The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom
The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom
by William Klock
Does the world make sense? That’s kind of the big question that every thinking person grapples with. From a naturalistic or scientific standpoint we know that the world makes sense. We’ve seen enough of how things like physics and chemistry and biology work to know that Creation is ordered—that it makes sense, that we can observe it, that we can understand its workings. There are theoretical physicists and the like who trust in this ordered nature of Creation enough to seek out grand theories of everything and expect to find an answer once they’ve accounted for all the factors and put them all together. But there’s more to life than gravity or evolution or particle theory to contend with. Medicine can dig into the depths of a coronavirus and parse out its DNA, even develop treatments and vaccines. It can tell us where it came from and how it evolved. But it can’t answer the big question of why.
And that’s where Job’s at. Bandits stole his livestock. A wind blew down the house and killed his children. Disease afflicted his body. But why? Even as we, the readers of the story, know that it was the Adversary behind each of these tragedies, that question of why is still there. Why did God allow the challenge from the Adversary in the first place? Why? Sometimes we’re careless or we do dumb things and bad things happen. We know the why, even if we don’t like to admit that it was our own fault. But there are other times when we can only look to heaven and cry out to God, “Why?”
Job’s friends are convinced they’ve got the answer. The “why” is Job’s sin. He, however, insists on his innocence. No one’s actually seen Job do anything wrong. But that’s got to be the answer, they think. And they’re convinced of this because they’re convinced that justice governs the cosmos. God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. God must be punishing Job for something. We’ve called this idea the Retribution Principle. It governed the way most ancient peoples conceived of divine justice.
And yet Job refuses to concede. He holds fast to his integrity. And as the readers we know he’s right. The very first verse of the book told us that Job was upright and blameless. And he’s proved himself—not just that he’s upright and blameless in his living, but that his uprightness, his blamelessness is disinterested. He’s not in it for what he can get, he’s not in it because he knows that what goes around comes and around and he wants good to come around to him. He’s righteous because he knows that it’s right to be righteous, regardless of the outcome. So at this point we’ve completed the first part of the book, these three cycles of speeches between Job and his friends. They’ve urged him and urged him and urged him to give up on his integrity and to confess so that he’ll get his blessings back and Job has stood his ground. He’s proved the Adversary wrong and he’s proved God’s policies to be right. But Job doesn’t know anything about that. He knows nothing about the Adversary’s challenge. All he knows is that, whether his righteousness is disinterested or not, God is supposed to bless the righteous—and Job’s only known cursing. So why?
That’s the rest of the book and it starts with an interlude—a hymn or a poem spoken by the narrator of the story. We’ll look at Chapter 28 this morning. We can break it down into three sections. Let’s look at the first, which runs from verse 1 through verse 11. Picture miners digging deep into the earth for treasure as we read.
“Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold that they refine.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from the ore.
Man puts an end to darkness
and searches out to the farthest limit
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
He opens shafts in a valley away from where anyone lives;
they are forgotten by travelers;
they hang in the air, far away from mankind; they swing to and fro.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread,
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and it has dust of gold.
“That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
The proud beasts have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.
“Man puts his hand to the flinty rock
and overturns mountains by the roots.
He cuts out channels in the rocks,
and his eye sees every precious thing.
He dams up the streams so that they do not trickle,
and the thing that is hidden he brings out to light.
The earth is full of treasures: silver and iron, gold and sapphires. But it’s rarely just lying around on the surface for the taking. To get to that treasure we’ve got to dig. The poet describes miners digging deep into the earth, hanging deep in mineshafts, carrying light into the otherwise impenetrable darkness. He overturns the roots of the mountains themselves, deep down and far beyond the otherwise all-seeing eyes of falcons and other birds of prey. He toils, he innovates, he gets dirty, he gets injured. Sometimes he even dies. Man spares no expense to bring forth from these hidden treasures of the earth so that he can display them in the light. The earth’s treasures are hard to find and hard to get to, but we know their value and we spare no effort or expense to get our hands on them.
In contrast stands wisdom. Look at verses 12-19:
“But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know its worth,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
It cannot be bought for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
We prospect for iron, for copper, and for precious metals. Again, we find it and we go to great lengths to dig it out of the ground. But wisdom? “Man does not know its worth.” We know it’s valuable. We desire it. But it’s true value exceeds anything we can imagine. And yet it’s nowhere to be found in the land of the living—nowhere under the sun. We can plumb the depths of the sea and we will never find it. No matter how much money you’ve got, you can’t buy it in the marketplace. Even if you were to find it for sale, it is beyond the price of gold and jewels and pearls. None of us could ever afford it. The poem goes on in verses 20-22:
“From where, then, does wisdom come?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
Again, you won’t find wisdom in the land of the living. Search to the ends of the earth and it won’t be there. Ask a bird with its keen eyesight to spy it out for you and that bird will turn up nothing. Open the gates of the grave and call down to death and even Abaddon will have heard only a rumour of it. If wisdom is nowhere to be found, how are we to ever answer that great question why? How will Job—or you or I—find an answer to our suffering?
Well, look now at the third section of the chapter, beginning at verse 23:
“God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he gave to the wind its weight
and apportioned the waters by measure,
when he made a decree for the rain
and a way for the lightning of the thunder,
then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.’”
You want wisdom and understanding? Look to God. But in the end, wisdom may turn out to be something different than we expected. It’s interesting here that the reason wisdom is so inaccessible to human beings is not because of its position in space, but because of its position in time. It’s not hidden deep in the earth or at the bottom of the sea. Notice the origin of wisdom here. God oversees the cosmos, not just the ends of the earth, but everything under heaven. And the poem speaks of God’s creative acts: when he created the wind and when he tamed the waters and divided them. It’s a picture of God bringing order to the chaos of the pre-created world. When he decreed the rains and the storms that come with them—when God ordered the cosmos, when he made it fit for life, that was when, that was the time at which he saw wisdom and declared wisdom; he established wisdom, and searched wisdom out.
Here’s what the narrator is getting at: He stresses the order that God has established through his creative acts. He looks back to the day when God tamed the primordial chaos, reigned it in, and made it suitable for life—made it serve his purposes. None of us was there and none of us can fathom what that looked like or what was involved. Just think of the words of Genesis. God spoke and tamed the chaos. God spoke and brought forth life. While it speaks volumes about the creative and life-giving power of God’s word, it’s unfathomable. How does that work? It’s utterly beyond us. But through it God gave order to creation. Eventually God will communicate this when he speaks later in the book. As Job demands an answer, God will ask a series of questions about creation, “Were you there when I? Were you there when I? Were you there when I?
Now, what’s important here—and this is where the book of Job changes gears—what’s important here is what that order entails. Remember, Job and his friends have assumed that the foundation of Creation’s order is justice. The Retribution Principle is foundational in their thinking. The wicked are punished and the righteous rewarded. Job’s already beginning to question this idea while his friends hold fast to it. When God speaks later in the book, it will be to tell them all that their understanding of the order of the cosmos is horribly wrong. You see, from our limited perspective, all we can see are the effects of God’s work in creation. He causes things to happen and we see the result. The problem is that we then try to root out those unseen and unknown causes. That’s what gets us into trouble. It’s our feeble attempt to play god. And what God reveals is that there is no foundational principle running creation. As ordered as Creation may be, as much as God has built into it consistent order that we can observe and around which we can develop theories and laws, it is he who ultimately sustains and maintains, gives life and controls it. As we saw back in our study of Genesis, back when we looked at that passage from Genesis 1 telling us that on the seventh day God rested, for God to “rest” wasn’t what we usually think of. We think of rest as disengagement. But for God to rest was for God to take up residence in the temple he’d just created, to be seated on his throne, and to begin the work of ruling, governing, sustaining his new creation. For God to be seated on his throne in his temple meant for him to be engaged in the ongoing activity of the cosmos. The Hebrews never conceived of God as a clockmaker, building a watch, winding it, and then hanging it in space to watch. He was engaged in everything. His hands held together, sustained, provided, chastened, brought blessings, and brought cursing. And so Job and his friends were as wrong to think that justice was the operational foundation of the cosmos as modern people are wrong to think that we can reduce the operation of the cosmos to scientific laws and theories. Is there justice? Of course. Can we derive laws and theories about the regular and ordered nature of God’s creation? Of course. But God’s point in Job is that his governance of his creation is ongoing and omnipresent and, most importantly for Job, it’s dynamic as God acts not like a machine following a set of laws or as a divine vending machine, but as he acts according to each and every circumstance.
So what does this mean for wisdom? We can’t find it and God knows it and so we read, again, in verse 28:
And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.’”
Do you want wisdom? Trust the Lord, because it resides with him. I think John Walton sums this up really well when he says:
“Fearing the Lord means to take him seriously as opposed to:
- thinking him detached (therefore to be ignored)
- thinking him incompetent (therefore to be treated with disdain)
- thinking him limited or impotent (therefore to be scorned)
- thinking him corrupt (therefore to be admonished)
- thinking him shortsighted (therefore to be advised)
- thinking him petty (therefore to be resented)”
This may be a struggle for some of us who want to find wisdom for ourselves or to define it on our own terms. It’s never going to happen. Our wisdom is dependent on God and on our trust in him.
Notice, too, that wisdom isn’t some abstract standard by which God acts. I talked about this before in terms of justice. All too often we think of justice as an objective standard by which God acts. Brothers and Sisters, when we do that, we fall into the trap in which Job and his friends found themselves. They set up a certain standard, called it justice, and then tried to compel God to act according to it. It didn’t work. It meant accusing righteous Job of sin on the part of his friends, and for Job it meant questioning God himself, since he wasn’t holding to their standard. As I said before, justice is not external to God; it flows from him. He is the source. In that sense, he establishes the objective standard. But, again, because our knowledge and understanding are limited, so is our understanding of justice. And now we see the same goes for wisdom. Wisdom is not some standard that was out there in the universe and that God adheres to. No. Wisdom is defined by God himself as it flows from him—as it did when he tamed the primordial chaos and brought order to creation and as he sits on his throne and holds the cosmos in his hands.
I think that realizing this can help to focus us on the right thing. When we understand that wisdom isn’t just some abstract principle that we can find or that God can give, but that wisdom flows from God as its source, then we can understand that as much as we often ask for wisdom (and we’re right to do so), to fear the Lord in itself is an act of wisdom that, as it causes us to trust in and to draw near to the Lord, opens up to us the path to wisdom and its source. And, of course, the opposite is also true: If we believe that God is wise and the source of wisdom, the more nature it will be to fear the Lord.
Now, think about Job and his righteousness and of the Adversary’s challenge to God. Think of what I talked about last week in terms of our motives for pursuing both God and righteousness. The Adversary’s argument was that if God rewards righteousness, people won’t really pursue God or righteousness—or wisdom; people will, instead, try to patronise God, try to butter him up, and try to give him what they think he wants or needs so that he’ll be obligate to bless them in return. Think how often we treat God as a divine vending machine. We put our money in, we push the right buttons, and we think that he’s obligated to give us what we want. We negotiate with him. “I’ll give you this, God, if you’ll give me this in return.” Or we get into trouble, and we start bargaining. Ack! I think I’m about to lose my job and we start getting introspective and we bargain with God, “Okay, I’ll finally give up such-and-such sin if you’ll let me keep my job.” Or we do what Job’s friends urged Job to do: we start confessing. I remember sitting at the bedside of a friend dying of cancer. Radiation didn’t work. Chemo didn’t work. He was in terrible pain. And he said, “I’ve confessed every sin I can think of and God isn’t taking this away.” Brothers and Sisters, none of that is the path of wisdom. To fear the Lord is to trust him, not to approach him as needy or petty or as someone we can manipulate. So as much as Job is struggling with some of these things, as much as he’s questioning the Lord’s justice, his integrity and his disinterested righteousness show us that he really does fear the Lord.
Getting closer to our own hearts and that issue of the big “Why?” question, where does this leave us. We want answers. We cry to the depth of sea, “Where is wisdom?” And we get no answer. We call down into the depths of the grave, “Have you seen wisdom?” and death calls back, “I know nothing more than you.” On the one hand here we’re told that this search for wisdom is fruitless. We’ll never find the answer. Instead, we’re told to fear the Lord in the belief that he has created and continues to sustain his creation in wisdom. We’ll never be able to understand what that looks like. God cannot give us an answer to our question of “Why?” that will make sense to our limited understanding. I know that won’t be a very satisfying answer to some of us. When you’ve done everything right and you’re still suffering, when you hold a miscarried child in your hands, when your business has failed despite your best efforts, when your children have walked away from the Lord after years of catechism and faith-building, after a diagnosis of cancer or some other awful sickness we want an explanation and just to say, “Trust the Lord” can seem like a cop-out, but it’s not. It’s God’s word right here in Job 28. It’s not to say, “There’s a reason even if we don’t know what it is”. No, it’s to move beyond our question about causes and reasons. You see, if we believe that the Lord has created and established and sustains his creation wisely, then to trust him is move beyond the need for an explanation and to trust that whatever tragedy we experience is reconcilable with his wisdom, with our trust in this God who is engaged, who is able, who is powerful, who is righteous, and who has infinite and eternal perspective.
“God understands the way to [wisdom]” says verse 23. It is ultimately beyond our reach and beyond our knowing, but we become wise ourselves as we fear him, submitting to his wisdom. Brother and Sisters, that means that when we’re in the midst of trouble and tempted to demand an explanation, we should instead trust in him. Is it easy? Of course not, although I do think it gets easier the longer we persist in trusting him. Some of you who are older than I am can confirm that. In the meantime this is why God has given us means of grace. Brothers and Sisters, if you struggle to trust God, if you find yourself in the midst of trials and are tempted to think that you could do better than God, if you find yourself resenting God, avail yourself of his means of grace. Immerse yourself in the Scriptures where we see his goodness and wisdom and love—and most of all his faithfulness—revealed in the history of his people. Immerse yourself in the Gospels and be reminded that we fear the God who humbled himself to become one of us and who gave his life on the cross in order to reconcile us to himself and to set to rights the world that we have broken. Recall that he is the one who has given us his very Spirit as a downpayment on the life of the age to come. Pray. Pray those Scriptures back to him. Pray the psalms—the inspired words of men, often written in the midst of trials and suffering—and let them shape your faith and bolster your trust in God. And come to his Table, eat the bread and drink the wine, recall and participate in the saving acts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and know first-hand the wisdom of God that has not changed since he spoke those words into the darkness, “Let there be light.”
Let us pray: Wise Father, Job reminds that we are small and that you are infinite. We’re so often tempted to think that we’re bigger or greater than we are and it has got us into a great deal of trouble. It has broken your creation. And yet you love us still. The wisdom that flowed from you when you made us flows still through Jesus and the Spirit to forgive us, to restore us, to make us new. I pray that we would remember your wisdom when we struggle, when we’re tempted to doubt or to question, when we cry out “Why?”, and that knowing your graciousness, we would do the wisest thing we can and cling to you in faith. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
 The NIV Application Commentary: Job (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), epub version.