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A friend of mine has a refrigerator door covered with inspirational quotes. Because of all those proverbs, he calls it his “proverbial appliance.”

My friend tries to live by those proverbs. Do you have any proverbs—any proverbial wisdom—that guide your life?

That term “proverbial wisdom” comes originally, as so many of our modern concepts do, from Latin. To the ancient Romans, “proverbium” meant the simple, common, concrete life sayings everyone knew and repeated and tried to live by. Those sayings expressed practical, common-sense truths in metaphors, maxims and short aphorisms, like this one from the philosopher Erasmus: Aegroto dum anima est, spes est. You’ve definitely heard it before—it means “Where there is life, there is hope.”

Here’s another one: Veritas vos liberabit—“the truth will set you free.” Those ancient Romans had some pretty profound insights. Every culture has its proverbs, and we live by their wisdom.

The Hebrew Tanakh, which Christians know as the Old Testament, even has a book called Proverbs—that’s where the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon” comes from. The Book of Proverbs functions as a guide to behavior and insight for those who follow Abraham and Moses, the founders of Judaism; and to those who follow Christ, as well. Here’s one of the most famous of all the Proverbs, from the King James translation of the Bible:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1:7.

While fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone interpretations of that well-known proverb have been used to frighten children and adults for centuries, modern Biblical scholars now have a different interpretation of its translation and its meaning.

Instead of simply being afraid of the judgment of a wrathful deity, the old Biblical understanding of the fear of God now has a more nuanced meaning. The Lutheran philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto even came up with a new word to express this concept: numinous. Numinous means “surpassing comprehension or understanding, mysterious.” When something exceeds our scope of understanding, we instinctively have awe, respect and even fear of it.

The Christian writer C.S. Lewis used Rudolf Otto’s word freely in his books and essays, but said that “fear of the numinous is not a fear that one feels for a tiger, or even a ghost.” Instead, he wrote, “it is one filled with awe, in which you feel wonder and a certain shrinking or a sense of inadequacy to cope.” Lewis described it as a fear that comes forth out of love for the Lord.

If you refer back to the origins of the word translated as “fear” in Proverbs, you’ll find that it comes from the Hebrew word “yirah,” meaning a sense of awe and reverence—which includes wonder, amazement, mystery, astonishment and adoration. Like many passages from scripture, we learn, the original meaning has suffered from mis-translations and misinterpretations.

Instead of the quaking, terrified feeling we once associated with a phrase like “fear of God,” this new and more detailed understanding leads us toward the knowledge of the awe-inspiring creative power of a loving and all-powerful Supreme Being. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides came to the same conclusion, when he categorized the fear of God as a positive commandment—the feeling of human insignificance that comes from contemplation of God’s “great and wonderful actions and creations.”

So rather than dread or fright at the prospect of a harsh judgment, the phrase “fear of God” originally meant wonder, admiration and reverence.

The Baha’i teachings have a similar view of the concept of the fear of God. Baha’u’llah called it a “guiding light” to all people, and said that practicing it encourages us to become “wise and reflecting souls.” He asked every person to find courage and honor by developing a healthy awe and respect for the Creator, and promised that those who do will “be afraid of no one:”

Whoso hath known God shall know none but Him, and he that feareth God shall be afraid of no one except Him, though the powers of the whole earth rise up and be arrayed against him. – Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 200.

For Baha’is, the fear of God means something very different than the standard Western understanding of the term. Baha’u’llah writes that “true wisdom is to fear God, to know Him, and to recognize His Manifestations.”The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 233.

So when the word “fear” occurs in a Baha’i context, you can almost always read and understand it as meaning a healthy respect, the recognition of an awe-inspiring mystery, the wonder and astonishment we all instinctively and deeply feel when we contemplate that unknowable essence, the Maker of the universe:

… that which guardeth and restraineth man both outwardly and inwardly hath been and still is the fear of God. It is man’s true protector and his spiritual guardian. It behoveth him to cleave tenaciously unto that which will lead to the appearance of this supreme bounty. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 93.

5 Comments

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  • Melanie Black
    5 days ago
    I happened on this article, and found that I needed it very much. I had an angry man for a father so I projected my fear of him onto God. This persisted, despite my unease with doing so. Reading about the history of "the fear of God" through scriptures and proverbs has gone a long way towards helping me see the truth of the matter. Awe and respect for our unknowable, mysterious Creator. Yes. Thank you.
  • 6 days ago
    I grew up with way to much fear of God that was not healthy. It was helpful for you to reframe this all important topic with it’s true meaning explained clearly. Wonderful article David.
  • Chris Badostain
    6 days ago
    Thank you for the essay Mr. Langness. Fear IS quite nuanced and it is a great word to dive into if one is looking to discover manifold meanings. Having just looked up "fear," one definition that resonated was a sense of unease. Since, in the Baha'i Faith, hardship is to be accepted as a gift from God, while ease and comfort are to be avoided. it can be inferred that unease (fear) is a healthy indication of humility
  • Mark David Vinzens
    Sep 14, 2018
    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”
    Vedanta says: “Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom” how relates
    “the Fear of God” to Self-Knowledge, in your opinion?
  • Mark David Vinzens
    Sep 14, 2018
    I like Per aspera ad astra. Through hardship to the stars. It describes perfectly the paradox of human existence and helps me to see the positive in every challenge.