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It seems that (throughout the Bible), we have been told to "not fear" but also to "fear God".

How can we understand this word "fear" in these two contexts? If this word in these two contexts carries the same meaning, isn't this a direct contradiction?


Some bible verses for word study

"Do not fear":

Genesis 26:24 (NKJV)
And the LORD appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you and multiply your descendants for My servant Abraham’s sake.”

versus "Fear the Lord your God":

Deuteronomy 6:13 (NKJV)
You shall fear the LORD your God and serve Him, and shall take oaths in His name.

We can also see this in the New Testament:

Luke 12:5 (NKJV)
But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!

Luke 12:32 (NKJV)
Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

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"T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear. / And Grace, my fears relieved..." –  Amichai Oct 6 '11 at 15:03
    
Great question! I've wondered how those two command ("fear God" and "do not fear") interact... –  Ray Oct 6 '11 at 18:11
    
related: What is the "fear" of God? on †.SE –  dancek Oct 6 '11 at 22:37
    
I always saw it kind of like fearing your earthly father... if he's a good dad, he wants you to be happy and to protect you, but you better not tick him off (i.e. go against his rules)-- or else you're going to be in big trouble! –  transistor1 Nov 14 '11 at 17:53
    
In Genesis 26:24, are we sure that the direct object of the verb "fear" is "God"? Or, do you believe that it means "Never fear anyone"? –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Dec 5 '12 at 22:07

3 Answers 3

The Hebrew word יָרֵא (yare', H3372) carries a number of nuances. In addition to "fear", "afraid" or "terror", it also can mean "reverence", "awe", "honor" or "respect". The Greek word φοβέω (G5399) carries very similar meanings.

Effectively, all of these verses are saying exactly the same thing: There is only One that you should fear/reverence/honor - God. You need not fear anything else, because He is greater than it is, whatever it might be.

It's the object of the fear that is important.

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Would it be better, then, to translate this one Hebrew word (or the Greek variant) separately to avoid this confusion? Or should we try to change our English understanding of "fear" to accommodate this the definition of "revere"? –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 15:05
    
Actually... Merriam-Webster seems to show this second definition as well. Huh. Thanks. +1 –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 15:06
    
How do you explain Eph 5:33--"the wife must respect her husband"; the word "respect" here is φοβέω, literally "fear" –  Ray Oct 6 '11 at 17:46
    
Both were copied from net.bible.org. I do see another instance of 3372 on that page without the ת. –  GalacticCowboy Oct 6 '11 at 19:53
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I decided to build a canonical answer to this question, since it seemed that all three answers had something to offer.

Greek and Hebrew

The Hebrew word yare (Strongs H3372) carries a number of meanings. There is both the definition being "terrified" or "afraid" along with the definition of having "reverence", "awe", or "respect".

In Greek, the word phobeō (Strongs G5399) carries similar meanings of both "being afraid" and "having reverence or awe".

In Context

So, per the definitions of the words in their original languages, we can see that we have to take the word in context to determine whether this is the sense of "fear" or "reverence" that should be understood.

When, for example, Deuteronomy 6:13 says that we should fear the Lord your God, this clearly is referring to having "awe, reverence, and respect". By comparison, when in Genesis 26:24 God says do not fear, for I am with you, he's clearly saying that we shouldn't be terrified.

However, often these meanings can intertwine a bit:

Psalms 2:11 (ESV)
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

In this passage, there's both the awe and respect along with a sense of being afraid.

In English

To further support this idea, Merriam Webster shows fear as containing both of the definitions mentioned above:

fear
1 archaic : frighten
2 archaic : to feel fear in (oneself)
3 : to have a reverential awe of (fear God)
4 : to be afraid of : expect with alarm (fear the worst)

So, "fear" carries both the definition of being afraid (#4) and showing awe and respect (#3)

In fact, as a verb, "fear" is more about awe and respect; as a noun it's more commonly used as an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger

"Fear" is not "dread"

It should also be noted that there is a difference between fear (as in "fear and trembling") and dread.

Judaism, continued Rabbi Soloveichik, requires yirat shamayim, but not fear. The Bible never commands us to have pahad for God, but only yirah; and the Talmud inculcates the virtue of yirat shamayim, not pahad shamayim. While Judaism does not advocate pahad, "the whole Torah in its entirety is founded on the foundation of yirah."
Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God Edited by Marc Stern; p. xxi (Introduction)

In this quote, yirah is translated fear while pahad is more accurately translated as "dread". The phrase yirah shamayim is "fear of heaven" (compared to pahad shamayim, the "dread of heaven").

This simply shows that while there may be a component of being afraid in the word "fear", there's not that complete sense of dread. (Otherwise pahad would have been used.)

Non-Secular usage

"Awe and reverence" generally isn't used for "fear" outside of religious circles. In the popular media (in particular), "fear" is generally used as a lesser version of "dread" and does not take on the connotation of "reverence". It's this common, popular use of "fear" as "lesser dread" that causes the confusion about this word.

Summary

"Fear" carries two meanings: a lesser form of dread, and an awe and respect. It is often used both ways in the bible. Sometimes it carries both meanings. Since it's often impossible to separate the difference in context, it's always translated as "fear", since the English version of the word also carries both definitions (regardless of the fact that "awe and respect" is much less common than "dread").

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"The Bible never commands us to have pahad for God" but see Psalm 119:120 for even pachad being applied to one of God's people –  Jack Douglas Oct 10 '11 at 7:37
    
Wow, what an answer. I hope these kinds of answers aren't expected in the community cuz Im gonna be fallin pretty short..lol. (+1) –  Shredder Dec 14 '11 at 6:06

I've often heard that 'fear' as in 'fear the LORD' should not be understood to be 'fear' as in 'afraid', but rather 'awe' and 'reverence'.

But myself, I want to be cautious about watering down the 'fear' as in 'afraid' side, because:

  • I feel a sort of cultural pressure to do so which I think I then read back into the bible
  • There are usages that clearly imply the 'afraid' reading or a mixture of the two, eg in Psalm 2:

    11 Serve the LORD with fear,
       and rejoice with trembling.
    12 Kiss the Son,
       lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
       for his wrath is quickly kindled.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.   ESV

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I agree and would be cautious too. I think God wants us to have reverential and terrified fear for Him in knowing what life, and after life, would be like without Him. Imagining a life without God terrifies me! –  Shredder Dec 14 '11 at 6:11
    
That is, a life "without", or "in opposition to" God (might be better wording). –  Shredder Dec 14 '11 at 6:28

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