This article was originally written by me for The Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship. It is a good reminder that fear is good — when it is fear of God, and not the kind of panicked fear that is being exhibited in many communities these days.
Almost two years ago, designer Kate Spade committed suicide. A few days later, chef Anthony Bourdain also took his life. Those two events not only made people question, “How could someone take their own life?” but “How could two so successful people take their own lives?” One columnist wrote,
What stands out both Spadeʼs and Bourdainʼs death is the fact that they represented, for many, what seemed to be success and happiness. Spade had sold her eponymous handbag collection in 2007, had a husband and a teenage daughter, and had swept up every fashion award humanly possible, and then some.
Likewise, Bourdain was a giant in his field, working up the ranks in the kitchen to becoming a talented chef, a widely read author, and achieving the pinnacle of his success in televised food documentaries that flung him to perilous corners of the Earth, first through No Reservations and then through Parts Unknown. Beneath that sheen of success and happiness, however, there was depression—deep, unsettling, tumultuous depression that rocked both Spade and Bourdain, ultimately leading them to commit suicide.
Their deaths and a sense that unhappiness pervades our world have led many to ask, “If they were unhappy, where will we find happiness?” That’s a question that we will also repeatedly face in the counseling room. Many will come to us disillusioned with their life circumstances. They are disappointed with what they have received from life. At 18, they pursue a dream of happiness, but when they catch what they are chasing, they are often profoundly unhappy. They then sit in front of your desk and want answers. Where will you turn to help them find the happiness they crave?
In Psalm 112, the psalmist has an answer for them and for us as we seek to help them.
The God-Fearer is Blessed (v. 1)
We don’t know the author or circumstance that led to the writing of this psalm, but it likely was paired with Psalms 111 and 113 as all three begin with the phrase, Praise the Lord. This trinity of psalms were written to led the worshippers of Israel into a joyful adoration of God. In this song, the writer is led to praise for the blessing that comes from God — how blessed is the man. The simplest way to understand the word “blessed” is that it is related to the idea of “happiness” or “satisfaction.” It’s an Old Testament “joy” word, and here he says that happiness comes from fearing God. Happy, joyful, and satisfied is the person who fears God.
The main thing that we must identify from this verse is, “What does it mean to fear the Lord?” Generally, Scripture means one of two things when it references the fear of the Lord. First, there is the fear of the unbeliever (e.g., Ps. 33:8). This fear is akin to the terror that he should feel when he considers that he will have to give an answer to God for his rejection of Him, and he has no answer that will keep him out of Hell. What is also interesting is that Scripture also affirms that while there should be fear of God by unbelievers, often they will kill their consciences and not fear Him as they should (Ps. 36:1; Pr. 1:29; Jer. 2:19).
Second, fear of the Lord can also refer to the fear of the believer (or Old Testament follower of God; e.g., Ps. 22:23; 34:9; Dt. 6:2, 24; Acts 9:31). This is the way the term is used most often. This is not a fear of terror, but a fear of respect and awe. John Murray explains it this way: “The fear of God in which godliness consists is the fear which constrains adoration and love. It is the fear which consists in awe, reverence, honor, and worship, and all of these on the highest level of exercise. It is the reflex in our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God.” [quoted in Jerry Bridges, The Joy of Fearing God.]
What is particularly helpful in this verse is that the psalmist himself identifies what he means by the phrase “fear the Lord.” He tells us his meaning in the next phrase: to fear the Lord, in this psalm, means to delight in His commandments. This is not a “theoretical” delight; it is real. He is excited not only to read God’s commands, but he is zealous to do God’s commands because he knows of their intrinsic value. This very same sense is given in Psalms 111:10 and 128:1. In fact, the fear of the Lord is often equated with obedience to the Scriptures (cf. also Ps. 19:9; 119:1-2; Prov. 8:13; 14:2; Is. 50:10; Dt. 10:12, 20). To fear the Lord means, in part, to obey the Lord and His Word. As we obey His Word, we will experience His blessing.
What kind of blessing will God’s people have when they fear and obey Him? Is there any “benefit” to worshipping God enough to obey Him? There is indeed, and the rest of the psalm tells us some of those benefits.
The God-Fearer is Blessed in His Reputation (v. 2)
Verse two refers to two groups of people who are impacted by the God-fearing man. His descendants are not just his children, but his “seed,” his “posterity.” It includes multiple generations of people that will come after him. The psalmist says that they will be strong — the inference is likely something like, “they will have long life.” It may be that the psalmist is thinking of Exodus 20:12. Because he fears God, he makes it easy for his descendants to honor him and because they honor him, they also have a long life — a full and satisfying life with God.
He also mentions the generation of the upright, meaning the people who live in contact with this man — they are his peers, his contemporaries, his neighbors and friends, and his co-workers. They consider his life and they see that he is living with integrity and they are blessed by him (v. 2b) in that they are also stimulated to live uprightly because of his obedience to the Lord.
This man’s godliness is so appealing that it encourages his family and friends to also fear God. His godliness is contagious in his generation and for generations to come. This man doesn’t have to worry about defending his reputation; he is respected because no matter how carefully unbelievers examine him, they can find nothing that is tarnished (cf. Dan. 6:5; 1 Pt. 2:12; 1 Tim. 6:13-14). The God-fearer is blessed with a good reputation because that’s what obedience to God’s Word does. Why should we obey God? Because it will build and preserve a godly reputation for us.
The God-Fearer is Blessed with Righteousness (v. 3)
The psalmist almost sounds like a prosperity theologian in verse three when he says wealth and riches are in his house. All the commentators say this means something like, “The righteous receive prosperity and wealth…” [Kraus] and “The Lord delights to reward also with earthly blessings all those that are true to His Law” [Leupold]. Of course, there is a thin line between that and a prosperity gospel. Is the psalmist affirming what too many secular “Christians” believe?
It’s essential to remember first of all that the psalmist is addressing the covenant people of God. This is a promise to the nation of Israel, and not the church of Christ or an individual follower of Jesus. There is a temptation to think that all Old Testament passages are for the church in the same way that they were for Israel. But that is not so. God’s means of salvation— by grace through faith — has always been the same, but His promises to His covenant nation Israel and His chosen bride for Christ (the church) are different. Spurgeon noted this distinction when he wrote, “Understood literally, this is rather a promise of the old covenant than of the new.” The psalmist is reminding the covenant people of Israel of God’s intent to keep and fulfill His promises to His people — promises which would include land, seed (both progeny and an eternal King), and blessing to the nations (the Abrahamic Covenant, Gen. 12:3). The generation of Israel that is obedient to God and receives the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant will experience great blessing in wealth and riches.
Second, the context itself indicates that the psalmist is thinking of something far more than material wealth and riches. The second clause is linked to the first — and his righteousness endures forever. In other words, what is the true wealth of the man who fears the Lord? His wealth is that he has been redeemed, and because righteousness has been imputed to him (justification by imputed righteousness is an Old Testament concept as well, cf. Gen. 15:6), both he and his righteousness will live forever in the presence of God. That is a wealth that supersedes all others. That is a wealth worth pursuing.
When the psalmist says wealth and riches are in his house, he is not ultimately talking about material wealth, but he is talking about the wealth and richness of an imputed righteousness. For those of us who have been saved by Christ, that is our most valuable possession. Nothing we have supersedes what we have through Christ and what we are in Christ. The God-fearer is blessed by righteousness.
The God-Fearer is Blessed to Serve Others (vv. 4-5)
When someone fears God by obeying Him, the psalmist says, Light arises in the darkness. That is, the God-fearing man begins to see and understand truth. His eyes are opened to see the glory that is in the Word of God (cf. Ps. 119:18; 1 Cor. 2:9-10). Because he sees the truth of the Word of God, he is increasingly transformed so that he becomes compassionate toward others — he is gracious and compassionate…gracious and lends…he will maintain his cause in judgment.
Because he loves and fears God, he loves and cares for his fellow man. He is gracious to others, he lends what he has to others so that they are cared for (not so that he can make money), and he persists in giving generously so that he is just in everything he does. The final clause in v. 5 means something like, “he conducts his affairs with justice.” In everything he does, he is gracious, fair, and honest.
This is a truth that Jesus also talked about. There are two tests for a man’s character: does he love God, and does he love his fellow man (Mk. 12:28ff)? The one who fears God loves to serve others and believes that what he has been given is not for him but so that he can be a blessing to others. John Piper exhorted us about this truth when he wrote,
“Why does God bless us with abundance? So we can have enough to live on, and then use the rest for all manner of good works that alleviate spiritual and physical misery. Enough for us; abundance for others.
“The issue is not how much a person makes. Big industry and big salaries are a fact of our times, and they are not necessarily evil. The evil is in being deceived into thinking a six-digit salary must be accompanied by a six-digit lifestyle. God has made us to be conduits of His grace. The danger is in thinking the conduit should be lined with gold. It shouldn’t. Copper will do.” [Desiring God.]
The God-Fearer is Blessed with Stability (vv. 6-9)
Another blessing for the one who fears and obeys God is that he will never be shaken (v. 6a). That is, he cannot be overthrown or moved from his faith. His faith will not crumble, no matter the adversity. This is his testimony before others, even long after he has died, and into eternity (forever). He will be remembered for his unshakable character. Steve Lawson amplifies this by saying, “He is deeply rooted in God and his Word…Temptation will not sway the God-fearing man. Demons will not move him. Trials will not shake him. He is not given to panic or overreaction in the face of adversity. Rather, he is marked by stability and strength of heart.” [Psalms 76-150]
Further, he will not fear evil tidings (v. 7a). Because he fears God, he is not fearful of bad news. Whether the bad news is about the progress of evil in the culture or of personal hardship or of sin that is committed against him, he is not fearful or anxious. Why? Because “the remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.” [Oswald Chambers]
The psalmist also adds that his heart is steadfast, trusting the Lord (v. 7b). This man does not fear evil because inwardly, he is immovable. His confidence in God is unshakable so that he becomes unshakable. The word “steadfast” was sometimes used to refer to the pillars that supported a building. We would say this man has built his life on the foundation of trusting God and so he is immovable (cf. Daniel’s friends [Dan. 3:8-30], and Stephen [Acts 7:54-60]). This man reveres God as the One who preserves his salvation so he is unafraid of anything else.
He heart is also upheld, he will not fear (v. 8). One translation renders this verse, “He will be joyful and unafraid while he looks upon his adversaries.” This doesn’t mean he won’t face opposition; but it does mean that whenever opposition comes, he is resolute in trusting God.
Best of all, His righteousness endures forever (v. 9b). This is the same phrase as verse three. His confidence in God reveals that he possesses (has been given) a righteousness that is eternal. “His horn is exalted” refers to prosperity and victory. No matter what his external circumstances might be, the final verdict on the man who fears God is, “He wins.” James says that the person who is double-souled is “unstable in all his ways” (1:8). Here we have the contrast of that double-souled man: the one who is singular in his devotion to God and fear of God is stable and unshakable. No matter what goes wrong in life, he is secure and stable in his communion with God.
The God-Fearer Avoids Ultimate Fear (v. 10)
Earlier I wrote that Scripture indicates two kinds of fear of God — the terror that the unbeliever should have for God, and the reverence and awe that produces obedience which the believer has for God. While most of the psalm has been about the reverential awe and obedience of the believer, this final verse refers to the judgment of God that should produce fear in the unbeliever.
The psalmist exhorts, the wicked will see [God’s blessing on the righteous] and be vexed. The unbeliever sees the compassion of God on His people and becomes heated and hostile (evidenced by his gnashing teeth). Despite their indignant anger, they cannot stand before God because they will melt away. They will simply be dissolved. The implication is that their objection to and fight against God are of no consequence to Him. With a little stirring of the cup of his wrath, they are simply put to death and sent into eternity, separated from Him and His grace. The desire of the wicked will perish — all of the things coveted and desired by the unrighteous will be destroyed. “The longings of the wicked will come to nothing.” This means the wicked man will not achieve his purpose, reach his goal, or find his dreams. He will die a disappointed man! While the righteous will endure forever, the ungodly will rot off the face of the earth.” [Lawson] They cannot stand before God (Ps. 1:6; 34:21). This is a reminder that there is an ultimate fear of God that the man who fears God need not fear. Even more, while the ungodly man is enduring eternal Hell, the righteous, God-fearing man is enjoying eternal Heaven (Lk. 10:20; Rev. 7:16-17).
When your counselee is in front of you, saddened and distraught by the loss he has experienced, when he is unhappy with the trials he has endured, when he wonders if there is anything worthwhile and satisfying in life, remind him that he has one great hope — when he fears God, he will be happy both in this life and ultimately in the life to come.
When we fear God by obeying Him, He blesses us in many ways. There are the blessings of reputation and influence, imputed righteousness, ministry and service, personal stability, and supremely, an absence of the ultimate fear of God’s wrath. It is a good thing to fear the Lord. It is a happy thing to fear the Lord. It is an eternally happy thing to fear to Lord.
Fear God, and He will bless you with all manner of good things fitting for people who love to obey God.