Proverbs is addressed to three groups of people: the simple, young, and wise. The simple are those who are naïve and immature due to a lack of training. They may lack training because of their youth or, if they are older, because they lacked opportunity. There is hope that if exposed to time and sound teaching, they can mature. The young lack training simply because of age. The third group addressed in Proverbs is the wise. Though they have already received training and exhibit maturity and good sense in their lives, if they continue to apply themselves to wisdom they can learn and grow even more. (Proverbs 26:12 and Proverbs 29:20 hold out slight hope for the fool. 26:12 says there is more hope for a fool than for someone wise in his own eyes, and 29:20 says there is more hope for fool than someone who speaks in haste. Since there isn’t much hope for someone wise in his own eyes or for someone who speaks without thinking, there isn’t very much hope for the fool.)
An important principle in Proverbs that contributes to the development of wisdom is listening. To listen is to receive instruction. The first teaching section of Proverbs begins with the warning to “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” (Proverbs 1:8) Following this admonition a father enjoins his son to resist the invitations of foolish and criminal elements to pursue pleasure, relationships and monetary gain through unethical and violent means.
To listen to words of instruction means more than to just hear the words. Involved in the process is devoting attention. “Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it.” (Proverbs 8:33; Cf. also Proverbs 7:24 - “Now then my sons, listen to me; pay attention to what I say.”)
There is some irony to Proverbs exhorting a young man to listen to wisdom, since, assuming the young man is reading Proverbs, he is devoting himself to a written document and not to the spoken word. But, if we recognize that the exhortation to listen is not the lesson itself, but an exhortation to listen to a wise lesson when one is presented, it may be understood the youth is to pay attention when his father or a respected community leader speaks.
Another explanation for this irony is to realize that “to listen” means more than to just hear wise words. It means to obey them. The introduction to the first teaching section of Proverbs, 1:8, says “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not despise your mother’s teaching.” The lesson that follows demonstrates that the father wants his son to do far more than just listen to his words. He wants his son to obey. The inducements to pursue pleasure, friendship and wealth through criminal activity can be very enticing to a young man. Just as in Solomon’s day, we can see young men today led into criminal and gang behavior for all the reasons Proverbs explicates. The appeal to join such a group resonates deeply in the heart of a young man who lacks direction or lacks connection to a meaningful group, whether a family, church, or even a sports team. The father of Proverbs 1:8 knew this, so he urged his son to listen, pay attention, and obey his words to “not go along with them” (the criminal elements). He followed his exhortation and lesson with the stern warning that those who pursue such a foolish and violent lifestyle “lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves!” (1:18). Those who pursue violence will attract violence into their own lives. So, the father wants his son to do more than listen; he wants him to obey.
These words in Proverbs about listening to parents for the sake of your own health and life sounds like something that could, and should, be said by parents to their children today. And, many do say that. You know what is out there. You know the dangers that lurk in the darkness, that lurk even in the pursuit of some pleasures. So, as loving parents, very much in the Spirit of the Proverbs, we tell our kids, “Don’t go there.”
Listening to parents is not about being denied a good time. Listening to parents is about staying alive, so we can enjoy many more good times in the future.