From “The Beginning of Wisdom” in Deliverance to the Captives, 132-134 (1958)

What, then, is the right fear of the Lord?

Let me go back to the 111th Psalm. It is worth noting that this psalm which ends with the fear of the Lord begins with these words: “Praise the Lord, I will give thanks unto the Lord with my whole heart.” And it continues: “He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him. He is ever mindful of his covenant.” And later, “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.” And immediately before our text: “He sent redemption unto his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.” This leads to the passage on the fear of the Lord. This is the fear of the Lord: it is born, it is given, as soon as man discovers that God is this God, and does these things of which the psalm speaks.

It is nothing short of a discovery when a man is suddenly confronted with this reality. It is not unlike the experience of Columbus, who, sailing out for India, suddenly hit upon the continent of America. This I did not know. This nobody ever told me. This I could never have found out by myself – that God is this God, that God does these things. Solomon faced this fact, this lovingkindness, these mighty deeds which God accomplished with his people, with his father, David, and with himself. And faced with this wondrous reality, he feared the Lord. Out of this fear, he became the wise Solomon.

When the right fear of the Lord takes possession of our hearts, we are both lost in amazement and struck by awe, even terror. For we discover that God, since the beginning of time, has not hated or threatened you or me, but has loved and chosen us, has made a covenant with us, has been our helper long before we knew it and will continue this relationship. The fear of the Lord springs from the discovery that the high and eternal God gave his beloved son for us, for you and me, taking upon himself our sin and misery; he made his son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be our brother, for whose sake we may call God our Father and ourselves his children. The fear of the Lord springs from the discovery that I did not merit this gift, that it as been given to me by the pure and free goodness of God, in spite of all that I deserved. The fear of the Lord springs from the discovery that this is the true relationship between God and me – that I had totally ignored it – that I had perhaps heard it once from afar, only to forget it again and to live as if it were not true and none of my concern. The fear of the Lord springs from the discovery that it might be high time to awake from sleep, to arise and live as the men we really are, God’s elect and chosen people, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, set free by him from our sin and our misery. The fear of the Lord springs from the discovery that God calls us unto himself and that his calling urges us to wake up, to arrive, and to begin to live as his children. This fear of the Lord is very real, it is awe, even terror, yet it is poles apart from the dumb anxiety of which we spoke. For it is inspired with secret jubilation and born of gratitude.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss Reformed theologian, the most influential leader of the Neo-Orthodoxy movement in twentieth century Protestantism. He is most famous for his emphasis on the grace of God, which he connected with a strong doctrine of election and divine revelation. He preached the sermon “The Beginning of Wisdom” to the prisoners at the city jail in Basel, Switzerland on July 20, 1958. It was published in 1961 in a translated collection of his prison sermons.