2 Kings 17:33
They feared the LORD, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from there.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" — "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," are two of Solomon's most pregnant maxims (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10); or rather two forms of the same, which is again repeated in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 111:10). The word "beginning" in all these cases, may be strictly understood as having reference to time. This is the point from which all successful students of true wisdom must set out. Their first lesson is to fear the Lord. "The fear of the Lord," which is thus both the Alpha and Omega of the spiritual alphabet, may be taken either in a generic or a specific sense. The former is, in fact, co-extensive with the general idea of religion or true piety, including, either directly or by necessary inference, every right disposition and affection on the part of man, as a dependent and unworthy creature, towards the infinitely great and holy God. All such affections may be readily deduced from fear, in its specific sense, as signifying not a slavish but a filial feeling, not mere dread or terror, which, from its very nature, must be always tinged with hate, or at least with repugnance, but a reverence impregnated with love. This genuine and spurious fear of God, unlike as they may seem, and as they are, have often been confounded, on account of their having something really in common, to wit, a sense of God's power and an apprehension of His wrath as awaiting all transgressors of His will. But this common element, which justifies the use of the word fear in reference to both these dispositions, is blended in the one case with a consciousness of alienation and hostility, while in the other it is lost, as it were, in the feeling of attachment, confidence, and common interest. The varying proportion, in which these distinctive qualities are blended with the fundamental property of fear, determines the facility with which a filial awe may be confounded with a slavish dread. To discriminate between the two might sometimes be impossible, but for a practical criterion or test which the Word of God has laid down, in accordance with our Saviour's fundamental rule of moral diagnosis, "By their fruits ye shall know them." This intimate connection between genuine fear and obedience is recognised in the law itself, when Moses warns Israel "to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear the glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 28:58). The negative aspect of the same truth is exhibited by Job, when he winds up his sublime inquiry after wisdom with the solemn declaration, "Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding" (Job 28:28). Here, then, is the touchstone of a genuine and a spurious fear of God. The one disposes us to do His will, from a sincere complacency and acquiescence in it. The other prompts us rather to resist it, except so far as our compliance may seem necessary to escape His wrath, which is the only real object of this slavish dread. The one is a fear of punishment as the consequence of sin; the other a fear of sin itself, as intrinsically evil, or, which amounts to the same thing, as opposed to the will of God, and to His very nature, which is thus assumed as the ultimate criterion of right and wrong, of good and evil. Only a filial fear disposes men to serve God. Selfish and slavish fear disposes them to flee from Him. This distinction, however obvious as it is in Scripture and familiar in experience, is not practically recognised by all men. There seems to be a natural propensity to look upon fear, blank fear, as the essence of devotion, as the whole of what is due to God, the rendering of which absolves from all obligation to believe, to trust, to love, or to obey. Among the heathen this idea of religion is perhaps predominant, or certainly far more prevalent than we frequently imagine. It may well be questioned whether their deities are ever the objects of their love, excepting in those cases where the god is but a personification of some darling lust. Beyond this homage rendered to the unchecked sway of their own appetites and passions, there is strong reason far believing that their devotion is nothing but the tribute of their fears to a superior power which they hate, and which they look upon as hating them. The service rendered under the influence of such a motive is in no ease more than they regard as absolutely necessary to secure them from the wrath of the offended godhead. But this universal and unconquerable sense of guilt may co-exist with an indefinite variety of notions as to the means of propitiation, and the extent to which those means must be applied. Some men may feel it to be necessary to expend their whole time in appeasing the Divine wrath; but by far the greater number, under every known form of idolatry, consider less than this sufficient, and rejoice to appropriate the residue to self-indulgence. They give no more than is extorted by their fears, and have no conception of religious service as a voluntary, cheerful, joyous consecration of the whole man to an object which he venerates and loves, and in the doing of whose will he finds his highest happiness. The only service of this free, spontaneous, and absorbing nature that the heathen devotee pays, is the service rendered to himself, in the indulgence of his own corrupt desires. He gives even to his chosen idol only what he is unable to withhold, his fears; and by so doing proves himself a stranger to all genuine religious fear, which cannot be divorced from the willing and devoted service of its object. An apt illustration of this general truth is afforded by a singular and interesting passage of the sacred history. The King of Assyria had carried into exile the ten tribes of Israel, and supplied their" place with settlers from his own dominions. These were heathen, and brought with them their own idols and idolatrous rites. Having no knowledge of Jehovah, whom their predecessors had professed to worship, even under the forbidden form of golden calves, they had, of course, no fear of His displeasure, till He sent wild beasts among them, and slew some of them. Regarding this correctly as a penal visitation from the God of the land, they procured from their own sovereign the assistance of an Israelitish priest to teach them how to worship Him. He accordingly taught them, as the narrative expresses it, "how they should fear the Lord," and they acted promptly upon his instructions. They took care, however, to provide gods of their own, each tribe or nation for itself, while at the same time they offered to Jehovah a worship of fear prompted more by the recollection of lions than by faith or reason. "So they feared the Lord, and served their own gods." How far the sacred writer was from recognising this as any genuine religious fear at all, we learn from his saying, in the very next sentence, " unto this day they do after the former manners; they fear not the Lord." Why! Because "they feared the Lord, and served their own gods." We may be disposed to smile with some contempt at the absurd and inconsistent conduct of these wretched pagans. But wherein did their folly and their sin consist? Certainly not in being afraid of the displeasure of Jehovah and in seeking to avert it; for in this they acted wisely. But it lay in their imagining that forms of worship, extorted from them by their selfish fears, would be sufficient to propitiate the Most High and secure them from His vengeance; while their voluntary service, their cordial and habitual devotion, was expended on His enemies and rivals. If this is the absurdity which we condemn, our judgment is a just one; but let us impartially condemn it wherever we may find it, whether in ancient or in modern times, whether in Eastern or in Western climes, whether in heathendom or Christendom, whether in our neighbours or ourselves. To make the transition easier from the heathen to the Christian world, we may begin with our own heathen, the heathen at our own doors, in our own streets; I mean those who approach nearest to the heathen both in the positive and negative circumstances of their spiritual state, their ignorance of truth, and their enslavement to sin. Look at the worst part of your population, as it pours its turbid streams along in times of more than usual excitement; hear its muttered or vociferated curses; mark the bestial character of its propensities and habits. All this you have seen, and as you saw it, you have been disposed perhaps to say that here, at least, there is no divided worship or allegiance; here, at least, are men who serve their own gods, but who do not, even in profession, fear the Lord. No, in profession, certainly not; in form, in purpose, not at all; but do you think they never fear Him, that is, feel afraid of Him? Be not precipitate in drawing such conclusions. In the vast mixed multitude of those whom you regard as the most ignorant, and reckless, and besotted of your countrymen, observe, on some occasion of extraordinary concourse, how many haggard faces, and contracted brows, and strangely gleaming eyes encounter yours. Do you believe all this expression of anxiety and dread to be the fruit of poverty, or sickness, or domestic cares? If so, you are mistaken; for the same expression may be seen in those who are not poor, who are not sick, or outwardly distressed at all; and on the other hand, its absence may be marked in thousands who are poorer, and who suffer more from care and sickness than do any of those whom you are observing. There is something back of all these causes to produce this uniformity of countenance, and I will tell you what it is — it is fear. You fear the Lord; you are unwilling to provoke His anger; you acknowledge your obligation to serve Him, and you discharge that obligation by attending on His worship; but is He the master that you daily serve? Where is your treasure and your heart? By whose will do you regulate your life? A man may so far fear the Lord as to frequent His house, and join in the external acts of worship there; but what if he has other gods at home, and there bows down to Mammon or to Belial? What if the world is in his heart, and the prince of this world on the throne of his affections? Will the stain of these habitual idolatries be washed out by patiently enduring the penance of a Sabbath service? Will the Lord, who is thus feared with a slavish dread of His displeasure, be contented, for the sake of this, to pass by all the rest — all that is done, or all that is not done, in defiance of His absolute authority and positive command? The charge which is here brought is not one of hypocrisy. It is one of delusion. I do not say that those of whom I speak pretend to fear the Lord when they know they fear Him not. I say that they believe they fear Him, when in fact they fear Him not. Or rather, which is really the same thing in another form, they do fear Him; but it is not with a fear which honours, or conciliates, or pleases Him, as they imagine; and here, just here, is their delusion. They are sincere enough in thinking that they fear God; but they are terribly mistaken in supposing that they fear Him as they ought. This is a painful truth to those of us whom it concerns; but it is one which, sooner or later, must be told. And it requires not many words to tell it. It may be summed up in this short sentence: If you do not serve the Lord, you do not fear Him. You may attend upon His worship, you may respect religion, you may believe the Bible to be true, you may hope to be saved through Christ, you may expect to die the death of the righteous.
(F. Addison Alexander, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: They feared the LORD, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence.