The Fear Of God
“Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence.”—Isaiah 8:13–14
The thought that fear has any part to play in vital Christian experience is really foreign to most people. The general and popular presentation of the Gospel is that of the love of God revealed to us on the cross, a love which casts out every fear, and by resting in that love and by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ we are saved eternally, and there is nothing more to fear. That is certainly part of the truth and a very wonderful part, but not all of it.
An over-emphasis of this one side of divine revelation can have disastrous results in experience. So often the outcome of that emphasis is revealed in such a shallow expression of Christianity that even the fear of sinning has departed, and what is supposed to be saving belief in Christ is accompanied by a sinful life in which there is no evidence whatsoever of change or of deliverance; such a travesty of true experience being accepted as being apparently perfectly normal. “After all,” says the person who thinks along this line, “I believe in Christ; I am saved, so what?” If there is any fear at all in such cases, it is the fear of what is termed being legalistic, the fear of “works” which would bring bondage into the life. Surely that conception of Christianity is absolutely false. Is not Christian living, as Paul says, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord? Ephesians 2:8 does tell us that “By grace we are saved through faith, and that not of ourselves. It is the gift of God; not of works lest any man should boast.” Let us hold hard to that tremendous, wonderful truth that we can add nothing to the finished work of the cross to secure salvation. It is provided there at Calvary for us to take as God’s free gift. But the verse goes on to say “We are created unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” The works which are so much dreaded by so many people who say, “Well now, believe in Christ and that is all there is to it” are not the works which we produce by our effort, but they are the working of God, the Holy Spirit, in and through the surrendered life. True, Paul says “Work out you own salvation with fear and trembling,” but he also says, “It is God who worketh in you to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Because the Spirit of God grips the heart of the man who has received Christ, he finds himself being impelled along a road of truth and holiness and righteousness.
You cannot receive salvation as an escape from something unless you are prepared to receive it as a complete committal to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a fire escape; it is a life to be lived in the power that God imparts and the New Testament gives the preacher no authority whatsoever to proclaim salvation on any other basis than that. Perhaps somebody is reading this and saying, “I am a Christian—I believe in Jesus Christ—I believe all that the Bible tells me about Him, but I shall continue to practice sin and I just cannot do anything about it all; I do confess it to the Lord and He forgives me, I am sure, because the Bible says, if we confess He forgives, and I am going on living like that.” I want to say boldly and firmly, my friend, that a man who practices sin has no business to say that he is saved. “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit (make a practice of) sin” (1 John 3:9).
Now you will wonder what that has to do with my subject. Well it has a great deal to do with it, because I believe that it is the absence of real holy fear and the absence of the dread of God that causes people to think and live like that. It is a cheap kind of salvation which merely touches a man’s emotion and never reaches his will or his feet; never changes the quality and character of his life, and he thinks and lives as he does because the fear of God has never struck him. I believe that the absence of fear as an essential element in faith is one of the snares of modern Christian living and one of Satan’s most subtle delusions.
Let us just take a look at the setting of this verse in Scripture. What was the particular situation with which the people of Judah were confronted? As you read Isaiah 8, you find it was a time of great stress, tension and strain. There was a mighty empire, the great power of Assyria, moving across the inhabited Earth and destroying every small world power.
The people of Judah at this time were afraid that they were going to have the same medicine. The trouble was that the people of Judah had refused God’s Word. They had rejected His way of deliverance. “Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son…” Judah had refused God’s way of deliverance. They had chosen for themselves to make a confederacy. The only thing they could do was to do what the poor little nationalist countries in the Middle East are trying to do today with all the threat of Soviet domination—get together somehow or other and form an alliance in order that they might stand against the danger of this mighty world power. That was what Judah had decided to do for it appeared to be the only thing they could do.
What is that world Shiloah? It is the pool of Siloam in which the blind man washed and received his sight (John chapter 9). It is the pool of healing and blessing, and the Spirit of God speaks here of waters that go softly and gently. Here were two tremendous alternatives: God offering to His people a pool of healing and cleansing, and if they rejected it—judgment would come like a great torrent and mighty river. He had raised up this power of Assyria, and He would use this power to bring judgment and discipline upon His people; for all the powers that be, evil or good, are ordained of God. There was no world power and there never has been or will be, that has ever got out of the control of our Lord, the Lord of hosts, and the offer to this little country of Judah was a pool of deliverance.
Does it not remind you of the Lord who said He will lead us beside the still waters and cause us to lie down in green pastures? There is God’s alternative in life and there always has been the pool of healing. There is a place of deliverance and cleansing, and there is a place where He moves softly. There is a way in which He reaches us in love and gentleness and in meekness, and a place where He can come and touch the human heart by the power of the blood of Christ and bring His cleansing and His gentle deliverance. But if a soul refuses that, then God’s judgment comes upon that soul like a mighty river. The pool that goes softly or the river that comes with a torrent of judgment, that is the alternative choice and Judah had refused God’s way and decided to form a little alliance with other powers. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man,” says the Lord and here is an Old Testament example of that very thing.
There comes a time in a man’s life when if he has persistently refused God’s way of softness, gentleness, healing and cleansing, God stops talking to him. His heart has been hardened and judgment is the only answer. Here was Judah hemmed in by such a tremendous pressure that it seemed that their only resort was to form an alliance with other little powers and attempt to build up a wall of resistance against this mighty power of Assyria. Judah became a little land full of panic and fear, and you notice with panic came superstition. Verse 19 tells us that they began to consult with “familiar spirits.” Is not this a tragedy? Here was God’s people chosen to be His path of blessing to the world but they had rejected Him and rebelled against Him, and now they are consulting with the devil. Of course, that is what people do, and that is why men turn to spiritualism today.
As if God the Holy Spirit would speak to you personally, let me ask you, do you know something in your life of the pressure of spiritual forces that are on you just like Judah did?
Do you know what it is for God, as it were, seemingly to hold you in His grip and never let you go concerning some issue in your life? I can think of many times in my life when it seemed that He had me in a corner like that. I made determined efforts to escape from Him, but God put on the pressure and held me. He grips us and keeps us facing the thing until He has dealt with it—the pressure of the Spirit of God.
To somebody it may be circumstances. You think perhaps it is some trouble in life, some sorrow or bereavement, or pressure of some situation that may be upon you, something that you do not know quite how to face and what to do, or the next step to take. I want to say to you in the name of the Lord that is God speaking to you, hemming you in, taking you and holding you and putting you in a corner and keeping you there until you face this thing with Him.
Behind much that is gay and glamorous, happy and lighthearted and superficial in life today there is pressure of this kind under the surface that many people do not understand. You cannot cure cancer with a poultice and you cannot bring people to Jesus today with this easy “believe and be saved” Gospel that does not work. First of all, there needs to be the probe of the great Physician, the exposure of the man’s sin, the revelation of the cause of the pressure within him and somehow that man has to see the fact that in his heart God has been speaking to him. I am absolutely sure that there are many people reading this who, if they would only be honest with themselves, know perfectly well that under the surface there is relentless pressure. Something, though they have not known it, which was a power raised up of God: circumstances, sorrow, trouble, something in life has hemmed them in a corner and they know not which way to turn. They attempt this way of escape and that way, and they listen to the preacher say “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” To attempt to bring a superficial believism to a generation like this, which does not understand itself or the depths of its own desperate need, is to be like a quack physician who leaves behind a trail of broken hearts and the tragedy of people who have tried this light-hearted superficial remedy only to discover that the root of the disease has never been exposed and the pressure of a holy God has never been explained. The result is you have a lot of people today who are only half-converted, and they are full of worldly compromise, desires, habits and appetites. The choice, my friend, is always between an alliance with the Lord or with the arm of flesh; between the gentle, healing, cleansing pool, the fountain that is open for sin and uncleanness, the blood that flowed from a Saviour’s wounded side, His gentle love, or it is the torrent of the judgment of a holy God upon a man who refuses to repent, and there is no compromise between these two whatsoever.
Isaiah’s faith never weakened. In verse 11, “The Lord said unto me with a strong hand.” Is not that a remarkable parallel? What does it mean? The Lord said unto me with a firm grip. He spoke in such a way that I could not escape it. He took me by the hand and held me firmly. The Lord spoke with a strong grip—a word that gripped like a hand. I often think you can judge a man’s character by the way he shakes hands. Some peoples’ handshake is just like a jelly fish! Others, after they have shaken hands with me, leave my hand quite limp. There is something about that strong grip and I somehow feel that it is often the expression of a warmth and intensity and power of a man’s character. When I was thinking and praying about this message, I said, “Lord, speak to me with a strong hand. Speak with a word that grips, a word from which there is no escape, a word that I cannot resist, a word in which there is so much conviction that people cannot possibly turn from it. If I could read your heart, I believe many would say, “That is what we want; we are tired of proof texts; we are tired of orthodox sermons, and we are tired of fundamental truth that does not seem to grip us, and has no life in it! We just long for a word from God that grips and heals, and because it has held us we can do nothing but obey it.” Some people will never get out of their situation nor through the pressure until God speaks with a strong hand. What was the strong hand with which God spoke?
Isaiah spoke it, “Say ye not, a confederacy”—in other words, no compromise, no worldly alliance. That is not the way through. No alliance with other people who are faced with the same pressure as you are and have not the answer to it—“No confederacy,” says Isaiah. Here is the answer: “Sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear.” To sanctify the Lord means to set Him apart, give Him prominence, put Him in a unique position, glorify Him, exalt Him. Indeed, in one word it means to enthrone Him, to let Him be your fear. Accept the word of the Lord that comes like a strong hand and pass through pressure from which there seems to be no escape. There is one sure escape—enthrone Christ. Let Him be your fear. Do you not think it is very suggestive that God’s messenger suggested to Judah that the way to get rid of other fears is to invite in another one? The way to chase away a thousand and one little panics and little fears and crises is to ask another one to come in—can that be right? How can I possibly deal with this problem of being scared and panic-stricken in the pressure by asking another fear to come in? But that was the answer—“Sanctify the Lord, and let Him be your fear.”
To fear God means to reverence and obey Him, to make room for Him in every thought and action. It is far more than a mental contemplation of God; it is a deliberate surrender of my will to His will. “The fear of the Lord,” says the Word of God, “is to hate all evil.” That is negative. “Perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord”—that is positive, and then He uses a stronger word still and says, “Let Him be your dread.” “Your dread,” that is a violent word, is it not? What were these people dreading? They were dreading the advance of an Assyrian army, but when that army had passed then the panic would go by; the fear of the Lord and the dread of the Lord was something more permanent than that. God’s messenger says to His people, there is one thing you have to dread more than anything and that is not hostility to Assyria or the pressure you are facing, the one thing you have to fear is to dread hostility to God. That is the one thing you have to dread with all your soul; dread that far more than the advance of an army. Indeed, is there anything to dread about God? Surely there is, for resistance to the will of God, refusal to take the gentle, loving, gracious pool of healing brings upon me His judgment and His wrath. There is a verse of a hymn that we sometimes sing:
“O make but trial of His love,
experience will decide,
How blest they are, and only they,
who in His truth confide.
Fear Him, ye saints, and then you
will have nothing else to fear.
Make you His service your delight,
your wants shall be His care.”
Does it grip your heart in the midst of pressure as He knows, and you know, the only answer is to capitulate; not to ask, “Lord, why this and why that,” but to surrender.
“He shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence.” Notice these two alternatives. Peter speaks about them in his first letter in the second chapter, verse 7, “Unto you therefore which believe He is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner. A stone of stumbling, a rock of offence, even to them that stumble at His Word.” If you believe, that means you obey and He becomes precious—a sanctuary to you indeed. If you disobey God, then He becomes a rock of offence and the whole issue centers at Calvary. Get this clear in your mind and heart forevermore—the Cross of Jesus Christ is no salvation for anybody except on the basis of faith plus obedience. Not that we obey Him in order to be saved, but because we are saved, and His indwelling life impels us. There is no sanctuary in the blood of Christ except on the basis of faith and repentance. A place of shelter in the time of storm—yes, for the man who trusts and obeys; for the man who says, “I believe, but I disobey,” I a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.