The Bible through the eyes of a philosopher, pt. 1

Proverbs 9:10: The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, not its end

Where you put the emphasis makes a great difference to the impact a sentence makes.

Let’s try this with Proverbs 9:10a:

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(1)    The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.

And now with a different emphasis:

(2)    The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.

Feel the difference?

Let’s try to spell it out. An emphasis highlights something of special importance, such that the thing emphasized and not its contrary should be the realized. Now for (1) the contrary of the emphasized part would be something like “a haughty or mocking attitude toward God”. One that ignores what God has to say, that does not take Him seriously. Putting the emphasis on the fear of the LORD part thus admonishes the reader to take God seriously.

Compare that to the case where the emphasis is on beginning. The contrary of “beginning” obviously is “end”. With this, the statement morphs into something like “The fear of the LORD is the beginning, but not the end, of wisdom”.

Now Christians typically take the verse with the emphasis of (1). They highlight the importance of heeding God’s word, and rightly so. The book of Proverbs itself is a prime example of this teaching, not least because the “fool”, one of the recurring types in Proverbs, should be understood not so much as a person lacking intelligence, but as someone who derides eternal wisdom, and pays for it.

I want to encourage peruse of a reading along the lines of (2). According to it, the fear of the LORD is just a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for wisdom (or knowledge, see Proverbs 1:7). A necessary condition for A is something that must be in place for A to be present, whereas a sufficient condition is one such that if it is present, then A will definitely be present too. For example, my saying “I promise x” is a sufficient condition for my having given a promise; once the words are spoken, the promise is given. By contrast, my having vocal chords (or the ability to write) is a necessary condition for my making a promise. I need that ability to make a promise, but having the ability itself doesn’t amount to having made a promise.

A reading along these lines suggests that by fearing God, we just step into the entrance hall of the house of wisdom, so to speak. To fully live wisdom, we must go beyond it (though never contrary to it). For example, we must use our minds, learn, discuss, reflect, gather experience and much more. If you think this blasphemous, please consider that the author of that section of Proverbs could have chosen another word instead, had he wanted to clearly communicate that wisdom consists in the fear of God. He could for example have said “The fear of the LORD is wisdom”. And further, think of wise things you practice in your life. Just to list a few examples:

a)    Clarify unclear points in someone’s report by asking before you proceed to make a judgment about it.

b)    Choosing a life partner whom you like and find attractive.

c)    Let a written piece rest for a while before revisiting and subsequently publishing it.

Or insert whatever you do that you consider wise. Did you learn all those things just by fearing God? You could argue that “fearing God” should be understood as “reading his Word with an open heart on a regular basis”. Fair enough, the Bible undoubtedly is a book from which one can learn theoretical as well as practical knowledge. And indeed, one could make a case for a) being a biblical teaching (Prov. 18.13). But the other two best practices are nowhere to be found in Scripture, at least not as injunctions. The Bible, as it were, presupposes at least b). Where did the biblical figures learn it, if not from Scripture or through a direct divine commandment? Practice c), finally, not even appears in Scripture; still it is (I know it) something prudent to do, bordering on wise.

Ask yourself the simple question, does everything I deem wise stem from the fear of God or Scripture (in terms of a commandment or injunction)? If not, it means that you have to agree that the fear of the LORD is only the beginning of wisdom. And so is Scripture-reading. In some inimitable way, the Bible both asserts its divine authority and points beyond itself, as in the verse under discussion here.

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