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 Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Four

Part four of a pretty long essay. Here are parts one, two, and three.

With what shall we fix it? How “The Fear of the Lord” fits as a corrective

The Fear of the Lord has been identified as a unifying theme in the wisdom corpus for varying reasons.[1] It is a point of contrast with international wisdom, when the concept of “fear” is discussed in ANE literature it is to be directed towards the king.[2] Biblical wisdom, חכמה, focuses on fearing not one who controls created order, but the one who created and controls the order.[3]

The “fear of Yahweh” is a touch point of Jewish orthodoxy synonymous with faithful obedience (Deuteronomy 4:10; 5:29; 6:2, 13, 24; 10:12, 20).

The phrase occurs throughout Proverbs (Proverbs 1:7, 2:5, 9:10, 10:27, 14:27, 15:16, 15:33, 16:6, 19:23; 22:4; 23:17, 31:30, and an injunction to “fear the Lord” occurs in Proverbs 1:29; 3:7; 8:13; and 24:21), it occurs almost exclusively in the passages tied to Solomon (Chapters 1-24), and does not appear in those collected under Hezekiah.[4]

The passages linked to Amenemope and Ahiqar fall in passages attributed to Solomon. Those passages are either directly proceeded by, or followed by, a reference to fearing Yahweh (Proverbs 22:4, Proverbs 24:21, and Proverbs 23:17).

The phrase is also used to contrast with the teaching of wise (Proverbs 13:14) and the fear of Yahweh (Proverbs 14:27), with both considered as the “fountain of life.”[5]

The “Fear of the Lord” in Job

Job does not use the same Hebrew construction as Proverbs (preferring alternatives like אדני ראתי to יהוה ראתי).[6] A thematic link between fear, God, and wisdom is drawn several times (Job 1:1, 8, 9; 2:3; 4:6; 6:14; 15:4; 22:4; 28:28; 37:24).

Job 28’s wisdom poem is an important thematic point. Some see it paying homage to traditional “retributive” proverbial wisdom, which is then rebutted in the concluding chapters,[7] the view concludes that the “fear of the Lord” is not the complete answer to Job’s dilemma.[8] It seems more likely that this chapter is directed at foreign concepts of wisdom.

Greenstein (2003) argues that Job 28 contains deliberate correctives against ideas of godly wisdom from Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Akkadian, Ugaratic, Sumerian and Syrian poetic expressions of wisdom.[9] Job 28’s view of wisdom corrects two common ANE misconceptions of the source of wisdom, where wisdom was understood as originating from a distant God located either in the heights or depths of creation.[10] Job 28 locates wisdom not in the deep or the sea (28:1-22, especially 14), but in the fear of the Lord (28:28) because he knows where wisdom dwells (28:23), tests it (28:27). Chapters 38-42 establish Yahweh’s case for being feared. He is the creator of all things, and he holds them under his sway.

The “Fear of the Lord” in Ecclesiastes

The “fear of the Lord” is present in Qoheleth’s exploration of wisdom (Ecc 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13) and most importantly guides the interpretation of his work in the epilogue (12:13).

The epilogist sees the “fear of the Lord” as a fitting summary of Qoheleth’s quest. While some dismiss this insertion as a late intrusion that radically alters the message of Ecclesiastes,[11] Shead (1997) used a semantic comparison with the rest of the book to argue for a common author, and thus for the epilogue’s centrality in interpreting the text,[12] Shields (1999) concurs on the centrality of the epilogue,[13] specifically the centrality of “Fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecc 12:13),[14] but he rejects Shead’s structuralist approach.[15] Shields sees Qoheleth protesting against the wisdom movement – a group of professional sages operating in Israel, and indeed throughout the ANE.[16] A position best summed up in the teacher’s own words No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun… Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” (Ecc 8:16-17).[17]

The “Fear of the Lord” and the nations

Israel’s covenantal blessing of the nations (Gen 12:3) is widely understood to have functioned centripetally.[18] This model of understanding the wisdom literature may call such an understanding into question. Israel’s obedience to Yahweh was to be a demonstration to the nations, who were to respond “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6). Wisdom had a role to play. Presenting a critique of wisdom of surrounding nations, and proffering a plausible alternative, may have been the impetus for the type of centripetal movement depicted in Micah 4:2.

Solomon’s dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:41-43) desires that the people of the nations might fear the Lord. Psalm 96 has been described as a “missionary Psalm,”[19] it calls for declarations of his glory and authority among the nations (verses 3, and 10), calling them to fear him above all gods (verse 4). Kaiser (2000) suggests this is evidence of a centrifugal outreach in Israel.[20] The presence of this international interaction and the thematic importance of the “fear of the Lord” may provide some support for this view.


[1] Kidner, D, Wisdom to Live By (Leicester: IVP, 1985) p 17 sees it as salvaging the wisdom corpus from self-interest, mutiny and despair, Kaiser, W.C, Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978) p 170 suggests that it is the “organising theological principle” of the OT wisdom, Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ Tyndale Bulletin 46.1 (1995) 59-79 provides an overview of its use in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, Dumbrell, W.J, The Faith of Israel, p 264 identifies it as the theme of Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes p 285, Clements, R.E, Wisdom in Theology, pp 60-62, holds a post-exilic compilation of Proverbs, and thus a different purpose, suggests that the Fear of The Lord is to help post-exilic Jews realign their faith after the loss of land and temple.

[2] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ at p 62, cites Derousseaux, La crainte de Dieu, 21-66 who studied the occurance of ‘fear’ in Egyptian, Akkadian, Aramaic and Ugaritic texts. Interestingly the king, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, mediated between the gods and society “maintaining the social order in harmony with nature and the divine” see Wright, G.E, The Old Testament Against Its Environment, Studies in Biblical Theology, (London: SCM Press, 1950), p 63

[3] On its uniqueness in Wisdom literature see Ruffle, op. cit, p37,

[4] Steinmann, A.E, ‘Proverbs 1-9 as A Solomonic Composition,’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 43/4 December 2000, pp 659-674 at p 666

[5] Stay tuned for the bit below where “life” in Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom get mindblowingly explored…

[6] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ pp 66-67 suggests this is consistent with the Fear of Yahweh employed elsewhere.

[7] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ pp 69-73

[8] Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ p 73

[9] Greenstein, E.L, ‘The Poem on Wisdom in Job 28 in its conceptual and literary contexts, Job 28: Cognition in Context, ed. Van Wolde, E.J, Leiden:Brill, 2003, pp 253-281

[10] According to the second model, wisdom is hidden from human view and is hidden in the depths of the earth. According to the first model, a solar-like divine power can bring the hidden to light and illuminate its details. Both models underlie the poem on wisdom in Job 28. Greenstein, E.L, ‘The Poem on Wisdom in Job 28 in its conceptual and literary contexts, Job 28: Cognition in Context, ed. Van Wolde, E.J, (Leiden:Brill, 2003), p 263, he later identifies a favourable comparison between Yahweh and a Babylonian Sun God, because Yahweh, in Job 28 “sees and penetrates into all that is hidden, can see to the bottom of the earth as well, and it is therefore he alone who knows where wisdom is located.”[10]

[11]I am much more interested in dealing with the final form of the text than engaging in source criticism – Wilson, L, ‘The Book of Job and the Fear of God,’ p 63 agrees – suggesting that the epilogue both affirms the questioning nature of the book and provides a foundational principle for daily living.

[12] Shead, A. G, ‘Reading Ecclesiastes ‘Epilogically’’ Tyndale Bulletin 48.1 (1997) 67-91.

[13] Shields, M.A, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ Tyndale Bulletin 50.1 (1999), p 121,

[14] Shields, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ p 124

[15] Shields, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ pp 121-124

[16] Shields, ‘Ecclesiastes And The End Of Wisdom,’ pp 125-129 – regarding the presence of similar ideas in the Ancient Near East: “Qoheleth’s words have always (so far as we can determine) troubled those who have read them and tried to understand them against the background of the faith of Israel. They do not fit easily with the wisdom of other sages as recorded in Proverbs (or, for that matter, from other sources in the Ancient Near East), and the wisdom of Qoheleth’s contemporaries could probably also be included. Consequently, it would be tempting to dismiss Qoheleth’s words and adhere to the more traditional conclusions of the sages (which could perhaps best be described as ‘pleasing words’). The epilogist here makes clear that the words of Qoheleth are true. Where other sages may have offered different advice, they are the ones who should be considered to be incorrect—not Qoheleth.”

[17] Shead, op. cit

[18] Kaiser, W.C, Missions in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p 37, Scobie, C.H.H, The Ways of Our God: An integrated approach to Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003) p 520

[19] Kaiser, W.C, Missions in the Old Testament, pp 34-36.

[20] Kaiser, W.C, Missions in the Old Testament, p 35