Children and Wisdom: Proverbs 4:10-27 (Thomas Schreiner)
Proverbs is a book for children and parents. One of the purposes of the book is found in 1:4, where Solomon tells us that the book was written to give discretion to youth. Solomon wrote so children would have wisdom and sound judgment, so that they would live in a way that pleases God. The discourses in the first 9 chapters are the words of a father for his son, showing that the instruction of the book is for children. At the same time, it gives us a model for how parents should teach their children. How tender and urgent are the instructions the father gives to his son. We learn from these chapters the value and preciousness of children.
In western culture children are often only celebrated if they are convenient and wanted. This is obviously true with respect to abortion. Over 50 million children have been put to death in the US since Roe vs. Wade was passed in 1973. It is one of the horrors of our time, a horror that is defended in our laws as a nation. The status of children is also evident in the declining birth rate in many western countries. Many countries in Europe face an uncertain future because of the low birth rate, including Germany, Holland, Belgium, Spain, and Italy. A remarkably different attitude towards children has emerged in western culture.
I think I can illustrate the point from my own family. My parents had eight children and sixteen grandchildren. I am the sixth out of eight children. But our children are the only ones out of the sixteen grandchildren who are married and have children. A new view of marriage and having children has arisen among many in the western world.
I remember well a lunch-time meeting when I was first hired at a Christian college many years ago now. Two of the women went on and on about why they didn’t like children. I remember feeling depressed after being with them. How incredibly sad and distorted to have such a view of children.
Praise God for the love for children that is evident at Clifton Baptist Church, where I pastor. This is evident from our burgeoning nursery. It is evident from the many large families present in our church. It is evident from the culture of adoption at Clifton. We don’t teach that everyone should marry. Some are called to be single. And we don’t teach that everyone is called to have large families or that everyone should be called upon to adopt. We don’t think those who have larger families or those who adopt are more godly. But we rejoice in large families and encourage the culture of adoption. We reject the notion that large families are bad for the environment. As a church we welcome children, and in doing so we follow the Jesus himself who said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Loving and celebrating children is only the beginning. For disciples are made, not born. And as believers we are called upon to disciple our children.
There are many verses in Proverbs about raising children, but they constellate around several major themes.
- Parents must teach their children.
- Parents must discipline their children.
- Children must respond to the training given by their parents.
Parents must teach their children.
Solomon especially emphasizes the importance of teaching. Teaching is the fundamental responsibility of parents. As I already said, the first nine chapters are the words of a father to his son. And the entire book constitutes teaching for children. Listen to the following proverbs, and you will see how urgent it is for parents to teach their children.
We read in Prov. 1:8: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” Note here that the teaching and instruction aren’t only the responsibility of the father, but both the father and the mother. Mothers play a crucial and indispensable role in the teaching of their children, especially since they are typically with their children more than fathers. We must be careful of an exaggerated emphasis on male leadership that diminishes the crucial role mothers play in teaching. Still, Proverbs also stresses the importance of fathers in teaching their children. How easy it is for fathers to think: teaching the children is the job of the mother. So, they sit back and are passive and don’t play a major role in instructing their children. How many Christian fathers have failed here. They get so busy in their work that they neglect teaching their own children. But the role of the father is crucial. Fathers, don’t shirk this responsibility.
Note also that teaching isn’t restricted to special and formal times. Deut. 6:7 admonishes parents to teach their children “when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” Proverbs picks up the everyday nature of teaching from Deuteronomy. We read in Prov. 6:20-23,
“My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.”
Formal teaching is important, but often the best opportunities for instruction arise spontaneously, as life is lived. In such moments children see what is on your heart as a parent. What comes out of your mouth in the course of a day shows what you treasure as a parent. In other words, children will know what you truly believe and truly love. They will catch it from you. They will know if God is your treasure. It will be apparent to them if you really cling to the gospel. If you are a parent, work at communicating what you think about all of life with your children. Talk to them about all of life as you experience it: culture, politics, baseball, music, television, advertisements, etc. On the other hand, beware of being negative. Beware of being a legalist. Beware of being excessively critical. You could overemphasize what I am saying here and tire your children out by lecturing them about everything. We need spiritual wisdom to find a balance here. Remember that your children are children. But give your children a biblical perspective on every realm of life. Formal teaching also has a role. Most formal teaching with children should be brief.
We see the importance of formal teaching in 2:1. “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” Treasuring probably has the idea of memorizing in it. Memorizing isn’t the whole of learning, but it often gets a bad rap today. Children have a great capacity for memorizing Scripture and catechisms. What a wonderful way to get them to treasure right teaching. True teaching, however, also targets the heart. We see this in a number of proverbs.
Prov. 3:1, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments.”
Prov. 4:3-5 “When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, he taught me and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.’”
Prov. 4:20-23, “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
We see that parents should start teaching their children at a young age. Teaching should be age appropriate of course. We don’t read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology to five year olds, but do teach your children when they are tender and young. Furthermore, aim for obedience from the heart. Notice again the words we just read: “Let your heart keep my commandments.” And “Let your heart hold fast to my words.” “Keep them within your heart.” “Keep your heart with all vigilance.” Surely, such teaching is accompanied by fervent prayer so that children will have God’s word and instruction imprinted on their hearts.
We pray for the salvation of our children, so the new covenant work of the Holy Spirit will be theirs. Ultimately, children need a supernatural work of grace, so that they love what is taught. That means they love the gospel. And that is what children need most of all.
Let me take just a moment in case you aren’t a Christian and explain the gospel to you briefly, for nothing is more important than this. Parents, it is your responsibility to teach this gospel to your children. First, since God created us we owe him our obedience and our utmost devotion. Second, we have all failed to obey and treasure God. All of us have rebelled against him. We have gone our own way. We have lived for ourselves instead of trusting and obeying God. Third, God will punish those who have sinned against him by sending them to hell. Fourth, God in his great mercy and love sent his Son to atone for our sins. Jesus died in the place of sinners, taking upon himself the punishment we deserve. Fifth, those who put their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation and who give their lives to him will be saved.
Friend, if you don’t know that gospel today, nothing is more important than this message. If you don’t believe it, you will be separated from God forever. And parents, nothing is more important for your children than this message. Children, you are not guaranteed of salvation just because you grew up in a Christian family. You need to turn to Christ for salvation and to turn away from your sins.
Now back to the main point: Proverbs emphasizes the instruction of children. Teaching is the most important function of discipleship. Too many Christian families don’t instruct their children. Note that instruction is not fundamentally the job of the church but the parents. The church can assist to some degree. But the role of the church is very small compared to the role of parents. I have seen parents get so worked up about the children’s ministry director or the youth person over the years. Such positions are important of course. But parents, you are far and away the most important influence and teachers of your children. Children watch their parents to see if what they are taught is truly lived out in their parents’ lives. They don’t know their teachers and pastors to the same degree. How often parents blame churches for where their children are spiritually. But such a perspective is completely misguided. God calls upon you as parents to train and teach your children.
Many proverbs communicate this truth. Prov. 13:24 says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” This proverb is directed to parents who are hesitant to discipline their child, because they think that such discipline is unloving. But actually, we are told, the failure to discipline represents a lack of love. The Bible doesn’t justify physical abuse, but it endorses loving discipline.
Proverbs 19:18 says something very similar. “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.” True discipline stems from a heart of love. We discipline our children because we want them to have life. As Prov. 23:13-14 says, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”
William Webb has recently written a book, Corporal Punishment in the Bible, rejecting all corporal punishment, arguing that the message of the whole Bible shows that we now transcend what Proverbs teaches. Certainly, we agree with Webb that all forms of abuse are wrong. But we must also be careful lest we think we are more loving, sensitive, moral, and kind than our ancestors. Furthermore, we can easily fail to see our own cultural weaknesses. We live in a narcissistic me-centered age. On the one hand, that leads to a neglect of children, but in some situations it can lead to the spoiling of children. Children can become the center of the parents’ universe, and they fail to see that their children are annoying to everyone but them. Loving corporal discipline isn’t the only tool at our disposal, but it is one way God has given us to shape the character of our children.
Notice that we are told that it can save our children from Sheol and death. In other words, such discipline can save our children from final destruction. We must beware of thinking that we are wiser and more loving than God. Whether we discipline our children depends upon our theology. What is the nature of children? Are they naturally good? We read in Prov. 22:15, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” Children are born with a sin nature, and discipline drives foolishness out of us. We see the same truth in Prov. 29:15, “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”
Here is where our narcissistic generation has gone wrong. Many say, “let children develop their own unique personality, and they will turn out wonderfully.” “Everyone is inherently beautiful. Let your intrinsic beauty manifest itself.” This is a half-truth. Children are beautiful because they are made in God’s image, but they are also marred by sin. So the Bible says that if we allow children to go their own way, they will bring shame on their mothers. The answer is found in Prov. 29:17, “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.”
Have you been in a home where there is not loving discipline? Often such homes are filled with confusion and turmoil. All homes have turmoil at times. But ultimately children who are disciplined “will give delight to your heart.” You and your children will be happier if they are disciplined. As Prov. 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Dedicate a child in the right way, and normally children will follow the right path. That isn’t a promise, but it is a general principle. We can have confidence in raising our children. But that brings us to the third truth from Proverbs.
Children must respond to the teaching of their parents.
The responsibility for obedience ultimately lies on the child, not the parents. Prov. 13:1 says, “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” Finally, the decision to be wise belongs to the child. Children, you can become stubborn and rebellious. As Prov. 19:27 says, “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.” Children can harden their heart to the things of God. So, Solomon says in Prov. 23:26, “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.” Children, how important it is for you to keep your hearts open to God’s word, and that will be shown especially by how you respond to the teaching of your parents.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that children are neutral. Children reveal their relationship to God by their actions. Prov. 20:11 says, “Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” Isn’t that fascinating? We know where children are spiritually to a great extent by their actions and conduct. Some children end up being fools, and the proverbs emphasize such foolishness is their own choice. Listen to the following proverbs. Prov 30:11 says, “There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers.” Or Prov. 30:17 says, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.” We are meant to feel how horrific it is for children to mock and scorn their parents. They deserve to have their eyes pecked out by birds and to be eaten by vultures like the dead carcass of a squirrel.
Similarly, Prov. 20:20 says, “If one curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in utter darkness.” There will be no light or joy for those who denigrate their parents. Parents who have foolish children, children who reject the Lord are filled with grief. Prov. 17:25 says, “A foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him.” We read in 17:21, “He who sires a fool gets himself sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy.” We find these words in Prov. 29:3, “He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth.” Or consider Prov. 15:20, “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish man despises his mother.” What heartache there is if a child is a fool and turns away from the Lord, but what joy for parents, what incredible joy, if they follow the Lord.
Still, it is finally the child’s responsibility to be a fool or wise. Children, we want to see you in heaven. Don’t be fools! Be wise. Listen to the teaching of your parents as they point you to God. Submit yourself to them for your joy and for theirs. And parents, never give up on your children. Don’t stay mired in discouragement if they aren’t following the Lord. Remember the story of the prodigal son who came home after living a dissolute life for many years. Keep loving and teaching them in age appropriate ways. Pray for them every day. Lift them up to God’s throne and ask our Father to reveal Jesus Christ to them. Plead with our Father, plead with him, to show them mercy.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.