If you had told me five years ago that I would one day write a book for Christian women that led off with a quote from Proverbs 31, I probably would have punched you in the face. Arguably no chapter in Scripture is more over-referenced when it comes to addressing women, but stick with me as we teeter on the brink of cloying triteness. For the purpose of the business at hand, I think Proverbs 31:30 deserves a second look—for what it says about women, and more, for what it says about God.
In my mother’s house hang two small, oval portraits of a man and a woman dating back to the late 1700s. They are David and Nancy Coy of Homer, New York, my great-grandmother’s great-grandparents on my mother’s side. We refer to them affectionately as “the ancestors,” upstanding citizens of Congregationalist and Presbyterian stock, whose very frowns seem intent on keeping civilization from faltering. I take from their frozen expressions that life was not easy for them. Nancy, in particular, wears the look of a woman who doesn’t get the joke. One suspects that if the artist had broadened his scope to include her torso, we would find her hands death-gripping a worn copy of the KJV. Like the portraits of other women of her time period, she is the very embodiment of the image we conjure when we hear the phrase “God-fearing woman.” To call someone that today would sound archaic, maybe even tongue-in-cheek, but in Nancy’s day it would have been recognized as high praise, a direct reference to Proverbs 31:30.
Today if we wanted to praise a woman as godly we would probably say something like, “She is so in love with Jesus,” or, “She has such a deep walk with the Lord.” The stereotypical portrait of this woman would be a soft-focus stock photo involving a field, filtered sunlight, out-flung arms, and a beatific smile, a little like a still shot of Julie Andrews from that opening scene in The Sound of Music. It’s not a bad way to picture godliness, but it is quite a contrast to Nancy. And it leaves me wondering, in deference to Nancy, if there isn’t some room for us modern women to ask what has happened to our idea of being a “God-fearing woman.” I’m not suggesting Nancy knew a better version. I’m actually wondering if a more accurate conception of a God-fearing woman lives somewhere between a solemn scowl and a saccharine smile.
A somewhat less-than-shocking confession at this point: If I had to choose a verse from the Bible that has impacted me the most, it wouldn’t be found in chapter 31 of Proverbs. It would be Psalm 111:10. I came across it during my early twenties, a time during which I sensed I desperately needed to grow in wisdom but lacked a clear idea of where to start. Should I study theology? Get a mentor? Memorize Scripture? My faith at that time was primarily shaped by a feeling: my deep love of God. But I knew I needed wisdom about how to follow the God I said I loved. And one day in my reading, there was Psalm 111:10 answering my question of where to begin in a most unexpected way:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.
I had to read it several times to let it sink in. The wisdom I longed for started where? Of all the possible origin points for wisdom, fear of the Lord was not one I would have come up with on my own. This was not a verse that made me want to cue the music, fling out my arms, and twirl in a field. The God of my church upbringing was a snuggly Daddy-God, one who I pictured to be much like my gentle and deeply affectionate earthly father. The concept of fearing God was foreign to me. How could the path to wisdom have as its starting point the fear of the Lord? Scanning the verse, my eyes kept trying to replace the word fear with love. Shouldn’t the love of the Lord be the beginning of wisdom? How could the Bible say in one breath that perfect love casts out fear and then turn around and say that fear was the first step toward wisdom?
My conception of God was that he was approachable and accessible, the God that the Lord’s Prayer endearingly refers to as “Our Father.” And he is that. He is mercifully and gloriously that Father. But what the fear of the Lord acknowledges is that he is not only that. He is also “in heaven,” with a name that is hallowed above all others. He is both a God who is near to us and a God who transcends. The fear of the Lord comprehends the fact that the Father we are taught to call “ours” is also the Lord of the universe, enthroned between the cherubim, doing as he pleases among the nations.
Not all of us grew up with a snuggly earthly dad, much less a concept of an approachable Daddy-God. Despite knowing the grace of salvation, many of us still suspect that God (like Nancy) is perpetually scowling reproachfully in our direction. But the Bible paints for us a picture of a God who neither scowls nor coddles, a God who is both “Our Father” and “in heaven” in perfect balance. Finding that balance requires gaining a good working definition for how Psalm 111:10 uses the word fear. And for that, we can turn to the book of Hebrews.
The author of Hebrews takes care to distinguish between the fear of God’s consuming wrath and the fear of God’s holiness. Both may cause us to tremble, but only the second causes us to worship and repent. Because of Christ, you and I do not come cowering to fearsome, thundering Mount Sinai; instead we come expectantly to glorious, approachable Mount Zion (Heb. 12:18–24). We are exhorted to respond to this God by offering him “acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (vv. 28–29). Worshipful reverence and awe, not cowering dread, define a right fear of the Lord.
The worshipful reverence and awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
When we fear the Lord rightly, we do so not as those who are terrified of him. Christ, our Mediator, assures us that we may approach the throne of God with confidence. We do not tremble as the demons do; they rightly fear the wrath of God. Rather, we tremble as those who understand that God’s wrath toward us is satisfied at the cross. When we fear God rightly, we recognize him for who he truly is: a God of no limits, and therefore, utterly unlike anyone or anything we know. This is the start of becoming wise.
But consider the inverted message of Psalm 111:10. Not only is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom, the fear of man is the beginning of folly. This is the dual exhortation of Proverbs 31:30 that we need so desperately to understand:
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain [the fear of man is the beginning of folly]
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised [the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom].
When we lose sight of the majesty of God, we invariably fill the gap in our vision with the fable of the majesty of someone else. We revere a spouse or a leader. We worship our children or a friend. We even give reverence and awe to ourselves. And this is complete folly. Not only is it unwise to give our worship to someone other than God, it is the very definition of irrationality. And it’s an exhausting business.
So this is a book that hopes to reclaim the idea of the “God-fearing woman” from yellowed portraits in antique oval frames, as well as from the soft-filtered script-adorned frames of Instagram. In the pages that follow, I want us to consider the majesty of a limitless God. I want us to meditate on his perfections so that they become to us the most rational object of our reverence and awe. And along the way, I want us to stare down our tendency to ask others and even ourselves to be what only God is.
Life is too short and too precious to spend fearing the wrong things in the wrong ways. I propose we learn holy fear for a God like no other. Only then will our fear of man be put to flight, our self-adulation be laid to rest, and our hearts be turned toward worship. I want us to become God-fearing women in the truest sense of the word, to take our stand in gladness at the foot of Mount Zion, offering true worship to our Father in heaven. And in so doing, we’ll make a beginning at becoming wise.
Jen Wilkin, None like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).