The Fear of the Lord: Not As Scary As It Sounds

“The fear of the Lord,” says Proverbs 1:7, “is the beginning of wisdom.”

In terms of vaguely threatening Bible verses, this one ranks up there. It has a “Meet me behind the woodshed – I’m gonna grab a switch and teach you a lesson!” kind of vibe to it.

Fearsome though it may seem, to truly understand what the fear of the Lord is all about, we first need to realize that it’s more than the sum of its parts. As Reddit user u/Dimanovic points out:

Like the word “butterfly,” you can’t figure it out just by looking at its composites, “butter” and “fly.” “Fear” can mean “terror/fright” or it can mean “awe.” “Fear of the Lord” encompasses both and more, such that the phrase takes on a life of its own – like “butterfly” – and ends up meaning things we would not typically expect of “fear.”

In other words, the fear of the Lord DOES NOT mean “to be scared or frightened of God.”

Hush, child! The fear of the Lord is not as scary a thing as it first might seem.

The Fear of the Lord: What It Actually Means

Instead, when the Bible talks about the fear of the Lord, what it’s talking about is a humbling awe, reverence, and wonder before God.

The fear the Lord is about being overwhelmed with awe before the greatness of God and God’s love.

The fear the Lord is about being humbled before the divine, but being humbled in a really transcending and inspiring sort of way.

The fear the Lord is about those moments that make you say, “WHOA! There is something big here. Way bigger than me. Way bigger than I’ll ever understand. Whooooa.”

The fear of the Lord is about those moments that make you say, “WHOA!” 

The Fear of the Lord: A Real Life Experience

In his book Days of Awe and Wonder the theologian Marcus Borg, writes about an experience that he had of this humbling awe and reverence and wonder that captures perfectly what the experience of the fear of the Lord is all about:

It happened an hour or two into a flight from Tel Aviv to New York – in economy class –  a detail I add not to establish virtue, but to make it clear that I hadn’t had any before-dinner drinks. I think the experience lasted about forty minutes not that I timed it, but it began before dinner was served and ended as the flight attendants were removing the dinner service.

…The light changed. It became golden. I looked around, and everything was filled with exquisite beauty – the texture of the fabric on the back of the seat in front of me, the tray full of food when it arrived (which I did not eat). 

Everybody looked beautiful – even a passenger who, as we left Tel Aviv, had struck me as perhaps the ugliest person I had ever seen. 

He had been pacing the aisle and was so hard to look at that I averted my eyes each time he passed by. Even HE looked wondrous. 

My face was wet with tears. I was filled with joy. I felt that I could live in that state of consciousness forever and it would never grow old. For the first time in my life, I understood the affirmation that the earth is full of the glory of God.

A humbling awe and reverence and wonder at the glory and beauty and vastness of God. That is what the fear of the Lord is all about. And that, says the Book of Proverbs, is where wisdom begins.