Those of you who have been following my journey know that I keep on stumbling into Biblical passages that talk about the “fear of the Lord.” It actually started this summer with a sermon I preached in the Dominican Republic on the fear of the Lord in Isaiah 6, even though the phrase didn’t actually appear in the text. Then, in the fall, I came across Acts 9:31: “Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, [the church] increased in numbers.” Then I encountered Psalm 19:2: “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever,” which prompted a longer meditation contrasting the fear that leads to wisdom with the fear that has to do with punishment. More recently I discovered in Psalm 25 the strange statement that God offers “friendship to those who fear Him.” My latest milestone in this journey came this past weekend preaching on Isaiah 11, in which verse 3 says that the messiah will “delight in the fear of the Lord.” I think there are two ways to understand this statement: one is perverse and the other beautiful.
The perverse way to delight in the fear of the Lord is what we might call “fear-mongering.” It’s not delighting in anything about God really, but taking pleasure in being scared. Some people enjoy being scared because it brings excitement to their otherwise tedious lives. Other times there is a more sinister power motive in play. You don’t get to be a totalitarian cult leader unless the end of the world is about to happen, or at the very least the world must be filled with monstrous demons who will attack your people unless you intervene to protect (and control) them. Other folks seem like they enjoy a fearsome God for the same reason that our culture has a gangster film fetish. A God who is as ruthless as Keyser Soze is awesome in a sick kind of way.
But these examples of fear don’t seem anything like the “fear of the Lord” that the Bible describes. Let’s look at how Isaiah 11:4-5 continues to describe this messiah who delights in the fear of the Lord: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears;but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.”
The one word that comes to mind here is integrity. Specifically, it is an integrity that will refuses to settle for simple truths. If one who delights in the fear the Lord does not “judge by what he sees” or “decide by what he hears,” that signifies a dissatisfaction with easy surface-level answers. The willingness to give the poor and needy a fair hearing means going against the grain of society and probably risking persecution from the powerful. I’m also very interested in the weapons of this messiah: “the rod of his mouth” and “the breath of his lips.” It would seem like this refers to the power of testimony. It is the truth itself that strikes the earth and slays the wicked. The belt and the sash comprise the two components of integrity: righteousness and faithfulness (the Hebrew word amanah from which we get our word amen, which shares the same root as the word for truth).
To delight in the fear of the Lord then is to love truth. Last year, I blogged through Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Bible and I found a verse that captures the love of truth perfectly, verse 113: “I hate opinions, but I love your Torah” (סעפים שנאתי ותורתך אהבתי). Seaphim, the word that I’m translating as “opinions,” is the Hebrew word for branches. It means figuratively to cut and divide into categories. Torah is the perfection of God’s law. It always eludes our grasp. The fear of the Lord is the awe of facing this infinite reality and refusing to settle for the caricatures that our interpretations always must be. I really think this is why Jacques Derrida (who was Jewish) said, “Deconstruction is justice,” because every deconstructible system of law and order that we create is always seaphim that reaches out in finitely imperfect casuistry towards the infinitely transcendent Torah that we can never appropriate.
It might seem that hating caricature out of love for God’s truth would be the cause of despondency, but it’s not. It’s the perpetuation of desire. God’s infinite beauty contains the reassurance that our desire will never be quenched. This is actually the apologetic argument that Augustine makes in his book On Happiness. Because created objects are finite, they cannot be counted on for the fulfillment of desire. Only an infinite object of desire will do. God’s infinity evokes a fear that is delight. The gift of the messiah prophesied by Isaiah 11 is the ability to face God’s infinity with the assurance of our atonement and thus delight in its overwhelming strangeness.