Fear and Wisdom
Old Testament wisdom literature is ancient Israel’s response to the messiness and mystery of life. The books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, along with certain Psalms, are generally considered wisdom literature. Each of these books highlights, in their own unique way, the importance of fearing the Lord/YHWH/God (Job 28:28; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 31:30; Eccles. 12:13). But what is it that the authors of these books have in mind, and how does fearing the Lord relate to wisdom?
Fear in the Old Testament
A good place to start is the translation of yirah; The traditional translation of “fear” is somewhat misleading. The Hebrew can designate the emotion of fear, reverence/awe, or right behavior. Context always helps the translator determine the usage of a word. In the case of wisdom literature, the term yirah has a sense of reverence, especially considering it is often used in parallel with acknowledgment, submission, and even obedience. Reverence (yirah) is not about one’s feeling toward God; rather, it is about one’s attitude and resulting actions in relation to God. These attitudes and resulting actions are often related to right behavior. For example, Job was one who feared God, which meant that he turned from evil; he behaved rightly (Job 1:1).
Exodus 20:20 showcases the relationship between yirah as the emotion of fear, an attitude of reverence, and the resulting action of the two. In this passage, the author parallels two different usages of yirah. In the first instance, yirah conveys a sense of the emotion of fear. Moses is attempting to convince the people not to be afraid because there is a beneficial reason God is on the scene.
The second occurrence of yirah is a result of the testing God brings upon the people. This testing should move the people from being terrified of God’s presence to a place in which they revere him. This in turn should result in the people not sinning. The latter usage of yirah is awe displayed in one’s actions and is often the Old Testament’s way to speak of the faith or trust that comes out of reverence for God (cf. Deut. 6:2).
The previous example speaks to the importance of context and understanding: a word may have multiple usages, and in this case, a single word can convey two seemingly opposing ideas. The concept of the fear of the Lord, in the sense of reverence, is closely tied to wisdom, which brings us to the necessity of understanding what the Old Testament means by wisdom.
(For a deeper discussion of wisdom and its range in the OT see Tremper Longman III, “The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom” (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).)
The Hebrew term chokmah is translated as “wisdom.” This word is often paralleled with “to understand” (binah), “to know” (yada), and “to advise” (yaats). In brief, we can say that a right understanding of something is wisdom. This right understanding, or knowledge, can come through experience or being taught. Wisdom can come from understanding, prudence, discipline, tradition, common sense, skill, or discretion.
Old Testament wisdom literature leads the reader to an understanding of the necessity of wisdom, the relationship between wisdom and fear of the Lord, and ultimately to understand the importance of trusting God. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes laments the hollowness of life in order to teach the necessity of fearing God, that is, trusting him (Eccles. 12:9-14). Job is carried along to a place where he can say, “therefore I reject what I said and I am comforted in my humanity” (Job 42:6). The book of Proverbs speaks more directly to the relationship between wisdom and fear than any of the other wisdom books.
(I take a minor position in my translation and paraphrasing of this verse. I see Job’s final response to God as a statement of ultimate wisdom in that he finally gets that he misspoke in some ways and he now trusts that God governs the universe better than he would.)
What Comes First? Reverence or Wisdom
I often find myself reflecting on the necessity of wisdom as it relates to everyday life, its relationship to fear of the LORD, and its pervasiveness throughout the Bible. A good question for us is this: is reverence a condition for wisdom, or is wisdom a condition for reverence? In a sense, this question is like the old quandary of which came first, the chicken or the egg. To answer this question, we turn to the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs 1:1–7 offers the truism that reverence (yirah) toward God opens the door to understanding (which includes wisdom). These verses guide readers to begin the process of making sense of the world by first fostering a proper faith (belief and action) in the creator of the universe. True reverence comes before wisdom. Proverbs 2 throws the reader a curveball. Proverbs 2:1-8 suggests that a zealous seeking of wisdom leads to an understanding and acknowledgment of God – reverence. So, which comes first?
When Prov. 1–2 are read together, we see that people either gain wisdom as a result of their reverence or they gain reverence because they come to acknowledge God as the source and provider of wisdom. The ultimate hope for the book of Proverbs, and the Old Testament as a whole, is that one would begin to trust in God. Reverence and wisdom result in “understanding righteousness, justice, equity, and the right path” (Prov. 2:9).
These texts are ancient, but their ideas are at the forefront of public dialogue today. For example, one way the Old Testament describes right living – living that results from the fear of the Lord and trust in God’s wisdom – is to show love to the resident alien (Deut. 10:19-20). But this is a topic for another time. For now, we can remember that in our Christian life we should constantly be on a path of gaining wisdom and growing in our reverence/trust in God. The results of this could very well radically change the way you view both God and the world.
Joshua grew up in Walton County, Ga., and is a graduate of Luther Rice. He earned a Master of Divinity in Biblical Studies, a Master of Theology, and a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Old Testament from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Stewart’s research interests include Hebrew linguistics, the Psalter, and Wisdom Literature.
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