Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Fear and forgiveness

Posted by jac/cdc on January 8, 2007

(Proverbs 16:6) בְּחֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת יְכֻפַּר עָוֹן וּבְיִרְאַת יְהוָה סוּר מֵרָע׃

b’-KHE-sed ve-e-MET y’-khu-PAR a-VON u-v’-yir-AT a-do-NEYE SUR may-RA

By steadfast loyalty sin is atoned for; and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil.

The first part of the proverb speaks of steadfast loyalty (lit., “kindness and truth”) as the means by which sin is atoned for or forgiven. Elsewhere steadfast loyalty is a characteristic of God (Ps 40:11), but it may also define relationships between people. Here it may be intentionally ambiguous, as it appears to be in the other three occurrences of this phrase in Proverbs (3:3, 14:22, and 20:28). The second part is parallel to the first, that the fear of the Lord is the means for turning one away from evil.

The question is whether these two halves are meant to be understood as a comparison or a contrast (the conjunction does not differentiate). Interpreted as a comparison, it elaborates on the relationship between the fear of the Lord and escape from evil by comparing it with means of atonement/forgiveness in steadfast loyalty. As a contrast, the proverb underscores the superiority of turning from evil versus needing forgiveness, which is evident in the former’s temporal priority. In other words, this proverb rails against the notion that “It is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Rather, although forgiveness is available, it is better to avoid evil to begin with.

The two halves may also be interpreted simply as conjoined: forgiveness that arises out of steadfast loyalty and fear of the Lord by which one averts evil have a certain commonality: relationship. Steadfast loyalty to the Lord is exhibited by “fear of the Lord,” the recognition of his position as Lord and our obligations to him as such; the Lord’s steadfast loyalty toward us is shown by his forgiveness when we fail. In turn, we may exhibit the God’s steadfast loyalty toward us by forgiving others as well.

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