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Be Careful How You Raise Your Children

Proverbs 22:6 Isn’t A Promise!

Train up a child in the way he should go;even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Proverbs 22:6 is a well-known passage relating to child-rearing. It is, unfortunately, an oft-misunderstood one, as well. It’s fairly easy to find Christians who read or even teach this passage as a promise: if you train your child with all the correct methods and influences, God has promised that he or she will turn out a good and believing child. A darker twist on the same error can be seen in those whose first inclination, when hearing of the destructive path of a young man or woman, to blame the parents for doing a bad job.

This misunderstanding of Proverbs 22:6 stems from two errors.

The first is an error in interpretation—specifically, an erroneous view of how biblical proverbs are to be read and interpreted. The book of Proverbs contains practical wisdom, designed to teach God’s people how to live skillfully in light of the fear of the Lord. Each proverb is meant to provide a pearl of godly wisdom that relates to some kind of life situation, and depending on the circumstances, the application of a proverb may vary.

Proverbs is not, however, a set of ironclad promises. Nor is it a set of divine laws. A great illustration would be this seemingly contradictory passage:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5)

Is this a contradiction? In the first proverb, Solomon tells the reader not to answer a fool according to his folly. Yet in the very next line, he tells the reader to, yes, answer the fool according to his folly!

If one persists in reading proverbs like laws or unbreakable promises, this is an irreconcilable contradiction. But that’s not what it is. Solomon is providing two different, contrasting, yet ultimately complementary viewpoints on the folly of a fool. Two angles from which the wise child of God, faced with a fool’s folly, can evaluate the situation and decide how to respond. In some cases, the risk of being like the fool will outweigh the risk of the fool being wise in his own eyes, and the Christian should then be silent. In other cases, there may be little risk of becoming like the fool but great risk in allowing the fool to go unchallenged. Then, an answer is warranted.

So when interpreting proverbs, remember that many proverbs will admit exceptions by their very nature as generalized wisdom. That’s important.

The nature of proverbs as wisdom, as sage commentary on life as lived either in the fear of the Lord or as a rebellious fool, thus shows us how to read a proverb like 22:6. The “when he is old he will not depart from it” is not a promise. Proverbs generally don’t deal with promises. They always, however, provide wise commentary in the light of experience. And so the second line of the proverb is not God’s end of some biblical bargain, but rather the Holy Spirit-inspired Solomon’s informed and experienced opinion about what usually results from what is done in the first line.

Usually, because there can be, and are, exceptions to the rule described here.

The second reason this proverb is often misinterpreted is because it is so oftenmistranslated. Many English translations have followed the sense of the King James here rather than a literal rendering of the text, which would read something like the following:

Train a child according to his way; even when he is old, he will not turn aside from it.

“His way”, NOT the “way he should go.” Sounds a bit different, doesn’t it? Following the King James, Bible translators have “read in” the idea of this “way” being the way the child “ought” to go, but that’s wrong. There is no mention in the Hebrew of this being the way the child “ought to” or “should” go. Rather, it is a statement that the “child’s way,” that is, the path on which his parents have set him, will have a powerful impact on the rest of his life. Again, there is no explicit comment in the text about whether the “way” being discussed is good or bad.

So, rather than being a promise, Proverbs 22:6 is an objective observation about the power of parenting in influencing a child’s life. Its meaning is not explicitly an exhortation to good parenting (though that is the proper application of the proverb), but rather a double-edged sword, a statement of both encouragement and warning. Encouragement, because it reminds godly parents that their efforts in setting a child on the right path will exercise a powerful influence on that child, even into his old age. Even when he or she seems to be ignoring it, or living as if you said or did nothing, the efforts of a godly parent will affect that child nonetheless.

But it is also a chilling warning. Train a child in the wrong way, and he will bear that burden for the rest of his life. The warning here could also be taken as a warning against allowing the child to determine the direction of the parenting (“his way,” remember?). Children cannot be allowed to raise themselves or discipline themselves! Otherwise, the selfish and immature patterns set in childhood will haunt the child’s behavior and attitude even into old age.

Our efforts as parents are vitally important, then. Solomon reminds us that what we say and do with our kids will leave a deep and enduring mark on them, one that will remain even into old age. Take that opportunity! Use this powerful role for the good of your child and the glory of God!

But also remember that, as a proverb, this is not a promise or a law. And in that is both humility and hope. Humility, because at the end of the day, we have no power to bring about true faith in a child’s heart. Only God himself can do that. We dare not presume power we do not have, or take credit we do not deserve. Hope, because even if we mess this up—or have already messed this up in the distant past—God has the power to change our children’s direction for good.

Raise them well. But look to God, first and foremost, and trust in him and not your skill in child-rearing.