Yesterday I started reading the book of Proverbs. Seven verses in you hear these familiar words:
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction."
This is the first proverb in the book, the gateway you have to travel through to reach the 31 chapters ahead. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge..."
Chew on that one a bit. That's what the proverbs are meant for: each one is like a piece of gum for you to chew until the flavor's gone or your jaw's tired. Then, when you're ready, you take another piece (the same proverb or another one) and start chewing again. You want to get every bit of taste out of these words of wisdom that you can.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." The beginning of knowledge... like a seed that other knowledge sprouts from--if it's carefully tended? Is it like the starting line of a race, the point of departure but not the destination? Or is it like a foundation that you need to lay before you can set down one single brick of wisdom, unless you want the building to crumble?
And what about "the fear of the Lord"? What is that? Should the very thought of God scare me--give me goosebumps?
A lot of folks are quick to point out that this talk of 'fear' isn't about terror but reverence. We should be in awe of God. That's true. But, as Ellen Davis, a long-time teacher (and student) of the Old Testament, points out: "to experience the full measure of God's power and not to feel some stirring of fear would indicate a profound state of spiritual numbness, if not acute mental illness."* The hardheartedness of Pharaoh that brought the plagues on Egypt in the book of Exodus--that was Pharaoh's lack of fear (Ex 9:30). And Egypt found out that the Lord was capable of some really frightening things.
But, Davis goes on to point out, "fear of the Lord" isn't just an emotional response to God and God's power. As we see later in Proverbs chapter 1, it's a choice (1:29).
It's the choice to serve the Lord. It's the choice to acknowledge God's moral authority and shape your character around and commit your life to that authority. This, she writes, "involves developing the habit of making choices that do not merely reflect our own self-interest or the mood of the moment. Acting in accordance with our proper fear of the Lord means putting God's preferences before our own."
Fearing God may not be first and foremost about shaking in your boots, but it's not about some bland sense of reverence either. It's something tangible--you can see it in someone's life in her deference to God and God's preferences. You can see it in her humility. Talk about 'fear and trembling' might make some of us uncomfortable, but we can't get too comfortable with the fear of the Lord. It makes demands of you. It calls for a certain kind of life--not one about the pursuit of happiness or of security or comfort, but the pursuit of God. This fear should unsettle you; not by giving you the creeps, but by turning your world upside down. It's the call of the life of faith.
And it's that life, not any book or degree or information, that's the beginning of knowledge.
* Ellen Davis's comments on Proverbs 1:7 come from her book Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, pages 28-29.