According to Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10; cf. Ps 111:10). The Hebrew word for “fear” (יראה; yirah) is common in Israel’s Scriptures, but it raises questions for English readers: Does this maxim encourage people to be “afraid” of God? If so, how does being scared lead to wisdom? What did the ancient Israelites mean when they referred to “fear”? The various connotations of “fear” in the Bible illustrate an important lesson: words only have meaning in context. Therefore, in order to ascertain the implication of a given word, the reader must consult the surrounding context. Sometimes יראה (fear) expresses fright; in other contexts, “fear” denotes reverence, respect, or even realization.

When Bible readers ask about the meaning of a Hebrew word, they might assume that there’s a single and semantically stable answer. However, the definitions of words do not function this simply in any language; instead, the same word can have two disparate meanings depending on its context. For example, we could say, “The view from her balcony overlooks the park.” Alternatively, we could note, “He always overlooks important details.” In these instances, “overlooks” carries different meanings that depend on the words around it. The same can be said of the Hebrew ירא (yare; “to fear”).

Psalm 23 offers a well-known example of ירא (yare) in the sense of visceral dread, but the psalmist asserts that God’s presence obviates such fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear (ירא; yare) no evil, for you are with me” (Ps 23:4). In this case, the prayer describes the looming threat of the “shadow of death” (צלמות; tsalmavet), but asserts that divine imminence produces confidence in the face of fear. The psalmist could have used several other words to convey “fear” or “dread” as, for instance, God does in conversation with Noah after the flood: “The fear (מורא; mora’) and dread (חת; hat) of you shall be upon every animal of the land and upon every bird of the sky” (Gen 9:2). Alternatively, the psalm could have employed other words for fear, as Moses does with reference to God’s enemies:Terror (אימה; emah) and fear (פחד; pahad) fall upon them because of the greatness of your arm” (Exod 15:16). There is no single word for “fear” in Hebrew, and the various terms can have multiple meanings; thus, we need the contexts of the words in order to determine their significance.

Returning to Proverbs, the idea that “fear” of God leads to wisdom appears in the context of being receptive to instruction: “Give to a wise person and they will get wiser; teach a righteous person and they will add [to their] learning. The fear (יראה; yirah) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge (דעת; da’at) of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov 9:9-10). Here, the word for “fear” parallels the word “knowledge,” which shows that יראה (fear) in this context has nothing to do with being afraid; rather, “fear” means “awareness” or “realization.” In Proverbs 9:10, “fear of the Lord” is another way of saying “knowledge of God.” Indeed, when the Lord appears to human beings, God is quick to say, “Do not fear” (על תירא; al tira’; e.g., Gen 15:1; Jgs 6:23; cf. Lk 1:30). In these instances, the Lord does not encourage a fearful response to the divine presence, but rather a spirit of respect, reverence, and receptivity.     

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Also ,fear produces a bond of immense trust and confidence that develops from your relationship with God. When that occurs or finally sinks in,it is like the weight of the world has been lifted off your shoulders.You gain much more confidence, plus you are blessed with all of the things you have stated.
  2. You have raised the bar in the quality of articles here at IBC. As a torah student who can go no further reading translations, this is excellent!
  3. It is notable that whereas "fear of God" is ascribed to David, it is nowhere mentioned with regard to Solomon, supposedly the wisest man who ever lived...
  4. Nick, Interesting, but I noticed that you didn't mention the origin of the negative perspective /context of 'fear'. In other words, would 'fear' even be a relevant concept/term if Adamah/Adam & Chava/Eve did not sin? Moreover, would the positive perspective of the 'fear of Yahweh' concept even be necessary or needed if sin never 'entered' our world?
    • Thanks for your question. It's difficult to speculate about things the Bible doesn't discuss, but it seems likely that fear in the negative sense would not have emerged if sin had not come into the world (cf. Rom 5:12). Fear of God in the positive sense has always been necessary, both before and after the emergence of sin. Just as an FYI, Adam's name is "Adam" (אדם), not "Adamah" (אדמה) -- the latter indicates the "ground" from which Adam was taken (cf. Gen 2:7; 3:23).

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  5. Thank you for this article on "fear of the Lord" it is one I have been asked many times and did no quite know how to answer, but I will know be able to answer with confidence that God loves us and just want us to listen closely to what He says
  6. educative, helpful and enlighten.
    Isaiah 41:13 (KJV) For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, FEAR NOT; I will help thee.
    Can you please give more light on this? what is in these contex ?. please thanks
    • Thanks for reading, Demekka. The Hebrew terms for "fear not" is the same as those in the above article (על תירא; al tira). In context, God tells the Israelites not to fear in their return from exile.
    • All articles are free on this site. You can search for other articles at the top right of the page or click on the "Previous Articles" at the bottom of the page.
  7. In proverbs and psalms יראה (yirah) expresses the feeling one has for parents when they observe us act. It combines the feeling of respect that induces us to have good behavior and simultaneously of concern for the punishment if we don’t. This combination forces introspection and becomes a source of wisdom
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