Twice in today's Psalm (#128) we hear that those who fear the Lord are blessed.
Blessed are you who fear the LORD
who walk in His ways! (verse 1)
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD. (verse 4)
who fears the LORD. (verse 4)
To most modern people, blessing and fear do not seem to fit together very well, but the Psalmist promises rich blessings to those who fear God: prosperity, comfort, satisfaction, happiness, divine favor, peace, a flourishing family, and a good life in one's homeland.
The two Hebrew words used for “blessed” add additional layers of meaning. In verse 1, the Hebrew word 'esher stresses happiness while in verse 4, bârak emphasizes benefits as well as praise, congratulations, and even thanks.
All of this, the Psalmist says, comes about because of fear of the Lord.
But what is fear of the Lord? The English word “fear” has a variety of connotations: “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined”; “a specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling” (i.e., a phobia or aversion); “concern or anxiety; solicitude”; “something that causes feelings of dread or apprehension”; and “reverential awe” (www.dictionary.com).
Most people would latch on to the last definition, “reverential awe,” to explain the use of the word “fear” in these verses, for God certainly is not a danger or evil that raises distressing emotions in His children, nor is He a source of anxiety or dread.
But is fear of the Lord really just “reverential awe”? Philosopher Josef Pieper argues to the negative. In his book On Hope, Pieper remarks, “From the beginning, one must keep firmly in mind that fear of the Lord is, in the undiminished and precise sense of the word, truly 'fear'” (80). According to Pieper, fear of the Lord has more in common with concern or anxiety or even with distressing emotions arising from danger or evil than with reverence.
“It remains,” Pieper continues, “to inquire what it is that fear of the Lord fears” (80). To explore this question, Pieper asks another: What is the “the utmost and ultimate danger” threatening humanity? He answers, “...the ability to commit sin” (81). Sin harms the relationship between God and the human being, and if the sin is serious, it can even sever that relationship and steal the divine life from a person's soul.
Fear of the Lord, then, Pieper explains, is a fear of “being separated by sin from the Ultimate Ground of all being” (81). It is not fear of God as some dangerous Being. It is not anxiety brought about by the image of God as a harsh judge or cold king. It is not even reverential awe or respect for the Creator. Fear of the Lord is fear of losing God through sin. It is a terror of committing a sin that would harm one's relationship with God or, worse yet, separate one from God for all eternity.
Pieper goes on to describe two levels of fear of the Lord. The lowest level is called “servile fear.” Good but imperfect, servile fear focuses on the punishment that results from sin. People at this level fear sin because of the punishment it brings. On a higher, more perfect level, fear of the Lord is called “filial” or “chaste” fear. Those at this level fear sin for what it is in itself, a selfish rebellion against the good and loving God Who has given His people His own divine life (82-83).
Both servile and filial fear discourage sin and increase love for God. In fact, Pieper calls fear of the Lord “love in flight,” for it allows those who fear to flee from sin toward the loving arms of God (85).
Returning to the Psalm, then, we can see how fear of the Lord, really fear of what separates us from the Lord, leads to great blessings. When we avoid sin and, as the Psalmist says, walk in the ways of the Lord, God pours His blessings upon us. Our hearts are open to Him and to His gifts, for we have fled from sin into His perfect love.