The "fear"--the awe-struck reverence, the tearful speechlessness, the uprushing, overwhelming desire to shout "YES!" in the face of the transcendent, absolute Really Real whose love and power course through the universe--the LORD--and, yes, even the gut-level terror--the fear of this LORD is the beginning of all wisdom.
This week, I had the flash of insight that this statement is objectively true.
What I mean is, I had always read this as a kind of exhortation: "You should fear the LORD, so that you can begin to attain wisdom." But that's not it. It's an objective description of reality. Fear of the LORD = beginning of wisdom.
In other words, an attitude of humility and receptiveness to the Absolute is itself the access portal to wisdom. It is the entryway to the deeper dimension of the ordered, grace-infused, outward-facing life that the Bible calls wisdom. Without which attitude, wisdom is simply inaccessible. Hidden behind a veil.
That's why a person can be smart but not wise.
A Christian may well be both ignorant and foolish. Sadly, a great many Christians today provide examples of this. I'm afraid I'm among them, more often than not.
An atheist, however, may be brilliant, but can never be wise (although the current crop of Walmart variety atheists generally fail to exhibit even much that could be called brilliance. More's the pity.).
On the other hand, a Christian may be unlearned, or simple, or lack an aptitude for reasoned argument, and yet be immeasurably wise, if she has taken into herself the fear of the LORD.
I think this is true of any God-fearer, actually. Both in the Church and beyond, the starting point of wisdom lies in the knowledge that I, as limited, finite, and insignificant as I am, am in a real, living, and utterly inequitable relationship with the Almighty.
I was mulling these things over when I came across the following from Chesterton, writing about Aquinas:
"The Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom, and therefore belongs to the beginnings, and is felt in the first cold hours before the dawn of civilisation; the power that comes out of the wilderness and rides on the whirlwind and breaks the gods of stone; the power before which the eastern nations are prostrate like a pavement; the power before which the primitive prophets run naked and shouting, at once proclaiming and escaping from their god; the fear that is rightly rooted in the beginnings of every religion, true or false: the Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom; but not the end.”The fear of the LORD is the access point, the entryway. Beyond this point lies the experience of the forgiveness, the mercy, the love, the tender provision of the LORD. In other words, beyond this point we encounter the face of Jesus Christ.