The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom

I have been fascinated for virtually all of my adult life with the concept of wisdom, a topic I continually return to and study.  This pursuit of what wisdom is—and isn’t—has been one of the controlling interests of my own earthly pilgrimage. 

My pursuit of wisdom stems from an equally life long desire to be a good man.  An upright and moral man.  A man of integrity, dignity, and  compassion; lofty goals for myself who has valiantly struggled with my own personal frailties, sins, weaknesses, bad choices, moral failings, and stupidity. 

I had a rough childhood.  Real rough.  I ran away from home when I was fifteen years old and never returned.  The abuse was too much and, at fifteen, I said, “I’m done.”  Nothing would cause me to ever return to live at that house of horrors again. 

I had enough self-awareness in my late teens to realize I was screwed up.  You cannot have intense hatred and anger brewing in your heart and soul and expect to act like a normal human being.  Since I understood so clearly I needed help, I sought for truth, wisdom, and healing of soul in Christianity and in the person of Jesus.

There is a great emphasis in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, on wisdom.  Since I knew I needed guidance on how to be normal, I was particularly attracted to the wisdom literature and concepts found throughout the Bible.  

Wisdom is a surprisingly vast subject, and there are several types of wisdom; my interest lies predominantly in biblical wisdom.  One of the most profound principles in the Bible is:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10 NASB)

Unfortunately, this word “fear” has been ill-defined in most commentaries, bibles, and Christian books dealing with this specific subject to reflect only its partial definition, gutting its main meaning.

An example:  one of my current study bibles is “The Reformation Study Bible,” published by Ligonier Ministries.  In the comment section for Proverbs 1:7, it states:

“The fear of the Lord.  This idea is the controlling principle of Proverbs, and is ancient Israel’s decisive contribution to the human quest for knowledge and understanding.  The fear of the Lord is the only basis of true knowledge.  This ‘fear’ is not distrustful terror of God, but rather the reverent awe and worshipful response of faith to the God who reveals Himself as Creator, Savior, and Judge.”

Note that fear is defined as “the reverent awe and worshipful response of faith…”  But most educated people—and I would say virtually all educated people—who read the word fear would define it this way:  “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”

Or this:  “be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening.”  Put simply, the word fear is straightforward:  “to be made afraid of something or someone.”

But the only place I see fear redefined to mean something different from the plain meaning of the word is in the Bible, bible commentaries (as noted above), or when the word is discussed in a sermon (rarely, if ever, attempted due, in part, to the subject being politically incorrect).

Typically, if fear is defined in a bible in the margin notes, in a bible commentary or preached from a pulpit, reverence is one of the top choices.  Another definition is often reverential awe or trust, both definitions that reveal only part of what the word actually means.

As discussed above, my “Reformation Study Bible” categorically denies that fear “is not distrustful terror of God…”  This is astonishing for the compilers of this particular bible to assert this because of the audacious falsity of their position, as will be shown below.

Here is what the word fear means (bear with me…it is a bit wordy, will take patience to get through it, but will be well worth the effort):

Heb “fear of the Lord.” The expression יְהוָה יִרְאַת (yir’at yÿhvah, “fear of Yahweh”) is a genitive-construct in which יְהוָה(“the Lord”) functions as an objective genitive: He is the object of fear. The term יָרַא (yara’) is the common word for fear in the OT and has a basic three-fold range of meanings: (1) “dread; terror” (Deut 1:29; Jonah 1:10), (2) “to stand in awe” (1 Kgs 3:28), (3) “to revere; to respect” (Lev 19:3). With the Lord as the object, it captures the polar opposites of shrinking back in fear and drawing close in awe and adoration. Both categories of meaning appear in Exod 20:20 (where the Lord descended upon Sinai amidst geophysical convulsions); Moses encouraged the Israelites to not be afraid of God arbitrarily striking them dead for no reason (“Do not fear!”) but informed the people that the Lord revealed himself in such a terrifying manner to scare them from sinning (“God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him in you so that you do not sin”). The fear of the Lord is expressed in reverential submission to his will – the characteristic of true worship. The fear of the Lord is the foundation for wisdom (9:10) and the discipline leading to wisdom (15:33). It is expressed in hatred of evil (8:13) and avoidance of sin (16:6), and so results in prolonged life (10:27; 19:23).

When you click on the above link, find the word “Lord” in verse 1:7, and you will see the small number “38” next to it.  Click on this and you will be taken to the definition.

I can’t emphasize enough how much time over the decades of my life I have pondered this concept of “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  The subject matter that surrounds both the word “fear” and its relation to wisdom is beyond measure and has required a lifetime of personal study, meditation, and circumspection.  Honestly, I do not think I fully understand or grasp the concept even at my advanced age.

I can confidently say this:  this word fear—as far as biblical wisdom is concerned—is like a three legged stool; you need all three legs in order to sit comfortably and safely on this stool.  If one of the legs is missing, you do not have a functioning piece of furniture. 

So is this word fear.   One needs all three legs of this particular stool in order to have a functioning concept of its meaning.  

In quick summary, the biblical word fear has three distinct meanings:  1.  dread, terror 2.  to stand in awe 3.  to revere; to respect.

These three meanings of the word are what comprises the three legged stool.  Removing just one definition of the word guts the fullness of the concept and, like a stool missing one of its legs, causes it to malfunction or unable to function as intended.  Perhaps a stool with only two legs can still function if you prop it up against a wall and steady it with your body in a certain position, but you get the allegory:  you need all three definitions to derive the full meaning and impact of the word.

But in American Christianity today, the word fear is, at best, defined with only two of the three legs needed to make a proper stool.  The first meaning, that of “fear and terror,” have been completely excised out of the definition, resulting in an unbalanced, almost useless stool to sit upon.  Possessing some value, just like a three legged stool missing one leg might have some value, nonetheless, the stool cannot be used as intended.

The missing definition of fear, that of terror and dread, is deeply troubling, for it robs the concept of one of its main strengths.  This is understandable, of course, because in our modern society, the idea of a God whom one has to be in terror or afraid of is never emphasized.  Such a God is thought cruel, tyrannical, and not worthy of love and respect and harkens back to an age when people were allegedly stone age apes that were running around in nature, clothed in animal skins or naked, eating raw meat whose language was limited to grunts, groans, and screams. 

We moderns, of course, are more advanced; such primitive thinking has been supplanted by the age of Enlightenment and modern science.  A race of intelligent beings who can now send robots to Mars to explore the planet autonomously has passed far beyond such childish, silly, and harmful notions.

Unfortunately with this kind of thinking, we forget that people don’t seem to change that much over the millennia of time of our presence on Earth.  The sad fact is that we are still quite primitive in at least some of our thinking and behaviors, and unfortunately, “the pot that burns the hand is often the most effective teacher.”

How many have learned that those events in our lives that cause us the most pain and suffering are usually our best teachers?  That loss and suffering change our bad behaviors and destructive thinking patterns faster and more thoroughly than well rewarded accomplishments, gifts and “good times”?

For example, what would motivate a selfish, lazy and unambitious husband to change his bad habit of going to his local bar on payday and blowing most of his check on booze:  his wife divorcing him or his boss giving him a raise?  “Pain is gain” as the old saying goes.

Understanding this peculiar (and I would add unfortunate) tendency of human behavior where we respond more to calamity than pleasure as far as reforming of bad behavior and character traits is concerned, this provides guidance as to one possible reason we should be in fear or terror of the Lord:  our sinful behaviors may bring down His wrath and displeasure upon our lives, a divine deterrent to keep us on the “straight and narrow path.”

I was raised by a vicious and violent father.  I feared him and walked on eggshells when he was around.  He was a bully and tyrant, and I feared his wrath, fists and acts of violence against my mom, myself and my other brothers and sisters.  

If we did something wrong when he was at work, we trembled with fear and dread when he came home because we knew the consequences of our disobedience.  And let me tell you:  many acts of stupidity, rebellion, disrespect or wrongdoing on my part was quenched in its infancy because of the always looming presence of my father.  In a perverse way, his evil nature and hotheadedness, his prone to violence over the most minor of infractions, made me and my siblings far more obedient and law abiding children. 

Twisted?  Of course, but fear is an effective motivator of good behavior, and it is a sad commentary on human behavior that makes this so.

Being a man and prone to pride and arrogance, to get my attention in certain circumstances, a well aimed punch in the mouth  (proverbially speaking) was often the best way to cause me to “see the light.”  In other words, I was the kind of man where soft words and gentleness did not often garner the kind of behavior changes I needed to undergo to become the kind of man I’ve always desired and longed to be.

Which brings me back to the “fear of the Lord.”  I’m convinced the Lord prefers to deal with His people in love and gentleness.  For those of us who error, His preferred method for bringing us back to the right path is with compassion.  Unfortunately though, most of us fail to respond to such gentle means of correction and only respond to pain, suffering, heartache and loss. 

It must be the same for our Heavenly Father as well, or at least I think so. Like I mentioned above, He prefers gentle and loving means of persuasion for His erring and disobedient children, but He also knows the depth of our depravity and hardheartedness; in many cases, we are no better than the brute beasts who seem only to respond to physical correction to either avoid danger or stop destructive/disobedient behavior.

Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” Exodus 20:20 (NIV)

I believe this verse above epitomizes what I believe is the main reason why we should fear (be in dread and terror of) the Lord: is provides a one, sure and certain safeguard from any individual from entering into a sinful lifestyle, either as a momentary lapse of judgement, temptation or weakness, or a regular, ongoing and continuous pattern of repeated sin.

Though fear is not the best motivator to holiness of life and avoidance of sin, it is, unfortunately, the main, and perhaps only true motivator for many disobedient humans. Like a painful spanking, it is not the preferred method of correction a parent desires for their child, but an unfortunate one resorted to by the loving parent toward a stubborn, willful, and disobedient one who refuses to reform their unruly behavior by gentler, kinder methods.

Philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer was a man I greatly admire. Here is one of his talks that I have listened to several different times due to its insights (interestingly, I believe he gave this speech only one year or so before his death in 1984) :

An accomplished author, one of his books was titled, “How should we then live?” Adapted into a film by the same title, I believe it asks a profound question…how should each of us then live? What is the kind of life we each should live in order to achieve maximum happiness, contentment, and meaning in life? Wisdom gives us these and many other of life’s most profound questions, but in a nutshell, I would assert that the kind of life each should live in order to achieve our maximum potential is a life most closely aligned with holiness as one of our ultimate and most cherished goals. Lives lived for the glory of God with the aim of having His character reproduced in our moment by moment existence on this planet is the highest of ideals.

And this is where the fear of the Lord intersects with a wise man or woman’s goals of determining the best path to achieve and realize the goal of “living life to the fullest.” What mars and derails so much of our lives from reaching their full potentials is sin, an ancient idea that in both word and thought has been derided and scoffed at by most people today.

Yet the facts speak for themselves; lives lived in habitual sinful behaviors (greed, lust, lying, immorality, crime, drunkenness, illegal and recreational drug usage, marital unfaithfulness, etc.) are all things that shorten and bring ruin and misery into our lives.

But the interesting thing is this: while so many of today’s intellectuals scoff at the idea of sin, and at the same time scoff at the existence of God, they simultaneously deny the thing that keeps us from engaging in the sinful acts that bring so much destruction into our lives: the fear of the Lord.

Obviously, one must have a belief in the existence of God in order to believe in the concept of the fear of the Lord. By default of this reality, there is the supposition of the existence of sin that mysteriously unites the concepts together. Since all three are routinely denied today—sin, God, and the fear of the Lord—wisdom is almost impossible to obtain. Thus, as Thoreau so eloquently wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

I hope this post may lead someone into their own search for wisdom, or spur them on to an even deeper interest they may already be in pursuit of. It is a noble goal, this life of divine wisdom, and one infinitely worth all the time and energy required to invest in such.