Awaking from a bad dream is a different kind of waking. It is not the gradual, sun-dappled arousal of a slow Sunday morning. It is the sensation of a reverse drowning–being pulled from shadowy, deep, moving river into the drier air of a cool, still night. Senses sputtering in electric arousal. Awareness of time and place confounded. Thrown through dreamy dimensions to arrive awake in a singular, vivid instant.
I find myself bolt upright in a cold sweat, throat strained with the sensation of a scream recently pulled from my lips. I’m never sure whether the noise of that utterance has been left in dreamland or joined me in the waking world. Or maybe it has been misplaced somewhere between the two, like a scarf fallen on a deserted, snowy landscape.
There have been times the scream remains lodged in my throat, uncertain how to cry. All I know is that fear was the swift and sure arrow that shot me towards consciousness. But in those initial moments of waking I’m not always certain where or who I am, let alone for what and from whom I should seek help.
Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. I think that in the past I have understood that proverb to mean that fear of the consequences of not knowing God (hell, for example) might be the impetus which spurs a person towards Him and His ways. But something about that just didn’t seem exactly right to me. It feels wrong somehow that fear of a person would draw me towards him? Is it?
In Judges a woman referred to simply as the wife of Manoah from Zorah receives a visit from the angel of God. Biblical scholars understand this as an encounter with Jesus before His human incarnation. Different translations offer slightly varying interpretations of how she described Him. Her words for His appearance, depending on translation, are “frightful,” “very terrifying,” “awe-inspiring,” “awesome,” “very terrible” or even “terror laced with glory.”
But despite an interaction that might be described as terrifying, when the angel of the Lord comes back later, Manoah dares to ask Him for a name. He responds, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” Other translations:
…it is beyond understanding.
…it is too wonderful for you to understand.
…seeing it is secret.
…because you cannot comprehend it.
It’s very, very similar to the conversation Jacob had when he wrestled with God (also as an angel of the Lord). Jacob asks Him for a name and God simply responds, “Why do you ask for a name?”
Fear can shock us, leaving us painfully immobilized when we know that we do not have the right resources at our disposal. Or it can be the recognition of our need that jars us to cry out for help. When Help comes- frightful, terrifying, awesome, wonderful and incomprehensible as He is- fear can find us shrinking back from that which stands looming before us unless we have become desperate enough in our own limitations to know that this One who is bigger than us is, in fact, our only hope. Similarly, recognizing what we do not know and cannot do is the very thing which causes us to ask the necessary questions of the unfathomable God. When we rightfully fear God, we do not presume to be able to control Him or remake Him or build Him into the image we prefer. In the dark, in our place of weakness and smallness, we squeak out, “Who’s there? Will you help me?” And, glory!, we will find that He will answer!
As with Manoah and also with Jacob, God’s response is not always the one that we might think we want. His answer, “Why do you ask for a name?” might seem cold and even give Him the appearance of being inhospitable. But actually it is an answer that is infinitely more reassuring than a more descriptive one. It is a response that lets us know that He is approachable and that He will answer us, but one that leaves no question that we most definitely are not in the same league. Not only will any words He could utter or we could understand with human languages fail to capture Him, but our minds simply cannot comprehend the fullness of Him. Still, He has told us enough. Enough to know that He is the mystery, you are known. He is the Unfathomable, you are understood. He has power, though you are weak.
Fear of the Lord is the swift and sure arrow that shoots you towards consciousness. It is the kind of fear which drives us to jump into or allow ourselves to be held by One larger than ourselves. Fear of the Lord has made it all too clear who I am (small) and for what (everything) and from whom (Him) I need help. Fear has been the beginning of knowledge. The impetus for knowing. The invitation into intimacy with someone who magnificently bigger than us but whose love defines Him. The details of who He is may yet be incomprehensible but the scope of Him is undeniable and is, perhaps, the most important aspect of our relationship. For if our help came from someone we could so easily encompass with our words or with our minds, someone who fit so easily into our ways of being and understanding, could we dare to have a hope so great?
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.