The Fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10-12)

Several years ago, Rev. Billy Graham paid a visit to the seminary I was then attending. After speaking in chapel, he stood in the lobby to greet all the students. As I waited in line to meet him, I composed a little speech in my mind. In that speech, I thanked him for being such a shining example of Christian ministry, and I pledged that my generation would follow in his example.
Mercifully, I was never able to deliver that pompous little speech. When it came my turn to meet Billy Graham, I found myself tongue-tied and knock-kneed in his presence. We shook hands, I stuttered my name, he said a few kind words, and I moved on.
According to Proverbs 9:10-12:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
For through me your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you;
if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer.
A lot of people stumble over that first line about the fear of the Lord. Why must wisdom begin with fearing God rather than, say, loving him? My brief encounter with Billy Graham might shed some light on that question.
In his commentary on the Book of Proverbs, Tremper Longman points out that the connotations of the word fear run the gamut from respect to terror. According to him, the fear mentioned in Proverbs 9:10 is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. It’s more than respect, but it’s not terror either.
The fear of the Lord is a bit like my response to Billy Graham, only on an infinitely greater scale. Obviously, I respect Billy Graham immensely, and he doesn’t terrify me at all. But still, he’s a great man, and I felt small and awkward in his presence. If I felt that way around Billy Graham, imagine how you and I would feel in the presence of the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good Creator, Judge, and Savior of the universe! The Bible tells us that when people enter God’s presence, their instinctive reaction is to fall to their knees in worship (e.g., Rev. 4:9-10; 5:8, 14).
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then, because no one is wise until he admits that he’s a creature, not the Creator. Because he’s not the Creator, he’ll realize that he must play by the Creator’s rules, not his own. He must seek the Creator’s purposes for his life, not merely the ones to his own liking.
And when he does so, he will realize that doing things God’s way results in life, both now and in eternity. By contrast, not doing things God’s way results in suffering, both now and in eternity. A wise person looks at these two contrasting options, and chooses the means to the end. The fear of the Lord, in other words, is the beginning not merely of wisdom, but also of life.

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