The foundation of wisdom

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge….(Proverbs 1:7)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10)

Having heard about the tremendous richness of wisdom, and being encouraged by those who have gone before as well as having heard the invitation of wisdom itself,  we have started our quest for wisdom.  As a first step we have defined what we are looking for, when searching for wisdom, but with this came the sobering thought that so far no one, except God, has demonstrated to perfection all the time what it is to possess wisdom. This could discourage us for continuing on our quest, because we may never be able to get there or when we get there to stay  there all the time. On the other hand, knowing that only God is All Wise all the time, we might want to explore whether He might be able and willing to help us move on with our quest.

We have seen that the first humans set out on their quest for wisdom for their own advantage, to become like God and this brought them into deep trouble.  Wisdom sought for our own advantage will bring us in confrontation with our Creator. Mere human how-to knowledge is not enough. The foundation for our quest for wisdom cannot be our own self-interest, but has to be something else.

As psychologist Robert Sternberg  puts it: “Wisdom and egocentricity are incompatible… people who have gotten where they are by not taking other people’s interests into account or even by actively thwarting the interests of others… would not be viewed as wise.” A balance theory of wisdom. (Sternberg, Robert J. Review of General Psychology, Vol 2(4), Dec 1998, 347-365)

The book of Proverbs provides us with another foundation, namely the fear of the Lord and we will explore this.


The term ‘the fear of the Lord’ occurs twenty times in the book of Proverbs. The first time is in the prologue in 1:7 and the last time is in one of the last verses of the book (31:30).  This seems to suggest that the concept is foundational to the book. This becomes even more obvious when we read that ‘the fear of the Lord’ is the beginning of  ‘wisdom’ (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).

The Hebrew word used here for ‘beginning’ (resit) literally means ‘starting point’ and can be translated as ‘the essence’, ‘the controlling principle’ or ‘the root’.  Wisdom is rooted in and derives from the fear of the Lord.

If we want to gain wisdom we have to start with developing a fear of God.  Without fear of the Lord one cannot acquire true wisdom.  The book of Proverbs teaches us that wisdom is not simply a matter of learning certain rules and applying them mechanically, but at its core is the relationship with God.

Wisdom, which as we have seen, is the skill to navigate life successfully, cannot be gained independently from the Giver of life, the Creator. God created the world through His wisdom  and his creation reflects this wisdom in several ways. His wisdom maintains the order in the universe. This means that only in a close relationship with Him we will be able to learn the competence to navigate our life successfully, the skill to speak and act in a healthy way etc.

Wisdom reflects the correct attitude to life and this begins with a right attitude to God. When we want to learn to steer through life successfully, we have to begin by acknowledging the absolute Lordship of God in our quest for wisdom.

Anyone who seeks to apply God’s truth daily and learn from his or her experience can become wise eventually. But wisdom can be sought for one’s own advantage and in a             way that does not honor God. (How to read the Bible for all it’s worth  -Fee and Stuart 189)

What does ‘the fear of the Lord’ mean?

What Proverbs calls the essence or starting point of wisdom, namely the fear of the Lord is  a phrase that is not very common today.  Our parents or grandparents perhaps spoke of godfearing people, but this term seems to disappear rapidly nowadays. When you look up the word ‘god fearing’  in a dictionary you learn that is said of someone who is ‘devout’, or ‘deeply religious’ or of a person that has a reverent feeling toward God’, or of ‘religious people who try to obey the rules of their religion and to live in a way that is considered morally right’.

The term is not a very appealing one at first sight. How many of us would call ourselves ‘godfearers’?  Even our believing friends might wonder: Should we not love God instead of fear God?  Is God Someone to be feared?

The phrase ‘the fear of the Lord’ is very common in the Old Testament. Several believers, like  Abraham (Gen. 22:12), Joseph (Gen. 42:18), Obadiah (1 Kings 18:12); Nehemiah (Neh. 5:15); Hezekiah (Jer. 26:19); Job (Job 1:1); and Jonah (Jonah 1:9)  are said to have ‘feared God’.

The ‘fear of the Lord’ is an attitude, a mindset, a focus of the heart that is very characteristic of the way the relationship between man and God is described throughout the Old Testament. It is an attitude that God desires to see in us.

Fear is a natural result when the Almighty, Sovereign Creator of the universe reveals Himself in power and majesty (as He did to his people Israel at Mount Sinai, see Exodus 20: 18-20 and Deut. 5:23-29). This was an overwhelming experience of which fear was the most logical consequence. The people were frightened and terrified. Can you blame them? Who would not fear when you become aware of the enormous difference between the Creator and the creature, between the Almighty One and the finite one.

When we read these passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy we are confronted with a paradox. To a terrified and frightened people Moses says not to fear and at the same time God expresses His desire that the hearts of his people would always be inclined to fear Him.

How can we not fear and fear at the same time?  This paradox opens the way to a deeper understanding of the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord’.

Fearing God does not entirely exclude components of fright and terror. When God reveals His power and holiness, we sense our own finiteness and unworthiness in the presence of a holy, righteous God.  Nevertheless, ‘the fear of the Lord’ has far more aspects than just the emotion of fear.

A very important aspect of the fear of the Lord is loving God and serving Him with all our hearts:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 10:12, 13)

Elsewhere fearing God is associated with holding fast to Him (Deut. 10:20; 13:4). In fact, fearing God without a heart of love is rejected by God (Is. 29:13).

The fear of the Lord therefore not only describes the distance between God and man, but paradoxically, also the intimate relationship between God and man (Psalm 25:14).  How can this be? How can a small, dependable, insignificant and sinful, creature, have an intimate relationship with the Sovereign, Holy, and Sinless God? Only when the Holy and Righteous God forgives our sins and shortcomings. This is exactly the question the Psalmist struggled with:

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. (Psalm 130: 3,4)

Forgiveness bridges the gap between the Fearful and Awesome God and weak and insignificant human being. This act of forgiveness from God enables us to live in close proximity to Him, which is here described as reverence (fear) of God. Forgiveness makes a reverential, worshipful fear possible.

Because of this, the person who fears the Lord is someone who delights in His Word (Psalm 112:1). Fear of the Lord motivates obedience and produces a God-like character, that is expressed in social responsibilities and neighborly love. Because of fear of the Lord one honors the aged (Lev. 19:32), refrains from abusing authority over others (Lev. 25:43), does not mistreat the handicapped (Lev. 19:14), does not take advantage of others (Lev. 25:17, 36.) Out of fear of the Lord Joseph treated his brothers justly (Gen. 42:18). Because of their fear of God the Egyptian midwives refused to kill the babies (Ex. 1:17); Moses appointed godfearing leaders because they were trustworthy and hated dishonest gain (Ex. 18:21). Because of his fear of God Nehemiah led the people in a different way than was the custom (Nehemiah 5: 15,16)

The fear of God motivates right behavior even when socially enforced sanctions do not exist or cannot be effective, because the person who fears God wants to reflect the character of  the one, true, living God.

Although the phrase ‘the ‘fear of the Lord’ is found predominantly in the Old Testament, it is also mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus speaks of it as an appropriate attitude among his disciples (Luke 12: 4, 5). The Apostle Paul uses it as a motivation for Christian living (2 Cor. 7:1; Coll. 3:22; Phil. 2:12, 13). Also the Apostle Peter encourages his readers to conduct themselves with fear of the Lord (1 Peter 1: 17-19).

Having looked at the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord’  as it was known to Solomon, we begin to understand why he considers this kind of relationship of holy regard, trust and submission to  God foundational in his quest for wisdom. Without this foundational attitude our pursuit of wisdom will not bring us to true wisdom that is characteristically humble, but will lead to arrogance and self-righteousness, someone who is impressed with his own wisdom. Instead of wise, we are called fools (Proverbs 1:7)


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