Proverbs is about easy sex, easy money, good and bad friendships, beauty, fear of what others think of me, careless lending, laziness and work, pleasure and pain, impetuous angry reactions, unguarded careless speech, a good or bad reputation. The list goes on and on. Pithy statements about hundreds of life experiences that concern young adults and God’s wisdom for them all: that’s Proverbs.
Proverbs: A Young Adults’ Book
Proverbs is a young adults’ book. Proverbs 1:4 says pointedly that the book is to give “…knowledge and discretion to the youth.” The Hebrew word for youth, na’ar, is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament and overwhelmingly refers to young people from puberty until full adulthood—about age 30. (Witness bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah at age 13 and 12, respectively, continuing in today’s Jewish culture—the age at which a boy enters young manhood and a girl young womanhood.)
Na’ar have all the capacities of full adults, all the accountability of full adults, but not all the freedom of full adults. That’s why they are referred to as “young” adults. They are still under the authority of parents. Proverbs is tailored to youth (and younger children, too, as parents and teachers summarize the concepts more simply). The brevity, poetic nature, real-life connections with interests of young adults, and the consequential focus of practicing or not practicing this wisdom are crafted artfully and tailored skillfully for this life-shaping season in their lives.
God’s Wise Approach to Young People
In my work with teens over the last 40+ years, a few observations about God’s wise approach to young people in Proverbs jump out at me. Others are there, but these leap to the front of my mind for reflection. Youth workers and parents must give attention to God’s approach and imitate it to offer helpful counsel to youth.
1. All counsel to young people is ministry.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning” of both “knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7) and “wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Youth workers need to be conscious that every word they speak is counsel moving young people toward or away from God’s wise will for life. Different Hebrew words translated “beginning” are used in these verses. Both words locate teens in God’s redemptive universe. (LORD, YHWH, is the covenant, redemptive name of God.) “The earth is the LORD’s…” (Psalm 24:1). Everything belongs to Him and is for Him (Colossians 1:16). This includes the teen and his years.
In Proverbs 1:7 “beginning” means the fear of the LORD is the most important feature of knowledge. It’s like oxygen needed for your body to live. You can have a lot of other things, but without oxygen, you suffocate—die. All the knowledge in the world, like so many bits of data, will not hang together usefully in the long run (and often in the short run) without the fear of the LORD as the cohesive heart force to configure them accurately and healthfully. That’s true in every human area of life and Proverbs identifies hundreds of them. “Why do you want me to live, LORD?” This is the beginning of useful thought in every realm of life. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega.
In Proverbs 9:10, the Hebrew word for “beginning” has to do with the order of things. Like buttoning a shirt or launching a rocket—the way you begin will affect the way you end. The fear of the LORD is the most critical place to start to get perspective about putting life together (wisdom). “How do you want me to live, LORD?” This is the beginning of useful behavior in every area. How do I use what I’m learning about this world and life so that I’m not fleeing from a lion and meet a bear and flee from the bear and lean against a wall in my house of safety only to be bitten by a snake (Amos 5:19)?
2. All counsel to young people is consequential.
We do not have to read far into Proverbs to get the sense that the sages who are writing are holding out both positive and negative temporal consequences to motivate young people to make good choices. (Chapter 1 verse 2 gets the tsunami of consequences rolling.) There are eternal implications to every decision, to be sure. But the here and now of life is in the forefront for teens, and it is in the forefront of counsel to teens in Proverbs.
By my count, there are 368 negative and 324 positive temporal consequences held out for young people to consider in their life making-decisions in Proverbs: the profit from hard work, the poverty from laziness, the trap of making foolish promises, the vulnerability of being sexually seduced (even in the midst of the Christian community), the consequences of wise or foolish friendship choices, or any of hundreds of other outcomes. The sages of Proverbs keep waving these pleasant and painful results of youthful choices in front of them like a matador with his muleta or red cape to attract the bull.
These counselors are not neutral about what is good and wise living. Neither are they making the youth’s decisions for him. But they are being clear about what is wise and foolish in their options and why that is so.
3. The outward is a “way in” to the heart of the teen.
The usual outcomes from choices people make are a “way in” to the teens’ heart motives. As noted above, this is ministry. Our end goal is not just to get teens to do the right thing, like Pharisees. We want their “hearts” to be engaged principally. But as the nearly 700 consequences delineated in Proverbs seem to assert, with many teens, our helpfulness with counsel for them may need to begin on the outside. The outcomes and results teens want and can see as likely to occur often make the most sense to them.
The outside is where God seems to begin His conversation with young adults in their hundreds of decisions. This is not to contradict the first observation listed above. But what we have in mind and where we want to go with our counsel, is not necessarily where a teen with whom we meet wants to go at the beginning of our conversation. The “outside” is connected to the inside, for sure. We can make that linkage in time. As youth practice the wisdom-of-God-in-action, and see its fruit (and they usually will, Proverbs 9:10), we cultivate a trust relationship with them that can be strong enough to withstand deeper probing on our part and more serious (heart) self-assessment on theirs.
4. Teens are motivated by “wise wants.”
Teens generally want things that are good for them—by common grace, i.e. God’s general goodness to all. Sin twists these wise wants in many ways, of course, but underlying all the Proverbs is a curriculum of God-imbedded desires to which the sages are appealing in their counsel to youth.
“Long life is in her right hand…” (Proverbs 3:16a)
“Riches and honor are with me…” (Proverbs 8:18)
“A wise son makes a glad father…” (Proverbs 10:1)
“Good sense wins favor…” (Proverbs 13:15)
Think about the assumption that the counselor of young people in Proverbs is making for the counsel he gives in each of the above instances. Young adults want these good things. They want long life, riches, honor, glad parents, and a good reputation. That’s why these Proverbs make sense to teens. God holds these benefits out as the fruit of wise living.
Counselors can listen to young people to discern what they “want.” Sin will often have distorted the way they are defining and even pursuing their wants, but youth workers can affirm the God-implanted features of their desires and then go on to show how what they are doing or thinking and wanting is probably like shooting themselves in the foot. They are self-destructing! The door is now open to showing God’s wisdom way. When teens get that message, they often make serious changes to change the outcomes. If they do make these changes and you’ve been involved, you probably have built a pretty strong relationship to take your connection with the teen to the next serious, heart level.
5. You can accurately affirm young adults—about some choices they’ve made.
Because life is made up of so many choices, the teens you work with have undoubtedly made some good ones. The writers of Proverbs recognize that some of this good decision-making has been happening by virtue of the ongoing offers still open to them. They’ve not completely destroyed themselves yet. There is hope that they can make good choices like ones they’ve made in the past.
Sometimes teens we talk to feel hopeless. “Nothing I do is right! Everything I do is wrong!” I’ve often pointed out to the teen sitting with me that I notice he has clothes on. “That’s a good choice you made earlier today—unless your mom dressed you.” Another way of making this point is to ask if when they woke up this morning they felt a kind of pressure in their abdomen area and went to a little room down the hall and after a minute in there they felt better? “Do you mean did I go to the bathroom?” “Yes,” I respond. “That was a good decision!” I’ve never had a teen who didn’t laugh at that. It gets the point across. They can still make good decisions.
It’s true they’ve probably been making some bad choices. And those may be raining some painful consequences on them right now. But that is not all of who they are. Teens can often be myopic—a victim of tunnel-vision. They don’t see the big picture easily. You can help them get a wider perspective about their life, not as a way to patronize them, but to show them that they have made good choices in the past and can do it again. This can give them a measure of hope that “things can be different.” Change is possible because of the way God has made life to work.
There is a lot more to learn about the content and process of wise counsel to youth for us all. Observing our Father’s manner of guidance with these precious people in the Wisdom literature is the best place to start—and finish: “The end of the matter…Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole (duty is not in the Hebrew text) of man.” Total teen (and adult) identity is wrapped up in the “fear of the LORD.”
Join the Conversation
Think about reactions you’ve experienced in counseling youth when you’ve NOT had these patterns of communication in mind when talking to them. Do you have other observations from Proverbs about God’s wise counsel to young adults?