Sadly, a few professing Christians today seem only to see their God as fearsome. Meanwhile, and far more sadly, countless unbelievers seem not to fear their God at all.
This is a tragic reversal in our fallen age: that a few, who could feel safe, do not — while many, who should be frightened, are not. This tragedy will be remedied in the end, but those of us who know ourselves secure in Christ want to help, when we’re able, bring genuine emotional comfort, or appropriate discomfort. Perhaps recovering an often-overlooked attribute of God — that of his majesty — could help us unsettle sinners and freshly settle true saints.
Greatness of His Majesty
Scripture’s first explicit mention of God in his majesty came with what was the world’s greatest deliverance until Calvary. After ten horrible plagues, Egypt’s pharaoh had finally acquiesced and let the Israelites go. But then he changed his mind, made ready his chariot (with hundreds more, Exodus 14:6–7), pursued God’s people into the wilderness, and came upon them with their backs to the sea, and seemingly nowhere to flee. Then, to the astonishment of both Israel and Egypt — and all who would hear the account far and wide, for thousands of years — God parted the sea. The Israelites walked through on dry ground, and when the Egyptians followed, God brought the waters back upon them to their destruction. As Exodus 14 ends,
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. (Exodus 14:30–31)
Exodus 15 then breaks into a song of praise to God for his stunning rescue — and here, for the first time in Scripture, God’s people praise him for his majesty:
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,
your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries . . . .
Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:6–7, 11)
The choice of the word majesty says something profound about the worshipers. Majesty attributes to God not only great size (verses 7, 16) and strength (verses 2, 6) but expresses awe and wonder in the mouths of his people.
God’s foes flee in terror, but his friends declare his majesty.
Through Two Sets of Eyes
Here, on the shores of the sea, a great distinction between “my people” and “not my people” emerges: God is “awesome” in the eyes of his chosen (Exodus 15:11), and awful in the eyes of their foes.
As early as the fifth plague, God had specified to Moses that he would “make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing of all that belongs to the people of Israel shall die” (Exodus 9:4). God then reiterated this distinction when forecasting the tenth and final plague: “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Exodus 11:7).
So too, Moses himself, in the months to come, would plead this very distinction when interceding for the people, face to face with God on Mount Sinai: “Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16). This “distinguish[ing] between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” would be institutionalized for centuries in the old-covenant tabernacle, sacrificial system, and priestly service of the nation (Leviticus 10:10; also Ezekiel 44:23).
Fearsome: For Them, Against Us
In Exodus 14, the Egyptians were the aggressors, hunting down Israel in the wilderness and charging into the sea after God’s people — until “the angel of God,” that is, the pillar of fire and of cloud, pivoted on them to their horror.
The pillar had “moved and went behind” Israel to protect the nation from the onslaught of Egypt (Exodus 14:19–20). But when God’s people had gone into the sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians pursued and went in after them, the pillar then “looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic” (Exodus 14:23–24). Now the tide turns, just before God releases the tides. In terror, the Egyptians turn to flee. But it is too late.
“Divine majesty terrifies those at odds with the one true God.”
Not only does God burn with frightening strength to scare Egypt, but the song of worship in chapter 15 celebrates that news of this event will soon spread to make all Israel’s foes tremble: Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan (Exodus 15:14–16). Divine majesty terrifies those at odds with the one true God. Even as his people praise his majesty, so they mention the terror of those arrayed against him, or pondering flight from him. “Will not his majesty terrify you,” asks Job, “and the dread of him fall upon you?” (Job 13:11, see also 31:23).
So too in the early prophecy of Isaiah. Three times in short space, he tells of those, set against God, who soon will seek to hide “from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty” (Isaiah 2:10, 19, 21). The one who is “majestic in holiness” to his prophet will be threatening, indeed terrifying, to any who have set themselves against them, if they would only open their eyes and see.
Awesome: Against Them, For Us
As imposing and awful as this majesty will appear to his enemies, so it inspires a comforting and reassuring awe in those whom he protects. As Moses declares to Israel, who is on God’s side, seeking his help and protection, God will wield his strength for their good:
There is none like God . . . ,
who rides through the heavens to your help,
through the skies in his majesty. (Deuteronomy 33:26)
Again, his redeemed ask, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11). For them, the same imposing size and strength that incites horror in their foes is majestic love and comfort. “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed” (Exodus 15:13). For his people, God’s majestic power inspires the awe of worship:
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 148:13–14)
For his own, in his city, “there the Lord in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams . . . . the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Isaiah 33:21–22). The largesse [laar·zhes] of God which throws his foes into a panic means safety and salvation in the mouths of his friends.
More majestic still is Psalm 45:4, which speaks not only to a Davidic king on his wedding day, but also anticipates David’s greater descendant to come, the long-awaited Christ:
In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!
It is the king’s own people — those who know him as their sovereign, and themselves as his people — who see their Anointed ruler as majestic. Majesty is a word of awe in the mouth of his redeemed.
Holy Fear to Holy Awe
What about those few professing saints today who seem only to see their God as fearsome? And what about the many unbelievers who don’t seem to fear God at all?
For both, time will tell. The unbelieving Egyptians didn’t exhibit any fear, until, all of a sudden, in an instant, the pillar of fire pivoted on them. Then they panicked. So will it be one day soon with all who set themselves against the majestic God. Then they will fear.
“Holy fear leads to holy awe.”
But for his saints, who claim the name of Christ, and yet find themselves dogged by seemingly intractable fear, rather than awe, when they think of God almighty, we end with good news. The holy awe of worshiping his majesty is not at odds with a holy fear of his size and strength. In fact, such holy fear leads to holy awe. Exodus 14 ends with holy fear: “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord . . .” But knowing themselves to be his covenant people, this fear did not lead to panic, but faith: “. . . and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). So Exodus 15 begins with praise.
When we glimpse the greatness, power, and glory of God’s majesty, we should indeed fear ever turning our back on, and fleeing from, such a God. And that is a holy fear we seek not to banish but follow its leading to faith, which leans into him, receives his stunning provision of safety in Christ, and enjoys his majestic final protection against any and every foe.