THE BEGINNING OF KNOWLEDGE
Adapted from sermon preached on evening of 23 July 2000


“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7).


What is the beginning of knowledge? Some say the beginning of knowledge is in the mother’s womb, and so they “hot house” the baby. Others think that it is the nursery or kindergarten, and so they object to teaching a child too early. Some purists would say that the beginning of true knowledge is found only in the university where there is independent thinking. The idealist may say: the beginning of knowledge is to know where to find it; or to know who to learn it from; and to know how to ask questions. The pragmatist may say: the beginning of knowledge is to do it. These are the philosophical sentiments of the world on the beginning of knowledge. There may be some subjective truth in each of these statements. We say subjective truth because the knowledge referred to in these statements are all subjective and significant only in a limited sense.


But what about knowledge that is perpetually and universally true and meaningful? The knowledge that the world talks about changes with time, or changes in value over time. But unlike the world, we know that we will live forever, and so we should be concerned with knowledge that will last not just a lifetime, but knowledge that we will still find useful in eternity.


What is the beginning or foundation of this knowledge? The wisest man, who ever live in this world, wrote under inspiration from God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7a).


The fear of the LORD does not necessarily refer to being afraid of God, though the impenitent sinner ought to be afraid of Him. In any case, considered apart from the feeling of dread, it refers to having: (1) a steadfast assurance that God exists and that He is a holy God; (2) an abiding and reverent sense of the presence of God in our lives; and (3) a sense of accountability towards God and a desire to please Him. To fear God is to live coram Deo, i.e., to live before the face of God. To fear God is to live with the apprehension that God is watching over us in everything we think, do or say; and that He is intimately concerned with our lives, and will bring all things to judgment.


What then, are the implications of Solomon’s assertion: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge?” Let me suggest three:

The Fear of the LORD is the Beginning
of Useful Knowledge

Useful knowledge is simply knowledge that translates to life. Knowledge that does not eventually translate to life is ultimately useless. Let me illustrate: Most of us spent some years in school: some spent more years, some spent less. Some of us are still in school. What useful knowledge do you or did you acquire in school? If you are in school, it may be hard for you to answer because everything taught is important: you need to know them to pass your examinations. But ask someone who has been out working for a while: “How much of what you learned in school is directly applicable to your work?” You will quickly realise that, for most people, the percentage of useful knowledge acquired in school is actually very small. Most of us know this fact by experience. How many of us even remember the theories of Calculus we learned in school? When we were learning them, they were useful for training our minds and for passing examinations. But how many of us have clean forgotten all that we learned simply because they are no longer useful?


Now, we know that the knowledge of religion or divinity is very important. But how useful is it by itself? Knowledge of spiritual things that does not translate into life is the same as dead faith. Dead faith is simply head knowledge. The Scripture describes dead faith thus: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (Jas 2:19–20). Dead faith, or mere head knowledge, is simply faith without works. Knowledge that is not based on genuine, reverential fear of God would only remain in the head, and not translate to genuine faith. The devils know much more than we do, yet the knowledge is useless for them because they have no loving fear for God.


Unless our minds are possessed with a holy reverence of God, and every of our thoughts are brought into captive obedience to God, we will have knowledge that remains in the head only. Unless we fear God, all the knowledge that we have about theology will be useless for us, except to condemn us: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Lk 12:48).


The fear of the LORD is the beginning of useful knowledge. Beloved, are you increasing in knowledge without a fear of the LORD? Realise that that is, in fact, practical atheism: knowing and believing, but not being transformed by the renewing of your mind. What is the use of knowing much theology, but having no fear of God?


Beloved? Do you have a fear of God? Let me give you a simple test: If you are unsure if a certain thing in your life is pleasing to God, do you seek to err on the safe side or do you rather err on the convenient side? Let me give you an example. If you are not sure whether God would be pleased with you for going to a wedding dinner on the Sabbath day so that you have to miss the evening worship, then would you go for the dinner any way? If you fear the Lord, you will take seriously the words of the Apostle Paul, that whatever is not of faith is sin.

The Fear of the LORD is the Beginning of
Knowing Yourself and Knowing Christ

Let me show you three instances in the Scripture to prove this to be the case.


First
, take the case of Moses when he met God in the bush that burned but was not consumed. It was there that God revealed to Moses that His name is “I AM;” for when Moses asked Him for His name so that he could tell the children of Israel who sent him, He said: “I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (Ex 3:14).


Now, notice that the word ‘LORD’ in Proverbs 1:7 is all in capitals. This means that in the Hebrew, in which this proverb was originally written, the word used is not the word adonai which means ‘ruler’ or ‘master.’ It is rather, the name of God—Yahweh or Jehovah (Hebrew, yhwh). This name of God has a meaning. It means “HE IS.” It is the third person form of “I AM.” It is a name which tells us that Jehovah is the alone self-existent Creator and Governor of all things. Everything in the world is created by God. God alone is not created.


What was the first thing that God taught Moses when He met him at the burning bush? It was the fear of the LORD: for He told Moses, “Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Ex 3:5). Moses was being taught that God is holy and is to be feared and reverenced because He is holy.


What was Moses’ first response to God when He instructed him to lead His people out? It was “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex 3:11). Of course, Moses wasn’t exactly asking the Lord who he was. He was acknowledging his weakness and nothingness. Moses, who was once a proud and powerful Egyptian prince, had come to see how worthless he was by himself.


But it was when he knew his weakness that the power of Christ could rest upon him. The words of the Apostle Paul would apply to Moses too: “For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10). For Moses, the fear of the LORD was the beginning of knowing himself and knowing Christ, so that he esteemed the reproach of Christ to be greater riches than the treasures of Egypt (Heb 11:26).


Secondly
, take the case of Isaiah. In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah was in the temple, and he saw a vision of Jehovah sitting on the throne. He saw the seraphims ministering unto the Lord and crying to one another: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:3).


What was Isaiah’s first response to this awesome vision? It was: “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa 6:5). Do you not see how the fear of Jehovah gave way to Isaiah’s knowing himself to be a vile sinner? It was then that one of the seraphims took a live coal and touched his lips with it and said: “thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isa 6:7). What is this act symbolic of, but Christ taking his sin away. In fact, in John 12:41, we are told that the prophet Isaiah saw the glory of Christ in that vision. For Isaiah, then, the fear of the LORD was also the beginning of knowing himself and knowing Christ.


Thirdly
, take the case of Peter in Luke 5, in the New Testament. Now, take note that the “I AM” or Jehovah in the Old Testament is the Christ of the New Testament. When the Old Testament was translated to Greek before Christ was born, what word did the Alexandrian scholars use to translate the word Jehovah? It was kurios, which is translated ‘Lord’ in the English. When Christ was born and the Gospel account was written, what word did they use to describe Christ? Again, it was kurios! The Lord Jesus, moreover, affirmed that He is the “I AM.” On one occasion, when He was speaking to the Jews, He told them: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). Immediately the Jews tried to stone Him for blasphemy because they knew that He was claiming to be Jehovah.


Now, in our account in Luke 5, the Lord Jesus told Peter to launch out into the deep. Peter was obviously sceptical. He told the Lord: “Master (Greek,epistatês), we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net” (Lk 5:5). What happened when the net was lowered? They inclosed such a great multitude of fishes that the net began to break and when they loaded the fishes on the boats, the two boats almost sank! Peter was astounded. He knew then that the Lord Jesus was no ordinary leader or rabbi. “He fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord (kurios)” (Lk 5:8). What kind of statement is this? It is a statement of one who knows the fear of the LORD. Peter saw there and then that Jesus is the Lord God Omnipotent. And for the first time since he met the Lord Jesus, he experienced the fear of the LORD. He saw his nakedness and sin, and an awesome fear pierced his soul as he crumbled to his knees: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For the Apostle Peter, then, the fear of the LORD was the beginning of knowing himself and knowing Christ.


Beloved, do you have a fear of the LORD? You will never know yourself or know Christ until you know the fear of the LORD. You cannot know Christ but that you know yourself to be a horrible sinner having nothing, and deserving nothing but damnation. You cannot know Christ unless you know that you are hopeless without Him. But how can you know yourself to be hopeless but that you must get it into your mind that if God be God, then He must be perfectly holy and perfectly just, and that one day He will call you to account for your sin. Think about that. You do not really believe that God exists until you understand that He must be holy and just.

The Fear of the LORD is the Beginning
of Life Eternal

Since the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowing self and knowing Christ, the fear of the LORD must also be the beginning of life eternal. Why? Because the Lord defined eternal life this way: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (Jn 17:3). Let me put it this way: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge that will never loose its currency and that is helpful forever. If you do not have the fear of the LORD, you will not know Christ, and all the knowledge you acquire in a lifetime will not be of any use to you. Yes, your soul will live on, but in eternal torment. Yes, you will remember what knowledge you acquired while on earth. But no, your memory and knowledge is not going to help you when you are in hell. Rather, they will cause your conscience to burn ever so painfully. But if you have the fear of the LORD and know Christ, then you will have life everlasting and life eternal, and the things that you remember from your earthly sojourn will give you occasions to praise the Lord.


With this in mind, let me address myself particularly now to you if you are not a Christian. If you are not a Christian, you may not understand what it is to love God. But to some extent you can fear the Lord. And I would suggest to you that your only hope is to fear the Lord. Why? Because unless you fear the Lord, you will continue to live your life as you like. You will continue to head happily on the broad road that leads to damnation. But let me appeal to you with four reasons why you should fear the Lord.


Firstly
, you should fear the Lord because God is a holy and just God. He hates sin, and He will punish every sin. This was the reason why Christ came to live and to die. He came to represent His children, to take away their sin by being punished on their behalf. God punished Him for the sin of those who trust in Him, that they may have life everlasting. If you persist in unbelief, one day you will have to pay for your sin. The Bible tells us that if you have to pay for your own sin, it has to be eternal death in hell.


Secondly
, you should fear the Lord because your life is in the hand of God. Do you not know that God may require your life today? I am not trying to scare you, but this is a fact. None of us know how long more we will live. None of us know when we will die. Our lives are in the hand of God. He can require it of us at any time. If you do not fear the Lord today, you will fear Him in that day when you die because you will have to answer for your life. And woe are you if you have to face God without Christ. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God (cf. Heb 10:31). Yes, whatever you may think, if you do not know Jesus Christ, you will not have a happy feeling when you stand before God to be judged. You will cringe with fear. You may fall down to your knees and beg for pardon, but it would be too late, because you have chosen to ignore Him and refused to believe Him when you still have the opportunity to do so.


Thirdly
, you should fear God because commonsense tells you that you should fear Him. Commonsense would tell you that there is nothing for you to loose if you live according to the fear of God. You see, if ultimately there is no God, then life is absolutely meaningless, and it makes absolutely no difference how you lived it. Then, there is nothing to loose since it would make no difference whether you existed at all. What difference would there be between an earthworm and man if God does not exist? Earthworm and man are made of exactly the same substance. If you believe that there is no God, you will probably believe that there is no soul, and when you die you rot in the earth the same way as a dead earthworm. But if God exists,—and no doubt He does,— then you have everything to loose if you do not know Him or fear Him. For if that is the case, the minute you die you will face the wrath of the righteous and holy God forever. It is foolish to live without a fear of God. This is why the Proverbs 1:7 ends with “but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The fool says in his heart that there is no God (Ps 14:1).


Fourthly
, you should fear God because there is hope for those who fear the Lord. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. It is the beginning of knowing yourself and knowing Christ. If you remain proud and think that you know what to do without the instruction from the Word of God, then there will be no hope for you. If you fear God and humble yourself and seek to know Christ more and more by reading the Bible and hearing sermons, and repenting of your sin, and believing and embracing Christ as your Saviour and Lord, then you have great hope of truly knowing Christ and being found with Him in Paradise one day.

Conclusion

Do you have the fear of the LORD? If you truly fear the Lord, you will no longer live as you like, but you will live according to what the Word of God teaches. You will want to learn more and more about Christ, whether you know yourself to be a Christian or not. You will not allow any opportunity to know Christ better slip by because you are afraid to loose the blessing that might be installed for you: the blessing of knowing Christ.


JJ Lim