Thursday, February 3, 2011

Promise or Proverb?

Q. What is the meaning of Proverbs 22:6?
A. Many parents rebellious teens and prodigal adults have superimposed guilt feelings upon themselves because of the waywardness of their children.  They have second-guessed themselves, their parenting techniques and, unfortunately, even statements of Scripture.  Again and again, they turn to Proverbs22:6 and ask, What did we/I do wrong?

Proverbs 22:6 reads: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he  is old, he will not depart from it.”  With minor variations, all of the major translations follow this King James Version translation.  The problem of understanding does not rest in a better translation for the verse but rather in its interpretation.  What does it mean?

What Is a Proverb?

The Hebrew word for “proverbs” (meshallim)  refers to figures of speech, parables, unique saying and riddles.  Derek Kidner says that they are designed “not to spoon feed the reader but to prick him into thought, whether by their vivid pictures and analogies, or by the sharpness of their brevity and their teasing refusal to explain themselves”  (The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, p. 19)

Kidner’s last phrase is so crucial and realistic.  “their teasing refusal to explain themselves.”  When we come upon the statement of Proverbs 22:6, we find not context of child rearing around it.  That factor alone creates a problem in putting forth a dogmatic interpretation to the verse.
Proverbs are concise expressions or moral and social truths.  As the king, and thus the moral and social leader of Israel, Solomon set forth principles and observations of life that would bring profit to his subjects.  Even he said that the wise would seek to understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings”  (1:6).  Fee and Stuart rightly wrote:  “They do not state everything about a truth, but they point toward it.  They are taken literally, often technically inexact.  But as learnable guidelines for the shaping of selected behavior, they are unsurpassed”  (How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth, p. 196).

Not an Unconditional Promise
The verse contains a proverb, not a promise—even though it reads like a promise.  Most parents claim it as an unconditional divine promise with absolute guarantees of success.

The verse sets forth an ideal goal; morally responsible adulthood.  In the plan of God, parents are crucial in the process of moving a child from total dependence upon parents to total adult independence.   To achieve this goal, parents must do what God wants them to do.

Other verses support this thesis.  Moses gave a charge to the adult generation of Israel concerning the divine commands (Deut. 6:7).  And Paul wrote” “Fathers, provoke  not your children to wrath:  but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”  (Eph. 6:4).

These passages point out the general responsibilities that believing parents must accomplish if they expect their children to develop into godly adults.  Contrariwise, if parents fail to fulfill their responsibilities they should not expect their children to turn out right.
But the truth of Proverbs 22:6 must be balanced against the truth of other verses.

First, Parents must recognize the child’s responsibility in this moral learning process.  Children are not animal—they cannot be trained in the same sense as a dog or a cat.  Children are morally responsible humans made in the image of God with the abilities to think, feel and choose.  As parents do what they must do, the child must still obey willingly—internalize the instruction.

Solomon knew that the instruction of a child was a to-way street.  He advised: “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother (Prov. 1:8; see also 3:1).

A parent can do exactly what God wants him to do, and the child can still rebel.  This is true even in the family of God.  God is the perfect, loving Father, and yet His children do not always obey Him.  In fact, they can become so incorrigible that God must discipline them with sickness and even premature death (I Cor. 11: 30).

Second,  parents must recognize that their child is a sinner—born with a propensity to do wrong,.  That sin principle stays within us from the cradle to the grave.  The finest parental instruction, in and of itself, cannot overcome the effects of Adamic sin within the human race.  Only the grace of God, operating in the life of a child, can move that child into godly adulthood.

At some point, the child must consciously trust Jesus Christ as personal Saviour.  After that, he must willingly walk in the Holy Spirit in order to avoid the sins of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).  Fortunately, the grace of God can produce a spiritual adult even when that person had no strong moral guidance from his parents.

 Third.  Parents must recognize that the child lives in a world system that is hostile to biblical values.  Peer pressure from ungodly friends and the allurements of a pagan world are all seeking to influence the child for evil.  If we were living in the millennial kingdom of righteousness, then the ideal of Proverbs 22:6 could easily be reached.  But we are not.

Meaning of Terms

What does it mean to train?   The Hebrew word (hanak) is normally translated as “dedicate.”  It was used of the dedication of the alter (Num. 7:10,11), the Solomon temple (I Kings 6:63), and of the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 12:27).  The word is the basis for the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, the feast of dedication.

Proverb 22:6 is the only verse where the word is translated “train.”  Parents thus dedicate their child to the service and glory of God when they initiate a program of guiding their child to use his body and spirit for holy pursuits rather than selfish, sinful gratification.

The “way” in which a child should go has been interpreted in several ways.  Some view it as a vocation, a skill or a craft.  Others see it as the child’s own distinctive personality traits.  Children are different, even those from the same family background.  Parents must recognize that guidance for one child might not be suitable for another.  His approach must also differ as the child moves from infancy to adolescence to young adulthood.

The above positions are obviously true, but can they be supported from this text?  Along with others, I prefer a third approach..  The “way” is the way of moral wisdom that Solomon described throughout Proverbs.  It begins with the fear of God (Prov. 1:7) and continues in the path of godly living.  It involves the rejection of sin, compassion for the poor, and respect for parents.  It is set in contrast to the way of folly—the way of crime, laziness, dishonesty, impurity, pride and selfishness.

My wife and I did not come from homes where both parents were saved.  In the will of God, we established a Christian home where we prayed for our two children, taught them daily out of the Scriptures, and tried to be godly role models.

Our children are now married to believers and are rearing their children (our four grandchildren!) according to Proverbs 22:6.  We all recognize that these little ones will need to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  As parents and grandparent, we must do our best, commit these children to God, and allow God to deal with each child individually.  
                                                                                                  
   by Robert Gromacki