The Exodus of Israel from their subjugation in Egypt meant more than freedom. It meant becoming a people and gaining an identity among the nations. No longer a slave community serving the Egyptians, they were brought by God out of Egypt to their own land. God made a covenant with them that gave them their own, unique laws among the nations. They told their own story, beginning with the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—continuing with the judges and kings, and looking beyond their exile to God’s redemption. Yet, more than anything else, this becoming a people meant becoming the people of God, and that meant telling their story as the story of God’s dealing with them.
Our Awesome Deliverer and King (Exodus 15)
The story of God that Israel told declared that God is great and awesome. It is a story they learned at the very beginning of their history as a nation. God was their awesome deliverer. Israel would tell from generation to generation that “the LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household” (Deuteronomy 6:22). Having been liberated from slavery in Egypt and having been brought through the waters on dry ground, the Israelites sang a song about God’s wonderful works. They began, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). They sang, “The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (v. 2). They declared, “Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power” (v. 6). They asked, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? (v. 11). Their song concluded by affirming God as their king: “The LORD will reign forever and ever” (v. 18). As Israel sang the story of their God, they confessed for themselves and declared to all the surrounding nations that God, their God, was great and awesome.
Our Awesome Covenant God (Exodus 34)
Israel would continue to see God’s awesome deeds as they were made his treasured possession. God said, “I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (Exodus 34:10). This passage continues as God explains that he will drive out the inhabitants of Canaan before His people, and it explains why He will do so. These inhabitants are idolaters, and they would only be a snare for God’s people were they to remain in the land. God declares Himself to be a jealous God, one who will share His glory with none other (v. 14). Knowing that God was the one establishing His covenant with them, the Israelites were not to fear the enemies that rose up before them. This covenant God told them, “Have no dread of them, for the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God” (Exodus 7:21). This covenant God also holds His people to the stipulations of His covenant. They are to worship Him alone and to abide by His laws. So Moses says to Israel as they are about to enter the promised land,
Deuteronomy 10:12-22 So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.
The blessings of living in covenant with this God also come with the warning of curses if His people fail to abide by the stipulations of the covenant. Moses warns, “If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, 59 then the LORD will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies” (Deuteronomy 28:58-59).
We see, then, that the word “awesome” means not only that God does amazing things but also that He is to be feared. The Hebrew word for “awesome” includes these various ideas. The word for “awesome,” nora’, means to be feared, reverenced, and held in honor. It is a word that derives from the word for “to fear”. He is not awesome like a fireworks display, delighting the eyes and entertaining the crowds. He is awesome like a bull elephant in his majesty, greatness, power, and might, to be feared and marveled at all at once. To enter into a covenant relationship with such a God is both a wonderful and fearsome thing, and that is exactly what Israel experienced in the history of its relationship with Him. He acted mightily on their side, redeeming them, blessing them, but also chastising and punishing them.
Israel testified that “the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2). They knew that their experience of God was a testimony to God for His awesome works in creation itself—something all peoples of the earth could affirm:
Psalm 65:8-13 Those who live at earth's farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy. 9 You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. 10 You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 11 You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. 12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, 13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
Our God, Awesome Before All Others (Psalms 99 and 145)
God is not awesome with others who are awesome, for He alone is God. He is uniquely awesome, and He alone deserves praise. The right response to our great and awesome God is praise and worship. The psalmist says,
Psalm 99:1-5 The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! 2 The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. 3 Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he! 4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. 5 Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!
Words to extol God’s awesomeness declare who He is and what He has done. Psalm 145 expresses God’s greatness and awesomeness:
Psalm 145:1-13 I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. 2 Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. 3 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. 4 One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. 5 On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. 6 The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness. 7 They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. 8 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. 10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your faithful shall bless you. 11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, 12 to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The LORD is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.
This psalm understands the response to God’s greatness and awesomeness to be meditation, praise, and witness. Meditation requires remembering what God has done and not forgetting it. Praise involves verbalizing God’s awesome deeds and worshiping God. Witness involves intentionally telling others who God is and what He has done. Thus, God’s people are to pass on from generation to generation the truths of God’s awesome deeds, His goodness, righteousness, mercy, love, compassion, faithfulness, and grace. It also involves the challenge to all to recognize that He is indeed God and King, to be blessed forever and ever by all peoples.
Our God is Awesome in Forgiveness (Daniel 9)
Finally, God is great and awesome, to be honoured and feared, not only because of who He is and what He has done to establish a people for Himself. He is also great and awesome because He forgives the sinner. The king with unrivalled power is awesome in His greatness, but greater still is the king who, with such power, also forgives.
So we find a further lesson for Israel about God’s awesomeness in His forgiveness. Sent into exile by God because of their sins, they still find hope. God is a God of compassion and faithfulness, even to sinful and faithless Israel. Daniel prays a prayer of repentance to God, appealing to God’s awesome forgiveness and mercy. He confessed and prayed,
Daniel 9:4-16 Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land. 7 "Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. 8 Open shame, O LORD, falls on us, our kings, our officials, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you. 9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, 10 and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. 11 "All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. So the curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against you. 12 He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers, by bringing upon us a calamity so great that what has been done against Jerusalem has never before been done under the whole heaven. 13 Just as it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his fidelity. 14 So the LORD kept watch over this calamity until he brought it upon us. Indeed, the LORD our God is right in all that he has done; for we have disobeyed his voice. 15 "And now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and made your name renowned even to this day-- we have sinned, we have done wickedly. 16 O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain; because of our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors, Jerusalem and your people have become a disgrace among all our neighbors.
We proclaim the awesomeness of God. He is awesome as deliverer, awesome in making a good covenant with His people, awesome beyond all others, and awesome in His forgiveness. It is one thing to be delivered from subjugation, quite another to be made God’s own people. It is one thing to be called to relate to an awesome God who is distinct from all others, quite another to receive His forgiveness. God reveals Himself in the story of Israel as an awesome God, and His people’s mission is to proclaim His awesomeness among the peoples of the earth.
Those who need deliverance from evil and oppression can find Him to be their awesome deliverer. Those who are adrift amidst the confusions of life and religions can come to know Him in His commandments and faithful covenant with His people. Those for whom there is little awe left in life, for whom sickness and sin and corruption and suffering obscure the joy of living, can come to know the One who reveals His awesomeness in creation. Those who need a new start, forgiveness for sins past and empowerment to live righteously in the future, will find that God is awesome in His forgiveness. Celebrate the awesomeness of God.
What the Old Testament lessons of God’s awesomeness show is delivered in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the deliverer and redeemer sent by God. He is the one who establishes a new people for he is our source of life, our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption. He is the one who reveals the Father, the one in whom all the fullness of deity dwells. And he is the one through whom God forgives us all our sins. We serve an awesome God.