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“The Blessing of Fear”

Psalm 128
Bob DeGray
July 28, 2002

Key Sentence

The fear of the Lord is good for you.


I. The Blessing of Fear (Psalm 128:1)
II. The Personal Blessing of Fear (Psalm 128:2-4)
III. The Community Blessing of Fear (Psalm 128:5-6)


        Sometimes fear can be a positive thing for all concerned. On our vacation we camped in a Colorado State Park that had lots of warnings against black bears. Though the smallest bear species in the US, black bears can still weigh 300 pounds. But they’re also more cautious than brown bears or grizzlies. One park ranger called them ‘scaredy bears.’ They normally prefer to avoid people. But the first night we were there a bear got into one of the dumpsters, and the next night a ranger had to stay nearby to scare the bear off. They use loud noises, even fireworks to convince the bear that this is not a place he wants to be, because if the bear gets conditioned to finding easy food around humans, he’ll have to be destroyed. A black bear can seriously injure or kill a human if he’s not scared enough to stay away.

        You see, sometimes fear can be a blessing. All across the country you can find warnings telling you not to leave food out and not to feed animals because if they lose their natural fear they become dangerous. That’s bad for the human population but its also bad for the animals because then the animals have to be destroyed. Even some elk in Estes Park, Colorado have had to be destroyed because they injured tourists.

        In Florida this happens frequently with alligators. One ranger’s report I found said “On the 4th of July there was a knock on the door. There stood three teenagers who had been swimming near a local boat landing. One, visibly shaken, told me a big gator 'attacked' him. After a few questions I found out the gator didn't quite attack, but popped up within 2 feet of his nose. I went down to the landing and got in the water myself just to verify. That was like ringing a dinner bell, the alligator came straight at me. I'll tell you why I think this animal was doing this. Someone was feeding it for a long time, and it lost its natural fear of humans. The 4th was a long holiday, whoever was feeding it was on vacation or too busy and the gator was hungry. The sad ending to the story was that I had to call the agent to kill all 10' 9" of him.

        In Montana and Wyoming, the problem is grizzlies. A few years ago when we went to Yellowstone a grizzly that had become habituated came into the camp and ripped apart a cooler in the back of a truck. The next day that grizzly was captured, and had to be killed because it had become a danger. Some studies suggest that when a bear loses its natural fear of people, its life expectancy is cut by one_half.

        So sometimes fear is a good thing. That’s not only true for animals, its also true for us in our spiritual lives. The fear of the Lord is dramatically different than the fear animals have. It doesn’t and shouldn’t have the same effects. But it shares this one characteristic - it’s a good fear to have. Psalm 128 gives us a chance to remind ourselves this morning what the fear of the Lord is and the good it does us.

I. The Blessing of Fear (Psalm 128:1)

        Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 128 and follow along as I read. Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways. 2You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. 3Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. 4Thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord.5May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem, 6and may you live to see your children's children. Peace be upon Israel.

        The Psalm begins with one of the key words we studied last week, ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’. The whole Psalm illustrates the blessings that come from the fear of the Lord, both personal and corporate blessings. But before we look at those we need to spend a minute remembering what the fear of the Lord is and how it applies to our lives.

        The first thing we should notice in looking for a definition of ‘the fear of the Lord’ is that in verse 1 of this Psalm ‘the fear of the Lord’ is explained by the phrase ‘who walk in his ways’. There is a close link between the fear of the Lord and obedience, or more broadly a commitment to understand and do the will of God. Every day in our own pilgrim journey each of us makes choices between God’s way and our own way. The person who understands the fear of the Lord is far more likely to choose God’s way rather than the way of sin, the way of the world, the way of the enemy. More than anything else we’ll mention today, the best test of whether you have an appropriate fear of the Lord is to see whether you are walking in obedience, whether you are really seeking God’s will.

        But what is the fear of the Lord? We could spend weeks examining all the references to this phrase is Scripture - there are more than a hundred - and even longer looking at the underlying Hebrew word for fear - it’s used about three hundred times. But since we don’t have time for that this morning, let me summarize some of the things we learned years ago when we studied this phrase as part of our Proverbs study.

        The Bible teaches that the fear of the Lord is first awe of who He is and what he has done. The Scripture this morning linked fear to praise, linked it to wonder at his creation, to wonder at his forgiveness, to wonder at his power and majesty. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. 7He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. [therefore] 8Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him.”

        I’ve said before that the fear of the Lord is like standing at the bottom of the Hoover dam, looking up and recognizing the sheer power contained by that concrete wall. It means being in awe of the power and wisdom of a God who could make stars and planets and universes as well as the wonder of DNA molecules and the eyes of the hawk and the emotions of the human heart.

        But if we limit fear to simply awe and wonder, we are not being true to the Biblical use of the word. Fear is also true fear - dread and terror of an awesome and holy God who judges sin with righteousness. I read an article on the internet claiming that we have watered down fear by eliminating this aspect of true fear or terror. The author says “Consider the Wizard of Oz as a parable. The needy pilgrims are encouraged to follow a "yellow brick road", a narrow path with distractions aplenty, which leads to the Emerald City, under a rainbow, on a hill, complete with a gate keeper. All this to see the great and fearful Oz, who turns out to be a complete fake. Small wonder we try to "explain away" the fear of God when we have such lies rattling around in our heads! Something within us says, "It's all an illusion. Surely, behind a curtain somewhere there is a cute little man pulling levers to make the smoke and flames. If we really knew, we'd see that God is just a gentle con_man, who means well, but is really harmless." Do we know the revealed God of Scripture, or do we believe in a God who is like the wizard of Oz? That’s the question.

        The author of Hebrews, near the end of the New Testament, tells us that we have come to God in a way more awesome but less fearful than the people of Israel knew. We’ve come to God through Jesus. But then the author warns us that we must serve this God with fear and awe, for he is a consuming fire. There is a place for true fear in our application of the fear of the Lord. If we’re living with rebellious sin in our lives, it is right that we be afraid of God. We should expect to feel we’ve done something wrong and we’re going to get caught - like the feeling you have when you look in the rear view mirror and see those flashing lights. But even more: its combined with a realization that you’ve hurt the offended person by your behavior.

        Which leads to the last and possibly most important aspect of the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is respectful obedience. Those who fear the Lord walk in his ways. They respect his commands and his desires. The fear of the Lord means giving him his proper place, valuing above all things his opinions and judgments, taking his laws seriously. God is properly the one in authority over your life. You’re not the captain of your fate, the master of your soul. You have another who is the master. You are the creature. He is the creator. The fear of the Lord means giving him first place in every area of your life and giving him the respect he deserves.

        One incident from my childhood captures for me this aspect of fear. I was an Eagle scout, at 14, senior patrol leader of our troop, but I was no more mature than any 14 year-old. Further, our scoutmaster was a hot-headed Irishman. One day I said something pretty rude, and when I got home Mr. Hanrahan called to take me to task. At that time my father was upstairs in a bedroom recovering from a near fatal heart attack, still weak. I answered the downstairs phone but the conversation didn’t go well, and Mr. Hanrahan got to yelling, and I hung up on him. As soon as I did I was seized with fear - not of Mr. Hanrahan, but of the certainty that he’d call back and my father would answer and catch Mr. Hanrahan’s outrage that was justly for me.

        I ran upstairs as fast as I could, grabbed the phone as it rang, and immediately confessed and admitted my fault. Then I told my dad about it. Why the change? Not out of fear of Mr. Hanrahan, but out of love and respect for my father, an unwillingness to have him hurt by my behavior. That’s how we need to feel about God.

II. The Personal Blessing of Fear (Psalm 128:2-4)

        So the fear of the Lord consists of this respectful obedience, it includes the possibility of true fear, and it always includes awe of God and wonder at who he is and what he has done. This kind of fear is our calling, and this kind of fear leads to blessing, both personal and corporate. Listen to the blessings in verses 2 through 4: You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. 3Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. 4Thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord.

        Consider your average 24 hour day for a moment. Now remove from it anything that has to do with your work. Just take that chunk out, whether you work outside the home, from your home, or in your home caring for your family. Next, and there might be some overlap, remove every part of the day that has to do with home and family. Take it all out - the time you spend eating together, playing together, watching movies, any time with your spouse and your children. Finally, remove the part of your day that you spend sleeping. Now look at what’s left. Not much. If God’s entire impact on your life was limited to what’s left, he wouldn’t have much impact. But the good news is that God is involved for your good in each of the areas we have removed. God is involved in your sleep. We learned that last week: “He gives his beloved rest.” This week we see that God is also involved for your good in your work and family. He uses those things to bless you, even when they’re difficult.

        Verse 2: You will eat the fruit of your labor. Don’t forget that the Psalms, like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are wisdom literature. Part of their goal is to impart wisdom for right living. The fear of the Lord itself, Scripture says, is the beginning of wisdom. So someone who fears the Lord and lives in respectful obedience will see fruit from their labor. In other words a wise person will work to provide for his or her family, and this will generally be rewarded. The one who works is walking in God’s ways, and the natural and supernatural consequence of that is God’s provision.

        Do you remember how Paul rebuked those Thessalonians who had begun to think that because the Lord’s return was ‘soon’ they had no need to work? What did Paul say? “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” We need to recognize God’s provision of daily bread, his meeting of our physical needs, is a blessing that comes when we fear him and obey, by diligence in the work he has given us. Writing on this Psalm, Derek Thomas goes so far as to say that “The believer walking in God’s ways will find that work is itself a blessing. You will find enjoyment in what God has given you to do, when you do it as unto the Lord and for his glory. In one sense at least, nothing is secular. The whole of life is lived coram Deo - before the face of God.”

        This verse is not a promise of wealth, but of blessing. Despite the word ‘prosperity’ which appears here, the ‘prosperity Gospel’ you hear so often on TV and radio is a gross misunderstanding of Scripture and of God. God didn’t always give prosperity to the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. He didn’t give prosperity to Paul. He didn’t give prosperity to Jesus. But he blessed these people in their work, made it fruitful, and provided for them. In the same way, he’ll bless us for our diligence in the work he has given us, not necessarily financially, but in effectiveness and satisfaction and adequate provision. This is his promise to those who walk in his ways and fear him.

        Peterson, in A Long Obedience adds a great comment: “The way is plain - walk in it. Keeping rules and obeying commands is just plain common sense. People who are forever breaking the rules, trying other roads, attempting to create their own system of values and truth from scratch spend most of their time calling up someone to get them out of trouble and help repair the damage, then ask the silly question “What went wrong?” As H. H. Farmer said, “If you go against the grain of the universe you get splinters.” The fear of the Lord is what instructs you in right living.

        In our work, the fear of the Lord leads to blessing. This is also true in our families. Verse 3: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table.” Remember that God has designed family, marriage and children to be a joy and a blessing. One of the simplest things I ever noticed in Scripture was that this was true even before the fall, before sin entered human relationships. God created Adam and Eve and instituted marriage and child bearing in an unfallen world. He called these things good - and as designed they still are good. Marriage is good. Family is good. It is only sin, that entered the world with Adam’s disobedience that makes these things more difficult than they ought to be. Even so, they’re often a blessing. Some of you here have experienced tremendous blessing as a result of marriage and family. I’ve experienced that blessing.

        Others have experienced difficulty and discouragement and pain in marriage and family. That is not God’s design, but it is often the reality in a fallen world hostile to God’s ways and God’s wisdom. Two things should be noted about difficult marriages and relationships relative to God’s blessing. First, it is often the case that things are more difficult than they need to be because marriage and parenting are not being done in the fear of the Lord. That fear leads to wisdom and obedience, and a marriage or family characterized by wisdom and obedience is more likely to be a blessing than one characterized by foolishness and sin. If, in your family, you haven’t been walking in the fear of the Lord, perhaps now is the time to start.

        Second, God does use even great difficulties in marriages and families for good. It’s often very hard for us to see the good in the present moment, or sometimes even in the long term. Nonetheless the promise of Scripture is that a good God is working for the ultimate good of his beloved. He is making us like Christ through the suffering.

        You can often see this in an increased devotion to Christ, a strengthened ability to care for those in similar situations, growing victory over characteristic sins and weaknesses. These things are the fruit of suffering. Someday you ought to read the wonderful book by Sheldon van Auken about his marriage and the death of his wife. It’s called “A Severe Mercy” because the torment of her death destroyed the barriers he had been putting up between himself and God. Her death was a severe mercy to him.

        Sometimes God blesses here and now in plain sight. Sometimes he blesses here and now, but you have to grow before you can see the blessing. Sometimes he blesses in a way we’ll only understand in eternity. But if we walk in the fear of the Lord, in awe of his wonders, in fear of his displeasure, in respectful obedience, we can be confident that he is blessing our lives. That’s the promise of this Psalm.

III. The Community Blessing of Fear (Psalm 128:5-6)

        The same is true in our corporate lives - in the body of Christ, and in local churches. The Psalm doesn’t say that directly, but it does imply that God will bless the nation of Israel as she walks in the fear of the Lord. Verses 5 and 6: May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem, 6and may you live to see your children's children. Peace be upon Israel.

        One of the most disturbing things about Western culture is that for the most part it has lost any sense of the fear of the Lord. The lack of restraint by corporate scoundrels in Enron and Dynegy and Worldcom and Arthur Anderson is only one example of this loss of fear. Another one is this recent moon rock thing, in which young culprits presumed not only that everyone around them was as dense as a rock, but that no one would have the moral sense to report this obvious criminal behavior. Finally, there is the incident in the Hilton parking lot this week, in which an outraged wife didn’t just yell and scream at her unfaithful husband, but murdered him with her Mercedes. The fear of the Lord is the missing ingredient in each of these cases.

        Sadly, this lack of respect for God and godly morality is not limited to the secular world but has infiltrated the church. Even in our own church and among people we know we’ve seen God’s ways blatantly disregarded. Such hypocrisy is rampant, so that on any day we can find cases in the media where the people of God aren’t living in the fear of God. At the Free Church Conference the president of the denomination sadly reported that in the past year three Free Church pastors have been imprisoned for child sexual abuse. One of those cases occurred in a Texas church.

        How then can we expect the church to be filled with the power of God and be blessed by God if as a church and as churches we are not walking in the fear of God? We need to be in awe of him in our worship. We need to know true fear of his judgment. And more than anything else, we need to practice respectful obedience, walking in his ways if we want his blessing. These verses portray the blessing individuals receiving the benefits when a culture or a church fears God.

        Verse 5 “May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life.” Zion wasn’t usually a source of blessing for a whole life because good kings who feared God would be succeeded by bad kings who didn’t. The nation would lose its blessing and long lives would be cut short. Verse 6 says “may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem.” This won’t happen just because you are walking in the fear of the Lord, but only if those around you are as well. Then you will see your children’s children and peace will be on the nation. Psalm 33: blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.

        Now I may be a pessimist, but I don’t expect these blessings for the United States. I don’t expect our culture to return to the God fearing roots that indisputably influenced it. It will be miracle enough for me if the Church remains god-fearing - or returns to the fear of God. The church will be blessed with growth and stability and influence on people’s lives and spiritual prosperity when her leaders and people remember the fear of the Lord. Individual churches will be blessed when they fear God. Our church will be blessed, grow, reach people when we are characterized by the fear of the Lord, when we worship him in awe, wonder and heartfelt passionate faith, when we fear his displeasure more than the contempt of the culture, when we respectfully obey his ethics and his commands. Then we’ll really know his blessing.

        So the bottom line is, do you and I as individuals, do we as a church fear God? You know that I don’t mean fear of his eternal judgement, because Jesus Christ bore the price of our sins: the fear of hell is gone. But do we fear God in the way I’ve defined it? I’d like to close with an application for each of us. I want you, before we leave to think of one way that you can better show the fear of the Lord in your life. I’d like you to write on the bottom of the bulletin page, or at least crystalize in your head a sentence that begins with “I will show my fear of the Lord by . . .” And then I want you to go home and seek his help in doing what you say you are going to do.

        Let me give you a little guidance. Remember that this fear of the Lord can be conveniently divided up into three areas. So take true fear first. The fear of the Lord is fear of his displeasure over our sin. Though hell is no longer in the picture for those who have trusted Jesus Christ, it is also true that if we major on sin in our lives we will be miserable here and escape into eternity with great loss. Look back at some of the Hebrews sermons or 1 Corinthians 3 if you don’t believe that. There is reason to fear his displeasure, and this fear ought to motivate us to turn from sin, to recognize areas of our lives where we consistently do wrong, and to repent and seek his cleansing and strength. This may be how you need to show your fear of the Lord.

        Or take respectful obedience. You may need to show your fear of the Lord by setting his wishes and desires above your own. You’re not blatantly sinning, you are just going your own way for your own comfort rather than committing yourself to his way for his glory. Treat his desires with respect. Walk in his ways. This may be how you need to show your fear of the Lord. What is the next thing you can do to obey?

        Finally, you may need to show your fear of the Lord through worship. When was the last time you allowed God to break through your veneer of sophistication and self control and just blow you away as you’ve recognized his power, his beauty or his love? Open yourself up to worship so that you can see him in his glory. This may be how you need to show your fear of the Lord.

        Take a minute right now to think and write, completing the phrase “I will show my fear of you, Lord, by . . .” In a minute or two I’ll pray.