‘Fear of God / Yahweh’ is a consistent theme of wisdom literature. Proverbs famously asserts, “Fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). But there seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what scripture means when it exhorts us to fear God.
With or Without God
In my opinion, the easiest way to understand the concept of fearing God is to think about what it looks like not to fear God. Someone who does not fear God has no concern for accountability for actions. To fear God is to live with a healthy sense that we will have to give account for our actions. As Ecclesiastes says in summing up the message of the book: The very essence of what it means to be human is to fear God and keep his commands (Ecc 12:13-14). Going through life with no regard for the fact that God cares about how we live our lives is what it means to live without fear of God. However, the one who fears God is consistently cognizant of the fact that God is present, watching, and concerned for how we represent him in the world.
Fear of the Lord
The word translated ‘fear’ can run the gamut from respect all the way to outright pee your pants horror and it is difficult to come up with a direct English translation. Most uses of the phrase in the Old Testament have a positive spin, but some scholars believe there are instances where fear of God is a negative, particularly in Ecclesiastes 3:14. Although the phrase ‘fear of God’ is usually positive, there are times when God tells people not to fear him, as when Yahweh appears to Isaac (Gen 26:24). This indicates that when the phrase ‘fear of God/Yahweh’ is used the idea is not one of dread or horror since this is what God attempts to alleviate when he says, “Do not fear.”
Fear Leads to Wisdom
The important thing is not the exact meaning of fear, but the object of the fear: Yahweh.
To fear God is to realize our creatureliness in light of the sovereignty of Yahweh over all his creation. Fear of God leads to wisdom simply because our realization that we are creatures utterly dependent on God naturally results in seeking him, the source of wisdom and understanding.