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“The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” ~Proverbs 9:10, NIV

There’s that point in your study of the Bible when you are reading Proverbs and you start to notice that “wisdom” is one of the main topics of the book, and that it continues to be brought up again and again. At least, that happened to me.

I was trying to figure out what true wisdom actually is. How, I wondered, can a non-believer be considered wise? Why was Solomon the wisest man on earth? How do I start moving in that direction? The answer was right in front of me, and in fact if at the time I was reading the Bible from beginning to end, I had just read the answer a couple of books earlier. It was right there, in the book of….Job?

Job is an oft-ignored book in the old testament that at first read can seem quite dry and boring. Yes, there’s some interesting stuff that happens at the beginning because we get a glimpse of what goes on in the heavenly realms, but beyond that, it’s just a bunch of guys arguing with a man who lost everything…and getting nowhere. I never looked forward to having to go through those long-winded speeches.

About a month ago, however, I finally decided to take the book seriously. There are a couple reasons I did this, one being that I had somewhat recently taken interest in the book because it seemed to me like it gave some information on why bad things happen to people. I was all prepared to write a post on just that, and I probably will eventually. But then I discovered that “bad things happening to people” was not the main point of the book. Not even close.

The flow of the story is as follows: Job is a righteous and blameless man, and Satan wants to prove to God that Job is only that way because of his many material blessings. God agrees to let Satan cause tragedy after tragedy to fall on Job and his household. The end result is that four of Job’s friends come to “comfort” him, resulting in an argument that spans over 30 chapters and during which no one is particularly happy or pleasant. There are three very interesting questions that arise after you read the book for the first time:

  1. Job was “blameless” before God sent disasters on him. Somehow he sins during the course of the argument, because at the end God rebukes him. What did Job say that was wrong?
  2. Job’s three older friends sin during the course of the argument, because God rebukes them at the end. What did they say that was wrong?
  3. Elihu, the young man who finally gets a chance to talk at the end, is not rebuked by God. What did he say that was right (or at least, “ok”)?

A “Brief” Walkthrough

One of the things I did when studying Job was write a short summary of each chapter. This helped to see the point of each person’s argument, since there’s a lot of poetry and extra words beyond the main points they are trying to convey. The result is fascinating (note that there is some HEAVY paraphrasing and content that is definitely not said by anyone in the book):

Job 1: Job was blameless and upright. Satan starts bringing disasters on Job, but Job continues to praise God even though he loses everything.
Job 2: His wife tries to get him to curse God after Satan inflicts Job’s body with sores. In all this, Job does not sin.

Job 3: Job’s friends show up. Job says, “I should never have been born.”
Job 4: Eliphaz (friend #1) indirectly accuses Job of sin. He mentions an encounter with a spirit that uttered something to Eliphaz. Was it a good or evil spirit? More on this later…
Job 5: Eliphaz directly accuses Job of sin. He states that if Job turns from his ways and seeks God, he will be restored.
Job 6: Job says, “Owch! Tell me what I did wrong?”
Job 7: Job acknowledges that mortals live hard lives, but then he starts to question God and why he did what he did, since Job is blameless and had no need to be punished.
Job 8: Bildad (friend #2) replies. He does not necessarily seem to accuse Job, he just encourages him to seek God. He says that God will listen because Job is blameless.
Job 9: Job: ‘Well of course I’m blameless! But how can a mortal prove his innocence to God? You know what? It doesn’t matter. God simply destroys both the righteous and the wicked.” Job still acknowledges that he would totally lose in any argument with God, because of how powerful God is and what he has made.
Job 10: Job changes his tone and seems to want to actually have that argument with God to prove his innocence. He also states that God oppresses the righteous but smiles on the wicked, in contrast to what he said in chapter 9. Is this a pendulum swing by an emotional man who’s going through some very hard times?

Job 11: Zophar (friend #3) is angry with Job’s statements and accuses him of sinning, saying “Turn from your ways and you’ll be restored!”
Job 12: Job seems to change his tone so as to show that he still has awe for God, stating that God controls everything. He is also mad at his friends (or at least at Zophar).
Job 13: Job gets really angry and asks his friends and God to prove his sin, getting very blunt in his speech.
Job 14: In short, Job says, “Life is tough.”
Job 15: Eliphaz now accuses Job of sinning in his previous response when he challenged God. “The wicked get what they deserve, Job!”
Job 16: Job says: “Woe is me! The wicked (you guys!) surround me and I have no hope!”
Job 17: Job continues to moan that he is surrounded by mockers, very likely meaning his friends.
Job 18: Bildad seems offended, saying “The wicked will perish!”.
Job 19: Job says, “Leave me alone. God has destroyed me, must my friends and relatives destroy me too? Oh how I wish my words were written on a scroll so they could be remembered!” Wish GRANTED.
Job 20: Zophar is offended. He restates that the wicked will be destroyed.

Job 21: Job is angry now. “Not true! The wicked are never punished when they deserve it. I know what you’re going to say yet again, that I was punished, which is proof that I am wicked. But the wicked actually get away with whatever they want, so your argument is invalid!”
Job 22: Eliphaz says, “You have indeed sinned. Repent!”
Job 23: Job says, “If only I could make my case before God! When my testing is complete, I will come out of it like gold.”
Job 24: Job says, “The wicked prosper for awhile, but then they are destroyed eventually.”
Job 25: Bildad says, “How can a mortal be righteous before God?”
Job 26: Job: “Thanks a lot, bro. That was SUCH a helpful piece of advice you just gave me.” After that sarcasm, Job goes on to proclaim that God is powerful.
Job 27: Job says, “I will NEVER give up. God has denied me justice. The wicked will perish.”

Job 28: Interlude on Wisdom (more on this later)

Job 29: Job says, “I wish it was like the old days, when everyone respected me and I was expecting long life.”
Job 30: Job says, “God has abandoned me, I am miserable.”
Job 31: Job says, “I am blameless, what have I done wrong? That’s it, I’m done with this conversation.”

Job 32: Job is righteous in his own eyes, so his friends are silent. Elihu finally speaks up, angry that his friends are unable to prove Job wrong, but still were trying to condemn him. He’s angry that Job is justifying himself rather than God. “Get ready,” Elihu starts out, “I’m FINALLY going to get to talk. Just wait till you hear what I’m about to say. This is really going to hit you hard. Pay close attention to what I’m about to say, and hear true wisdom. This is really going to be great.” He goes on like this for quite a while.
Job 33: Elihu says, “God sometimes uses trouble to bring people back to himself.”
Job 34: Elihu says, “Job has been sinning by saying there’s no point in doing good. God does punish the wicked, but if he chooses to be silent in some cases who are we to accuse him?”
Job 35: Elihu accuses Job of holding an illogical belief: the belief that “I am right, but there’s no point in being right.” Elihu says, “God is so much bigger than your wickedness or your righteousness, do you really expect your behavior to have that much of an effect on him?”
Job 36: Elihu says, “God is just. He does use trouble to bring righteousness, but he is great and not confined to man’s boxes.”
Job 37: Similar to what God is about to say, Elihu says, “What do you know about the works of God?”

Job 38: God answers Job and is not happy, sarcastically asking him to answer his questions because surely Job knows!
Job 39: God talks about what little Job knows about everything.
Job 40: God tells Job to answer him. Job says, “I can’t, I’m unworthy.” God says, “Man up! How can you discredit my justice? Prove to me that you are so powerful!” God then proceeds to declare his mighty creation.
Job 41: God proclaims more about his mighty creation.

Job 42: Job repents, saying “I didn’t know what I was talking about.” God then addresses Eliphaz and says he is angry with him and his two friends because they did not speak the truth about him as Job did (wait, what?). God accepts Job’s prayer on their behalf and restores Job to twice as much as he had before. Minus three friends that somehow were never afterward invited for tea.

 

The Point of it All

Now that the flow of the book has been laid out, we can more easily answer our three questions:

  1. What did Job say that was wrong?
    God makes it clear that Job was questioning his justice. Job was saying things like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re wicked or righteous because God clearly doesn’t care.” This was tarnishing God’s attributes: his holiness, and of course his justice too.
  2. What did Job’s older friends say that was wrong?
    Job’s friends wrongly accused him of sinning, at least at first because Job was blamless prior to that argument. In effect, they brought out that sin in Job by wrongly asking him to repent when he was really innocent.In chapter 4, Eliphaz mentioned an encounter with a spirit. I encourage you to go read the full story, but in short the spirt says: “Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker?” (Job 4:17, NIV)One of the things I’ve pondered is whether this was a good or evil spirit. Assuming the encounter was legitimate, the spirit seems to be stating the correct viewpoint, that none can be righteous before God. But what if this spirit is also part of Satan’s scheme to ruin Job? Perhaps Satan was trying to get Elihu on the path of accusing Job so that he would not stop to consider that Job might actually be blameless. Feel free to share your thoughts on this.

3. What did Elihu say that was right?
The first two questions are less of a focal point than the third, which I believe is the point of the book. I’ll tell you in a minute, but first consider something.

In the center of the book of Job, there’s a section that does not appear to be dialog and which spans the whole of chapter 28. The NIV calls this chapter, “Interlude: Where Wisdom is Found”. You should read the chapter yourself, but the point of it is that wisdom is precious and no one knows where to find it. But God gives us the answer! The last verse of that chapter states:

And he [God] said to the human race, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” (Job 28:28, NIV)

You see it in several places in Proverbs, but here it hits you like a ton of bricks. It is the starting point for all reasoning and decision making. It’s what leads a person to wisdom:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7, NIV)

But what does it mean? Why would the fear of the Lord be the beginning of wisdom?

Think about it. Every choice you make and every thought you think is filtered through the fear of the Lord. Wisdom that is based on this principle will be right, just and holy, because it will be wisdom that exists within the bounds of what God himself would do.

Of course, wisdom involves logic, and it involves the ability to think through things well. Because of this, I’m suggesting the following, long definition of wisdom that hopefully captures both sides of the coin:

Wisdom is the ability, using reason, to arrive at (and uncover) logical and sound conclusions, and then carry out any actions those conclusions demand, based on their moral implications.

A simple analogy somewhat based on examples from the book of Proverbs: a man sees that his neighbor is lazy and does not plant his fields or prepare a harvest, and then his neighbor dies from starvation. The man then concludes, “His laziness caused him to starve!” But he proceeds to be lazy has well, and also dies of starvation.

In this analogy, the man was “smart”. He saw the results of an action and took note. But he was foolish because he failed to carry out the actions that logic demanded! And so we can see that wisdom is two parts: a capability to use reason but also the capability to carry out what that reason concludes. Contrary to popular thought, wisdom is much more than being able to think things through clearly. Wisdom, as defined in the Bible, is as much dependent on action as it is on thinking. Philosophical ponderings for twenty years in a cave are not allowed.

The funny thing is, the fear of the Lord is where wisdom starts. You’d think it would be reason! But if you think about it for a minute (using reason, I hope), you’ll conclude that it makes sense, because what good is reason if the bearer of that reason does not fear the Lord? His powers of logic will lead him to carry out terrible things. To quote C.S. Lewis (slightly out of context), he would just be a “more clever devil.” Better to be grounded in the fear of the Lord than to have the ability to learn from and figure anything out.

The Answer

I’ve definitely expanded on the Biblical definition of wisdom here, but hopefully it will help us understand what Elihu said. Using the fear of the Lord as his foundation, he points out how Job wrongly said that there is no point in being righteous. But beyond this, he states what his friends failed to state, which I summarized from chapter 34, “Job has been sinning by saying there’s no point in doing good. God does punish the wicked, but if he chooses to be silent in some cases who are we to accuse him?”

That’s the crucial point. Elihu gives God room to do what he does. It’s a simple “let the Potter mold His clay” statement. Job’s friends were unable to see this because they were so sure Job had sinned. They were partially basing their reasoning on the fear of the Lord in that they were taking sin seriously, but they also had some assumptions that prevented them from being able to figure it out. In fact, if they truly feared the Lord, Job’s exemplary life would have meant something to them.

The book of Job has one resounding declaration: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. My hope is that this blog would always be based on that foundation, otherwise it’s no more a road to wisdom than any other ponderings in caves out there.

One Loose String

I mentioned that in chapter 42 God is not pleased with Job’s older friends because they did not speak the truth about him as Job did. The immediate question is, how is God considering what Job said about him to be true as compared to what Job’s friends said? Clearly God had just rebuked Job, so this is somewhat puzzling. I’m not positive on this, but my suggestion is that God was rebuking Job’s friends because they said that God was punishing Job for an earlier sin, whereas Job was rightly saying that he was blameless. In this sense, Job was correct and his friends were wrong. Just as Job was sinning by stating that “God doesn’t care if you’re wicked or righteous”, his friends were sinning by wrongly blaming God for punishing a righteous man, when in fact it was Satan who was doing the damage. No, Job shouldn’t have accused God of wrong, but also no, his friends shouldn’t have accused God wrongly!

(For the full effect, I strongly recommend reading the interlude on wisdom in chapter 28. Actually, just read the whole book a couple of times. It’s worth it!)

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Posted by on August 2, 2016 in Philosophy, Theology, Uncategorized

 

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