Some groups of words or ideas hang out together like kids around a skate-park: where you find one you know the others cannot be far away. So it is with ‘worship’; where the Bible talks about worship, for instance, the idea of homage is never far away and the word covenant keeps cropping up. A covenant was how a Lord established exactly what kind of a relationship he was going to have with his people, how they would honour him and what he would do for them. In the case of God and his people the covenant is amazingly intimate: “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.” [Ps 25:14, my italics] ‘Service’ is another word that hangs around with ‘worship’ so a few verses on from “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” [Dt 6:5] you get “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” [Dt 6:13]
Notice the other word hanging around in the background: ‘Fear’ is the third of the Bible’s inseparable ‘buddy words’ with ‘worship.’ Take away the fear of God and you get not worship but wickedness [Ps 36:1 Ro 3:18].
‘Fear’ though, that’s not a good word for us, is it: surely fear is a crippling thing, a disabling thing; the kind of thing you meet in an abusive relationship not an intimate one? How can fear possibly be anything but an undesirable element in worship; doesn’t fear cause us to keep our distance rather than make the approach?
We should acknowledge that this kind of disabling, distancing fear will be found among God’s people. On a first encounter with the holiness and awesome presence of God, for instance [Ex 3:6; 19:16; Lk 5:8] or when idol-worshippers are confronted by the day of the Lord [Is 2:6-22]. But as a way of life, fearing God is an enabling thing, a motivation source that enables us to keep his commands [Dt 6:2,24]; obey his voice [Haggai 1:12]; walk in his ways [2 Chr 6:31]; shun evil [Job 1:1,8-9; 2:3] and serve him [Joshua 24:14]. We are talking about the ultimate in respect here: a reverence for God that means his worshippers would rather die than forego his good pleasure [Dan 3:16-18].
In recent years, in a bid to make God more popular, we have tended to play down the fear of the Lord and emphasise his friendship with us. Long term, this is not likely to succeed as a way of reaching people with the gospel. Living in the fear of the Lord is the secret of the growth of the early church [Acts 9:31] and you can see why: how can the world see that Jesus is Lord if his followers do not truly respect him? Faith moves mountains and this kind of enabling, overwhelming respect for God is what derives from a true faith [1 Pet 1:17-21]. Above all, when God’s people have this kind of fear of the Lord, and overwhelming respect for him, it naturally flows over into proper respect for everyone else [1 Pet 2:13-17].
They say you can tell a lot about people from the company they keep; well, words keep company with each other too. Sometimes words in the Bible can seem to us to be choosing some very strange companions: “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling”? [Ps 2:11] But taken together, those words present a picture of true worship that is richer by far than anything we might put in its place.