GOD-FEARING WISDOM & LOVE
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
"She came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here."
There is a scene in the TV series The Tudors where a young King Henry VIII is discussing his reign as monarch with the devout humanist scholar, Thomas More. They are talking about a book which had recently been published, Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (1513), a book which, over the centuries, has become a classic. Henry turns to More and asks him what he thinks about Machiavelli's question whether it is better for a king to be feared or loved. More thought it better for a king to be loved, but Henry felt differently and the story of his reign reflects the outcome of his choice. Henry desperately wanted to be loved, but he believed that in order to rule, his subjects, his friends, his wives and the nobility had to fear him. This made it increasingly difficult for him to love them or them to truly love him, for fear breeds fear. If others fear you, you begin to fear them.
So why do the prophets of Israel warn the nations that if they do not fear the Lord and obey his commands they will be severely punished? And is this the reason why the sages of Israel tell us that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?" Is God a despot like King Henry, who in turn may have modelled his reign on his own fear of God's punishment for his sins. Is it only out of fear that we obey God's commandments? And is it therefore not wise to do so? Certainly King Henry's subjects thought it wise and prudent not to go against his will! But such fear casts out love. You can't love those you fear.
During the week I came across a brief comment on the web written by a Palestinian Canadian, Samah Sabawi entitled "Red shirt, blue jeans and little sneakers," about the little refugee boy, Aylan Kurdi, who was washed up dead on the shores of the Mediterranean last week:
"Red shirt. Blue jeans. Little sneakers. Not on a boat of asylum seekers. Not holding the hand of a hijab wearing mother. Not in the embrace of a brown skinned father. Not in the company of anyone that the world can demonize. Face down in the sand. With his eyes eternally shut he pries open our eyes. He looks familiar, like a son, a grandson, a nephew, a toddler in the playground. He looks like that kid at the grocery store who always manages to stare us down. Red shirt. Blue jeans. Little sneakers. No papers, no visa, no I.D. A victim of our policy. The wars we started over there have come to haunt us here. The voices we muted for so long have suddenly become loud and clear. A picture is worth a thousand words, but how many words do we need to erase our fear of the other? How many words does it take to affirm humanity?"
Can you really love God if you fear God? Can you really love others, including your neighbour and enemy, if you fear them? So what does the "fear of the Lord" really mean?
The text comes from the book of Proverbs, part of the Wisdom literature in the OT along with Ecclesiastes, Job, Ecclesiasticus (in the Apocrypha) and some of the Psalms. Wisdom in the OT is traditionally associated with King Solomon, but whoever the Hebrew sages were, their writings embody the accumulated wisdom of generations who practiced obedience to God's law in the course of their daily life. Their teaching is all about how to live wisely whether as kings or commoners, shopkeepers or money-lenders, children or old people, husbands or wives. And, in handing on this practical wisdom, they distinguished between those who are wise and those foolish.
Fools, they tell us, are, aggressive, scornful, dishonest but above all they are arrogant, like rulers who flaunt their riches and power. Such fools think that they will get away with their disdain for others and for justice as long as they are not found out! When kings and rulers, presidents and politicians arrogantly disregard their accountability before God and those they rule, they make bad decisions and begin to act foolishly. It seems as if those the gods wish to destroy, they not only make them mad, they also make them act like fools. And the same is true for the rest of us whoever we may be. But, still, is "fear of the Lord" really the basis for us doing what is right? After all, why does the NT teach us that love casts out fear if we are to fear the Lord? Or can fear take different forms?
Certainly, fear helps us to avoid danger, as when we fear heights or cobras, or work harder for fear of failing an examination, or taking precautions to prevent us falling ill. This helps us begin to grasp what the sages meant when they spoke of the fear of the Lord. It is not so much the fear of God punishing us if we do wrong, but acting responsibly aware of the consequences of acting foolishly. Such fear, to put it more positively, is reverence for the sacred, and respect for creation and other people. To "fear the Lord" implies, as the prophets remind us, caring for the poor, for widows and orphans, the stranger and the refugee. Fear understood in this sense is not the opposite or contradiction of love, but the recognition that love is not cheap, it is not, as St. Paul puts it, "boastful or arrogant," nor does it "rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth." In other words, "fear of the Lord" means that love has a moral core. It is not the fear which regards God as the enemy, an oppressive ruler or vindictive judge, the opposite of loving God, but recognising that love for God and others is more than a warm feeling, it is a commitment that can be costly. Marriages do not last long if they are based only on warm feelings we confuse with love. Without respect for the other, being there for each other in sickness and in health, there is no love.
In a time where there is an explosion of knowledge, but too little wisdom; when we know how to make war, but cannot make peace; when we can land people on the moon but struggle to find space for refugees; when we can build skyscrapers, but cannot build good houses for the poor; when we can transplant hearts and kidneys, but cannot eradicate hunger; when we have much knowledge, but little wisdom, we need to acknowledge how, despite all our knowledge we are acting like fools, and putting the world at risk. We need to learn again to fear the Lord and affirm our humanity as we respect that of others. For the "fear of the Lord" is an injunction to reverence and respect.
But mark this, it is only the beginning of wisdom, it is not its goal or end. It prepares the way for love, it makes love possible, but it is not the whole of love. It gives love a moral depth, but love is more than morality or obedience, it is joy and beauty, it is compassion and kindness, it is devotion and passion, it is worship of God and the embrace of the other. Reverence for God and respect for the other is the beginning of wisdom," but love is its goal. And this is the wisdom of Jesus which is greater than that of Solomon, the wisdom that knows that God is love, that such love casts our fear because it is unconditional, forgiving and redemptive.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 10 September 2015