Old Testament 102: Goldsworthy on the “Fear of the Lord”

The dedication of the Temple was a high point in Israel’s history, with it came a mood change in Israel.

“When Israel recognises the significance of the temple as the place where reconciliation and restoration to God can occur, it will be a people that fears God and enjoys the blessings of the covenant (1 Kings 8:38-40). This great benefit ill become known among the nations. Strangers will come to the temple and acknowledge God. Solomon prays that God will hear them from heaven and answer graciously so that all the nations of the earth may know his name and fear him (1 Kings 8:41-43). The coming of Sheba was the first sign of this prayer being answered.

The Fear of the Lord is not terror (it uses a different Hebrew word), it has a note of reverent awe.

In the period from Exodus to Solomon the “fear of the Lord” emphasises faithfulness to the covenant. Some examples include Exodus 14:31, and Deuteronomy 4:10.

“This fear of the Lord was to be expressed in their diligence to observe the laws of God in faithful response to his saving acts (Deuteronomy 6:2, 10:12, 10:20-21).

The “fear of the Lord” appears many times in Proverbs, and throughout the wisdom literature. But is it covenantal?

These were Israelites and although salvation history is not a theme of their writings, they were not unbelieving philosophers professing a humanistic alternative to the covenant faith. They were men of God who reached out beyond the specific content of God’s revelation and engaged in the search for knowledge and understanding of the world in the light of revelation.”

Goldsworthy suggests the phrase is a central idea to the book of Proverbs – it sums up the prologue (1:7), and is scattered throughout the book.

“The evidence, in my opinion, is that the absolute necessity of God’s revelation for right understanding of the world was constantly recognised.”

Two different Hebrew words for “beginning” are used in Proverbs 9:10, and Psalm 111:10. The one used in the Psalm can also mean “chief goal”… if this translation is adopted:

… it means that the fear of the Lord is both the presupposition of foundation, and the goal of wisdom.”

“We conclude that both the wisdom use of the ‘fear of the Lord’ and traditions concerning Solomon as temple builder and sage, point to an important connection between the Israelite concept of wisdom and the covenant of faith. This accounts for the truly distinct features of Israel’s wisdom which, while it shared many of the characteristics of the wisdom of the ancient middle eastern world, never lost sight of the revelation of the one true God…”

The bones of my Wisdom Literature = cultural evangelism argument

I’m getting closer to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for my Old Testament essay that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. I still haven’t found many scholars who take the line I’m taking – and those that do come from a particular “missional” bent when interpreting scripture.

But here’s the flow of my logic – feel free to critique…

  1. God, from the very beginning, has been Lord of the whole world
  2. He selected Israel to be his chosen people.
  3. His promises to Abraham, involving Israel’s choseness included a promise that Israel would be a blessing to the nations – 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;  and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
  4. Israel’s laws included laws for dealing with sojourners – those foreigners who chose to become Israelites.
    • Exodus 12: 48 An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. 49 The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.”
    • Leviticus 17 suggests that these converts are “his people”: “8 “Say to them: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice 9 and does not bring it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to sacrifice it to the LORD -that man must be cut off from his people.”
    • Numbers 15: “For the generations to come, whenever an alien or anyone else living among you presents an offering made by fire as an aroma pleasing to the LORD, he must do exactly as you do. 15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the LORD : 16 The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you.'”
  5. We see examples of foreigners coming into citizenship of Israel, and testifying to YHWH’s rightful position because they’ve heard of God’s greatness. For example, Rahab, as Israel occupy the land of Canaan: “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
  6. The nations are most blessed, throughout the Biblical narrative – including in the Old Testament – when they recognise YHWH’s position via Israel’s faithful example.
    • Deuteronomy 4:5-8: “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
      Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
      For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
    • Micah 4:2 seems to me to hark back to the glory days of Solomonic rule (at least as it’s reported in 1 Kings – and I’ll get to that soon) – 2 Many nations will come and say,  “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,  to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”  The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 3 He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
  7. On this basis I think it’s fair to assume that Israel was to have some sort of interaction with the surrounding nations where they would notice this difference.
  8. The wisdom literature borrows content and ideas pretty heavily from surrounding, contemporary philosophies – and corrects them, offering “the fear of the Lord” as the beginning of true knowledge and wisdom.
  9. It seems that in the era in which the wisdom literature was produced sages and wise people were popular, schools of philosophical thought may have been operating around the traps, and ideas were flowing across national boundaries.
  10. It follows, in my mind, that these works from Israel’s wise people may have been a contribution to this international conversation – offering the fear of YHWH as this basis for wisdom.
  11. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (and the Song of Solomon) are linked to Solomon – whether he actually wrote them or this is a fictive link is irrelevant. I think we’re meant to read them in the light of Solomon’s reign, as documented in the Bible. I’d also suggest that the accounts of foreign dignitaries and thinkers flocking to hear Solomon’s ministry of wisdom confirms both points 9 and 10 above.

    • Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8 is a starting point: “ 41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name- 42 for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when he comes and prays toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name…59 And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the LORD, be near to the LORD our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day’s need, 60 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other. 61 But your hearts must be fully committed to the LORD our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commands, as at this time.”
    • 1 Kings 10 provides a picture of Israel’s Golden Age under the reign of Solomon – where the Abrahamic promises of Genesis 12 appear to be fulfilled – somewhat temporarily. The Queen of Sheba, on the basis of Solomon’s wisdom (and his relationship to YHWH) makes the following declaration: 9 Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness.””
    • Towards the end of the chapter the description of Solomon’s reign focuses on his global impact (his blessing of the nations): 23 King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. 24 The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.”
  12. Psalm 72 appears to link Genesis 12 with Solomon’s reign…

    15 Long may he live!
    May gold from Sheba be given him.
    May people ever pray for him
    and bless him all day long.

    16 Let grain abound throughout the land;
    on the tops of the hills may it sway.
    Let its fruit flourish like Lebanon;
    let it thrive like the grass of the field.

    17 May his name endure forever;
    may it continue as long as the sun.
    All nations will be blessed through him,
    and they will call him blessed.

    18 Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel,

    who alone does marvelous deeds.

    19 Praise be to his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory.

  13. The fear of the Lord is an important idea developed throughout the Old Testament – and often linked to the nations. It’s essential for Israel (see Deuteronomy 6), and Israel’s kings (1 Samuel 12). But it’s also the appropriate and expected response from the nations. For example, Egypt’s problem in the Exodus is that their officials do not fear the Lord. Joshua 4 links Israel’s conquest of the land with God’s desire for the nations to “fear the Lord.” Leviticus 19, quoted earlier, also contains instructions to “fear the Lord” (this link is tenuous – but it’s in a passage about “loving your neighbour” which deals with how to treat sojourners and converts). It’s what happens when Israel’s kings do the right thing (1 Chronicles 14, and their calling when Israel does the right thing in 1 Chronicles 16 – “tremble before him, all the earth“). There are other passages that link “the fear of the LORD” with the nations not taking certain actions against Israel (2 Chronicles 17). It’s also the particular focus of Proverbs (Proverbs 1, and then about a million other verses), a bunch of Psalms (eg Psalm 19, Psalm 22) the reason Job is held up as righteous (Job 1:8, 2:3), and the theological turning point in the book (Job 28:28), and the closing words (and “duty of Man”) in Ecclesiastes (Ecc 12:13-14).

So, my theory, is that rather than being riddled with inconsistent “acts-consequences” (eg you reap what you sow) theology (Proverbs) and the suffering of the innocent (Ecclesiastes, Job) – the wisdom books serve a unified, dual purpose. Firstly, they’re didactic for Israel – encouraging them to live out their obligations as a testimony to the nations of true wisdom, and a participation in an international “wisdom dialogue” advocating the fear of Israel’s Lord as the beginning of knowledge. And they’re to be read in the light of Solomon’s legendary reign and ministry of wisdom to the whole world.

What do you reckon?