"A slave will not be instructed by words alone; for though he understands, there will be no response"
This is a section of proverbs about methods of motivation. He talks about motivating one's son through correction; motivating the people through vision and revelation. And this proverb is about how words alone will not provide motivation for the employee. There must be more than just words. What is interesting is that he does not spell out what the more is. Some have thought that it implies showing the desired behavior, not just talking about it. Some have thought it means using money, privileges, and/or other tangible encouragements to get the servant to obey.
This is the Hebrew word ebed, which means servant, slave. The idea is that this is a person who is involved in doing another's bidding. In that day it was not uncommon to have servants and slaves. While they do not directly correspond to the idea of employees in our day, many of the ideas do connect.
In this proverb Solomon is trying to teach a practical principle about how to motivate a servant to do what you want them to do. He points out that words by themselves will not provide the motivation to accomplish the task. There must be something else.
This is the Hebrew word yasar, which means discipline, chasten, instruct. In this context it clearly seems to have the idea of correction or rebuke. Something has been done wrong and needs to be changed to a different way. The servant must be corrected and reinstructed and motivated to do it the new way.
Solomon is saying that one cannot just tell an employee: “Now what you did was wrong and here is what you need to do.” This will not work.
There is also a hint that a verbal rebuke will not change the behavior of the person. One must go deeper than just a verbal rebuke. One must show the person how to do it right. It is important to have the person who is not doing it correctly demonstrate that they can do it correctly while you (the leader) are watching. It cannot just be words. The correct behavior must be modeled; the correct behavior must be practiced; and the consequences of continued incorrect behavior must be spelled out.
This is the Hebrew word dabar, which means words, speaking, speech, instruction.
In fact, Solomon is really exposing the problem with much of modern teaching. It is just words – there is little if any modeling; there is little if any practice; there is little if any rewards for doing it right; there is little if any consequences for doing it wrong.
This is the Hebrew word bin, which is the standard word for understanding.
This is the Hebrew word maaneh, which means to answer or response.
The Septuagint translates the verse: Even though he hears he will not obey. The idea is how does one get the proper response out of the servant. It will not come from verbal rebuke alone.