a loud trumpet blast (Exodus 19:16).
The people initially trembled. But their fear did not last.
Not Safe, But Good
God does not reveal himself to his people in this same way anymore. On account of this, we tend to imagine that if God could do this for us today, then we would believe and fear him rightly. We might even think it was easier for the Israelites to fear the Lord because they saw so much of his power and might, and because they witnessed death as the consequence for disobedience.
“God is big, scary, and powerful, but also lowly, humble, compassionate, loving, forbearing, and personal.”
But as we read the rest of the Old Testament, we see the people of Israel continually forget their deliverer and suffer from chronic unbelief. They believed the lie that God had abandoned them, so they erected a golden calf in his place (Exodus 32). The Israelites constantly complained (Exodus 16:2–4), believing the lie that bondage in Egypt was better than freedom in the desert. They didn’t believe God when he promised that he would give them the Promised Land, so they refused to fight for Canaan (Deuteronomy 1:19–45). Though a few believed the Lord and feared his name, it is clear in Scripture that much of Israel did not fear him — though they saw everything he had done for them. What were the Israelites missing? What did they not believe about God?
C.S. Lewis answers this in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when Mr. Beaver tells Susan that Aslan (the ruler of Narnia) is a great lion. Susan is surprised, since she assumed Aslan was a man. She then tells Mr. Beaver, “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” She asks Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe, to which Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
The Israelites were intimately acquainted with the concept of God not being safe, but they didn’t believe he was good. The root of their unbelief (and our unbelief) is a lack of trust in God’s goodness. In all the examples listed above, Israel believed their way was better than God’s way, that their own sense of goodness was better than God’s goodness.
The other nations surrounding Israel had crafted gods of their own who were not perceived as safe. They feared punishment from their gods, so they made sacrifices and followed strict rules and traditions. But the God of Israel (the true God) was not looking for this type of fear, but a fear birthed out of the knowledge of his character. God is big, scary, and powerful, but unlike the other gods of the nations, this God is also lowly, humble, compassionate, loving, forbearing, and personal. The Israelites were meant to fear their God differently than other nations. They had to believe he was good.
Fearing God Draws Us Near
If the Israelites believed in God’s goodness, they would have turned from their sin and towards God. They would have lived out Proverbs 14:27, “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.” But much of the time, the Israelites were running towards death. And these people are a picture of all of us. We must see ourselves in them, and learn from their failure to rightly fear God.
“The fear of the Lord is not about keeping our distance from God, but about drawing near to him.”
But this should not keep us from God. God no longer sets limits for us in our approach to him, but rather he has made the path to him direct and accessible for all peoples. In fact, he calls us to approach his throne of grace with confidence, so that we can find mercy and grace in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). No other god gives this invitation. He wanted the Israelites to come near to him too, or else he wouldn’t have delivered them, he wouldn’t have descended on Mount Sinai, and he wouldn’t have inhabited the tabernacle (Exodus 40:35). The only difference between them and us is that we have a better High Priest (Hebrews 4:14–15).
God always wanted his people to come near to him, which is why he sent his Son. Only one person could properly fear the Lord in this world. He was a shoot from the stump of Jesse who delighted in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1–3). Because of Christ, God’s invitation to draw near to him extends to all nations (Revelation 7:9), and because of Christ, we can draw near with confidence based on his perfect fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is not about keeping our distance from God, but about drawing near to him. When we fear him, we come close. When we draw near to God through Christ — again and again — it means we are choosing to turn from sin. True fear of the Lord draws near in faith, fearing God because he is God, but also knowing he is gracious and merciful.
He isn’t safe, but he is good.