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Proverbs 22:6: Train a Child

Train a child in the way he should go,

and when he is old he will not turn from it.

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?

To answer this extremely important question it is best to start with an analysis of the text itself. The verb translated "train" means to dedicate something or someone for the service of God. The verb is found in Deuteronomy 20:5 and in the parallel passages on the temple dedication in 1 Kings 8:63 and 2 Chronicles 7:5. In its noun form it is the name of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah.

The resulting range of meanings for this act of dedication includes: to prepare a child for service, to dedicate a child to God or to train a child for adulthood. Parents are urged to dedicate and begin training each child as an act of dedication to the living God.

But interpretation problems emerge as soon as we look for an antecedent for the pronoun in the phrase "according to his way," translated above as "in the way he should go." Literally, the phrase is "according to the mouth of," which has led some to suggest "in accordance with the training he received at his `beginning.' " However, the use of the word mouth for this concept instead of the word beginning would be strange indeed. Or it could be rendered more generally as "after the measure of, conformably to" or "according to his way."

What is the "way"? It could mean the way that the child ought to go according to God's law; the proper way in light of God's revelation. It could also mean the way best fitting the child's own personality and particular traits.

Which is correct? There is no doubt that the first presents the highest standard and more traditional meaning. However, it has the least support from the Hebrew idiom and seems to be a cryptic way of stating what other proverbial expressions would have done much more explicitly.

Therefore we conclude that this enigmatic phrase means that instruction ought to be conformed to the nature of the youth. It ought to regulate itself according to the stage of life, evidence of God's unique calling of the child and the manner of life for which God is singling out that child. This does not give the child carte blanche to pick and choose what he or she wishes to learn. It does, however, recognize that the training children receive must be as unique as the number of children God has given to us.

The result will be, as the second line of the proverb underscores, that even "when he gets old he will not turn from it." The "from it" refers to the training of youth which was conformed to God's work in the child's very nature and being. This training was so imbued, inbred and accustomed that it became almost second nature.

As with many other moral proverbs of this sort, the question often comes from a distraught parent: "Does this proverb have any exceptions to it, or will it always work out that if we train our children as this verse advises, we can be sure they won't turn from the Lord?"

No, this verse is no more an ironclad guarantee than is any other proverb. Like many other universal or indefinite moral prescriptions (proverbs), it tells us only what generally takes place, without implying there are no exceptions to the rule. The statement is called a proverb, not a promise. Many godly parents have raised their children in ways that were genuinely considerate of the children's own individuality and the high calling of God, yet the children have become rebellious and wicked.

There is, however, the general principle which sets the standard for the majority. This principle urges parents to give special and detailed care in the awesome task of rearing children so that the children may continue in that path long after the lessons have ceased.

Taken from Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch, © 1996 InterVarsity Press. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.