Proverbs 1:7: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (ESV)
Interesting. Isn’t it? Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. It is one of those verses of the bible that is quoted so many times that we don’t even think about what it means. When I was in school and exams came, pastors and believers reminded me of this verse. Meaning, if you fear the Lord, you will pass your exams with good marks. I wonder if Solomon was thinking of our 21st century exams when he wrote that…
Is academical exams really the right context to this verse? Well, I’m really not gonna answer that… Figure it out for yourself! Although, I think you’ll know the answer by the end of this essay. But first, we’ll have to understand what the verse says. As you can see, only the first part of the verse is cryptic and the latter part is just descriptive. So, I’m going to focus on the first part only.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”
Let’s break it down. There are two different components in the sentence. First is, “Fear of the Lord” and second is “Beginning of knowledge”. I’d also like you to note that some translations say, “beginning of knowledge” and some translations say, “beginning of wisdom”.
You may ask, what’s so interesting about these two components? Well, I don’t know about you but they are plenty interesting to me. The reason is, when I was younger (and still), I wanted to become very wise. But, the verse made no sense whatsoever to me. Why? Because it makes no sense. How can the fear of the Lord be the beginning of wisdom? And, what exactly is this fear of the Lord? Am I to tremble in his presence?
Certainly, that can not be. Because somewhere else the bible tells about how this God loved me so much that he sent his only begotten son to take up the cross that was mine to bear. This son, Jesus, beyond the miracles he did and the dead he raised, brought hope into a hopeless world. Then, when time came, he carried the cross of my shame upon his shoulders and died for my sin. Are you telling me that this is the God that I should fear? How can I fear him who loves me so much?
This was the reasoning of my childhood that made the verse so cryptic. If I can not fear God then I wouldn’t be wise. If I do fear God, it wouldn’t be fair. Since, would God, after going through all of that want me to be afraid of him? If not, what does the verse mean?
Well, the key to this puzzle of fear and love lies in the second part of the verse. ESV translation says, “Beginning of knowledge”. NET translation is a little more elaborate and says, “Beginning of moral knowledge”. And then there are some other translations that uses the word “wisdom”. So, I think some definitions are in order.
I don’t know if there are any official definitions of knowledge and wisdom, but I think the general idea is knowledge is the things that you know and wisdom is the application of that knowledge in the right way. In the verse “beginning of knowledge” is too general. Plus, taken literally it can’t be true because from the day you are born you start gaining knowledge. Doesn’t matter if you fear the Lord or not. So, it must mean something more specific than general knowledge. And we do have a contender. It is “wisdom”. So, why does some translations say “wisdom” and others say “knowledge”? And even more importantly, why can’t the translators just agree upon one and stop making bible more cryptic than it already is? ;)
Well, I can see their difficulty and I’m also having a difficult time describing the difficulty. I’ll try my best to explain. First, think of wisdom. Application of knowledge in the right way. Now, I’m (almost) certain that everybody applies their knowledge in some way or the other. However, only the people who use their knowledge in the right way are considered wise. Others are called fools. OK. So far so good. Now, if you notice, in the verse it is not talking about just plain old wisdom. It’s talking about the beginning of wisdom. So, if we are just beginning to be wise, then we aren’t exactly sure which one is right and which one is wrong. And if we are not sure which way is right and which way is wrong then how will we apply our knowledge in the right way? Thus, becoming wise? How will we become wise?
That last question is the theme of the whole book of proverbs. Wise sayings from the wisest man that ever lived. And in the very beginning of this book he says, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of moral knowledge” (NET). Great translation! It is not too general like knowledge and doesn’t self destruct like wisdom!
Now, if we look at the situations in our lives, in regards of knowing the right thing we will understand that in some areas of our life we know exactly what is the right thing to do and in other areas we aren’t sure. So, if we are sure what is the right thing to do then, we should just do it. (There may be times when we think that something is right but is not… but that’s another matter and I’m not going to discuss it here). We would be wise to do it, and doing that thing wouldn’t be called beginning of wisdom but it will be just an exercise of our already present wisdom. Although failing to exercise wisdom will be foolishness of epic proportions! But let’s get back to the topic at hand. The verse seems to suggest that when we are not sure, we should fear the Lord.
So, the problem that I faced in my childhood is solved. I used to ask, would it be fair to be afraid of him who loves me so much? I know the answer. No, it wouldn’t be fair to fear him. It would be foolish to do so considering the knowledge of the love of God. So, you shouldn’t fear God as a mouse fears a cat. To summarize, “one should fear the Lord when he is not sure which is good and which is bad”. If you know which is good and which is bad, then there is no point in sitting on the intersection thinking what I should do. It’d be waste of time. Just as bad as doing the bad thing.
But we still don’t understand exactly what it means. We eliminated one possibility of the meaning of “the fear of the Lord”, but we do not know it’s exact meaning. Does the “Fear of the Lord” has a bit more subtle meaning? Let us examine another place in the bible where similar advice is given. It is in psalms. Most probably, also written by Solomon.
Psalms 111:10: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever! (ESV)
And, NET translation:
Psalms 111:10: To obey the LORD is the fundamental principle for wise living; all who carry out his precepts acquire good moral insight. He will receive praise forever. (NET)
Compare the two. It is basically the same advice but a bit more elaborate. Interesting. One translation says, “The fear of the Lord” another says “To obey the Lord”. I think we just hit the jackpot! The so called “fear” is nothing but obedience. How so simple! So, if we replace this newfound insight in our original summary statement, it becomes “One should obey the Lord when he is not sure which is good and which is bad” And that, indeed will be the beginning of wisdom. Since it is him, who defines good and bad. If you are not sure, ask him who defined the two!
That’s my reasoning of the matter. However unorthodox, it does lead to the truth that is contained in it. However, I think I must also address one other view that is prominent among Christians. It says, the “fear” is not literal fear rather a kind of reverence and awe. And I do agree with it to some degree… but not in this context. I find it insufficient.
The reason is, people who ask the question “What does this verse mean?” are mostly new believers or youngsters. People who don’t have much knowledge and experience with the mysterious ways of God. And to them it seems as if you just bent the meaning of scriptures. You just gave your own interpretation which doesn’t really connect to what is written. If that was really the meaning, why isn’t it translated like that? Why doesn’t it say, “The reverence of the Lord is beginning of knowledge”?
The view that it should be interpreted as reverence and awe doesn’t really make sense to everyone. It could be said that it is a correct answer to a wrong person. If the questioner is just a skeptic, would it make sense? To him it would seem like you are reading your own meaning into the scripture. If the questioner is a new believer, would the answer help him when he has yet to learn to revere God? Is it so easy to revere him when you are living in a fallen world?
Let me try to answer it. Why is the word fear used if it meant reverence or awe? Maybe because it didn’t mean that. Especially in regards to new believers. To answer this question, we must examine the nature of fear and the nature of reverence and awe.
The origin of fear lies in the lack of knowledge whereas the origin of reverence lies in knowledge. You can not revere someone without knowing them. But you can certainly fear someone without knowing them. Awe, I think, is a higher form of reverence. It is fueled with knowledge acquired through dramatic bursts of revelation! So, only when you know God intimately, you can revere or be awestruck by him. Whereas you can very easily fear things that you don’t know or only partially know about.
In our lives we incrementally gain knowledge about God. When we learn about God for the first time, we do not know about him much. We know just enough to take the very first steps of faith. God is still largely distant to us and his ways are still a mystery. However, we know the world and it’s ways all too well. And in this state of infancy, the word of God speaks the eternal truth. “Fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom.”
Reverence and awe inspires worship but fear inspires restraint. And at this time of infancy, this restraint is useful. It keeps us away from the dangers of the world. This might be a time which we do not like nor understand, it is a time where God holds us in his hands and molds us. He uses fear to restraint us so that we do not stray too far away from him. He is a loving father who doesn’t want his young child harmed. Every time, you choose to fear God, in other words, you choose to obey God, even though his ways seem foolish and boring, after some time, you’ll begin to understand why it must be so. It is so because there is a very good reason behind all his laws. This reason is not plain to see, but it becomes clear when you practice his law.
As the verse says, “all who carry out his precepts acquire good moral insight”. This moral insight can’t be learned in a lecture hall. It must be gained by living according to the law of God. Once gained, this insight, this truth will fill you with awe for your creator. Slowly, you will begin to worship him day and night. What first was fear and uncertainty, will begin to turn into a force of certainty. For now you understand just a little bit more of how awesome this God is. A little bit here and a little bit there. You will begin to be wise. You will begin to understand the mind and heart of God.
In the beginning, you might be afraid of this great and mighty God. Afraid of his power. Distant from him because you do not understand him. But, this very fear he will use to bring you closer. And one day, you will fear him no longer. Because his perfect love will cast out all your fears.