The fear of the Lord is a central theme in the wisdom literature of the Bible. In these wisdom books, we find a close association between the fear of the Lord and wisdom/knowledge. The main idea of the book of Proverbs is introduced and summarised by the following well-known verse:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

The fear of the Lord is the gateway to knowledge

This verse is an example of Hebrew parallelism – poetry written in parallel lines with the second line clarifying the first. In this instance, the parallelism is antithetical, laying two contrasting ideas alongside each other. Indeed, the book of Proverbs contrasts two paths: the way of the wise (or righteous); and the way of the foolish (or wicked). And in Proverbs 1:7, the parallelism highlights the different beginnings or gates, that give access to those two divergent paths. One, the fear of the Lord, is the gateway to knowledge; the other is the entrance to the path of foolishness.

The key word in the second line is ‘despise’, a word which connotes arrogance and contempt. This attitude of heart is characteristic of all who do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God(2) that has been made plain to everyone by God’s general revelation in creation and through conscience.(3) Instead, they wilfully suppress the truth, exchanging it for a lie, and so become foolish in heart and futile in mind.(4)

That attitude is juxtaposed with the fear of the Lord in the first line, helping to clarify that fear, in this context, is the opposite of wilful, arrogant rejection of the truth. Simply put, the fear of the Lord is the acknowledgment of God in the pursuit of knowledge, an openness to and thankfulness for His revelation, and the humility to be instructed by Him.

Solomon is saying that we can’t know the world as it really is unless we proceed via the threshold of the fear of the Lord. And the apostle Paul agreed.

The fear of the Lord is the pathway of knowledge

However, the fear of the Lord isn’t merely a gateway to be entered once and then left behind. It is also characteristic of the pathway of knowledge. It’s been said that the fear of the Lord is to knowledge ‘what the alphabet is to reading, notes to the reading of music, and numerals to mathematics.’(5)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

In this example of synonymous parallelism, knowledge and the fear of the Lord are in parallel and express a similar concept. This knowledge of the Holy One is not merely intellectual and factual; it is relational and experiential. This knowledge surpasses what may be learned of God’s invisible qualities through creation; it is an intimate personal knowledge of God through the special revelation of God’s Word. In the Psalms, the Word of God is itself called the fear of the Lord(7) and, again, there’s a connection with knowledge. The Psalmist sings of the Word of God shining the special knowledge of God into every crevice of the human heart, just as the sun illuminates every corner of the world.(8)

In the context of this special, relational knowledge of God, the fear of the Lord takes on a covenantal sense: a recognition of the authority of God’s Word and a willingness to submit to it. This fear, graciously worked into human hearts by the Holy Spirit, is a pre-requisite to knowing the secret counsel of God.(9)

The fear of the Lord is also a product of knowing the Holy One in covenantal intimacy. When God revealed himself to Israel at Mount Sinai, Moses and the people trembled with fear. How much more should our new covenant knowledge of God, who reveals His jealous love for His covenant people from the heavenly Mount Zion and through his unique Son, inspire reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire”.(10)

References: (1) Prov. 1:7 (2) Rom. 1:28, lit. to have God in knowledge (3) Rom. 1:19-20; 2:15 (4) Rom. 1:21 (5) Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1–15, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, p.181 (6) Prov. 9:10 (7) Ps. 19:9 (8) Compare Ps. 19:7-9 with Ps. 19:1-6 (9) Ps. 25:14 (10) Heb. 12:29

Stephen Hickling, Birmingham, England

Bible quotations from NIV (2011)