In the last couple of years or so I have spent a lot more time in the Psalms. I was reading Psalm 130 last night and verses 3 & 4 gripped me. They are simply an incredible couple of verses.
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4).
Upon first reading this text, something seems terribly wrong. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the psalmist to have said: “But with you there is justice, that you may be feared”? Isn’t it the possibility of God requiring payment for our sins that creates fear in the human soul? If God should “mark iniquities” then fear seems the only response that would be appropriate.
But the good news is that with God “there is forgiveness”! If that is the case, would not all “fear” be eliminated? You would certainly think so. Yet the psalmist speaks to us that the result of forgiveness (maybe even its purpose) is that we might fear God even more fervently.
Think about what he is saying to us. With God there is forgiveness. From Him comes the grace that provides the propitiation for our sins. He has taken every step necessary to accomplish our redemption through His Son. According to Psalm 103:10, He no longer deals with us according to our sins or repays us according to our iniquities. Certainly, our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).
This is why the “fear” of God mentioned in this text cannot be fear of facing condemnation or fear of encountering and experiencing His righteous wrath. Do you see the logic of the psalmist? If what we find with God is forgiveness for our sins, what grounds are there for us to live in terror of His judgment or wrath? If God has wiped clean the slate of our sin and guilt, then clearly He has chosen not to “mark iniquities” and just as clearly all reason for fear is gone. Therefore, if the “fear of God” in this passage were a reference to the dread of coming destruction, forgiveness is emptied of all meaning and value.
But according to what we read in v. 4, forgiveness is the foundation for fear! The unwavering knowledge that God will never “mark iniquities” (v. 3), which is to say, the certainty that our sins have been forever forgiven, is the reason why we fear God. There’s no escaping the force of the psalmist’s language: fearing God is the necessary outcome of forgiveness! This alone demands that fearing God requires something altogether different than being afraid of judgment.
Forgiveness, as much as any act of God, shows His unsurpassed greatness and majesty. The incomprehensible God of holiness and truth has acted in grace on behalf of hell-deserving sinners. Once the reality of this is fully grasped, the only reasonable response is one of brokenness, humility, and awe at such amazing love.
There certainly is joy in the knowledge of our forgiveness, as well as gratitude and praise. But these are perfectly consistent with holy fear, the shattering realization that it is by divine mercy alone that we are not forever consumed by divine wrath. We can at once “taste” the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34:8a) and “fear” Him (Ps. 34:9a).
So, it’s on the basis of verses like Psalm 130 that we know that to fear God is not the same as being afraid of Him.