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The Scriptorium

Real Fear

Fearing God goes with loving Him. Psalm 119.120

Psalm 119.113-120 (6)

Pray Psalm 119.120.
My flesh trembles for fear of You,
And I am afraid of Your judgments.

Sing Psalm 119.120.
(Aurelia: The Church’s One Foundation)
In trembling and in fear, Lord, my flesh before You quails,
for when Your Word is near, Lord, then dread in me prevails.
I fear Your holy wrath, Lord - a sinful wretch am I!
Help me to keep Your path, Lord, to live and not to die.

Read Psalm 119.130-120; meditate on verse 120.


1. How did the psalmist describe His fear of the Lord?

2. Of what specifically was he afraid?

This is not the first time our psalmist has mentioned the fear of the Lord. He sought out the company of those who feared God (v. 64), describing them as people who, as he did, hoped in the Word of God (v. 74) and loved His testimonies (v. 79). Those all seem like a safe “fear” of God, don’t you think? More like “reverence” or “awe” or something along those lines.

I’m sure reverence and awe were very much a feature of the psalmist’s fear of God. But reverence and awe don’t make your flesh crawl. Real fear does. Fear of something alive and too great to fathom. Something immense and terrible. Dangerous. Near.

This is the fear of God Jesus and Paul instructed believers to nurture (Matt. 10.28; 2 Cor. 7.1). Why should we fear God this way? Because He ever lives and is unfathomably great, immeasurably immense, knee-bucklingly terrible, truly dangerous, and constantly near. He is also holy and just and unbending in His expectations. We are none of these things. We are His creatures, to do with as He pleases. And though we know He loves all who hope in Him and love His testimonies, yet we must not take this love for granted.

Love and fear make a two-sided coin, just as love and hate do; and we must be diligent to nurture and sustain each of these affections in our relationship with the living God. For it is fearful thing to be found clasped in His hand and subject to the wrath of His judgments (Heb. 10.31).

Treasures Old and New: Matthew 13.52; Psalm 119.162.
When I was in high school in the sixties, the literature book we used contained Jonathan Edward’s sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The picture accompanying the title was of a spider dangling over an open flame. It was fear inspiring. Back then, we were still encouraged to believe there was a right and a wrong way to live; and that book, for general consumption, was still allowed to contain information about God and good and evil behavior. This was a public school. Discipline was still a thing. Fear kept us in line. Did we still do dumb things? Of course, but we possessed a fear that made us want to walk the straight and narrow. And assuredly, the consequences served as elucidating reminders for the next time.

Fear motivates obedience. It constrains us. Everyone knows this. God especially knows this. That is why there are laws. Following the rules out of sheer goodness isn’t always the norm; but fear of consequences might be. Who wants to pay for a speeding ticket? Or go to prison? Who wants to pay a fine at the library for a late book? (Do they still do that?) We pay our bills because we like having electricity and water. The piper always demands to be paid. 

A people with no holy fear can ruin a church and a society. As David opined: “An oracle within my heart concerning the transgression of the wicked: There is no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps. 36.1; Rom. 3.18).

In Psalm 119.120, the psalmist was experiencing physical and mental symptoms of his fear of God. Why? Because he knew God is God, and that He has awesome power. He also has firm and consequentially righteous judgments which He is not afraid to enact. This psalmist knew his Scriptures.

He knew that God did many wondrous and fearful acts as He delivered the children of Israel from Egypt, so much so that Pharaoh’s servants pled with him, asking, “Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” (Ex. 10:7) The psalmist didn’t want to experience that same destruction.

He knew how Rahab told the spies in Jericho of their fear of God: “And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2.11). He believed this about God, too.

He had read how the people of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron captured the ark of God in battle. How the presence of the ark near their impotent god Dagon caused it to fall on its face and break apart. Then, how the hand of the LORD ravaged the soldiers and struck them with tumors and was very heavy upon them. He remembered that they said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” and how they sent it back to Israel having tangled unsuccessfully with God (I Sam. 5.1-6.9). His God.

Story after story in the Bible tells us of God’s awesome and fear-inspiring works. We must listen up and take His power seriously. Take it to heart. Remember the dangling spider (Heb. 10.31). God’s Laws are for keeping. (Ex. 20.1-17) We need to be so afraid of breaking His Laws that our reaction is visceral, like the psalmist’s. We know that “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law” (Prov. 29.18). We want to be restrained and happy because of our love for God’s Law.

The joy we know in God’s grace and mercy must be tempered with an experiential and real fear of Him.
That fear will keep us always within the boundaries where God’s love can reach and bless us. (Jude 21)

For reflection
1. Why does it make sense to nurture a healthy fear of God?

2. How do fearing God and loving Him work together to produce obedience to His Law – and the happiness that brings?

3. What would you say to someone who insists we don’t need to fear God?

At first sight the prophet seems to contradict himself. He had just now said, that, by God's severity, he was gently drawn to love his testimonies; now he declares, that he was seized with terror. But although these two effects differ widely from each other, yet, if we consider by what kind of discipline God forms us to reverence his law, we will perceive that they entirely harmonize. John Calvin (1509-1564), Commentary on Psalm 119.120

Pray Psalm 119.116-119.
Where do you especially need the upholding grace and strength of the Lord today? Call on Him to grant it, and listen in prayer as He guides you to His Word for encouragement and instruction.

Sing Psalm 119.116-119.
(Aurelia: The Church’s One Foundation)

Uphold me by Your Word, Lord, and keep me from all shame.
Let me live ever forward to glorify Your Name.
Lord, hold me up! Sustain me in all Your holy way.
To keep Your statutes train me, and help me to obey.

All those who from Your path stray, reject and bring to shame.
They mock Your chosen pathway, and scorn Your holy Name.
Like dross cast them away, Lord - the wicked of the earth!
Your Word will I obey, Lord, and praise Your holy worth.

T. M. and Susie Moore

You can listen to a summary of last week’s Scriptorium study by going to our website,, and clicking the Scriptorium tab for last Sunday. You can download any or all the studies in this series on Psalm 119 by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For sources of all quotations, see the weekly PDF of this study. All psalms for singing are from The Ailbe Psalter (Williston: Waxed Tablet Publications, 2006), available by clicking here.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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