This exhortation is not only found here in the text, but is in several other places of the Scripture pressed, and that with much vehemency, upon the children of men, as in Eccles. xii. 13; 1 Pet. ii. 17. I shall not trouble you with a long preamble, or forespeech to the matter, nor shall I here meddle with the context, but shall immediately fall upon the words themselves, and briefly treat of the fear of God.
The text, you see, presents us with matter of the greatest moment, to wit, with God, and with the feai of him.
First, it presents us with God, the true and living God, Maker of the worlds, and Upholder of all things by the word of his power; that incomprehensible Majesty, in comparison of whom all nations are less than the drop of a bucket, and than the small dust of the balance. This is he that fills heaven and earth, and is every where present with the children of men, beholding the evil and the good; for he hath set his eyes upon all their ways.
So that considering that, by the text, we have presented to our souls the Lord God and Maker of us all, who also will be either our Saviour or Judge, we are in reason and duty bound to give the more earnest heed to the things that shall be spoken, and be the more careful to receive them, and put them in practice; for, as I said, as they present us with the mighty God, so they exhort us to the highest duty towards him: to wit, to fear him. I call it the highest duty, because it is, as I may call it, not only a duty in itself, but, as it were, the salt that seasons every duty. For there is no duty performed by us, that can by any means be accepted of God, if it be not seasoned with godly fear. Wherefore the apostle says, " Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear," Heb. xii. 23. Of this fear I would discourse at this time; but because this word fear is variously taken in the Scripture, and because it may be profitable to us to see it in its variety, I shall choose this method for the managing of my discourse, even to show you the nature of the word in its several, especially of the chief, acceptations.
I. Then by this word fear, we are to understand God himself, who is the object of our fear.
II. By this word fear, we are to understand the word of God, the rule and director of our fear.
I. Now, to speak of this word fear, as it is thus taken, it respects God himself, who is the object of our fear.
By this word fear, as I said, we are to understand God himself, who is the object of our fear; for the Divine Majesty goeth often under this very name himself. This name Jacob called him by, when he and Laban chode together on Mount Gilead, after Jacob had made his escape to his father's house: "Except," said he, "the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely thou hadst sent me away now empty." So again, a little after, when Jacob and Laban agreed to make a covenant of peace with each other; though Laban, after the jumbling way of the heathen by his oath, puts the true God and the false together, yet "Jacob sware by the Fear of his father Isaac," Gen. xxxi. 42, 53. By the Fear, that is, by the God of his father Isaac.
And, indeed, God may well be called the Fear of his people, not only because they have by his grace made him the object of their fear, but because of the dread and terrible majesty that is in him. He is " a great and terrible God," and " with God is terrible majesty," Neh. i. 5; iv. 14; ix. 32; Job xxxvii. 22.
Who knows the power of his anger? "The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein. Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him," Nah. i. 5, 6.
His people know him, and have his dread upon them, by virtue whereof there is begot and maintained in them that godly awe and reverence of his majesty, which is agreeable to their profession of him. "Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread," Isa. viii. 13. Set his majesty before the eyes of your souls, and let his excellency make you afraid with godly fear.
There are these things that make God to be the fear of his people.
1. His presence is dreadful, and that not only his presence in common, but his special, yea, his most comfortable and joyous presence. When God comes to bring a soul news of mercy and salvation, even that visit, that presence of God is fearful. When Jacob went from Beer-sheba towards Haran, he met with God in the way, by a dream, in the which he saw a ladder set up on the earth, whose top reached to heaven; now, in this dream, from the top of this ladder, he saw the Lord, and heard him speak unto him, not threateningly, not as having his fury come up into his face; but in the most sweet and gracious manner, saluting him with promise of goodness after promise of goodness, to the number of eight or nine; as will appear if you read the place, Gen. xxviii. 10—17. Yet, I say, when he awoke, all the grace that discovered itself in this heavenly vision to him, could not keep him from dread and fear of God's majesty. "And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
At another time, to wit, when Jacob had that memorable visit from God, in which he gave him power as a prince to prevail with him; yea, and gave him a name, that by his remembering it he might call God's favour the better to his mind; yet even then and there, such dread of the majesty of God was upon him, that he went away wondering that his life was preserved, Gen. xxxii. 30. Man crumbles to dust at the presence of God; yea, though he shows himself to us in his robes of salvation.
We have read how dreadful and terrible even the presence of angels has been unto men, and that when they have brought them good tidings from heaven, Judges xiii. 22; Matt, xxviii. 5; Mark xvi. 5, 6.
Now, if angels, which are but creatures, are, through the glory that God has put upon them, so fearful and terrible in their appearance to men, how much more dreadful and terrible must God himself be to us, who are but dust and ashes! When Daniel had the vision of his salvation sent him from heaven, O Daniel, said the messenger, " a man greatly beloved;" yet behold the dread and terror of the person speaking fell with that weight upon this good man's soul, that he could not stand, nor bear up under it. He stood trembling, and cried out, "O my lord, by the vision my sorrows are turned upon me, and I have retained no strength. For how can the servant of this my lord talk with this my lord? for as for me, straightway there remained no strength in me," Dan. x. 16, 17.
See you here, if the presence of God is not a dreadful and a fearful thing, yea, his most gracious and merciful appearances; how much more then when he showeth himself to us as one that disliketh our ways, as one,that is offended with us for our sins!
And there are three things that in an eminent manner make his presence dreadful to us.
(1.) The first is God's own greatness and majesty: the discovery of this, or of himself thus, even as no poor mortals are able to conceive of him, is altogether unsupportable. The man dies to whom he thus discovers himself. "And when I saw him," says John, " I fell at his feet as dead," Rev. i. 17. It was this, therefore, that Job would have avoided in the day that he would have approached unto him. "Let not thy dread," says he, "make me afraid. Then call thou, and I will answer: or let me speak, and answer thou me," Job xiii. 21, 22. But why doth Job, after this manner, thus speak to God? why, it was from a sense that he had of the dreadful majesty of God, even the great and dreadful God that keepeth covenant with his people.
The presence of a king is dreadful to the subject, yea, though he carries it ever so condescendingly; if then there be so much glory and dread in the presence of a king, what fear and dread must there be, think you, in the presence of the eternal God!
(2.) When God giveth his presence to his people, that presence causeth them to appear to themselves more what they are, than at other times, by all other light they can see. "O my lord," said Daniel, "by the vision my sorrows are turned upon me;" and why was that, but because by the glory of that vision, he saw his own vileness more than at other times? So again; "I was left alone, and saw this great vision;" and what follows? "and there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength," Dan. x. 8. By the presence of God, when we have it, indeed, even our best things, our comeliness, our sanctity and righteousness, all do immediately turn to corruption and polluted rags. The brightness of his glory dims them, as the clear light of the shining sun puts out the glory cf the fire or candle, and covers them with the shadow of death.
See also the truth of this in the vision of the prophet Isaiah. "Woe is me!" said he, " for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." Why, what is the matter? how came the prophet by this sight? he adds, "For mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts," Isa. vi. 5. But do you think that this outcry was caused by unbelief? no, nor yet begotten by slavish fear, this was to him the vision of his Saviour with whom also he had communion before. It was the glory of that God with whom he had now to do, that turned, as was noted before of Daniel, his comeliness in him into corruption, and that gave him yet greater sense of the disproportion that was betwixt his God and him, and so a greater sight of his defiled and polluted nature.
(3.) Add to this the revelation of God's goodness, and it must needs make his presence dreadful to us; for when a poor, defiled creature shall see, that this great God hath, notwithstanding his greatness, goodness in his heart, and mercy to bestow upon him; this makes his presence yet the more dreadful. They "shall fear the Lord and his goodness," Hos. iii. 5. The goodness as well as the greatness of God doth beget in the heart of his elect an awful reverence of his majesty. "Fear ye not me? saith the Lord : will ye not tremble at my presence?" and then to engage us in our soul to the duty, he adds one of his wonderful mercies to the world for a motive. Fear ye not me? why, who art thou? He answers, "which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it," Jer. v. 22.
Also, when Job had God present with him, making manifest the goodness of his heart to him, what doth he say? how doth he behave himself in his presence ?" I have heard of thee," says he, "by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes," Job xlii. 5, 6.
And what mean the tremblings, the tears, the breakings and shakings of heart that attend the people of God, when in an eminent manner they receive the pronunciation of the forgiveness of sins at his mouth, but that the dread of the majesty of God is in their sight mixed therewith? God must appear like himself, speak to the soul like himself, nor can the sinner when under these glorious discoveries of its Lord and Saviour, keep out the beams of his majesty from the eyes of its understanding. "I will cleanse them," saith he, "from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me." And what then ?" And they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and for all the prosperity that I procure unto it," Jer. xxxiii. 8, 9.
Alas! there is a company of poor, light, frothy professors in the world, that carry it under that which they call the presence of God, more like to antics than sober, sensible Christians; yea, more like to fools than those that feel the presence of God. They would not carry it so in the presence of a king, nor yet of the lord of their land, were they but receivers of mercy at his hand: they carry it even in their most eminent seasons, as if the sense and sight of God, and his blessed grace to their souls in Christ, had a tendency in them to make men wanton: but, indeed, it is the most humbling and heart breaking sight in the world; it is fearful.
Objection. But would you not have us rejoice at sight and sense of the forgiveness of our sins?
Answer. Yes; but yet I would have you, and indeed you shall, when God shall tell you that your sins are pardoned indeed, "rejoice with trembling," Psa. ii. 11. For then you have solid and godly joy; a joyful heart, and wet eyes, in this will stand very well together, and it will be so more or less. For if God shall come to you, indeed, and visit you with the forgiveness of sins, that visit removeth the guilt, but increaseth the sense of thy filth; and the sense of this, that God hath forgiven a filthy sinner, will make thee both rejoice and tremble. Oh the blessed confusion that will then cover thy face whilst thou, even thou, so vile a wretch shalt stand before God to receive at his hand thy pardon, and so the first fruits of thy eternal salvation!" That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God," Ezek. xvi. 63.
2. But as the presence, so the name of God is dreadful and fearful; wherefore his name doth rightly go under the same title, "That thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, The Lord Thy God," Deut. xxviii. 58.
The name of God, what is that, but that by which he is distinguished and known from all others? Names are to distinguish; so man is distinguished from beasts, and angels from men; so heavai from earth, and darkness from light; especially when by the name, the nature of the thing is signified and expressed; and so it was originally, for then names expressed the nature of the thing so named. And therefore it is that the name of God is the object of our fear, because by his name his nature is expressed. "Holy and reverend is his name," Psa. cxi. 9. And again proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty," Exod. xxxiv. 6, 7.
Also his names, " I am," Jah, Jehovah, with several others, what is by them intended, but that his nature, as his power, wisdom, eternity, goodness, and omnipotence, might be expressed and declared? The name of God is, therefore, the object of a Christian's fear. David prayed to God, " Unite my heart to fear thy name," Psa. lxxxvi. 11. Indeed, the name of God is a fearful name, and should always be reverenced by his people: yea, his name is to be feared for ever and ever, and that not only in his church and among his saints, but even in the world and among the heathen. "So the heathen shall fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth thy glory," Psa. cii. 15.
God tells us that his name is. dreadful, and that he is pleased to see men afraid before his name, Mal. ii. 5. Yea, one reason why he executes so many judgments upon men as he doth, is that others might see, and fear his name. "So shall they fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun," Isa. lix. 19. "I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name," Mal. ii. 5.
The name of a king is a name of fear; and " I am a great Kintt, saith the Lord »f -huataj' Mal. i. 14. The name of master is a name of fear; "And if I be a Master, where is my fear, saith the Lord of hosts?" Mal. i. 6. Yea, rightly to fear the Lord, is a sign of a gracious heart. And again, " Unto you that fear my name," saith he, "shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings;" yea, when Christ comes to judge the world. He will give reward to his servants the prophets, and to his saints, and to them that fear his name, small and great, Rev. xi. 18.
Now, I say, since the name of God is that by which his nature is expressed, and since he naturally is so glorious and incomprehensible, his name must needs be the object of our fear, and we ought always to have a reverential awe of God upon our hearts at what time soever we think of, or hear his name; but most of all, when we ourselves do take his holy and fearful name into our mouths, especially in a religious manner, that is, in preaching, praying, or holy conference. I do not by thus saying intend, as if it were lawful to make mention of his name in light and vain discourses; for we ought always to speak of it with reverence and godly fear; but I speak it to put Christians in mind that they should not in religious duties show lightness of mind, or be vain in their words, when yet they are making mention of the name of the Lord; and " let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity," 2 Tim. ii. 19.
Make mention, then, of the name of the Lord at all times with great dread of his majesty upon your hearts, and in great soberness and truth. To do otherwise is to profane the name of the Lord, and to take his name in vain; and " the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain," Exod. xx. 1. Yea, God saith, that he will cut off the man that doth it; so jealous is he of the honour due unto his name, Lev. xx. 3.
This, therefore, showeth you the dreadful state of those that lightly, vainly, lyingly, and profanely, make use of the name, this fearful name of God; either by their blasphemous cursing and oaths, or by their fraudulent dealing with their neighbour; but how these men will escape, when they shall be judged, devouring fire and everlasting burnings, for their profaning and blaspheming of the name of the Lord, it becomes them betimes to consider.
3. But as the presence and name of God are dreadful and fearful in the church, so are his worship and service. I say, his worship, or the works of service to which we are by him enjoined while we are in this world, are dreadful and fearful things. This David saith, "But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will 1 worship toward thy holy temple," Psa. v. 1. And again, saith he, " Serve the Lord with fear," Psa. ii. 11.
To praise God is a part of his worship. But, said Moses, "Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders," Exod. xv. 11. To rejoice before him is a part of his worship; but David bids us "rejoice with trembling," Psa. ii. 11.
Yea, the whole of our service to God, and every part thereof, ought to be done by us with reverence and godly fear, Heb. xii. 28. And, therefore, let us, as Paul saith again," Cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God," 2 Cor. vii. 1.
That which makes the worship of God so fearful a thing is,
(1.) For that it is the worship of God: all manner of service carries more or less dread and fear along with it, according as the quality or condition of the person is, to whom the worship and service are done. This is seen in the service of subjects to their princes, the service of servants to their lords, and the service of children to their parents. Divine worship then being due to God, and this God so great and dreadful in himself and name, his worship must, therefore, be a fearful thing.
(2.) Besides, this glorious Majesty is himself present to behold his worshippers in their worshiping him. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," Matt., xviii. 20; that is, gathered together to worship him, I am there, saith he. And so, again, he is said to walk in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, Rev. ii. 1 ; that is, in the churches; and that with a countenance like the sun, with a head and hair as white as wool, and with eyes like a flame of fire, Rev. i. 14—16. This puts dread and fear into his service; and, therefore, his servants should serve him with fear.
(3.) Above all things, God is jealous of his worship and service. In all the ten commandments, he tells us not any thing of his being a jealous God, but in the second, which respects his worship. Look to yourselves, therefore, both as to the matter and manner of your worship; "For I the Lord thy God," saith he, "am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children," Exod. xx. 5. This, therefore, doth also put dread and fear into the worship and service of God. c
(4.) The judgments that sometimes God hath executed upon men for their want of godly fear, while they have been in his worship and service, put fear and dread upon his holy appointments.
Nadab and Abihu were burned to death with fire from heaven; because they attempted to offer false fire upon God's altar, Lev. x. 1—3. And the reason rendered why they were so punished was, because God will be sanctified in those that come nigh him. To sanctify his name is to let him be thy dread and thy fear, and to do nothing in his worship but what is well pleasing to him. But because these men had not grace to do this, therefore they died before the Lord.
Eli's sons, for want of this fear, when they ministered in the holy worship of God, were both slain in one day by the sword of the uncircumcised Philistines, I Sam. iv. 11.
Uzza was smitten, and died before the Lord, for an unadvised touching the ark, when the men forsook it, 1 Chron. xiii. 9, 10.
Ananias, and Sapphira his wife, for telling a lie in the church when they were before God, were both stricken dead upon the place before them all, because they wanted the fear and dread of God's majesty, name, and service, when they came before him, Acts v. 1—10.
This, therefore, should teach us to conclude, that next to God's nature and name, his service, his instituted worship, is the most dreadful thing under heaven. His name is upon his ordinances, his eye is upon the worshippers, and his wrath and judgment upon those that worship not in his fear. For this cause some of those at Corinth were byGod himself cut off, 1 Cor. xi. 30—32; and on others he has turned his back, and will again be with them no more.
This also rebuketh three sorts of people.
Such as regard not to worship God at all; be sure they have no reverence of his service, nor fear of his majesty before their eyes. Sinner, thou dost not come before the Lord to worship him; thou dost not bow before the high God; thou neither worshippest him in thy closet, nor in the congregation of saints. The fury of the Lord and his indignation must, in a short time, be poured out upon thee, and upon the families that call not upon his name, Psa. lxxix. 6; Jer. x. 25.
This rebukes such as count it enough to present their body in the place where God is worshipped, not minding with what heart, or with what spirit, they come thither. Some come into the worship of God to sleep there; some come thither to meet with their customers, and to get into the wicked fellowship of their vain companions; some come thither to feed their lustful and adulterous eyes with the flattering "beauty of their fellow sinners. Oh, what a sad account will these worshippers give, when they shall account for all this, and be damned for it, because they came not to worship the Lord with that fear of his name that became them to come in, when they presented themselves before him!
This also rebukes those that care not so they worship, how, where, or after what manner they worship God. Those I mean, whose fear towards God is taught by the precepts of men. They are hypocrites; their worship also is vain, and a stench in the nostrils of God. Wherefore the Lord said, "Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but o a
have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid," Isa. xxix. 13, 14.
Thus I conclude this first thing, namely, that God is called our dread and fear.