Book Review: Rejoice & Tremble (Michael Reeves)
The "fear of the Lord"
You don’t have to read the Bible very long before you come across a text about “the fear of the Lord.” Sometimes that seems easy enough to understand like when Paul is rattling off the characteristics of the wicked and writes “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18, quoting Psalm 36:1.) That seems easy enough to understand: there are many in the world who do not know about or do not care about God’s judgment. They do not understand their peril so they have no fear. But what about texts that talk about the fear of the Lord like it’s a good thing?
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever! (Psalm 110:10)
David is saying that it’s good for a believer to fear the Lord. But how does that work? Should Christians fear God? Doesn’t 1 John 4:18 tell us that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”? How is it that we can love God, and there is no fear in love, and we should fear God?
This is the question that Michael Reeves takes on in Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord (Grand Rapids: Crossway, 2021). As Christians who want to think clearly about God’s word, how can we put together these seemingly conflicting texts?
Two kinds of fear
The first point Reeves wants us to understand is that there are two different ways we can fear things. You can be afraid of an alligator in your kitchen. This is kind of fear that makes you run away in terror. But there is another kind of fear, like the fear you experience on a roller coaster – an exhilarating, exciting fear that you seek out. Or the butterflies in your stomach as you stand at the front of the church and watch your bride walk down the aisle. It’s a fear that you embrace. It’s a fear that is filled with delight.
Reeves follows in the language of the Puritans to distinguish these. The first (when applied to God) he calls sinful fear (31) – we fear a holy God because we are genuinely guilty and afraid of the justice we are due. The other form of fear he calls filial fear (96). “Filial” is an uncommon word for us – it simply means something that is appropriate from a son or daughter. A Christian’s fear of God should be similar to a child’s fear of her dad – not a dad who gets drunk and beats her, but a dad who absolutely loves her and who she delights to see.
A problem of terminology?
Reeves deals with the fact that his description of filial fear is not a natural way for us to use the word “fear” (56-67). Shouldn’t we just translate this with something like “delight in the Lord” instead of “fear of the Lord”? Wouldn’t that be more clear? After all, in English, fear is entirely a negative word. This is why you will so often hear people say that fear for Christians means “awe” or “reverence” (56).
Reeves points out that the problem here is that fear seems to be the word God has chosen. Adam can say “I was afraid because I was naked” (Gen 3:10) and God can be described using exactly the same word: “Awesome is God from his sanctuary; the God of Israel-- he is the one who gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!” (Psalm 68:35). Adam is afraid, but the exact same word is used to describe God who is blessing his people (57).
This is indeed a difficulty for us as English speakers. We learn to deal with this with other words though. For example, we can say that “the word became flesh” (John 1:14) and understand that this is a good thing, yet Jude can call us to “save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 23). Jude sees flesh as negative. We’ve learned to read “flesh” in context; why can we not do the same with “fear”?
Hearing from another generation
Reeves is the editor of the Union series of books – the same series in which Dane Ortlund has produced the outstanding Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers as well as Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners. The books in this series lean heavily on the writings from previous centuries. I don’t recall reading a single reference from a contemporary writer in any of these books. Instead the book overflows with the writings of the Puritans: John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, and the like.
It’s healthy for us to hear from these generations. In the Reformed tribe, we have inherited such a legacy of truth and interpretation. This is a great series, introducing so many of the ideas from this heritage to a modern audience. However, it is worth realizing that this does make reading this book a little harder, since there is a quote of some sort on almost every page.
Learning to fear God
I found this book to be very helpful in thinking through the Bible’s use of fear. With that said, I would have appreciated more practical ways to apply it … how we can actually pursue the fear of the Lord. Reeves puts most of the burden on pastors to teach people to joyfully embrace the filial fear of God (125-129). I do think this is part of the solution and perhaps he assumes that pastors will be his primary readership. Still, I think it would have been fruitful to give some specific guidance for his readers.
One point of application he does make is that we should reflect on the cross and see God’s love for us in the sacrifice of Christ (116-124). That is an astounding and beautiful thing that we can never expend too much effort contemplating. I will never complain when somebody points me to the cross. However, further elaboration on how we put this into practice would have been helpful.
Overall, I recommend this book to anybody who’s ever struggled with the concept of the fear of the Lord. Reeves covers the subject well. He makes his case clearly and winsomely and he marshals voices from years gone by with great effect.