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Working the Word Wednesday

God bless you and greetings in the name of Jesus Christ who learned obedience by the things he endured (Hebrews 5:8).

Proverbs 22:6 is one of my favorite verses. I have quoted it to myself dozens of times and used it equally frequently to console parents who were having difficulty with their children. You may be familiar with it as well. It reads:

Proverbs 22:6:
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

The authors of Hard Sayings of the Bible include Proverbs 22:6 as one of their difficult texts. Of it they write:

“What makes this text a hard saying is not the meaning of the words as they stand; they are plain and easy to translate. Instead, the problem centers in the differing views of the central phrase, “the way he should go,” and in the fact that the verse doesn’t always “come true.”

Readers often assume this verse is a promise given to all godly parents: Raise your children as moral, God-fearing believers, and they will turn out all right in the end. But what about children raised in just such Christian homes who appear to abandon their faith or lapse into immorality?”

Most scholars are quick to point out that Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb, not a promise. As a proverb it comes with no ironclad guarantee, but gives us only what generally takes place most of the time. Although it implies there are no exceptions, it is only a general rule of life observed over time which describes what happens most of the time.

Most scholars also agree that the Hebrew text gives no support for the word “should” noting that the phrase, “in the way he should go” would be more accurately translated “according to his way.” Several widely differing views have been taken of the meaning of the phrase “according to his way.” Here are five major views:

(a) the moral view that “his way” refers to the path of morality, righteousness and wisdom.

(b) the vocational view that “his way” refers to the child’s vocation.

(c) the personal aptitude view that “his way” refers to the child’s developing capacities, interests, and inclinations.

(d) the personal demands view that we should understand “his way” ironically or negatively.

(e) the status view that means according to the office, position or role that he will occupy.

Most parents enduring the departing of their children from the way they were instructed cling to Proverbs 22:6 and to the parable of the prodigal son believing for a return after a period of time. However, most translations recognize the likelihood that the final clause, should be rendered “even when he is old he will not depart from it” which implies not just an eventual return perhaps after a period of waywardness but a lifelong adherence to the way one should go.

What we have in Proverbs 22:6 is a warning. If you train up your child “according to his way” ― i.e. let your child have his own way ― you will reinforce his selfish nature to such a degree that, apart from supernatural intervention, “even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The book of Proverbs elsewhere places similar urgency on the discipline of children and the danger of them being left to follow their own way.

Proverbs 19:18:
Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.

Proverbs 22:15:
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

Proverbs 29:15:
The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.

Proverbs 22:6 is an example of the figure of speech irony which conveys a sense opposite to what is strictly stated. Its intention is to not conceal the real meaning, but to add greater force to it. Proverbs 22:6 is ironic in that it tells the reader to do something he should not do: “train up a child according to his way.” Every parent knows you can’t always let your children have their own way. That contradicts the other exhortations to discipline one’s children that we just read. Another example of such irony is found in Proverbs 19:27, “Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.” I’m sure God means just the opposite. Whether warning or not the intent seems to be very clear: We are to train our children. Even Jesus learned obedience by the things he endured. Our children are a heritage of the Lord and deserve our best effort in training and discipline.