Proverbs 1:7 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” While the main thrust of this verse is clear, defining exactly what fearing the Lord entails, is not. This phase is quintessential to correctly understanding the Book of Proverbs, as well as numerous other passages where this phrase is mentioned. Furthermore, this phrase pertains to knowledge proper; hence, this phrase aims itself at Christians as well and should therefore be viewed as trans-dispensational.

There are two main aspects surrounding the first half of verse seven: 1) defining the fear of the Lord; and 2) once defined, how fearing the Lord relates to knowledge. Additionally, the second half presents further delemas: 1) the relationship to the initial phrase which begins the verse; and 2) the reason why these actions are foolish. While a definitive meaning is to be sought, introductory related issues further affect the understanding of this phrase; for how one views the overall cohesion of the book directly affects how one interprets each individual proverb. Therefore, the various views presented below will take not only lexical data into account but also authorship and textual criticism, in order to arrive at the fundamental and theological structure behind The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

One main view understands “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge“ as to obey this God and none other. Best expressed by Richard J. Clifford, he notes that the traditional translation fear of the Lord is unsatisfactory and holds that this phrase carries the implied understanding that obeying the God of the Hebrews is a wise choice. He comes to this conclusion explaining that Yahweh signifies a proper name and ‘fearing’ a god does not carry any emotional or reverential attitude. Further, he notes that in the ancient culture of the Near East the purpose of humans was seen as serving the gods. This particular deity is therefore to be feared, and it is wise then to perform his rituals and obey his commands. This view of Proverbs is rooted in how one approaches the historical context of the book. Clifford explains that these Proverbs were collected by the scribes during the reign of Hezekiah (see Prov 25:1). He continues holding that the cohesion found throughout Proverbs is due to the fact that these royal scribes worked together; therefore “it is their work and their idea of wisdom that we are reading.” A problem now arises within this view; for if, as Clifford claims, the book of Proverbs is a collection of scribal wisdom, then the statement the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, must then pertain to the Hebrew God Jehovah as stated above. Yet, this view does not take the religious-cultural situation of the Jews into account. The Hebrew people were different than all of the other cultural groups around them. Their culture was directly tied to their religion; everything they did was a result of their God directing them. Additionally, the notion that fearing directly equates to obedience is unsubstantiated when compared to the rest of the Scriptures. In conclusion, this view does not adequately explain Proverbs 1:7.

A second view, held by Peter A. Stevenson, maintains that a feeling of dread is not the proper understanding of the phrase the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom; instead, he asserts that the use of the covenant name Yahweh directly calls for a reverential response. Support for this view comes from drawing upon other areas of the text. There are various aspects to fearing the Lord, from walking in an upright way to allowing submission to guide one away from evil. In the end, Stevenson explains that how one maintains their relationship to God affects their way of life; proper fear will result in a blessed life. While on a theological level this concept is true, the problem appears when this phrase is placed into its surrounding context; for the beginning of knowledge must then be the result of living a godly life. While the end result may be a Godly life; contra to Stevenson, right morals are not the beginning of knowledge—they are the result of that knowledge. This view does not adequately explain the connection between fearing God and knowledge; and in conclusion, explains the end result prior to explaining how one actually arrives at a proper fear of the Lord.

Bruce Waltke holds that this verse is the quintessential expression of the book. He asserts, “Both in form and in content Prov. 1:7 distinguishes itself from the purpose constructions of the preamble’s aim (vv. 2-6) and from the address, ‘my son,’ that begins the prologue … It stands in front of the rest of the collection as the quintessential expression of the basic spiritual grammar for understanding the book.” The connection between the beginning of knowledge and the fear of the Lord is the strength of this view. Additionally, “is the beginning” expresses a temporal quality—it is the first thing; a philosophical aspect exists which carries the notion of being the principal part. He concludes therefore, that either the temporal of philosophical meaning behind “is the beginning” must be the correct view, but not both. Waltke argues that this temporal aspect carries the correct meaning; fearing God is the literal first step of true wisdom. Contrary to Waltke’s argument I wonder if both meanings are possibly intended; for not only is the fear of the Lord the first in order of wisdom, but its also the foundation of true wisdom. In conclusion, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom summarizes the entire book of Proverbs—it is the teaching of the book. Unfortunately, this view falls short at presenting a description of what fearing the Lord entails.

Proverbs 3:7 attests, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” Here one can clearly see that selflessness is key; trusting is anything but the Lord Himself is unwise. Additionally, one must keep in mind that the goal of wisdom literature is to direct one on how to properly enjoy life under God’s care and to utilize His creation properly. Therefore fearing God has implications on everyday life. Grant Osborne explains it best when he wrote, “this very practical aspect makes wisdom literature so valuable for the modern Christian who seeks a relevant religion.” As an aside, it is my estimation this was what the writer of Ecclesiastes was getting at when he exclaimed, “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2b); life without God is just that: meaningless. Basically, it is not too much of a stretch to assert that one’s response toward God directly relates back to their knowledge of God’s creation. Still, it is often noted that unregenerate have possessed and utilized truth just as effectively as believers. I will cover that argument in the next essay, for an answer is to be found in the second half of Proverbs 1:7.

I would therefore posit an amalgamation of the second and third view presented above. The fear of the Lord elicits a direct reverential response; this proper response is rooted in instruction—or more specifically how one responds to God’s instruction. This reverential response is the beginning of knowledge; the meaning encompasses both temporal and philosophical. Therefore, a proper reverential response towards God is not only the foundation, but also the first step in attaining wisdom.

Next, Asserting foolishness and despising correction

—–References—–

  1. Richard J. Clifford. Proverbs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 35-36.
  2. Peter A. Stevenson. Proverbs (Greenville: BJU Press, 2001), 7-8.
  3. Bruce K Waltke. The book of Proverbs Chapters 1-15. NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 180-181.
  4. Grant Osborne. The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 242.
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