Tremble Before Him
11 June 2017
A study on the proper fear of God by John Dugas
Grace Bible Church, Tulsa
Full Audio Message
Tremble Before Him
What is going on in Ezekiel 1 is that God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel to impress upon His people that as the one true God, He takes sin seriously. A mistake that Israel made often and that Christians today can make is as God’s people, assuming they are exempt from judgment.
But we find in Scripture that God does judge His people for their sin—not punishing them for sin. Jesus took the punishment for our sin. But God purges sin from their hearts. Even Peter warned that God purifies His people, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God, and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet 4:17).
And that’s what we find happening in Ezekiel 1. What led up to this was that godly king Josiah brought about religious reforms, calling Israel to follow Yahweh and turn away from idols. But because their idolatry had gone on so long, Israel’s reformed religion was shallow. So when Josiah was killed, the kings after him easily slipped back into sin and idolatry and led the people away from exclusive and zealous devotion to Yahweh. They assumed that they were exempt from judgment. They didn’t fear God and they didn’t take sin seriously or strive to live godly.
And so God gave this vision to Ezekiel in chapter 1 to set the stage for a stern message that judgment will surely come to God’s people because of their sin. Thousands of Jews like Ezekiel were carried away to Babylon. Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed. False prophets were saying that the Babylonian captivity would not last long but the people would be returned to the land of Israel soon. So God spoke through Ezekiel to let the Jews in captivity know that God will indeed follow through with destroying Jerusalem as judgment for Israel’s sins. He will finish the work.
When Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C., someone escaped and made his way to the exiles in Babylon and shared the bad news. The exiles became discouraged because they had hoped in the false prophets’ “positive thinking”. They assumed there would be no future for Israel. So God’s message through Ezekiel shifted to comfort and encouragement. God will restore His people to their land in Israel (ch. 33 on). The heart of Ezekiel’s message was the promise of the New Covenant in ch. 36 and that striking vision of the Valley of Dry Bones coming to life in ch. 37. Israel would indeed live again!
Back to Ezekiel 1 though, God revealed Himself to His people as great on the earth. He takes sin seriously, so He worked to teach His people to fear Him. That fantastic picture in Ezekiel 1 serves to show God’s greatness on the earth so that we will fear Him. Think of that as a picture of Yahweh descending upon the face of the earth outside of Israel. As the Divine Warrior in His battle chariot with its wheels on the earth, He is moving toward Israel to judge them for their sins.
Genuine fear is appropriate for believers. I mentioned that there are two key ways in which genuine fear is certainly appropriate for believers. The first key way: it is appropriate for believers to fear God in light of consequences for sin. The second key way: Fear in light of God’s greatness is appropriate for believers.
Last week we looked at how Yahweh is great in the heavens. This morning we’ll consider how Yahweh is great upon the earth. We’ll look at how the Lord displays His greatness on the earth to His own people. First, He judges His people when they sin or don’t follow Him with their whole hearts, and second, He judges the enemies of His people.
The Lord shows to His people His greatness on earth. In his book, The Joy of Fearing God, Jerry Bridges walks his readers through Scripture to show God’s worthiness to be feared. He explores God’s greatness, holiness, wisdom and love. And so a profitable exercise in growing in the fear of God is to study God’s attributes. Study what Scripture says about who God is and what He is like. Doing so will help you to grow in the fear of God by revealing God in His greatness.
Moses was especially close to God, and yet he too had a healthy fear of God when he saw God’s greatness. When the people at Mt Sinai sinned by creating the golden calf, God’s anger arose and it terrified Moses. Hebrews 12:21 quotes Moses saying, “I am full of fear and trembling”. And in Acts 7:32 Stephen pointed out how Moses shook with fear at the sight of the burning bush.
After Ezekiel’s day when God’s people began returning from Babylon, Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding work. Living among them were the Samaritans—a mix of Gentile and Jew. The Samaritan leaders saw the rebuilding work as a threat to their rule in the land, so they opposed it. They used mockery, conspiracy, extortion, slander and treachery to discourage the Jews. So to encourage his people to be courageous in the face of opposition, Nehemiah called on the men to not be afraid of their opponents but to “remember the Lord who is great and awesome” (Neh 4:14). Nehemiah used the title “Adonai” for God which calls to mind God as the Sovereign Lord over all.
As God the Son, Jesus revealed His greatness to His disciples when He calmed the sea. Mark tells how they “became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mk 4:41). Luke reported that the disciples were fearful and amazed (Lk 8:25).
Ed Welch calls the two poles of fearing God “terror-fear” and “worship-fear”. Only believers can experience both. He points out that “both fears have something very important in common. They are both responses to the fact that the Holy One of Israel reigns over all the earth” (When People Are Big and God is Small, p. 98). So how does God reveal to His people His greatness on earth? First,
I. The Lord shows His greatness in judging His people.
Even before Bridges, John Murray went through Scripture showing that God is holy and responds to sin in holy wrath. Murray explained that those Scriptures help us “to understand how this kind of fear is a necessity in the heart and life of the people of God” (Principles of Conduct, p. 235). We should be afraid of God when we have good reason to be afraid. We’ve already talked about fearing God in light of consequences for sin, but here I want us to realize that this is one way God reveals His greatness to His people. When God chastises you, He is revealing His greatness to you.
Jesus taught us not to fear people who can only kill the body. But instead, “But I will warn you whom to fear; fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Lk 12:5). God reveals Himself by rooting out sin from our hearts. Like in Ezekiel 1, the sovereign Lord even moves toward His people in holy greatness to purge their sin. Now second,
II. The Lord shows His greatness in judging the enemies of His people.
Our God fights for us. Our God avenges us. The Egyptians were cruel to the Jews and put them into harsh slavery. In His time, Yahweh rose up and fought for His people and set them free. Moses reported in Ex 14:31 that “When Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord.” When God avenges us, He builds our faith.
Turn now to Psalm 76 and look at v. 1. How is God known to His people? How has He revealed to them that He is great? That’s what Asaph is setting out to tell us in this psalm of thanksgiving. First, being near to them, God is able to reveal Himself. Look at v. 2. Then Asaph retells some situation when Yahweh delivered Israel from her enemies. Look at v. 3. We don’t know what situation he’s referring to, but it was a dramatic event.
Watch to see how Asaph presents Yahweh as the Divine Warrior who is utterly fearsome (VanGemeren, Expositor’s, p. 495). Only a believer can appreciate the fulness of emotion here. While it is comforting to know that the Divine Warrior is in their midst, it is at the same time unsettling to know that the Divine Warrior is in their midst!
Look with me at vv. 4-6 (resplendent means “enveloped in light”; note the sheer power of God, how He renders soldiers and horses powerless). Then in vv. 7-12 Asaph calls men to recognize that God is to be feared, especially when He rises in judgment. God intervened so decisively on behalf of His people that the nations and His own people rightfully feared Him. Look now at vv. 7-12.
Such awe moves a person to ask, “who may stand in Thy presence when once Thou art angry?” No one may stand once God arises to fight for His children. When they heard of it, all the peoples of the earth stood in awe and silent before God (v. 8). He is Sovereign Master over all the earth. Asaph reminds us that God is great on the earth.
Yahweh fights for His children who are called here the humble. He will avenge those who humble themselves before God and trust in Him alone. Did you notice in v. 10 how God uses wicked men’s wrathful acts to His own glory? God will take their wrath and gird Himself with it as a trophy of war and bring praise to Himself. That’s how great and majestic He is!
Those who are humble in the earth are called to make vows to “Yahweh your God” and to follow through by fulfilling them. This is how the godly respond in the fear of God. They are devoted to Him and they obey Him. When Asaph says in v. 11 that God is to be feared, he means that even those who worship the Lord are to experience some terror-fear and stand in awe of His greatness.
Ed Welch wrote that “We need more sermons that leave us trembling” (When People Are Big and God Is Small, p. 96). We also need to tremble more when we read about God in Scripture and when we see Him at work in our lives to root out sin.