Awe is one of the most often used – but misunderstood – concepts in the Bible. The word translated is not always “awe” itself, but given how I conceptualize awe, it is apparent that awe is a thread runs through the entire Biblical narrative. For example, there are 53 references to “awe,” 92 to “amazing,” 22 to “astonish,” 38 to “reverence,” and 109 to “wonder.” Related words such as “fear,” “afraid,” and “tremble” also are frequently mentioned in the Bible, and sometimes – but not always – refer to awe experiences.
Moreover, many references to the emotion of awe play a central role in religious and spiritual experience, often appearing in some of the most significant stories in the Bible. For instance, after Jesus rebuked the wind, the disciples were described as being in “fear and amazement” (Luke 8:25). The women who found the tomb empty were described as “trembling and bewildered” (Mark 16:8). Those first filled with the Holy Spirit were described as being “amazed and perplexed” (Acts 2:12). Saul’s companions were “speechless” when Jesus appeared, and it would be fair to say that Paul’s conversion to Christianity involved being awestruck (see Acts 9:1-19).
Perhaps my favorite awe story in the Bible occurs in the book of Genesis. Here, it is written:
“When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’ Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel. . . Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking. . . then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house.’” (Genesis 28:16-22).
In addition to providing another example of the kind of context that leads to awe, and another example of how awe plays a central role in religious and spiritual experience, this story suggests that awe has a key function in promoting commitment to a new worldview or lifestyle. This is consistent with other passages in the Bible. For example, Jesus said, “unless you people see signs and wonders. . . you will never believe” (John 4:48). In a related vein, the early New Testament church is described as “living in the fear of the Lord,” resulting in an increase in numbers (Acts 9:31).
In other passages, awe seems to serve different functions. In one passage, God writes through the prophet that “I will astonish these people with wonder after wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish; the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish” (Isaiah 29:14). Similarly, one of the themes of the Book of Revelation is awe, culminating in a description of praise described as being “like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder,” ultimately leading to John’s reaction to fall down and worship (Revelation 19:1-10). Thus, awe seems to promote (or maybe depend upon) humility, submission, and surrender. Another function linked with awe in the Bible appears to be an enhanced sense of well-being. For instance, the psalmist writes, “the whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy” (Psalm 65:8). Finally, awe appears to promote love within close relationships, as revealed by the injunction for husbands and wives to “submit to each other out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
In studying Biblical references to awe, I was struck by what appears to be a distinction between the state of awe and the trait of being receptive to awe. Most of what I mention above refers to the emotion of awe, a powerful and short-term reaction to a particular situation. However, there are many passages in the Bible that teach that people would do well to be generally sensitive to the awesomeness of God. For example, we are told to “be stunned and amazed, blind yourselves and be sightless; be drunk, but not from wine, stagger, but not from beer” (Isaiah 29:9). Again, we are told to “stop and consider God’s wonders” (Job 37:14). In the New Testament, believers are encouraged to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Much of this comes together in the consistent Biblical teaching that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 110:10; Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 1:7), the basic idea being that an awesome respect for God is central to realizing what is most important in life.