When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
Psalm 8:3-4 ESV
Dear ICB family,
I've put all three of my brain cells to serious work trying to plumb the depths of this thing we call the fear of the LORD. What is it? How's it supposed to work? And what does it feel like?
It seems to me that at its base, fear is that emotion a human being feels when he is standing before something that is greater or stronger or more magnificent than he is. Fear is what you feel in the moment in which you realize you're small in the presence of something that you cannot control—something that could, very easily, control you or at least render your will useless.
Fear morphs into terror in the cases of tigers, tornados, and tyrants. In these cases our natural fear is accompanied by a deep sense of insecurity. We're not sure whether these things (or people) will use their power over us to harm us or not. And the chance that they might do just that is terrifying.
But we don't only feel this way in the face of things that could cause our hurt. Consider the stars, the sea, or a sunset. There, too, we're in the presence of things that dwarf us, things that make us feel tiny and insignificant. There, too, we're faced with realities that are beyond our control. And in those cases, that feeling that wells up inside of us is also properly called fear.
In Psalm 8 we're called to meditate on a God who looks down on the entire universe—all 93 billion lightyears of it—and considers it a fingerpainting. Is that not what verse 3 says? "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place…" (ESV).
"Oh, this?" God says, glancing down at the universe stretched out on his coffee table. "Just a fingerpainting my Son and I were working on. Nothing too terribly important."
This kind of power makes atomic bombs seem like firecrackers. There is nothing in existence greater or more powerful or more magnificent than this Creator God, and as such, fear is exactly the right feeling to feel standing before him.
So what about terror? Would it ever be appropriate to fear God like we fear an escaped tiger or a tornado blowing right toward us or a tyrant threatening that our town is next?
Now that is a good question. And the answer is that it depends. Some should be terrified of God, just like those described in Revelation 6:15–17: "Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'" For them, terror in the face of wrath is spot on.
Yet not all should be terrified at the thought of God. Consider the rest of the sentence that begins in Psalm 8:3 but that continues into verse 4: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?"
Did you catch that? He's mindful of us. He cares for us. Omnipotent power in the tips of his fingers—yes. A mind full of thoughts and a heart full of care toward his beloved creation—that's also true of our Creator God. And in case there's any doubt as to what kind of thoughts God has toward his creation, King David says it this way in Psalm 139:17–18: "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you." God's thoughts are good and therefore precious. And they're more numerous than the grains of sand on all the beaches and in all the desert of the world.
Kind of takes your breath away.
So what makes the difference between those "kings" and "great ones" and "generals" and "the rich" and "the powerful" and "everyone, slave and free" who will hide themselves and wish for the swift death of a landslide on the day Jesus appears to judge the earth on the one hand and King David on the other hand? Why such different reactions—one terror, one holy fear—to the same God?
It's not that the first group were sinners and King David was sinless. It's that David knew something that the group in Revelation didn't know: "Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity" (Psalm 32:1–2a, another Psalm of David). David writes, "I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,' and you forgave the iniquity of my sin" (verse 5).
So yes, "Many are the sorrows of the wicked" (verse 10), meaning terror is exactly what the wicked should feel, but David, a sinful man himself, simply took his wickedness to God and asked for forgiveness because he knew that "steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD" (verse 10). Therefore David can "be glad in the LORD" and "rejoice" and "shout for joy" (verse 11) at the very same time that he continues to fear his Almighty Maker.
Yes, God made the universe with his fingers, but his thoughts toward his forgiven son or daughter are many, and they are good.
May you know this kind of fear and this kind of love.