Fearsome, Sublime, and Awe-full
“The pains of hell came about me; the snares of death overtook me. In my trouble I called upon the Lord…so he heard my voice out of his holy temple…The earth trembled and quaked…There went out a smoke in his presence, and a consuming fire out of his mouth…He bowed the heavens, and came down” (Psalm 18:5-10).
God’s coming is fearsome and sublime. Creation groans with anticipation for God. The stars foretell it. The earth forewarns it. Ants fortify their homes with mounds of dirt the day before a rain. Even so, prophets warn God’s people to prepare: he is coming. Apprehension echoes through the pages of the Old Testament. Today, John the Baptist cries: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” God is coming, and, in the original meaning of the word, God is awe-full.
The twist from the old English rendition of the word ‘awful’ is a great tragedy in our language. Originally, the word ‘awful’ implied exactly what it says: “awe - full” — “full of awe.” The word ‘awe’ comes from Scandinavian, ‘aue’ — meaning ‘fear,’ ‘terror,’ and ‘reverence.’ It is not surprising that the English word ‘awe’ would come from its northern invaders. You can be sure the raiding Vikings inspired awe in many English hearts. Yet, the word goes back further to Old Norse, ‘aghe.’ No doubt, the oldest version of ‘awe’ was inspired by the cold, wild lands of the north, with mountains, lightning, and spiritual forces ever ready to crash down into human life.
The word ‘awe’ assumed a deeper meaning with the influence of Christianity. Awe became a word to describe ‘dread mixed with admiration and veneration’ (online etymology dictionary). One can feel fear, wonder, dread, and joy all at the same time. The Psalter prays: “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11). The Israelites sang: “Who among the gods is like you, LORD? Who is like you — majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders” (Exodus 15:11). Truly, God is awe-full.
When God comes, his coming is also awe-full. The Prophet Joel described God’s coming with some of the most colorful words in the scriptures.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand — a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times… Before them fire devours” (Joel 2:1-3).
This is just the beginning. The intensity swells as God’s army approaches, “like a crackling fire consuming stubble.” The nations are in anguish, the earth shakes, and the heavens tremble.
“The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:5,11).
Now listen to John the Baptist’s words.
He cries in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
All the foreboding, all the power in Joel’s prophecy are behind these words.
“Make straight the way of the Lord.”
There is very little awe in our modern culture and it is hard to hear the urgency behind the Baptist’s cry. The modern rendition of ‘awful’ and ‘awesome’ says everything. Terms that once described natural cataclysm, the thunderbolts of mythical deities, and Jesus Christ’s second coming, are now used to describe skateboard tricks and Hollywood entertainers. There is nothing light in John the Baptist’s message.
“Make straight the way of the Lord.”
To look head-on at God’s coming, could easily drive a man to despair. Yet, Joel’s prophecy continues. Right in the eye of the storm of God, there is hope.
“The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? ‘Even now, declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart’” (Joel 2:12).
God does not wish for any of his creation to suffer from his appearance. He comes. He is mighty. He is fire, and within that fire he calls out: Repent! Return to me! Give me your heart!
The same God who fills the earth with terror, reaches to each and every man, “Get up, my true love… come with me” (Song of Solomon 2:1). “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).
For God’s people, his fire will arrive like the soothing light of dawn.
“For my followers, goodness will shine on you like the rising sun. It will bring healing power like the sun’s rays. You will be free and happy, like calves freed from their stalls” (Malachi 4:2-3).
“Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people… Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God…Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2:18, 19, 32).
God is a consuming fire, not because of wrath, but because of love. He is love, and he loves all who love. His love is so astronomic that the prophets use fire and thunder to describe the love. Heat drives away coldness. Light drives away darkness. God’s love banishes everyone and everything tinged with hate. There is no room for wickedness in love, and it is burnt away as in a refining fire.
“The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous. The way of the ungodly shall perish…like the chaff, which the wind scattereth away” (Psalm 1:7, 5).
God is fearsome and sublime. He is august and awe-full, and in his foreboding coming, he brings mercy and renewal.
In one voice, the people of God look up:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns” (Psalm 46:1-11).