The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
Fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov 1:7, ESV).
This verse describes the first step on the path of wisdom. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” We must begin by fearing the Lord. So far, so good.
But what does it mean to fear the Lord? Does it mean to reverence the Lord? Or does it mean to obey him? Or does it mean to be afraid of him? How should we understand the term “fear” in this verse?
The poetry here gives us a lot of help. Do you remember our brief discussion of parallelism (more here)? I told you it would come in handy later, and now is the time. In this verse, we have an example of two lines that say opposite things. So, in order to help us interpret the first line, let’s look at the second line: “fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The beginning of knowledge in the first line appears to be parallel to wisdom and instruction in the second line. That much quickly makes sense.
That leaves us with fools despise contrasted with the fear of the LORD, so fearing the Lord must mean that I don’t despise wisdom or instruction! How does that work?
Let’s consider this further. Why would a fool despise wisdom and instruction? Because he thinks he doesn’t need it. Why doesn’t he need it? Because he thinks he’s already smart enough. He doesn’t need anyone (especially the Lord) telling him what to do. He’s doing just fine on his own. As the fellow once sang, “I did it my way!”
The wise person, on the other hand, knows he isn’t wise enough yet. There’s always more room for growth, so he loves wisdom and instruction. He wants feedback. He welcomes constructive criticism. He delights in correction. Therefore he has the humility and faith to look for a true source of wisdom (which will not be himself). Ultimately, he knows that the only real source of this much-needed wisdom is God, who stores up wisdom and doles it out to the upright who walk in integrity (see Prov 2:6-7). Therefore, fearing the Lord means resting in God and trusting that he alone is wise.