“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)
I have to confess that I really struggle with the book of Proverbs. It’s set up exactly antithetically to the way my mind wants to work. Oh, the first few chapters aren’t bad – all that bit with Wisdom personified sending out her invitation to become wise. But once it gets into the actual proverbs part after the end of chapter 9, my mind sort of glazes over and I lose the plot.
I’m fairly good at reading a verse in context and teasing out recalcitrant layers of meaning. I can get into the flow of an argument and analyse it, or bring out the lessons from a narrative story. But Proverbs just sit there. They don’t have a context to be read in – the previous verse may be talking about laziness while the following verse is addressing quarrelling. There’s very little that needs a lot of interpretation or analysis of that sort; it’s all application. So with nothing to do, my interpretive/analytical mind gets bored and wanders off. I have a harder time reading and really understanding the book of Proverbs than I do with any other book of the Bible.
People have advised me to read it in the Message. I’ve read it in the Message and it’s worse. People have tried to tell me to read it in this version or that version. I haven’t yet found a version in which I feel I actually understand it. My mind is set up to look for the wrong things. As a self-confessed lover of wisdom, it’s embarrassing that I find the chief book of the Wisdom literature so hard to read.
There are some gems, though. Like this one. It talks about “the fear of the Lord”, which is one of those things that just doesn’t translate well into modern English. It mentions “fools”, which again is a word with more to it than we might expect from its English translation. And it talks about knowledge, wisdom and instruction.
And now my mind is warmed up and engaged on the topic. There’s something to analyse and interpret.
Firstly, the fear of the Lord. It’s not something we hear a lot about any more. We don’t want to be afraid of God, and why should we be, anyway? He’s good and loving, isn’t He?
Yes, He’s good. He’s gracious and compassionate. But He’s also holy and sovereign. He’s the One who made the great white shark and the Kodiak bear and the black mamba and called them good.
To get a good handle on it we need to rewind our mental frame of reference back to the age when kings ruled as well as reigning. In that day, even good kings were addressed as “Dread Sovereign”, and the idea that you could offer them even the vaguest of impertinences was definitely anathema. Only an idiot would address Queen Elizabeth I simply as “Lizzie”, and she was well-beloved by her people. Go back even further and the idea becomes even more absurd and dangerous. You’d have to have a death wish to address Richard the Lionheart as “Ricky Boy”.
Americans show a similar level of respect to their Flag, at least on an official level. You can’t cut it, burn it or deface it. You can’t let it fly in the rain. You can’t let it touch the ground. You’re not even really supposed to display it on everyday objects – it treats the Flag like something common and it’s disrespectful.
And yet we’re awfully cavalier sometimes with how we approach the Almighty. We call Him Lord and Master and then make decisions for ourselves based on what we want. We say He’s the most important thing in our lives, then ignore Him for days at a time or treat obedience and holiness as optional extras. We box Him in with our extra-Biblical assumptions of what He can and cannot do. We sing about Him as Lover and Friend – and He is – but we forget that He’s also “a consuming fire” (Heb 13:28-29) and One into whose hands it is “a terrible thing” to fall (Heb 10:31).
The Lord is God of angel armies and Sovereign of heaven as well as gracious and compassionate. He’s not Someone you can take liberties with. He doesn’t exist purely to encourage us, bless us, forgive us and give us gifts. He doesn’t exist for us at all, but for Himself. He is the Creator, we are the Creature. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecc 5:2) I’m probably going to offend someone by saying this, but in my opinion Matt Redman totally missed the point by turning this verse, of all verses, into an “intimate” sappy love song for Jesus. It isn’t about that; it’s about the transcendent power and greatness of God. It so often seems to me as though much of our worship is all about us. Our feelings about Him. What He’s done for us lately. Our love for Him rather than His love for us. We’re centre stage; Jesus is almost a passive object receiving our affections and devotion. Or we diminish Him by all of those “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” songs, bringing Him down to our level as if He’s a human lover.
There’s a place for intimacy with God. Jesus is described as Bridegroom and Lover and Friend. But there’s also a place for awe. For distance, Creatureliness, awareness of just how high His Kingship extends. He in heaven and we are on earth. We would do well to remember this. He’s not our boyfriend, because a sane boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is a relationship of equals, and He is far greater than we.
CS Lewis had it exactly right when he described Aslan as “not safe, but good”. When the children meet Him, he says that “If the children had had any illusions that something could not be both good and terrible, they were cured of it now.” Yes, He’s the Aslan who romps and laughs with Lucy and Susan, but He’s also a great big Lion that shakes Trumpkin like a terrier with a rat, chases Shasta, scars Aravis’ back, and humbles Caspian with “those eyes!”. He’s the King. He’s good, but He’s certainly not someone we can keep in our pockets and take out when we need some encouraging.
The fear of the Lord. Awe of God the Creator in heaven, because we are Creatures on earth. He made us; we should not act as though we believe we made Him.
This is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, we are told: the place of Creaturely awe and reverence. The fear of the Lord doesn’t treat His word as something to bend to our own preferences, nor does it treat the holy obedience of faith as an option. He was Sovereign before He was Saviour, and our Gospel presentations ought to reflect this: not “come to Jesus and get your needs met”, as if He’s some sort of servant to our whims, but “Jesus is Lord, what are you going to do about it?” Likewise, the call to holy living is an integral part of following Christ, not an optional extra. He’s God; we’re not. If we call Him “Lord”, we’d better do what He says, because that’s what “Lord” means. Or do we think that He’s a tame Lion, under our power?
“Fools despise wisdom and instruction”, the verse goes on to say.
The word “fool” in the Bible, particularly in the Wisdom literature, has slightly different connotations than our English word does. Yes, it means someone who lacks wisdom and understanding, but its primary meaning is “one who lacks moral sense”. Someone who is amoral, who doesn’t know or doesn’t believe there’s a difference between right and wrong.
Such a one makes it all about themselves. With no higher standard than “what is good for me”, there’s no acknowledgement of God as Lord, much less awe of Him. If I like it and it does me good, it’s good, and if I don’t, then it isn’t. “Right for me” becomes the deciding factor, and standards are relativised. I’m the arbiter of what’s true and right and good.
Even as supposed followers of Christ, we live like this an awful lot. Our ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong may be different from the world’s, but sometimes they’re still our ideas rather than God’s. Or we acknowledge God as God and Lord with our lips, but then turn around and live life based on our own judgement and thinking, or what our culture says, or what we want to be true. We live like we’re in charge.
But Wisdom is moral. It begins with an understanding of our own Creatureliness and God’s Creatorhood, with an acknowledgement that He is God and we aren’t. Thus, He has the sole right to determine what “right” and “wrong” are. Our standards are right only insofar as the conform to His, not the other way around. Behaving as though we are the arbiters of good and evil is foolishness, pure and simple.
It’s difficult to teach someone like that. If they despise the very basis of Biblical wisdom by insisting that they can make their own standards or living as if there is no higher authority, then all your wise words aren’t going to count for much. You have to step back a few steps and come at this from first principles, rather than jumping in with “that’s wrong!” when they reject your basis for coming to that conclusion.
The fear of the Lord, that’s where it begins. If we over-emphasise the immanence of God without His transcendence, we’re left with a shrunken idol of a Safe Jesus, a Meeting-My-Needs Personal Servant Jesus, a Jesus As My Boyfriend. Someone whose commands we can feel free to ignore or sidestep.
“Safe? Whoever heard of a safe Lion? Of course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
We’d do well to act like it.