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What is the fear of God?

Proverbs tells us that if we want to become wise and knowledgeable, we need to start by fearing Yahweh.

Prov. 1:7 ¶ The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Prov. 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

What is the fear of Yahweh? How do we make ourselves fear Yahweh in order to become wise and knowledgeable? Genesis 32 illustrates the fear of God for us.

Jacob had a twin brother named Esau. Esau was older than Jacob; however, Jacob tricked his father into blessing him instead of Esau. Esau threatened to kill Jacob for his trickery so Jacob fled to Haran. 20 years later, Jacob decided to return to his father; but he knew that his brother Esau might still be angry. What did Jacob do to try and find out Esau’s state of mind?

Gen. 32:1 ¶ Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him.

Gen. 32:2 Jacob said when he saw them, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.

Gen. 32:3 ¶ Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

Gen. 32:4 He also commanded them saying, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: ‘Thus says your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now;

Gen. 32:5 I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.”’”

Gen. 32:6 ¶ The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

Map of the Middle EastJacob sent a peaceful message to Esau, but Esau started coming to meet Jacob with 400 men. What did that do to Jacob? Notice the words “afraid” and “fear”. Also, notice what Jacob was afraid Esau would do to him.

Gen. 32:7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies;

Gen. 32:8 for he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.”

Gen. 32:9 ¶ Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you,’

Gen. 32:10 I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies.

Gen. 32:11 “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children.

Gen. 32:12 “For You said, ‘I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.’”

Jacob was afraid that he would be attacked. He knew that Esau had the strength to harm him, and he knew that Esau had reason to harm him; therefore, he reasonably concluded that he and his family were in danger.

The words “afraid” and “fear” are translations of the Hebrew word “yare”. This is the same Hebrew word used in the following verses to refer to the fear of God.

Gen. 22:12 He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Gen. 42:18 ¶ Now Joseph said to them on the third day, “Do this and live, for I fear God:

The story about Jacob illustrates the fear of God. Just as Jacob knew that Esau had the strength to harm him, so too we need to understand that God has the strength to do anything to us He wants to. And just as Esau had reason to harm Jacob, so too when we sin, God has reason to punish us. And just as Jacob was afraid and distressed when Esau came towards him with his 400 men, so too we should be afraid when we sin. If we want to be wise and knowledgeable, we need to start by being afraid of God, knowing that our sin gives God reason to punish us, and that God has the power to do anything to us he wants.

Further Reading

Why does a glimpse of God inspire fear?

Why should we obey God if we’re assured of going to heaven anyway?

How do we know if we truly fear God?

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“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”