What mutual funds should I put into my retirement account?
Should I devote time to establishing a fall garden or just wait until next spring?
How many pieces of pizza for dinner if I’m half-heartedly trying to lose weight?
How do I counsel a woman who tells me she just left her alcoholic husband because she couldn’t bear having her children hear his awful profanity day after day?
I was in all of those situations Wednesday as I turned 42. Some of the questions were rather trivial, others quite serious. But I wanted answers. I wanted good answers, “right” answers, “practical” answers that I could follow to make my life turn out for the better.
That’s how most of us view wisdom: practical answers to make life work. The question is: So where can I find wisdom, where am I going to find the answers I want to make life work?
Job asked that same question four thousand years ago. His life wasn’t working very well. All of the answers Job thought would work had failed him miserably. Job was out of answers. So three friends came to him and gave him their answers on how to make his life work. Unfortunately, their answers were miserable. After seeing that his friends didn’t have wisdom, in chapter 28 Job forcefully presses the question, “Who has it? Where is wisdom to be found?”
We’re no different today. Although none of us are in as dire straits as Job was, life is still hard, and the answers we come up with ourselves end up failing us. Instead of only three friends, we have thousands: our bookstores and radio and television programs and internet sites are wall-to-wall fountains of wisdom. The book section is usually labeled “self-help” but it really means “I don’t have a clue how to make my life work but I’m hoping the guy that wrote this book does.” Every one of us is searching to find answers to make life work. Every one of us is with Job asking, “Where is wisdom?”
Job starts out his answer to where wisdom can be found by poetically describing the search for something else: precious metals and gems deep in the earth. Just like wisdom, all of these items are valuable, are beautiful, are hidden, and require strenuous effort to be uncovered.
Most of all, however, Job makes the point that gold, silver, and gems are “doable”; they can be found by man. As verse 1 starts out, “Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined.”
But in verse 12 Job lays out the contrast, “But where can wisdom be found?” This is no mere sterile academic question for Job at this point: his life is beyond desperation and beyond hope, and he frantically needs an answer. For Job, an answer to his suffering would be incredibly precious, more so than gold or silver or onyx or sapphire or pearls. But he concludes that true wisdom, an answer to his life that would truly make sense, cannot be found by human means. In verse 21 he says wisdom is “hidden from the eyes of all living.”
But in the depths of his despair, Job still realizes one truth: God has the answer. God has wisdom. Job stakes his belief on the fact that God “sees everything under the heavens.”— God has perfect knowledge of every circumstance. Job also realizes that God created all natural laws and processes by which the world operates: “he gave the wind its weight and apportioned the waters by measure.” Then Job concludes the chapter by telling us what God has commanded man in his search for wisdom:
Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.
This was not a mere pious platitude to Job: he had based his life on this command of God. In the first chapter God Himself described Job as “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” Job, even in his intense suffering, still acknowledged that wisdom was only found by fearing God.
So, what has Job told us about wisdom?
A. We need it
B. It is precious
C. Only God has it
D. You must fear God and turn away from evil to get it
So, only one question left: what does it mean to fear God?
Hmmm. I have found that often this is one of those questions like “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” You hear a lot of stilted, awkward answers about what it means to fear God that tend to be evasive, incomplete, or otherwise unsatisfying. And yet, the Bible tells us again and again that wisdom is found by fearing God. God first commands it here in Job, and again in Psalm 110, and three times in Proverbs.
Ok, so there’s no way around it— if we are to find wisdom, we must fear God, and that must mean we must learn what it means to fear God.
So what is this fear? The Hebrew word used in Job 28:28 is yirah. It is a straightforward word meaning “fear” in all of its contexts. And speaking of contexts, yirah is used 45 times in the Old Testament. Out of all the scary events and stories, how many times is this word for “fear” used specifically to describe a person’s reaction to God? Forty-two out of the forty-five.
Ok, so fear of God is pretty central here. That still doesn’t tell us exactly how we fear God though. The most common things I read run along the line “oh, that really means like an awe or respect for God.” Well, that would work fine except for the fact that there are Hebrew words for awe and respect: those words are not what the Bible uses forty two times to describe our desired posture toward God, the word fear is.
Another explanation is “Sure God wants us to fear Him, if we fear getting punished that will keep us from sin.” And to be sure, a person who lives in rebellion to God has good reason to fear the condemnation from the Righteous Judge.
But that can’t be what Job means, for he did not see God as condemning judge, but as the His redeemer and vindicator (Job 19:25). And that cannot be how God wishes us to view Him, for Romans 8 tells us “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
So what is the nature of this fear that God commands us to have? It is simply viewing God as He really is, to turn away from evil and turn toward a true vision of Him. Picture in your mind the following scene where God the Father reveals Himself to Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:1-5 ESV)
Now listen to how God the Son revealed Himself to the apostle John:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:12-17 ESV)
Finally, listen what happened when God the Spirit revealed Himself to the nation of Israel in smoke and thunder:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:16-19 ESV)
What is God really saying when he commands us to fear Him and turn from evil? He is saying “Turn away from your rebellion, and approach me as I am, the One who shakes mountains, the One whose voice is like thunder. I am greater than all Gods, and I will be worshipped as such. That is the starting point of your relationship with Me, and that is the beginning of wisdom.”
Do we do that? Do we fall down before our God? Or are we looking the other way in rebellion? Or looking to a cosmic Santa Claus in self-centeredness? Or just looking at God as the man upstairs, or any other way that doesn’t fully acknowledge His majesty and holiness? If we do not look at God and react with fear, then we aren’t looking at the true God. And if we aren’t looking at the true God, then we certainly aren’t in a position to understand who He is and what He is doing in our world and in our lives, which is what we are really talking about when we say we need wisdom.
The fear of God, looking upon Him in all His majesty and glory and power and holiness, is indeed the beginning of wisdom. But for the true Christian, it is not the end. The same Father whose robe fills the temple of heaven has adopted us as His children and loves to give us good gifts. The same Son whose eyes of fire caused John to fall down as one dead is also the Christ who died for our sins. And the same Spirit who shook Mount Sinai is the very one who dwells within our hearts.
So fear God today, see Him for all He is, pray to Him and worship Him and seek His face in spirit and in truth, for you cannot get wisdom, you cannot make life work, without the fear of the Lord.
Questions for Reflection:
Be honest: if you were offered the choice of “practical” answers of how to make your life “work” or to know God truly and deeply, which would you choose? Why would we be tempted to just have life work? Why should we choose otherwise?
Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom?
What is wrong with “practical” advice from books or seminars if the first step of fearing God hasn’t been taken, either by the teacher or by us?
How do you usually picture God in your prayers and in your life?
How can you fear God today?
For a downloadable teaching handout on this study go to the Downloads section.