Happy is the one who fears?
Psalm 128 begins with a statement that seems to be impossible: “Happy (or blessed) is everyone who fears the Lord.” It seems to be contradictory to put “happy” and “fear” together in the soul of a person. The two emotions seem to be mutually exclusive of each other.
Edgar Wallace described fear as “a tyrant and a despot, more terrible than the rack, more potent than the snake.” In his first inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” then he went on to define fear as a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
How could a person possibly be happy with such terror (or with such a tyrant) stomping around within one’s soul?
But what if the fear of the Lord is different than being terrorized by fear?
The evidence of Scripture suggests that they are different. In Exodus 20:20 (just after the giving of the 10 Commandments), Moses says to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of Him upon you so that you do not sin.”
Moses calls us away from the kind of fear that paralyzes us and terrifies us; he calls us to the fear of the Lord that enriches our lives.
Phillip Keller provides a wonderful picture of the two kinds of fear in his book Lessons from a Sheep Dog. He writes about his experience bringing a severely mistreated Sheep Dog to his sheep ranch in British Columbia. Because of the mistreatment the dog had been subjected to, Lass was terrified of Phillip Keller. He records, “As I put Lass into my old car and started off down the road to ‘Fairwinds’ she was sure something terrible was about to happen. She crouched on the floor behind my seat, trembling and tense with apprehension. Even when I stretched out my hand to touch her head, or spoke softly in reassuring tones, she withdrew in terror, snarling with tension.” (p. 40-41)
That’s the kind of fear Moses calls us away from—the kind of fear that leave us terrified, suspicious of all that comes our way, snarling with tension at others and at God.
As the book progresses, Phillip Keller describes the change that takes place as Lass begins to trust him. Later in the book, Keller writes, “The use of this word ‘fear’ all through the Old Testament scriptures has, most unfortunately, left the wrong impression upon our minds. And it was Lass, more than anyone else, who brought me to a clear concept of its true meaning. ‘To fear,’ with regard to God means to reverence, to respect, to regard with awe and affection, to hold in such loving esteem as to be afraid of offending or grieving the One so admired. This was the attitude Lass held toward me. It had been built on trust. It had grown gradually with the realization she could count on the consistency of my conduct and credibility of my character. She had come to see me as more than just her master, but also her friend. We were fellow-workers in the great responsibilities of running the ranch. Her loyalty was grounded in love.” (p. 76-77)
That’s the kind of fear God calls us to: Not the kind of fear that leaves us suspiciously snarling at God, but the kind of fear that causes us to honor and revere God so highly that we bow before Him in worship and seek to honor Him with our obedience.
The fear of gravity is similar. I hope you are not awakened at night from nightmares of gravity chasing after you like a malevolent monster who keeps trying to throw you to the ground. But I hope that if you are standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, gazing into the chasm below, that you will have a healthy fear of the law of gravity. I hope the fear of gravity will keep you from leaning over too far so that you are free to enjoy the Canyon’s amazing beauty without plummeting to your death.
That’s the kind of thing Psalm 128 has in mind when it counsels us, “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord….” When we revere God our lives are enriched.