The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction
– Proverbs 1:7
Often, the concept of the “fear of the Lord” carries a negative connotation in Christian circles. Many in the evangelical world prefer to focus on the “positive benefits” of believing in God, and feel that emphasizing the fear of the Lord is a negative motivation.
In reality though, it’s not an issue of positive or negative.
Too many times, the concept gets muddied by talk of God’s grace and mercy vs. His judgment, and the issue of the fear of the Lord becomes a code-phrase for which part of the church you align yourself with. You are not necessarily a Baptist if you talk about the fear of the Lord, though much to my delight, Baptists tend to be much more concerned with this concept than charismatics, though that is to be left for another discussion, not here.
The fear of the Lord has nothing to do with Jonathan Edwards pounding the pulpit in true Calvinist fashion with his cry of “sinners in the hands of an angry God!”.
What it does have quite a bit to do with is the free choice of man to either worship or go his own way. The fear of the Lord has to do with God’s grace and the dignity of the individual. How so? In our continued study through the Talmud, we continue to unearth parallels with the teachings of the master and the apostles. We will consider a passage which deals with the fear of the Lord and see how it may impact our view.
Consider this passage:
Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven. Man has free will to serve God or not, as it is stated: “And now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you other than to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all of His ways, to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut.10:12) The Lord asks man to perform these matters because ultimately, the choice is in his hands. (Talmud, Berakhot 33b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
You see, the fear of God is in our hands alone. God has given us the choice to fear Him. This underscores the reality that our destiny is our choice. We choose how to respond to the revelation of God in our lives. The Calvinist idea of double predestination is a wicked perversion of God’s revealed character. This Calvinist doctrine teaches, if you don’t already know, that some are predestined for heaven, and others are predestined for destruction.
Yet the teaching of the Bible and the interpretations of the ancient sages was not in line with this. The Bible tells us that every man is responsible for his own sin (Ezek.18:20, Deut.24:16, Gal.6:5).
Yet, even though it is our choice to fear the Lord, it is a significant choice, not a minor issue. The lack of the fear of the Lord in the heart and mind of Esau caused God to judge him unworthy of the inheritance (Rom.9:13). The Talmud continues to explain:
Is fear of Heaven a minor matter?…The Holy One, Blessed be He, has nothing in his treasury other than a treasure of fear of Heaven, as it is stated: “Fear of the Lord is his treasure”(Is.33:6). The Lord values and treasures fear of Heaven above all else. (Talmud, Berakhot 33b)
So often today, in the evangelical world, we are praying for God to “release His treasures” of blessing to us. We bypass reverence entirely and to straight for the presents under the tree. Yet, what is revealed in this passage from the ancient sages is that the greatest gift of God’s treasure is divine favor and grace. It blesses Him for us to fear him. That is His treasure. Our love and devotion in response to His kindness and love.
The principle of offering blessings and praise to God for His many benefits to us is a part of the process of sanctification. In contrast to the consumer-driven mentality of the American church, the principle of thankfulness and gratitude in all things pervaded the teachings of the apostles as well as the sages of the Talmudic period:
One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world, which is the property of God, without reciting a blessing beforehand…as it is stated: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s, the world and all those who live in it” (Ps.24:1). Rabbi Levi expresses this concept differently…It is written: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s,” and it is written elsewhere; “The heavens are the Lord’s and the earth He has given over to mankind” (Ps.115:16) (Talmud, Berakhot 34a)
This is classic Talmudic discussion. One sage cites a proof text, and another sage, at a different time, responds with an objection by citing a different proof text which seemingly contradicts the first. This is one of the beauties of Talmud study. Often, in the church, divisions arise due to a teacher interpreting a passage in one way, while another teacher or group or denomination interprets it another way. This is one of the chief reasons that there are over 30,000 denominations in Christianity, because Christianity is largely built upon creeds and dogmas, rather than a mutual love of the text.
Christianity has much to learn from Judaism in this area. the Jewish sages had the ability to disagree respectfully, and in working through these discussions often discovered deeper and more meaningful truths than would have been available if they had simply parted over disputes of interpretation, such as often happens in our denominations.
The passage above seems to present a paradox. David writes in Psalm 24 that “the earth is the Lord’s”, yet in Psalm 115, he declares that the earth has “been given over to mankind”. How can both be true? Does this discredit the Bible? Not at all. Watch how the sages resolve this. In order to see this line of thought, we pass out of the discussion of one part of the Mishna and into another one. The discussion has now shifted to the blessings over food and wine and oil, but notice how the theme of thanksgiving and our responsibility before God shines through:
“Whoever robs his father and his mother and says: It is no transgression, he is the companion of a destroyer”(Prov.28:24). The phrase, his father, refers to none other than God, as it is stated: “Is He not your Father Who created you, Who made you and established you” (Deut.32:6). The phrase, his mother, refers to none other than the community of Israel, as it is stated: “Hear, my son, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the Torah of your mother”(Prov.1:8). (Talmud, Berakhot 35b)
So now we have come back to our key verse in Proverbs, which is Proverbs 1:7-8. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. It turns out that the fear of the Lord is not a fear of punishment or retribution for wrongdoing. No, it has to do with having the proper attitude of thankfulness and gratitude for God’s blessings, and for His instructions in righteousness which all God-fearing people should pursue.
This attention to detail in the everyday blessings of life is throughout the teachings of Jesus and the apostles:
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)
The fear of the Lord is thankfulness. It is a response of praise for His goodness and mercy and for His blessings. Even if we don’t have what we “want”, we still have what we need, if we consider things from the right perspective:
“Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matt.6:26)
The Talmud brings the issue home as it discusses the provision of the Lord and prayers of blessing and thanks:
It is written, “I will take back my grain at its time and wine in its season”(Hos.2:11), and it is written: “And you shall gather your grain, your wine and your oil”(Deut.11:14). To whom does the grain belong: To God, or to the people? The Gemara responds: This is not difficult. Here, where God promises Israel that they will gather their grain, the verse refers to a time when they perform God’s will. Here, where the verse indicates that the grain belongs to God, it refers to a time when they do not perform God’s will, as then He will take back the grain, demonstrating that it belongs to Him…What is the meaning of…”And you shall gather your grain”? Because it is stated: “This Torah shall not depart from your mouths, and you shall contemplate it day and night”(Jos.1:8) (Talmud, Berakhot 35b)
So, this is a classic case where, if a mere literal rendering of these varying passages is given, it would appear that God is contradicting Himself in His word, but through the midrashic teaching of the sages, the contradictory verses are reconciled under a greater truth which ties them together. In this instance, the issue is reverence for God, and the discussion has been meandering back and forth through two chapters of the Talmud, like a slow-moving river through time. They determine that the the fear of the Lord, and the the blessings over God’s provision, are one and the same, and this illustrates an important truth:
What is given for man to do is to respond to God. He gives us the right to choose whether or not we will fear Him. If we fear Him, we will also bless him. If we choose poorly, He “takes back” his treasure, since by rights He owns it anyway. But if we choose rightly, He has declared already that it is His will to “give it over to us.”
This is a great mystery, and formed the crux of what John Calvin wrestled with in his lengthy “Institutes”, yet Calvin never grasped this very fundamental truth of Hebraic thought and understanding of God’s character. David understood it:
With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward.(Psalm 18:26, KJV)
The fear of the Lord is the foundation of all faith in God, whether Jew or Greek, as Paul would say.
Truly, Solomon displayed his wisdom when he stated that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge”. And it is our choice, entirely.