One does not need to read far into the Old Testament to realize that the concept of “the fear of Yahweh” is central to Old Testament faith and practice. Because of the importance of this concept, I was grateful to receive a review copy of Michael Reeves’ new book, Rejoice and Tremble, through Crossway’s blog review program. There are many things that this volume does well, which will commend it to the reader, but there are several areas where it falls short, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. After summarizing the book, I will then identify its strengths and reflect on a couple of these said shortcomings.
As the first volume in a new series, “Union,” Rejoice and Tremble is the larger, full volume that is accompanied by a more accessible, concise volume (in this case, What Does it Mean to Fear God?). The goal is that the larger volume would equip the church leader and the shorter would be an accessible resource for their congregation (11). In Rejoice and Tremble, Reeves wants to cut through the confusions surrounding the phrase “the fear of the Lord” and to lead the reader to “rejoice in this strange paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear” (16). Furthermore, he wants to show that “the often off-putting phrase ‘the fear of God’ … really does not mean being afraid of God” (16; emphasis in original). He does this against the backdrop of a culture that is rife with fear, as he illustrates in the first chapter. He argues this over 8 chapters (the first and eight functioning as the introduction and conclusion). In chapter 2, he identifies “sinful fear.” Working from Exodus 20:18-20, he claims that there is both “a fear of God that is good and desirable, and there is a fear of God that is not” (30). At its core, sinful fear is fear that “drives you away from God” (30; Emphasis in original). It is this fear, not the genuine fear of God, that stands in contrast with the love of God: “Dreading, opposing, and retreating from God, this fear generates the doubt that rationalizes unbelief” (31). He ties this fear with legalism: often, this fear manifests in outward works detached from a heart that truly loves God (e.g. 34). In chapter 3, Reeves looks at “right fear.” Reeves argues that traditional synonyms for the right “fear of God,” such as “awe,” “respect,” and “reverence” cannot capture the full sense of the Biblical phrase: “those words actually fall quite short of capturing the intense and happy fullness of what Scripture means when it speaks of the fear of God” (48). In one sense, he claims, “the trembling ‘fear of God is a way of speaking about the intensity of the saints’ love for and enjoyment of all that God is” (52). The best definition he gives in this chapter is, “True fear of God is true love for God defined: it is the right response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself in all his grace and glory” (53). As I will suggest below, one of the problems with the book is not what Reeves says but what he does not say: fear is defined in this way but described in terms of intense joy, “[awe] doesn’t quite capture the physical intensity, the happy thrill, or the exquisite delight that leans toward, instead of away from, the Lord” (58). In sum, “this trembling ‘fear of God’ is a way of speaking about the sheer intensity of the saint’s happiness in God” (61). In chapter 4 and 5, Reeves explains different sorts of “right fear” for God. He considers the fear of God as creator (ch. 4) and the fear of God as redeemer revealed in Christ (ch. 5). Chapter 6 provides a meditation on growing in right fear, concluding that it arises from a heart change effected by the Spirit and grows through a right heart paired with the means of grace, particularly the hearing of the Gospel. The point of chapter 7 (I think) is that the whole body of Christ becomes like God as they individually live out of the fear of him. Chapter 8 concludes with a reflection on the perfection of our fear in glorious eternity.
There is a lot that is good here. I think many pastor’s and congregations will benefit from seeing that the right fear of God is not opposed to love and joy in him. Reeves has a great grasp of historical theology and is able to bring forth some beautiful illustrations and reflections on this theme from church history, especially the Reformers and Puritans. However, this strength is also one of the books greatest weaknesses. In reflection, Rejoice and Trembling lacks a sustained wrestling with the Biblical teaching concerning the fear of Yahweh and, as a result, presents a one-sided picture. In the first case, the Scripture index shows that Reeves cites a lot of Scripture, but he does not demonstrate a serious wrestling with the contexts and content of the Scripture as it pertains to this theme. Instead, his argument is mainly developed through frequent, perhaps excessive, quotations from the Puritans and Reformers. This fits within a broader trend of Reformed evangelicalism that has sought to ground itself firmly in the Church’s tradition and retrieve its specifically Reformed heritage, especially to combat novelties of our age. The problem with this trend (in my opinion), a problem evident here, is that interaction with our predecessors takes the place of the serious interaction with God’s word that marked their works. I will cherry-pick a few trivial examples before diving into more serious exegetical issues. I raise the trivial examples for a purpose; they demonstrate the level of engagement with the Biblical text in Rejoice and Tremble. In the former case, in his explication of Jacob’s odd description of Yahweh as “the fear of my father Isaac,” Reeves assumes that this draws on the impression of Isaac’s piety upon Jacob (49). The problem with this explanation is that Isaac does not come across as an extraordinarily pious patriarch in the short narratives concerning him. Late in the book, Reeves suggests that the name of the seraphim, from the Hebrew root שׂרף (śrp), suggests that they “burn with a holy love” (Isa 6:3). However, this is no evidence for this claim; if anything, the fact that this term is used elsewhere only for fiery serpents would suggest that they are fiery, flying serpents (Num 21:6, 8; Deut 8:15; Isa 14:20, 30:6)! Most commentators do not draw this conclusion for several reasons, but this is more likely than that they “are burning with love.” Turning to more serious issues, his handling of the fear of the Lord in the Old Testament is problematic. On the one hand, that the “fear of the Lord” is compatible with rejoicing and is a typical response to God’s overabundance of good gifts doesn’t imply that the “fear of the Lord” is a joy-filled response or any such thing (pp. 45-67; e.g. Jer 32:28-40; 33:8-9; Ho 3:5; Luke 7:14-16). That the people experience fear in response to God’s goodness and that this fear was accompanied by joy does not tell us what exactly that fear was but only that it is invoked by God’s generosity and that it is not incompatible with joy. When Reeves turns to the word itself, he makes a rather strained argument to support his contention about fear as “the sheer intensity of the saint’s happiness in God” (61). He observes that two words are used to describe fear in relation to Yahweh, ירא (yr’) andפחד (pḥd). He further observes concerning the latter that in one instance, it seems to refer to a “shiver of excitement,” as the Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew puts it (Isa 60:5). What “fear” means, Reeves argues, is thus an experience of “being overwhelmed, of weak-kneed trembling,” in some cases, a “happy trembling” (57-58). The problems with this argument are numerous, but I will select two. First, given that פחד (pḥd) always means something like “fear” or “awe” in the Bible, the natural translation of Isaiah 60:5 is not “your heart shall thrill and exult” (ESV) but rather “your heart shall fear and be enlarged” (my translation). “Enlarged” is used elsewhere to indicate a response of joy or praise (1 Sam 2:1): it may express the overwhelming feeling of accompanying emotion. So, the passage may mean that the people will be overcome with fear or that their hearts fear and “exult,” as the ESV puts it (cf. 1 Sam 2:1). As Reeves shows elsewhere, either of the two words translated “fear” may accompany joy, so we have no reason to assume that “exulting” is contrary to fear: indeed, being overcome with the fear of Yahweh because of his overwhelming generosity is shown by Reeves to be a consistent aspect of this “fear.” Second, it is fallacious to argue that because the word might refer to a tremendous, joyful response in this passage, that both פחד (pḥd) and ירא (yr’) when used for the “fear of Yahweh” simply mean such an intense response. This stands in the face of the evidence: these words are used, with the verb and related noun, nearly 500 times in the Old Testament and almost always have connotations appropriate to the English word “fear,” such as trembling, dread, discomfort, etc. Reeves simply does not do justice to this data: the “fear of the Lord” is compatible with joy and is incited by God’s graciousness, yet it appears to be closely related to the normal feeling of “fear.” Reeves does rightly point out that being afraid and the fear of Yahweh are contrasted in Exodus 20:20, but things are not so simple. The wrong fear is characterized by their anxiety about death and their desire to be away from God (vv. 18-29). Moses clarifies that God has come to test Israel to ensure they do not sin. They are to fear God, but they are not to fear in such a way that they would withdraw from him or fear that He intended them harm. The powerful display was clearly intended to be fearful, yet it was meant to invoke a fear that was compatible with love, adoration, and understanding God’s genuinely generous and good purposes. There is much that could and should be explored in this concept, of a genuine “fear” or “awe” that trembles and yet simultaneously rejoices, but Reeves seems to collapse the former into the latter.
Reeves does the Church a service by drawing attention to a part of the “fear of Yahweh” that we usually ignore, that it is a genuine response to God’s graciousness and is frequently accompanied by joy. However, this would seem to be the wrong note to hit in our culture. That is, our culture does not struggle (at least in theory) with the concepts of “love,” “joy,” and such. The Church in the West seems to have a lot more of a struggle with God’s transcendence, with the idea that God’s power should incite awe and submission. This is intuitively revolting to the contemporary Westerner, so it is the aspect of the “fear” that needs particular attention if we are going to be a people who truly “fear Yahweh, our God.”