Skip to content
Jesus

The Beginning of Wisdom: Proverbs 1:1-7

Editor’s note: This is part two in a brief series on the book of Proverbs that Fred Zaspel is writing (see part one here). In this series, he will be noting an overview, certain themes, and specific texts in the book of Proverbs.


Proverbs 1:1-7

1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:

2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight,

3 to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;

4 to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth –

5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, 6 to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.

7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

The Goal of Proverbs

Let’s begin again with the big question: Why Proverbs? Why was this book written? I mentioned last time that we should understand the Bible’s wisdom literature as one means God uses to transform us, to shape our lives to honor him. But very specifically, notice again in verses 2-6 how the author himself states his goal. Notice the five purpose clauses:

1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: [the title)]

2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight,

3 to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;

4 to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth –

5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, 6 to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.

These five purpose clauses state in one way or another that the goal is to impart wisdom. But the author wants to break it down and say it several different ways, each with its own particular significance that perhaps we’ll see next time.

We should note at least in passing the various synonyms for wisdom that we run into here and that we see throughout Proverbs. Notice in verse 2 he speaks of wisdom, instruction, understanding, insight. In verse 4 he speaks of prudence, knowledge, discretion. There are fine distinctions that can be made in all of these, but they are all related to the idea of wisdom.

“Wisdom,” as we saw last time, is the skill of living successfully under God. And we also saw that “wisdom” is inseparable from “righteousness” – to be righteous is in your own best interest, and so doing what is right is wise. It’s wise to be righteous–you will be better off for it.

Verse 2a has these practical and moral overtones: “To know wisdom and instruction.” To “know wisdom” is to be skillful in living successfully under God. One who “knows wisdom” is one who recognizes God’s world and how it works, and so he knows how avoid mistakes and how to keep from messing up his life.

The “Simple” Person

Notice the specific goal as he states it in verse 4: “to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.”

The “simpleton” in Proverbs is not a “stupid” person in an intellectual sense. The word means something like “open.” The simple person is one who is uncommitted, unaware, undiscerning, naive, and so easily led or misled.

Notice the parallel phrases in 4b: “to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth – the inexperienced, the one who lacks know-how. We all know the proverb in Proverbs 22:15: “foolishness is bound in heart of a child.” We’re all born with a bent to being self-destructive. The sage recognizes that, and so he wants very much to impart wisdom to his son before he ruins his life.

Now it’s important to note in Proverbs that although “the simpleton” is not committed either to wisdom or folly, neither is he innocent! Remaining simple is culpable because not choosing wisdom is already choosing folly. The simpleton is not quite “the fool” or the “the mocker,” but if he continues in his naive simplicity he will ruin his life just the same.

But there is one hopeful thing we can say about the simpleton: he is still teachable. That’s not the case with the fool, as verse 7b tells us: “fools despise wisdom & instruction.” But the simpleton is still teachable, like a child. And the objective here is to teach him before he becomes a fool, and before he makes decisions that will bring harm and regret. The hope is to make him aware of this world he lives in, to warn him of its dangers and how to avoid running headlong into ruin.

What he wants for his son is to see him mature and develop the ability to make well-considered decisions, and not be driven by thoughtless impulses.

Regroup

So Proverbs begins by offering this attractive prospect: “I can teach you how to live so that you don’t have to learn from mistakes and regrets. Do you want to make a mess of your life? Or do you want to live successfully, without regrets? Listen up–it’s for your own good.”

To impart this wisdom, beginning in 1:8 and all the way through the end of chapter 9 he gives these extended lectures, exhorting his son to pursue wisdom. And then from chapter 10 onwards he gives us specific proverbs – wisdom in specific life-applications.

The Whole Book in One Verse

But before he gets to any of that, he gives us the whole in sum. Verse 7 is the motto, the basic creed of the book: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

This is his motto, his theme. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” If you want to live successfully, you must fear God. If you want to live successfully, you must fear God. Click To Tweet

One way the biblical writers often emphasize a point is to state it up front and then again at the end – as well as many times in between. This stating your point up front and again at the end is a literary device called an “inclusio” – verbal brackets that frame the whole discussion. The author of Proverbs uses the inclusio to emphasize his theme of “the fear of the Lord.”

  • First, he states it up front as his motto in verse 7.
  • Then in chapter 9 as he brings his lectures to conclusion, he says it again. Notice Proverbs 9:10: “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, & the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
  • And in fact he brings the whole book to a close with the same. In 31:30 (concluding the book with his famous description of the “virtuous woman”) he writes, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
  • And then of course he says it again and again throughout the book more than another dozen times.

All this to stress the point. “If you want to live wisely, start here: ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.’”

What Is “the Fear of the Lord”?

Now then, what does it mean to “fear” the Lord? You are no doubt aware that this is often translated “reverence” or “awe.” These ideas are certainly involved, but the word is “fear,” and I can’t find warrant to dumb it down.

That said, we must recognize that there are different kinds of fear. If you’re swimming in a Florida lake and come across a 15-foot alligator, that will be one kind of fear. But there are others.

For example, God blessed me with good parents. Both Mom and Dad were good to us, and we had a very happy home. The atmosphere of love was obvious. I never had to fear that my dad would come into the room in a rage and kick me or beat me – that that just could never happen. I wasn’t afraid of Dad in that sense. But at the same time I have to say that he was the very last person on earth I wanted to cross! I’d rather have gone up against anyone than him! “Reverence”? Yes. “Awe”? Sure. But the psychology of fear remained.

And so for example (taking this now to an infinitely higher level) when Moses met with God on the mountain, it says he “trembled with fear.” That’s not just “reverence.” And it’s not just “awe” – although it was at least that! It was fear–the kind of fear that makes your knees knock.

It is true that the apostle John tells us in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” But he explains: “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” That kind of fear–the fear of punishment–is behind us when through Christ we become God’s children. Christ has taken our punishment for us–that’s the heart of the gospel – and so we no longer fear God in that sense. But God is still God, and we are still his creatures, and “the fear of God” remains a Christian virtue as the New Testament bears out (cf. Acts 9:31; Rom. 3:18; 2Cor. 7:1; Phil. 2:12; 1Pet. 2:17).

And in fact the ideas of love and acceptance on the one hand, and fear on the other are not incompatible. In Psalm 2:11, for example, we read, “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” There is no contradiction. It is real fear, and it is real joy. There is reason for fear: He is God! He is a consuming fire, he is unapproachable light, and he is supremely majestic. Yet there is reason for joy: this same God has covenanted his love to us in Christ! This fear of God, for the believer, is not the kind of fear that makes you run away, but it is the kind of fear that makes you bow. It overwhelms and humbles us. Click To Tweet

So there is fear, and there is fear. As someone has said, this fear of God, for the believer, is not the kind of fear that makes you run away, but it is the kind of fear that makes you bow. It overwhelms and humbles us.

And it commands submission.

And this, he tells us in verse 7, is “the beginning of knowledge.”

What Is “the Beginning”?

Now what does that mean? “Beginning” can take a temporal or chronological sense, meaning something like “starting point.” And “beginning” can take a more logical sense, meaning something like “foundation” or “most important thing.” I’m convinced it’s impossible to choose one or the other of these ideas here–it’s obviously both. The fear of the Lord is the starting point of wisdom in a chronological sense, but it certainly is not something we just start with and then leave behind us. There are value connotations that are obviously in view also. And so the idea here is something like, “first and controlling principle” (Kidner). What the alphabet is to reading and writing, what notes are to music, what numbers are to mathematics, “the fear of Lord” is to life and wisdom and knowledge. It is the first step, the foundation stone, the all-controlling principle.

That is to say, all right learning must proceed from a proper recognition of God and a right response to him. You can understand yourself and the world you live in and thus steer your life successfully only as you proceed in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. “The fear of the Lord” produces a whole new way of looking at life.

There are important intellectual connotations to the fear of God. Very important. If we fear God there is no room for autonomous reasoning–we will never imagine that we can know better.

This was the error of modernism. Postmodernism denies the certainty of knowledge–you have your truth, I have mine, and we learn to live with the contradictions: they’re all true! The older modernism acknowledged the idea of absolute truth, but it had such utter confidence in the abilities of the human mind to discern all truth that it had no room at all for the idea of revelation or external authority. Everything could be subjected to the human mind – “rationalism,” it’s called. Some of you may have had a course in philosophy along the way and were introduced to the area of epistemology – the study of the foundations of knowledge, how we know what we know. This is the Bible’s “theory of knowing” in brief: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” All knowledge begins with God and his revelation. And all that, in turn, has implications for contemporary apologetics, postmodernist questions regarding the nature of “truth,” and so on.

But what this means on a very day-to-day practical level is that we will never think that we know better. We will never harbor feelings of self-sufficiency or independence in the myriad of determinations and choices and decisions we make. We will reject those sneaking feelings that we have it all together. We will instead recognize God and revere his Word. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” As Proverbs 28:26 tells us, “He who trusts his own heart is a fool.”

This idea is reflected in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think, of course; it means that if we fear and trust God we will submit our thinking to his. We will follow his direction, his Word in making decisions and in determining the course of life.

Now if that is the case, then this is not all a merely intellectual exercise – we just can’t miss the ethical connotations. If we fear God we will obey, submit to his instruction. We will recognize our obligation to him and our dependence upon him and our accountability to him, and so we will submit to his Word. We will never, like Eve, decide that we know better.

Proverbs 3:7 says this exactly: “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” You may have it all figured out why this given thing in this instance is right for you to do even though God has said otherwise. But if we fear God we will never presume to know better. We will submit to his law. “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.”

This is where wisdom and successful living begin: “the fear of the Lord.” If we fear God we will never entertain a thought that we know better. We will bow, and we will obey. And with that, we will have begun a life that is wise and rewarding.

Further Considerations

Parents, you must teach this to your children. You must warn them ahead of time that they will always find plenty of people pulling them the other way – in the neighborhood, at school, maybe in the extended family or even in the church. And there will be peer pressure. And your children must be warned about it up front: “Above all other considerations what must guide us in the choices we make is ‘the fear of the Lord.’” And we have to teach them, “Don’t be a fool; fear God! If your mind is not rightly oriented to God, you will mess up your life.”

“Wisdom” – the skill of living successfully under God – has practical and moral dimensions: knowing how to act, how to respond, how to make good choices, how to avoid ruining your life. But it all starts here on this theological and devotional level: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Despise that, and you are a fool.

Of course the ultimate expression of a right fear of God is when we bow before the Lord Jesus Christ – go broken and helpless to him for rescue and submit to his rule. And that is precisely his great invitation: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” Here is the one who is not only the great wisdom teacher – he is the redeemer who has taken our sin to himself and borne our curse so that we may be forgiven, and so that we may now live unto God.

And coming to God through Christ the “fear of Lord” remains – he is still God, we are still his creatures, and we recognize that now more than ever. But that aspect of fear that we call “dread” because of fear of punishment – that has been removed and replaced by a great sense of acceptance and love. And proceeding from there we learn how to live well, for his honor and our good.

Fred Zaspel

Fred Zaspel (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors at Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also the executive editor of Books At a Glance and adjunct professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books including The Theology of B. B. Warfield and Warfield on the Christian Life.

Advertisment
Back to Top