A devotional examination of “delight to fear your name” (Nehemiah 1:11)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

At the close of his prayer, Nehemiah describes God’s servants as those who “delight to fear your [YHWH’s] name.” Interestingly, out of the handful of commentaries examined, this author was unable to find a single comment on this quick phrase. However, this somewhat odd and seemingly paradoxical expression is certainly worthy of further study because undoubtedly it speaks volumes to fundamental questions about the source and nature of the believer’s delight, let alone his or her relationship with God.

יָרֵא means to fear, to hold in awe or deference. It connotes a level of honor and respect. And often, it is used to refer to the proper fear due to God (Holladay, 142). But paradoxically, Nehemiah’s words indicate that delight is found in fearing God’s name. (As is commonly known, “name” in the OT is often used to represent one’s essential characteristics. Therefore, this refers to those who fear God as He truly is.) However, this is very much contrary to common opinion; many live, act, and think as though pleasure is found in anything but God and His commandments. In fact, God is even called the “cosmic killjoy.” Contrary to this thought, Nehemiah demonstrates the belief that pleasure is found in fearing God, “that there is a kind of sweetness to the very experience of fearing God” as Piper says. Fear itself is a sweetness to the believer (Piper, “Kindness and Severity of God”).  As Piper further explains,

There’s a reason why people run away from scenes of terror in real life, but still go to movies to see the same terror. There’s a reason why no one wants to fall out of an airplane, but they will pay money at Valley Fair for the same sensation of falling. The reason is that we were created to be safely afraid of God. Everything else is an echo of this truth. We were made to be safely afraid of God, because when we are safely afraid of God—when there is no condemnation and we know that he is our Father and our Friend—then what remains in fear of God is deeply pleasant. (Piper, “Kindness and Severity of God”) In sum, Nehemiah’s description of the saint alludes to the reality that there is ironically greater pleasure found in living a life that honors God’s way and refuses the temporary and lesser sinful pleasures. That’s the paradox of “delighting to fear.” It’s not to say that fearing God won’t mean the forfeiting of some pleasures. But paradoxically, the forfeiting of such pleasures in the pursuit of reverencing God yields even greater, unshakable pleasure.

Fear, God, and Delight–An Unexpected Combo?

Jumbo shrimp, airline food, just war, Microsoft Works, or my personal favorite, country music 🙂 — All of these might fall under a category titled oxymorons–a figure of speech containing self-contradicting components. Likewise, some individuals might also consider Nehemiah’s description of God’s servants in Nehemiah 1:11 as an equally oxymoronic phrase–those “who delight to fear” God’s name. …Give those words a second glance… “who delight to fear your name.” There’s so much in this phrase that runs contrary to our common conceptions. Most obviously, many of us would never pair fear and delight as companions, let alone a fear of God.

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