The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
But fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Everything has a beginning, a first start, a genesis. Everything begins somewhere. And according to the Proverbs, there’s a beginning to knowledge, wisdom and instruction— and that glorious beginning is called “the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1:7).
But what does it mean to “fear the Lord”? What does that look like in real life? If “God is love” as the Scriptures say (1 John 4:8), how are we to fear His love? Or His mercy? Or His grace? Or any other aspect of His character? How can the fear of the Lord be the beginning of anything but a dysfunctional relationship with Someone whom we’re frightened of and cower in His presence? Fear is not a pleasant emotion that draws us closer to the one we fear. So why would the Lord tell us that the fear of Him is the very starting point of knowledge and wisdom? It would seem to me that love would be the beginning of our relationship with the Lord— not fear.
What Does Fear Really Mean?
And that’s the main question, isn’t it? What do we mean by “fear”?
Our English definition of fear reads like this: “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or is a threat.” Fear is also described as the “anticipation of the possibility that something unpleasant will occur.” You know, the fear of financial ruin, the fear of heights, the fear for one’s safety, or the fear of speaking in public. There are countless ways to describe fear as an unpleasant emotion caused by the possibility of something bad happening to us.
But in the Scriptures, fear has an additional connotation. To “fear the Lord” means to “honor, respect, and be in awe” of Him in addition to the idea of God Himself being “an awesome, terrifying and fearful thing.” In other words, the “fear of the Lord” means to show profound respect while recognizing that the object of our fear is “awesome and terrifying and fearful” and can bless or crush us at any time, for any reason, at His own whim, without recourse. He is, after all, the Creator, the Highest Authority, the Sovereign One, and we are mere mortals, just dust and ashes.
Having a healthy “fear of the Lord” should motivate us to please Him in all we do. Why? Because we will someday have to give an account to Him for what we’ve done, good or bad or indifferent, while living our lives on this earth (2 Cor. 5:10). He will be our Judge, the final Arbiter of our fate, and He will judge us according to His infallible standard of righteousness and holiness and not by our lukewarm platitudes designed to excuse our apathy.
And this, my friend, should give us great pause.
The First Door Opened
If you remember, the final promise made to us in the preamble to the Proverbs reads:
A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel, (why) to understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles (or, dark, hidden sayings)” (Prov. 1:5-6).
And what’s the first enigma, the first strange, dark saying we are to understand? What door has the promise of wisdom opened to us first? Simply this, it’s the importance of the “fear of the Lord”— or more literally, “the fear of Jehovah” (Prov. 1:7). But why? Because this “fear of the Lord” is the foundation upon which our future relationship with God is formed.
Remember, the word fear is like a two-edged sword. On one side of the blade is engraved the words “Respect, Honor, Awe, and Reverence” while the other side reads “Fright, Terror, Dread, and Great Fear.” They’re both part of the same sword, and they’re both key attributes of the character of God. And they’re not contradictory in nature nor mutually exclusive. God is both merciful and just. He is ever forgiving yet ultimately holds us accountable for our sins. And He is loving, gracious and good and incredibly fearful and terrifying at the same time.
So the first enigma we’re to understand is the seemingly illogical one that states the fear, both defined as profound reverence and terrifying dread, of the Lord is the beginning, the inception, the starting place of knowledge, discernment and insight into the things of God.
And that’s a good thing.
You see, we have this nagging tendency to view the God revealed in the Old Testament and Jesus as two totally different beings. The Old Testament God seems fearful, terrifying, capricious and often unapproachable. We see Him coming with fire, thunder and lightning on Mt. Sinai to the point the Jews quaked in fear like the cowardly lion did when meeting the Wizard of Oz. The Old Testament God is seen as the God of curses, judgment, plagues, and wrath while the New Testament God, Jesus, is viewed as loving, patient, forgiving, and full of mercy and grace. Jesus understands us and He’s like us in many ways, or so we’d like to think. He’s approachable and not judgmental, like a close friend or a best buddy. We can do anything we want and He will just smile and wink and turn a blind eye because He loves us and only wants to make us happy.
The Old Testament God? Not so much.
See One, See All
But they’re actually one and the same. “He who has seen Me,” Jesus said, “has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Or, “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30). So for us to create our view of Jesus as some cosmic sidekick or good buddy and ignore the very fact that He is God, Sovereign over all, the Creator (John 1:3) and Sustainer (Heb. 1:3) of everything, is to open a door that will lead us away from wisdom and into the murky waters of self-deception. Why? Because we tend to love the Jesus we’ve created in our own image and fear the God of the Old Testament who we don’t fully understand, nor really want to. Why? Because we don’t like fear. Not one bit.
Fear causes us to have to watch what we say, to guard our hearts, and to constantly be aware of the sin in our lives. Fear makes us feel uncomfortable, troubled, because of the object of our fear. We fear the Law Enforcement Officer when we see his blue lights in our rear view mirror because of what pain we know he could cause us by writing a speeding ticket. We fear our boss when we stand outside his office door, nervously knocking, knowing he wants to see us immediately and we haven’t a clue as to why. We fear the IRS when we open their letter that questions some fuzzy deduction on our tax return we didn’t really feel so good about when we filed it last April. And why? Because these objects of our fear have some element of power over our lives, some control, that can bring us some pain. And there’s not much we can do about it but complain.
And because we fear what the officer or our boss or the IRS can do to us for our non-compliance to what is required, we give them great respect and honor their authority. Why? Because we don’t want to make things worse for ourselves, we don’t want to make them mad. We fear their authority and the power they have over our lives. So we put on our Sunday smile and treat them as nice as humanly possible, careful to never defend ourselves or demean them for doing their job.
“Oh, excuse me officer. I’m so sorry I was speeding. Thank you for the ticket. Have a great day.”
“Sir, is there something you wanted to see me about? Is there something I can do to help you?”
And we answer all their questions and suffer through all their demands with a polite, “Sir” and “Yes, Sir” regardless of how we feel. Why? Because they have the power, for that moment at least, to cause us happiness or pain, to make us rejoice or suffer. And it’s their power, by virtue of their position and authority that we respect and fear, even if we don’t respect the individual person holding that position.
Fear is the Beginning
If that is true of a simple highway cop and a $60 speeding ticket, how much more so if the object of our fear is the Lord Himself? There’s no “Jesus we like because He cuts us slack for our sin” and “God we don’t like because He’s such a stickler for right and wrong.” Or, “Jesus we love because He loves us but God we don’t like to hang around Him much because He’s always reminding us of how poor we are doing in this life of holiness.” There’s not a choice. You can’t be on one team and not on the other. Jesus and the Father, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, are one and the same. Identical. Of the same essence. And we are to love, not just the Son but the Father also, and we are to fear both Father and Son. It’s a two way street. Love and fear flow both ways.
Jesus is not only forgiving, but also commands us unquestionably, just like the Father. His words to the woman caught in the act of adultery were first forgiving: “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you.” And then commanding: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:10-11). Again, love and fear flow both ways.
One final thought. For those who still see Jesus as always loving and God as always judgmental, consider this from the Revelation:
And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:15-17).
Did you catch that? They were begging the rocks and mountains to fall on them in a vain attempt to hid from the “wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:17). That’s Jesus, by the way. The wrath of Jesus.
Fear Only One
Which brings us back to the Proverbs.
The fear of the Lord, and not of anything else, is the beginning, the source, the starting place of all knowledge, wisdom, insight and discernment. It’s our profound respect and honor, based on Who He is as our Sovereign Creator and Lord, that opens the doors of deeper understanding into the things of God. And it’s our fear and terrifying dread of His authority and judgment that prompts us to live a life worthy of being called His children and joint heirs with His Son (Rom. 8:16-17).
Believe me, fear is a healthy emotion to have towards the Lord. Why? Just look how Jesus addressed the subject of fear in the life of a Believer.
“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5).
And who do you think Jesus was talking about? Who has the power to cast one into hell? Satan? Nope. It’s only God Himself. And it’s a fear of Him alone that opens the door to the deeper truths of the things of God.
Remember, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).
1. Have you ever thought of Jesus as Someone you could trust, Someone you wanted near you but not God the Father?
2. When you pray, do you pray to the Father or to the Son? Or do you pray to the Holy Spirit? Or do you simply use the generic phrase, Lord? And why do you think you choose to pray to the One that you do?
3. Does the thought of having fear for the Lord make you feel uncomfortable? Does is seem unnatural, maybe out-of-character? If so, why do you think you feel that way?
4. When you read the statement, “the fear of the Lord” is your first thought of profound respect and honor or do you think more of dread and terror? Does the phrase “fear of the Lord” have a positive meaning to you or a negative one? And why is that? What about your perception of God leads you to that conclusion, either positive or negative?
5. On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate God’s wisdom in your life right now and in your decision making process? What was it yesterday? Are you growing in the wisdom of God? And, if not, why?
Next Step Challenge
Take your Bible and do a search of the Proverbs and pick out all the times the phrase “fear of the Lord” is used and write down the references. What is the Lord trying to say to you in these passages? What definition of “fear” is being used? Is it terror and dread or profound respect and honor? Or is it both? And how does each passage now read once you understand the meaning of the word?
Now do look at the following passages and try to determine, in context, the definition of fear? How does that change, if at all, the meaning of what is being said?
1 Samuel 11:7 – So he took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, “Whoever does not go out with Saul and Samuel to battle, so it shall be done to his oxen.” And the fear of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out with one consent.
2 Chronicles 17:10 – And the fear of the LORD fell on all the kingdoms of the lands that were around Judah, so that they did not make war against Jehoshaphat.
2 Chronicles 19:19 – And he commanded them, saying, “Thus you shall act in the fear of the LORD, faithfully and with a loyal heart.”
Isaiah 33:6 – Wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of your times, and the strength of salvation; the fear of the LORD is His treasure.
Acts 9:31 – Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.
Do you have the fear of the Lord? If so, what is that like? How has it changed your life and your understanding and love of the Lord? And if you don’t, why? Doesn’t not having the fear of the Lord bring you fear?
It should, you know. It really should.