If you just open up Proverbs and start reading, especially in the last two-thirds of the book, you will find very few explicit mentions of God. So many times people wonder ‘where God is in Proverbs?’ Even some people who don’t even believe in God enjoy Proverbs for this very reason. It seems so independent of faith.
But as you read the whole book, you have to remember what comes before it. Chapters 1-9 serve as a larger foundation for the book, with verses 1-7 as an introduction to everything. And what we find laid at the bottom of it all, what we find as the foundational level of all the observations and instruction and guidance on living wisely in this world is this premise – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7a). Elsewhere in the book of Proverbs we find the similar phrase, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Both knowledge and wisdom are closely related in this sense. You won’t wise without gaining knowledge of what wisdom is.
And the point to this verse, as well as much of the rest of the introductory chapters is this – true wisdom is not gained apart from a right relationship with the Giver of wisdom. Thus, this idea – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” becomes the controlling principle of the book of Proverbs and the pursuit of wisdom.
So what does it mean to “fear the Lord”? The word ‘fear’ can mean anything from ‘respect’ or ‘awe’ to ‘complete and utter terror’ depending on how it is used. The basic premise is that to stand in fear of the Lord is to stand in a place of humble subservience to him. We are acknowledging our dependence on him. Here specifically, we have to come to grips with the fact that there is no true knowledge without reference to him. He is the source of all knowledge and wisdom. So if we have knowledge, if we have wisdom, it has come from the Lord.
In the end, I think D. A. Hubbard offers the best excellent explanation of what the fear of the Lord:
“‘Fear’ is best understood as ‘reverent obedience.’ Although it includes worship, it does not end there. It radiates out from our adoration and devotion to our everyday conduct that sees each moment as the Lord’s time, each relationship as the Lord’s opportunity, each duty as the Lord’s command, and each blessing as the Lord’s gift. It is a new way of looking at life and seeing what it is meant to be when viewed from God’s perspective.”
So “the fear of the Lord” then, is not a right method of thought, but a right relationship: it is worshipful, humble submission to God by faith. This is why in Proverbs 3 we read, Trust [trust – put your faith – ] in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. 8It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Prov 3:5-8)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That doesn’t mean it’s something you start with on your journey, then leave behind. No, it’s something that is laid at the very foundation of your pursuit of wisdom. All the wisdom you will ever have is built upon knowing the Lord.
More than that, the Bible is clear that it is Jesus Christ who is the very embodiment of God’s wisdom. Over and over again, the gospel writers make a point to show that Jesus is wise. Even his teaching style is steeped in a wisdom methodology. Furthermore, when we get to the epistles, Paul is very specific on the matter. In Colossians 2, he says that it is in Christ that we find “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” And it’s precisely here that in the fullness of God’s plan we see the fullest meaning of this verse. The second part of verse 7 says, “fools despise wisdom and instruction.” What God reveals to be wise, fools reject.
This is most clearly seen in Christ himself. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says, For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The most foolish thing in the world seems to be the cross of Christ. Why would the Lord of all things allow himself to die on a tree like a criminal? How does that save anyone? Yet, Paul says what is foolish to the world is the very wisdom of God. In wisdom, God shows how the wicked might be made righteous before him. With wisdom, God provides the perfect means by which we might be reconciled to him. With wisdom, God sends his Son to die in the place taking the punishment sinners deserves, so that sinners might be forgiven of their sins.
Everyday, we are faced with the choice – follow the voice of Folly (either our own, or the folly of others), or follow the voice of Wisdom; the voice of God himself who says ‘come and learn from me and live.’ Ultimately, the choice is about life and death. Therefore, let us remember that the “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And let us humbly, willingly go to him through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ to find the wisdom he freely offers.