Fearing The Lord Is The Beginning Of Wisdom
1. For May and June we will explore Proverbs during worship services. Today, which is the very first message in the series, the part we want to pay particular attention to is the words from chapter one and verse seven. "To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The ignorant will despise wisdom and warning," (Proverbs 1:7). This is the catch phrase recorded through out the book of Proverbs.
Wisdom And Folly
2. The "proverb" is included in the genre known as wisdom literature. In the Old Testament, "Job" and "Ecclesiastes [aka Qoheleth]" are other places besides where you will find this in. "The Book Of Wisdom [Ecclesiasticus]" and "The Book Of [The Wisdom Of Jesus Son Of Ben] Sirach" from the [Apocrypha or non canonical] sequel to the Old Testament incorporate this, too.
3. One of the features of wisdom literature is to look at the orderliness of the world. The world has order in it, it has principles in it which we can know through experience. As a result, and as may be deemed proper in the world, two ways of living have emerged, the smart way of living in accordance with the world's system of order, and in the opposite direction, the stupid way of living that goes against the world's system of order.
4. What brings the smart way of living is called "wisdom" here. As you might expect, this wisdom results in the bringing of life to both the individual and to the community. On the other hand, since the fool lives against the world's system, as an inevitable consequence of that, he or she invites destruction upon himself or herself. To illustrate [the way of the fool], you may go by what it says in verses eighteen and nineteen of this same chapter. This way of seeing things is not unique among the traditions within Israel. It was the common way of thinking in many of the different nations of the ancient orient. Therefore, to a certain extent, it is found without resistance even among ourselves. Even if you don't consider any particular faith system, we can readily agree with many of the words that appear in the text of Proverbs, and it seems we are deeply familiar with its way of thinking.
5. When we think of the wise person and the foolish person along these lines, it immediately comes to mind that the amount of knowledge one has has nothing to do with any of it. There's no comparing the amount of information of ancient society with the volume of information in modern society, but the modern person is not necessarily living wiser. In order to knock out the college entrance exam competition, kids who cram their heads with lots of knowledge show up at the exam, but it's an altogether different story about whether the kids will really be able to live wisely even with all that knowledge in them. Probably not. Instead, kids [are likely to] do something really foolish and get arrested, then it usually ends up being fodder for the newspapers, that it is the responsibility of the teacher to teach them knowledge. In society there are plenty enough fools with extensive knowledge about things.
6. So, what makes a person a fool? In the second half of verse seven, which we read earlier, it is written in the text as follows: "The ignorant will despise wisdom and warning." The translation "ignorant" may invoke misunderstanding. It means "fool." It is not talking at all about a lack of knowledge. The issue to be taken in this text is that the fool despises [wisdom] and not that he just doesn't know enough. He or she despises wisdom and warning. "Warning" means guidance and instruction. In some cases it will mean discipline or chastisement. How does a fool become that way? It says that it is because a person refuses to know the world's system that he or she should follow and he or she won't accept the teaching and the instructions to live in it according to that system. It is because he or she makes light of it all.
7. Earlier I mentioned that this way of seeing in wisdom literature is not necessarily unique to Israel. But, in the wisdom literature of the Bible, Israel does have a unique situation, which is that behind the world's system we are to see the rule of the living God. For that reason then we can understand that ultimately wisdom and discipline are things that come from God. "To despise wisdom and warning" is also to despise the rule of God over you.
8. Therefore, in the first part of verse seven the text says, "To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," and so it comes in a form that is directly contrasted with the second part [of the verse]. "Wisdom" here is a word with the meaning "knowledge." No matter how much wisdom one acquires, unless the first part, the most fundamental part has "fear of the Lord" in it, there will be no connection in it at all to the wise and smart way of living in any true sense.
Fearing And Revering The Lord
9. So, what does it really mean to "fear the Lord?" First, we could say that at its most simple definition it means "to feel fear." [As most of you in our church know,] here in our Japanese text the kanji character for "revere" is being used on purpose [and it happens that both revere and fear are pronounced the same in Japanese], but in the original language, no special word is used. This word is simply used for when people are afraid. For example, when the Egyptian army was chasing the Israelites when they set out from Egypt, it was said that the people felt terrified, (Exodus 14:10).
10. Therefore, "to fear the Lord" is to feel afraid of the Lord. The Lord hates sin. The Lord hates evil. The Lord will judge righteously. The Lord has the power and the authority to judge the world. If God were a wooden doll that could do nothing against whatever humanity would do, humanity would not need to be afraid. But, the living God is not like that, so it is only right that humanity feels a certain kind of fear as a feeling held towards the living God [and judge of all the earth]. Put another way, we could also say "fearing the Lord" means to sincerely accept that the Lord is the righteous judge of the whole earth.
11. But, some may say, "Isn't that a saying from the Old Testament [which doesn't apply to Christians or to the New Testament age of grace]? In the New Testament, the God whom Jesus revealed is not a God of judgment but a God of love. It is wrong to think of judgment and be afraid now since forgiveness of sin has been fulfilled in Christ." But is that right? Did Jesus tell us whom we are to fear? Didn't he say this?: "Do not fear those who may kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell," (Matthew 10:28). In the early church, what does the Bible say about when Ananias and Sapphira died when they were struck down by God? Doesn't the scripture say?: "The church fellowship and everyone who heard it were greatly afraid," (Acts 5:11). What did Paul write to the Gentile Christians? Didn't he write?: "Don't be high-minded. Instead, have fear," (Romans 11:20). Thus then, it is very important that we feel fear toward God and consider that God is the one who will judge us according to righteousness.
12. But, "feeling fear" is not all it means. That's why the Japanese kanji character for "revere, respect, worship" is used on purpose, and the text says "fear 'the LORD.'" "The LORD" is God's name. Scholars say [this name] was originally pronounced "Yahweh." We don't know that for sure. But even still, the name translated as "the LORD" is linked to specific events in the history of Israel. [One of them] is the Exodus. The One who says, "I, the Lord your God, am the God who lead you out of the land of Egypt and from the house of slavery," (Exodus 20:2), is the one called "the LORD." "The LORD" is not some generic god name. He is the God who loves us, the God who forgives us and the God whose mercy is deep, who is rich in grace, long-suffering and great in compassionate love," (Psalm 103:8).
13. The right response towards God's love for us, for the way he has loved us, is to love God. Therefore, in response to our loving and forgiving God, we are commanded by the scripture to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul and your strength," (Deuteronomy 6:5). Thus then, the correct way to be towards the Lord is not just to feel fear towards him. We are to love [him]. "Fearing the Lord" also means to love the Lord, trust [him], and honor him.
14. While thinking about this, I recalled the words I once read from a sermon from pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. "The greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both toughminded and tenderhearted. He has qualities both of austerity and of gentleness. The Bible, always clear in stressing both attributes of God, expresses his toughmindedness in his justice and wrath and his tenderheartedness in his love and grace. God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace. On the one hand, God is a God of justice who punished Israel for her wayward deeds, and on the other hand, he is a forgiving father whose heart was filled with unutterable joy when the prodigal returned home."*
15.If I put everything I've said so far another way by borrowing Rev. King's words, it would be that living in the sight of God as we sincerely take into account "these two attributes of God" is really "fearing [and revering] the Lord." In that way then, "fearing the Lord" indeed is the beginning of wisdom.
How Do We Become Persons Who Fear And Revere The Lord?
16. So, how does a person become an individual who fears and reveres the Lord? In verse eight the text reads as follows: "O my son, hearken unto the discipline of your father. Do not despise the teaching of your mother," (verse eight). First, the big point to be made is that we are to recognize that our reverence for the Lord does not just happen out of the blue. Basic fear happens in nature because of a person's weakness. But fear for the Lord is something that is taught, admonished, guided into, and demonstrated in lessons. In addition, in chapter two it reads as follows: "My son, if you accept my words, cherish my commandments, incline your ears to wisdom, set your heart on my principles, if you seek for it like you look for silver, if you search for it like you look for treasure, you will understand fearing the Lord and you will attain unto knowing the Lord," (2:1-5). Fearing the Lord is given to us while seeking after it with all our heart.
17. The place for learning this, as the words in verse eight show, is first of all the home. The parents need to teach their children to fear the Lord. At home the child must learn for himself or for herself how to fear the Lord. The source of wisdom and instruction is certainly the Lord himself, but it is not given to us directly but through other humans and through their words and life. There is great significance in the fifth commandment to "Honor your father and mother." Secondly, we can consider the church, our home in the faith, our faith community. What we should learn in God's house is the way of day to day life in which one lives by truly fearing the Lord.
18. So, whether at home or at church, the place where we should keep our eyes is on Christ; for, in Christ God has completely revealed himself in history. Christ, indeed, is truly the very wisdom of God. The wrath of our sin-hating God and the grace of our sin-pardoning God have been completely revealed in Christ. Therefore, by knowing him, we are made into persons who truly fear and revere the Lord.
* Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, Philadelphia, First Fortress Press Edition 1981. Copyright 1963. Available at Hanover College Duggan Library at call number BX6452.K519, second floor.