The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. —Proverbs 1:7
Why are we interested in the book of Proverbs? Because in our daily lives we need more than hard and fast rules. God gives wisdom, to fill in the blanks moment by moment. But we need wisdom for another reason too. It’s possible to live by all the rules – and be ugly about it. We’ve all known people who were blameless, in their way, and we didn’t like them. But “wisdom will bestow on you a beautiful crown” (Proverbs 4:9). We want Jesus to place that crown on our heads, for his sake. Our city will be attracted to wise Christians and wise churches. The Bible says, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). More people are won for Christ by brightness than by rightness.
So let’s begin. Do you see the word “beginning” in verse 7? “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Will you join me in a new beginning with God? It’s why we’re in church today. We want what only God can do for us. And the fear of the Lord is how we receive it. The fear of the Lord is a doorway and a pathway. It’s a new beginning, and it never ends. You can begin afresh with God today. You can say to him, “Lord, I know the rules pretty well. But the beauty of wisdom takes me deeper with you. I want to go there.” You can walk through that doorway and get going on that pathway. The only price you’ll pay is letting God be God to you.
Today’s passage opens up the whole book of Proverbs. It divides this way. First, the title of the book, in verse 1. Secondly, the goals of the book, in verses 2-6. Thirdly, the threshold of the book, in verse 7.
The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel. —Proverbs 1:1
Two things stand out here. One, how this book communicates. Two, where this book comes from.
One, how this book communicates: “The proverbs.” Proverbs are the literary strategy of this book. What is a proverb? In English a proverb is a short saying of practical truth that’s easy to remember, like, “Look before you leap,” “A stitch in time saves nine.” Biblical proverbs are sound bite-ish too, but they offer a lot more than common sense.
What then is a biblical proverb? The Hebrew noun “proverb” comes from a verb that means “to represent, to be like.” So a proverb is a little model of reality, a little verbal representation of some aspect of our daily lives. And by picking a proverb up and turning it over and over and looking at it from all angles, we can see something about our lives before we step out into the reality. The world says, Live and learn. God is saying, Learn and live.
Think of a proverb this way. When the Wright brothers flew their airplane for the first time in 1903, they knew it would take off. How did they know? They had built a wind tunnel and had tested different wing designs before they risked their necks in actual flight. That’s what the proverbs are for. We can explore a real-life situation within the virtual reality of a proverb. We can know in advance what’s going to fly and what’s going to crash. Biblical wisdom works, because it tells us what life is really like.
Two, where this book comes from: “. . . of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.” One of the fascinating things about the book of Proverbs is how it doesn’t connect with the history of God’s people. Over and over the Bible calls us back to Abraham and Moses and the exodus, and so forth. But the book of Proverbs doesn’t do that. Not only so, but Proverbs 22:17-24:22 does parallel “The Instruction of Amenemope” from Egypt. That’s why some scholars perceive the wisdom of Proverbs as accessible without God. They see this wisdom as available to everyone in the same way – by being smart enough. And we can learn from the best practices of smart people who don’t claim Jesus. But the wisdom of Proverbs comes from “Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.” Right up front, the book tells us it’s in the flow of biblical history that leads us to Jesus. Here’s the point. The fear of the Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning of this wisdom.
What did Solomon understand that made such a difference? He connected the Lord with real life. 1 Kings 4:29-34 tells us that he was a Renaissance man. He was fascinated by everything. He studied plants, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of a crack in a wall. He studied animals. He wrote music. He did not compartmentalize God. He understood that everything is connected with our Creator, and therefore everything is interesting. Solomon was like Jonathan Edwards, who saw divine glory all around him. George Marsden writes about how Edwards perceived reality:
God had created lower things to be signs that pointed to higher spiritual realities. The universe, then, was a complex language of God. Nothing in it was accidental. Everything pointed to a higher meaning. Scripture . . . was the key to reading the true meaning of everything else.
The biblical worldview opens up the higher meaning of money and sex and power and everything across the landscape of our lives. And we “get it” not by outsmarting someone else but by fearing the Lord.
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth –
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
God has two goals for us in the book of Proverbs. Verse 2 states them. One is deep character, and the other is straight thinking. “To know wisdom and instruction” – that’s deep character. “To understand words of insight” – that’s straight thinking. Verses 3-4 tell us more about deep character, and verse 6 tells us more about straight thinking. Verse 5 is a parenthesis, urging even wise people to keep growing. Everybody can take a new step with the Lord – the simple, the youth, the wise. Everybody can be on a growth edge together. We can be a community of growing people.
What about God’s first purpose for us – deep character? “To know wisdom and instruction,” verse 2 says. We haven’t defined wisdom yet, so now is the time. What does the Bible mean by “wisdom”? Wisdom is more than brains. It’s more than morals. You could memorize the whole Bible, and mean it, without wisdom. Wisdom is skill, expertise, competence that understands how life works – even beautifully. We see a picture of wisdom in Exodus 35:31 where this word describes the artistic craftsmanship that adorned the tabernacle. Wisdom is skill like that. Wisdom doesn’t walk onto the football field and hope the game goes well somehow; wisdom draws up a game plan that will score more touchdowns than the opponents because that game plan takes into account not only the rules of the game but also psychology and timing and strategy and everything it takes to win. That’s wisdom.
So, why isn’t everyone running toward wisdom? It’s desirable. Why is it rare? Because of the next word: “instruction.” It’s also translated “discipline” (NIV). Sorry, friends, but we are not born wise. We are born foolish. And we get into wisdom the hard way, through the Lord’s instruction and discipline, through being chastened and corrected. We don’t like that. It’s humiliating. It is hard to admit we’re wrong. But let’s all admit it, and together. It’s easier that way. I like the way C. J. Mahaney put it in his book on humility: “I’m a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God.” We’re foolish people pursuing wisdom by humbling ourselves under the Lord’s correction. Can any of us be above it? When we’re honest enough with God to change, he puts a crown of beauty on our heads. It’s what he wants to do.
Verse 3 is how we start. It’s written from the learner’s point of view –“to receive instruction.” That word “receive” is the key that unlocks the door. The Bible says, “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). That’s how we gain velocity in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity – all so beautiful and powerful.
Verse 4 shifts to the teacher’s point of view: “To give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.” The simple, the young, gain three benefits from wisdom, according to verse 4. One, “prudence.” I don’t like that word. It’s so Victorian. I can only think of the Beatles’ White Album and “Dear Prudence”:
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play
She needed to have some fun! There must be another translation of this Hebrew word. There is: “shrewdness” (NRSV). I like that word. And it is what the Hebrew means. Shrewdness is a good kind of cunning, and in this world you need that. Shrewdness is tactics that succeed.
Two, “knowledge.” What does everyone need to know? The very thing our popular theories deny, namely, that there is a direct and inescapable link between deed and consequence. We’re not making up our own reality as we go. We were born into a pre-existing order that God created a long time ago. You need to know what that order is and how it works, so that you can stop shooting yourself in the foot. You can know, you can adjust, you can thrive.
Three, “discretion.” That’s the caginess that sees through the temptations coming at us every day, for example, through advertising. God wants to give you the deep character that can’t be fooled any more. He can help you outfox your temptations.
Verses 3-4 is how we start out. Verse 5 tells us that even seasoned veterans can keep learning: “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” We older people – let’s be realistic – as we age, it’s harder to stay fresh and expectant and moving on an upward trajectory of growth. It’s easy to stall and coast. But don’t die before you die! Fight for open-mindedness and honesty and discovery. Let’s stay humble and keep learning until the day we die. Then we’ll be a blessing to younger people.
God purposes deep character for all of us. That is the first of his two purposes for us in this book. His second purpose is straight thinking. Look back to the second line of verse 2: “to understand words of insight.” What does God have for us here? Think of the difference between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. You know how a client would walk into their apartment at 221B Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes could take one look and know 19 things about him, and it was always “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Dr. Watson saw the same person, but he lacked insight. This word “insight” means the non-obvious can become obvious to you. The immature might not see what you see. The might misunderstand you. It happens often between parents and children. But parents, it’s your role to be the Sherlock Holmes of your family. Don’t surrender that to your kids. They don’t have insight yet.
Verse 6 tells us more about straight thinking: “to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.” Picture it this way. As we come to the book of Proverbs, we’re approaching a community of wisdom, a group of people standing around talking together, men and women, who are Yoda-smart. We beginners sidle up to this circle of people that includes Solomon and Isaiah and Paul and Augustine and Luther and other remarkable people we’ve known personally and admired. We start listening in on the conversation inside that circle. We overhear words and concepts we don’t understand at first, so we have to stick with it to catch on. But as we do, we start to leave behind our shallow entertainment-mindset that expects effortless, pat answers that in fact have always failed us. As we listen to the wise, we grow. We, even we, become profound people too. The reason is not us, not even them. According to verse 7, God is there.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. —Proverbs 1:7
Verse 7 is the theme of the whole book of Proverbs. If we distilled the whole book into one drop, it would be verse 7. What is the fear of the Lord? You know how Hebrew poetry is written in parallel lines – an A-line, then a B-line. And the second line helps us understand the first line. So how does the B-line help us here? The key word is “despise.” That’s an emotional word. It’s a word of contempt. It’s the arrogance of being above instruction, too smart for it, too good for it. What then is the fear of the Lord? It isn’t dreading the Lord. It’s isn’t, “Oh no, here comes God. I’m in for it now.” The fear of the Lord is non-arrogance, it’s humility (Proverbs 15:33). The fear of the Lord is a willingness to change (Job 28:28). The fear of the Lord is complete surrender to his will (Genesis 22:12). The fear of the Lord is knowing and feeling, “I am not the measure of all things. I am being measured.” That humility before God is how we begin the journey into wisdom. C. S. Lewis wrote,
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.
That realism runs opposite to the dominant thinking of our modern age. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Here’s what he meant. He wanted certainty. He wanted to know what’s real. So he did what seemed obvious. He started doubting everything he could possibly doubt, to find out what would be left. He whittled away at everything until he noticed he was still there, he was real, the one doubting. He couldn’t doubt that: “I think [or doubt], therefore I am.” So Descartes, the father of modern thought, started rebuilding outward from himself. For over 300 years our culture has been trying to live that way, building a civilization and personal lives on ourselves. It has failed. Absolutizing our own capacity for generating knowledge and hope and certainty exposes us to self-deception, as postmodernism has shown. The autonomous Self cannot be certain, much less beautiful, but it certainly can be fooled.
So the Bible reverses Descartes: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” Knowledge starts in God, and moves toward us. God must reveal it by grace, and we must receive it in humility. Verse 7 is saying, what your ABC’s are to reading Shakespeare, what playing the scales are to performing Bach, what 2 + 2 = 4 is to doing calculus, the fear of the Lord is to wisdom. We start there, and we never leave it behind. Our search for reality can go wrong not only because of miscalculations along the way but also because of one grand blunder at the start – leaving God out, and making ourselves the judges of everything.
Wise people humbly fear him and long to please him. Mr. Beaver explained why: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Do you know that? Do you love that? Have you experienced how freeing it is to humble yourself before your superior, the Lord Jesus Christ? Getting down low before him – it’s where we belong. It isn’t degrading. It’s profound. Remember The Wind in the Willows, when Rat and Mole go looking for the baby otter and stumble into the presence of God:
Suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror – indeed, he felt wonderfully at peace and happy. . . .
“Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”
“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.
“Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!”
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
Do you experience God that way? Would you like to? Here’s where you begin. You look at the cross. You see a wise man hanging there, dying in the place of fools like you, because he loves you unconditionally. You may despise him, but he doesn’t despise you. You may be above him, but he humbled himself for you. Look there at him. Look away from yourself. Look at him and keep looking and don’t turn away until your pride melts. You will not only worship, you will become wise.