But be sure to fear the Lord and faithfully serve him. Think of all the wonderful things he has done for you. But if you continue to sin, you and your king will be swept away. [1 Samuel 12:24-25 (NLT)]
While I prefer thinking fear of the Lord means regarding him with reverential awe, when Samuel said “Fear the Lord,” he meant good old fashioned terror and dread. Rather than trust in God, the Israelites had asked for a king and gotten Saul. As long as they and their king walked with God, Samuel said that all would go well for them but, if they rebelled and disobeyed, there would be serious trouble. To make God’s message crystal clear, he prayed for thunder and rain. While a rain storm would seem a blessing to people in an arid land, it was harvest time and rain during harvest would damage the crops and cause them to rot. Not a boon but a disaster, this clear sign of God’s displeasure terrified the people and demonstrated God’s tremendous power over their lives. The same God who brought blessings to them when He parted the Red Sea, made the walls of Jericho fall, rained hailstones on the Amorites, and scattered the Philistines with a thunderstorm, could rain trouble upon them as well. The thunderstorm showed that they could be punished for disobedience as easily as they’d been blessed for obedience. The Israelites were given good reason to fear the Lord.
Unfortunately, Samuel’s warnings (and those of the many prophets who followed) were not heeded and, as prophesied, the kingdom was swept away less than 500 years later. One of God’s Biblical names is Elohay Mishpat, the God of Justice; the fall of Israel and Judah was His judgment against injustice, evil, disobedience, and sacrilege.
What does fear the Lord mean to us today? The Hebrew word for fear is yirah and it can be applied in many different ways. It conveys dread and terror: the sort of fear the Israelites had when God displayed his awesome power and authority with that rain storm. Yirah also expresses reverential awe, wonder, worship and respect. Fear of the Lord means regard for His might, trust in His limitless love, awe of His majesty and power, loving reverence for His being, submission to His commands, and an overwhelming mindfulness of His existence in our lives. Let us never forget, however, that our God is fearfully powerful. As followers of Christ, we have no need to fear natural disaster, the strange or unfamiliar, the future, shame or embarrassment, speaking the gospel, enemies, persecution, judgment, or even death. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I beg to differ; the only thing we have to fear is the Lord!