“Fear of the Lord” as the Beginning of Wisdom

中国基督宗教研究2018-05-07 03:41:20


International Journal of Sino-Western Studies

国学与西学: 国际学刊(汉英双语半年刊)


ISSN for Online Version:2242-2471

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“Fear of the Lord” as the Beginning of Wisdom: An Asian Reading of the Book of Proverbs

Milton WAN (Researcher, Center for Asian Theology, Toronto University, Canada)








提要 : 敬畏耶和华是智慧的开端:《箴言》的亚洲式解读:在东方文化的理解中,“智慧”是一种思考和理解问题的特殊能力,包含了处理问题的洞察力与判断力。就《箴言》的描述,智慧也是指“一种面向人生方方面面的正确态度和入手方法”。 大家都共同地指向一种不同凡俗的“观”(perspective)。此中包括了整全观(perspective of totality)与深度观(perspective of depth) 两个方面。从“整全观”方面说,愚昧人拒绝从多角度地思考问题,而智慧人则开放自己的观察维度。而“深度观” 则需要具备超越的洞察力与判断力。这种清明的头脑,是来自对低层次需求的约制,透过历练而迈向专注的心灵。智慧不单需要一种面向人生的“观”,也同时是一种向内的“自省心”。所以智慧人不会是那些执着、以自我为中心的人,他们能够自由地从超越的角度去审察问题。当《箴言》说“敬畏耶和华是智慧的开端”(9:10)时,它正是指出了整全观与深度观的基础,也确切地否定了盲目对低层次需求与以自我为中心的追逐。


Abstract: In Eastern culture, wisdom has been considered as a distinct ability of thinking and understanding, consisting of two aspects: Perspective and Judgment. According to the Proverbs, wisdom also refers to the “right attitude and approach to life”. Both of them point to a distinct perspective, which includes perspective of totality and perspective of depth. As far as the former is concerned, the fool people refuse to think from plural angles, but wise people open their perspectives of observation. As far as the later is concerned, it is needed to have the ability of observing and judging which surpasses ordinary knowledge. Such a clear mind comes from the control of the low leveled needs, and only through practice can one reach a still heart. Wisdom does not only need a perspective to face life, but also needs a self-reflecting heart to face oneself internally. Therefore, wise people do not always consider themselves as the center of everything, in fact, they may observe problems freely from a transcendent perspective. When the Proverbs say that Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom (Pr. 9:10), it points out the basis of perspective of totality and of depth, and it also denies the blind low level needs and the self-centered seeking.

Key words:Proverbs, wisdom, perspective, Daodejing

Author: Milton WAN, Ph.D. in Christian Theology and Philosophy, Oxford University; Ph.D. in Confucianism, Chinese University of Hong Kong. Researcher, Center for Asian Theology, Toronto University, Canada. Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, Visiting Professor in several Chinese Universities.

“What is wisdom?”  Chinese philosopher Tang Junyi(唐君毅) furnished two long essays on a comprehensive study of wisdom entitled “The Meaning and Character of Wisdom” and “The Manifestation of Wisdom and Moral Practice”.  In one of the essays he defines “wisdom” as “a kind of creative thinking which surpasses [ordinary] knowledge and is [constructed] upon a [targeted] problem, towards a goal, along a direction, and synthetically employing known information”.  According to this definition, wisdom, as a distinct ability of thinking and understanding, consists of two aspects: 


1. Wisdom as Perspective: a way of perception “upon a targeted problem, towards a goal, along a direction” ; 

2. Wisdom as Judgment: a creative synthesis of known information rendering into an understanding “which surpasses ordinary knowledge”.

In this essay we try to follow these two general schema and see how the Book of Proverbs illustrates wisdom in the Judaeo-Christian Wisdom Literature tradition.    

1.Wisdom as Knowledge and Discernment

“Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding.  For she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold” (Pr 3:13-14).

Wisdom, as described in Proverbs, is generally referred to as “a right attitude and approach to all areas of life.”   And a right attitude and approach to life begins with a right understanding.  According to Proverbs, a person with wisdom can view life differently from ordinary perception.   For example, regarding happiness and sorrow, Proverbs says, “even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief” (14:13).  

As for regarding “to give” and “to gain”, Proverbs says, “one man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty”. (11:24) This view point is shared by the Chinese Daoist text Daodejing(《道德经》)which also singles out paradoxical concepts in order to direct its readers to a deeper understanding of life.   But how can one achieve such an unconventional view of life?  In fact, the “view”, the perspective, is indeed the crux of the matter here.  

“Perspective” (观 guan), the way one perceives and contemplates, is well studied and discussed in both Chinese and Western philosophical traditions.  In the Book of Proverbs, a Wise is a person who can perceive life from a higher level of perception, namely, perspective of totality and perspective of depth.    

2.Perspective of Totality

A few years ago I visited the Ryoanji (Temple of Dragon Peace) in Kyoto, fancied by the belief that contemplation upon its famous Stone Garden will lead to attainment of enlightenment.  So I decided to give it a try and spend some quiet moments meditating at the Stone Garden.  Not long after my mind became restful, there came a group of tourists. Their talking and laughter dissipated the peace and serenity in the air and my effort to attain tranquility was completely foiled.  Unable to compose myself again, I looked around aimlessly and saw one of the tourists taking photos of the Garden.  Perhaps he realized that it is impossible to capture the artistic garden in one single photo, he took a few more shots from different angles.  While I was admiring his cleverness, my attention was drawn to another gentleman who pulled out his video camera and attempted to catch a more comprehensive view of the Garden by walking around the entire area. Looking at these two gentlemen and comparing them with the rest of the group who were satisfied by merely purchasing postcards, I was suddenly enlightened!  Different attempts to capture the scenic garden manifested different modes of perspective.  A postcard, no matter how beautiful it is, presents only one single perspective of the Garden.  Taking several photos can certainly capture more faces of the beauty, yet it was still far from being able to appreciate the Garden in its totality.  Not even the gentleman with his video camera could do the job.  For there are infinitely different ways to perceive the Garden --- perspective from a helicopter high up in the sky, perspective from an ant under one of the stones in the Garden, perspective from the tree top above the wall of the temple …In order to attain a comprehensive perspective of the Garden, one has to see it from all possible places, which is not feasible at all.  However, the more different angles one perceives the Garden from, the greater the proximity s/he will be able to present the reality of the object.         

The way we look at life resembles the same manner one looks at the Stone Garden:  It all depends.  It all depends on the perspective that we take.  Life seems so miserable, regrettable, or hopeless when we confine our ways of looking at it with a “tunnel vision”.  When we open up our mind and view life from different perspectives, the world is still full of beauty and wonders and life becomes worth of living again.  And this is how Proverbs tries to contrast between “the Wise” and “the Fool”.   

The Fool

The Fool is one who stubbornly sticks to his/her own way, as portrayed in Proverbs, “a man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed – without remedy” (29:1). It is because “a fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (18:2). In other words, it means that a Fool refrains from multi-dimensional thinking.  

In the Book of Proverbs, the possibility of extending one’s dimensions of perspective comes not mainly from self-reflexive enlightenment, as is in most of the Eastern traditions.  Rather, the breakthrough in one’s perception comes from receiving advice from experienced and knowledgeable people.  Whereas the Fool “hates knowledge” (Pr 1:22, 29) which is different from his/her own opinions,  the Wise loves to listen to those who think differently.  This is why Proverbs puts so much emphasis on the virtue of listening to advice: “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” (Pr 12:15).   

The Wise

For Proverbs, learning is both informative and transformative. Learning does not only increase one’s informative knowledge, the learning process itself can also be served as a means to acquire wisdom.  Pr 9:8-9 says,

“Rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will wise still.”

Why does the wise love rebuke?  It is because rebuke means somebody is holding an opinion which is radically different from yours.  The wise would take this as an opportunity to open up new dimensions of thinking.  And this is why Proverbs says a Wise will love you even more if you rebuke him/her.  When a person is capable of opening up his/her view to different dimensions of perspective, s/he will even be able to see the concerns or issues from his/her counterpart’s perspective.  As a result, there won’t be anymore anger and resentment, but understanding and patience.  That is why Proverbs says, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Pr 19:11).       

3.Perspective of Depth

When we read the Book of Proverbs, we find many verses relating anger with the Foolish, and staying calm with the Wise:

“A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated” (Pr 14:17).

“A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly” (Pr 14:29).

But why is it so important that a Wise should not be a quick-tempered person?  This reveals the next characteristic which distinguishes a Wise from a Fool, namely, the perspective of depth.

Impulsivity and a Tranquil Heart

As indicated in many places in Proverbs, temper is only one of the many outward expressions of a person’s heart.   Quick-temper reflects a restless heart within: “the heart of the righteous weighs its answer, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil”. (Pr 15:28)  It takes a clear mind and a still heart when one makes wise judgment, but a reactive-impulsive heart will gush forth evil words.  Such an understanding seems to echo what is said in Lao Zi’s Daodejing, 

“The heavy is the root of the light;

The tranquil is the lord of the hasty…

If he is lighthearted, then the root is lost;

If he is hasty, then the lord is lost” (Book I: Ch.26).

Proverbs encourages self-control of one’s anger and directly relates this virtue with the Wise: “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control” (Pr 29:11).  It is because when one’s temper is controlled, s/he can scrutinize the situation more clearly and comprehensively.  And this is why Proverbs sees a divine origin in a wise person’s listening and perceiving ability,

“Ears that hear and eyes that see –The Lord has made them both” (Pr 20:12). 

Lower Needs and Discernment

The Book of Proverbs also relates wisdom with discernment: 

“A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him” (Pr 28:11).

The interesting thing here is, Proverbs also contrasts the rich with the poor in the same context.  Why is that so?  The reason could be that a rich person who mistakably regards him/herself as “wise” identifies lower needs (i.e., the physiological needs, the safety needs, etc. ) with one’s self-actualization.  However, despite being deprived of physiological gratification, a Wise pursues the depth of discernment (i.e., “seeing through”).  

Here it appears that lower needs gratification is antithetical to a wise heart.  “Perspective of depth” here implies a heart that will not rest on superficial and immediate needs.  Thus Proverbs says,

“Listen, my son, and be wise,

And keep your heart on the right path.

Do not join those who drink too much wine,

Or gorge themselves on meat” (Pr 23:19-20).

Lower needs provide immediate satisfaction, but higher needs like “cognitive needs” (knowledge, understanding, wisdom, etc.)  demand discipline, patience and concentration of mind.  Perhaps this is the reason why most of the ancient cultures that emphasize the pursuit of wisdom also emphasize asceticism.  And the tradition of the Book of Proverbs is no exception.  In order to acquire wisdom, one has to “pay tremendous attention” and “apply one’s heart” (Pr 2:2; 5:1). And “he who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Pr 17:27).


4.A Self-Reflexive Mind

In our discussion above, we have seen that in order to acquire wisdom, one has to attain “perspective of totality” and “perspective of depth”.  In fact, when we take a closer look into the ability of attaining these perspectives, we find that both of them are related to the trouble of self-centeredness and settling the place of self in one’s life.  

Self-Centeredness: The Cause of Blindness

 When a person is too preoccupied with his/her own opinions or reputation, it becomes much harder to admit his/her own mistakes.  And in order to defend his/her self-righteousness, stubbornness blinds his/her eyes and s/he can no longer perceive situations from beyond his/her own perspective. According to Proverbs, this is how self-centeredness makes a Fool.  A Fool is one who holds no reflexive mind:

“As a dog returns to its vomit,

So a fool repeats his folly” (Pr 26:11).

In the same way, when a person is overcome by desires of immediate gratification or anger, his/her attention will be engaged and driven by instinctoid yearnings.  As a result, s/he losses his/her patience and can no longer think freely and reflexively.  Attachment, as the Chinese Buddhism frequently claims, is the enemy of wisdom.   

Proverbs says,


“Stone is heavy and sand a burden, but provocation by a fool is heavier than both”(27:3). 

Fear of the Lord as the Beginning of Wisdom

With the above understanding, we are now ready to apprehend why the Book of Proverbs claims that a person who fears the Lord can acquire wisdom.  But before we relate “fearing of the Lord” with “acquiring wisdom”, we must first find out what is the meaning of “fear of the Lord” in Proverbs.

When Proverbs proclaims that

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

And knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Pr 9:10).

The book is not describing a general kind of intelligence that can be acquired autonomously by anyone who cultivates learning and deep thinking.  Rather, the “wisdom” and “understanding” mentioned here must first be directly referred to an attitude of reverence towards God.   Daniel J. Estes summarizes the meaning of “fear of the Lord” as follows:

“The term ‘fear’ (yir’â) in the Old Testament can refer to dread (Dt. 2:25) or terror (Jon. 1:10, 16), or more positively to awe or reverence.  The expression ‘the fear of Yahweh’ combines the senses of ‘shrinking back in fear and of drawing close in awe’ (Ross 1991:907).  This response is not abject terror which causes humans to cringe before Yahweh, but a sense of awe before the exalted Lord, such as Isaiah experienced when he saw the vision of Yahweh in the temple (Is. 6:1-5)”. 

According to Proverbs, such a strong consciousness of the presence of God generates the four subsequent characteristics in the believer:

1. A sense of humility; 

2. A sense of security; 

3. A sense of contentment; 

4. Away from evil. 

“Humility” is the ground for an openness of mind and enhances one’s ability to apprehend comprehensively.  Accordingly, humility before the Lord as an expression of self-renunciation opens one’s mind to advice or opinions that are different from one’s own.  Then, one is on his/her way to acquiring the “perspective of totality”.  That is why Proverbs says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Pr 11:2).


Regarding the “perspective of depth”, as we have seen, a sense of security and restful contentment are essential to one’s pursuit of wisdom and acquisition of a reflexive mind.  Similarly, when a person “hates evil”,  his/her purity of heart releases him/her from the attachment to sensual desires (for example, covetousness or lust) and self-centeredness (for example, anger or pride). With such a tranquil heart, the Wise can perceive the world from a higher level of consciousness, and thus more penetratingly.  


The statement “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” might not be able to gain universal acceptance, especially for those who do not belong to the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  As Asians, we do have a long and enriched tradition of wisdom that does not presume a belief in a personal infinite Being like Yahweh.  Nonetheless, if we do not regard the word “beginning” as an exclusive term, we can still appreciate one of the world’s great religious traditions which does provide insightful contribution to human inquiry of wisdom. 




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