Multiple times throughout Exodus, God says He’s bringing His people out of Egypt to worship Him so that the Egyptians will know He is Yahweh (6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 9:14; 10:2; 14:4, 18, 25). The Egyptians finally know God is Yahweh in 14:25, “And the Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from before Israel, for Yahweh fights for them against the Egyptians.'” Yet the people of Israel also know God is Yahweh in 14:31, “Israel saw the great power that Yahweh used against the Egyptians, so the people feared Yahweh, and they believed in Yahweh and in His servant Moses.” Thus, when you know God is Yahweh, it instills the fear of Him.
What does it mean that God is Yahweh? Indeed, this is His personal name, but to know that He is Yahweh is to know He is more than just His name. Who is Yahweh? It depends on your position before Him. For both the Egyptians and the Israelites, knowing He is Yahweh instilled the fear of Yahweh, but in different ways. Both peoples came to know Yahweh is all-powerful, and this caused great fear in both, as it should. Yet notice the different responses.
The fear of the Lord in the Egyptians caused them to flee. The fear of the Lord in Israel caused them to believe in Yahweh. The key difference, then, is faith. Where there is faith, the fear of the Lord leads one to trust in Him. Where faith is lacking, the fear of the Lord leads one to hatred and enmity toward the Lord and, ultimately, separation.
It is no wonder, then, why Luther explains the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” by saying, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Only faith can do this. When you know who God is—that He is Yahweh, that is, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent—this instills great fear. Where there is the fear of the Lord, there can only be two responses: trust or flight. Faith is the key that unlocks the door to trust; without faith, one can only run pointlessly from God in terror and grow in their hatred of Him. In a fight or flight response to the fear of the Lord, the atheist often responds with both—he will flee from the Lord’s grace and, like a coward, fight Him not by fighting Him directly (because they know they’d lose) but rather by fighting His people with vain words to get them to stop fearing, loving, and trusting in God.
God’s people, on the other hand, choose wisdom, which is to trust in the Lord despite the fear of Him. “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10) because, where the one who fears the Lord has faith, they do not make a vain attempt to run from Him but rather trust in the only one who can deliver them from His just wrath. Wisdom runs to the one who can save us from Himself; stupidity runs away from Him, speaks ill of Him, and attacks His people.
This deliverance comes to us by grace through faith because of what Christ did on the cross (Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:8-9). In Christ on the cross, the fear and wrath of God are on full display. Yet for we who fear, love, and trust in Him through Christ His Son, the judgement of the cross passes over us.