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Holy Dread

Deuteronomy 2:25
“‘This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.’”

“Perfect love casts out fear,” writes the apostle John in 1 John 4:18, and that creates a conundrum for us as expositors, especially when reading the constant positive usage of “fearing God” in the Old Testament. In other words, biblically, “fear” can represent either a trust in God or an aversion to Him, as the same word describes both the believer’s obedience—i.e. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”—and the unbeliever’s disobedience. The distinction, then, isn’t the fact that there’s good fear and bad fear, for fear is neither good nor bad in itself, but rather the distinction comes from where our perception of fear leads us next. It’s what we do with fear that makes all the difference. Holy fear can thrust us to our knees in humble contrition, it can send us to the nearest fig tree to sew clothes for our nakedness, or it can incite us to reach for the nearest sword in revolt.

Consider, friend, that for eyes which haven’t been accustomed to pure light, knowledge of the holy is first an advance into deep darkness before becoming an enlightenment. All songs of praise start out as a gasp of confession before culminating in a word of thanksgiving. Every revival in history begins in sackcloth and ashes before transforming into dancing and shouts of joy. Every reformation in our own life of faith has the same characteristic, too. If we’ve never cowered with shame under the piercing gaze of the Spirit’s omniscient eyes, if we’ve never thrown ourselves to the dirt like Moses or covered ourselves in sackcloth like Josiah or stood in paralyzed silence like Job before the whirlwind, if we’ve never been stunned into terrified awe by the gravity of God’s sufficiency and our deficiency, then we haven’t yet begun to love God.

That’s why Deuteronomy 2:25 is good news, not bad news, for the people of earth, because their newfound awareness of His holiness—that sting of holy dread that overwhelms them and sends their sinful souls reeling—could lead to their salvation if they only repent.