Why is the fear of the Lord the BEGINNING of wisdom?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

Someone asked me a question the other day about the fear of the Lord. It got me thinking about Proverbs 1:7, which famously says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (or wisdom). But the word which really struck me this time is the beginning. What does it mean for the fear of the Lord to be the beginning of wisdom? And what’s the end?

Let’s start by thinking about what the fear of the Lord actually is.

What is the fear of the Lord?

The Hebrew word translated ‘fear’ (yirah) can mean fear or terror, but when it is used in relation to God it means something like respect or reverence. It’s the same kind of idea we might say about treating those in authority – maybe parents, or teachers, or police. (We don’t tend to think in those terms these days – it does sound very old-fashioned!)

I think it’s important to say that doesn’t mean we have to be scared of God. A lot of people have had abusive fathers or authority figures and have been terrified of them. God is absolutely not like that! We’ll come onto this more in a moment.

So that’s what the fear of the Lord is not. Let’s look at what the fear of the Lord actually is.

It’s not the same as believing in God

It’s important to begin by saying that the fear of the Lord is not the same as believing in God. You can believe in God but not fear the Lord! James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” The demons believe in God, but they don’t obey God. Their belief in God doesn’t affect their actions. This leads on to the next point.

Fear of the Lord leads to action

The plague of hail

The very first example of the fear of the Lord in the Bible is Exodus 9:20. This is what it says (the context is Moses warning the people of a plague of hail):

Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field.

Exodus 9:20-21

So the officials who fear the (word of) the Lord listen. They do something about it and bring their slaves and livestock inside. The important thing is the connection between belief and action – their actions show they believe.

As a side note, it’s interesting that the fear of the Lord is not restricted to his people. The book of Acts also talks about ‘God-fearing gentiles’ (Acts 13:26). This suggests that someone who is not a Christian (or, perhaps, not yet a Christian) might nonetheless have some kind of fear of the Lord. I wouldn’t say that means they’re saved, but maybe you could say it’s one step towards the kingdom of God.

God requires it of his people

Secondly, this is what God required of the Israelites in the Law:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

Deuteronomy 10:12-13

Again we have this connection between the fear of the Lord and obedience. Note that, although the ‘fear’ comes first, then obedience, then Moses talks about love and service. This is really important: fear and love are connected. In fact, you could say they are two sides of the same coin.

Fear of the Lord stops us from wanting to do the wrong thing – but love compels us to do the right thing. You might say the same of a human father: I have two young girls, and sometimes I need to punish them if they do something wrong. But – I hope that what compels them to obey me is not their fear of punishment, but rather because they love and respect me. It’s the same with God, our heavenly Father. We can reverence, respect and love him all at the same time – and all these things lead to our obedience.

A lack of it leads to immorality

Psalm 36 begins like this:

I have a message from God in my heart
concerning the sinfulness of the wicked:
There is no fear of God
before their eyes.

Psalm 36:1

Here, David says that people who are wicked do not fear the Lord. In other words, when people don’t fear the Lord, they do what they like with no concern for right or wrong. They simply say, as Psalm 12 puts it, “who is lord over us?” (Psalm 12:4). They become the judges of right and wrong for themselves.

So, in summary, the fear of the Lord is associated with obedience. If we fear the Lord, we’ll listen to him and obey his commands. That explains what the fear of the Lord is – but that doesn’t explain why the fear of the Lord is only the beginning of wisdom.

Why is it the beginning of wisdom?

The reason why the fear of the Lord is only the beginning of wisdom is because you can obey someone without actually loving them. You can fear and obey a tyrant or a dictator, without believing they are actually good. If you fear the Lord, you might obey him, but that doesn’t mean that you love him. Fear might simply mean not doing the wrong thing. Now that in itself is no small thing! I wish in our society that we had more people who fear the Lord, who are afraid to do the wrong thing. It would totally transform society!

As Proverbs says, fear is the beginning of wisdom. It can put you on the first step. But we need more. We need love as well.

If we love God, we’ll not only refrain from doing the wrong thing, but we’ll want to actively please him. We’ll want to devote our lives to him and to pleasing him, and we will take delight in what he gives to us.

Psalm 34 brings together fear and love:

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.

Psalm 34:8-9

You see, in the Bible, ‘fear’ and ‘love’ really are two sides of the same coin. We reverence and respect God, and we enjoy his goodness. We trust that he is like a good earthly father – one who disciplines us for our own good, but one who is ultimately good and loving.

Treating God like a good Father

Let’s go back to the example of parenting. If my two girls feared me but didn’t love me, how would that change our relationship? Well, they would probably obey what I told them to do – mostly! So there would be obedience. But there would be no closeness or warmth in the relationship. They wouldn’t do things to please me, they would only do things to avoid punishment. They wouldn’t want to spend time with me – they would only seek to avoid getting on my bad side.

This is why fear alone is not enough. We need fear and love, together. We need to recognise that our heavenly Father is not just a God of power and justice, but a God of goodness and love.

He isn’t a tyrant who we need to obey in order to avoid punishment – he’s a heavenly Father who we love to please because he is good to us.

From the beginning to the end

The fear of the Lord might be the beginning of wisdom – but love is its end. And this is the path that many people take in their Christian lives: they start out by realising that they are sinners, needing forgiveness. They try to keep the rules, believing that God will punish them if they step out of line. But gradually, over time, as they realise their own inability to keep God’s commands, and yet God’s constant love, they realise God’s goodness and start to truly love him back.

This is like the story of the Bible: God always was a good God, but he first gave the Israelites the Law to teach them how to fear him, before they truly learned to love him.

As Paul puts it in Galatians:

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.

Galatians 5:23-24

Our faith now is a faith in our good and generous God, who does not punish us severely for breaking the law but who forgives and delights in us. What began with fear of the Lord has turned into love of the Lord.

Explore Further

If you’d like to do some more exploring on this topic, here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Mike Reeves has written a book called “Rejoice and Tremble”, subtitled “The surprising good news of the fear of the Lord”. Read my review here.
  • There’s a whole session in the Apostle’s Creed series about calling God “Our Father”.
  • The book of Galatians is a great book for looking at the why and how of obedience. I preached through Galatians a year or two back – check out the all the sermons under the Galatians tag.
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