Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it. (Proverbs 15:16)
The fear of the Lord is a powerful theme in the book of Proverbs. It’s a difficult phrase to understand with our modern ears. Having written at some length on the topic recently, let me just say that the best definition I’ve come to thus far isn’t really a definition at all, but rather a synonym: worship. We demonstrate that we fear God when we properly worship God. When God is in His proper place in our hearts — Lord and King, Master, Father, Lover, Unquestioned Ruler holding infinite and immediate sway over our thoughts, words and deeds — and we in our rightful place before Him— servant, child, beloved, unquestioning follower, quick to joyfully obey, submitted and humble. This means that those who have been redeemed, restored, and reconciled to God by Christ — purchased with the precious blood of God’s only Son (1 Peter 1:17-21) — may simultaneously view God both as terrifyingly powerful and lovingly familiar, a great conquering Ruler but also a tender and merciful Father. Those who thumb their nose at the foolishness of the cross and trample underfoot the blood of Christ, however, meet upon their deaths only a justifiably wrathful Warrior-King, not a welcoming parent. This is the “trouble” to which Solomon is referring.
Solomon is portraying a vivid contrast between the person who is poor (has little) in this life but who fears God (worships Him) with the person who is wealthy in this life (has great treasure) but who comes to a bad end (receives the wages of his self-worship). This is a powerful picture of the choice between life and death, which has stood before every person in every generation — the fundamental question of all of redemptive history. Will you bow before God and live (choose life) or square your shoulders and ultimately get exactly the independence you’re gunning for (choose death)? Obviously, Solomon prescribes that it is “better” to choose life.
However, from an earthly perspective, to fear God is very costly. If it doesn’t cost you something in this world, then what you’re doing isn’t worship. All legitimate worship of a holy God requires the shedding of blood – both literally, on the cross of Christ – and in the heart and soul of the worshiper. David said it well, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). So is it with us. All worship acceptable to God is accompanied by sacrifice — the shedding of Christ’s blood and the putting to death of idols which compete in our hearts for God’s glory. You are not worshiping God in any meaningful sense if He gets only a trifling of your time, your attention, your money, or your will. You are not worshiping God if you bring your sin to the altar with you, subtly and conveniently tucked away under your robe where others in your small group can’t see it. God always sees. And whether it feels like worship to you or not, God will not account your effortless leftovers as a fragrant offering. (See Malachi 1:6ff, especially v10, for some sobering related reading.)
But even if it costs us everything in this life, Solomon says it’s better to have little, but to fear and worship God, than it would be to have amassed great warehouses of earthly treasure, and stand before God having not bowed your knee and fallen on His grace. This is exactly the same point (though somewhat more cryptic for the sake of Hebrew poetic license) Jesus made to His disciples 1,000 years later when He said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
We should be learning from David, who flung off his clothes and sacrificed his dignity and dollars alike to worship the Lord with all his heart (2 Samuel 6:12-15). We should be learning from Paul, who left behind everything he had (which was a lot) and considered it to be garbage compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing and serving Christ (Philippians 3:7-11). We should be learning from Jesus, who considered the greatest treasure I can even imagine — equality with God, and eternal, perfect, divine fellowship within the Trinity — things to be laid aside in order to that He might glorify His Father (Philippians 2:5-11). To learn these lessons is to pay whatever it costs to be right with God, which unequivocally requires that we fear Him and fall down on our faces before Him. Whether it costs us pride or position or possession to live a life marked by worship and the fear of the Lord, it is worth what it costs. Conversely, no matter what we receive in this world, if it breeds pride of self rather than fear of God in our hearts, then it wasn’t worth what it cost. No matter what in this life must be laid aside to gain the rewards of heaven, it would be foolish not to pay it.
An amplified proverb (see more in series)