“the fear of Yahweh.” The Hebrew word “fear” in Proverbs 1:7 is the feminine noun yirah (#03374 יִרְאָה), and it has a wide semantic range. Its meanings range from “terror, fear, being afraid” (Gen. 26:7; Exod. 2:14; Judg. 6:27); to “respect, reverence; sometimes mixed with a sense of awe” (Lev. 19:3; Deut. 10:12; Josh. 4:14; Job 1:1. The masculine noun gives more the sense of awe in 1 Kings 3:28). Sometimes all the meanings exist in one context because it is possible to be afraid of something and reverence it and hold it in awe at the same time.
Although it is common today for Christians to think that “fear God” only means “respect God,” or “hold God in awe,” that is not correct, and it is not being honest with the text or the cultural context and social history of the phrase. Historically people did “fear God” in the sense that they were genuinely afraid of Him. Although He bestowed blessings, He also was a God of judgment. In fact, the reason that “respect God” was biblically phrased as “fear God,” or “the fear of God” was that respect for God was rooted in the fear of God: if you did not respect God, you had good reason to fear Him. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Throughout the Bible we see evidence of why people were afraid of God. For example, in Genesis there was Noah’s Flood that wiped out all the evil people on earth; and also God’s fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin (Gen. 18:20-19:25). In Exodus we see the plagues that came upon Egypt, some of which also affected the Israelites in Egypt. In Leviticus, we see that when Aaron’s sons offered unlawful fire before Yahweh, fire came out of their censers and burned them to death (Lev. 10:1-3). God also had His tent (the “Tabernacle”) put behind curtains that were five cubits high (about 7.5 feet based on an 18-inch cubit; Exod. 27:18) so that people could not see over them, and in this way He was kept separate from all Israelites who were not Levites or priests. Any unauthorized person who came to God’s sanctuary was to be put to death (Num. 3:5-10, 38).
Although in New Testament times we do not often see disobedience to God bring harsh and immediate consequences, there are still consequences. Furthermore, those consequences can be very serious. God does not threaten us, instead, He lovingly and honestly warns us the way a concerned parent warns a child. For example, He tells us that the unsaved will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. He does not want for that to happen, but He honors our choice to live and die, as He always has: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed” (Deut. 30:19). It is our choice to obey and be blessed or disobey and receive consequences.
Examples of disobedience bringing consequences exist throughout the Bible. God was not to be trifled with. Disobedience was dangerous. We should also keep in mind that in the biblical culture, the fact that God was dangerous was not something unusual. Pagan gods were dangerous too. But whereas God was righteous and dangerous to the disobedient, pagan gods were capricious and cruel and dangerous to everyone (which makes sense because they were actually demons).
A problem we have today with the word “fear” is that it is seldom understood because it is not often used in the context of healthy fear of a righteous judge. Often we “fear” things that can hurt us unexpectedly or in unexpected ways, such as cancer. Or we fear things that are always dangerous and unpredictable, such as sharks. Or we fear what we don’t really understand or don’t want, like death. But God is different than those things. He is not unpredictable. In fact, quite the opposite. He is very predictable and cannot lie. God will not hurt us unexpectedly, and if we don’t know much about Him that is only because we have not really taken the time to learn about Him. He says, “For my people are fools, they do not know me (Jer. 4:22; cp. Jer. 9:3). A reason to fear God is that He is the Most High God and He will punish evil and disobedience, just as He has said over and over. But because God is righteous and is predictable and does not lie, we don’t have to have an unhealthy fear of Him or of Judgment Day. It is not hard to love and obey God. As Jesus said, his yoke is gentle and his burden light.
The Bible, especially the New Testament, reveals the character of God and shows that He is loving and worthy of our love. However, the Bible also reveals that God is righteous and just, and the disobedient and rebellious will receive consequences for their ungodly behavior, and it is wise to be afraid of those consequences and hence “fear God.”
“fools.” The Hebrew word for “fool” is eviyl (#0191 אֱוִיל). It is a very significant word within Proverbs, and 70 percent of all its occurrences in the Hebrew Bible can be found there. A fool is not so much someone who lacks raw intelligence as one who possesses deep-seated foolish attitudes, as this verse makes clear. A fool thinks wisdom and knowledge are not important, in fact, they hold them in contempt and sometimes even despise them.
“show contempt for.” The Hebrew word is buz (#0936 בּוּז pronounced booze), and it means “to despise, to have contempt for, to count as insignificant. All those meanings are important and applicable in this context. There are some fools who actually “hate” knowledge, but most fools just have contempt for it or think it is insignificant.
[For more on “show contempt,” see commentary on Prov. 23:22.]