Fear, Love, and Obedience to God: Deuteronomy 10:12

Number 2.1       
July 2009      


Fear, Love, and Obedience to God: Deuteronomy 10:12

By Mary Agnes Patterson

The book of Deuteronomy is comprised of three sermons given by Moses regarding/about the covenant between God and his people.  Chapters 5-28 report the exposition of the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Moses describes the importance of obedience to God's law in chapter 10.  Obedience requires an individual to choose a particular course of action desired by another being/entity, regardless of his own individual desires.  If the individual's actions are altered from the action he would have chosen otherwise, then his thought process must be altered as well, in order to enable him to change his action.

 In Deuteronomy 10:12, God requires Israel to "fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul."  This list of God's requirements groups the ideas of fear, love, serving God, and walking in his ways.  While fear and love may seem like polar emotions and may seem to have little relevance to each other or to obedience, the combination of these items within a single verse denotes a possible connection between these actions.  In order to understand their complex relationship, we must first understand what each item means individually.

The placement of the phrase "with all thy heart and with all thy soul" at the end of the verse renders its application ambiguous.  It follows the last requirement of Deuteronomy 10:12.  At first, it appears to apply only to the last item, so that Israel is "to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul."  However, because of its position at the end of the sentence (this is potentially problematic, since it is translators who have decided to create sentences in the English; they also decide where these "sentences" begin and end), it may not be necessarily so/as clear in the original Hebrew, and the phrase could apply to the whole list of God's requirements.  Under this interpretation, God commands Israelites to, with all their heart and soul, fear the Lord thy God, walk in all his ways, love him, and serve the Lord thy God.  This additional phrase clarifies how the Israelites are to fulfill God's requirements.  The repetition of the phrase "with all thy heart and thy soul" in Deuteronomy indicates that it is a crucial aspect of the manner in which God intends his people to carry out his commandments.  This phrase relays the importance of heartfelt and eternal commitment.  A person who speaks "from the heart" is exposing his true thoughts and emotions.  The heart is critical in sustaining a person's earthly body because it is responsible for circulating nutrient-filled blood to all of the body's tissues.  The soul is the eternal part of a person that will never cease to exist.  By using "all" of the heart and soul, God requires a person to devote every part of their inner self to his commandments. Therefore, a person who devotes his heart and soul to God's commandments is also devoting to God the very aspect that keeps him alive on earth and that lives for eternity.  In other words, the follower is dedicating his earthly life and his eternal life to fulfilling God's commandments.

The fear of God referred to in Deuteronomy encompasses more than our traditional understanding of fear today.  Earthly fear is chiefly associated with circumstances that are dangerous and can cause harm.  A person who fears walking alone at night worries about the dangers of an armed robber.  A person who fears dogs may be concerned about a viscous, unprovoked attack.  The intensity of an individual's fear typically correlates with the extent of harm the situation is capable of causing.  A person will have greater fear walking home alone in a bad neighborhood at night than in an upscale, gated community because the dangers associated with the bad neighborhood are far greater than the dangers perceived in the latter.  Similarly, a person will have more intense fear of an unleashed Doberman pincher than an unleashed poodle puppy because the Doberman is capable of causing greater harm.

God has the potential to cause the greatest harm possible, eternal damnation, which overshadows all earthly fears.  As Matthew writes, "And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).  Matthew states that while some dangers can only cause harm to our physical bodies, it is the source that can harm both the body and the soul that should truly compel fear in us.   Matthew refers to sources that can only harm the body with the pronoun "those," while he uses the singular pronoun "Him" to refer to the one source that can cause harm to the soul and the body.  The word "those" implies that there are multiple circumstances or people that can inflict pain on our earthly body.  In contrast, Matthew uses the word "Him" to refer to a single source that can inflict suffering on our souls.  By using "Him" rather than "that" or "those," Matthew implies that the source able to cause eternal suffering is a single being, God, rather than a circumstance or a set of individuals.

Matthew claims that people should not fear the many dangers that can kill the body, but rather that people should fear the one who can destroy the soul too.  By claiming that people should not fear the many physical dangers but fear the one spiritual danger, Matthew is asserting that the single spiritual danger is greater than the sum of all of the physical dangers.  Our earthly bodies have a finite existence and can therefore only endure pain for a finite time period, but our souls will exist for eternity and have the potential to endure pain indefinitely.  Since our earthly bodies only live for a fraction of our souls’ existence, any suffering on earth is insignificant in comparison to our potential eternal suffering.  If we fear a circumstance or a being based on the amount of harm it can cause us, then our fear of God should surpass our fear of any earthly circumstance or being because, according to Matthew, he can inflict eternal suffering.

However, the manner in which we are commanded to fear God is not equal to a multiplied quantity of our fear of earthly danger.  Most of us are not filled with overwhelming horror and dread at the thought of God, as we are when we consider earthly dangers. While aware of God's power to impose the greatest harm possible, as Matthew states, those who fear God do not agonize about the potential harm that God can inflict.  They fear God reverently by standing in awe of his unconceivable wisdom, power, and good.  As the Psalmist writes, "My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws" (Psalm 119:120).  The psalmist speaks of the speaker's fear of God and then his admiration and respect for God's laws.  If the sentence is interpreted as causal, then it can be read that the awe of God’s law results from the fear of God.  The joining of these phrases into a single sentence can also imply a parallel relationship and synonymous interpretation.  The phrases can be separated from each other, creating two simple sentences each consisting of a subject, verb, and predicate that relate to the corresponding part of the other sentence.  The subject for the first and second phrase is "my flesh" and "I" respectively, both of which refer to the speaker.  A short phrase follows each verb, aiding in the interpretation of the verb.  The verbs followed by the short phrase for the sentences are "trembles in fear" and "stand in awe."  A parallel relationship between these two phrases would describe fear as synonymous with awe.  The source of fear and awe are "you" and "your laws," referring to God and his laws.

The fear of God encourages obedience to God in a similar way as the fear of a just government influences obedience to that governmental institution.  God reigns over his people and mandates laws that are for the good of his people and his kingdom.  A just government also reigns over its citizens, creating and enforcing laws that will better the lives of the individual citizens and the country as a whole.  The understanding that the ruler has more knowledge of the potential dangers that can interfere with the well-being of the people than the people themselves demands a sort of respect and reverence of the reigning power.

While some laws may seem inconvenient in the present moment, the follower also understands that the laws were instituted by a just power (are laws always instituted by a "just" power?) and therefore are intended for his good.  Second Samuel 10:12 states that "The Lord will do what is good in his sight," and since God's sight is omniscient, God knows that his intentions will fulfill his will.  Although the benefits of following the law are not always obvious or immediate, respect and admiration for the higher power enables and encourages them to obey the given laws.

God also has a reason behind each of his laws as he "will do what is good in his sight," even if we do not always understand (2 Samuel 10:12).  It is this knowledge barrier that instills in us the reverence stemming from the fear of God.  The fact that humans cannot foresee the wisdom behind God's actions and commandments creates a need for the people to trust and submit to God on/by faith alone.  It is through reverence and trust that we obediently submit to God, even when there are no obvious physical benefits from this submission.  The Book of Revelation was written by John to the seven churches in Asia Minor and discusses the ending of the world.  John claims that on that day everyone will plainly see the righteousness of God.  Revelations 15:4 states, "Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? For Thou alone art holy; For all the nations will come and worship thee, For Thy righteous acts have been revealed." In this verse, John states that on the last day of this world when God's righteousness is clearly revealed to humankind, everyone will fear and glorify God’s name.

As a result of our limited knowledge, God's laws and actions do not always seem just or righteous to us now, but John persuades the churches that in the end, when God's righteousness is revealed to us, everyone will fear and glorify him.  John links fear and glorification as reactions of the people to God’s revelation of righteousness.   In response to God's revelation of his righteousness, people will experience a fear of God.  A separate but simultaneous response to God’s righteousness is the people's glorification of God. Fear of God and glorification of God are linked in that not only are these two responses triggered by the same event, but also the same individual is thinking and practicing them at the same time.  Also, the expression of the fear of God is reverence and glorification of him.  In the visual representation of this relationship, fear, glorification, and God's righteousness can be illustrated as three points of a triangle.  Furthermore, the manifestation of the fear and glorification of God is obedience to him.  In fear, we submit to God in awe of his laws, and in glorification, we exalt him by trying to fulfill and discover His purpose for our lives and living in accordance to His ordinances.  If the triangle of fear, glorification, and God’s righteousness rests on a flat plane, then a point up in the air would be obedience, creating a pyramidal relationship.

In realizing God's righteousness, we can see the benevolence of God and his love for his people through his work in their lives.  God loves his people and shows his affection through his blessings in his follower's lives.  In response to God's love and work in people's lives, they come to love and worship him.  Ahmad Farid wrote in "The Purification of the Soul" that "hearts, as they mature, come to love whomever is merciful and kind towards them. So how much greater is their love for Him from Whom all kindness springs!"  God’s love for his creations transforms the follower's heart to see his goodness and blessings and allows the follower to return his love.

The Arabic word "taqwa" literally translates as "God-fearing," but its meaning in the Islamic tradition encompasses a broader set of ideas.  Taqwa links the concepts of love and fear as it describes a sense of God-consciousness, or a consistent awareness of God's omnipresence and omniscience (Badawi).  Followers of Allah "have taqwa" when they are conscious that God is always present and possesses infinite knowledge.  Because followers who have taqwa are continually contemplating God's presence, the concept of taqwa serves as a constant reminder to submit to the greater power (Badawi).

God knows all human thought and action, so unlike governmental institutions, there is no escaping or hiding from God's law.  In contrast, we can study the detective techniques of our earthly governments to determine what information the "higher power," in this case, law enforcement, has the ability to gather or deduce.  A person is more likely to commit a crime when he knows that he will not be caught.  People are less likely to steal merchandise from a store that has security cameras and monitors than from a store with no security detectors.  Using this analogy, God's omniscience and omnipresence would be comparable to a store with high definition cameras encircling every corner and crevice of the store so that no area goes unmonitored at any time.  An individual will likely choose not to act in a certain way in fear of governmental repercussions.

Taqwa does not simply emphasize fear of God as stemming from a fear of God's punishments. The God-consciousness implied in taqwa does not solely stress the fear that, as a result of his omnipresence, he will be more able and ready to reprove actions that go against his will (Karoli).  This interpretation of fearing a higher power places less emphasis on punishments and lost rewards and more on the follower's fear as a respect and realization of the ruler's superiority. Abu Bakr Karoli states, "This consciousness and fear of Allah is understood as a protection and a shield against wrongdoing. The abstention of evil through this fear, consciousness, and establishing a cautious awareness of Allah, ultimately develops one's love of Him."  Karoli views taqwa as a positive tool for obedience to Allah by encouraging followers to avoid sin.  When people have taqwa, they are able to steer closer to God's law and therefore act in the way that is best for them. 

Karoli argues that in the avoidance of sin and obedience to God's law, God and his followers foster a close relationship.  The Qur'an affirms that Allah loves those who obey him.  "For lo! Allah loveth those who ward off (evil)" (Qur'an 3:76).  Here, the Qur'an states that Allah's love extends to the people who avoid doing evil.  Allah desires that his people avoid evil, so in doing this, his people are acting obediently toward him.   However, by narrowing Allah's loved ones to a specific group of people, those who are obedient to him, this verse implies that Allah's love is contingent upon obedience to him.  In order for a follower of Allah to receive this love, he must be obedient to Allah's commandment to avoid evil.  The feelings of love in the relationship between Allah and his follower are termed "divine love" by Jamal Badawi in his Islamic teachings.  Badawi states, "Divine love in Islam is not a type of superficial love but it is considered a mutual genuine feeling between God and man, which is referred to in the Qur'an: 'Then Allah will bring a people, He shall love them and they shall love Him'" (Qur'an 5:54).  Allah loves those who are obedient to him, and those who love Allah obey him.  This circular relationship between obedience to Allah and love between Allah and his follower strengthen their relationship. The New Testament also refers to obedience as an expression of our love for God. First John 5:3 states, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments."  This verse describes the act of obedience to God's law as a form of expression of our love for him.  As a result of our love for God, we want to obey Him in order to glorify Him. According to Badawi's Islamic Teaching Series, part of the fear of God is the fear of displeasing him.  It is natural to want the one you love to be pleased with you, so obedience to Allah is not only an expression of love for him, but it is also an expression of not wanting to displease him.

Farid summarizes the relationship between love and obedience when he states, "The most exalted kind of love is most certainly the love of the One Whom hearts were created to love, and for Whom creation was brought into existence to adore. Allah is the One to Whom hearts turn in love, exhalation and glorification, humility, submission and worship...It is the perfection of love accompanied by complete submission and humility" (Mission Islam).  Farid explains that we were created for the purpose of loving and glorifying God, and we express our love for him through "submission and humility."  Submission to God requires a submission to God's will, or his law.  A person who is in complete submission to God is fully devoted to obeying God's commandments.

The emotions of fear and love of God intertwine in an intricate and complex manner in order to influence a person's obedience to God.  Farid emphasizes a person's love for God because God is the creator.  The gift of our life through creation links fear and love of God with obedience to God.  One origin of man's fear of God stems from the knowledge that God created humans.  The fact that we are the creation and God is the creator instills in us a sense of submission to and reverence for God.  Inherent in this state is an indebtedness to our creator for our lives.  Without a creator, we would not exist.  All blessings, challenges, and lessons present in the lives of the creation would not be experienced if the creator did not bring the creation into existence. God can demand the submission and humility, to which Farid refers, because he is our creator.  As creator, he has a sense of ownership over the creation, and his ownership gives him the authority to determine the purpose of life by mandating his people to follow his commandments.  God also asserts his ownership over creation as a further illustration of his power: "...to keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD's thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is" (Deuteronomy 10:13-14).  God commands his people to obey him in verse 13, and the next verse states that he owns everything on heaven and earth.  Verse 13 relays God's commandment, while verse 14 provides the reason to follow his commands.  Because humans will not always understand God's purpose in his commandments, God justifies his demands by asserting his power as creator.  God demands our obedience because he has created us.

Deuteronomy 10:12 commands the people to "walk in all his ways" and to "serve the Lord thy God."  Walking in "His" ways means following the example that God sets.  If "his ways" refer to God's ways, then to "walk in all his ways" and to "serve the Lord thy God" are synonymous to obeying God.  God's command in Deuteronomy 10:12 urges His people to fear, to obey, to love, and to obey.  The repetition of obedience and its placement around fear and love in the verse further suggests the relationship between these actions.  This string of commandments seems to imply a circular relationship.  Fear of God leads to obedience to his law, as shown in Psalm 119:120.  Likewise, the Qur'an suggests that in following God's law, his people receive God's love and delve into a relationship of mutual divine love.  This relationship of mutual love between God and his people and his people's desire to please him causes God's people to obey him.  Finally, after obedience to God, the people will see God's plan and the wisdom of his law, which leads to awe and proper fear of God.


Badawi, Jamal. "Taqwa: Between Love & Fear." Islam Online. 4 Dec. 2005. 25 Apr. 2008 .

Farid, Ahmad. "Love of Allah." Mission Islam. 25 Apr. 2008 .

Karoli, Abu B. "Taqwa-a State of Submission." Islam Tomorrow. July 2003. 25 Apr. 2008 .