Proverbs, written to a young man, concludes its purpose statement—that its reader should gain wisdom—with this warning:
The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7
What should we infer from this? The Bible often tailors its warnings to our sinful tendencies; it doesn’t warn men against nagging, nor women against being doormats. Rather, it warns husbands against their tendency to despise and neglect their wives; wives against disrespecting and controlling their husbands.
It’s therefore safe to conclude from Proverbs 1:7 that young men tend to have trouble fearing of God. They are cocky, arrogant—and this false bravado is a sin they must overcome to be truly wise.
We know this first-hand, as well as from observation. But what is holy fear, and how can we spot the lack of it?
Proverbs mentions the fear of the Lord fourteen times, triangulating on a set of attributes and behaviors that we can look for in ourselves and others. We’re going to try to summarize them below. No doubt you can fill in some examples for yourself from the manosphere—including, sadly, the Christian manosphere…
- A man who fears the Lord gives and receives instruction and rebuke, so as to become more like his Father. By contrast, a man who does not fear God hates and scoffs at anything that requires him to admit error or change his ways. Thus he can never be intimately acquainted with God or his ways. He hasn’t the patience or inclination to diligently search out what is right and true; he wants only to indulge and vindicate himself.
- A man who fears the Lord hates evil—especially pride, arrogance, and perverted speech. They grieve him and he tries to mortify them. By contrast, a man who does not fear God is himself evil—he is boastful and disrespectful, hasty to judge others, and eager to involve himself in speaking ill of them.
- A man who fears the Lord is content to be made low because he has an inkling of how he compares to God. He seeks his true place before him, and so naturally raises up God’s greatness rather than his own. By contrast, a man who does not fear God seeks to establish superiority over everyone, including God.
- A man who fears the Lord trusts the Lord. Because his refuge is God, he is firm even in crisis or poverty, and his children can take refuge in him. He is a true patriarch, because he is a son of the True Patriarch. But a man who does not fear God is fearful of what people will do, even when circumstances seem very favorable. He frets for the future.
The central theme of Proverbs is Solomon teaching his son the trade of wise rulership—which is really a proxy for God teaching us how to be his sons by truly representing him. A son is one who reveals and represents his father, as Jesus taught us (John 5:19–20). This is our calling.
Deuteronomy 10:12–13 helps us understand how the fear of God ties into this calling of sonship, describing what God requires of us; namely:
To fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of Yahweh, which I am commanding you today for your good.
To fear God is to love him and to walk in his ways. It is to accurately represent him and rule for him. It is to be a true son as Adam was created to be, and Jesus was. But sin twists the desire to rule in God’s name into a craving to rule in our own name. And it starts young.
This is why Solomon warns his son to fear God. A young man must first choose to fear God before he can ever hope to be a good patriarch. He must turn from his own wisdom and strength to find true wisdom and strength in God. He must put to death self-rule in order to truly rule.
Sin is slippery. We justify these tendencies in ourselves, and want to think the best of others. We second-guess and err on the side of charity. Yet the Bible says to examine the fruit—and there are clear, simple fruits you can test to know which direction someone is moving in their fear of the Lord.
Fruit 1: what his speech says about his attitude to God
A terribly common way that we betray our lack of fear for God is in simple colloquialisms: using terms like “holy cow” and “holy crap.”
It’s so instinctive we don’t even think about it. But what do the seraphs continually sing before the heavenly throne?
Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of armies—his glory fills the whole earth! Isaiah 6:3
This holiness is, in effect, the devastating divinity of God. Isaiah is undone by this fearsome otherness.
In Exodus 20:7, God instructs us not to take up his name for a worthless cause. The NET, in its translation notes, observes, “The command prohibits use of the name for any idle, frivolous, or insincere purpose…The name is to be treated with reverence and respect because it is the name of the holy God.”
But what do we say about the thrice-holy God when we take this one attribute—his holiness—that defines him above all else…and use it as an adjective to describe excrement in a banal expression of mild surprise? Can there be any more vain, frivolous, or insincere purpose?
Jesus says we will give an account for every worthless or idle word we utter. No doubt there will be many, many of these for each of us. But let’s determine that they will not include the irreverencing and disrespecting of God’s very nature.
Fruit 2: what his attitude to God’s proxies says about his attitude to God
All fatherhood is from God. Ephesians 3:15 says that all patria derives from him. So how a young man treats older men is a basic acid test of how he treats God himself. Leviticus 19:32 makes the connection explicit:
You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man and fear your God.
So if you’re assessing a man—even yourself—the question is simple: does he flatten out age-status so as to treat his elders as his equals? Does he act like they’re his buddies or his bros? Or is he even a straight-up punk, treating them as inferiors? Does he presume to mock them or rebuke them (cf. 2 Ki 2:23–24; 1 Tim 5:1)?
Or does he show them honor?
How a man acts toward an older man in real life is how he acts toward God in his heart.