“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4).
On first reading, something seems terribly askew. Would it not have made more sense for the psalmist to have said: “But with you there is justice, that you may be feared”? Is it not the prospect of God exacting payment for our transgressions that evokes fear in the human soul? If God should indeed “mark iniquities” then fear seems the only appropriate response.
But the good news is that with God “there is forgiveness”! That being the case, would not all “fear” be eliminated? One would certainly think so. Yet the psalmist asserts that the result of forgiveness (perhaps even its purpose) is that we might fear God ever more fervently. So the meaning of this remarkable text must be found elsewhere.
Think deeply about what is being said. With God there is forgiveness. From him proceeds the grace that provides a propitiation for our sins. He has taken every step necessary to accomplish our redemption through his Son. As we saw in Psalm 103:10, he no longer deals with us according to our sins or repays us according to our iniquities. Indeed, our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).
This is why the “fear” of God mentioned in this text cannot be fear of facing condemnation or fear of encountering and experiencing his righteous wrath. Do you see the psalmist’s logic? If what we find with God is forgiveness for our sins, what grounds remain for us to live in terror of his judgment or wrath? If God has wiped clean the slate of our sin and guilt, then clearly he has chosen not to “mark iniquities” and just as clearly all reason for fear is gone. Therefore, if the “fear of God” in this passage were a reference to the dread of impending destruction, forgiveness is emptied of all meaning and value.
But according to what we read in v. 4, forgiveness is the foundation for fear! The unshakeable knowledge that God will never “mark iniquities” (v. 3), which is to say, the assurance that our sins have been forever forgiven, is the reason why we fear God. There’s no escaping the force of the psalmist’s language: fearing God is the necessary fruit of forgiveness! This alone demands that fearing God entail something altogether other than being afraid of judgment.
Forgiveness, as much as any act of God, reveals his incomprehensible greatness and majesty. The infinitely transcendent God of holiness and truth has acted in grace on behalf of hell-deserving sinners. Once the reality of this is fully grasped, the only reasonable response is one of brokenness, humility, and breathtaking awe at such amazing love.
Certainly there is joy in the knowledge of our forgiveness, as well as gratitude and praise. But these are perfectly consistent with holy fear, that bone-shattering realization that it is by divine mercy alone that we are not forever consumed by divine wrath. One can simultaneously “taste” the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34:8a) and “fear” him (Ps. 34:9a). In fact, “it is grace which leads the way to a holy regard of God, and a fear of grieving him” (Spurgeon; 3:119).
So let it never be said that holy reverence for the Almighty is incompatible with freedom and joy. For as Thomas Adams so perfectly put it, “no man more truly loves God than he that is most fearful to offend him” (cited by Spurgeon, 127).