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Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling

There is a narrow way of worship that walks between two great gulfs of peril. One one side you have terror, on the other you have enthusiasm and untempered frenzy. We struggle to walk that narrow way, and see in the great Christian tradition a wake whereby we can judge our own course. And the Holy Scriptures, above all, is the essential map and guide for us as we chart our course. Within them, one especially clear verse summarizing the ‘radical middle’ better is Psalm 2:11:

“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”

The word “serve” here is not speaking of our busyness in ‘ministry,’ but references holy worship. We are to worship the Lord Yahweh with fear or reverence. The Psalmist is most likely still addressing the ‘kings’ and ‘judges,’ of verse 10. They too must pay proper obeisance to the great King on the holy hill of Zion (vv. 6-9). And their worship is not in any glib triviality or feigned cheeriness, but in awesome respect and fear. The great God Yahweh is the proper object of our worship, as represented in the (incarnate) Son who is to be kissed in humble lowliness (v 12). He is to be worshipped by all, even the kings. All must pay him worship, whether politicians, celebrities, or demi-gods (viz., professional athletes). And this worship must be more than merely dropping his name in an interview or speaking of one’s religious background to win votes in the South, but knee-bowing humble fear before the God who is a consuming fire. This is what John Gill emphasizes in his reading of the Psalm:

Kings and judges are not required hereby to lay aside their crowns and sceptres, and leave their seats of justice, and become preachers of the Gospel; but in acting according to the will of God revealed in his word, and in the whole worship of him, both internal and external: and this is to be done “with fear”, not with fear of man, nor with servile fear of God, but with a godly and filial fear, with a reverential affection for him, and in a way agreeable to his mind and will; with reverence and awe of him, without levity, carelessness, and negligence.

But this is not where the Psalmist ends. The second line of verse 11 expands on our reverential worship; we are also to “rejoice with trembling.” The fear is marked by a certain joyful character. But this joy is not such that may, as it were, take God glibly or casually. The rejoicing is “with trembling.” So Augustine comments on this Psalm:

Very excellently is “rejoice” added, lest “serve the Lord with fear” should seem to tend to misery. But again, lest this same rejoicing should run on to unrestrained inconsiderateness, there is added “with trembling,” that it might avail for a warning, and for the careful guarding of holiness.

I think one of the most insidious notions today is that the most virtuous acts or objects are natural or undisturbed by human (or divine) cultivations. This idea in some ways owes its rise to the Enlightenment and the rejection of all things metaphysical and the necessity of supernatural revelation (compare this post). It undoubtedly turns the Christian discussion concerning nature and grace on its head. And, truly, it is difficult to understand how this view is even so widely embraced by Neo-Calvinists who believe in human depravity, but we see its fruit in worship discussions. The idea is that religious affections should be uncultivated or uninhibited. Free or uncontrolled expression is the purest expression. But we believe that this view does not sufficiently allow the object of worship to shape the affections. In the end, we believe that all true expressions of worship are generated by hearts that are born from above by the Spirit, but at the same time, that those expressions are in conformity with the Word of God and the object of worship, God himself. Thus for joy to be wild and undisturbed or frenzied denies this vital truth: God is not tame. He is not your buddy. Worshipping him is not like your favorite sports team winning. He is an object of fear. We are to worship with a joy that trembles before the God who can consume us if we make a false move, but who has graciously poured out how grace and love to us in Jesus Christ. If you get more excited at a football game, the problem is not solved by bringing that excitement into church, but by taking a hard look at why you get excited at football games; we should not presume that such “excitement” befits Christianity. If you are more moved by movies than by preaching, then perhaps we ought to take a look at the movements themselves before we assume that God deserves them. The inspired Psalmist clearly says here that the rejoicing that honors God has a boundary marked by trembling.

Consider John Calvin’s own comments on this verse:

To prevent them from supposing that the service to which he calls them is grievous, he teaches them by the word rejoice how pleasant and desirable it is, since it furnishes matter of true gladness. But lest they should, according to their usual way, wax wanton, and, intoxicated with vain pleasures, imagine themselves happy while they are enemies to God, he exhorts them farther by the words with fear to an humble and dutiful submission. There is a great difference between the pleasant and cheerful state of a peaceful conscience, which the faithful enjoy in having the favor of God, whom they fear, and the unbridled insolence to which the wicked are carried, by contempt and forgetfulness of God. The language of the prophet, therefore, implies, that so long as the proud profligately rejoice in the gratification of the lusts of the flesh, they sport with their own destruction, while, on the contrary, the only true and salutary joy is that which arises from resting in the fear and reverence of God.

For Calvin, the only true joy is that which comes from the fear of God. Christian joy is wholly different from worldly, lusty joy. It is a joy that is mixed with trembling, a joy that always keeps the awful object of joy in view.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).