For this Wisdom Wednesday, let’s do a deep dive into Proverbs 1:7. We will find numerous passages throughout the book of Proverbs which speak of “the fear of the Lord,” and one which very closely resembles the specific wording found here in 9:10. In both cases, it is profitable to break down the ideas found in the text for a greater understanding of the biblical concept of wisdom.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
The current cultural zeitgeist promotes the idea that God is not to be feared at all. This is evidenced quite strongly by the use of such phrases as “Only God can judge me,” which seems overly prevalent in recent years. Such a statement would have inspired extraordinary fear in ages past, but today serves as a reminder that God has been defanged by culture, as it were. There is no wrath. There is no judgment other than a heavenly pat on the back and an assurance that we did our best under the circumstances.
Contrast this mentality with that of the biblical writers, who often spoke of the fear of the Lord. Does the phrase indicate that we are to spend every waking moment quaking and shuddering at the fact that God could wipe us out at any moment? I don’t think this is the image the biblical writers sought to inspire. It seems instead that this concept is meant to awaken within us a healthy respect for our Creator, who holds the power to do whatever He pleases. Jesus reminded us that we should fear God, and when He does so, He pulls no punches:
“But I will warn you whom to fear: fear Him who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5)
In a single verse, Jesus tells us to fear God three different times – and when He does so, Jesus does not hold back, reminding us that God is the One who can kill and who can cast into hell. No wonder Jesus tells us to fear!
Yet again we ask, does this mean we’re supposed to sit in mortal peril every day? We run the risk of entering into paranoia and obsession with guilt if we do so. As such, what does it mean to fear the Lord? A compatible and complementary term which will aid in our study here is “reverence.” To be clear, it is quite apparent from even a brief study of the term which is used for “fear” here (Hebrew יִרְאַ֣ת, pronounced yirat) is appropriately translated. This is no exercise in semantics; we are told that we should fear God. But there is another sense in which this word carries with it a more subtle meaning as well, and I believe (from a theological perspective) that this fear is to come from a place of reverence – and, by the same token, that our reverence for God leads us to fear Him. The two concepts seem to go hand in hand. Our fear of God carries with it a sense of our reverence for Him.
The writer notes that the fear of the Lord “is the beginning of knowledge.” That is, if we are to know and understand the things of wisdom, it starts with an appropriate attitude toward God. Many a scholar has reached problematic conclusions about Scripture because they did not approach the text with a reverence for God. It is overly common for people to approach Scripture for the sake of merely gaining information or advancing their position in scholarship, but it is then little wonder that the conclusions they reach are flawed. Consider how frequently scholars with an agenda approach Scripture and read their particular views into the words of the Bible! The approach is not which begins with fear and reverence toward God, but is rather focused on the self. If we wish to know, we must first come to Scripture with a heart of humility centered in our reverence for God.
The “knowledge” to which this text refers is identified by Brown-Driver-Briggs as knowledge “in the highest sense,” that is, knowledge of the very things of God. Part of the reason we can identify this knowledge so clearly is the order of the words in Hebrew, which has been slightly shifted for the mind of the English speaker in translation. The Hebrew reads something more like, “…knowledge; wisdom and instruction, fools despise.” In fact, Waltke’s commentary on Proverbs notes that these three words – knowledge, wisdom, and instruction – appear in the exact same order here as they do in 1:2. We are meant to see a parallel here and to recognize that this one statement found in 1:7 not only summarizes the preceding material of 1:1-6, but that it is the foundation upon which the entire book is built. If we approach Proverbs with fear and reverence for God, we will grow in knowledge, wisdom, and instruction.
The fool will appear many times throughout the book of Proverbs. Thematically, the fool provides a contrast to the path of wisdom which will be laid out for the reader, and stands as a reminder that the alternate path is an undesirable one. Since I can find no scholar who acknowledges the contrast here, I will simply offer this as an interesting linguistic point which may have no substantiation whatsoever: where the word for God often used in the Old Testament is “Elohim,” the Hebrew for “fools” is “ewilim.” It should be noted that the word “Lord” here is the tetragrammaton YHWH, so the contrast I’m proposing is not explicitly present in the text. I merely find it interesting that Proverbs offers the way of YHWH Elohim and often contrasts this with the way of fools, the ewilim. Again, this is not a contrast we ever find exhibited plainly, and there are no verses in which the term “ewilim” appears together with “Elohim”; indeed, 1:7 is the closest we come to such a contrast in the same verse. It is simply something I find interesting personally.
Fools “despise” wisdom and instruction, and the term used here is fully capable of being translated as something like “have contempt for.” Fools reject wisdom with every fiber of their beings. They wish to carry on as they are, never growing and never learning the things of God. The implication is certainly that the fool has no reverence for God and therefore does not wish to know Him in any greater capacity.
“This is the way God made me.” Oh how common those words are in our culture today! But I’m always intrigued by the argument because I think it holds no water biblically. Yes, we enter this world one particular way – but are we supposed to remain as we are?
Consider the one who has never done anything with their life. We never seem to hesitate to say, “It’s a shame they never made something of themselves.” The implication is quite obvious: life is a gift, and to never use the opportunities we’re given to grow and to change is a misuse of that gift.
This seems especially relevant as we reflect together in our theological insights on the topic of theosis – God is doing something within the believer and is growing us into something new. Wesley recognized this as well as he advocated for holiness in the Christ follower. What we were is not sufficient – we must continue toward what He is making us to be.
One of the ways in which we move down this path of growth and change is in the area of wisdom. It all begins with our attitude toward God, which sets our hearts aright before Him. From that place of submission, we can grow in our understanding. Paul exhorts his readers in Philippians 2:5, “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and again in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “But we have the mind of Christ.” This carries with it several implications for the Christian which were not necessarily present during the time of Solomon’s writing in Proverbs:
1. We must approach God with the same humility which was exemplified by the Word – As Paul continues in Philippians 2, he speaks of the way in which Christ came to humanity.
“…who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men; and being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This being the continuation of Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:5, it becomes clear very quickly that humility is a prerequisite for having the mind of Christ within us. Yet when we take a posture of humility, it is evident that the mind of Christ is not something for which we must strive, but a gift to us from Christ Himself. “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus.” I would almost argue for a similar understanding of this as I previously described concerning fear and reverence; humility leads us deeper into the mind of Christ, and embracing the mind of Christ leads us to greater humility.
2. We are naturally inclined toward a greater reverence for the Father because of the Spirit of Christ within us – As those who are in Christ, we embrace the mind which has been given to us. Just as it is natural for the flesh to desire the things of the flesh, it is now something of our new nature to desire the things of the Spirit. We undoubtedly feel the conflict within ourselves quite regularly between sin and the Spirit, but the very fact that we feel this conflict is indicative of the presence of the Spirit within us. The Spirit does not long for sin, but for the deeper things of the heart of the Father. As such, we approach the throne of God and long for greater revelation of wisdom and instruction because to do so nourishes the new creation which God is at work within us to see to completion.
Wisdom grows us deeper in our knowledge of and love for our Creator, insofar as we do not allow ourselves to become prideful as Solomon did. As we grow in wisdom, let us remain humble and reverent before the God who is worthy of our fear.