Thursday, April 22, 2021
In Proverbs 8:13a (a = the first half of the couplet) personified Lady Wisdom declares that the fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.
Welcome back to 7th grade! Consider this a remedial crash course in middle school English Grammar and Usage. In American English, we almost always construct our sentences in this order: subject (usually a noun or pronoun) – verb – object (again, usually a noun or a pronoun). Take this sentence as an example: The dog chased the cat. The dog is the subject who does the chasing. The cat is the object being chased. My sole point here is to differentiate between the subject and the object in a sentence. In English sentences, the subject almost always precedes the object, with the verb in between. A relatively simple concept it is, especially for native English speakers, for whom the sequence seems entirely intuitive, and to whom anything ordered otherwise sounds quite strange.
However, this subject-object distinction gets much cloudier and more confusing when we begin talking about prepositional phrases, especially prepositional phrases which use the preposition of. If I were to say “the Love of God” without any additional qualifiers, you cannot know for certain whether I mean the love of God subjectively or objectively. Is God the one who loves, or the one who is being loved? Is God the intended subject or the intended object? We need additional information to determine with confidence whether “the love of God” refers to God as the subject who loves or the object being loved. The preposition of renders the matter grammatically ambiguous without additional qualifiers.
If I were to say, “The love of God sustained me through a crisis,” then you would probably assume that I mean the love of God in a subjective sense. That is, I mean that God loved me, which enabled me to get through a crisis. Alternatively, if I wanted to talk about the love of God in an objective sense, I would do well to phrase it a bit differently, using a possessive pronoun and another preposition. I should say something like, “My love for God sustained me through the crisis.” Okay? Okay.
Now instead of the love of God, let’s consider the fear of the Lord. Should that phrase be understood subjectively or objectively?
Is the Lord himself afraid of something? If so, that would be the subjective interpretation. Or is the Lord the object of someone else’s fear? If so, that would be the objective interpretation.
Almost without exception, the fear of the Lord is to be understood using an objective grammatical interpretation, not a subjective grammatical interpretation. We fear the Lord (and properly so). The Lord, however, does not typically fear anybody or anything. The Lord is the object of our reverent fear; the Lord is not the subject who is afraid.
Therefore, in Proverbs 8:13 when personified Lady Wisdom says that the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil, what she means is that if we properly fear the Lord, we will as a consequence also hate evil.
You probably automatically assumed that, though. So why did I bother to write through the interpretive decision-making process in such detail? If intuition gets you the right answer immediately, why bother with a long drawn-out explanation of how to come to the right answer? The process transfers; that’s why. I did so because sometimes you will come across resembling words and phrases, and similar situations and scenarios where the interpretation is not as immediately evident. When you do, it may help you to be able to consciously think through the subjective/objective differentiation. Okay then? Okay.
Back to Proverbs 8:13a itself, though. What is the implication of Lady Wisdom’s assertion about reverent fear and beneficial hatred? What is its importance?
For one thing, it
probably means that we can gauge whether we properly fear (or revere) God by reference to our reaction to evil. Do we dislike evil adequately? If we are indifferent to evil, we demonstrate that we do not revere God as we should. And if we enjoy evil, we definitely do not revere God as we should. How we viscerally respond to evil accurately measures our degree of reverence for God. And that claim is worth pondering. Is it true? If so, what does it reveal about each of us, individually?
Someone might be inclined to push back against the idea of beneficial hatred, though. Hatred is bad; isn’t it? We should not hate anything; right? I once had a conversation with a student about hate and hatred. She was adamant that hate was in itself wrong. I had asked her whether hate was always wrong. She said yes, it is. Given the current political zeitgeist/climate, I realized that I could not press the issue without opening the door to misunderstanding and potentially to accusations, so I let it go. But if I could have, I might have asked her whether it is permissible to hate hatred. Whether someone answers that question in the affirmative or the negative, hatred gets away intact, in one form or another. Most people who frown on expressions of hatred usually only reject particular varieties of hatred, not all varieties.
The verse I am discussing is quite clear, though. We are supposed to have hatred for evil. If we genuinely fear the LORD God, we ought to hate evil. That is what it says and means.
In his Epistle to the First Century Roman Church, the Apostle Paul echos Proverbs’ Lady Wisdom and says something very similar, yet slightly different. In Romans 12:9, Paul concisely writes: Let love be without hypocrisy (or, as some translations positively render it, love must be sincere). Abhor/hate what is evil. Hold fast (or cling) to what is good. Notice that in one verse and three short sentences, Paul pairs love and hate as complementary.
Paul does not explicitly mention the fear of God in this verse because there is no need. The whole chapter presumes that the First Century Roman Christians already revere God and desire to please Him. Paul very practically tells them what it means to properly please God. They should love others without faking it. They should abhor whatever is evil. And they should hold fast to what is good.
What, then, is this evil we are supposed to hate? If we as Christians are supposed to hate what is evil, we should have a very clear sense of what is actually evil, lest we feel obligated to hate something that is not actually evil.
This is where I need to use the word subjective in another sense. Earlier in this post, I was using the word grammatically, wherein the word subjective indicates how a noun or a pronoun functions in a sentence. Now I will use the word subjective in a psychological and moral sense. We each have a subjective or intuitive, personal sense of good and evil. In general, individual human beings are acutely morally sensitive. If I do wrong, I often feel guilty. If I am done wrong, I feel it as a personal offense; and I hold the wrong-doer culpable. So do you, I bet. Most of us recognize expressions of evil as such, and immediately so. In general, we have an extremely strong subjective, intuitive, personal sense of good and evil.
Sometimes, however, we are culturally conditioned to accept and even applaud certain evils. Everyone around us says something is okay, so we end up going along. We lose our subjective, personal sensitivity to the evil that is culturally accepted or endorsed. In such cases, we need the evil to be called evil by an outside voice, or, otherwise, by an insightful cultural non-conformist. Biblically, God would often use prophets as conscientious objectors. The prophets were the outsiders or non-conformists who would call people to recognition and repentance. Sometimes we need to be told (or reminded) that something is actually evil, even if (and especially if) everyone around us is saying and behaving otherwise.
Therefore, if we are to truly abhor what is evil, we need to be willing to listen to voices that might make us feel uncomfortable. If we are to abhor what is evil, we need to be willing to face ourselves in introspection.
Vast portions of the Bible are devoted to just such voices — to the non-conforming, conscience-prodding voices of the prophets, who assailed their neighbors and fellow citizens for their indifference and willful disregard of personal and cultural evils. Isaiah comes to mind immediately, as does Hosea, and Amos, and Micah.
These Old Testament prophets (and others) held up an absolute standard of morality. They insisted that morality was not relative, but was instead established by God. They also affirmed that the same absolute moral standard would be the measure by which God judges us in the end. And that sobering claim is worth pondering. Is it true? If so, what does it portend for each of us, individually?
Do you fear God? Do you hate evil?