A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 7/9/99
When I was a child, I found the phrase "the fear of the Lord" confusing. If Jesus loved me this I knew, and if he loved the little children, all the children of the world, then why was I supposed to be scared of him? Even then, I sensed that there was more to this phrase than met the eye. Jonathan Edwards distinguished "servile fear" (bad, not what the Bible means) from "evangelical fear" (good). But how did you tell which was which? The fear of the Lord continues to be a concept that contemporary Evangelicals do not have a terribly good grip on. First, it is not a congenial idea to the "me" generation. And second, the Hebrew word (yara') is a rich one with no exact English equivalent. But the fear of the Lord, says Solomon, is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge--until we get that, we have not even takent the first step to understanding anything. So we had better see if we can figure it out.
The Hebrew word translated "fear" here does not mean to be afraid simply or even primarily. It is more like reverence or respect, but these words are too weak. And "awe" has been denuded of meaning by the overuse of "awesome." But it may be the best we can do. Think of the fear and trepidation with which you might meet a really great man--like the experience I had when I got to sing under Robert Shaw as a high-school student, or when John R. W. Stott spoke at my college and I was lucky enough to have lunch with him as an undergraduate. I was not concerned that Shaw or Stott was going to harm me in any way. Still, Stott was the first living author whose books I had read whom I had met face to face, so one did not take the seat across the table from him in the cafeteria and strike up a conversation without a certain palpitation of the heart. A mere polite interest would not have been an adequate description of my attitude. Both these men were able somehow to make me feel small even as they were stretching me, enlarging my spirit. And they were but a reflection of the greatness one encounters in God. Nature too can make us feel small even as it ennobles us rather than demeaning us thereby--and God is the One who made her, so that she too reflects Him. Perhaps Kenneth Graham expressed it best in The Wind and the Willows, when Rat and Mole meet Pan: "Rat, were you afraid?" "Afraid? of HIM? Oh, never! And yet, oh Mole, I was afraid."
Well, then: this attitude toward God, devoid of glibness, smugness, and superficiality, which takes Him seriously as God and, while bowing in adoration and trust, finds Him a bit more than we can comfortably handle, is the beginning of wisdom (Prvb. 1:7, 1:29, 9:10). It is both the first step toward wisdom--until we are there, we have not even set foot on the path--and the first principle of wisdom, from which all else flows. God is the One who reveals wisdom, so we must take Him seriously enough to listen and take what He says to heart, and a reverence that contains a hint of this kind of fear is the response to Him without which and apart from which anything we think, say, or do can be nothing more than supreme folly.
Since Proverbs is written in Hebrew poetic parallelism, it is useful to see what words are paired with wisdom. In 9:10, it is parallel to personal knowledge of God. In 15:33 and 22:4 it is paired with humility. One way we can distinguish a real encounter with God from mere playing with intellectual chess pieces is by seeing whether it produces humility. I thought I was a pretty good musician until I worked under Shaw. Then, suddenly, the gap between the real standards and where I was seemed much larger. In my conversation with Stott, I decided to impress him by complimenting him on one of his books, making a highly intelligent comment that would show I had read it with real understanding. Unfortunately, the book I was referring to had actually been written by F. F. Bruce! This was highly amusing--to Stott--but he was so gracious about it that my well deserved embarrassment was held to a minimum. Once again, I was given a vision of how great was the distance between the greatness to which I aspired and where I actually was--but in a way that lifted me up, edified, even as it knocked me down. I would be very suspicious of anyone who came away from such encounters feeling smug and self-satisfied. (That would be no fear at all.) If he came away devastated and despairing I would be sympathetic, but think he had missed half the point. (This would be Edwards' "servile fear.") How much more should walking with the living God humble us without discouraging us! (That would be what Edwards meant by "Evangelical Fear"--fear that had also grasped God's enabling Grace.)
Well, this is the concept of the Fear of the Lord. Next week we will look at the fruits of this Fear as the beginning of wisdom, and how to cultivate it. In the meantime, let us begin already the process of learning to walk in the Fear of the Lord.
Here endeth the lesson.