“Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?1 Samuel 6:20
This was the response of some of the people of Israel after encountering the awesome presence of God.
The Philistines had captured the ark of the Lord, and it had been in Philistine territory for seven months. In that time the presence of the Lord, which stayed in proximity of the ark, had toppled pagan gods and created quite a stir among the Philistine people. Disease had broken out in judgment against the Philistines who were attempting to subdue the God of Israel. It wasn’t working.
So the Philistines sent the ark back to Israel, and it ends up in the area of Beth Shemesh. The people of Beth Shemesh were so excited about this that they offered sacrifices to the Lord and had a huge celebration. Yet, even then, some Israelites were too flippant with the presence of the Lord. Some of them dropped dead “because they looked into the ark of the Lord“(1 Samuel 6:19).
Before we start picturing the final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, let’s look again at what the people of Beth Shemesh said. What caused the fear of the Lord to fall on the people was not God’s omnipotence or judgment. What caused an absolute fear to fall on the people was God’s holiness.
Throughout scripture we learn that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; it’s a fountain of life and a blessing to all who fear God. The fear of the Lord in this context is not about being afraid of God but instead about honoring God with our lives. It’s about being in awe of God with a holy reverence. This kind of “fear of the Lord” is something we can mature and grow in as we mature in Christ.
Yet, there is another kind of “fear of the Lord” that can happen when we encounter the raw presence of God. Throughout scripture those who encounter the presence of God (or an angel who is saturated in the presence of God) usually end up dropping to the ground in fear. This happens not because God is terrifying but because He is completely holy.
I have tried to live with the first kind of fear of the Lord (respect, honor, reverence) for most of my life. Yet, I encountered the second kind of fear of the Lord for the first time a few months ago. I had an encounter with God where the power of God was running through my body like 220 volts of electricity. This went on for many minutes, to the point where all the muscles in my body involuntarily contracted (picture someone getting tased and you’re getting close to what the experience was like). It was beautiful and painful!
After the power of God subsided, and I was able to get off the ground, I began to walk around to try to recover from what just happened. While I was walking, suddenly and without warning, the overwhelming sense of how close the raw presence of God came to me hit me like a ton of bricks. This was not something I was aware of naturally. It was something the Holy Spirit suddenly revealed to me in that moment.
As soon as it dawned on me how close I was to the raw presence of God, the holy fear of the Lord hit me. I’ve never felt anything like it. All I could do was sit down and weep. The holy fear that hit me was tangible. I couldn’t pray anything intelligible. The only thing coming out of my mouth was, “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” That’s all I could pray for about 10 minutes. I was enveloped in a holy fear.
The holiness of God is absolutely terrifying. And I’m sure I only tasted a sliver of it. If you think standing before this holy God during judgment is going to be all love and rainbows, think again. Yes, God is love. His love is overwhelming and unconditional. God is also holy. And His holiness will drop us to our knees in absolute fear. For all the universalists out there who think God is like Santa Claus, think again. Those who face the holiness of God naked–not clothed in the righteousness of Christ–will not find the proximity of the Lord something to be desired. Even those of us clothed in Christ will be overwhelmed.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to surrender your life to Jesus. You’re not promised tomorrow! You don’t know when you will be standing before this holy God, but you will want to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ (rather than your own) when you do.