No Fear, No Wisdom

Allow me to correct one of the most common misconceptions about biblical wisdom literature in general, and Proverbs in particular. People often believe Proverbs is this spiritually neutral collection of helpful insights. As if what was collected in this book were simple truisms that lay out on the ground for whoever happens to stumble across them. Maybe Solomon finds a few, maybe Confucius finds a few more, maybe Oprah finds the rest.  

No, that’s not how this book works. You don’t tap into this book’s insight without “fear of the LORD.” And who is this LORD? This capitol “L-O-R-D” LORD? Whenever you see the word, “LORD” all capitalized in your English translation, that’s your cue that God’s covenant name Yahweh has just been translated. So the path to true wisdom is not reverence for God in general, it’s reverence for Israel’s covenant-making God. The fear of “Yahweh” is the beginning of wisdom.  

If fearing God is the beginning of wisdom, then the refusal to fear God is the beginning of all folly. The essence of folly is trying to live in God’s world without conforming to God’s will. Now, the reality is that God is incredibly gracious. God-fearers and God-despisers live in the same world, created and sustained with the same symmetry and design embedded therein by the same God. The fool who says in his heart that there is no God still lives in God’s world. They are like the rebellious adolescent who hates his parents and declares, “I don’t need you!”—while living in his parents’ house, insured by his parents’ employer, sleeping on the bed his parents bought, eating food in the refrigerator his parents stock, bashing his parents online with a phone they provided using the internet services for which they pay. That’s the non-Christian—living in God’s world, receiving all his benefits while denying that he is, in fact, the benefactor.  

And this is why, on the surface level, some of the insights we receive from Proverbs may seem universally accessible to Christian and non-Christian alike. That’s because the Christian and the non-Christian both live in the world the Triune God created and sustains. But this does not mean that there is such a thing as neutral wisdom, because there is, in fact, no such thing as neutral anything. “All things were created through him and for him,” says Paul to the Colossians. No, the non-Christian who experiences the surface-level insights of Proverbs understands not its wisdom. That comes from covenantal allegiance and reverence. A rebellious teenager may have some insight on how to navigate a smartphone his parents bought him, but that doesn’t make him wise. He doesn’t understand that smartphone like the grateful teenager in right relationship with his parents—the teenager who understands his gift in relation to its giver. 

True wisdom—biblical wisdom—is not limited to the intellect. Lady Wisdom does not invite you to come into her house and lounge as you pontificate and speculate about the deep mysteries of the universe. She invites to think about those things deeply, but in the context of eating and drinking and laughing and sleeping and cleaning up the dishes and folding the laundry. Her lessons are not disembodied concepts one can entertain intellectually but never practice. Biblical wisdom is concerned with the whole person. Right thinking and right living are the two hands of a wise person.  

This means that there is a uniquely wise—a uniquely Christian—way of doing everything. When we talk with our spouses and kids, eat our meals, do the dishes, engage on social media, think about politics, date, spend our money, have sex with our spouse, receive insults, save for retirement—we should be thinking, “What is the uniquely wise—uniquely Christian—way of doing this?” 

Let’s just use one example. If we ask, “What is the uniquely Christian way of engaging on social media?” Lady wisdom answers, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:16) and “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.” (Proverbs 12:17) and “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly,” (14:29) and “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” (15:1) and “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18), and “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (17:9) and “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back (29:11).  

Lady Folly sings a very different tune. The most brazen form of Lady Folly’s message can be found in Proverbs 7. “You will get away with it. You will enjoy it. Live life with no regrets—today, gratify your desires.” But this is not her only speech. Notice that the heart of her strategy is to expose and exploit your sinful desires—she affirms you in your folly. Which means much deeper than the explicit temptation to disobey is the idolatry of self. Sometimes she focuses on the ends—i.e., break this law of God’s because you deserve it. And sometimes she focuses on the means with not explicitly mentioning the end—i.e., “you deserve everything.” But starting there cannot but lead to the same deathly end. 

It is therefore important that we learn to recognize the tone of Lady Folly’s voice in whatever context we happen to find ourselves in. Her invitations persist as long as we live in this world. And she borrows the lips of many a sap. Her words were found on the lips of Satan with the question, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” and in his statement, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:1b, 4b-5). You can hear her voice today still. She asks questions like:  

Does not God simply want you to be happy? 

Did not God make you this way? 

Is this not your body? 

Is this not freedom? 

Is this not your choice? 

Ought you not cut out toxic people? 

Ought you not prioritize self-care? If you don’t who will? 

Ought you not go, girl? 

Are you not your own master? 

This is not a “gotcha,” we ought not gloat. This is serious business, and Lady Folly has no shortage of party guests, even among those who follow Christ. Don’t presume that you are beyond succumbing to her invitations just because you may reject outright these explicit proverbs of Folly. She invites you implicitly and undercover. She does so in the Rom-Com that depicts when the fornicating couple who overcomes all odds to find true love—when prudence is thrown to the wind, marriages are destroyed, God’s law is despised, bridges are burned, but you are expected to celebrate because the two guilty parties found true happiness. She offers her invitation to our children in every animated movie that sells the lie that the ultimate vice is self-denial, and the ultimate virtue is to “follow one’s heart.” She invites in the deep recesses of your mind when you harbor resentment for your spouse for failing to recognize your all-importance. She’s sneaky, and you must learn to recognize her invitations for what they are. 

Enter the Christ. The road forks at Jesus, friends. To reject Jesus is to reject wisdom. It is an oxymoron to be wise, according to biblical standards, and persist in refusal to submit to Jesus. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and we fear God through Jesus. Lady Wisdom invites to come her way, fearing God, and Jesus tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). Just listen to how the personification of God’s wisdom is described in Proverbs 8 and try not to think about John 1. Lady Wisdom is a poetic personification of God’s wisdom—but all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. You cannot get God’s wisdom without coming to Jesus.