This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.—Proverbs 1:7
Let’s begin by considering these two memorable scenes from the Old Testament:
In the first, Moses is shepherding Jethro’s flocks in the desert when he turns aside to behold a burning bush. There Moses hears God say: “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).
In the second, Isaiah sees a vision of the Lord gloriously seated on his throne and surrounded by a host of seraphim. Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5).
Both scenes put us face to face with the utter holiness and otherness of God. They are also a window into Proverbs 1:7 with its opening phrase, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” In fact, this phrase, “the fear of the Lord” is repeated fourteen times in Proverbs and is the motto of the book, reminding readers of the preeminent condition for getting wisdom.
Four Old Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the text of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
But what does it mean to “fear the Lord”? To answer this, we break down the verse into three parts.
The Fear of the Lord
We have all heard it said that “fearing God” is more about “reverence” than “shaking and trembling” before God. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that does not fit with what we read in Scripture.
Consider another scene from Exodus where Israel stands beneath Mt. Sinai to receive the law:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”—Ex. 20:18–19
“Lest we die.” Now that is a genuine, knee-knocking, on-the-precipice-of-death kind of fear.
Yes, but that’s the Old Testament, you might say. The New Testament gives us a loving and gentle God. Not so fast. Think, for example, about the scene when Jesus addresses his disciples after calming the storm in Mark 4.
“Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”—Mark 4:40–41
Mark’s Gospel is full of people trembling before Jesus’s words and works. And Mark is not alone, as we can see in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.—Phil. 2:12–23
The point here is not to make Christianity into a religion of being terrified by God. Rather, the picture of “fearing God” in both Old and New Testaments has rightly been described as a paradox that combines adoring fascination of God with trembling before his holiness and power. Indeed, Deuteronomy 10:12 puts things just like that, commanding us to “fear God” and “love God” in the same sentence.
In short, biblical fear is real fear, but a fear that combines love and obedience. Wisdom starts there.
The First Thing and the Best Thing
Second, we are told that the fear of the Lord is the “beginning” (Hebrew rēšit) of knowledge (or, “the beginning of wisdom” in Proverbs 9:10). This Hebrew word rēšit is ambiguous and could mean something like “the first thing” or “the best thing.” Some scholars believe that the ambiguity is probably intentional. This makes wisdom the starting point on the road to wisdom. You cannot enter the journey anywhere else but the fear of the Lord.
Biblical fear is real fear, but a fear that combines love and obedience. Wisdom starts there.
But rēšit is also the best thing. The fear of the Lord is the principal virtue that keeps you on the wisdom journey after you have begun. This counters the idea that wisdom is about being a smart, savvy, and skillful person. Wisdom is not about what you can do, but about how you live your life before the Lord. And that, as we saw above, is with awe and adoration.
Humility and Discipline
Finally, we look at the second line in our verse:
fools despise wisdom and instruction.—Proverbs 1:7b
Proverbs 1:7 is what we call an “antithetical saying,” where the first line (Prov. 1:7a) is opposed by, or contrasted to, the second (Prov. 1:7b). Thus we see that the opposite of the fear of the Lord is the rejection of instruction and humility. In essence, those who cannot or will not be taught will never attain wisdom. To appreciate this point, we look at one of the other “fear of the Lord” sayings in Proverbs 15:33:
The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,
and humility comes before honor.
This verse is a “synonymous saying” where line 33b agrees with, or expands upon, line 33a. Notice that we have our same word “instruction” from Proverbs 1:7 in line a, but now set alongside “humility” in line b. Do you want wisdom? Then you must love instruction, which means being humble. Or as we read elsewhere in Proverbs 26:12:
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.
In sum, Proverbs 1:7 seeks to instill in us the indispensable virtues for becoming wise. We must tremble at the Lord’s holiness, just as we are drawn to him in love. We must warmly accept instruction. And we must always resist the pride that will take us off our path.
Ryan Patrick O'Dowd is a contributor to the ESV Expository Commentary Series: Psalms–Song of Solomon (Volume 5) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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