Proverbs | The Fear of the Lord
Open your Bible to Proverbs 2. We’ll bounce around a bit, but we will begin there.
We’re continuing our look at the mega-themes of the book of Proverbs. This week and next, we are looking at two themes that go hand in hand. We see both in Proverbs 9:10. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Today, we’re looking at the fear of the Lord. Next Sunday, we’ll look at wisdom.
Proverbs is about wisdom for life, given to us by Jesus Christ himself. And Jesus wants to make sure we don’t make a crucial mistake at the beginning. So on the path to wisdom, he points out that the very beginning is a matter of humble faith—a matter of fearing the Lord. The fear of the Lord is not just the first stone we cross on our journey, it’s the first and controlling principle without which we cannot keep walking with God. The fear of the Lord is the shoes on our feet as we walk with God along the rocky path of life. We cannot walk far without it. But with it, we can go as far as God will take us.
I took my kids to the Adventure Science Center yesterday. They have this room with a display of all the planets and a screen with facts about each. As I read, I was caught up in how big the universe is. Earth is just a speck in space, and yet it’s filled with you and me and billions of others that God loves and cares for.
Hebrews 1 says Jesus upholds the universe by the word of his power. A God that can do that is a God that must be bigger than the expanse of space. As I stood in awe of the bigness of space, I was reminded of how much more I should stand in awe of the bigness of the God who created it and upholds it with a word, a mere breath. No wonder David, writing in Psalm 8, said, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
Should we not stand in awe of the one who, as Isaiah 40 says, measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales? Should we not fear the one who gave us life with a breath, and can take it away with another? We not only should, we must fear the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the gateway and the pathway of wisdom. We can never leave it behind.
But what does it mean to fear the Lord? C.S. Lewis captures the idea in his book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Mr and Mrs Beaver talk to the children about their coming encounter with Aslan, the Great Lion of Narnia, the Jesus figure. Susan and Lucy are, understandably, afraid of meeting a lion.
“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
As you read the Bible, you encounter a God who cannot be classified as safe. How can someone so powerful feel safe to us? But as you read the Bible, you also encounter a God who cannot be classified as anything but good. Everyone who encounters God walks away loving and fearing him. In the Bible, we have a God before whom we tremble because of his glory yet find rest in because of his goodness. We find the King, and it’s his goodness that causes us to tremble. How can one be so good to a people so bad? How can the cross of Christ be the pinnacle of the storyline? How can the King do that for us?
The fear of the Lord is more than being afraid of him. There is a kind of frightened trembling that happens before God’s holiness and glory, but the fear of the Lord the book of Proverbs calls us to is more than terror. Sinclair Ferguson defines it as, “that indefinable mixture of reverence, fear, pleasure, joy, and awe which fills our hearts when we realize who God is and what he has done for us.” As Paul says in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” The fear of the Lord is reverent awe of God as a child before their father, not as a kid before the playground bully. God is for us, not against us. The cross is all the proof we need.
The cross also proves that the fear of the Lord is not an optional add-on to life, it is the necessary first and abiding step of true obedience. The night before Jesus endured the cross, he prayed the cup of God’s wrath would pass him over. But it couldn’t. That wasn’t the story that was written. Jesus in his humanity feared the cross. Who wouldn’t? But Jesus in his humanity feared God more. Isaiah 11:3 said of the coming Messiah, “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” If Jesus left the fear of the Lord behind, he would not have been the perfect man to make the perfect sacrifice. The fear of the Lord, then, is an inward condition of reverent awe that affects the way you live. The fear of the Lord has practical implications for how we live.
For Jesus, delight in the fear of the Lord overpowered fear of the death. The Bible says for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross. The fear of the Lord is not ultimately about being afraid. The fear of the Lord is ultimately pursuing joy. Jesus Christ proved it, and now he’s asking us all to believe him, to fear him, and to follow him.
So what does the book of Proverbs tell us about the fear of the Lord? Here’s a sentence to sum it up. The fear of the Lord is the humble attitude of the child of God whereby God provides an escape from evil and a welcome into abundant life with him.
More succinctly, we can say it in three points:
1. The Fear of the Lord is a Hopeful Humility
2. The Fear of the Lord is an Escape from Evil
3. The Fear of the Lord is a Road to Refuge
The Fear of the Lord is a Hopeful Humility
The very first step in the fear of the Lord is a hopeful humility that God is for us, not against us, that he wants us to know him, and to know him is first to fear him. Look at Proverbs 2:1-5.
1 My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
3 yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
4 if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
Do you see the logic of the passage? Notice the word “if”: “If you receive my words,” “if you call out for insight,” “if you seek it like silver.” Those “if” statements are funneling down to the “then” statement of verse 5 where the fear of the Lord is found. We cannot reach the “then” without the “if”, but we cannot reach the “if” without humility. In the pursuit of the fear of the Lord, humility comes first. Our hope begins with the realization of who God is and who we are.
And who are we, really? Verse 1 tells us: “My son.” That’s not a throw-away phrase. The book of Proverbs is a gift from the open-hearted Father to his open-hearted children. God offers us freely, through Christ, a place in his heart. The question for us is simple: will we go there?
If we will, the passage shows us what to do: “receive … treasure up … making your ear attentive … inclining your heart … call out … raise your voice … seek … search …” God calls us to humble, hopeful action.
Now, you might say, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that works-based?” No! As Dallas Willard said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.”
Do my sons earn their way onto the family walk at night? No! They’re in just for being my children. But to be with me on the walk, they must put their shoes on and come. That’s what the wisdom of Proverbs offers us—a chance to walk with God, a hopeful humility that assures us God will take us where we long to be with him. But we must put our shoes on. We must listen to him, open our heart to him, revere him for who he is. God is not the hold out!
If we want to understand the book of Proverbs, we must understand that wisdom isn’t automatic, and the fear of the Lord isn’t either. God is making the first, and most significant, move, but he’s asking us to respond. If we want to get traction with God, if we want to grow in his grace, if we want to go further with Christ than we’ve ever gone before, here’s what we must do. We must humble ourselves as his beloved children who know his purposes toward us are good. We must receive his word. We must treasure it up. We must listen. We must incline our heart. We must call out to him. We must seek and search. And if we’ll do that, we’ll understand the fear of the Lord because we’ll begin to see him as he really is. In fact, we’ll find the knowledge of God. We will see his grandeur and majesty. We’ll behold his glory. And the heart of every child of God longs for that.
The first step in fearing the Lord is humility. Humility is the currency of God’s kingdom, not because it’s easier to get but because it’s more joyous to have—and God’s kingdom is a kingdom of joy. True humility is true freedom because it looks beyond one’s self to the only Wise Person in existence. Pride says you don’t need God. Humility says you can’t live without him. Pride says you must learn the ropes of this world if you want to succeed. Humility says this world isn’t ultimate, because God has something better out ahead for us. Pride is cynical. Humility is hopeful.
When Jesus comes back to restore this broken world, we will live in a humble, hopeful state of the fear of the Lord that leads to perfect wisdom forever because we’ll draw forever from the fountain of Wisdom itself in Jesus Christ, and Jesus just wants us to get a head start right now.
I can’t help but notice that Proverbs often shows that humility and the fear of the Lord are parallel terms—they go hand in hand. For example, Proverbs 15:33, “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.” Honor is not ours for the taking. What is honorable about us apart from Christ? Honor is ours for the receiving. It’s the result of humility and the fear of the Lord because we receive honor by beholding the honorable, by being in the presence of Majesty. When we put ourselves in the low place before God where we belong, he lifts us to the high place with him where we only belong because of his grace.
As it always is with God, we get more than we deserve. Proverbs 22:4 says, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” God is no miser. He’s a big spender on his children. And he never runs out of riches and honor and life for you because Jesus’ victorious resurrection opened the door to it all. The Bible says all things are yours, whether the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Corinthians 3:22). How is that so? Because Christ humbled himself to the point of death on a cross for you. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
In Jesus we see that he not only gives wisdom, he fulfilled Wisdom in his earthly life. He lived the only truly humble life full of the fear of the Lord for us so that we, by the power of his Spirit, can have the life he came to give.
When we see that, when we really see it, we have the fear of the Lord, because it's impossible to behold the dying love of Christ for you and not feel it, not revere him, not be in awe of him.
And when we humble ourselves and see things as they really are, we find God’s provision is not only for the future, it’s for the present. The evil we face can be escaped through the fear of the Lord.
So, the second point.
The Fear of the Lord is an Escape from Evil
If the first step in fearing the Lord is humble awe, no wonder Proverbs 3:7 says, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” The opposite of humble awe is personal wisdom, which, if you notice, the Proverb equates with evil.
Here’s our problem. By nature, we are wise in our own eyes. And our own eyes say we don’t need Christ’s work. We think, “Well, that was bad. But not that bad.” We categorize sin. We justify sin. We downplay sin. God doesn’t.
Jonathan Edwards helped us see in his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
“The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”
Talk about the fear of the Lord! If we don’t fear the Lord, it’s not as if our life is just less full than it could be. If we don’t fear the Lord, our life is in mortal danger. If we don’t fear the Lord, our life will be full of evil, and the Bible makes it really clear what happens to evil in the end.
But the danger is even larger than we might initially think. Even if we can avoid personal actions of evil, there is still a draw to envy those who don’t. So Proverbs 23:17 warns, “Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.” Why all the day? Because at any point from sun-up to sun-down we’re faced with the temptation to turn from the fear of God to envy sinners. Who doesn’t want comfort? Who doesn’t want their flesh to feel good? Who doesn’t want to have another look at the beautiful woman or skim a little more off the top for a rainy day? But wisdom says, “Run!” There is more to life than what feels good. There is more to life than what is pleasing only to you. Find what’s pleasing to God and you will find the life you really want. You won’t find that unless you have a healthy fear of God, unless you revere him and desire to please him above all else.
When we have the humility to see the evil lurking all around us, it fosters in us a healthy fear of the Lord. We don’t want to sin but we can’t help but see not only the temptation to sin but the sin that already resides within. That’s why Paul, thinking through this same thing in Romans 7, cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Paul found the answer in Jesus Christ. But it began with the fear of the Lord. Paul saw his sin for what it was, and cried out for salvation. That’s wisdom. And Jesus came to save him. He can do the same for you.
And when Jesus comes and saves, he changes the way we think about sin. It becomes less desirable to us. The fear of the Lord grants us God’s heart toward sin. What is that? Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.” We reject what we hate, don’t we? So Proverbs 16:6 says, “By the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil.” God hates evil, and by fearing him we learn to hate it too.
When we taste and see that the Lord is good, we taste and see that sin is evil, and we long for the escape from it found in the nearness of God.
We must remember, however, the fear of the Lord is an escape from evil not primarily because we’ve learned to hate and reject it, though that’s true. It’s an escape from evil primarily because of what Jesus has done. In the fear of the Lord, Jesus rejected evil all his life. He never sinned. But at the cross, Jesus took upon himself all the evil of this world to conquer it in his death and resurrection. As we behold the King of Glory taking upon himself our evil, we see the wisdom of God in salvation. We see what it is to fear the Lord. Evil isn’t a light thing. Our evil is the reason the cross exists.
No wonder, then, when we learn to fear the Lord, we realize it’s foolish to mourn the loss of the invite to this world’s party. This world is fading away, and all the evil with it. But the party in heaven is just getting started, and the garments we need for entrance were purchased for us on the cross of Christ, and his resurrection power surges through this world to bring us to himself where we find refuge, which is our third, and final, point.
The Fear of the Lord is a Road to Refuge
The safest place in the entire world is found firmly in the fear of the Lord. Why? Because when we fear the Lord we come to the One who holds the whole world in his hand. We become like the Israelites on the road out of Egypt, with all the terror of Pharaoh’s horses coming quickly behind. We wonder, “how will God get us out of this?” We’ve seen his wondrous works, and we’ve obeyed him down to the shore of the Sea blocking our way. Now we need to see another miracle. Well, God’s got plenty left! What is a little sea to the one who holds the oceans in the hollow of his hand? He will fight for us, and we have only to be silent.
As Proverbs 10:27 says, “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.” When we fear the Lord, we don’t receive a fading crown from the world. We receive the unfading crown of glory from above. We come into the refuge of his preserving care. We walk on the dry land in the midst of our pursuers, safe in God’s hands while the evil ones perish in his justice.
If you and I commit today to live the rest of our days in the fear of the Lord, what will happen to us? Proverbs 14:26-27 tells us. “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.” Do you hear that? The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life. It keeps us from the snares of death. That doesn’t mean we won’t die. Everyone will die. It just means we won’t die before we die. We won’t waste our life. Our life will have meaning and significance that reaches beyond us.
Fearing the Lord today shows our children what it is to be a Christian, and who is worthy of worship: the Redeemer and Savior of the world, the Refuge we all need, Jesus Christ.
That may be all we have to give them. Well, God says that’s enough. Proverbs 15:16 says, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.” How is that so? Proverbs 19:23 is the answer. “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.”
Who doesn’t need satisfied rest? Fearing the Lord is the road, because it’s the road to Refuge, it’s the road to Jesus Christ. And when we come to him, we find what Susan and Lucy found in Narnia. We find the Lion of Judah there to protect us from all evil. No, he’s not really safe—not in the way we might think. He’s far safer. He’s good. And God’s goodness is the safety we need more than anything. How do we get there? Fear the Lord. It’s the beginning of wisdom.