The Terrifying God
Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; if only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face! (Job 23:15-17 NRSV)
The book of Job opens with a description of the character of Job as a “blameless and upright” man who “feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). In the second scene, God (Heb. YHWH) sits in the divine council with the other heavenly beings. A figure known as the Accuser (Heb. ha-satan) enters the council meeting to deliver his report. God commends Job to the Accuser on the basis of his righteousness. The Accuser attacks Job’s righteousness, arguing that Job only fears God because God has blessed Job with such abundance and prosperity. God then works a deal with the Accuser that allows Job’s righteousness to be tested. First, Job loses his children and property, but Job does not “sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). Then, the Accuser attacks Job’s health, inflicting “loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7). Once again, Job refuses to curse God, saying, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10b). The remainder of the book documents a conversation between Job and his friends, who initially come to “console and comfort him” (2:11b). The conversation turns antagonistic as Job’s friends accuse Job of sinning against God and assert God’s justice. In the middle of the book, Job decides he is done debating the issue with his friends and instead wants to plead his case directly before God. Yet, when Job considers his situation and the absolute sovereignty of God, he says he is “terrified” and “in dread” of the presence of God (23:15).
The daily prayer of Judaism–the Shema–admonishes the Israelites, saying, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5). A few verses after commanding the Israelites to love God and keep God’s commandments, Moses warns the people about forgetting God and turning to idols. In addition to loving God, Moses says, “The LORD your God you shall fear” (6:13). Whenever the idea of fearing God appears in the scriptures, pastors and Bible teachers are quick to clarify the biblical sense of fearing God. To fear God is to honor and respect God the way one would honor and respect a parent, teacher, or civil authority. In passages like Deuteronomy 6, there is a clear link between fearing and loving God. So fearing God is essentially equivalent to loving God.
Pastors make these qualifications because they do not want congregants to think that fearing God includes emotions like dread and terror. When these emotions are applied to an authority figure, they conjure up images of corruption, oppression, and violence. Rulers that use terror to control their subjects are labeled tyrants and dictators. Think of a medieval king who uses a torture device like the rack to inspire absolute obedience amongst his subjects. Certainly, pastors do not want believers to see God as a ruthless and cruel tyrant. Yet, in the scriptures themselves, there are instances, like the one above in Job, where the faithful find themselves truly terrified by the presence of God.
The Terrifying God
After Elijah’s prophetic triumph on Mount Carmel, he flees to Mount Horeb where he has an epiphany of God. While on the mountain, a great wind, earthquake, and fire pass by, physical phenomena that should evoke memories of Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Yet, the scriptures say that the LORD is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire. Then, after the cataclysm dies down, there is the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Ki 19:12). Elijah correctly perceives this to be God’s manifestation and goes to the opening of the cave to speak with God. Although the scriptures do not elaborate, one can only imagine Elijah’s emotional and psychological state at this moment in time. Surely, he approaches the sheer silence of God with much fear and trembling.
In contrast to Elijah, Job ultimately encounters God in a terrifying physical phenomenon. In response to Job’s demand to speak with God, God finally appears to Job in the form of a whirlwind (Job 38:1). Then God unleashes a barrage of questions at Job related to the workings of the physical universe. These questions continue for a number of chapters before Job ultimate repents of his desire to debate his case before God. Job tells God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). As it turns out, an encounter with a terrifying manifestation of God works a profound change in Job. He recognizes the limits of his own human understanding and humbles himself before the Almighty. He also sees God in a new light. Before encountering God in the whirlwind, Job knows of God by hearsay. Now Job knows God in an immediate and personal way. This revelation deepens Job’s knowledge of God. One might say that Job progresses from a child’s simplistic understanding of God to an adult’s complex understanding of the One who calls himself, “I AM.”
The Refinement of God
While believers naturally shy away from terrifying images of God, the scriptures show that a terrifying encounter with God will mature and refine a person’s faith, not harm it. While it is clear that Job’s terrifying encounter with God shapes him for the good, the best example of this point may be Isaiah’s encounter with God in Isaiah 6. In a vision, Isaiah is transported to the throne room of God, where seraphs are “in attendance” on God (Isa 6:2). These seraphs call back forth to one another, praising the holiness and glory of God. Adding to the drama, Isaiah says that the “thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke” (6:4). Isaiah’s response to the frightening holiness of God is poignant, “Who is me! I am lost” (6:5). In a shocking turn of events, one of the seraphs brings a “live coal” from God’s altar using a “pair tongs” (6:6). Given the flow of the story, Isaiah must expect to be burned, possibly even incinerated by the coal. Yet, far from harming him, the burning coal cleanses and refines Isaiah. He is told that his “guilt has departed” and his “sin is blotted out” (6:7). Now he becomes a holy vessel, able to go and proclaim the Lord’s word to the people.
For both Job and Isaiah, a frightening encountering with a terrifying God leads to a transformed self. This truth shows that believers should not be so quick to shield themselves from the uncomfortableness of God’s ultimate power and sovereignty. For example, Isaiah conveys these provocative words from God, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god… I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things” (Isa 45:5,7). While it is fruitful to meditate on the love, kindness, humility, and compassion of God, it is equally important to consider the unsettling majesty and mystery of God. The most succinct and profound statement of the dangerous holiness of God is found in the book of Hebrews, “For indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). Coming near to this fire, while appearing terrifying on the surface, results in a spiritual growth that is only achieved through a direct encounter with the presence of God.
Featured image from Father Ted on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.