Psalm 34:9-14 New International Version (NIV)
9 Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
10 The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
11 Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,
13 keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from telling lies.
14 Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
Some people like to be scared. People watch horror movies, and I really don’t understand why. Oh, I don’t mean any offense, but I just don’t see the excitement or the draw to being scared. These movies usually follow a similar plot: A group of young women are in a house out in the country, far away from any other human being. The lights go out and they try to use the phone to call the electric company, but the phone doesn’t work. Perhaps the storm took out both the lights and the phone? Perhaps it was something else. And I don’t want to ruin the story for you, but it doesn’t turn out too well for the women.
I think that I don’t like those kinds of movies because I grew up out in the country and I knew that if I was in trouble nobody would hear my screams. Also, our electric and telephone went out frequently, so really, who would put themselves through that! Who likes to be scared?
But then again, I like rollercoasters; I climb ladders and work on the roof. I have even been known to climb a few trees in my day. Heights don’t bother me, and it the case of the rollercoaster, they excite me. I understand that some people are scared half to death of the thought of climbing a ladder or riding a rollercoaster. And I sometimes do these things for fun!
Fear is a strange thing. If we get down to the root of fear, I believe that fear can be a good thing. We tend to fear things like snakes, spiders, heights, and horror movies. I believe that this is a way that we stay safe; I believe that God put this safety mechanism in us. Snakes, spiders, heights, and psychotic killers can hurt you. So it is a good thing to be a little afraid of them. If you have some fear of snakes, you will keep your distance.
However, there are also things that we really don’t need to be afraid of. One of the most common fears is of public speaking. I don’t know that there is any real health concern that comes along with public speaking, perhaps getting hit with rotten fruit, I don’t know. Some people fear the number 13, which is called “triskaidekaphobia”. This fear is entirely based on superstition. There is also the fear of long words, which ironically is called “hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.” And yes, the length of that word is intended to be ironic.
Fear is a very common word in the Bible. It is used 501 times in the King James Version. Sometimes it is used in reference to people being afraid of other people, like the Israelites being afraid of the Canaanites because they were so large that they made the Israelites look like grasshoppers. Often people are said to be afraid of a situation or a being. But what I want to focus on here are the passages about fearing the Lord.
Verse 9 from out passage tells us, “Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear Him lack nothing.” Be afraid of God! Hide, no, wait, you can’t hide from God! Run! No, you can’t run from God, either! Tremble and cower at the knowledge that God is all powerful and all knowing! Do so and you will lack nothing!
I am joking; unfortunately that is how some people view God. Just tick off God a little bit or catch him on a bad day and he will smite you. We are talking brimstone and fire, folks. After every natural disaster there is always someone that wants to blame the tornado, earthquake, or whatever on a particular group. And usually this is a group that is participating in a sin that the person making the accusations isn’t (publicly) participating in.
The Old Testament also says that God is slow to anger and abounding in love. And we must always remember to view God through Jesus. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the clearest representation of God that we have ever had; even clearer than the God revealed to us through the Old Testament. Now Jesus was a pretty tough guy sometimes. He did tell it like it is. But I wouldn’t fear Jesus like I would fear a snake, heights, or a call from the IRS. People choose to follow Jesus, not flee from him. So what is up with this commandment to fear the Lord?
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and I have mentioned many times before the shortcoming of our English language in understanding the Biblical languages. Greek, which the New Testament was written in, uses more words than English, which is why there are a number of Greek words that we commonly translate as “love.” Hebrew has fewer words, which is why we can get a number of English words from one Hebrew word.
For example, Hebrew uses the same word to describe the hand and the foot, along with another part of the male human body. This word (yad) is also used to refer to a pointing stick that is used to follow the text when one reads from the Torah. You see, in Hebrew, words and names are not always specific to an object. Sometimes they refer to what that object does or its function. Hands and feet are the outlying part of the human body and they are used as an extension of the body.
So the word that we commonly translate as “fear” has a similar function. The word yara literally means a flowing of the gut. And if you think about it, you can start to better understand why this flowing of the gut is sometimes translated as “fear.” When you are afraid, you get a sinking feeling in your stomach. If you see a snake, your stomach churns a bit. If you are nervous, you feel it in your stomach. Fear is a churning, a rumbling, a flowing of the gut.
We come back to this fear of God thing and I just don’t believe that this slow to anger, abounding in love God is a being that we are to be shaking in our boots over. Yes, God can strike us down at any moment, but instead God choses to die for us. God could punish us for our sins, but instead God died for our sins. The God revealed to us through Jesus isn’t one that I am scared of. In fact, we are told time and time again in the New Testament to not be afraid. These were the words of the resurrected Jesus when he revealed himself to the women at the tomb: Don’t be afraid. 2 Timothy 1:7 talks about how we did not receive a spirit of timidity, but of power. 1 John 4:18 even tells us that there is no fear in love; perfect love casts out all fear. So clearly, when we are told to fear God, we are not to be afraid of God.
Often when we look at this kind of passage we switch the word fear with “revere” or “have reverence for” for. Revere the Lord. I like that, but I don’t think it carries quite enough weight. As an ordained man of the cloth, I can be called “reverend.” Nobody who knows me calls me reverend, but the title is appropriate.
The reason nobody calls me reverend is because that word seems to suggest some type of hierarchy and I am not a real hierarchical person. I am not above you, and I am not below you. I believe that we are all traveling through this world and I am blessed to have had the opportunity to receive a theological education along the way and I feel called to share that with you.
To revere God, then, is to humbly submit yourself below God. It is a recognition that you are not God, but God is God. Fearing the Lord, then, is knowing your place. It is that flowing of the gut feeling that you get when you realize that you are in the presence of the creator of heaven and earth. That strong feeling of reverence, that strong feeling of submission, that strong gurgling in your stomach is what the Psalmist is talking about here when he says that we are to fear the Lord. It is the feeling of smallness that you get when you stand at the top of Pikes Peak or on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and realize how small you are and how big God is. That is true reverence; that is what it means to fear the Lord.
David, who is said to have written this Psalm, goes on to say that if you fear God, you will lack nothing. He makes references to lions going hungry, but that the people of God will always have enough. The lion reference seems a little strange here, but I think he is trying to lift out a certain characteristic of lions to contrast it to the people of God.
When I think about lions, which is often, I think of them being regal, powerful, and proud. They are so proud that when we talk about a group of lions, we call them a “pride.” It is the proud, the powerful, the regal who are left hungry. But those who fear the Lord, who revere the Lord, they lack nothing! Better start fearing the Lord, folks!
Now this is clearly not saying that if you fear the Lord you will have that bigger house, faster car, better health, and your children will behave. This is not a promise of prosperity. Simply read the rest of this Psalm and you will find that those who fear the Lord will come up against hardship. What this Psalm is communicating to us is a challenge to humbly submit ourselves to the Lord.
We need to always remind ourselves of the genre of literature that we are reading when we read the Bible. The Bible is made up a number of different genres: There is the historical writings that we find in books like 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Samuel. These passages tell a lot about the history of Israel. We have the prophetic literature like we find in Isaiah and Jeremiah, which provides a warning to the people. We find the Gospels, which are a retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have the Epistles, which are letters written to churches and church leaders, usually from a more experienced church leader, teaching a less experienced church leader the will of God. We even have apocalyptic literature, which seems to be a prediction of future events.
The Psalms fall into a different genre of literature altogether. We often call this Hebrew Poetry. The reason the word Psalm sounds a lot like our word “song” is because they were written to be sung.
We don’t read a song the same way we read historical literature. Sure, there might be some history in the Psalms, but they were not intended to convey historical information. They were meant to praise God.
So when you read a poem or listen to a song, you need to ask yourself what the point is. The point of this psalm isn’t that God will give you whatever your heart desires. The point is that God is God and we are not and that we should therefore revere Him. Don’t be prideful like a lion, but humble and submit to God.
David goes on to tell us how we are to be humble and submit to God out of reverence for him. Because we revere God, we should keep our tongues from evil and we should not do evil. Then David says, “Seek peace, and pursue it.”
One phrase that I have heard a few times and have grown to appreciate is “If you fear God, you won’t fear men. If you fear men, you don’t fear God.” I don’t fear men, but there are some women that scare the daylights out of me! No, seriously, this can just as easily be said about both genders. When I first heard this phrase I kind of dismissed it as an effort to scare people into behaving ethically, which kind of turned me off. But today I understand this as saying if you humbly submit yourself to God, you need not fear other people.
Sure, people can do bad stuff to you. They can rob you, take your money, hurt your family, and disgrace your name. People lie, cheat, and steal all of the time. But when we fully submit our lives to God, we are not afraid of what people can do to us. Matthew 10:28a tells us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” And there is peace in knowing that.
There was a man who was from the area that I grew up in who felt the call of God to participate in relief work as a young man and served in various places and nations throughout his lifetime doing just that. His name was Al Geiser. When he was in his mid 50’s Al moved to Afghanistan to work on a hydroelectric project near Kabul while his wife taught in a local school. Al’s role was to build hydroelectric turbines for small villages to provide the only electricity those villages had ever seen.
In 2008, Al was captured and held hostage in Afghanistan for a period of 56 days. It is not uncommon in this area for kidnappings to occur, especially when “rich” Americans are available to be held for ransom. When Geiser was released he returned to Ohio for a period of time before going right back to Afghanistan to pick up where he left off, believe that this was where God was calling him.
On July 23rd, Al Geiser was shot and killed with the Taliban taking the responsibility for his murder. You would think that Al Geiser would have learned after being held hostage for 56 days that he was in a rough area and that perhaps not everyone appreciated the work that he was doing. In fact, I would say that he was pretty sure that not everyone wanted him there. But he believed that God wanted him there and that was what mattered to him.
From a Mennonite World Review article on the death of Al Geiser we read:
The Geisers responded “to a call on their lives” and “went to Afghanistan with joy and purpose, and have grown to love the people,” the family’s statement said. “They were simply living out their lives, following the model of Jesus, serving the needs of all peoples.
“The Geisers were aware of and accepted the risks in their work for peace in Afghanistan and have exemplified a lifestyle of Christian service, having served internationally, nationally and locally for many years.”
We are called to fear God, not man. We are called to keep our tongues from speaking evil and our bodies from doing evil. We are called to seek peace and pursue it. Because if you fear God, you won’t fear man. But if you fear man, you don’t fear God. Fear God, revere him, humbly submit to him, and you need not worry about what others might do to you.