Scripture tells us in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” This proverb, along with minor variations (such as “…is the beginning of wisdom”) is also found in other Bible verses with developed contextual applications. As such, we can take it to be a fundamental Biblical concept.
I have heard earnest Pastors and Bible teachers stress that “fear” should be understood as “awe”, presuming, I suppose, that a God worth fearing would scare away potential believers. After all, the Bible admonishes us to “fear not”. However, an examination of Biblical references to “fear not” primarily reveals: 1) We do not need to be afraid of what others may do to us when we are under God’s protection; and 2) We do not need to be afraid of threatening circumstances when God is with us.
Yes, the Bible teaches that God is loving, that God helps us, protects us, guides us and blesses us in every way. But a thorough reading of Scripture also reveals that God is the ultimate Judge, justly rewarding good and punishing evil. The Biblical illustrations of God’s judgments may be perceived as “awe”-full, but the believer who doesn’t feel a twinge of real fear at the prospect of one’s own sins stirring up God’s wrath is being a bit naive. The very first verse of the book of Job describes Job as a man who feared the Lord. And yet even he, in the midst of his faith crisis, needed to be reminded of all the reasons God is to be feared. Granted, most of the examples found in chapters 38 through 41 inspire awe. But some verses directly compare human strengths to the power of God in order to engender a literal God-fearing attitude:
“Have the gates of death been shown to you?” (38:17)
(God asks) “Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (40:8)
“Do you have an arm like God’s? … then I myself will admit to you that your own right hand can save you.” (40:9-14)
“Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.” (41:10b,11)
Isaiah 33:5,6 reads, “The Lord is exalted, for He dwells on high; He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.” The phrase, “for your times” declares the application of this Scripture relevant to any generation, especially to ours now. Notice that the fear of the Lord is named key to the treasure of not only knowledge and wisdom, but of salvation. While one’s faith gives the assurance of salvation, wisdom and knowledge, it’s the fear of the Lord that provides the access to those treasures.
A good reason for the fear of the Lord is found in Psalm 130. Verses 3 and 4 say, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” The fear of the Lord has nothing to do with tornados or tigers, but everything to do with our own personal standing before the Lord. We are all at His mercy, but not all of us are willing to admit to that consequential point. To be God-fearing is not the avoidance of the possibility of being crushed by some arbitrary calamity. It is: 1) the honest recognition of our own sins and sinfulness; and 2) the acceptance of the Lord’s authority over us and therefore our accountability to Him.
Psalm 130 goes beyond the fear of the Lord to forgiveness from the Lord. (Remember, fear is only the beginning.) The Lord’s forgiveness, mentioned in verse 4 is developed in Verses 7 and 8: “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.” Notice the response to fearing the Lord wasn’t to cower but to hope for redemption through the forgiveness of sins. The reason we are to fear the Lord is not only to make us aware of the consequences of our sins, but to point us toward the “unfailing love” and forgiveness of the Lord.
Popular wisdom says we need to learn to forgive ourselves. And while that certainly is a healthy thing to do, there are those who would minimize the need for God to forgive us. If they can forgive themselves, why must God forgive them? Perhaps they consider God in the abstract, thereby making any personal response to God irrelevant. Or, perhaps they deny that God even exists (Psalm 14:1). But if one acknowledges the existence of God, and accepts the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God, then what is left is to believe the Bible and do what it teaches. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
Proverbs 2:1-4 gives us a to-do list, in order to acquire the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God:
“My son, if you accept my words…”
The first step is to accept the wisdom of Scripture. Proverbs 1:8 and 9 characterize that as “your father’s instruction” and “your mother’s teaching”. But wisdom certainly isn’t limited to parents, particularly if those parents aren’t themselves grounded in the teaching of wisdom. Because we are speaking of Biblical wisdom, any sound Biblical teacher is going to reflect not so much his own wisdom, but the wisdom found in Scriptures. So it is the Scriptures themselves that we need to accept.
“and store up my commands within you,…”
The second step is owning God’s “commands” and making them part of your own inner resources, upon which you may call, as part of your everyday living. Here the word “commands” doesn’t mean just the Ten Commandments or Biblical regulations. It means the whole of God’s teachings. When you read in the Bible whether a thing is right or wrong, apply it to your own way of thinking and living. Create your own personal collection of Godly guidelines that you always carry within you as aids in moral behavior and decision-making.
“turning your ear to wisdom…”
To turn your ear to wisdom, you must stop what you are doing, turn from your point of reference — whatever that may be — and give your undivided attention to wisdom. In the midst of a conversation, in the middle of an activity, even during a thought, it is possible in any situation to attune yourself to wisdom. It may mean asking, “Am I being wise?” or, “What is the wise thing to do?” Or it may just be acknowledging our own foolishness, then correcting ourselves.
“and applying your heart to understanding…”
Understanding is most often considered a result of intelligence and/or study. The more analytical or right-brained one is, the greater the temptation is to reduce understanding to the collection of hard, cold facts, being as objective as possible — often to the point of disregarding all “value judgments”. But, while this practice may be beneficial in mathematics and the scientific method, it doesn’t lead to the fear of the Lord, nor to wisdom. On the other hand, “applying your heart” doesn’t mean putting your emotions in charge of your thinking. It means to direct your essence, the very core of your being to the task of understanding. That means the Scripture you come to understand is reflected in how you personally apply it to your life.
“and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding…”
The poetic nature of the Book of Proverbs makes this a reiterated single step because calling out for insight and crying aloud for understanding are essentially the same. The point here is that to understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God, one must want it so much that the desire for insight into God’s truth is so intense it can only be expressed by calling out or crying aloud. The implication is that we are calling out to God in prayer. And, of course, the only way to understand that is to experience it. It begins with the heart’s desire to seek the Lord in prayer.
“and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure…”
Again, this is a reiterated step, since looking for silver and searching for hidden treasure mean the same thing. Here we see two factors: our search is intense; and we highly value the object of our search. Looking for silver enlivens and motivates us because we can imagine becoming rich. No one is lackadaisical when searching for treasure. The possibilities are just too great. Since it is impossible to sustain a self-conjured enthusiasm, we need to sincerely believe that what we are looking for is a treasure. That belief alone will give us all the motivation we need.
Following this list (Proverbs 2:1-4) verses 5 and 6 continue: “then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Of course, the proverb goes on to say many more worth-while things, which bear attention, but my point has been made. The fear of the Lord is a good thing. It is understandable and attainable. And it is only the beginning.