God revealed Himself to the Israelites and the Egyptians by sending the plagues on Egypt (Exodus 6:5; 7:5, 17; 8:9-10, 22; 9:13-14, 29; 10:1-2) and deliverance through the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:4, 18; 15:2-13). When Israel grumbled in the wilderness concerning the lack of food, God sent manna and quail so that they would learn who God is (Exodus 16:6, 12).
When Israel was camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, God instructed Moses to prepare the people to meet Him (Exodus 19:9-15). On the third day, Israel experienced an awe-inspiring theophany (manifestation) of God (Exodus 19:18-19; 20:18-19) “so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so” (Deuteronomy 4:10-12).
“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear (יָרֵא, yārēʾ), for God has come to test you, that the fear (יָרֵא, yārēʾ) of him may be before you, that you may not sin’” (Exodus 20:20). What did Moses say? Do not fear but fear? What is going on?
“The aspects of fear encompassed by יָרֵא (yārēʾ) include terror, respect, and worship” (Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Zondervan, 1997, 528). Thus, the fear of the Lord is a continuum (terror ” dread ” trembling ” astonishment ” awe ” reverence ” devotion ” trust ” worship) we move along when we accurately perceive God and the world He has made.
Moses calls on Israel not to have a “tormenting fear” of God with the first “fear” in Exodus 20:20. “Terror” is a natural reaction to the powerful manifestation of God in fire and smoke on Sinai. The “terror” and “dread” side of the “fear continuum” can result from being confronted with mysterious supernatural phenomena (feeling threatened in one’s very existence), conscious guilt, or unwarranted alarm. Moses encourages the people not to be afraid because that reaction would demonstrate that they misunderstand what God is trying to do (“to prove or test them” – Exodus 20:20).
The “fear of the LORD” that Moses calls for with “that the fear of him may be before you” (Exodus 20:20) is “salutary fear.” Fear that promotes or is conducive to a beneficial relationship with LORD. It is the presence of an attitude that encourages and demonstrates complete trust and belief in God (Genesis 22:12). This type of “fear” will keep us from sinning and is at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures’ wisdom books (Proverbs 1:7; Ecclesiastes 12:13). Holy awe of God manifests itself in “obedience to God (or the LORD).”
God revealed Himself at Sinai to give Israel so vivid and unforgettable an experience of Himself, including His statement of His principles for life in relationship with Him (the Torah), that they will follow His way as the priority of life. The point of the Words (Exodus 20:1-19) and the theophany is to encourage Israel to walk in obedience to God (“fear of Him”) which will remove the dread of God’s presence. Obedience to God through the words (“instruction”) will result in not continuing in sin, which allows God’s presence to dwell among them. An awareness of the incredible power, glory, and majesty of God ought to make them think twice before choosing to sin against God. This awareness of the holy God and its appropriate response is what is meant by “the fear of God” in the Bible.