Fear vs. Awe – Quote from Abraham Heschel

LightningRecently I posted an article called, “Does God Want Us to Fear Him?” It was about the fact that the Hebrew word that we translate as “fear,” also means “awe” and “reverence.”

Just now I picked up Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s classic book God in Search of Man and read a magnificent quote from him on this very thing:

According to the Bible the principle religious virtue is yirah. What is the nature of yirah? The word has two meanings, fear and awe. There is the man who fears the Lord lest he be punished in his body, family, or in his possessions. Another man fears the Lord because he is afraid of punishment in the life to come. Both types are considered inferior in Jewish tradition. Job, who said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him,” was not motivated in his piety by fear but rather by awe, by the realization of the grandeur of His eternal love.

Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. … Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is comparable to both love and joy.

In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear. To feel “The Lord is my light and my salvation” is to feel “Whom shall I fear?” {Psalms 27:1). “God is my refuge and my strength. A very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change, and though the mountains be moved into the heart of the seas” (Psalms 46:2-3).


Wow!  From God in Search of Man, p 77-78.




“Fear” is one of the Hebrew word studies in my latest book, 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know.


11 Responses to “Fear vs. Awe – Quote from Abraham Heschel”

  1. 1
    Don Schiewer Jr|February 26, 2014

    That book is required reading for all of my disciples.

  2. 2
    James|February 26, 2014

    There’s a second part to the quote from Job 13:15. The full verse (using the NASB) goes, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him.”

    I’m not sure how that speaks to Job’s awe of God but I think it expresses Job’s involvement and engagement with God, which too indicates Job was not so terrified of God that he could not speak to Him and “argue” his “ways before Him.”

  3. 3
    Lois Tverberg|February 26, 2014

    Good point.

  4. 4

    Great word! I have heard this taught so many different ways but I love this. Thanks for sharing.

  5. 5
    Olivia|March 19, 2014

    I was just reading Job 23 and Job 23:15-16 uses the words terrified and fear a couple times. Based on your article it seems these come from the Hebrew word yirah or pahad. I think the multifaceted meaning of these words perhaps adds more depth to Job’s feelings than just fear in the English language.

  6. 6
    Lois Tverberg|March 19, 2014

    Very good! Thanks for sharing from your studies.

  7. 7
    Lewis|March 20, 2014

    Thanks for the quote from Rabbi Heschel. I will find a way to use it as we wrap up a group study of Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus next week. Blessings always.

  8. 8
    Ryan|April 9, 2014

    I love this excerpt from Heschel.

    Question/Comment… Heschel says the 2 types of fear are inferior to awe. Perhaps this leaves an unintended impression that fearing God is a sign of immaturity…or that fearing God is not desirable and that we should try to instead only have awe. Did anyone else pick up on that slight tension in his statements?

    Seems to me there a lots of verses that encourage us to fear the Lord. Indeed, fear of the repercussions of bad choices has kept me out of a lot of trouble. 🙂

  9. 9
    Lois Tverberg|April 17, 2014

    Ryan, I don’t think Heschel thinks this way at all. Just the opposite. If you’ve read his writing, it’s worlds away from a mentality that ignores God’s holiness and anger at sin. Check out his book “The Prophets” which has a couple chapters about this very thing.

  10. 10
    Jeff Turner|April 22, 2014

    Perhaps fear of God is thought of better as an ingredient in a recipe or a part in the symphony instead of standing alone. It could be a true fear mixed with an awe mixed with a reverence just like flour mixes with eggs mixes with milk to make the cake or the violin mixes with cello and the bass to make the whole song. Its multi faceted and not understood fully when comprehending just one aspect. Seeing it as a multi faceted jewel or a soaring song played by a full symphony captures it better. Broaden that out to the mix of fear and love to truly worship God in Spirit and truth. You cannot really know God and not fear Him due to His Majesty and you cannot truly know God and not Love Him due to His Mercy. We have two hands, we can hold on to both at the same time

  11. 11
    Raymond Besems|November 6, 2014

    That’s really a Good quote Fear vs. Awe.

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