Work Out Your Own Salvation with Fear and Trembling

It is not in the nature of things for humanity, at least in our present state, to feel comfortable with God. Rather, it is in our nature to either ignore God the best we can or recreate God in a way to our own liking. We especially do not like it when God makes demands on us, or sets moral boundaries as He does here at this point in our narrative. We have already discussed the Ten Commandments earlier in this blog (See September 6, 2012 through December 4, 2012) and will not repeat ourselves here. Two things, however, are worth revisiting from these posts. First, all the images and motifs that we find in the Ten Commandments are anchored in creation. To experience the law in obedience is to experience the world as it was originally intended to be experienced on God’s first Sabbath, the seventh day. Second, the preface to the commandments, where God sets before Israel the fact that He delivered them from Egypt for this very moment, demonstrates that grace comes before command and is the very context for obedience. Salvation is not something earned. Law is creation goodness and was a gift of grace to Israel at this juncture in their history.

Yet we find Israel running away from YHWH’s dreadful sound just as Adam and Eve ran and hid themselves when they heard the sound of God approaching them in the Garden. Clearly YHWH invited them out of desire for friendship, to re-establish what was lost at the fall. On a negative note, YHWH wanted them near because distance causes suspicion and relational breakdown. We see this in 19:9 where YHWH tells Moses that He will come in a thick cloud so the people will hear when He speaks to him, so that they might believe Moses forever. Then, in 20:20, when the people stood afar of trembling at the pyrotechnic display of divine terror, Moses pleads with the people not to fear, for this was a test. Moses gives 2 reasons for this. The first seems very paradoxical. It is so that the people will “fear” YHWH. There are two types of fear; one that drives us away from God, and one that drives us to God. The former is a fear of distrust; that God is out to destroy us. The latter is a fear before the immensity and reality of God, a fear that inspires faith and obedience. Strangely, this fear can mature into the love of God. Second, Moses wanted them to brave it out so that they would not sin, which, in fact happened in chapter 32.

The law of God is bracketed by YHWH’s warning in 19:24 for Israel not to break boundaries lest “He break out” against them, and this moment, when Israel actually hears YHWH thundering His commands and stood afar off in fright (20:18). The first has to do with presumption, the second with spiritual feebleness. YHWH and His law are terrifying while at the same time good. We cannot approach with presumption on one hand, and we cannot allow ourselves to be frightened off on the other. St. Paul must have been meditating on this very passage when he exhorts us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12b, 13). Israel did not have the advantage of the last part “for God is at work in you …” for we have Christ, who is the very divine Word, the law, indwelling and at work within us. Yet, something strangely remains the same, and that is the “fear and trembling.” Are we presumptuous? Do we really know anything about holy fear? Do we choose to stand afar off and therefore fall into sin? Or, do we turn our face toward the terrifying mount with its dark cloud where we must face God and ourselves? It is not easy living with a Holy God!

They Love Thee little, if at all,
Who do not fear Thee much;
If love is thine attraction, Lord!
Fear is thy very touch.

Our blessing will be to bear
The sight of Thee so near,
And thus eternal love will be
But the ecstasy of fear.

Frederick Faber

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