Fundamental to the relationship between humanity and God is the fear of God (Genesis 20:11). Though this “fear” can be and has been suppressed to varying degrees (Romans 1:28-32), it is innate in all human beings (Romans 2:14-16). We have so far defined it as conscientiousness, that is, doing what is right and not what is wrong according to our conscience even when no one (except God) is watching or holding us accountable. We now take a closer look at what this involves.
The Fear of God
The Book of Job spells out why people “fear” God: God is not only all-powerful (He can do whatever He wants) but is also absolutely just and righteous (He will never pervert justice), and is thus absolutely impartial in meting out justice (see Job 37:23-24). Imagine a judge in a court of law who is absolutely incorruptible. Any guilty person, even the Prime Minister, would “fear” him when tried in his court. Further imagine that this judge somehow has access to all the evidence needed to convict the guilty. Yet this picture is still only a faint reflection of God as the Judge of this world. We have no need to fear God only if we have not done, and will never do, anything wrong whether in deed or in thought.
Certainly an innocent person may fear a judge who is corrupt. Such a judge is feared because he is clearly unjust and unrighteous. But God is feared because He is absolutely just and righteous. This contrast is crucial to avoid misunderstanding the meaning of the fear of God. In the ancient world, people “fear” the gods who are perceived as capricious. Hence the term “the fear of God” has come to bear negative connotations. This may be one reason Bible translators tend to avoid translating the Hebrew word as “fear” when God is the object, and replaced it with “revere” or “reverence.” This has led to the concept of the fear of God being downplayed among Bible believers.
The Bible itself affirms that the fear of God is like the fear of governing authorities who faithfully enforce the law (see Proverbs 24:21-22; Romans 13:3-5). Just as we feel no fear in the presence of the police unless we have committed a crime or are planning to do so, we do not feel the fear (of God) if we have neither done nor are planning to do wrong (but cf. the “fear” of God felt under exceptional circumstances such as those in Acts 5:1-11). This is because we have already yielded to the fear by doing what is right and not what is wrong even when no human being is watching or holding us accountable. It is like sitting on a boat in a flowing stream. We do not feel the force of the flowing water when we allow it to carry the boat downstream. We only feel it when we go against it by rowing the boat upstream. In contrast, the “fear” of a corrupt judge or of supposed capricious gods is felt even when one is truly innocent.
The fear of God is also like the fear children should have towards their parents (see Leviticus 19:3). Just as children can feel the love of their parents and love them in return and at the same time fear (and thus obey) them, one can feel the love of God and love Him in return and at the same time fear (and thus obey) Him. Hence fear of God and love of God are not incompatible.
Since the fear of God is fundamental to how humanity relates to God, it is not only crucial to the Noahic Covenant, but also to the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. The difference is that under the Mosaic Covenant, in addition to the fear of God, the people were also motivated to keep God’s commandments by their love for God (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). They were to love God and thus keep His commandments because of God’s love for them expressed through their miraculous redemption from Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8; 11:1). In other words Israel as a nation had more empowerment to do God’s will than the other nations.
However the Exile shows that even then, given fallen human nature, the nation as a whole failed to fear and love God. Thus there was the need to replace the Mosaic Covenant with the New Covenant. In addition to the fear of God and the love of God (2 Corinthians 5:11,14), the New Covenant empowers believers through the Spirit of God to do God’s will (Ephesians 5:15-21). In fact a consequence of being filled (empowered) by the Spirit is to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
If the fear and the love of God are thus not incompatible, why then does John say, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18)? The context shows that he is referring to the fear (of God) that “involves punishment,” particularly “in the Day of Judgment.” This fear is felt by those “not perfected in love,” that is, those who do not know and believe in God’s love revealed through Jesus the Son of God. So they do not “abide (live) in love” for God and for one another, and thus lack evidence that they live in God, who is love, and God in them. Therefore they lack confidence for the Day of Judgment and so fear the punishment. But not so for those “perfected in love,” who are thus “like Him (Jesus) in this world.” And though they do fear (and thus obey) God, the fear is all the more not felt because they love God and thus gladly keep His commandments (cf. John 15:10). In other words, John is referring to the “fear” (of God) that is felt by people who have no assurance that their sins are forgiven and thus have not experienced the love of God.
As we shall see the fear of God is fundamental to appreciating and applying the Wisdom Books. Though these books are part of Israel’s Scripture—in fact three of them refer to “the LORD” the God of Israel and three are associated with Solomon king of Israel—they are clearly not grounded in the Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant. They are grounded in Creation and the Noahic Covenant as they are directly relevant to humanity as a whole.
Hence their teachings are expected to be obeyed by all nations through fearing God. They are part of Israel’s Scripture, and the nation was required to obey their teachings through fearing God, because Israel was part of humanity. And as we have seen, the goal of the Mosaic Covenant is for Israel to become a model for human civilization. The same can also be said of the Church and the New Covenant. Certainly the Church, empowered by the Spirit to fear God, is all the more equipped to appreciate and apply the teachings of the Wisdom Books, to which we now turn.
The Beginning of Wisdom
The Book of Proverbs explicitly states that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10), which is also expressed verbatim in a wisdom psalm (Psalm 111:10) as well as expressed more forcefully in the Book of Job: “Look! The fear of the LORD, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28). The Hebrew word translated “beginning” can be paraphrased as “foundation,” as the fear of God is “the prerequisite of wisdom and trains man for it” (von Rad 1972: 67). Hence the fear of God is the foundation of wisdom and is thus fundamental to appreciating and applying the wisdom teachings of the Bible. We now look further at Proverbs to understand what this involves.
Nature of Wisdom
We begin with the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “wisdom.” Its basic meaning is skill in general, which includes engineering skill (Exodus 36:1). But in English we do not associate wisdom with technical skill. However even in English, wisdom is still a skill, as can be seen from this spectrum: computing skill (not “wisdom”); cooking skill; business skill (involves some “wisdom”); parenting skill; counseling skill (“wisdom”). Hence in English, “wisdom” is limited to skill in living. Though the Hebrew word covers the whole spectrum of skills, wisdom of the sort discussed in the Wisdom Books is also about skill in living.
In Biblical thinking, wisdom does not stand alone. It comes together with understanding and knowledge: “And he [Hiram] was full of wisdom (skill in working), understanding, and knowledge for doing all work in bronze (literal translation of 1 Kings 7:14b). In other words, to have the wisdom for doing any work in bronze Hiram must have had the knowledge gained through understanding the properties of bronze and the processes needed to work with bronze. This insight is particularly significant for appreciating wisdom (skill in living) in the Bible.
Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” summarizes Proverbs 1:2-6 and introduces Proverbs 1-9 as well as the whole book. And Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” summarizes Proverbs 1-9 as well as the whole book. Taken together, these theme verses show that wisdom (skill in living) comes together with not only knowledge and understanding, but also “instruction.” The Hebrew word translated as “instruction” can also be translated as “discipline.” “Fundamentally, it has to do with teaching/learning and example, with warning as to the consequences of disobedience, and with application of penalty following failure to adhere” (Merrill 1997: 480-81).
Thus that Hebrew word can refer to “instruction in wise behavior” (Proverbs 1:3) that warns against disobedience by highlighting its painful consequences (Proverbs 24:32-34), or to “discipline” (chastisement) as a consequence (penalty) of disobedience (Proverbs 3:11; 23:13). If we take the meaning of the English word “discipline” to include instruction that disciplines (trains) a person against disobedience, the word can be used to translate the Hebrew word as an equivalent that can carry either meaning. A wise person then is one who is “disciplined” (both meanings) to do what is right and not what is wrong under all circumstances.
This explains why “to know wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:2), which is the purpose and goal of Proverbs, also involves “righteousness, justice and equity” (1:3), as well as other qualities listed in Proverbs 1:2-6, such as prudence and discretion (cf. von Rad 1972: 26-27). Hence a truly wise person is so disciplined that he is not only prudent and discreet but also just and righteous. This is actually obvious, as one who lacks prudence and discretion or who is unrighteous and unjust is destroying oneself and thus cannot be considered a wise person. This comprehensive understanding of wisdom has far-reaching implications, from how we raise children to how we train leaders.
Nature of Knowledge
Though our focus is on “wisdom,” insofar as “knowledge” is also said to be grounded on the fear of God, we need to take a closer look at what “knowledge” really is and how it relates to wisdom.
First of all, we need to distinguish knowledge from information. An engineer may put his knowledge (expertise) into a book. But what we read in his book is not (yet) knowledge (to us) but (only) information. It becomes knowledge if and when we understand it to the extent that we can actually use it (wisdom—technical skill). What we call “head knowledge” (as opposed to “experiential knowledge”) is not knowledge at all, but only information in the head instead of in a book. The first time the Hebrew word for “know” occurs, it is used to describe the most intimate “knowing” (experience) between two human beings: “Adam knew [made love to] his wife Eve” (Genesis 4:1). In the Bible knowledge is always experiential. Even in English we intuitively distinguish knowledge from information. For there is “information technology” but not “knowledge technology,” as what we download from the Internet is information, not knowledge.
This is why wisdom is inseparable from knowledge and understanding. To have the skill in working with bronze Hiram needed the knowledge concerning bronze. To have the skill in living in this world what then is the corresponding knowledge needed?
Understanding God's created order
Proverbs teaches that inherent in this world is an order created and implanted by God, and it is structured by wisdom (Proverbs 3:19-20; 8:22-31). And this created order and its workings can be experienced and thus observed (cf. von Rad 1972: 90). Proverbs asks, “Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?” (6:27), and then concludes, “So is the one who goes into another man’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished” (6:29). Hence this order affects not only the physical realm (one gets burnt by fire), but also the moral and social realms (one gets “burnt” by adultery).
Therefore this world is governed by natural laws not only in the physical, but also in the moral and social realms, that are built into the created order. And we cannot violate any of them without harming ourselves. To navigate the created order, we need wisdom to guide and empower us to obey its laws. In other words, “whoever abandons wisdom runs against the very structure by which the world was made” (Garrett 1993: 83).
Expressed proverbially, this means, "Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity" (Proverbs 22:8; cf. Job 4:8), that is, when we sow what is evil, we will reap what is evil. And it is implied that when we sow what is good we will also reap what is good. For in agriculture as well as in human life, “You reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7). In other words, while there are painful consequences to violating the created order (folly), there are pleasant consequences to obeying it (wisdom).
The use of the agricultural imagery of sowing and reaping to describe this “act-consequence relationship” is significant because it implies that the consequences, whether painful or pleasant, generally take time to be effected, except in cases (mainly in the physical realm) like carrying fire in the bosom. It is based on the “concept of an effective power inherent both in good and in evil and subject to specific laws … [that is,] by every evil deed or every good deed a momentum was released which sooner or later also had an effect on the author of the deed. To a great extent, therefore, it lay within his own power whether he exposed himself to the effects of disaster or of blessing” (von Rad 1972: 128).
Wisdom (skill in living) then involves applying knowledge of the created order and its laws gained through an understanding of its workings in terms of the act-consequence relationship. This form of wisdom, which is practical, we call proverbial wisdom as it is readily and usually expressed through proverbs.
True knowledge based on a correct understanding of the created order recognizes that proverbial wisdom is about describing, and not prescribing, how the order works. Take for instance, “The righteousness of the blameless will clear his path, but the wicked will fall by of his wickedness” (Proverbs 11:5). It describes (based on repeated observation), not prescribes (based on divine revelation), what will happen. Consider a more obvious example, which seems to contradict the previous one: “A bribe is a charm to its owner; wherever he turns, he prospers” (Proverbs 17:8; but cf. 19:6, where the gifts are clearly not bribes). Certainly the righteous God does not prescribe such a (short term) pleasant consequence to bribery (cf. 17:23).
This means proverbial wisdom, whether in Proverbs or in the Psalms (Psalm 1; cf. 111:10-112:10; 119:49-56), describes the workings of the created order, which God declared “good” (Genesis 1), in the context of fallen humanity, who “have sought out many (evil) schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). In fact the proverb “You reap what you sow” insofar as it is based on repeated observation of the world as we know it, assumes a fallen world. But it still asserts that the divine scheme of the created order will eventually overrule the evil schemes of fallen humanity (cf. Ecclesiastes 8:11-13).
Hence proverbial wisdom describes the consequences of good and evil not necessarily in the short term, but inevitably in the long run. As such, in the meantime, the righteous may suffer and the wicked may prosper (Ecclesiastes 8:14), and thus “You reap what you sow” may then seem to have failed. Proverbs, a book of practical wisdom, does not address this issue, which is left to Ecclesiastes and Job, the two books of philosophical wisdom.
However Proverbs does recognize the issue. For it describes and affirms that, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Even [in the meantime] in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief” (Proverbs 14:12-13). In other words, “the appearance of getting away with crime is belied by a justice that is not obvious [the heartache and grief suffered in silence] or quick [“its end” may not be soon] but is certain” (Garrett 1993: 143).
The recognition that proverbial wisdom is descriptive and not prescriptive affects how we understand and apply certain affirmations in Proverbs that do not concern righteousness or justice, but do teach prudence and discretion in the fallen world. Take for instance, “He who is surety for a stranger will surely suffer for it, but he who avoids such commitments is safe” (Proverbs 11:15). It is foolish, though not immoral, to be a surety, especially when it involves a stranger. The wisdom here concerns being prudent, not being righteous.
This also means, unlike moral instructions (such as Proverbs 14:20-21), an instruction against being a surety (Proverbs 22:26-27) is not to be taken as a divine command, and there are situations where becoming a surety to one in need is actually being discreet as well as just. Proverbs itself assures us that there are situations in which we need not follow a non-moral instruction. For the instruction, “Do not answer a fool,” is immediately “contradicted” by, “Answer a fool” (Proverbs 26:4-5). Based on repeated observation of the respective consequences, in some situations it is wise to answer a fool but in others, it is otherwise. We thus need discernment, another expression of wisdom, even in understanding a proverb (Proverbs 1:2b).
Likewise we should avoid seeing a “promise” where there is none. Consider, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6), which seems to have failed even some godly parents. This proverb does not prescribe (promise) what will happen when we “train up a child,” but only describes what will likely happen based on repeated observation. Also, since the training of a “child” in Proverbs involves warning against visiting prostitutes, “train up a child” implies successful training past adolescence, when the training is the most difficult. The “child” will then more likely remain true to his upbringing all his life.