The Blessings of Fearing the Lord

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 29, 2023.

            Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,

                        who walks in his ways!

            You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;

                        you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.

            Your wife will be like a fruitful vine

                        within your house;

            your children will be like olive shoots

                        around your table.

            Behold, thus shall the man be blessed

                        who fears the LORD.

            The LORD bless you from Zion!

                        May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem

                        all the days of your life!

            May you see your children’s children!

                        Peace be upon Israel! (Psalm 128)[1]

“The fear of God” is one of those expressions heard from the pulpit but perhaps misunderstood in the pew. Part of the problem may stem from our modern perspective of fear, as if anything feared is bad. Or, to bring it into the context of American Christianity, I have heard some say: Fearing God is Old Testament; loving God is New Testament. Well, that’s not true either, as godly fear is biblically affirmed, running the course of the Old and New Testaments. It’s a biblical expression then that we need to understand, since “Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD.”

To help understand what the fear of the Lord is, let me provide this distinction: being afraid of God is not the same thing as fearing God. For example, in Exodus after Israel crossed the Red Sea and journeyed into the wilderness, they assembled at the base of Mont Sinai. There, the Lord revealed himself to them, his manifest presence descending upon the mountain, with accompanying thunder and flashes of lightning. The mountain smoked, a supernatural trumpet sounded, and the people fled, trembling in terror, crying out to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:19). Their reaction is understandable, even justifiable, but Moses was quick to correct and direct, saying, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Ex. 20:20, emphasis added). Note that he tells Israel both not to fear and to fear. In the Hebrew, the same word root is used and rightly translated here as “fear,” but clearly there is a distinction between the two, a wrong fear and a right one.

We see this same distinction in a hymn we are all familiar with, John Newton’s “Amazing Grace?”, in which we sing,

            ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,                                                      

            and grace my fears relieved.[2]

Newton describes a fear that grace teaches and a fear that grace relieves. God’s grace then is the origin of godly fear finding its fulfillment in faith. As John Calvin put it, “Under the fear of the Lord is included the whole of godliness and religion, and this cannot exist without faith.”[3] What Moses taught Israel, and what Newton teaches us to sing, is that to fear God rightly is to know him, not as a tyrant but as our heavenly Father, not to cower from him but to come to him by faith.

Fearing the Lord also connotes a reverence and awe, a respectful recognition of who he is as our holy God. This means that as his children we honor and glorify him with our lives, whether it be our work, our families, or our church, among other things. As this is the case, it should not surprise us that the psalmist chooses these areas of everyday life to reveal God’s blessings upon those who fear him. Indeed,

            Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,

                        Who walks in his ways!

However, before we look at what follows, let me add this caveat: As we seek to be faithful students of God’s Word, we must understand that the Bible contains an array of literary genres. And we must read the Bible according to these genres, how they were written. For example, if you read apocalyptic literature, such as Revelation, the way you read epistolary literature, such as Romans, expect to go off course quickly. If we are to understand Scripture rightly, we must understand first how it is written. This psalm fits squarely in what is called wisdom literature, which in summary teaches us the characteristics and practices of living a godly life. In this psalm, we see for example God’s blessing upon labor, family, and the fellowship of his people, and it is a beautiful thing. But we must also remember that wisdom literature is general in scope, and as such it is descriptive not predictive.[4]

In other words, as we look at the blessings that come from fearing God in this psalm, we must remember that they are not the only blessings that he gives, nor does their absence convey unfaithfulness. For those who fear God, he blesses them with the fruit of their labor, but there will be some who fear God rightly and labor in fruitless work or no work at all. For those who fear God, he blesses them with a spouse and children, but there will be some who fear God rightly and never marry or have no children. For those who fear God, he blesses them with the community of the church, but there will be some who fear God rightly and are persecuted or isolated and unable to enjoy fellowship and worship with other believers. So, let us be discerning students of Scripture, looking at the blessings that come from fearing God, while knowing that to fear the Lord in and of itself is enough, for he is our ultimate blessing! And the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest blessing in the world.

Godly Fear and Labor

For us to think rightly about labor, we must understand what the Bible teaches about it: God’s gift of work is not a curse but is cursed. The distinction is key. As God gave man work through the creation ordinance, to work and keep creation (Gn. 2:15), so he blessed those created in his image. God worked in creation; we work in keeping it. But when man fell in sin, God did not withdraw the blessing of work but instead cursed the ground, introduced pain, permitted “thorns and thistles,” giving us bread but by the sweat of our brow (Gn. 3:17-19). Though cursed, work in and of itself is not. In fact, God uses it to bless us:

            You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;

                        You shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.

While we may work for the daily bread God provides, for those who fear him, he blesses both.

We must be careful here, however, not to interpret this as a guarantee. God’s blessing through our work does not mean that we will all have our dream job or even fulfilling work. As it is cursed, work can at times feel menial, monotonous, even mindless. As I told my children, as they began looking for the “perfect career” (at 21 years old …), work is, well, work; it’s not always going to be fun or even fulfilling, but it beats the alternative of no work at all. As it turns out, working as a bank teller, landscaper, and errand boy for a used car lot, were not their dream jobs. But each delivered a regular paycheck, the fruit of their labor, proverbial bread.

But work can be fulfilling (even fun at times), and one of the inherent dangers for sinners, like you and me, is we can make the Lord’s blessing our lord. And when a gift becomes a god, the blessing becomes a beast. This is the scenario Solomon addresses when he writes,

            Unless the LORD builds the house,

                        those who build it labor in vain.

            Unless the LORD watches over the city,

                        the watchman stays awake in vain.

            It is in vain that you rise up early

                        and go late to rest,

            eating the bread of anxious toil;

                        for he gives to his beloved sleep (Ps. 127:1-2).

The bread of anxious toil is bitter. Worried work from dawn to dusk delivers not the sweet fruit of God’s blessing but the vanity of discontentment. Calvin says that our tendency is to launch from the Lord’s blessing into an insatiable covetousness for more and more, while simultaneously defining happiness as “ease, honours, and great wealth.”[5] And when that becomes our definition of “blessed,” the blessing becomes a curse.

The remedy is reorientation:

            Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,

                        who walks in his ways!

When our work is rooted in the fear of the Lord, when our walk is in his ways, we do it for his glory (1 Co. 10:31). When our work is rooted in the fear of the Lord, the fruit of our labor is a gift from the giver of all good things. When our work is rooted in the fear of the Lord, even work becomes a blessing.

Godly Fear and Family

The second example the psalmist gives is God’s blessing of family. While perhaps foreign to our age, the fruitfulness of childbearing was considered one of God’s great blessings. We see this in the patriarchal example of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, among others. Our culture may consider children a burden, but Solomon says,

            Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,

                        the fruit of the womb a reward (Ps. 127:3).

Therefore, in the home of those who fear the Lord, the psalmist says,

            Your wife will be like a fruitful vine

                        Within your house.

The vine is used a number of ways in Old Testament literature as a metaphor, such as imbibing celebration in Judges (Jg. 9:13), sexual charm in Song of Songs (Sg. 7:8), and childbearing fruitfulness here. Unlike the promiscuous wife described in Proverbs as “loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home” (Pr. 7:11), the woman who fears the Lord is “within your house,” a Hebrew idiom not defining her housekeeping skills but her faithfulness to the Lord.[6]

Likewise, it is a home filled with children. Solomon says,

            Like arrows in the hand of a warrior

                        are the children of one’s youth.

But in this psalm, children are not arrows to be shot but “olive shoots” around the table. The simile points to the future growth and promised fruit, symbolizing longevity and productivity, gathered round the family table. These children, one scholar observes, “are not like grass, which is here today but is gone tomorrow; rather, they are olive trees that in due time bear fruit. The blessedness of the godly … will extend to other generations. What a privilege God bestows on his children in this life that we may already taste the firstfruits of our heritage!”[7]

In an age where the family of one (male) husband, one (female) wife, and a quiver full of children is seen as out of vogue, and perhaps a curse rather than a blessing, it is all the more important to remember,

            Behold, thus shall the man be blessed

                        who fears the LORD.

Culture no more determines what marriage and the family are as what a blessing is. God alone does. And we who fear the Lord would do well to stop looking for the world’s affirmation or endorsement. Marriage between a man and a woman who fear the Lord is a blessing from heaven, and a picture of Christ’s love for this church. Covenant children who are raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord are a blessing too, and an example of God’s faithfulness from generation to generation. And a family who fears the Lord together is a blessing from the Lord to themselves, and to their church family too.

Godly Fear and Community

The psalm concludes with a kind of priestly prayer.

            The LORD bless you from Zion!

                        May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem

                        all the days of your life!

            May you see your children’s children!

                        Peace be upon Israel!

It is a prayer from the place of worship, Zion, for blessings flow from the Lord’s presence, for and to his people. It is a petition for blessing upon Jerusalem, upon the children, upon the nation.

For Old Covenant Israel, these were integrally connected: the throne, the heritage, the chosen; the blessing of beholding David’s dynasty, the blessing of seeing the future generations, the blessing of peace upon the nation.

But God’s answer to this priestly prayer is found not in one nation or race, but in the true and perfect Israel, Jesus Christ our Lord. For, in Christ we worship not in the temple on Mount Zion but in spirit and truth as the assembled temple of God. And he who is the rightful heir of David’s throne reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords over heavenly Jerusalem, and as his subjects we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pt. 2:9).

We and our children and our children’s children by faith are “like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 2:5). “Peace be upon Israel,” indeed, as we have the gospel of peace.

As such we as the church and temple of God, enjoy a spirit-indwelled fellowship, Christian community, that the children of ancient Israel longed for. You may recall that one day while teaching, Jesus was interrupted with a message, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you” (Mk. 3:32). We might say his blessed mother and fellow olive shoots sought a place at his table. Do you remember how he replied? Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” It wasn’t a question of identification. Looking around himself, and with characteristic hyperbole, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:31-35). Jesus’ point was not to disrespect his family but to direct us beyond flesh and blood. For, the Spirit of Christ is a stronger bond than birth, and the family he creates is founded not upon the blood in our veins but on the blood of the cross of Christ.

And as Christ’s church, the family of God, we are a community of those who fear the Lord, a fellowship of those who believe. We are made up of sinners who labor not to merit God’s favor, but who rest in the mercy of his amazing grace and are saved not by the sweat of our brow but through faith in Christ. By that same grace, we assemble as the body of Christ, enjoying the blessings of the Lord’s presence in our fellowship, in our worship, and in our relationships with one another. As a family, we are baptized into one communion and nourished at Christ’s table.

As a family, we look not to the transient whims of culture but the eternal Word of God to direct us. And like the psalmist, we lift our prayers to the Lord. To say that we are a blessed people is not to imply perfection but a perfect Savior, which is why, as his redeemed people, we can truly say,

            Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,

                        who walks in his ways!

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “Amazing Grace?,” Trinity Hymnal, Revised Ed. (Suwanee: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 640.

[3] “Mary Rejoices in Her Savior,” Tabletalk Magazine 47, no. 1 (January 2023): 39.

[4] Rhett P. Dodson, Marching to Zion: Ancient Psalms for Modern Pilgrims (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 138-139.

[5] John Calvin, Heart Aflame (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1999), 341.

[6] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 479.

[7] Quoted in Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 916.

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