The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever, Psalm 19:9.
The Bible speaks over 30 times about the “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord.” What does that mean? Are we really to fear God? To be afraid of Him?
People who have never truly known God often warp the notion of the fear of God. For example, they may regard God with anxiety. They know that life has a moral dimension and want license to live without moral boundaries. Others regard God with a sense of terror or dread. Such feelings reflect a faulty image of God. They envision God as fearful, his character as capricious, evil, or hideous.
But what does King David mean when he asserts that “The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.”
The Descriptive Title in this passage is The Fear יִרְאָה (yir•ʾā(h)): “reverence,” fear, i.e., a state of piety; “worship, i.e., the act or speech of showing profound reverence toward a superior.” Note the concept of fear is not one of anxiety over an evil or malicious being, but of humility before One who is morally holy and superior in person. This is an awe or respect in relational intimacy and familiarity; it is godliness in heart and behavior.
God is Good, True, and Beautiful. When we understand this we stand before him in awe and majesty. He is personal and this draws us to intimacy of relationship. If he were soulless, or somehow detached, we would be left with a sense of abandonment or the fear of being alone in the universe.
God’s nature is not evil, capricious, or hideous. Such a being would precipitate terror in the hearts and minds of people. Because people have a misconception of God as evil, capricious, or hideous, they understandably exchange this false image for one that is more to their own liking. As a result, they live in a world of illusion, a framework of life that does not comport with reality.
This divine nature is pure טָהוֹר (ṭā•hôr): adj.; “clean, pure, i.e., pertaining to being ceremonially or ritually clean.” That which is pure will purify what it touches. The fear of the Lord is pure and thus it makes us clean. Jesus acknowledges this imputed purity in John 15:3: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”
To be clean is to be free from disease, a condition that promotes growth, life and flourishing. It leads to the blossoming and prospering of people and nations. This contrasts to the effects of that which is unclean, such as disease, decay, rot, death, and destruction. The impure causes people and communities to languish.
One who stands in the fear of the Lord is not satisfied until every corner of life has been scrubbed clean. The fear of the Lord promotes the sanctifying of the heart, mind, and life of the one who lives in reverence of God.
King David expounds further on this in Ps 119:7-9: “I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me. How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. ”
Note what the psalmist identifies as the divine purpose of the fear of the Lord: it “endures forever.” Let’s examine both words.
First, the fear of the Lord is enduring עָמַד (ʿā•mǎḏ): v.; (qal) “endure, formally, stand, i.e., be in a duration of time which lasts for an indefinite period of time.” The fear of the Lord (another way to say the law of the Lord), will endure beyond the end of time.
The Scriptures refer to three types of laws:
- Ceremonial laws, those which guides formal and informal religious practice. These may change over time as culture and customs are altered.
- Civil laws, those which governs the relationships between the members of a community or nation. These enable a society to function with a modicum of social peace and justice. Like ceremonial laws, these also adapt to times and circumstances.
- Moral laws, those eternal laws which are grounded in the nature and character of God. As God’s character does not change, so moral laws are absolute. Civil Laws are just and enduring to the degree they are based on moral laws.
Ceremonial law may pass away, civil laws may change, but the moral law—the fear of the Lord—endures forever. Jesus clearly establishes this as recorded in Matt 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Again, customs and civil laws my change with time and circumstances. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” Matt 24:35. When civil law is built upon unchanging moral law, it produces social peace, economic prosperity, a wise and understanding people, and justice for all.
Some people want to look pure without the work of sanctification, something akin to whitewashing a dirty building. It may look clean, but the white is only surface deep. Just below the surface is grime. A few heavy rains will expose what is underneath.
On the contrast, the purity referred to here is enduring! In the psalm, a sinful King David recognizes the purity of God: “Cleanse me with hyssop [purify me from my sins], and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” Psalms 51:7.
Second, the fear of the Lord endures forever עַד (ʿǎḏ): adv. [BDB: n.masc.]; “forever, eternal, for ever and ever, continual, always, i.e., an unlimited duration of time, without end, and without reference to other points or units of time.”
This is a purity that transcends the end of time. It is the goodness of God. This is the fount of everlasting happiness, the preoccupation which we most long for and for which we were made.
Saint Augustine summarizes it so famously in his prayer: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” It is what C.S. Lewis describes as Sehnsucht – that deep, soulish, unquenchable longing for the place that we have been made for – our eternal home. For more on this see my post, Sabbatical Reflections: Sehnsucht.
- Darrow Miller
This post is ninth in a series of ten on Psalm 19.