THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM

alternate textAll of us love to quote the verse from Mishleh 9:10, the first part of which is repeated in Mishleh 1:7 and Tehillim 111:10: “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Set-apart One is understanding.” Question is: What exactly is meant by the expression “the fear of Yahweh” and in what sense is it the beginning of wisdom? Obviously, there must be some kind of connection between “fear” and “wisdom” but I am sure that not many will claim that they know exactly what this connection is and how something that seems so negative (fear) can be the origin of something so positive (wisdom). Let us look at the words “The fear of Yahweh”. Whose fear is this? Ours or Yahweh’s? Is this “fear” something that originates with us or with Yahweh? If I am not mistaken, the majority of us have always assumed that this fear is something that should come out of our own innermost being. A kind of reverence, a kind of awe, a kind of respect towards the Almighty that will put us in the proper frame of mind to be able to learn more about true wisdom. This means that in our normal understanding of the expression “the fear of Yahweh”, we replace the “of” with something else and we understand it to mean something like: “the fear towards Yahweh” or “the fear concerning Yahweh” or “the fear unto Yahweh”.

But is this the correct way of understanding the expression “the fear of Yahweh” – especially when one looks at it from a Hebrew perspective? In Hebrew this expression consists only of two words – “Yir’at Yahweh”. In Hebrew, when two nouns are written next to each other in this way, they form a singular unit in which the idea is clearly conveyed that the first belongs to the second. Let us look at a number of examples of similar expressions in Hebrew:

The voice of Yahweh (Gen 3:8)
The name of Yahweh (Gen 4:26)
The eyes of Yahweh (Gen 6:8)
The word of Yahweh (Gen 15:4)
The way of Yahweh (Gen 18:19)
The blessing of Yahweh (Gen 39:5)
The displeasure of Yahweh (Ex 4:14)
The hand of Yahweh (Ex 9:4)
The Torah of Yahweh (Ex 13:9)
The deliverance of Yahweh (Ex 14:13)
The esteem of Yahweh (Ex 16:7)
The Sabbath of Yahweh (Ex 16:25)

In all of these examples it is clear that the first entity or quality belongs to the second. Why do we treat “the fear of Yahweh” differently and assume that “fear” is not something that belongs to Yahweh, but to us? Maybe we make this assumption because we have never truly understood the meaning of the word “fear”. We have a Westernized idea of “fear” of a kind of response, or a kind of emotion that is triggered when one is exposed to something or someone that is fearsome and awe-inspiring!

The root word for “fear” in Hebrew is “yara” (ירא) and it is related to the word “yarah” meaning “to flow (as water)” (ירה). This word forms the basis of the word “Torah” and gives the idea of the Torah as teachings flowing from the mouth of Yahweh, as water flows down a river. The Hebrew name of the most well known river in Israel, the Jordan, is “Yarden” and the fact that the first part of this word corresponds with the first part of the word “yarah” (which means “to flow”) is no coincidence.

All of this brings us back to the proper meaning of the expression “the fear of Yahweh”. Firstly, we should understand this as something that originates with Yahweh, and not with ourselves. It is something that flows out of his innermost being, not ours, something that is saturated with his character and his greatness, something that will be of great help to anyone who desires to live in accordance with the wisdom that is from above, something that should not be seen as “fear” in the sense of being afraid. This does not mean that “yara” never has a negative connotation and should never be translated with the word “fear”. This very word was used when Avraham was afraid to admit that Sarah was his wife; and when the people of Yisraél were afraid of the Egyptian army, just before they crossed the Red sea, and in many other situations where individuals or nations where afraid of some form of danger. Without any doubt, there are times when “yara” is something negative and can only be translated with the word “fear”.

There are times, however, when “yara” is something positive, a quality that is noble and life-changing, because it flows from the innermost being of the Almighty, from the most set-apart place of the presence of the Creator where a human being is privileged to experience something of the excellence and splendour of the Almighty. We see a wonderful example of this in Yaakov’s encounter with Yahweh at the place that he subsequently called Bet-El (Gen 28). I have never had the privilege of visiting Bet-El, even though I tried to do so more than once during my visits to Israel. I received a message from Francois Havenga in Israel this week, saying that he had visited Bet-El and that he had prayed for the same kind of revelation of truth that our ancient fathers have experienced there.

According to Bereshit (Gen) 12, Bet-El was the first place where Avraham called upon the Name of Yahweh. Many years later, at the very same place, Avraham’s grandson, Yaakov, also called upon the Name of Yahweh, after Yahweh had revealed Himself in a dream, saying to Yaakov: “I am Yahweh, Elohim of Avraham and Elohim of Yitzchak.” Yaakov’s response to this revelation is worth looking into. In Bereshit 28:17 we read these words: “He was afraid (word derived from “yara”- ירא) and said, ‘How awesome (word derived from “yara”- ירא) is this place! This is none other than the house of Elohim, and this is the gate of the heavens!’” Perhaps this is why we sometimes say that someone was overcome with fear. This is a kind of fear that came from the outside, it came from what Yaakov had just seen and heard and experienced. It is the kind of fear that we all need in our lives – that wonder and amazement and admiration that flows into us from outside and has the ability to completely overwhelm the person on the receiving end.

To fear Yahweh, plainly because He is capable of bringing judgment and punishment upon you, and knowing that your own life is not in order and in desperate need of redemption, must be a terrible kind of fear to live with. To fear Yahweh, on the other hand, because you have had an encounter with Him, experienced something of his power and his greatness and sensed something of his character and his teachings and his principles flowing into your life, is a kind of fear definitely worth looking and longing for. Only when someone has had this kind of encounter with the Almighty, can he or she begin to understand and to practice wisdom. Now, for the first time really, can one appreciate and pursue wisdom – it all began with that moment of meeting face to face with the One who cannot be compared to anyone or anything else known to us in this world.

Next time, when we remind each other that wisdom begins with the fear of Yahweh, let us remember that we do not have to put in all the effort in the world and imagine or work or talk ourselves into the fear of Yahweh. No, all we have to do is to seek after Yahweh. All we have to do is to stop neglecting that nagging voice that urges us continuously to go after Yahweh. When we do that, when we become serious with the business of seeking after Yahweh with all our hearts, it won’t be long before we come to our Bet-El, our House of Elohim, our meeting place with the Almighty. And when that happens, we will be overpowered by the fear of Yahweh and we will begin to experience an ongoing flow of wisdom and knowledge and revelation, originating from Yahweh Himself and filling our lives to the full.

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