The fear of the Lord can be a vague-sounding term. On the surface it seems to suggest that we are afraid of God.
However, this “godly fear” is not the same kind of fear which evokes our fight or flight response. The fear of the Lord has its beginnings in our understanding that God is so much bigger than ourselves and is beyond our complete comprehension. In this respect, the fear of the Lord contains an element of awe. It is similar to the awe we might feel being up close and personal with a whale, elephant, or other large animal. Another example is the sense of smallness we get when looking up at the vast expanse of the night sky. The sheer size of these things commands our respect. We might call this a reverential fear. So it is with God. By virtue of who He is, we, and all creation, are called to show reverence to Him. Our recognition of God as God leads us to hold Him in special esteem. Those who fear the Lord revere the Lord.
It remains to be considered how we are to understand Jesus’ statement that we are to fear God “who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:27-31) Christ is talking about situations when we allow ourselves to be motivated by fear. Even at times like this, we ought to obey God rather than men for God has more power over us than any human ever will. If we are going to let the fear of men dictate our actions, so much more should we obey God since He is able to do so much more. However, this base, animalistic fear is not fear that is holy for even demons have this fear. (James 2:19) Christ immediately follows up by noting that even though God has such great power, He also loves us more than we can ever know, even to the point of knowing how many hairs are on our heads. A single sparrow does not fall from the sky apart from God’s will and Christ says “Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Our fear of God is based on awe as well as trust in His love of us.
To get a better idea of what this fear of the Lord is like, we turn to David, king of Israel. When he had sinned by trusting in his military resources rather than God, God sent a message to him by way of the prophet Gad. (1 Chronicles 21:1-15) David is given three choices for the punishment that he and the people of Israel under his rule must face: three years of famine, three months of being defeated by their foes with the sword of their enemies overtaking them, or three days of the sword of the Lord—a plague in the land with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout Israel. In the face of such frightening circumstances, David begs that he would fall into the hand of God and not men. Why? Because “His mercies are very great.” David would rather commit his fate to God than to men because of His reverence for and trust in God. David places all in God’s hands precisely because he has a holy fear of God. It is this holy fear of God which reveres and trusts God that David’s son, Solomon, would later write is the beginning of wisdom.