From the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis to the Day of Wrath in the book of Revelation, there are numerous examples of people rightly responding to God’s presence or majesty with fear or terror. It is not hard to imagine that such things would happen. He is the Almighty God, holy and righteous. He is the Creator and we are dust. (Psalms 103:14) Apart from Him allowing it by tempering the sight of His glory or by special grace (one such example: Exodus 24:9-11), how could anyone be before Him and not quake, if not die?
Though God is frequently described with terms that are immensely comforting like merciful, forgiving, and loving; He is also the all-powerful Judge of all. (Hebrews 12:23) We are finite, created beings and wretched sinners who deserve the full measure of His wrath. By God’s grace, coming to grips with that truth can bring one to ruin.
The following verses are presented to bring together references about these things for the purpose of glorifying God and for helping us remember or learn that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). It is also to highlight the appropriateness of fearing Him. And of course that is not the whole story, so this article also touches on the hope that we have in Christ who is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10), a hope that manifests with a proper fear of God.
Terror and fear associated with God
After Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord. Guilt, shame, and fear were likely all a part of the reason. The presence that they had previously enjoyed was now fearful. What a horrific loss.
“They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.”” (Genesis 3:8-10) (See Genesis 3:1-24 for context)
On the day that God made a covenant with Abram, Abram fell into a deep sleep. Though God had earlier told Abram not to fear because He was a shield to him (Genesis 15:1), later in the encounter terror and darkness fell upon him. Perhaps the terror was partly from the presence of God and partly from the prophecy of the future fate of Abram’s decedents and the judgment of the nations.
“Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. “But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions.” (Genesis 15:12-14) (See Genesis 15:1- 21 for context)
A powerful picture of the terror associated with God occurred at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law when He came down on the mountain before the Israelites. There was thunder and lighting and fire and smoke. The mountain quaked violently. The people trembled! (Exodus 19:16-18, Exodus 20:18) After hearing the Ten Commandments and seeing the awesome and terrifying display, they were so afraid that they thought they were going to die! They asked Moses to speak to them instead of God. (Exodus 20:19) Moses’ reply was actually quite revealing of God’s mercy. Though the scene was terrifying, it served a purpose. It was not just to scare the wits out of them or show God’s glory.
“And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.”” (Exodus 20:20)
What grace! But there was much disgrace soon after. They did sin. They asked Arron to make them a god because Moses was gone too long on the mountain. (Exodus 32:1-6) It would be foolish to ask how they could do that after seeing such a terrifying sight on the mountain. Perhaps you would only ask that question if you are unfamiliar with the sin in your own heart. We are not able to serve God by keeping His commandments. He is holy and we are sinners. We all fall short. (Joshua 24:19, Romans 3:23) How clear a demonstration this was, that the Law was only a tutor to lead us to Christ, the only permanent solution to our sin.
“Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:24-25)
(See Galatians 3:1-26 for context)
The writer of Hebrews tells us that even Moses was terrified at the presence of God on Mount Sinai. But the writer also makes a distinction between the state the Israelites were in back then before God and the state believers in Christ are now. (Hebrews 12:18-24) Take a look at that passage when you have a chance. It is awesome to know what we have in Christ, apart from the Law. To God be the glory!
“And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I AM FULL OF FEAR and trembling.”
When God spoke to Moses about the lands the Israelites would inhabit, He spoke of sending His terror before them.
“I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.” (Exodus 23:27)
A word from the prophet Isaiah about the day of the Lord (KJV) or day of reckoning (NASB) foresees men hiding in caves and holes because of the terror of the Lord. In that day, the Lord alone will be exalted, the pride of man will be humbled, and idols will be done away with. (Isaiah 2:17-18) Terror and hiding are appropriate responses for prideful idol worshipers facing judgement from the only One who deserves to be lifted up and worshipped. Pride alone would be. Idol worshipping alone would be. Any sin alone would be. And we are all guilty of sin. (Romans 3:23)
“Enter the rock and hide in the dust From the terror of the LORD and from the splendor of His majesty.” (Isaiah 2:10)
“Men will go into caves of the rocks And into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD And the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble.” (Isaiah 2:19)
“In order to go into the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs Before the terror of the LORD and the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble.” (Isaiah 2:21)
(See Isaiah 2:1-22 for context)
The scene of men hiding from the presence of God is echoed in Revelation.
“Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they *said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17) (See Revelation 6:12-17 for context)
Who is able to stand? Excellent question. God’s wrath will come on this earth and no one will be able to stand save those who can lift their heads up when their redemption approaches.
“And then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN A CLOUD with power and great glory. “But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:27-28)
Job spoke of being terrified of God:
“Therefore, I would be dismayed at His presence; When I consider, I am terrified of Him. “It is God who has made my heart faint, And the Almighty who has dismayed me,” (Job 23:15-16)
Jesus told us to fear God and why:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
Peter, James, and John were all terrified at the time of the transfiguration.
“For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified.” (Mark 9:6)
(See Mark 9:2-10 for context)
The apostle John was so afraid when saw an awesome sight of Jesus that he fell at His feet like a dead man.
“When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,” (Revelation 1:17)
(See Revelation 1:12-18 for context)
“Do not be afraid.” Such mercy from God!
Wrath and the Fear of God
Believers and non-believers alike are right to fear God. He is glorious and His wrath is fierce. For those who know Him and His Son Jesus, by His grace, we are not destined for wrath. (Romans 5:9, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 5:9) However, fear is still appropriate and even commanded.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever.” (Psalms 111:10) (See also Proverbs 9:10)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.” (Psalms 103:11) (See also verses 13 and 17)
“How blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, Who walks in His ways.” (Psalms 128:1)
“In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, And his children will have refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, That one may avoid the snares of death.” (Proverbs 14:26-27)
“By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, And by the fear of the LORD one keeps away from evil.” (Proverbs 16:6)
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” (Acts 9:31)
“Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)
“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
“Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Peter 2:17)
As seen above in Revelation 1:17, coexisting with this fear of God is the equally true fact that God so often says in His word “do not be afraid” or “do not fear”. We fear Him and yet He is the one who calms us. But that is a topic for another day.
For those who do not know God or don’t obey His Son, His wrath is upon them. Truly a frightful thing!
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)
God’s wrath has been fierce and will be again. The Israelites incurred it many times. (Psalms 78:54-64, Jeremiah 32:31-32) God’s enemies knew it. (Nahum 1:2) The earth quakes at it. (Jeremiah 10:10) God’s wrath is coming again. (Romans 2:5-6) Remember the verse above about men hiding in the rocks? It mentions the wrath of the God.
“Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they *said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”” (Revelation 6:15-17)
Here’s another picture of future wrath. I have long considered the following to be some of the most terrifying verses in the Bible.
“For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed–for our testimony to you was believed.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10)
Retribution. Mighty angels. Flaming fire. Eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord. God’s wrath is terrifying, and He is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:29)
The only Hope
A consuming fire! Where is hope for wretched sinners who do not know God, who do not obey the Son, and who deserve the full measure of God’s wrath? Only this: God’s grace and believing in His only begotten Son for the forgiveness of sins. (John 3:16) For God is merciful, forgiving, and loving; and He has provided for us in Jesus Christ.
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” (Romans 5:8-9)
“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
“Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 10:43)
“Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” (Psalms 2:12)
“And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.”” (Revelation 14:6-7)
I pray that you fear God today to repentance, to obedience, to worship.