Can Joy go with Fear

‘My heart standeth in awe of thy word’. ‘l rejoice at thy word’, Psa. 119. 166, 2

The word ‘awe’, pachad, in these lines has been variously translated in modern versions. One uses the word ‘tremble’; another the word ‘dread’, though the Revised version of this replaces it by ‘awe’. Despite other translations it seems there is in the end more general agreement on the word ‘awe’.

Certainly what is conveyed is the sensation of a very strong emotion. In Isaiah 60. 5 where pachad is used, the heart is said to be enlarged. But elsewhere when the Psalmist uses the word, the thought is that of fear in the contemplation of God’s person in relation to himself. This is Job’s experience when seeking to fathom the mind and nature of God from the problems posed by his sufferings at the time. ‘When I consider’, he says, ‘I am afraid pachad of him’, 23. 15.

It is probably hard then to reconcile this feeling of ‘awesomeness’ with its element of fear, with the experience of the rejoicing that follows in the next line. Is there not here a paradox, a conflict of emotions?

In reality ‘awe’ represents an overwhelming experience. When men first watched the test explosions of the atomic bomb, and saw there the unimaginable destructive forces that could be unleashed, we can believe they stood in awe. Not to relate this to God holding all this power in check, harnessing it to constructive ends to produce our world with all that it subsequently contains, would surely be to miss something even more awesome about His Being. The Psalmist is to declare his wonder that man should have been given some management responsibility for the world he has been put in, with all the potential risks. What is man that God should entrust him with such authority over what He has created, more evident today as science advances further and further into secret realms? When man thinks seriously on the issues facing him, and how to take care properly of what he has been entrusted with, it is not just a matter of environmental control, but more that of adjusting himself to act responsibly and intelligently, knowing that subsequent judgment will be placed on him for mismanagement. Clearly he should foresee the need for guidance, for words of advice at least. It is in this spirit the Psalmist properly considers the value of everything which helps. Is there a manual, a guidebook, a charter to go by? So he values the whole list of guiding and controlling measures which God has given him, the precepts, statutes, judgments, testimonies, commandments and law. It is in their observance that He can please God and function for the good of society as God intended.

A Holy Respect
Not least is His word, His direct communication, and it is this particularly that the Psalmist considers here. This induces in him a holy respect, for which the word ‘awe’ seems wholly appropriate to producing a sense of worship. This is not a fear here which sets alarm bells ringing within, for awe does not so dwarf the creature but rather enlarges the Object which created it.

What we see here first is God’s greatness and then His grace. There is no thought here of Adam hiding fearfully amongst the trees, but of a gazing aloft at some mountain peak, of beholding some vast panorama or spectacle. Job’s view in the end from out of his fear is that he has spoken of things he did not understand, of things too wonderful for him, Job 42. 3.

However, there seems to be still some way to go from this experience of an emotion that comes from something impressed on us, to one which is expressed from within us. Fear immobilizes us. We stand still. But joy that springs from within liberates us, we leap. We need therefore to examine what causes the change.

Some of the problem could probably be resolved if we could understand why we have different root words, dabar and amar/imrah throughout the Old Testament for what is spoken. There seems to be no set pattern. In this case we have dabar in the first line and unrag in the second. They are used variously for word, for what is said, spoken or uttered. On some occasions dabar is translated as ‘promise’. The NKJV in the line under consideration alters the word from the singular to the plural.

In the Psalms we may think the reasons for variation are poetic, to do with sound or rhythm, but this hardly applies to other parts in prose. Though dabar is the word mainly used by the prophets for ‘the word of the Lord’, which was given them to deliver to God’s people, amar - ‘God said’ is the one used in the beginning, in the creation of the world. If the Psalmist here sees in verse 161 the word of the Creator who ‘produced the sea and the spheres, bade the waves roar, the planets shine’, Isaac Watts, it is not surprising that he is filled with awe. We are privileged beings to have this consciousness of God’s Being – The I AM – so we are forced to admit our inferiority, admit our nothingness, Psa. 8.

Only to see this about God is to take a very limited view. God’s relation-ship with man is not solely to have given him a set of rules and regulations by which he should live and discharge his obvious obligations; the relationship is to be richer than this for God talks to man in other and less formal ways. We accept His authority but also value more personal contacts.

God’s Communication
The Psalmist appreciates the gains there are in this for him and works for a closer fellowship. So every communication from God has a personal quality to be listened to and responded to with joy. Every word of God is regarded as a promise, for a promise indicates a purpose and God can only act with purpose, Tit. 1. 2. This is the word, imrah, the Psalmist has hid in his heart as something to treasure, Psa. 119. 11.

It can be said the Psalmist has these two aspects of God’s communication with him in perfect balance. In a sense there are formalities to be observed, but friendship comes with the informal. We can regard the twin thoughts and experiences as being complementary rather than in conflict when we properly appreciate both. This is certainly the balance we need to have when considering His Son our Lord Jesus.

It is often the charge made that the God of the Old Testament is somehow incompatible with the image of Him given us in the New Testament. The picture presented by the Lord Jesus in the Gospels seems more appealing, as if replacing the sterner God of the Old Testament. But what is overlooked is that the strictures of the prophets proclaiming the word, dabar, are there only for the purpose of bringing men and women, and the nations they form, back to those measures which brought the Psalmist to the point of standing in awe; measures which can but bring blessing, in friendship and in companionship. They ignore the repeated plea, ‘Return unto me, and I will return unto you’, Mai. 3. 7, God’s heart is always set on this. He does not wish man to separate himself from Him.

This is the reason for His finally sending His Son. It is to establish a new relationship with us, and to show us the glorious prospect that is possible for us, if we believe in Him.

It seems ail too easy for some in this age which has produced the Jesus cult and commercialized Him as a superstar, to fail to identify Him with the awesome God of Abraham, Moses and the Psalmist. Because Jesus does not stand on ceremony but accepts us as we are, does not mean that He is just ‘one of us’. Philip may have been staggered by Jesus’ reply that he who had seen Him had seen the Father. Not to see Him as God is to miss the whole purpose of His mission and of His Being.

The Word was God
The Gospels do not allow us to accept the Lord Jesus only as a marvellous communicator as a man. His message of a fuller life would have no substance without His being God. John’s Gospel, as the most reflective on His Being, certainly records that ‘never man spake like this man’, John 7. 46. But beyond this, reveals the God whose word commanded the creation of all things; the same God whose word the Psalmist reverenced. The Word become flesh. We have come full circle. This is the Man at whose word we should stand in awe. Yet of all the disciples, John, who was most intimate with Him, never speaks of Him in over familiar terms, always addressing Him as Lord. Peter is no less respectful, and Paul, for all his superior education and particular genius for explaining truth, always introduces Him to us with respect – the Lord Jesus Christ.

The New Testament records present a balance between Jesus as man and as God. But always where a balance needs to be preserved there can be a danger of too much weight being placed on one scale or the other.

For our generation, exposed to more freedom to please itself, there are clear problems, just as there were for those brought up under more restraints and perhaps fewer pressures. We may tend to colour our presentation of the gospel with current customs, or to react against them. It is vital that we have a fusing of the Old and New Testaments in our concepts of the Lord Jesus we have put our trust in, and labour that others do so. We can then more hopefully stand in awe at the divine words given us in the one as well as rejoice in the manner in which they have come to us in the Word become flesh in the other. In the repeated alternating of the words dabar and amar/imrah throughout the Old Testament there is to be seen something of the God who holds His relationship with us in perfect balance, speaking to men with authority, but also ‘familiarly’. We are His children who should love Him, yet we are to obey His orders. At the same time He also draws near and teaches, and opening our eyes, as He did those of the two on the road to Emmaus.


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