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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 14:16-35
“Good Fear”
July 20, 2014 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

         We’re talking after worship about holding a science-fiction and fantasy mini-convention, so I wonder how many of you will recognize this quotation?

         “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”[1]

That’s right. It’s from Frank Herbert’s award-winning novel Dune and it’s the mantra against fear used by a semi-religious order of women known as the Bene Gesserit. The hero’s mother teaches it to him and he recites it in difficult moments.

         It’s appealing to have a formula to cancel out fear. As Franklin Roosevelt famously suggested, possibly borrowing from Francis Bacon, we would like to believe that it’s only fear which we need to fear. Nothing else is worth the emotion, nothing else should cause us to be afraid. Leave fear behind, let it pass over us, and get on with living.

         As biblical people we have our own little mantra to recite when we find fear creeping up on us, from the 23rd Psalm. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” Personally, I say those words almost every day and often in the middle of the night and find them deeply calming and reassuring. God is with me, I will fear no evil.

         It seems that Frank Herbert, Franklin Roosevelt, Francis Bacon and the Bible are all in agreement. See things properly and you don’t need to be afraid, you can avoid fear. Yes and no. Psalm 23 is not all the Bible has to say about fear. As we’ve heard now for several weeks, the constantly recurring theme of Proverbs, the thought that begins and ends it, is that the fear of God is a good fear and should not be avoided.

         The translation I read this morning, the NRSV, makes verse 16 say, “The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,” but literally, using the same root word you find down in verses 27 and 28, it reads “The wise fear and turn away from evil.” In other words, if you have wisdom, you will be afraid of some things, you will be especially afraid of evil.

         I know that sounds like a contradiction of the 23rd Psalm. How can one part of Scripture teach us to say “I will fear no evil,” while another turns around and tells us it’s wise to fear evil? We’re talking about two different sorts of evil. This good fear in Proverbs is not fear of evil in general. David is right when he trusts in God and invites us to say along with him, “I will fear no evil,” because God is with him and with us. He means “I will not fear any evil that can happen to me.” But the fear that Proverbs counsels, the fear that wise people have is not the fear of evil that happens to us. It is fear of evil that we do, especially that we do to others.

         That’s why the second half of verse 16 contrasts the reckless, careless spirit of the fool with the fear of the wise. That carelessness is not so much about the fool’s own life, though that is there, but it’s a foolish, heedless disregard for others that is the opposite of a good and holy sort of fear.

         We try to teach teenagers not to drive while intoxicated or not to use illegal drugs or not to engage in sexual behavior before marriage by showing them pictures and telling them stories to make them afraid for their lives or for their sanity or for their future education and earning potential. But maybe the fear we ought to try most to communicate is what Proverbs is concerned with here, the fear of doing evil to someone else, killing a friend in an accident, or causing a friend to overdose, or bringing an unwanted baby into the world with no one ready or equipped to care for that child.

         Once again it’s difficult to find a single theme for any long group of proverbs, but I believe the verses at the center of our text today point to this single thought, that there is a good fear, which verses 26 and 27 tell us is the fear of the Lord. And if we fear God, we will fear doing evil to each other.

         That’s why verse 17 immediately takes up a couple of the ways in which we are careless and unafraid of the harm we can cause when we read, “One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly.” That rush of anger which produces cutting words, which moves hands to hit, is in part a lack of wisdom to be afraid of what you are doing, of how those words or blows might wound. And the second warning that “the schemer is hated” tells us there is even less wisdom, less fear of the consequences in deceitful plans deliberately intended to hurt.

         Verses 18 and 19 briefly remind us of the big categories here. We’re talking about foolishness and wisdom and wickedness and righteousness. And verse 19 promises that wisdom and righteousness will win out in the end. If we take that seriously, then in everything we do and say we will be afraid of being on the losing side, of being among the evil, the wicked who find themselves kneeling down defeated before the good.

         Those larger concepts of righteousness and wickedness can lose us in abstraction, so verses 20 and 21 yank us right back into the practical side of good fear. It’s a mistake to read verse 20 by itself, “The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” Alone, that sentence might just make you want to be rich. Get a lot of money so you can have a lot of friends.

         But verse 21 makes the point clear, “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.” In other words, the previous verse is about the fact that rich people have plenty of companions, while the poor have very few friends to look out for them. And that’s wrong. It’s wrong to hang out only with people who are well off and to snub those who don’t have much. That’s exactly what James chapter 2 warns Christians against, showing favor to the rich over the poor. And we ought to be afraid of doing that sort of thing, as we will see more when we get down to verse 31.

         Verse 22 warns us again not to scheme, not to plan evil, urging us to make plans for doing good instead. But then the next verse reminds us that planning is not enough, that plans need to be carried out in work and mere talk is just going to mean poverty for everyone. I’d say that’s a good warning for church folks like you and me. I can, and I know you can too, come up with ten or twelve great ideas without even half trying. Ways to help the poor, ways to share the Gospel, ways to deepen spiritual life—sit down and chat for few minutes and we’ll talk up a bunch of those. But we ought to be afraid, afraid of it all being what Proverbs names here, mere talk that leads to poverty, spiritual poverty.

         So verse 24 comes to remind us that wisdom is its own reward, a crown on your head, while folly, well it’s just folly. And verse 25 emphasizes true talk, truthful witness that results in action, rather than lies and false promises and empty plans that come to nothing.

         Which brings us then to what I said is the heart of this text, the frame in which this whole book of Proverbs is set, the very foundation of the wisdom it is trying to teach. Good fear is not merely fear of hurting others, it is fear of God. We are to fear anger that wounds, and neglect of the poor, and lying schemes because ultimately and for eternity all that foolishness is in opposition to God who will judge and punish.

         St. Augustine riffs on the first half of verse 26, “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence,” by explaining that fearing God, fearing God’s punishment for doing wrong leads to a good life. Then if you lead a good life, you will develop a clear conscience. And then, with a clear conscience, you won’t need to fear any punishment. So Augustine concludes, “Therefore, learn how to fear, if you don’t want to be afraid.”[2]

         And that’s how the whole problem we started with is solved. We can say, “I will fear no evil,” because we have first learned to fear our own evil. Our fear of doing evil leads us to God who through Jesus Christ forgives our sins, cleanses our consciences and helps us do what is good toward Him and toward others. That’s when we can know that God is truly with us and we have nothing to fear, when we fear our own sin enough to ask Jesus’ help to be set free from it.

         So fear of God actually leads to a marvelous courage, whereby we need fear nothing else in the world. Such holy fear is a refuge not just for ourselves, but even for our families, for our children. The home where God is feared and the good is done is the home where children will be safe and secure, says the second half of verse 26.

         I’ve seen how the opposite is true. When a mother or a father fails to fear God, to fear doing evil against God and against others, then children lose their security. More than once I’ve had a person come to me wanting to hear that an affair, a betrayal of their marriage was somehow O.K. with God. And they wouldn’t hear anything else. They went away still believing they could break their wedding vows without any fear of God’s judgment. And their children lost their refuge, lost a home where both parents raised them securely.

         The fear of God is a tough sell these days. No one wants to be afraid of God anymore. We want to believe that God is just nice, somebody like a grandfather who feeds us ice cream and never punishes us for doing wrong. But that’s not God and that’s not wisdom. The Bible teaches that the fear of God is for our good, for our joy. Verse 27 says “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life…” and it saves us “from the snares of death.”

         In our psalm today, Psalm 86 verse 11, the psalmist prays for his “heart to fear your name,” same word again. He asks for the fear of the Lord to be in his heart and mind so that he can be thankful and love God with his whole heart, so that he can know God’s mercy and steadfast love. Fearing God is a way to know and love God. It’s a path to salvation and to joy.

         Our text in Proverbs goes on to teach us that the fear of God is not just about our private, individual relationship with Him. Verses 28 and 35 talk about a king, about public officials. They frame a section here which shows us that fearing God is not just a mater of private morality, but of public life, of being not just individuals, but a people, a nation which fears God. “The glory of a king is a multitude of people,” we read. If God is our king, then His glory is to rule over us not just privately and individually, but corporately, together as a community which fears and honors His name in the way we live together.

         So I’m going to take the next few verses as a text about our relationship with each other as the people of God. Verse 29 is concerned again about that human emotion which probably does the most damage in a community, and in the community of the world. Being slow to anger is “great understanding,” but a “hasty temper exalts folly.” Swift anger and retaliation is fueling that conflict between Hamas and Israel. No one there has the understanding to slow down and consider the effects of what they do. Verse 30 simply echoes the thought that a tranquil, peaceful mind will produce life, while strong passion will rot our bones and ruin our life together.

         Verse 31 takes us back to the point already made about how we treat the poor, except now it is tied directly to our fear of God. “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” As a church, as a city, as a state, as a nation, are we going to fear insulting God by being afraid to oppress the poor or will we shamelessly, fearlessly ignore them and put ourselves at risk? In Matthew 25 Jesus told us that to help the poor is to help Him and to ignore the poor is to ignore Him. Are we going to be afraid to insult our Lord or will we neglect, maybe chase away the people who sleep on our streets or who go hungry or who can’t pay for light and heat?

         Verse 33 just reminds us again that we are talking about wisdom and folly, and that wisdom is a matter of both the mind and the heart. We’re not wise, we are fools if we feel nothing for people in need, if we feel no proper fear of God regarding how we treat one another. There is no wisdom in the heart of the person who feels no such fear.

         The next to last verse, 34, sums up this little section on corporate morality, focusing on righteousness at the national level. It’s not at all a popular way to talk, but I suggest we might do well to embrace a little national fear of God, to be afraid of what He thinks of how we live and behave together as a nation. And I’m deliberately going to aim at all of us, whichever side of the aisle we vote for, by wondering whether a nation that kills hundreds of thousands of unborn babies every year and which also turns away thousands of children at our borders ought not to be just a bit afraid of how God feels about us.

         Our last verse in this chapter invites us to consider that sort of question. How does our king, how does God feel about us? Are we dealing wisely in order to have His favor? Or will His wrath fall on us for the shameful things we’ve done? Will we fear God or will we suffer the consequences?

         Fortunately, though our king asks us to fear Him, fear is not the end of the story. Just as in our psalm today, that fear is meant to bring us into life. Just like Augustine said, proper fear is the way to be saved from fear. That’s why in the parable we heard Jesus tell in Matthew 13, 24 to 30, the man who owns the field in which weeds are growing doesn’t send his workers to just yank them out. God doesn’t just rain down fire on everyone who fails to obey Him. That’s not what we need to fear.

         Instead, our fear is also a hope, the hope that Paul talked about in Romans 8, a hope in which both we and all creation are presently groaning, but a hope that if we fear and trust in God then we and everyone else who fears Him will be saved as His children.

         Fearing the king’s wrath reminds me of the king in the Arabian Nights, the One Thousand and One Nights of a woman named Scheherazade. You probably know the story of how a Persian king took a new wife every day, killing each one when the night was over and morning came. He killed a thousand women that way, but then Scheherazade volunteered to be the next. She stayed alive by telling him a fascinating story which she couldn’t finish before morning. Then the next night she finished the story and started a new one. She did it over and over, keeping him hanging on her stories, night after night until she had managed to last 1,001 nights, and by that time the king had fallen in love with her.

         You might think that’s how we are with God, that we just need to keep doing good, to keep telling Him a good story with our lives, so that we can stay in His favor until our time is up and He really loves us. But God is no middle east monarch. We don’t have to keep Him placated with good deeds and good stories. God starts out loving us. He only wants us to fear Him and to do what is good so that we will learn, however long it takes, to love Him.

         God loves you and wants what is good for you. That’s the promise in the Psalm that God is gracious, and in the Gospel that the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, and in Romans that we and our whole world will be brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. All God desires is that we love Him and enjoy His love for us. The fear of God is simply the necessary first step on that path. The last step, which lasts forever, is the love of God. And as I John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear.”


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Frank Herbert, Dune (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1965), p. 7.

[2] J. Robert Wright, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament IX (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 100.

Last updated July 20, 2014