Willliam Arnot entitled his book on the Proverbs, Laws from Heaven for life on Earth. It aptly describes the truths contained within this often neglected book. The purpose of this article is to trace one of the recurring themes that it contains – the fear of the Lord – and to meditate upon the lessons it would teach.
The word fear may suggest an Old Testament application that is inap-propriate for New Testament saints. Yet a careful examination of 2 Cor. 7. 1; Eph. 5. 21; Phil. 2. 12; and 1 Pet. 1. 17 will show that the fear of the Lord is something that is still most appropriate in the life of the believer, particularly when contrasted with Romans 3. 18.
Vine defines this fear as the ‘reverential fear of God as a controlling motive of the life, in matters spiritual and moral, not a mere fear of His power and righteous retribution, but a wholesome dread of displeasing Him, a fear which banishes the terror that shrinks from His presence’. Certainly the desire of the writer of Proverbs is that his readers might have the awe and reverence for God that affects every aspect of the life.
The Spiritual Life
The power of the spiritual life is given us in Proverbs 1. 7. Solomon states clearly, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’. The spiritual life begins with a true appreciation of God. Hence, this ‘fear of the Lord’ is the foundational element upon which all the other qualities rest; it is the means by which we acquire the truth. Arnot comments, ‘the one is the sustaining root, the other the sustained branches; the one is the living fountain, the other the issuing stream’. In 1 Corinthians 2. 12 Paul teaches that it is only by a humble dependence upon the Spirit of God that we can know ‘the things freely given to us of God’.
Progression is shown us in 2. 4-5, ‘If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord’. Here is true zeal. The ear is inclined, v. 2; the heart is applied, v. 2; there is the fervent, almost irrepressible prayer, v. 3. There is much in common with those described in Matthew 5. 6. The Lord will give wisdom when the heart is in earnest, cp. Jas. 1. 5. We must remember that however arduous our search it is God that gives although we can rest assured that He will give liberally.
There is also preservation, 15. 33 (Newberry), ‘The fear of the Lord is the correction (discipline, JND) of wisdom; and before honour is humility’. We need to be teachable, and a false pride in this matter can be disastrous, cp. 15. 5, 10, 12, 32. There is an analogy with the words of the Lord in John 15. 2, ‘every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit’, cp. Heb 12. 11.
In 24. 21, ‘My son, fear thou the Lord and the king: And meddle not with them that are given to change’. The teaching here is subjection. Solomon puts things into their proper order. Our subjection is primarily to the Lord; we owe our allegiance to Him. However, we should also be subject to the powers that be, Rom. 13. 1. If we are to be preserved from judgment, Rom. 13. 2, then we should avoid any connection with those working for governmental change, cp. 1 Pet. 2. 13-17.
The Moral Life
Those that fear the Lord will favour righteousness and flee from sin. In 3. 7 we are reminded of the need for humility, cp. 1 Pet. 5. 6. The fear of the Lord enables us to keep a true perspective of ourselves and thus depart from evil. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy was that he might ‘flee also youthful lusts’, 2 Tim. 2. 22.
Solomon would also emphasize the dangers of complacency. Chapter 23. 17 indicates the need for a constancy of attitude, ‘Let not thine heart envy sinners: But be thou in the fear of the Lord all the day long’. There is a need for vigilance if our standards are not to drop. It is too easy to become influenced by the moral standards of the world. We should not underesti-mate the power of sin. Our conscience would remind us of the adversary outside. Perhaps this is Solomon’s thought in 16. 6, ‘By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear by the Lord men depart from evil’. A reminder of what it cost to purge our iniquity and to purchase us from the bondage and slavery of sin should cause us to depart from evil more quickly, cp. 1 Thess. 5. 22.
A further thought is given us in 8. 13. This verse tells us something of the character of the persons that depart from evil. They hate evil because they view evil in the same way as the Lord. This view can only be accom-plished by a thorough knowledge of God through His word. Like the man of Romans 7. 24 the forgiven man instinctively loathes the evil of his own heart, and looks with longing for the day when all things in it shall be made new. Chapter 14. 2 expands the positive, ‘He that walketh in his uprightness feareth the Lord’, Here is a fruit of that moral life developed by the fear of the Lord, Gal. 5. 24-25.
The Material Life
As Solomon exhorts us to depart from evil and a life of wickedness, we also find much in the book of the Proverbs that contrasts the reward of the righteous with the fate of the ungodly. There is the prolongation of days, 10. 27, ‘The fear of the Lord prolongeth days’. For the Jew this was a particular blessing. How is it to be achieved? The language of the Psalmist David confirms the thoughts of Proverbs in Psalm 34. 11-16. He tells us what we should do in keeping our tongues and our lips but he also he tells us what God will do. ‘The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The face of the Lord is against them that do evil’, Psa. 34. 15, 16. What might we learn from the perfect example of Isaiah 53. 10?
In the fear of the Lord there is preservation and protection. This truth is clearly given us in 14. 26, 27, ‘In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence: and his children shall have a place of refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death’. Here is strength and stability in a rapidly changing world. A reverence for God removes all other fear because the Lord changes not and He is greater than the greatest enemy, cp. Psa, 46, 1-3; Psa. 56. 4; Matt. 10. 28. We can rejoice in the fact that He is greater than the greatest enemy, cp. Psa. 118. 4 - 6. The practical implications are given us in 19. 23 ‘The fear of the Lord tendeth to life: and he that hath it shall abide satisfied; he shall not be visited with evil’. Again, the Psalmist extends the thought, cp. Psa. 33. 18, 19.
For men the pursuit of prosperity can be all consuming. It is significant that Solomon with all his wealth wrote, 15. 16,‘Better is little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it’. What a contrast with the folly of verse 27! The believer’s prosperity can be found elsewhere, 22. 4, ‘By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life’. David’s exhortation in Psalm 34. 9 confirms this, ‘O fear the Lord, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear Him’.
Although we have boldness to enter the presence of God, Heb. 10. 19, we should not dispense with reverence. If we are to draw near with that ‘true heart’, v. 22, the lessons of the writer of Proverbs will need to be learnt. These lessons will prepare us spiritually and morally to enter the presence of God. He has not changed.