The reward of humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, honor and life.
It offers a reward in three dimensions: financial wealth, dignity, and life itself. Most people think just about money and physical treasures. God’s true reward is multi-dimensional for those who have a humble spirit.
What is humility?
Accuracy of Translation
Before we focus on one word, let’s make sure the overall text is translated accurately. The translation from Hebrew is identical in most English versions and essentially the same in Spanish and German. We find a minor discrepancy in Young’s Literal Translation, “The end of humility is the fear of Jehovah, riches, honor, and life.”
The expression the fear of the LORD may modify the word humility, rather than being an additional requirement for the three-fold blessing. The first conjunction “and” appears in italics signifying its absence in Hebrew. The Keil & Deiltzsch analysis of the text suggest it should be translated: “The reward of humility is the fear of the Lord resulting in riches, honour, and life.” In other words, the fear of the LORD comes from humility, which then attracts the three-fold blessing. However, even with a possible minor translation discrepancy, the basic message is the same. The Lord blesses the humble—specifically those who fear him—with a triple blessing.
So let’s review the meaning of humility and discover what the fear of the LORD really is. Humility, or the state of being humble, refers to an unpretentious disposition. Humility is a modest opinion of one’s own importance. Synonyms include: Meek, lowly, gentle, quiet, unassuming, and poor in spirit. Humility does not mean thinking ourselves to be worthless. It means not thinking of ourselves at all but focusing on others.
The Hebrew word for humility, ענוה (ʽă•nā•wāh, pronounced “ă-nah-vah”), is closely related to the outcome of affliction. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT):
It is the goal which God intended when he afflicted his people and toward which they are to endure affliction. The humble consider and experience God as their Deliverer (Psalm 10:17; 76:9) receiving grace...from him (Proverbs 3:34). They keep his ordinances (Zephaniah 2:3). They wait on God (Psalm 37:11) and are lead by him (Psalm 25:9).
This word appears first in 2 Samuel 22:36 as it’s used to describe the humility of God himself. Does this mean that God suffered to learn humility? It seems bizarre that the creator would stoop to suffer. In Jesus Christ, God himself knows what it’s like to be broken. Brokenness is the prerequisite for humility. It hurts to be broken.
The Fear of the LORD
The fear of the LORD is learned, not inborn. Parents are commanded to train their children “in the discipline and instruction” of the Lord. To fear the LORD means to hold him in highest regard and reverence. It does not mean fear in the sense of terror and panic but in the sense of extreme respect and reverence. Terror and panic lead to paralysis, anxiety, and even death. Extreme respect and reverence lead to admiration, obedience, and worship.
To understand the fear of the LORD as the author intended, we must read the phrase within its original context. The following passage taken from Deuteronomy 10:12-13 sheds much light on the fear of the LORD:
And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?
Note that the fear of the LORD includes walking with him, loving him, serving him, and obeying his instructions. The purpose of this is for our good, not for his ego. We could not love, walk with, or serve someone with all our heart and all our soul if we lived in terror of him, as fear implies in other contexts.
Sin is Not Tolerated
However, we do need to fear the LORD because he is holy and will never tolerate sin. Human beings are sinners and cannot co-exist with a holy God. For this reason the LORD is sometimes called a “consuming fire.” To develop a cavalier attitude towards God is to court disaster. God wants us to know beyond all doubt that he has absolutely no need for any of our assets. He is in no way dependent on us. This implies that an essential component of the fear of the LORD is the knowledge that we need him. He does not need us nor any of our money. To discover more about the fear of the LORD see Proverbs 15:16 and read the response to the question: How much is enough?
Fear Through Fun
Moses wrote of a fascinating way to learn the fear of the LORD in the book of Deuteronomy:
You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: For oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
It amazes me that a prescribed way to learn the fear of the LORD is by having a party! But it’s not a party for immorality, rather for celebrating the goodness and greatness of God. It is funded by the tithe, the tenth of income dedicated to God and his purposes. Again, God is in NO WAY dependent on any human gift.
The Three Dimensions of “Reward”
Let’s go back and look closely at the second part of the text, the reward, riches, honour, and life. Note that the word reward is singular, not plural, implying that all three come together at the same time. They may come like three small grapes which grow in size, together. Take a look at this video from Star Trek where Kirk plays Spock in a game of 3D chess.
I am not saying that we can get God's full reward by playing chess. I am merely using this video to expand our thinking about God's full-bodied blessing. We find an example in the life of King David at the time of his death: “Then he (David) died in a ripe old age, full of days, riches and honor,” 1 Chronicles 29:28. Note God blessed David with the three dimensional reward: (3) honor, (2) riches and (1) life as described by ripe old age, length of days. Regarding life David had more than just a long healthy life on earth. He looked forward to everlasting life—to dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:6).
Similar to King David, one of his descendants, King Hezekiah was also blessed with immense riches and honor (2 Chronicles 32:27) but he did not live long to enjoy them, nor did his wicked son Manasseh make good use of his father's great wealth. Hezekiah needed more wisdom to match his great wealth. With more wisdom he might have avoided the naive display of his wealth to tempt future enemies as described in Isaiah 39:1-8.
Reward of Riches
The Hebrew word used for riches is, עשר (ʽō•šĕr, pronounced “ō-shāre”). Its verbal form is explained in detail in Proverbs 10:22 and is used six times in Proverbs. It never refers to spiritual riches but always to material riches. In this case I disagree with the commentary of Matthew Henry and John Gill as they imply this word refers to spiritual riches. I agree with Matthew Henry and John Gill that spiritual riches are of greater value than material riches yet I cannot conclude with them that this text refers to spiritual riches. Proverbs 10:22 and 28:20 help us understand the tension between spiritual and material riches. Many believers choose to trade short term material wealth for permanent spiritual wealth, as missionary Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
I appreciate the comments of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) on this topic: “As in so many areas of life, the evil is not in one’s riches, but in one’s attitude toward them.” The apostle Paul wrote “not money but the love of money is a root of all types of evil,” I Timothy 6:10.
We read in Ecclesiastes, “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money.” Riches which are truly God-blessed come as a by-product of a righteous life sometimes. They are not the pursuit of a righteous life. God-blessed money does not come through a hasty pursuit of money. Hasty money is not blessed. Toggle through the texts associated with Quick Buck Betty to learn more about the “quick buck.”
Reward of Honour
What about honor? The Hebrew word for honour, כּבוד (kā•ḇȏḏ, pronounced “kah-vōd”), occurs 376 times in the Bible. The root word means “heavy” or “weighty.” Figuratively it refers to someone who carries weight or importance in society, someone impressive and worthy of respect. The word appears first in Genesis 31:1 when it refers to the wealth of Laban. It refers to prestige and achievements, not so much in the sense of material assets, but in the sense of glory, splendour, and aura of accomplishment—all the good things someone has attained.
One might ask, how does someone who reverences others (in this case the LORD) deserve our respect? Shouldn’t we admire rebels who have the courage to stand on their own? Ironically God promises honour to those who show humility. He gives honour to those who honour Him (1 Samuel 2:30). To be honoured don’t seek to go up, but be willing to go down. Honour is meaningful only in a public forum. A man on a deserted island with many medals for bravery without others to admire him cannot be honoured.
Reward of Life
Life is mentioned last, but is clearly the most important. Riches are useless to a corpse. The life described in this text is written to people who were already alive, so what kind of life is it? How is it better than the life they already had? “Life” must mean more than ordinary human life. Does it mean longer life, healthier life, happier life, or a more fulfilling life? Let’s probe deeper.
The Hebrew word for life, “hay,” is used over 450 times and appears first in Genesis 1:20 describing swarms of living creatures made by God. As it appears first it relates to activity and motion.
Here is the description from the TWOT:
Throughout the OT (Old Testament) the possession of life is an intrinsic good... The OT speaks of life as the experience of life rather than as an abstract principle of vitality which may be distinguished from the body... Life is the ability to exercise all one’s vital power to the fullest: death is the opposite. The verb (haya) “to live” involves the ability to have life somewhere on the scale between the fullest enjoyment of all the powers of one’s being, with health and prosperity on the one hand and descent into trouble, sickness and death on the other.
I appreciate the words of Moses to the rest of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 as he offers Israel two choices: Life and prosperity or death and adversity. Then he tells them point blank: Choose life.
Rewards by Their Significance
I believe the sequence in order of importance is: 1. LIFE, 2. HONOUR, 3. RICHES. I put them in reverse order for the following reasons:
- Proverbs 22:1 recognizes honour ahead of riches, even great riches.
- Proverbs 3:16 puts life ahead of riches and honour as life appears in the right (typically stronger) hand, by itself, while riches and honour appear together in the left (typically weaker) hand.
- I once heard that in Hebrew, when numerous items are listed, the most important one appears in the end of the list.
- Upon some contemplation we all realize that life is the most important of these three. Riches and honour are no good to someone who is dead.
Based on the four points above, the three dimensions of reward are not of equal significance.
Here's another way to look at it. In arithmetic, the product in multiplication, comes from the multipliers: Full Reward = riches X honour X life. We know that 3x3x3= 27, but if any of the three multipliers is zero, tiny, or negative, the entire product is affected. For example: 3x3x0=0. A dead man does not benefit from any of his riches or honour. But all multipliers are not equally weighted. Again, in arithmetic terms: Riches + Honour (the weaker left hand in Proverbs 3:16) < Life ( the stronger right hand in Proverbs 3:16). From yet a different arithmetical perspective consider the inverse of the text: The reward of arrogance and defiance of the LORD is poverty, disgrace, and death.
Our Maker, Saviour, and Friend
Jesus once met a rich young ruler. The wealthy and respectable man came to Jesus on his own initiative. He already had riches and honour. He was a successful high-achiever, but sensed something important was still missing. He wanted a new type of life that would not decay. He wanted eternal life.
Jesus told him, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus was not opposed to wealth. Quite the contrary, Jesus wanted the young man to be wealthy, but told him to convert his treasures on earth to treasures in heaven. This story indicates once again that of the three blessings: Riches, honour, and life, the most important one is life!
A wise wealth manager will use his short term wealth to acquire permanent wealth. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to live healthy forever with public respect and riches that are forever secure? It's what Jesus told the rich young ruler but unfortunately he loved his (short term) wealth too much (Luke 18:18-23).
- Memorize the text in your favourite Bible translation and think about it often.
- Review events in your life which cost you money. Were you proud and arrogant shortly before?
- List examples of honour being of great value—even more than wealth.
- Determine how you can personally increase your fear of the LORD.
- Research God's full reward for Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 16:9, 17:3,4,5, 18:31
Which of these steps, if any, does Jesus want you to take now? Ask Him.