Listen and Live – Proverbs 1:20-33

By: Northern Seminary

My mother became hooked on smoking cigarettes when she was a teenager. That was back in the 1930s, long before there were any health warnings. Plenty thought it a bad habit, but my mother was as much a rebel as a teenager as anyone, so disapproval almost made it more certain she’d smoke.

By her mid-twenties my mother wished she’d never started on cigarettes. It was costing a lot of money, and eventually she realized it was damaging her health. All too often she felt out of breath. I was born when she was thirty, and from my youngest I remember my mother telling me never to start on cigarettes. But she couldn’t quit. She was addicted, and every attempt to give up never lasted.

Then she started to feel chest pains. She went to the doctor. I suspect he told her it was angina, and he urged her to stop smoking. But she didn’t, and eventually her health got bad enough I would have to help push her up the hill towards home.

Back to the doctor my mother went. His warnings were very sharp, along the lines of ‘Listen: give up cigarettes and live, or else these things will kill you.’ He was serious, and my mother knew it. At the end of this study, I’ll report what my mother did.

The last section of Proverbs 1 could easily get the title Listen and Live, for there are many warnings to pay heed to wisdom and live, because otherwise it’ll be too late.

Proverbs 1:20-33

20 Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square;
21 on top of the wall she cries out,
at the city gate she makes her speech:
22 “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?
How long will mockers delight in mockery
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Repent at my rebuke!
Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings.
24 But since you refuse to listen when I call
and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand,
25 since you disregard all my advice
and do not accept my rebuke,
26 I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you;
I will mock when calamity overtakes you—
27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm,
when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind,
when distress and trouble overwhelm you.
28 “Then they will call to me but I will not answer;
they will look for me but will not find me,
29 since they hated knowledge
and did not choose to fear the LORD.
30 Since they would not accept my advice
and spurned my rebuke,
31 they will eat the fruit of their ways
and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
32 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,
and the complacency of fools will destroy them;
33 but whoever listens to me will live in safety
and be at ease, without fear of harm.”

In these verses, and at least two other times in the Book of Proverbs[1], wisdom is personified. In other words, wisdom is imagined as a person speaking to us. Today, we sometimes say: “Listen to your heart. What is your heart saying to you?” Of course, we’re really advising someone to listen to their feelings, as if feelings literally had a voice to speak words in our ear. In much the same way, Solomon portrays wisdom having a voice. In verses 20 to 33 wisdom speaks, and wisdom’s words are both warnings and promises.

Here is how Solomon sets it out.

Verses 20-21 – Wisdom’s voice is not hidden or obscure but very loud and very clear.

At some time most of us have used ignorance as an excuse for our wrongdoing.
“I’m sorry officer,” we tell the traffic cop. “I’d no idea I was going twenty miles an hour faster than the limit.”
“I’m sorry I’m late home, dear. I just didn’t realize that so much time had gone past….”
“I apologize, Professor. I didn’t think you were serious when you said the assignment had to be handed in on time.”

Solomon is very clear that we know what God is saying. The wisdom of God can be heard and its meaning is very clear.

“Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square;
on top of the wall she cries out,
at the city gate she makes her speech.” (vs. 20-21)

Wisdom speaks loudly.
Wisdom speaks clearly.
Wisdom’s voice is heard in the square where people gather to socialize and do business, and wisdom cries out from the top of the city wall or at its gate where proclamations are made.

Ignorance of what God has to say will never be an acceptable excuse.

Verse 22 – Yet, even knowing what wisdom says, people will remain in love with their foolish ways and take delight in their stupidity.

The writer singles out three categories of people who will refuse wisdom’s voice.

  • First, the “simple” person, the naïve, the gullible.
  • Second, the “mocker,” the cynic who takes pleasure in ridiculing others for their ways of thinking.
  • Third, the “fool,” who doesn’t care to know what’s right because he’s so determined to do what he wants.

There’s no shortage of people who fit these categories:

Some are so easily persuaded to believe the craziest nonsense, they can’t acknowledge wisdom’s truth when it’s staring them in the face.
Some are so sure of their own ideas, they take delight in attacking any view that contradicts, no matter how intellectually reasonable that other view is.
Some are reckless idiots, determined not to be sensible, determined to break every rule, determined never to be persuaded to live a better life.

All of them shut their ears to wisdom. Wisdom could announce the greatest and most important of truths, but they won’t heed it. It’s not that they can’t hear but that they don’t want to hear.

Verse 23 – Yet wisdom says they could still change and learn.

“Repent at my rebuke!
Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings.”

Your situation is not hopeless, says wisdom. If you will heed my rebuke, repentance is still possible.

The only time I led my wife and children – and even our dog – into danger was on a narrow pathway beside a river in the Highlands of Scotland. We were out for a pleasant evening’s walk beside the river. The banks on either side got more vertical, but a path had been cut into the slope so we followed it. But the riverbank got steeper and steeper, so I urged the children to be careful not to step off the path.

Just ahead was a gap in the path because water running down the river bank had broken through. All the children stepped across carefully, and on we went. Then there were some rocks, but everyone clambered over without incident.

I wondered if we should turn back. But if we did, we’d have to renegotiate hazards which were now behind us, and I was sure the path ahead would be easier just round the next turn.

It wasn’t easier. More rocks. More breaks in the path. Our little track got smaller, and right below now were sharp rocks. Alison and I got a firm grip on the hands of our children and eased them forward. Wisdom told me “You must turn back…” But I didn’t. With my heart in my mouth, I led them further and further along that dangerous path.

And, again, I’ll report later how that story ended.

But here’s the point: there is a moment, an opportunity, when turning back – repenting – is possible. But it’s not a moment that’s there forever. Wisdom’s voice has to be heeded when it speaks. It cannot be put off.

Verses 24-27 – When we will not listen and will not change, we march towards a disaster which is laughably inevitable.

Solomon portrays wisdom as actually laughing at the foolishness of those who ignore her voice.

“But since you refuse to listen when I call
and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand,
since you disregard all my advice
and do not accept my rebuke,
I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you;
I will mock when calamity overtakes you.” (vs. 24-26)

By this stage wisdom’s patience has run out. Disaster comes. Judgment falls. And wisdom, so to speak, has the last laugh.

One of my surprises as a pastor caring for people whose lives were in deep trouble was their remarkable ability to take their very bad circumstances and make them worse. There was the couple deep in debt, hounded by collectors for payments, who felt so miserable they borrowed more money to buy things because that would make them feel better. Then there was the man who confessed his adultery and promised to cut all ties with ‘the other woman’ but who then felt so sad he went back to his mistress for comfort and the inevitable happened.

When folly so ludicrous happened I cried. And sometimes I laughed. For me it was never a laugh of pleasure, just a quiet laugh of despair at such utter stupidity. Wisdom’s laugh is that, and also a laugh of judgment because wisdom warned, people ignored her words, and now the obvious and inevitable trouble overwhelms.

Hosea 8:7 says: “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” We still use that saying. It applies when people thought their actions were a small thing to do but they’ve had massive consequences. Ignoring the voice of wisdom seems of little consequence at the time, but in verse 27 Solomon describes the severe reality that descends:

“When calamity overtakes you like a storm,
when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind,
when distress and trouble overwhelm you.”

These things are the laughably inevitable result of refusing to heed wisdom.

Verses 28-32 – And now it truly seems to be too late.

Hardly anything seems worse than realizing you’ve gone too far to ever step back. You’re too late to change your mind. You’ve lost your chance of putting things right.

When I was a very young pastor, I attended farewell gatherings as older pastors retired. In their final speeches, every one of those pastors said that if they had it all to do again they’d spend more time with their families rather than constantly sacrificing them for the needs of the church. Some had lost their children along the way. And now, they said, it’s too late.

It wasn’t too late for me, and I resolved to always give myself to my family. And today I feel in the best of relationships with all four of my children, and I’m working on being best friends with my grandchildren too!

Wisdom presents the hard reality that some do leave everything too late:

“Then they will call to me but I will not answer;
they will look for me but will not find me..,
Since they would not accept my advice
and spurned my rebuke,
they will eat the fruit of their ways
and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.” (vs. 28, 30-31)

There was a time when they could have listened. There was a time when they could have changed, reordered their lives, put right what was wrong and gone the way of the Lord. But they didn’t listen and didn’t change and didn’t put anything right. And now they face the dreadful reality of judgment, the time when regret achieves nothing for the day of opportunity has gone to be replaced by the day of accountability. How many students stare at an exam paper thinking, “If I’d had one more day to read more I could have answered all these questions…”? The truth? They had that one more day, but it was last week or last month and they spent it on things that didn’t matter.

How dreadful to have invested your life in things that don’t matter, and now to find there are no more days to secure what has always mattered above all else.

Verse 33 – But right now there is still time, and wisdom says ‘listen and live’.

Verse 33 says:

“Whoever listens to me will live in safety
and be at ease, without fear of harm.”

There is still a moment. There is still time. The Apostle Paul writes: “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

That word “now” is so significant. The moment of salvation, the moment of change, is not tomorrow, next week, next month, next year or any ‘next’ in the future. Now means now. It’s this moment, this exact moment. It’s this day, this hour, this minute. Living God’s way and being reconciled with God through Jesus Christ can never be delayed. Now is the time to change, to hear wisdom’s words, to turn to God through Jesus Christ for forgiveness, and then to do what is right. That is the only way to “live in safety, and be at ease, without fear of harm” (v. 33).

Earlier, I left two stories unfinished. Here is what happened on a narrow path above a river gorge, and what happened in my mother’s life.

I so wished I’d listened to the voice telling me to take my family back before the path along the steep river bank became so dangerous. Easily any of us or all of us could have slipped and fallen on dangerous rocks or right into the raging water. But somehow we all made it. It could have been tragedy, but on that day it wasn’t. But l learned. I vowed never to do anything so foolish again, and I never did.

My mother had smoked cigarettes from her teens, and she never managed to quit. One night, all alone in the house, she had a massive heart attack. There was no chance for change then, not even for farewells. In less than five minutes she was gone from this world. She never shared the retirement she and my Dad had planned. She never knew most of her grandchildren. She died aged just fifty-five.

Wisdom says “Listen and live.” Listen while God’s wisdom is still in your ear, while there is still time, while there’s a moment you can change. And then you will live with peace, with security, with hope for this life and the next, and one day experience the fullness of life eternal.

[1] The other occasions are 8:1–36 and 9:1–6.


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February 24, 2015

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