"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding."
What does it mean to fear the Lord? Does this mean we should be frightened of the Lord the way some of us fear monsters?
“The Hebrew term for fear typically used in the expression ‘fear of God/Yahweh’ is yirat from the verb yare. W. Van Pelt and W. Kaiser indicate that the word has a semantic range that runs from respect to horror. It is difficult to determine the exact English equivalent to this word in the phrase. In most occurrences the ‘fear of God’ is a virtue that is encouraged and leads to right behavior and good results. In some occurrences the ‘fear of God’ is negative. Thus it is potentially misleading to say that yirat always means ‘fear’ or ‘respect.’ But even in its positive use (such as Prov 1:7), there is a debate as to whether it means ‘respect’ or ‘fear.’ It may be that the word falls somewhere in between these two English words. “Respect” may not do justice to the gravity of the word, though “fear” may connote an unhealthy dread.”—Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns (Dictionary of The Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, & Writings)
In light of the insight from Old Testament scholars Longman and Enns, let’s consider three options for interpreting “fear” in the context of Proverbs 9:10.
A) dread, live in terror, and tremble (negative)
B) reverence, respect, piety (positive)
C) somewhere between A and B (e.g. “I am in awe of God and imagining a life in opposition to God terrifies me.”)
Now let’s look at some scriptures that use some form of the word fear or dread and compare/contrast that with Proverbs 9:10. What I will show below is that (A) as the sole interpretation of the text will fail the biblical exegesis test, (B) will fail the experiential relevance test, and therefore only (C) harmonizes biblical exegesis with experiential relevance.
“This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.”—Deut 2:25
“And he took a yoke of oxen, and hewed them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the coasts of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen. And the fear of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out with one consent.”--1 Sam 11:7
Many interpret fear (yirah) in Proverbs 9:10 as only positive (i.e. reverence, respect, and piety), but let’s consider the following: While all those who fear God have respect, reverence, and wonder for God, not all those who have respect, reverence, and wonder for God (e.g. universalists, active "gay Christians", porn addicted Christians, and even King David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed Uriah) fear God. This is not just a theological fact. This truth is evident through experience. That is, we can find many who respect, wonder at God/revere Him (i.e. praise Him with the utmost sincerity every Sunday during praise and worship) but their lives are replete with sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, arrogance, fits of rage, envy and the like because they don't fear God.
Now the last sentence above is incoherent if we apply (B) to the word fear, and since (A) has already been eliminated it seems the only thing left is (C). In other words, the lives of many who revere God are completely void of the knowledge and wisdom Proverbs talks about. For many, it’s quite the contrary--their lives are fraught with folly from being led by their flesh because they have no reason to dread living in the flesh. I personally know many Christians like this, and I am sure you know some too. You might be one of them. In fact, show me a fallen pastor ensnared in adultery or pornography and I will show you someone who has lost the fear of God. That is, I don’t think these fallen men of God have lost their reverence/respect for God as much as they no longer tremble at the idea of living in opposition to God (i.e. fear of consequences for their sinful actions).
Now that we have an appropriate understanding of the context of the fear of the Lord in Proverbs 9:10 let’s consider the effect not fearing the Lord has on our lives.
When we don't fear the Lord, our lives actually become filled with anxiety from the complications of all of life’s variables. Satan will always find a way for us to choose what is wrong and deleterious to our mind, body, and soul. Being able to discern right from wrong is true wisdom. When we fear the Lord, the distinction between right and wrong becomes bolder. The grey areas of life begin to fade. Confusion turns into clarity. This clarity comes from the simplicity of understanding God's unequivocal laws and fearing consequences from disobeying them.
Below is a common real life example of how fearing the Lord can be the beginning of wisdom.
As married couples all know, at one point or another during their marriage, one or both of the spouses may come across the temptation to commit adultery. How will they respond? If you were to ask many married couples today if they would ever cheat on their spouse, I am sure over 95% would say “no”. If you were to ask them why they wouldn’t, I am sure an overwhelming response would be, “because I love my spouse.” While that isn’t a bad reason, it isn’t the wisest response. The wise reason is because “I fear the Lord.”
If you are married, and you read the news about a site like Ashley Madison and how many spouses actively sought an affair, it is tempting to feel proud of yourself if you have never even entertained the thought. Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Therefore, fear the Lord who has made it clear that the proud are humbled. Additionally, just because you haven’t doesn’t mean you never will. As Ravi Zacharias has put it, “Every man who is an able-bodied man will tell you temptation stalks you every day. Does it have anything to do with your love for your spouse? Probably not, because you can love your spouse with 100% desire to love the person, but the human body reacts to the sight, entertained by the imagination and gives you all kinds of false hints that stolen waters are going to be sweeter.”
I believe that most spouses at some point in the marriage will feel like they don’t love the other spouse anymore or don’t feel in love with them anymore. This doesn’t mean that the spouse will just run out and look to commit adultery. Satan is more methodical than to just throw that temptation at you. Satan knows the passion you temporarily have to run out, “have a fling” and show your spouse you won’t be mistreated, neglected, or disrespected will subside if enough time goes by and you have time to reason with yourself. Satan will chip away at you with constant irritation from the other spouse until you are so sick and disgusted by just the sight or thought of your spouse. Satan will cast doubt into your mind about whether you and your spouse are actually “meant to be.” And what perfect timing it is to ease into the picture some prince charming or beautiful seductress that has things in common with you and understands you the way a “soul mate” should. What spouse could handle this type of confusion? I say confusion and not temptation because it will not feel like a temptation. It will feel right. It will feel like destiny. If the spouse gives in to their own understanding of what is right and forgets that God instructed us to not commit adultery, and til death do us part, they will be tearing their own lives apart. Proverbs 6:32 says, “A man who takes part in adultery has no sense, he will destroy himself.”
We have to remember that Satan is smarter than us. The only spouses that can survive that perfect storm thrown from Satan are the ones who fear the Lord. The only one smarter and more powerful than Satan is our Lord. When you fear the Lord, life becomes a lot easier because we understand the boundaries (the rules or laws). And if something is about to breach that boundary, we know that is wrong and to stay away. This is the wisdom in the fear of the Lord.