Praying the Psalms to Increase Fear of The Lord;

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Praying the Psalms                                         St. Athanasius

"In the Psalter you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries."

My Dear Marcellinus,

I once talked with a certain studious old man, who had bestowed much labour on the Psalter, and discoursed to me about it with great persuasiveness and charm, expressing himself clearly too, and holding a copy of it in his hand the while he spoke.  So I am going to write down for you the things he said.

Son, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the apostle says; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.  Within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul.  It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. 

In the Psalter you learn about yourself.  You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.  Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.  Prohibitions of evildoing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and refrain from sin.

"But the marvel with the Psalter is that...the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, written for his special benefit..."

But the marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Savior and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another persons feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own hearts utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.

It is possible for us, therefore to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own souls state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of lifes occasions, words both of repentance and of thankfulness, so that we fall not into sin; for it is not for our actions only that we must give account before the Judge, but also for our every idle word.

"So, then, my son, let whoever reads this book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired."

When you would give thanks to God at your affliction's end, sing Psalm 4, Psalm 75 and Psalm 116.  When you see the wicked wanting to ensnare you and you wish your prayer to reach God's ears then wake up early and sing Psalm 5. 

For victory over the enemy and the saving of created things, take not glory to yourself but, knowing that it is the Son of God who has thus brought things to a happy issue, say to Him Psalm 9; and when you see the boundless pride of man, and evil passing great, so that among men (so it seems) no holy thing remains, take refuge with the Lord and say Psalm 12.  And if this state of things be long drawn out, be not faint-hearted, as though God had forgotten you, but call upon Him with Psalm 27.

If you want to know how Moses prayed, you have the 90th Psalm. When you have been delivered from these enemies and oppressors, then sing Psalm 18; and when you marvel at the order of creation and God's good providence therein and at the holy precepts of the law, Psalm 19 and Psalm 24 will voice your prayer; while Psalm 20 will give you words to comfort and to pray with others in distress. 

When you yourself are fed and guided by the Lord and, seeing it, rejoice, the 23rd Psalm awaits you.  Do enemies surround you?  Then lift up your heart to God and say Psalm 25, and you will surely see the sinners put to rout.  And when you want the right way of approach to God in thankfulness, with spiritual understanding sing Psalm 29.

So, then, my son, let whoever reads this book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired.  In every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.

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To modern ears the word fear is almost wholly negative. We usually associate it with threat or perhaps with some negative experience like pending punishment or diminishment. And yet, over and over, the Scriptures lift up the value of the Fear of the Lord and encourage us in this regard. As you may already know or at least suspect, the word fear has different senses or meanings.

Distinctions -St. Thomas in the Summa, drawing on the Fathers of the Church, as well as ancient philosophy, distinguishes different kinds of fear based on the object of that fear. So, to begin there is worldly fear (wherein we fear some evil or threat from the world), and there is human fear (wherein we fear some evil or threat from others) (II IIae 19,2 & 9). Now neither of these fears concern us here since God is not the object of these fears. Our concern here is the Fear of the Lord, wherein God is the object of fear.

Now as to the Fear of the Lord, here too a distinction is to be made between servile fear (fear of punishment) and filial fear (whereby a son fears to offend his father or to be separated from him) (II, IIae 19.10) Now it is not servile fear but filial fear that is the gift of the Holy Spirit and which Scripture commends.

Hence, when Scripture says we should Fear the Lord it does not mean that we should run and hide because God is going to punish us, but rather that we should receive the the gift of the Holy Spirit wherein we dread to offend God or be separated from him because we love him. This, I hope you can see, is a very precious gift. And although the word fear tends to elicit negative reactions, I hope to show you that the Biblical world experienced the Fear of the Lord as a very great and highly prized blessing.

But first we have to be clear to emphasize that the fear towards God comes in two ways but only one of those ways is considered the gift of the Holy Spirit and rightly called The Fear of the Lord. Scripture therefore has to be read with some sophistication. It is important to know which kind of fear is being discussed to understand the text. Consider a few examples from the New Testament:

  1. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 Jn 4:18) Here is described servile fear (fear of punishment). The text teaches us that Love puts sin to death. And, since we no longer sin, we no longer fear punishment. Servile fear of God is not evil or wrong but it IS imperfect since it has to do with the imperfection of sin. Ultimately we are to be free of servile fear, and hence it is seen as a negative thing overall, even though it can have some salutary effects. For example, fear of punishment can be a motive to avoid sin. But it is an imperfect motive since it does not come from our love of God, but more from our love our self, and our comfort or well-being. Servile fear is not therefore commended by Scripture but neither is it condemned.
  2. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, Abba, Father (Rom 8:15). Notice again that servile fear is something to be freed of. This freedom comes by the Holy Spirit who replaces our servile fear with a filial fear, a fear born in love of God that experiences him as Abba, a fear whereby he hold God is awe. So Holy Fear needs to replace servile fear.
  3. Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord. (Acts 9:31) Obviously here, Holy Fear is described, not servile fear. The early Christians are being encouraged by the Holy Spirit and this elicits in them a Holy Fear, a fear born in love that dreads offending Abba, the Father they love and hold in awe.
  4. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17) Note again the connection of fear to love. In the context of our love for the brethren we are told to fear the Lord. But the context here clearly suggests that fear is being used as a synonym for a higher form of love. In other words, as much as we should love the brethren, even more so we should love God and that love is described as the Fear of the Lord.

What then is the Fear of the Lord? What does it really mean to Fear the Lord? Mindful that something as deeply rooted in love as the Fear of the Lord is, words alone cannot fully describe the experience of fearing the Lord, let me advance a few thought on the Fear of the Lord.

  1. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our relationship to God as his adopted Children. As we have already discussed, the Fear of the Lord is not servile fear (having to do with punishment) it is filial fear (the dread of offending or being separated from God who is our loving Father).
  2. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our love for God. We really love God, with all our heart! He is Abba, Papa, Father. He has given us everything and we deeply love and reverence him. The thought of offending him fills us with dread! We cannot bear the thought that we have offended God in any way, we love him too much.
  3. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our admiration for God. Through this gift of Holy Fear we hold God in awe. We are filled with wonder as we contemplate his glory and all he has done. This wonder and awe, inspire deep respect in us for God and an aversion to offending him. We respect him too much to ever want to mar our relationship with him.
  4. The Fear of God is rooted in our desire for unity with God. Love seeks union. We instinctively know that sin mars the union of love and can even sever it. We thus come to fear sin that creates distance between us and God. Because we desire union with God, the gift of Holy Fear causes us to fear cutting our self off from the intensity of that union.
  5. The Fear of God is rooted in our appreciation for God's Holiness. God is Holy and the gift of Holy Fear strikes within us a deep awareness of this holiness, as well as a deep understanding that we must be made holy before coming into his full presence. The gift of fear helps us to appreciate that we do not simply walk into God's presence in the spiritual equivalent of jeans and a T-Shirt. Holy Fear inspires us to be clothed in holy attire, to get ready to meet God. Just as we might bathe and wear fine clothes to visit a world leader, we reverence God enough to be robed in righteousness by his grace before we go to meet him. Holy Fear makes us serious about this preparation. We get ready to go and meet a God who we love and hold in awe. We know he is holy and so we strive to receive the holiness with out which none of us can see God (cf Heb 12:14)


Studying the Fear of the Lord in the Psalms

 

Premise: The psalms are largely Hebrew poetry. In Hebrew poetry the rhyme is in the thought
not the sound. Hence in studying the intellectual echo we gain insight into what the ancient
Jewish people thought. The two halves of each psalm verse echo, or say in different words what
the other half expresses. For example in Psalm 2:11 we read: Serve the Lord with fear in the
first half. And the second half says: [In other words] rejoice with trembling. Hence one
understanding of the Holy Fear is a joyful almost giddy reverence.

 

Hence, What do we learn of the Fear of the Lord by studying the psalms?

 

The Fear of the Lord is reverential joy:

Psalm 2:11 Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.

 

The Fear of the Lord is stable delighting in the Law of God as a sure just guide:

Psalm 19:9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are
sure and altogether righteous.

 

The Fear of the Lord is to experience the joy of reverential praise

Psalm 22:23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

 

The Fear of the Lord is to be open to instruction by God.

Psalm 25:12 Who, then, is the man that fears the LORD ? He will instruct him in the way
chosen for him.

 

Fear of the Lord is to experience the wonder of God's revelation

Psalm 25:14 The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.


The Fear of the Lord is to reverence the Lord

 Psalm 33:8 Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him.

 

The Fear of the Lord is to experience hope and God's unfailing love.

Psalm 33:18 But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his
unfailing love,

The Fear of the Lord is to experience God's deliverance

 Psalm 34:7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.


The Fear of the Lord is to experience God's providence

Psalm 34:9 Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.

 

The Fear of the Lord is to be a beacon of hope to others

Psalm 40:3 He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and
fear and put their trust in the LORD.

 

The Fear of the Lord is to experience an undivided heart

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Psalm 86:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided
heart, that I may fear your name.

 

The Fear of the Lord is to delight in praising him and experience his greatness

Psalm 96:4 For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.


The Fear of the Lord is to experience God's glory:

Psalm 102:15 The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere
your glory.

 

The Fear of the Lord is to experience God's compassion:

Psalm 103:13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on
those who fear him;


The Fear of the Lord is to experience God's love and righteousness

Psalm 103:17 But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children-


The Fear of the Lord is to experience God's wisdom and to gain understanding of his ways:

Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts
have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.


The Fear of the Lord is experience delight in the command of God:

Psalm 112:1 Praise the LORD. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who finds great delight
in his commands.

 

The Fear of the Lord is to trust God:

Psalm 115:11 You who fear him, trust in the LORD he is their help and shield.


The Fear of the Lord is to keep his commands:
Psalm 128:1 Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways.


The Fear of the Lord is the Praise of the Lord:

Psalm 135:20 O house of Levi, praise the LORD; you who fear him, praise the LORD.


The Fear of the Lord is hoping in the Lord's Love

Psalm 147:11 the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing
love.

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