Judith, Holofernes, and the Fear of the Lord

Judith, Holofernes, and the Fear of the Lord

Judith with the head of Holofernes
Judith with the head of Holofernes

Last week at the Museum of Fine Arts we saw a little ceramic statue of Judith holding the head of Holofernes. One of the kids asked me about it and while I was able to identify her as Judith, but when I was pressed for her story, I realized I didn’t actually remember any of the details.

So today Bella reminded me that I’d promised to read it to them. And I did. the entire book of Judith. I’m not sure how long it took, but they all seemed to enjoy it. Bella was entranced: beautiful woman all dressed in finery and jewels who defeat the enemy with the help of the Lord. Why on earth isn’t there a picture book about this? Oh yeah, because she chops off his head. Well, I know what kind of story my daughter likes. I do know the others all got distracted at some points– Anthony asked me to read something else, Ben wandered off for a bit– but even so they continued to listen to the end and seemed to follow the main action pretty well. Though afterward Sophie said she wasn’t sure who the bad guys were.

Anyway, it was quite fun to read aloud. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, a very fun, dramatic read. We stopped the reading at several points to talk about the story, to answer questions, to fill in details, and to make connections. Bella was really thinking about it and pondering it.

One connection I made was this flash of insight about the Gift of the Holy Spirit that kids always ask about and that’s always hard to explain—we were just discussing it on Sunday as I was pointing out a stained glass window representing the seven gifts— that is the fear of the Lord. Why should we be afraid of God?

And then here was Achior, the leader of the Ammonites, telling Holofernes about the great power of the God of the Israelites: “if there is any unwitting error in this people and they sin against their God and we find out their offense, then we will go up and defeat them. But if there is no transgression in their nation, then let my lord pass them by, for their Lord will defend them, and their God will protect them, and we shall be put to shame before the whole world.” Achior is a gentile not an Israelite, but he fears the God of the Israelites and knows that he is “the God who hates iniquity.”

Holofernes, on the other hand, does not fear God: “Who is God except Nebuchadnezzar? He will send his forces and will destroy them front he face of the earth, and their God will not deliver them.”

But the courage of the Israelites fails, they are more afraid of the Assyrian forces assembled than they are of the Lord God: “The people of Israel cried out to the Lord God, for their courage failed, because all their enemies had surrounded them and there was no way of escape from them.” They reproach Uzziah and the leaders of the city for not making peace with the Assyrians (which would of course entail agreeing to worship Nebuchadnezzar as a god): “God be the judge between you and us! For you have done us a great injury in not making peace with the Assyrians. For now we have no one to help us; God has sold us into their hands to strew us on the ground before them with thirst and utter destruction.” They fail to trust in God to deliver them and are willing to make a bargain to save their lives instead of trusting in God.

Yet Judith “feared God with great devotion” and when she heard the wicked words the people spoke to Uzziah and how the leaders had promised to surrender in five days she berated them: “Who are you that you have put God to the test this day and are setting yourselves up in the place of God among the sons of men? You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test– but you will never know anything! You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart now find out what a man is thinking; how do you expect to search outGod, who made al these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought? No, my brethren, do not provoke the Lord our God to anger.”

Judith knows that they should not fear the Assyrians because God is all-powerful and can defeat them. But they should fear to anger God.

“Behold now the Assyrians are increased in their might; they are exalted, with their horses and riders; they glory in the strength of their foot soldiers; they trust in shield and spear, in bow and sling, and know not that thou are the Lord who crushest wars; the Lord is thy name. Break their strength by thy might, and bring down their power in thy anger; for they intend to defile the sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where thy glorious name rests and to cast down the horn of thy altar with the sword. Behold their pride, and send thy wrath upon their heads…”

In this case fear of the Lord is literal fear: God will destroy those who are evil, but will protect those who fear Him. Ironically, those who fear the Lord have nothing to fear. It is those who do not fear his might who will be crushed. So fear of the Lord is awareness of His power, awareness that he is more powerful than armies, more powerful than princes, kings, and emperors, more powerful than anything that can threaten us. Even more powerful than death.

We fear no evil if God is with us because we know that he is more powerful than any evil. Fear of the Lord is recognition that God is more powerful than any enemy which might threaten to overcome us. It is fear of doing anything which will displease him or cast us out of his favor, fear of not finding favor in his sight because if we are not righteous then his strength will not defend us. God’s power only protects the just from harm, it does not protect the wicked.

Yesterday we watched a video interview with a Muslim to Catholic convert named Mario Joseph, a former Imam who refused to renounce his faith in Jesus even as his family starved him and then as he faced death as his father choked him with his own hands. But Mario did not fear death because he knew the Christ was stronger than death, that he had risen from the dead. (The interview is powerful stuff, well worth watching in its own right.)

It seems to me that this attitude of Mario’s, his failure to fear death an torture, his complete trust in God is really what the fear of the Lord means. It means fearing nothing at all as long as you know God is on your side and it means facing the worst torture imaginable precisely because you fear to lose what it is that God has to offer you: eternal life, eternal joy, a place in the heavenly mansion.

Fear of the Lord means fear of losing God, fear of losing the pearl of great price. And it means lack of fear of anything else.

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1 comment
  • This is a great explanation. I read somewhere that the word ‘fear’ in English does not quite convey the meaning, but it is something more like awe.