The Sublime and Fear of God

In literature and art, the concept of the “sublime” became fascinating for those in the Romantic era. A well-known painting from that time called “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” shows a man on the edge of a precipice, looking out at the misty, mountainous landscape that extends as far as he can see and beyond. It has become a symbol of the sublime in that it depicts the frail smallness of man beholding a vast, mysterious, powerful expanse. The sublime therefore is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. It fills one with awe. Edmund Burke, in his essay “On the Sublime,” wrote, “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” Later writers expanded this definition. The poet William Wordsworth wrote in his essay that the “mind [tries] to grasp at something which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining.” And Hirschfeld wrote that the sublime is the point when “physical grandeur [becomes] transformed into spiritual grandeur.”

Although they explain it in the context of a society bereft from God, these writers and artists saw His handiwork, and their own weakness in relation to it, and trembled. Jeremiah 5:22 says, “‘Should you not fear me?’ declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?'” God’s power is such that we cannot ever fully grasp it, or see it for what it truly is. But in this physical realm, and with the minds He has given us, we can feel our smallness and gasp at who God is.

Job 23:13-16:

But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.

This fear is distinct from respect. And different words are used, as this bible study article explains: “In Hebrew, yirah (Jon 1:16, Ps 90:11), yare (above, Mal 3:16) and pachad (Job 3:25a, Ps 119:120) mean reverent fear, terror, or dread, normally translated simply fear. There are other words in Hebrew for mere respect, reverence, or honor, such as kabad (Ex 20:12). In Greek fear/terror is phobo (Mat 28:4,1 Pet 2:17c), where reverence or honor is timao (1 Pet 2:17a/d).”

This fear puts us in our place, shocks us, and overcomes us. Then, it can inspire intense gratitude for God’s plan. Instead of feeling simply overwhelmed by the earth and the universe and all the myriad forces outside of our control and understanding, we can be constantly reassured that God has His hand in everything — commanding, protecting, and allowing His plan to unfold, all so far and wide and overreaching that we will never comprehend it. There is nothing that He can’t control, nothing that misses His gaze. Proverbs 14:26-27 tells us, “He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death.”

This mixture of terror and wonder sparks a desire to walk according to His way, because ultimately it is the only way. In the end, everything will come to submission under God (Romans 14:11). Through this fear, and awe, and amazement, comes the brightest hope for salvation. For without His omnipotent power, we wouldn’t have a chance.

Hebrews 12 explains:

18 You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. 19 For they heard an awesome trumpet blast and a voice so terrible that they begged God to stop speaking. 20 They staggered back under God’s command: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, “I am terrified and trembling.”

22 No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. 23 You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. 24 You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.

25 Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! 26 When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: “Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.” 27 This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain.

28 Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. 29 For our God is a devouring fire.

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