This article began as a supplement to our study on Proverbs 29.
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Discussion Topics to Get You Started
Here are four different ideas to get your brains moving, all related to the passage we're studying this week, but very different in tone.
1. Your Most Memorable Lesson about Discipline Growing Up
Everybody has a good story about being disciplined as a child. I didn't do a whole lot growing up, so I don't have too many stories, but one day (2nd grade?) a "friend" down the street talked me into throwing rocks at cars that were driving by. One driver stopped and came after us (!). And once at Chuck-E-Cheese, a "friend" and I thought it would be a good idea to spank the bird character. We did it so much that she pulled us into the hall and took off the headgear (!). "Peer pressure" never had the same hold on me after that.
What are some memories you have about being disciplined? And in this case, I'm thinking of "effective" discipline -- something that happened to you that worked. Something that actually helped direct you down a better path of behavior. Solomon challenges us to be willing to accept discipline!
2. Open Mouth, Insert Foot
How many of you know the word "blurt"? It was a favorite word in the books I read growing up, so it became seared into my memory. It means "speak impulsively". It's a very strange word. Linguists think it's an onomatopoeia (blurt!).
Have you ever blurted something out and wish you hadn't? Blurting is common. Psychology Today has a 2014 article called "Why We Can't Keep Our Mouths Shut"; it talks about the reasons behind blurting as well as gives surprisingly helpful methods to stop yourself from blurting. According to the author, blurting leads to "embarrassment, regret, and offense"; it's no wonder we should not want to do it!
Do you have any shareable stories of "foot-in-mouth" disease? Being reminded just how cringeworthy our words and actions can be will equally remind us why the kind of discipline Solomon talks about in our passage this week is important!
3. The Importance and Challenge of Discipline in Schools
I'm not a teacher, so I will leave this topic to the teachers and former teachers you probably have in your small group. Maintaining discipline in schools is absolutely critical to a positive learning environment.
My elementary school in Texas used "corporal punishment" (a whiffle bat the principal kept mounted on the wall of his office). (By the way -- don't get sidetracked in a debate about corporal punishment. That's not the point of this lesson! It's more that discipline is maintained, not how it is maintained.)
In those days, teachers were given authority to maintain discipline. Unfortunately, some teachers over the years abused that authority, and over the years it has thus eroded. (Don't do an internet search on this; there are some horrifying stories and pictures out there. Human depravity is a thing.) Today, teachers are not always given the support and authority needed to maintain discipline. And the kids know it. (This will be verse 15.)
According to Solomon in these verses, the foundation of all discipline is in the home. Teachers are handcuffed for two reasons: (1) children have not learned how to show respect for discipline in the home, and (2) parents do not prioritize discipline for their children. If this has at all been your experience, then you already realize that Solomon was right.
4. There Is a Line between Discipline and Bullying: NCAA Football
This topic is sure to get a rise out of your football fans. The football coaching profession has attracted great men -- leaders who were father-figures to every boy who came through their team. It has also attracted autocrats -- men who liked to be in charge and have absolute control over staff and players.
This has always been a problem in football. Some of those autocratic coaches have failed to realize that some of their disciplinary methods are no different than bullying. (Verbal abuse, physical abuse, and cruel deprivations are indefensible. That's bullying.)
In the wake of our summer of discontent, a number of college football players have come forward with stories of racial injustice, inequality, and mistreatment in their programs. Some of those stories are very troubling. In each case, the common thread is a disciplinary method gone too far. And when that happens, it's no longer discipline. It's just bullying.
You see, discipline with purpose and love is what Solomon is talking about in our passage. But discipline that is no different than bullying actually runs counter to everything Solomon says -- it accomplishes the opposite. It doesn't have a positive end; it just tears down and leaves bitter.
Want to know how those topics fit into our passage this week? Keep reading!
Where We Are in Proverbs
Chapters 25-29 are labeled as proverbs from Solomon that were collected in Hezekiah's time. While it's certainly possible that these were not written by Solomon, all we know is that King Hezekiah attributed these to Solomon. That's good enough for me.
Part 1: The Goal [of Discipline] (Proverbs 29:1-3)
1 One who becomes stiff-necked, after many reprimands will be shattered instantly—beyond recovery. 2 When the righteous flourish, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, people groan. 3 A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father, but one who consorts with prostitutes destroys his wealth.
I think we need to start here: what is discipline (the verb)?
In the Bible, it refers to moral training. The positive side of this is instruction, and the negative side is correction (including punishment). Let's keep this in mind as we listen to what Solomon has to say. Consider these proverbs:
5: 22 A wicked man’s iniquities will trap him; he will become tangled in the ropes of his own sin. 23 He will die because there is no discipline, and be lost because of his great stupidity.
10: 17 The one who follows instruction is on the path to life, but the one who rejects correction goes astray.
13: 18 Poverty and disgrace come to those who ignore discipline, but the one who accepts correction will be honored.
The purpose and goal of proper, biblical discipline must be the life, health, and honor of the one being disciplined. Any purpose other than that is not what Solomon has in mind. Nothing mean-spirited, nothing belittling, nothing bullying -- that's not what our lesson is about.
[Aside: that's why we separate, say, our criminal justice system into a different category of discipline. Everything there has the dual purpose of rehabilitation and punition. Some of those sentences are primarily rehabilitative, and some are primarily punitive. That's different that what Solomon is talking about.]
With all of that in mind, take another look at these three verses. What is Solomon saying? It's only tangentially about "discipline" per se.
Verse 1 is literally about "a man of rebukes who hardens himself". "Stiff-necked" is an idiom meaning the opposite of "bent-backed". The person with a bent back is submissive to the extreme -- no personal pride. The person with a stiff neck is obstinate to the extreme -- will not listen to anyone for any reason. This phrase occurs only 13 times in the Bible; the other twelve are about the people of God. Acts 7:51: "You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also."
Eventually, this person who continues to resist all correction will simply be destroyed. While that sounds dramatic, think of it this way: years of decisions put a person in a position to be taken out in a sudden catastrophe.
The person who refuses to evacuate before a hurricane
The person who refuses to stop smoking
The person who refuses to save money
Verse 2 is interesting and more meaningful than you might realize. The parallelism is exact except for the verb -- "flourish" means nothing like "rule". "Flourish" is about quantity; this could be translated "when the righteous are numerous". Simply by being present, righteous people bring joy to the country. Conversely, simply by being in power, wicked people bring suffering to the country (even if they are few in number). Is that true in your estimation? Can they both be true at the same time? What does it mean for our community?
The way we would connect this verse with the lesson's theme of "discipline" is by consequence. "Righteous" are those who wisely listened to correction and took discipline to heart. "Wicked" are those who were stiff-necked and fail to discipline others wisely.
Verse 3 puts these themes into contrasts. "The man who loves wisdom" is the one who listens to correction, is not stiff-necked, and is probably righteous. If you have a child who fits that description, you know what a blessing it is. Consider Solomon's first proverb:
10: 1 A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son, heartache to his mother.
Why not just say the same thing in 29:3? Because the imagery of 29:3 is intended to be scandalous to the extreme. It's scandalous enough to have a son that does this, but think about it: whose wealth has been destroyed? The father's! Double scandal! You know from our other lessons in Proverbs that Solomon was very concerned about seduction; he considered it a major problem for the young men in Israel. Perhaps prostitution isn't as big an industry in our part of the world, but our young people are still be seduced at an alarming rate by something or another equally scandalous.
The point? Listen to wisdom and good things will happen (to you and the people around you). Be obstinate and bad things will happen.
But let's also look at this as an American reader, generations removed from Solomon. These verses also remind us why discipline matters:
Accepting discipline now saves us from future disaster
Accepting discipline now makes us a good part of our society
Accepting discipline now prevents us from squandering our wealth
That should accomplish two things for us: (1) it should make us want to receive discipline, and (2) it should guide us in giving the right kind of discipline. As adults, we discipline children, employees, other charges. Let's make sure we have the right goal and purpose.
Think of the last time you had to discipline someone. Do you remember why you did it, how you did it, and what came of it? Would knowing what you know now change how you did it? If so, then take these lessons to heart!
I believe Lifeway intended the next part of the lesson to encourage you to go to God when you need help knowing how to apply these verses. That's not what these verses are about. Read James 1 for that.
Part 2: The Availability [of God's Wisdom] (Proverbs 29:12-14)
12 If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials will be wicked. 13 The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the Lord gives light to the eyes of both. 14 A king who judges the poor with fairness— his throne will be established forever.
These final chapters of Proverbs certainly jump around a lot. But these three verses work together.
A king who listens to lies will force his officials to resort to lies to maintain their place, devolving the entire court into wickedness.
Wicked rulers are oppressive, particularly of the poor who cannot resist them. But God has given all people the ability to discern what's really going on.
A king who is fair with the poor will be fair with everyone, and everyone loves a fair king.
It's pretty simple, really, and there's not much to argue about. A government takes on the personality of its leader. Not wanting you to get sidetracked on an unending political debate, let me offer the International Olympic Committee as your example. The president of that committee apparently really liked making and spending money, and so an entire ecosystem of corruption and bribery evolved. And no one stopped it because they also liked making and spending money. That's what Solomon was talking about.
Conversely, a ruler who will always be fair and impartial -- even when it brings him against wealthy powers -- will have the love of the people because he has proven that he cares about everyone equally. (Much easier said than done!)
Note: this begs a further debate about "The 1%", wealth inequality, taxation, and capitalism. Avoid it! We've talked about wealth multiple times in this series on Proverbs, and nothing has changed. Wealth is not the problem; how one acquires it and uses it is. A government can have favorable or unfavorable policies toward the wealthiest and it doesn't change how those wealthiest should behave. The point here is how we are supposed to respond to discipline, not what we think about fiscal policy. (Discuss that over lunch.)
Part 3: The Responsibility (Proverbs 29:15-17)
15 A rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a youth left to himself is a disgrace to his mother. 16 When the wicked increase, rebellion increases, but the righteous will see their downfall. 17 Discipline your child, and it will bring you peace of mind and give you delight.
This section pairs nicely with Part 1 (in fact, verses 1/15, 2/16, and 3/17 make perfect sense together). If Part 1 reminds us what the proper goal of discipline should be, Part 3 reminds us what the best context of discipline should be: the home and family. I mentioned this above -- if a child does not have a good model for discipline growing up, he or she will have no foundation to accept discipline from a teacher, a coach, or any other authority figure.
Moms and dads have a responsibility to their child and to society to discipline their children. They cannot effectively abdicate that responsibility to someone else (unless they let that other truly become the parent).
Let's talk about this "rod of correction". There is no debate that the Hebrew words mean that the rod itself is the instrument of correction. This is talking about corporal punishment.
22: 15 Foolishness is bound to the heart of a youth; a rod of discipline will separate it from him.
23: 13 Don’t withhold discipline from a youth; if you punish him with a rod, he will not die. 14 Punish him with a rod, and you will rescue his life from Sheol.
But let me remind you of what we learned in Part 1: the purpose of "the rod of discipline" must be the long-term good of the child. The rod being wielded for any other reason is unacceptable. We all know heartbreaking stories of dads (and moms) who abused their kids, perhaps under the guise of "discipline", leading to lifelong challenges for that child to overcome.
I think verse 15 gives us the proper perspective of how and when "the rod" can be used: is our intent to impart godly, biblical wisdom? It must be godly and biblical wisdom, otherwise that's not what Solomon is talking about. (If your "lesson" didn't come from the Bible, then you'd better be really careful how you teach it.)
[I love how in pictures labeled "discipline", the parent is always pointing. Where did that start? I do it. What does it even mean?]
You must teach godly, biblical wisdom in a godly, biblical manner. The Bible uses words like "kind" and "patient" and "constructive" in this context. Can you apply those words to "the rod of discipline"? Absolutely. How would you do so? Here are some rules that jumped to mind: Never strike a child in anger. Never strike a child without warning. Never strike a child without him knowing why first. What other rules can you think of? (Note: this might mean that you shouldn't use the rod in a certain situation!)
Let's talk more about this. Is "the rod" the only form of discipline available to parents? Of course not! While Solomon does mention "the rod", he also talks about discipline without a rod. The larger point is to use whatever form of discipline with your child that achieves the proper result (and what is the proper use of discipline, again?).
What are ways parents can discipline their children? Here are some that I experienced:
"A Talk". Make your child sit down and talk about why they did the thing that they shouldn't have. Make your child work out the reasons behind their behavior. Make your child develop a plan to change that behavioral response.
Stricter Limits. Explain that negative behavior comes with consequences and describe the impact. In this method, those limits may be negotiated. Make sure your child connects the behavior with the consequence.
Behavior Modification. This is the reward-and-punishment approach. While spanking is one form of punishment, it is not the only one. Parents need to use the method they believe to be effective -- time-out, no tv, no dessert, etc.
Obviously, not every method works for every child. Micah had a bad week one week, and we started removing his toys. We eventually removed every toy from his room and he just started playing with boxes and clothes. So, that didn't work. We found a method that did, and that's what we ended up using.
[Personal aside: I have two great kids. I know of kids who have gone through really rebellious seasons, and I don't have experience with that. If you're having trouble with your kids, someone other than me will be able to give you far better advice! The internet overflows with parenting advice; some of it is probably helpful.]
Solomon says something that should have never been questioned: kids need discipline. Left to their own devices, most kids will "burn the house down" so to speak. We have a term for a child who is never disciplined: a spoiled brat. (Let me clarify: there is a small percentage of kids who are self-disciplined, self-motivated, and self-governed. They thrive apart from adult oversight which tends to hold them back. Most of us are not that.) Nobody likes a brat.
Is it a coincidence that Solomon puts a proverb about wickedness in a country between two proverbs about the importance of discipline in the home? Yes, these chapters don't look like they have an overarching structure, but this looks intentional to me.
What happens to children who grow up without discipline and are not taught respect for authority? They turn into adults who don't have discipline or respect for authority. And how is that going to turn out for the country?
Have you watched the news this year?
Solomon was very, very wise. And prescient.
Aside: Why We Can't Blame Millennials
Well, really, we need to blame their parents, but that's not even what I'm talking about. This is going to be my "culture think piece" for the week. This is not for discussion on Sunday morning; it's just something I think is important for us older adults to understand.
Millennials and Free Speech
For years now, sociologists have observed how Millennials are skeptical about free speech. They have been supportive of the trend away from comments sections. They embrace socialism and Marxism.
A number of luminary journalists including Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss have recently resigned from their positions because of the rise of censorship (and "cancel culture"!) that has affected journalists all over the country (if someone doesn't like what you wrote, they call for you to be fired). Importantly, they specifically blame the environment at liberal arts universities. It's called the "campus activism theory": at college, these kids were indoctrinated into a program of progressivism and censorship (and there is a scary amount of Marx in it), and now they have applied that worldview to their world.
I see their point, but I also agree with the conclusion of the article that's linked above:
The internet has turned out to be the worst innovation in political dissemination—at least in the U.S.—since cable news. Millennials were the first generation to spend their formative years online, stewing in misinformation, bigotry, harassment, and trolling at massive scale and real-time pace. These millennials didn’t binge-read Marx. They hate-read the comments, and now they’ve arguably become maladapted to them. They developed their pessimism about free speech principles in response to the massive and bewildering transition to digital democracy.
For people who didn't grow up on the internet, we don't understand this. We rightly believe that free speech and free press is absolutely necessary for our country not to fall into totalitarianism. But for everyone who has grown up on the internet, "free speech" means harassment and trolling.
More than 40% of Americans experienced some form of online harassment last year. More than 80% of adult internet users observed some kind of harassment online -- 2/3 of that was on social media platforms, and 1/4 was in a comment section. More than 90% of internet users believe that the internet enables destructive criticism.
Bullying and Discipline
Now, what does any of this have to do with the topic of discipline? It's what I said before about the purpose of discipline.
What is discipline in the Bible? Moral instruction. How do we receive moral instruction? When we say or do something outside the bounds of biblical morality, someone takes us aside and instructs us on what the Bible says. Easy, right?
But what happens on the internet? (One, there is no biblical morality, but let's set that aside.) When someone says something someone else disagrees with, there is no discourse. There is only bullying. And there is no positive outcome to bullying. And Millennials have grown up with that experience. And it's only gotten worse for the generation coming up after them!
Does that make sense? Millennials have experienced the worst in "correction" and they don't want anything to do with it. Biblical discipline will be associated with online bullying. How do we overcome that? Through personal relationships that don't involve the internet.
As the next verses explain, the outcome of this will still be disastrous for our country. But we need to not "blame" generations for this. We need to understand what has happened and make sure we are not contributing to the problem. Next week, I hope to put out a resource about the proper use of social media -- that's taking longer than I thought it would to write!
Part 4: The Source (Proverbs 29:18-20)
18 Without revelation people run wild, but one who follows divine instruction will be happy. 19 A servant cannot be disciplined by words; though he understands, he doesn’t respond. 20 Do you see someone who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
You might know verse 18 as "Where there is no vision, the people perish". That has been misapplied to church building campaigns for decades. The word for "revelation" literally refers to "prophetic message from God". In other words, it has nothing to do with a leader's "vision" -- it has to do with the truth of God.
When the people do not have or do not listen to the Word of God, they will run wild. They will be just like the child who is "left to himself". Imagine a country like that! Lord of the Flies on a grand scale (of course, wasn't that the point of the book in the first place?)!
Making up your own rules is fine if you can make good rules. But who can do that? Only God. "Divine instruction" is how to live life the way God intended. (Note: we have to read the Bible as a whole. We cannot take Old Testament law in isolation. We must see it in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Don't get sidetracked by unhelpful "but what about such-and-such law" comments!)
Verse 19 is interesting. On the one hand, it seems to directly contradict some of the disciplinary methods I mentioned above; on the other, it only really makes sense in the light of verse 18. Woodenly, it means this: "a household slave cannot be disciplined by words alone because even when he understands, he will simply ignore you". That sounds pretty harsh!
So let's relate it to the method I mentioned above: "The Talk". We all know that some kids do not respond to that method at all. In one ear, out the other. Or worse, they have learned how to game the system -- how to say what the authority figure wants to hear in order to get them off of their back. We all know that happens. At that point, the authority figure is foolish and naïve to continue to use that method because it has become meaningless and counterproductive.
What's harsh about this verse is that Solomon seems to apply it to every slave. To me, that creates the very toxic environment that I said godly discipline cannot create. However, the word the Septuagint used is translated "the stubborn slave/servant". Hebrew obviously allows for that nuance, and assuming that's what Solomon meant, it clarifies the entire verse:
A stubborn servant cannot be disciplined by words alone.
That being true, now look at it in light of verse 18. People without divine guidance are like stubborn, unruly servants. Whoa! But then, isn't that true? Look back at what I said above about "stiff-nicked people" in the Bible. Go and read those verse references. What happened to the stiff-necked people? God disciplined them. Let me put this together:
God treated His people with respect as adults. He gave them "the talk" about responsibility and relationship. He gave them boundaries in the law. He sent prophets to remind them of consequences. And when they repeatedly failed to listen, He sent armies to conquer them and punish them physically. Is that a reasonable progression of methods?
We can choose not to listen to God. We can run wild following our own rules and desires. But sooner or later God will stop using words and bring out the divine equivalent of a rod.
One example of the person who runs wild is someone who can't control his mouth. This goes back to the "blurt" topic I mentioned above. There are entire campaigns out there about "don't speak before you think". Why? Because people tend to speak before we think! And that's worse than foolish. (!)
If you have the stomach for it, share some examples of things you wish you hadn't said or that you wish you had thought about longer before saying. I love sarcastic humor and quips. But every so often, a quip comes out that I really wish I hadn't said -- a joke that really wasn't that funny. I try to offer an apology as soon as I realize what I said, but wouldn't it be better not to have to make that apology in the first place? What lasting damage can be caused by blurts? That's why Solomon calls the person who blurts worse than a fool.
So, a whole bunch to learn in this passage!
The reason why discipline matters (good of society).
The most important context for discipline (the home).
The proper purpose and motive for discipline (well-being and love).
The right progression of discipline (words to rods).
The outcome of discipline (happy, well-adjusted people).
Now -- is that just for kids?