Christian Living,  Hermeneutics,  Old Testament

Train up a Child in the Way He Should Go? A Promise?

photo of child representing promise of Proverbs 22:6

Proverbs 22:6 has been interpreted in some circles as a promise to parents that if they do their jobs right, their child will never abandon the faith. However, this in turn has resulted in many parents feeling as if God has broken His promise to them when their child turns from the faith.

Train up a child in the way he should go:
And when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov 22:6, KJV)

Although this verse has been used by many parents and church leaders as a promise, it is important to slow down and read this verse carefully.

A Proverb is a Principle, Not a Promise

First, a proverb is not a promise! Proverbs are axiomatic (self-evident) sayings about how life normally works. But, there are plenty of exceptions to proverbs, because life is complicated by many factors. For example, although Proverbs 21:17 says the one who loves pleasure will be a poor man, there are plenty of people who love pleasure that are some of the richest people on the planet.

Similarly, Proverbs 12:21 says no ill befalls the righteous, but in contrast the wicked is filled with trouble. Yet this is not an absolute promise without exception. The same Solomon who wrote Proverbs also wrote Ecclesiastes where he observed there are times when the righteous die in their righteousness, and the wicked prosper in their wickedness (Eccl 7:15) This does not invalidate the proverbial principle. We recognize exceptions, and hold on to the main point given in Proverbs as a principle, not a promise.

Proverbs 22:6 is a Warning, Not a Promise

In addition to the fact that a proverb is a principle not a promise, Proverbs 22:6 is likely a negative warning rather than a positive promise. If we break down the verse we see some interesting details which support the view this is not a promise.

The verb itself is not necessarily controversial. The word for “train up” (חנך) a child is used elsewhere to refer to dedicating a house (Deut 20:5) and the temple (1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chron 7:5). The traditional gloss of “train up” is not bad—the idea appears to be on some kind of initiation or affirmation.

On the other hand, the phrase “in the way he should go,” is a bit of an interpretive gloss. In the Hebrew, the phrase is literally, “his way” (דַרְכֹּו). The important question is what kind of way is the youth’s way?

In the same chapter we see that foolishness is bound up in the heart of the child, and only discipline can drive it from him (Prov 22:15). The very next chapter admonishes parents not to withhold discipline from the child/youth, because he needs it (Prov 23:13). Indeed, out of the 6 other uses of “youth/child” (נַעַר) in Proverbs, each occurrence does not speak favorably of the moral disposition of youth (Prov 1:4; 7:7; 20:11; 22:15; 23:13; 29:15). Proverbs 29:15 is especially instructive in that “a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”

The context in Proverbs speaks very negatively about the way of the youth. Thus, “his way” likely refers to the sinful disposition of the youth. If true, this particular proverb functions as a warning, not a promise. If parents affirm a child in his or her own way, that child will embrace that lifestyle throughout life.

With that in mind, my translation would be as follows:

Train up a child in accordance with his own (sinful) way, and even when he is old he will not turn from it.

By way of application, the main point of the proverb is clear. Whether it is positive or negative, Proverbs 22:6 cannot be viewed as a promise. Rather, it is a principle which highlights the importance of parenting. Further, it also highlights the tendency of the child to hold to the patterns of his youth. However, we should avoid using such a proverb as a promise that has no exceptions.

photo credit: Roberto.Trombetta dandelion via photopin (license)

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

One Comment

  • Ken

    Another excellent presentation of the scriptures.

    A friend and I had a conversation about this passage several years back. He surmised that it meant that a parent should train up a child in the way he should go relative to his “gifting” and if you steer them that way they’ll still be using those gifts even when they are old.

    But I think your position seems to be more probable.

    One thing I’ve been certain of as a parent is that even though we may train our children up in the Lord that does not mean that they will never stray from the faith. I think all too many parents latch onto that understanding of the passage and then find their faith damaged as a result.

    Something similar happened to a dear friend who thought she could take Matthew 21:22 literally. She prayed for a daughter when she got pregnant. But a boy was born. And it wrecked her. She was so distraught over it that it culminated in her divorcing her husband. Thank God she came to her senses and remarried him and they’re doing wonderful til this day. But it’s a lesson in being careful with the scriptures and not leaning on our own understanding.

    God bless you.

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