“Like Totally Awesome, Dudes”

The LORD your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God. Deuteronomy 7:21

At dinner the other night I asked my 16-year-old daughter Kelsey to define the word awesome. She said, “über good”—Kelsey’s bilingual version of “very good.” Her friend Zoë agreed.

“Do you and your friends still use that word?” I asked them.

“All the time.”

“When’s the last time you used it?”

“This week my teacher postponed a test and I yelled out, ‘Awesome!’” Zoë offered.

“This cake we’re eating is pretty awesome,” Kelsey added.

The girls’ idea that awesome means “very good” is a 20th century invention, born in the 1960s. But for hundreds of years, awesome had a much different meaning.

The Hebrew word now translated awesome is mowra, which means “fear,” “reverence,” or “terror.” Mowra is the noun form of the Hebrew verb yare. In the Bible, mowra and yare always refer to something or someone that inspires reverence or godly fear. KJV translators used the English words terrible, dreadful, and fearful to convey the Hebrew meaning.

But modern translators decided those adjectives gave the wrong impression about God and His works, so they used awesome instead. According to an online word origin dictionary, awesome appeared in the 1670s and meant “inspiring awe.” It was used almost exclusively to describe God and His works.

Unfortunately, as my conversation with Zoë and Kelsey illustrated, the uses for awesome have expanded so much that like an overused elastic waistband, this word lost its effectiveness. If we use awesome to describe everything from postponed tests to cake, how appropriate is it as a description for God?

In Deuteronomy, Moses used yare to impress upon the new generation of Israelites the nature of their God and the necessity of their obedience: “If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law . . . and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the LORD your God—the LORD will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants” (28:58-59).

Was he trying to scare them into obedience? Not exactly. He was urging them to have a proper respect for God: Revere Him. Obey Him. He alone is worthy of worship. It’s something to consider the next time we sing Michael W. Smith’s “Our God Is an Awesome God.”


Jacob used yare in Genesis 28:17 when he awoke from his dream at Bethel and said, “How awesome [dreadful, KJV] is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Why do you think he used the word?

Yare also appears in Exodus 15:11-12. What were the Israelites celebrating? Why was awesome an appropriate word to use in their circumstances?

Psalm 47 is a hymn of praise. According to the psalmist, what “awesome deeds” had God done? What “awesome deeds” would you add to this worshiper’s list?

To read and hear Michael W. Smith’s lyrics, follow this link–

Denise K. Loock

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