Back to series
Good morning, church. The whole sermon this morning is basically on a single verse—half a verse, really: Proverbs, chapter 9, verse 10, and with this sermon, I’ve decided, we’re going to close out topically preaching through the themes of Proverbs, and begin to close out this series through the book of Proverbs. If you’re just joining in with us and want to catch the rest of the series, you can listen to our services on Spotify.
Proverbs is a book of wisdom, and wisdom is different from information. Information is fast, it’s what’s trending and we’re always creating new information. Wisdom is slower, more visceral, and it’s ancient, much of it forgotten. Perhaps more than anything what we need in our lives is not the information of our day, but the wisdom of times and places other than our own to help us break free of the common ideas and behaviors which have so shaped our culture and our lives today.
Wisdom isn’t hidden; God is proclaiming and revealing it in every corner of creation—but in the noise of this life, it’s hard to know what to believe. Who can you trust to know and speak the truth? How can we live in a way that won’t leave us empty in the end?
The topic for this morning is arguably a major theme of Proverbs, all the wisdom literature, and even the Bible as a whole, but in our society we have drifted so far from the teaching that it’s almost hard for us to understand. Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Join me in prayer, briefly.
I want to start by clearing up a common misunderstanding about this theme in Proverbs—either a misunderstanding or it’s just uncomfortable. The word fear, used here, is appropriate. Fear is the right word. It’s not mistranslated, not figurative or overstated, and if you study the original language, there’s not much lost in translation. Yes, the same word is used for fear and awe throughout the Bible—biblically speaking, there is a good kind of fear—but between the two words we more misunderstand the word awe, not fear, in today’s language. Pizza is not awesome in the biblical sense, a hurricane is awesome, an ocean is awesome, and God is awesome.
Fear is the right word in today’s language to get across what the biblical authors mean when they use yare and phobos almost 100 times throughout scripture, only this is a good fear, a still small feeling of coming close to something enormous and wild—sublime, numinous. The advice given over and over again in Proverbs is actually that you should fear the Lord. So, my main point today is just that: fear the Lord.
This is hard to wrap our minds around, and I recognize, it’s a bit uncomfortable. Usually, there’s nothing good or desirable about the people and things who make us afraid. People who make you afraid are the ones you need distance from, not the ones you want to walk and talk with daily. In our culture, too, the fear of God is an unpopular message—it doesn’t make sense to most people to both fear and love someone, or it seems unhealthy, codependent. One of my favorite songs in my moody high school years states the cultural understanding of fear plainly: “In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule; I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black. I held my tongue as she told me ‘Son, fear is the heart of love’ So I never went back.”
But that’s the wrong idea. We’ve probably all had experiences when people have told us to be afraid of God when we step out of line, like a ruler to the knuckles, but that’s not how Proverbs tends to use this injunction. The Proverbs see the fear of God not as a threat of warning, but as a desirable end in itself. It’s not, “let’s put the fear of God in him, but rather Proverbs 14:27 says “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life.” Mainly, the Proverbs about fearing God are directed not at fools, nor the sinners, it’s not turn or burn, but this instruction is directed toward the wise. Over and over again in Proverbs, and throughout the Bible, we see fear of God held out as the beginning of wisdom, part of your healthy, daily walk with the Lord.
There’s an apparent contradiction. We read passages like 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” We’ll point to Jesus and say, look, there’s nothing to be afraid of at church. God loves you. Let’s sing Jesus is my Friend and smile a lot. (I’m not picking on Jake—I also love that song, and I believe him to be smiley from a genuine place.) But there is discomfort in the idea of fearing God to the point where we tend to disregard this teaching.
We should not. This is a beautiful teaching, and disregarding it is to our detriment. And there is no contradiction, but we are missing something in our understanding of this teaching. In short, I think we are misunderstanding how frightening our world is, how little we are in control of our lives, and how wild God is. As children, most of us start with a healthy dose of fear, and we look to our fathers, our mothers, to comfort us, but we are taught as we grow that we ought not be afraid. Children, as they so often do, know better. Reading through these passages, I got the sense—the authors of the Bible are assuming that we’re all going to be afraid of something. Fear is assumed in life. What the Bible is teaching, over and over again, is that instead of fearing anything in the world, just like our faith or our trust, we should place our fear in God as well, because he alone is worthy of it—everything else frightening in the world will eventually bend to his will.
I’m reading a new book right now, which is unlike me, but it’s good, it’s called Prayer in the Night, by Tish Harrison Warren. She wrote it in 2019, but it came out in May of 2020, just in God’s providence. It’s a book about fear and suffering, and trusting God through both. She talks, in the book, about a miscarriage she had which hemorrhaged and almost killed her, and how terrified she was that night, then afterwards how she was depressed and angry at God.
The reason the book is called Prayer in the Night is because it centers on the prayer of compline, which in the liturgy of the hours is meant to be prayed in the middle of the night, meaning monks and nuns will literally wake up in the wee hours to pray it together. That may seem like an insane practice, but one thing Warren points out, which was especially true when the practice developed, but I would argue remains true today—night time is terrifying. All the children are right, and all of the adults are wrong—we should be afraid of the dark.
Think of not having electric lights. I think of this time last year, I was sleeping at my brother’s house because mine was damaged in Hurricane Ida, I was alone, Annie and the kids still in Memphis, and when the sun set, the city was in total darkness. There were reports of looting, and right or wrong, I’ll admit to you, I was sleeping with my brother’s gun on the table next to me, and I was not sleeping well. Every noise I heard in the night I strained my ears to listen. I was scared. Because when you fall asleep, you’ve lost all control over what happens to you. Part of fearing God is knowing—the entirety of this life is like that. We don’t really have control over our lives. In an instant things can change.
When they first instituted the compline prayer, cities would set watchmen on the walls who would watch in total darkness through the night, because if anyone meant to do harm to the inhabitants of the city they would come under cover of darkness. Outside of cities, children would be gathered in and the door barred after dark. The prayer asks God to “be our light in the darkness,” and to watch over us. It ends by saying, “We entrust to you the night, and we rest in surety.”
One of Warren’s realizations with the miscarriage, again, was just how little control she had over her life, and how terrifying that is. And I’ll be honest, confess to you something I as a pastor am not supposed to say: most of what we’ve been through in the past two years has made me afraid. I remember the feeling I had after about two weeks into the pandemic, we had eaten through our food and needed to go to the store. My hands shook as I was frenetically grabbing things off shelves. It was the first time we had left the house for two weeks. I remember the powerlessness of the stay-at-home orders, conversations at work about pay cuts and layoffs, half the church had lost their jobs, some of us in the hospital. All of my plans for the church and for that year of our lives came crashing down.
A lot of people would call me faithless for being afraid, but regardless of what I was supposed to be feeling, what I actually felt, if I’m honest, was fear. I was afraid I was going to close the first church I ever pastored after about three weeks on the job. Afraid for my son who has asthma, who has been to the hospital with mild respiratory illnesses. Afraid I would make some small mistake and accidentally kill people I loved. A lot of the past few years has felt to me like the sun had gone down, with some unseen enemy at the gates and I was the watcher everyone had elected to stand on the wall. So I started praying, like compline, that God would watch with me, and I started learning in small ways what it means to fear God instead of the world.
Warren asks in the book what I think is an important question: she asks, “if God cannot be trusted to keep bad things from happening to us, how can he be trusted at all?” This is the question my heart has been asking for these past few years. If God isn’t going to stop a pandemic from happening, or a hurricane, or losing housing, losing a grandparent, nearly losing my dad, what exactly am I trusting him to do in his watch over me? And if he’s not going to stop all of the terrifying things from happening, then why does the Bible tell us “fear not, for I will be with you?”
In response to all the frightening things going on in recent years, I’ve seen a lot of bravado and denial, people basically saying that there’s nothing to be afraid of in the world. That’s not biblical. Most clearly in 1 Peter, he exhorts people suffering under intense persecution by saying, “don’t fear anything frightening.” So he’s admitting that what’s happening to them is frightening, he’s just saying they should fear God instead. The Bible isn’t trying to force us into some kind of bravado, where we have Jesus on our side, so we’re invincible. We’re not. God never promised us that.
So to understand the exhortation to fear God instead of the world, you have to admit to yourself the world is frightening, one. And two, you have to admit that God, himself, is frightening. This is the other piece we’re missing that Solomon and the people of his day would have known.
I mentioned hurricane Ida earlier and how the word fear or awe would rightly apply to a hurricane. I’m afraid of hurricanes for a couple of reasons—I’m afraid of the power they have. They hold the power to upend my life completely, break my emotional state, leave me sleeping in my brother’s house, sweating, with his gun on the table next to me. I’m afraid when I think of what’s happened in the past, how Katrina completely altered not just my house but my home, my city, and it has never been the same, never will be the same.
I’m frightened by the sheer size of hurricanes, knowing that I’m in the middle of miles of devastation. And I’m frightened by their unpredictability, how one minute it can be pointed toward Texas, and the next minute I’m evacuating. And I’m frightened by them because I know I might die or be injured, and the people I love might be taken from me. But when you think about it, all of what I just said is as true of God as it is of a storm.
He has more power than a storm. He has the ability to upend your life entirely, he’s done that to me, and he’s broken me, emotionally. He is larger than a storm, and I do not know what he will do in my life. One minute I can be headed to medical school and the next I can be headed here to New Orleans to help rebuild. He is entirely beyond my control and rarely does what I want him or ask him to do. Our God is frightening. He speaks a word and a fig tree withers, another word and fire from heaven consumes a city, another word and the world ends. That’s terrifying. If you don’t fear God, you’re not understanding him rightly for who he is and what he is doing in the world and in our lives.
What you have to understand about fearing God is that he’s not trying to scare you, rather he is truly terrifying. Like the waters here in Louisiana, worthy of both fear and love—to quote Aaron Neville, Louisiana is “like a flower drinking from the pouring rain; the same rain trying to wash us away.” Or like the sun here, which illumines our lives and marks our days yet also is nearly unbearable. This is the way of truly vast things—they are wild, uncontrollable, dangerous, terrifying, deeply lovely and beautiful. Our God is “vast, he contains multitudes.” He is the real thing toward which all of our fears point.
So how can we possibly ask a being like that to keep watch with us? Because he is good. If he upends our lives it is because our lives needed to be upended. If he tears something we built down, it was something that needed to fall. We stand watch with the Lord, not because we are safe standing next to something so wild, but because if we are in danger with him it is a peril we are meant to face.
Fearing God is less like being safe at home, and more like a dangerous journey, pilgrim’s progress, going one step further away from home than you’ve ever gone before and not knowing exactly what lies ahead. It’s not safe, it’s not always happy, but it is deeply joyful and meaningful and good.
I would invite you, this morning, if you’ve never feared God, to consider his vast wilderness, and know that, even though he is not trying to make you afraid, he is truly terrifying. And you can admit to yourself that the world also contains many frightening things. But instead of fearing anything in the world, I would invite you to fear the God who created and in every way has overcome the world. He is worthy of both fear and love.
Fear God. That is the beginning of truly knowing him, which is the beginning of wisdom. Pray with me.