Posted on July 23rd, 2012
“Our God is an awesome God, He reigns, from heaven above.” If you, like me, cut your teeth on praise band music of the ’80’s and ’90’s, that line, “Our God is an awesome God,” is well familiar to you. The thought is actually a Biblical one. You can see it reflected in our Psalm this evening: “Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! … Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.”
I don’t know if this is true for you, but when I hear the word “awesome” I can’t help but hear it according to its common usage. The Urban Dictionary gives three definitions of Awesome:
Something Americans use to describe everything. “Oh wow it’s just awesome.”
A ‘sticking plaster’ word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabulary. It is one of the three words which make up most American sentences: Oh my [reference to deity], awesome, and [vulgar word referring to excrement]
An overused adjective intended to denote something as “cool” or “great” but instead winds up meaning “lame.” This is actually a reflection of the lameness of the person using the word…
I guess that makes me rather awesome—which is to say, lame. Because I use the word far too much. Paul Techau got a new car. Awesome! Noah and Becky just recently went to Germany. Awesome! Eric and Karen are getting married. Totally awesome!
But if you were to dust off your Hebrew Bible, you’d discover that the word translated in both the NKJ and ESV as “awesome” is in fact a from of the verb aérÎy, which means “to fear.” Now it’s a very nuanced word in Hebrew, meaning experiencing the emotion of terror, the contemplation of evil, to show respect or be in awe of someone or thing, to be pious or righteous in your behavior, and finally to formally worship or be part of a religion.
The old King James thus makes a very different choice in translation: “Say unto God, How terrible art thou in thy works!… Come and see the works of God: he is terrible in his doing toward the children of men.”
I’m guessing that if Rich Mullins, the author of the song Awesome God, had gone with the King James, he might not have had such a hit. “Our God is a terrible God” just doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?
Now to be fair, the whole song does attempt to demonstrate that God’s awesomeness is in His power and judgment:
When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just putting on the ritz (Our God is an awesome God) There’s thunder in His footsteps And lightning in His fists (Our God is an awesome God) And the Lord wasn’t joking When He kicked ‘em out of Eden It wasn’t for no reason That He shed His blood His return is very close And so you better be believing that Our God is an awesome God
Yet still, this is the awesomeness of an Abrams tank, the Blue Angels, or a long, gorgeous homerun by Justin Morneau. And despite the lyrics mention God’s judgment and even His works of creation, the beat and the ordinary associations of the word triumph, so that God is not just really powerful but really cool, really great, in the same category of a superhero, supermodel, or superstar. Awesome, dude!
God is terrible, awefull (i.e., full of awe), His ways beyond ours, His thoughts beyond ours. He is terrible, and does terrible things. He kills and He makes alive; He shatters the shield and shatters our dreams, makes the earth tremble and our hearts tremble, He stands in judgment of your lies, your evil speaking, your false witness, and bending the story always to suit your own interests. Thus when people encounter God in the Scriptures, God has to tell them—using this very same word from which awesome is derived—He has to tell them to fear not.
After Jacob had the vision of the heavenly ladder, the Scripture says, “he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!’” (Gen. 28.17)
And later on, the Lord says to Israel, “If you do not carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE Lord YOUR GOD, then the LORD will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues—great and prolonged plagues—and serious and prolonged sicknesses” (Deut. 28.58).
Truly God is awesome, terrible, to be feared and reverenced. The most awesome thing He does is in the judgment of the world, which is to say, the crucifixion of His only Son. There, the terrible, fearful, awesome dread of the Lord is poured out, the event which causes the angels to say to the women, “Fear not!” And thus we can reply with the joyful praise of tonight’s Psalm, “Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!” +INJ+
From a sermon in June on Psalm 66.