Hebrew Word: Fear of the Lord
The phrase “the fear of the Lord” or “the fear of God” is quite common in the translations. But what is the Hebrew word for “fear”, as in “the fear of the Lord”? And what does it really mean to fear the Lord in the Hebrew mindset?
In the following, we will explain what one needs to know about the Hebrew word and concept of “the fear of the Lord”.
The wording “the fear of the Lord” is capable of two interpretations. “Fear” is an emotion experienced in anticipation of some specific pain or danger (usually accompanied by a desire to flee or fight), i.e. “fear of heights”. But religiously, the term “fear” is implied to mean a feeling of profound respect for someone or something, i.e. “the fear of God”.
We should not err and conclude from the words “the fear of the Lord” that we should experience some kind of fear or dread to start having wisdom. It is true, of course, as we are all aware, that the common sense does not allow us to say that fear of the Lord would bring wisdom, as we will explain the reason for this in due course.
But if we want to understand what the Hebrew word for “fear” means, we must pay attention to how the Hebrew language and culture defines “fear”.
We find the phrase “the fear of the Lord” in the translation of Pro 9:10, as we read in JPS (Jewish Publication Society),
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the All-holy is understanding. (Pro 9:10 JPS) See also Pro 1:7.
On the other hand, we read the words of the apostle,
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2Ti 1:7 KJV)
We need to analyze the meaning of these verses. If the meaning is that “the fear of the Lord” implies the negative feeling. Likewise, in the phrase “the fear of the Lord” the word “fear” in possessive case, i.e., “fear of”, and implies a negative feeling of an imminent danger coming from heaven, which we experience within us. Hence, the “fear” belongs to us.
But if we fear of the Lord, we will have wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. But, if we do not have fear of the Lord, we will have power, love, and sound mind. Which one of these two statements is correct? Most evidently, we need to rethink once more the English translations of the Scripture.
The word “fear” of the Lord from a Hebrew perspectives
The matter of “the fear of the Lord” will become clear once we understand what the Hebrew word for “fear” is.
King Solomon requested wisdom and understanding from YHVH and the ability to judge righteously the people; he did not request riches and power, but “the fear of YHVH”. And because he did not seek earthly possessions, YHVH gave him wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and riches.
Solomon remembered what his father, King David had said in Psa 111:10, that “The fear of Yehovah is the beginning of wisdom“, and wrote the proverb that goes even further, saying, “the fools despise wisdom and discipline” (that is, the fools despise the fear of YHVH),
The fear of Yehovah is the beginning of knowledge. Fools despise wisdom and discipline . (Pro 1:7)
But the Hebrew word for “fear” that closely reflects this kind of negative feeling of danger and threat is פַּחַד pachad. The literal meaning of this word is found in Job 4:14, wherein it is used to mean “to shake” by implication to be startled (by a sudden alarm), be afraid; hence to fear in general. We read,
… fear (pachad) came upon me and trembling (ra’ad), causing my bones to shake (pachad). (Job 4:14)
We may glean a better understanding of the subject when reading the words “the fear of the Lord” in their language context.
In this example, the Hebrew word פַּחַד pachad, “to shake” is used in parallel with another word with a similar meaning of fear: רָעַד ra’ad, to shudder (more or less violently); to tremble. Hence, the word pachad means in Hebrew “fear”, “dread”; fear that came as a trembling upon Job causing his bones to shake (like leaves).
Is this the feeling a person should experience to have wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of YHVH? In the following we will bring some proof to the contrary.
פַּחַד pachad is not the word we find in Pro 9:10. The Hebrew word in Pro 9:10, and elsewhere, commonly translated as “fear” is יִרְאָה yirah. The noun יִרְאָה yirah is derived from the primitive verb יָרֵא yare, which is likewise translated to mean “to fear”, causatively to frighten, affright, be afraid, dread.
In our verse, we notice that the noun יִרְאָה yirah, is in a constructive form יִרְאַת yirat, which means “fear of”. The word that follows is the Name of the Creator “Yehovah” and combined they are rendered as “the fear of the Lord”. In other words, Yirat Yehovah means that yirah belongs to and comes from YHVH—a quite opposite concept of the English “fear”.
The concrete meaning of יִרְאָה yirah is the so-called in English “the gut feeling” which can be applied to “fear” but more properly it means “reverence”. With such a positive fear, “guts” has the meaning of fortitude and determination.
Knowing what we have learned so far, it should not come as a surprise the fact that the guts have more nerve cells than the brain does, and for this reason the guts are also known as “the second brain” in the body, or perhaps, “the brain in shadow”. This feeling in the guts is the literal meaning of the Hebrew yirah.
In the Hebraic mindset, when a person is in the presence of something very amazing, he or she feels little and insignificant in the awesomeness of the event, and the feeling that is in the guts is יִרְאָה yirah.
To meet the Creator in reverence
With that being said, we conclude that the Hebrew word yirah teaches that “the fear of the Lord” does not imply an emotion in anticipation of some danger or threat, or fear for being punished. On the contrary, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, explains יִרְאָה yirah is related to another Hebrew word קָרָא kara, which means to encounter, happen, meet.
Therefore, Yirat Yehovah means that a person should have the experience of being in the presence of YHVH in awe. And this is the proper translation of יִרְאָה yirah: “awe” from which the English words “awesome” and “awesomeness” come: an inspiring reverence, admiration, or wonder that emanate from the Creator. The closest translation of the Hebrew word יִרְאָה yirah in English would be a compound word of reverence and awe. i.e., “awe in reverence”.
We find the word קָרָא kara “to meet” in the Revelation of the Covenant at Sinai when the Creator came down from heaven to meet His people,
And Mosheh brought the people out of the camp to meet with Elohim, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. (Exo 19:17)
This is what David meant when he wrote Psalm 25,
The secret of Yehovah is with those who revere Him, and He makes His Covenant known to them. (Psa 25:14)
Note: There are many explanations of the meaning of the Hebrew יְרוּשָׁלַיִם Yerushalayim, Jerusalem. The name Yerushalayim comes from the words יִרְאָה yirah, “awe” and שָׁלֵם shalem “complete”. For further knowledge on the matter, the reader may do well to read what we have written in our commentary on The blessing of Psalm 122 and the Jerusalem Covenant.
Therefore, Yerushalayim means “complete awe”; awe of Heaven in which we stand before the Everlasting One completely submitted to serve Him. This awesomeness of heaven will be completely revealed when the New Jerusalem will descend from heaven here on the earth.
With the knowledge … we can translate literally Pro 9:10 and Psa 111:10 thus,
The awe of Yehovah is the summit* of wisdom.
Note: *The Hebrew word רֵאשִׁית can mean “beginning”, but also “first”, “summit”, “most importantly”, “chiefly”, and “primarily”, which we explained in Albert Einstein’s formula encoded in Genesis.
Now, still on the same line of thought how are we to understand the words of David and Solomon versus Shaul’s? We have already pointed out that Yirat Yehovah means “awe in reverence for Yehovah”, and that was David and Solomon meant, while apostle Shaul spoke of fear and dread; two different concepts indeed.
When we reflect on what we have written above, we will find that without Yirat Yehovah “Awe of YHVH”, wisdom and knowledge are without substance and can be twisted and misused in personal pride. However, wisdom and knowledge rooted in awe of YHVH leads to conscientious application to His word, for which one is called on.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.