Frequently Misused Verses: the fear of the Lord

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. – Proverbs 1:7 & 9:10 & Psalm 111:10

Oftentimes, quotes from the Bible are misused because they’re part of a relatively complex setting and get oversimplified when taken out of context.  This verse is the opposite: it is a very simple statement that people end up over-complicating.

Frequent Misuse: backpedaling

The reaction many Christians have to this verse from Proverbs and a Psalm is the same reaction that Satan had to God’s Word from the very start: “Did God really say…?”  We look at the word fear and we insist to ourselves that God clearly couldn’t really have meant what he said.

Fear, we rationalize, is actually reverence or respect.  It’s a reverential awe for God that we’re supposed to have, surely that is a wise Christian posture before God, right?  And we can even grab at some New Testament verses to back up this rationalization.  Take, for instance 1 John 4:18…

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

Surely, then, “the fear of the Lord” can’t be the beginning of wisdom.  So we change the word “fear” to “respect” or “reverence” whenever we teach or preach this verse, and assure everyone that there is no reason to be afraid of God.

He is not a tame lion.

When St. John the Apostle & Evangelist, who had walked with Jesus for three years and bore witness to his resurrection, had a vision of Jesus in all his glory in heaven, he “fell at his feet as though dead.”

When Isaiah the Prophet saw a vision of God, his response was to say, Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Ezekiel, Daniel, and many others also fell on their face as if “asleep” (or dead!) when they saw visions of the Lord, or even just of his angels.

As Mr. Beaver said of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “he is not a tame lion.”  God’s power is immense and terrifying.  Modern Bible translations almost universally avoid this, but if you go back to the classic King James Bible you’ll find references to God’s works being “terrible” in Exodus 34:10, Deuteronomy 7:21, 10:17, 10:21, 26:8, Judges 13:6, 2 Samuel 7:23, 1 Chronicles 17:21, Nehemiah 1:5, 4:14, 9:32, Job 37:22, Psalm 47:2, 65:5, 66:3, 66:5, 68:35, 76:12, 99:3, 106:22, and about 25 more times in the writings of the Prophets.  For sure, “terrible” doesn’t mean “bad;” it means “terrifying” or (as many modern translations render it) “awesome.”

Awesome was a decent word for how fearsome God is, but in the past 30 years even the word “awesome” has been dumbed down a bit.  It has become a synonym for “cool.”  God is not awesome like your favorite movie is awesome.  God is awesome like a hurricane is awesome.  His power is immeasurable; the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  As it is written in Isaiah 44:6-7…

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides me there is no god.
ho is like me? Let him proclaim it.
    Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.

But he’s good.

Continuing from the above quote, the next verse begins: “Fear not, nor be afraid.”  Now the puzzle is beginning to come together.

What we find in Scripture is a picture of a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly holy, and perfectly just.  He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good.  And actually, compared to him, even your goodness is tainted with sin.  He created you, your life depends on his sustaining you.  If he wanted to destroy everything, you’d never know what hit you.  If he chooses to punish you for your sins, you’d totally deserve it.  God is a scary God.  Any omnipotent being is a scary concept to our fragile human existence!

But whenever God reveals himself to us in that way, he always follows up with the encouragement: “do not be afraid.”  God is scary, but he tells us that we don’t have to be afraid.  Because not only is God all-powerful and all-knowing and all that, he is also perfectly loving.  He cares about his creation and his creatures, he has chosen to help us out of our sinful predicament, and through his Son Jesus Christ he has given sure and certain promises that his love for us will be carried out to the fullness of redemption for all who are united to Him.  God is scary, but if you’re united with him, you no longer need to be afraid.

This is wisdom.

To fear God, to realize how scary he is, is the beginning of wisdom.  A God who loves us is a nice and attractive concept, but unless we recognize that there’s a need for his love, we have little motivation (at first) to accept it.  Wisdom, generally speaking, is the ability to apply knowledge towards good decision-making.  In the Bible, wisdom is specifically about applying knowledge of God and his Word toward good decision-making in our lives as we seek to follow and obey Him.  Knowing that God is scary (all-powerful, etc) is a basic truth that we need to grasp if we’re even going to begin to try to live appropriately before him.

Now, as we grow in our knowledge and love of God, we come first to his encouragement “do not be afraid” and then the promise “nothing can separate us from the love of God” and then finally “perfect love casts out fear.”  But it’s a progression, and we can’t simply jump from being a non-Christian to exhibiting perfect love.  The Christian life is one of growth and progress toward the perfection of Christ.  I would argue that nobody attains “perfect love” in this life.  As long as we continue to sin, we are incurring guilt upon ourselves and defying the Lord we are striving to love.  While we need not necessarily fear his rejection because we’re misbehaving, we would do well to remember the basic “fear of the Lord” that gets us started on the road toward knowing him.

“If God is for us, then who can be against us?  This is a great exclamation and promise from the Bible.  But remember what it is presupposing: God is a more fearful opponent than any other.  If you’re on his side, he won’t be scary toward you, though that in no way diminishes his power, glory, honor, and strength!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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