“All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. (Exodus 20.18-21)What an interesting verse: “Don’t be afraid. God has come so that you will be afraid of Him.” Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Once again, much is lost in translation. I’d like to take a minute to look at the two very different Hebrew words used for fear as we begin this week. I think it’s relevant, and they make a huge difference in our picture of the God we are in a relationship with.
The two words for fear are: Pachad and Yirah. Pachad literally means “livid terror.” It carries a meaning similar to our modern idea of fear. Yirah, on the other hand, simply means “awe.” That’s all. Now consider the polytheistic culture of the Hebrews. In their culture, the New Testament idea that “God is love” would not have won the respect and awe and worship of these 16th-generation slaves of Egypt. In a world where Divinity was defined by shows of strength, power, and might, God must show that He is God above all others and that there is no other god like Him, thus leading to the display on Mt. Sinai.
There are two points that I believe we need to understand, then. God never wants us to feel Pachad of Him. Perfect love drives out this kind of fear (I John 4.17). However, we must also be careful with Yirah. God wants more than for us to simply hold him in awe. For “the fear [Yirah] of the LORD is [only] the beginning of wisdom . . .” —Psalms 111.10 (emphasis added).
However, before the Hebrew slaves could be moved by this God’s love, His position as God had to be established. Only when they knew who He was would they be moved deeply enough that He, as God, actually would loved them. However, the sad reality is that most of the Israelites never made the transition from Yirah to Love.
My prayer is that that God’s people today will. Fear as terror is never what God desires, but reverence and awe, although not enemies of love, are not the things that lasting relationships are made of, either. They may be involved, but a relationship must encompass more than just Yirah.
Love is Power, but of a very different type.
“From a worldly point of view, money is power; but from a Christian standpoint, love is power. Wealth is often an influence to corrupt and destroy; force is strong to do hurt; but pure love has special efficacy. It prevents discord and misery, and brings the truest happiness. It gives intellectual and spiritual strength, and truth and goodness are its properties” (White, Bible Echo, December 15, 1893 par. 6).
“Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment” (Mahatma Gandhi).