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The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight (Prov. 9:10).

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding (Psalm 111:10).


If you fear God you won’t fear anything or anyone else. But what does it mean to “fear” God? I think we can at least make the following three points.

 Fearing God means reverencing God. The Hebrew word for fear—Yireh—can mean “to be afraid,” or “terrified.” Such a connotation is certainly understandable. As fallen creatures we should be terrified of God: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Nevertheless, the Bible (especially the Wisdom Literature) emphasizes another dimension: reverential awe, leading to obedience.[1]

We don’t fear God because he’s mean but because he’s holy[2]: “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified’” (Lev. 10:3; cf. Heb. 10:31 and 2 Cor. 7:1). This is simply who God is: “To call God holy is a tautology.”[3]

In addition, since God is holy, loving, righteous, sovereign, and wise, the only logical response for his image bearers (Gen. 1:26-27), is to give our lives to him. Because he’s God and we’re not, we recognize our own limitations, and cast ourselves before him and receive his commands, knowing that they are good for us (Deut. 10:12-13).[4] Hence, the Proverbs: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding . . . Be not wise in your own eyes” (Prov. 3:5, 7). Why? Because “whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” (Prov. 28:26).

While humbling, Jeremiah’s words are strikingly clear: “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). Since we’re not independent, self-sufficient creatures who were designed to run our own lives, the pathway to wisdom begins in recognizing this truth and living in light of it.

The more I consider this teaching, the more I’m inclined to connect fearing God with a disposition of humility. Sustained reflection on each of these themes leads one to an inescapable conclusion: Fear of the Lord and humility arise out of a clear perception of our own limitations as finite human beings.[5] This leads to the second point.

 Fearing God means acknowledging my dependent status. Read this carefully, okay? You do not exist by necessity. How do we know this? This way: Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son, “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3, emphasis mine). This means he “upholds” or “sustains” you. Only God is self-existing, self-sufficient, and independent.[6]

Since I have none of these attributes, it behooves me to humbly receive the Word of God. As the Lord and giver of life, it follows that he knows more about life than I do. This means that his commands are the path to the good life and not an encroachment on my freedom. They are not an oppressive form of busy work.

If God’s revealed will is not a form of busy work, but instead a “law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25), then why don’t we always yield to its prescriptions? Why do image-bearers reject it?

The answer is found in the theme of the Book of Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). As is typical of Hebrew poetry, the second line of the proverb illuminates the first. And the word that should capture our attention is “despise.” The word denotes contempt. It describes someone that views him or herself as above instruction. This attitude, as the Bible indicates, enfleshes itself in a refusal to submit to God, which ultimately stems from pride—“the beginning of all evils,” as Calvin reminded his readers many years ago (Institutes 2. 1. 4).

Taking our cues from William of Ockham and the nominalists, along with René Descartes and those who followed in his wake, we try to construct reality by starting with the self. But this doesn’t work. Beginning with the self never leads to certainty or human flourishing but to destruction and oppression. It turns out you can’t have ethics without metaphysics, to paraphrase the late philosopher Hans Jonas.[7]

This brief foray into the heart attitude of those who “despise” wisdom and instruction teaches us about the disposition of the one who fears the Lord. Fearing God involves an openness to God, a renunciation of our own intellectual self-sufficiency, an abjuring of our narcissistic and solipsistic tendencies. In sum, it means embracing my creatureliness and savoring the comeliness of the gospel.

 Fearing God means surrendering to his Lordship over my life. Let us not put asunder what God has joined together: Love for God and obedience to God go together (Calvin, Institutes, 1. 2. 1). Because our reverence for God is linked to our love for God, our hearts are “inflamed,” moved to render obedience to our loving king—the triune God.[8]

Fearing the Lord results in a life of obedience to the Lord. We see this in 2 Corinthians 6-7. Right after informing believers that they are the “temple of the Lord,” Paul quotes Leviticus 26:12 to impress on our minds that we are God’s covenant people—his special possession. In light of this reality, we are to separate ourselves from a life of moral pollution and must “perfect holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

And yet, as those who have been united to Christ by grace through faith, our striving after holiness is not an attempt to curry favor. Rather, we are constrained from within—the “love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). The gospel informs us that God isn’t moved to come to our aid when we placard our good deeds before his face, but when we prostrate ourselves before his throne and plead for mercy.

Hence, our hope isn’t in how well we’ve feared the Lord throughout our lives. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, “the perfect Proverbs-keeping son”[9] who always feared YHWH on behalf of his people, the one whose righteousness wipes out all our unrighteousness, whose panoramic perfections stand in place of our countless imperfections, and whose beauty covers our many defilements.

There he came, bless him—the Christ! No stranger to prisons, he! He lifted you with wounded hands and found you all over again.[10]


[1] Eugene H. Merrill, “Fear,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 46. See also Ralph Enlow, “Awe, Awesome,” in ibid., 46.

[2] Matt Smethurst, “What Are We Afraid of?” Tabletalk 42:1 (January 2018): 9.

[3] Geoffrey Wainwright, “Christian Worship: Scriptural Basis and Theological Frame,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, eds. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 10.

[4] Bruce K. Waltke with Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 898.

[5] Ibid. Cf. Michael Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth: Saint Benedict’s Teaching on Humility (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri/Triumph, 2001), 82.

[6] See further John Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), chap. 6. To paraphrase Michael Allen, we experience life only as a gift from the outside. See his Sanctification, New Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 242.

[7] Hans Jonas, “Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Task of Ethics,” Society, Ethics, and Technology, eds. Mortan E. Winston and Ralph D. Edelbach (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 126, 131. While oftentimes we lay the blame for this kind of haughty self-assertion at the feet of the Enlightenment, George Weigel argues (correctly in my view) that we should go back further, especially to William of Ockham and the nominalists. See his article “A Better Concept of Freedom” at First Things. Still, it is true that the Enlightenment brought about sweeping changes in peoples’ thinking processes. Descartes believed that knowledge was acquired through the reasoning power of the autonomous human mind. And Kant confined knowledge to a person’s experience of the world. Thus the conclusion: Human autonomy is primary and knowledge of the noumena (metaphysics) is impossible.

[8] Bonaventure, “Passion Sunday” in Works of St. Bonaventure, vol. 12, The Sunday Sermons of St. Bonaventure, ed. and trans. Timothy Johnson (St. Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2008), 241, 242. The Holy Spirit “enflames our hearts  . . . with zealous devotion” to God (Calvin, Institutes, 3. 1. 3).

 [9] Eric B. Watkins, “Putting the Fear of God into Practice,” Tabletalk 42:1 (January 2018): 26.

[10] Calvin Miller, Letters to Heaven: Reaching Beyond the Great Divide (Worthy: Brentwood, TN: 2011), 167.