Years ago, I was bored out of my mind by dull, blank, tripartite sermons which expounded on the elements of fear defined as "holy reverence". Others, who dressed their words in trembling singsong oratory (but who would frown at the chants of high church liturgies), defined it in the same respect, giving God a conceptual makeover, the eyeliner of Zeus, the countenance of Thor, the rogue of Superman, the humility of Clark Kent and the heart of Aphrodite. There was just something about it that was so dry that it rang untrue. How is it that the word "fear" could produce such a stale and abstract notion?
The great revivalist, Jonathan Edwards, syncretist between enlightenment Rationalism and Protestant hysterics, saw fear in considering oneself an inch away from eternal hellfire and destruction as punishment for offending a just, offended, holy and angry God. The human spirit is the shadow of a spider about to be crushed underfoot, and Edwards' audience, besieged with the evils of alcohol and bad language, repented with fervor, some, eventually as "revival" spread, barking like dogs, and others claiming to levitate -- dubious fruits of the Spirit of peace.
So I was taught in my early Protestant experience that the fear of the Lord is mere respect, or dreadfully sensationalistic, depending on the speaker.
Fear God, said Jesus, who can destroy the body and the soul with it, and not merely one's earthly enemies, who can only touch the body. The emphasis to my mind is on the contrast, not the destruction; the capacity of God, not his intent.
The Fear for Kierkegaard exists generally in apprehending one's own freedom, the capacity for creative anguish or despair, and the experiential reality of possibility. This seems more in line with what the prophets had in mind. The fear of the Lord contains an awareness of not only the magnitude and capacities of a transcendent but immanent Creator, coupled with one's own awareness of finitude and the encroaching cockroaches of death, but is essentially rooted in the experience of God, and of understanding the possibility of losing that experience.
The experience of knowing God is a gift, one that can be taken away, or occluded through pride, self-righteousness, sensuality, short-sightedness, or mere lack of ardor. It is the fear of losing contact with the source of Being, losing the grace of his energies, losing an awareness of boundless love. Reverence is a side-effect. One fears this loss, and in the Kierkegaardian sense simultaneously realizes who he is as a person who possesses freedom, including the potential for love or for sin, for life or death, and for communion or hell.
So it turns out that the Fear thrives positively in possession, a zealous fear not of death, but of the loss of an interior relationship with an uncreated and undivided Trinity of persons, who exists in a co-eternal relationship of mutual love, always inviting one to share in transcendent love, and to participate in divine modalities that move in the direction of eternal life. One is oriented through such fear away from temporal things, the lusts of the flesh, the darkness of the eye, the folly which speaks in the heart of the fool who proclaims with profound short-sighted indignity, "there is no God!" Such a possession, the invitation of Christ to dwell in the heart of a human person, thereby eventually fulfilling one as a person, the personality of the incarnate God in Christ made manifest therein through the Holy Spirit, may be called Grace, and the romance of his humanifying presence is so sweet and pure that the loss of it cannot compare with any temporal loss -- the loss of a spouse, or of a child, of a job or of a passion (sins to which we are addicted and treasure). For those who know it and nurture it, the thought of its loss, the potential of it that exists in the freedom to sin as well as in the reality of our own sinfulness (an awareness that results in humility), provokes the Fear.
The fear of the Lord in its pure form is thus finally the realization of authentic personality in all its potentialities in the presence of the Holy Trinity. This,a fear which is rooted in love, and not mere sorrow for sin, or fear of punishment, or reverence for things holy (though all these attend to it), the Kings and the prophets tell us, is the beginning of Wisdom.