The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.
— Proverbs 1.7
The Proverbs emphasize a variety of themes: the value of wisdom; the perils of folly; the destructive nature of pride; the importance of resourcefulness; compassion for the poor; etc. But the overarching message of the text is summed up in 1.7 — the fear of the LORD.
The phrase is often used today with undertones of judgment or a pervasive understanding of God as “wrathful”. We speak of someone “putting the fear of God” in another person; what we mean is that one particular individual has spoken a harsh word of rebuke to another. Although this may placate a sense of justice deep within ourselves, the biblical concept of fear of the LORD is much more fully fleshed out. To fear the LORD is to love him, to revere him, to worship him alone. This is Israel’s first and greatest command, to live in worshipful love toward the one true God.
Proverbs also uses the terms “knowledge” and “wisdom” interchangeably. So we might properly understand this passage as inferring that true knowledge begins with an understanding of God. Flowing from this core truth comes our self-understanding, even our apprehension of the cosmos. When we begin with the fear of the LORD, we acknowledge who we are (creature) and who we are not (Creator). The fear of the LORD is a position of humility, a willful reversal of the first and elemental sin: pride. It is no accident that Jesus begins his sermonic manifesto — known to us as the Sermon on the Mount — with a word of blessing for the humble: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 5.2.
As cognitive creatures, we understand that 2 + 2 = 4 in our numerical system. Why? Because God as Creator deemed it so. I realize this is a fairly elementary way of making my point, but the only reason anything is true at all is because God has willed it to be true.
Other reflections the Proverbs make with regard to the fear of the LORD.
- To hate knowledge is to reject the fear of the LORD. Proverbs 1.29
- To fear the LORD is to humbly reject evil. Proverbs 3.7
- To fear the LORD is to hate evil. Proverbs 8.13
- Whoever fears the LORD prolongs his life. Proverbs 10.27
- The fear of the LORD is the antidote for envy. Proverbs 23.17
- A woman who fears the LORD is praiseworthy. Proverbs 31.30
The fear of the LORD is the central thesis of the Proverbs. In fact, it could be said that the entirety of biblical wisdom literature interests itself with proclaiming YHWH as the ultimate repository of truth in the cosmos.