FEAR (יִרְאָה, H3711, יָרֵא, H3707; φόβος, φοβέω). Several Hebrew words are translated “fear” in the Old Testament, the principal ones of which are yirah and yare, noun and verb respectively. Their meaning comprises “fear,” “dread,” “terror,” “timidity,” “wonderful,” “stupendous,” “reverence,” and “awe.” The chief Greek words for fear are phobos and phobeo, also translated “terror,” “alarm,” “reverence,” and “respect.”
Fear in the Bible, as in common parlance, is used in many ways, all of which fall into two categories. In one it is beneficial; in the other baneful. Hence, fear is either friend or foe. In its natural sense, innate fear serves as an alarm system alerting one to impending danger. Consequently, the threatened may prepare for the appropriate reaction, to fight, to flee, or to freeze. Fear of this character is nature’s asset. Contrarily, if fear is not soon expelled, it sinks into the subconscious mind where it becomes “phobia,” which is an unhealthy condition. In modern scientific experiments with primates and children psychologists have learned that the principal sources of innate fear are darkness, loss of support, strange things, sudden noises, and snakes. All these are potentially beneficial or harmful, and all are found in the Bible either factually or figuratively. Numerous other objects of man’s fear may be added to this list, both from everyday life and the Bible. In the Scriptures clear distinction is made between what man should fear and should not fear.
Vocabulary and Translation
"Fearful" (timid) is the translation of yare’ (De 20:8; Jud 7:3); "to be feared," yare’ (Ex 15:11; De 28:58; compare Ps 130:4); in Isa 35:4, it is the translation of mahar, "hasty," "them that are of a fearful heart," margin "Hebrew hasty"; perhaps, ready to flee (for fear).
"Fearfully" (Ps 139:14): yare’, "I am fearfully (and) wonderfully made," in the Revised Version; "and" is not in the text, so that "fearfully" may be equivalent to "extremely," to an awesome degree; compare Ps 65:5, "by terrible things.... in righteousness"; 66:3, "How terrible are thy works (yare’ "fearful "); the Septuagint, Peshitta, Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) have "Thou art fearfully wonderful."
"Fearfulness" occurs In Ps 55:5 (yir’ah); Isa 21:4 (pallatsuth), the Revised Version "horror"; Isa 33:14 (re`adhah, "trembling"), "Fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites," the Revised Version "Trembling hath seized the godless ones."
Fear in the Bible
In the Old Testament
The "fear of the Lord" is a frequent phrase in Apocrypha, and is highly exalted, e.g. Ecclesiasticus 1:11-30; the idea of it became gradually more and more elevated; in 2:15,16 it is joined with the love of God.
"Fear" sometimes stands for the object of fear (Pr 10:24; Isa 66:4); for the object of worship (Ge 31:42,53, "the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac," pachadh).
In the New Testament
Beneficial fear—the fear of God
The most prevalent use of fear in the Bible is the fear of God. Next to that is the fear of God’s people. The former is the reverential or awesome side of the fear spectrum. This fear is friend.
As religion of God’s people
The majesty and holiness of God cannot but incite fear in man. “God is clothed with terrible majesty. The Almighty—we cannot find him; he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate. Therefore men fear him” (Job 37:22-24). Anything of magnitude that dwarfs man by contrast incites fear in him. As man gazes into a deep canyon, or into limitless stellar space, or across a boundless ocean, he senses a feeling of awesome fear. How much more is this effect in the presence of God who is vastly greater than all these. As the psalmist meditated on this contrast he was amazed that God would be mindful of man (Ps 8:1-4). Similarly, God’s holiness transcends man’s character with like effects (Isa 6:5). Naturally then, the phrases, “the fear of God” and “the fear of the Lord” occur frequently in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. The Hebrew deity was awesome, so naturally the Israelites were constantly called on to “fear the Lord your God” (Deut 10:20). The admonition was an instrument with two edges, rewards and restraints.
“The fear of God” is synonymous with religion, and therefore rewarding. It was considered so as early as Abraham’s day. When that patriarch misrepresented his wife Sarah to Abimelech, he gave as his reason, “because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place” (Gen 20:11). The fear of deity was an integral part of primitive and pagan religion. Even God was called “the Fear of Isaac” (31:42). In advising Moses to appoint subordinate judges to share the judicial burden, his father-in-law, Jethro, recommended that he select “able men... such as fear God” (Exod 18:21). Proselytes in the New Testament were called “Godfearing” or those who “fear God,” as Cornelius (Acts 10:2) and Paul’s congregation in Antioch of Pisidia (13:16, 26).
Isaiah’s prophetic description of the Messiah was that “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord,” and “the fear of the Lord is his treasure” (Isa 11:3; 33:6c). Malachi prophesied in the words of the Lord, “But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Mal 4:2). And one psalmist sang, “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him” (Ps 85:9).
Another benevolent work of the fear of God is its restraining force. Constantly the Israelites were warned of the consequences of wrong doing. Moses taught, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord...” (Deut 10:12). One Hebrew philosopher said, “By the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (Prov 16:6). Clearly, all these references to the fear of God mean the Jehovah religion, worship and service of God. Consequences of failure to do so are clearly stated, as in the major categories of infidelity, injustice, and insincerity.
Judicial injustices were sternly warned against by King Jehoshaphat (2 Chron 19:5-11) and governor Nehemiah “because of the fear of God” (Neh 5:6-15). And the psalmist warned, “O kings, be wise; and be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, lest he be angry and you perish in the way” (Ps 2:10f.; cf. 90:11).
Isaiah warned against insincerity, those who “honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote” (Isa 29:13). The extreme penalty was paid by Ananias and Sapphira for insincerity, and “great fear came upon the whole church” (Acts 5:11).
As reflected on God’s people
When God made man and gave him dominion over the earth, he said, “The fear of you and dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, and upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea” (Gen 9:2). It is doubtless the image of God reflected in the countenance and personality of man that incites fear in lower creatures (Ps 139:14). Consequently, man “shall not fear the beasts of the earth” (Job 5:22). David (1 Sam 17:34-36) and Daniel (Dan 6:22) boldly faced savage beasts.
Baneful fear—the fear of evil
The other side of the ledger of fear is deficit. This fear is harmful to those who fear, and in turn makes them a source of fear. This fear is man’s foe. It debilitates, disorganizes, demoralizes, and destroys.
As it affects evil men
As it affects godly men
No matter how it works, “The fear of man lays a snare” (Prov 29:25). It takes its toll among good people. It disqualified men from fighting the holy wars. Moses left instructions that, “What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house” (Deut 20:8). And, when Gideon screened men to fight the Midianites, he said, “Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home” (Judg 7:3). The good are sometimes stricken with fear as with a dreadful disease. Job said, “The thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (Job 3:25). False perception can replace faith with fear. When Jesus came to His disciples at night on the stormy sea, they “were terrified... And they cried out for fear” because they thought he was “a ghost” (Matt 14:26).
Christian freedom has been threatened from the beginning by fear of the wicked. “For fear of the Jews” Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple (John 19:38); parents of the healed blind man declined testimony (9:22); and the Twelve hid behind closed doors (20:19). Punishment and judgment are causes of fear for all (Deut 28:67; Heb 10:27, 31).
Banishing fear—freedom from fear
By precept and example Jesus taught His disciples to make conquest of their fears. It can be done.
By the presence of God
By perfected love
“The fear of God” in the Old Testament yielded to “The love of God” in the New Testament. Though the awesome nature of God will never diminish, His Fatherly love was manifested through Jesus. His tenderness has replaced terror. Consequently, John could give the Christian antidote for fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). The Christian should have no fear of hunger, nakedness, sickness, suffering, wicked people, death, nor judgment. All have lost their power of fear in the love of Christ. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). See Worship of Church.
L. D. Weatherhead, Psychology and Life (1935), 213-237
E. S. Jones, Abundant Living (1942), 68-88
D. O. Hebb, A Textbook of Psychology (1960), 64-97
A. M. Fiske, “Death, Myth and Ritual,” Journal of American Academy of Religion (Sept. 1969), 249-265