There are things in life that we all need a healthy fear of: open flames, dangerous or abusive people, life-threatening diseases, identify theft, riding with your son or daughter behind the wheel when they have just received their temps. Okay, maybe that last one is a bit funny. But we all honestly know there are things we would be foolish not to fear.
But what does it mean when we hear in the book of Proverbs that we are to live with fear the Lord?
Some people think this means we are to wander around afraid of God all our days. Some might wonder if this means we should live joyless, unhappy lives plagued by fear of God’s activity in the world, saying something like: “You never know what He might do with sinners like us!” There is a sense of terror in some people’s view of God and any talk of “fear of the Lord” seems to play into that.
But that’s not what fear of the Lord means when we really dive into that in Scripture. Look at two key verses in which that phrase appears, Proverbs 1:7 and Proverbs 9:10, which serve as book-ends around the first large section of the book of Proverbs.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
In Scripture, the concept of the fear of the Lord holds in tension two realities. The first is that we stand before a powerful and holy God. The second is that this powerful and holy God wants to relate with us personally and transformationally.
When we consider this we need to remember we are talking about the God who created everything. This is the God who spoke all of creation into being with a word. We are talking about the God who has brought into being more than 20,000 species of fish, some of which exist at depths of 3,000 to 6,000 feet. We are talking about the God who brought more than 250,000 species of plants into being and who actually knows the difference between Poa protensis (bluegrass) and Adansonia digitata (baobab tree). This is the God who, as it says elsewhere, sustains all things, including not only our solar system but also the 200-400 billion solar systems in the Milky Way Galaxy, and the estimated 100-200 billion galaxies in the known universe.
This is the sort of God we are talking about when we approach the scriptures. It is appropriate for us to approach this sort of God with humility. We should realize we are very small and apparently insignificant (although Scripture tells us we do have signifiance). We should approach God with, as one Old Testament scholar writes, “knee-knocking awe.” God is truly the only awesome One. When we realize who we are dealing with in this way, then we are starting to get a sense of what fear of the Lord really means.
But here is the other side of that story. This same awesome God who with a word created such varied beauty and variety in our world and countless wonders throughout the known and unknown universe – this same God actually wants to relate to human beings. In fact, we need to consider that God does not merely want to relate to “human beings” but wants to relate to us—you and me—personally.
That’s what Scripture tells us. Scripture tells the story of God reaching out to human beings, starting with Adam and Eve, and carrying on through characters like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Ruth, Nehemiah, Esther and more. This reaches its pinnacle in the awesome story of God becoming a man – the wonder of incarnation – when Jesus Christ walked our world, died, and rose again. Jesus is the supreme example of God’s outstretched hands to humanity and He is the only Savior from sin and death.
That same all-powerful and tremendously creative God who should inspire knee-knocking awe in us, also wants to inspire intimate relationship with us. He wants us to have reverent trust with Him. And when we realize who we are dealing with in this way, then we are starting to get at what fear of the Lord means.
Knee-knocking awe before the only awesome God.
Reverent trust in relationship with a loving God.
True wisdom comes when we have an appropriate fear of the Lord.