Grace Has Taught Our Hearts to Fear

God kept Pharaoh upright and pummeled him until he and his army drowned as a stone, why? Why do we need to read of judgments against Korah or tour the tombstones of those who fell in the wilderness? Why include stories in Scripture such as two she-bears mauling forty-two boys for mocking a bald prophet? Or in new-covenant times, why were Ananias and Saphira carried away dead? Why does an angel of the Lord strike down Herod and feed his body to worms? Why are people in the early church falling ill, or even dying, for misusing the Lord’s Supper? Is it not to teach us the fear of God?

The fear of the Lord has fallen upon rather apologetic times, it seems. “God is certainly not to be feared,” some say. “What is meant by fear is really something more like respect. You shouldn’t fear him as a lion uncaged in your living room, but only go to him as confidant, best friend, non-judgmental ear bent to listen.” Attempting to hold tensions in balance, the fearsomeness of God seems to get the short end. The Lamb, too often, undoes the Lion.

With this, God is robbed of worship, and we of rejoicing. In the new covenant, it is a blessing to fear the living God. The difference between the old covenant and the new is not that God should no longer be feared, but that now every covenant member actually does fear him. Holy fear serves our perseverance, imparts wisdom to our souls, secures our eternal happiness; no one will make it to heaven without this fear.

So, let us behold four beautiful glimpses from Jeremiah 32:38–41, a wonderful introduction to the strange and spectacular fear of God for Christians today.

New Hearts to Fear

I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever. (Jeremiah 32:39)

What is wrong with the world today? People do not love God, and people do not fear God, because people do not have new hearts alive to his glory and sensible of his power. Neighbor after neighbor lives in open rebellion against his Majesty and does not know how to blush. They will not cease their suicidal sinning, seek his will, or cry to him for mercy.

“Fear serves our perseverance, serves our everlasting souls, serves our eternal happiness.”

This is the story of the Old Testament. We witness generation after generation experience the misery of a people with God’s law in their scrolls but without God’s fear in their souls. Story after story details the cursed inability to tremble at God’s word. Though instructed repeatedly, “The Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13), most would do no such thing. Over and over came the same heartache and distress because they did not fear God. They were too comfortable, too smug — too lighthearted to be good-hearted.

But notice the promise of the new covenant: “I will give them one heart and one way.” And why? “That they may fear me forever” (Jeremiah 32:39). They are given new hearts endowed with the fear of God. And this fear will not have an expiration date. God makes a people new that they may fear him forever.

Our Deepest, Longest Good

. . . that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. (Jeremiah 32:39)

Now, we may think this fear of God to be hard news. Perhaps our minds involuntarily recall relationships where fear was a tool for evil: the abusive father, playground bully, controlling boss. They used fear to manipulate, to coerce, to sting into submission. How can it be good news to fear God forever?

Notice the promise: “. . . that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.” Oh, this is different. This fear serves his people’s good, as when Gandalf grew tall and menacing to convince Bilbo to give up the ring that would destroy him otherwise. He deepens his voice to persuade us from peril. The heart of this King is for you, for your good, thus he gives you this fear of him. Doesn’t this purpose make all the difference?

The good father, his children know, is not to be trifled with. The heavenly Father lashes every son whom he loves (Hebrews 12:6), not because he loves to scourge, but because he loves to save. He disciplines us for our good, that we might share in his holiness and live (Hebrews 12:9–10). Feel enough of his heart to trust him: this God does not spare discipline from us, but neither did he spare his Son for us.

And notice that this new-covenant blessing of fear spills over the edges to one’s family: “for their own good and the good of their children after them.” The fear God gives a man blesses those closest to him.

Why You Wake Up Christian

I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:40)

Again, Israel received the law of God as written by the very finger of God and delivered by angels, and yet they could not keep it. They saw their God redeem with wonders the world had never witnessed, and yet these same people died in the wilderness because of distrust. God was undeservedly good to them, and yet without explanation or provocation, they kept turning from him. The Lord asks, “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?” (Jeremiah 2:5). Our Old Testament shows us where we would be without the fear of God.

Yet gaze at the blessing: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them.” He swears not to turn away from doing good to us; he makes an everlasting covenant with us. But what about our turning from him, as Israel did so often? Here it is: I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.

Why did you wake up a Christian this morning? Because God put the fear of himself in you. You fear turning away from him, going back to the city of destruction, being a child of his anger, displeasing your heavenly Father, departing from the church and proving to never have truly been of his people. You believe God when he talks about hell. You believe God when he talks about heaven. And you fear him, not by shivering under an expectation of wrath, as though you had no basis for confidence before him (his love perfected in us casts out this kind of faithless fear, 1 John 4:18). Yet while we do not now quiver about the judgment to come, we still believe that if we should turn from him or shrink back, such would be our portion. We are not yet home.

So what is the fear of God in this text? A fear of turning from him that keeps us near him. New-covenant fear is adhesive to keep us walking happily with Jesus, our life and our joy.

The Heart of Him We Fear

I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:41)

So, the fear of God is not a cringing fear, a hiding under the bed or cowering in the fetal position from a severe judge. Rather, the fear of God is a healthy understanding that if you turn away from God, it will be to the everlasting ruin of your soul, a ruin from his own hand.

But saint, the kind of God we fear makes all the difference in our fearing him. “That they may not turn from me,” God says — but who is the me? We read that he means good for us, but who could imagine what comes next? “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” Be undone; be staggered. Here is the God we fear forever: he who delights to do good to you with all his heart and all his soul.

He is the God whose rod and staff strike and destroy his enemies. This shepherd terrorizes lions and bears and wolves and thieves. Yet because of his love for you in laying down his life for you, this same power now comforts you and keeps you near.

He is still dangerous — he wouldn’t ease us through the valley of death if he weren’t — but he is not dangerous toward you as he once was. Christian, you are his sheep now, under the shepherd’s love. He says, “I will make them dwell in safety” (Jeremiah 32:37). But this does not domesticate him. As long as you stay true to him, as long as you continue to fear him, his rod and his staff will keep you along the path, calm you, and protect you from all that threatens you. His love turns his fearful qualities away from you — as long as you abide in his love.

Safe from the Storm

Years ago, on a bitter and perilous winter night, I watched snowflakes fall gently outside my window. They mesmerized me, yet I knew that for some outside that night, they would prove deadly. I wrote,

The window frames tools of torture,
As they caress the ground,
By love’s fire I’m found;
Is this salvation?

This captures something of the paradox. It’s not that danger does not exist any longer — God is perilous to those outside. Rather, it means that he has overcome us with his love, seated us inside at his fires of grace, and there, we no longer expect to perish. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). But we do fear facing him if we were to abandon the shelter of Christ.

So, we fear him, but this is the God we fear. The God who wants us in the house with him. The God whose very heart longs to do us good. The God who, to secure our blessing, gives us an indispensable gift: the fear of him.