“Fear of the Lord” . . . changes everything

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov 9:10)

Except among a shrinking number of chip-on-the-shoulder Bible-thumpers, support for the phrase fear of the Lord (and its associated adjective, God-fearing) has been on the way out.

Seems like they’re too old-fashioned in an age when churches self-identify as The Surge, The Uprising or The Journey, or too in-your-face for a generation still smarting from the slings and arrows of outrageous preachers. More than likely, the last time you heard or read either of these it was used ironically or sarcastically, to mock religious faith in general.

Which is too bad, because it’s retained in many English translations centuries after the Tyndale/Coverdale versions where it first appeared. Even before that, it was dread rather than fear in the 14th-century Wycliffe translation (although that seems even more foreign to our ears than fear).

Yet reverence or respect as substitutes in modern translations or paraphrases just does not convey what the original phrase does. So, I favor retaining the idiomatic fear of the Lord but being careful to denote its meaning.

And what it really conveys is that wisdom or knowledge is inextricably linked with our relationship with God. Disobeying God to become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5) was an epic mistake. They already knew good and evil through the commandments. Breaking them gained nothing; displacing God brought disaster.

For, as you recall, it was Paul who wrote that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts darkened” (Rom 1:21). Loss of clarity is the price you pay for a compromising heart.

It is one thing to believe in God because the natural world implies a Creator (which the majority of Americans believes), but it is another thing entirely to obey consistently and glorify God as God as opposed to embracing some kind of pick-and-choose, buffet-table faith that mixes devotion and compromise.

If you think that last description is disparaging overstatement, just consider one biblical figure, Jonah.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah” and that word commanded him to go to Nineveh. “But Jonah ran away from the Lord” (Jon 1:1-3).

Most of the rest of this chapter reveals a stark contrast between the Gentile sailors and Jonah, who, after being awakened by the ship’s captain in the midst of a violent storm (!), says, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (1:9). (I can imagine the captain casting a fearful glance at the roiling sea when he heard that. ”You mean that sea?”)

His orthodox beliefs notwithstanding, it’s worth comparing Jonah and the captain and crew. Who truly fears God? Jonah is calm enough to sleep through a violent storm because his complacency has pacified his conscience. “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14).

The heathen, non-believing sailors even pray for mercy before they jettison Jonah from the ship, for it is no small thing to send a man to his likely death.

But what about Jonah’s attitude toward “more than a hundred and twenty thousand” Ninevites (4:11) in need of God’s mercy, in effect withheld by this disobedient messenger as he runs in the opposite direction?

In addition to acknowledging God as Creator, Jonah’s other theological statements are flawless: “Salvation comes from the Lord” (2:9); “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2).

Everything about Jonah points to glorifying God as God—except his life. You can never substitute orthodox belief for disobedience. “Make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).

 “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God,” he says to the Lord. That’s right, he used his knowledge of God to explain his disobedience (denying God as God), the Sovereign Lord of all. As Jesus later taught, “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mt 6:23).

But “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Pr. 1:7). Transformation by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2) requires a yielded heart.

One day while Jesus was teaching by the Lake of Gennesaret, he said to Simon Peter, who had been washing his nets, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Jesus had been a carpenter. Peter was by vocation a fisherman, so you can sense the strain in his answer, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” Experience and conventional wisdom, not to mention physical weariness, would have told him tomorrow would be another day, but to write off today.

But as the Scripture says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 3:15). So Peter yielded. “But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Lk. 5:5). And they could barely contain the catch. Fear of the Lord overruled conventional wisdom.

Years later, Peter and the other disciples waited in the upper room in a city that had recently rejected and crucified Jesus. If ever there were a lake that was “fished out,” it was Jerusalem. Returning to Galilee would have seemed a better choice. A wiser choice.

But they waited in obedience and faith, a faith made possible and sustained by the renewed mind Peter received that day on the Lake of Gennesaret. And then came Pentecost.

Photo by Emre Kuzu from Pexels

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