Busting Sunday School Myths, Part 3—Proverbs 22:6

by Lee Anderson, Jr.

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

Proverbs 22:6*

Carelessly handling some Bible verses can lead to confusion; misinterpreting others can lead to tremendous spiritual and emotional hurt.

I have lost track of how many times I have heard Proverbs 22:6 quoted in Sunday school lessons and sermons. Almost invariably it is set forth as some sort of promise that if parents are faithful to raise their children exactly as they ought, their children are virtually guaranteed to turn out as upstanding, model Christians.

When I hear this passage employed like that in any gathering of the church, I have made it a habit to observe those listening to the message. Commonly, I see young parents—ostensibly nervous about endeavoring to raise their children “just so” in order to make sure that they never depart from a godly lifestyle. For some of them, the pressure is paralyzing. And I also see older parents who—all too often—after having raised their children with the sincerest efforts to teach them to adhere to biblical truth, are heartbroken to see their children embrace lifestyles opposed to the Christian faith. Behind their forced smiles, they feel condemned by the proclamation of Proverbs 22:6, taken as an implicit reminder of their “failure” to correctly parent their children. They wonder, Where did we go wrong?

It is tragic how much emotional and spiritual damage has been caused by teachers of the Bible who, however well-meaning, misinterpret and misapply Proverbs 22:6, turning the verse into something it is not in an effort to make a point that fits with their messages. Unfortunately, in doing so, they miss the real point the biblical author intended.

There are two reasons that Proverbs 22:6 does not mean what it so often is purported to be saying. The first reason has to do with the nature of biblical proverbs. The writing style that is employed in the Old Testament wisdom literature—and especially in Proverbs 10–31—typically avoids making absolute declarations. The short, pithy statements found in Proverbs represent the author’s observations about what is usually true. Consider, for example, Proverbs 13:11:

Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles,
But the one who gathers by labor increases it.

We can all think of examples of people who, while laboring diligently in their work their whole lives, through no fault of their own, remain in poverty. It is not that they are lazy; it is just that they cannot control other factors in their lives. Similarly, we read in the news of individuals who engage in shady deals and yet live in extreme wealth. Do these examples render this proverb false? No; in fact, they are the exceptions that demonstrate the validity of the general rule. In that it states what is normally the case, the proverb is accurate—which is just what we would expect from the inspired word of God.

So too, Proverbs 22:6 is not an absolute promise, but an observation of what is typically the case. The very nature of the writing style of Proverbs allows for there to be exceptions. To read it as a promise thus distorts Scripture’s intent.

The second and more significant reason why Proverbs 22:6 should not be understood as it is commonly used relates not so much to its interpretation, but to the more fundamental matter of its translation from Hebrew into English. Even though most English translations going back to the King James Version of 1611 have rendered the first line of the verse “Train up a child in the way he should go,”** the fact remains that there is no warrant for reading into the Hebrew text the crucial qualifier “should.” The Hebrew phrase עַל־פִּי דַרְכּוֹ literally reads “. . . according to his way” (correctly indicated in the alternate reading offered in the New American Standard Bible), that is, the way to which the child is naturally inclined. Gordon Hugenberger writes,

Although in theory, דַרְכּוֹ (his way) could be an elliptical means for expressing “the way he should go” there is, in fact, no biblical examples which support this interpretive expansion. Forms of דֶֶּרֶךְ with a pronominal suffix, such as דַרְכּוֹ (his way), are well-attested in the Bible; there are 25 examples in the book of Proverbs alone. None of these requires a rendering similar to “the way he should go.” Instead, in each case, “his way” (8:22; 11:5; 14:8; 16:9, 17; 19:3; 20:24; 21:29), “his ways” (3:31; 10:9; 14:2, 14; 19:16), “her ways” (3:17; 6:6; 7:25), “their way” (1:31), etc. refer to the way these persons actually go.

Gordon P. Hugenberger, “Train Up a Child” in Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar by Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. VanPelt (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 284–85.

As fallen human beings, even from our earliest moments, apart from God’s grace, our hearts are inclined toward sin, and not toward godliness (cf. Psalm 51:5). As such, left to their own desires apart from proper correction and instruction, children will pursue a course of sinful behavior. If that sinful pattern of behavior is reinforced through a lack of discipline and training, they will be unlikely to turn from it even as they reach adulthood. Accordingly, as Hugenberger remarks, Proverbs 22:6

is not so much a promise, as it is a solemn warning. Parents, if you train up a child “according to his way”—in other words, if you quit the hard work of loving discipline and just give in and let your child have his own way—you will reinforce his sinful proclivities to such a degree that, apart from supernatural intervention, “even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Ibid., 285.

How was it that such an errant rendering came to be found in essentially every modern English Bible translation? Hugenberger submits it is likely that early English translators missed the correct understanding (reading the verse as a warning) “not because of any difficulty in the Hebrew, but because it construes the first clause as an ironic command,” telling the reader “to do something he should not do” (Ibid., 285). Of course, we can expect that the original readers of the Hebrew Scriptures would have understood the irony, and thus comprehended the warning. However, as this intent was missed by the early English translators, an unfortunate precedent was set. Later English translators, in deference to the reading of earlier translations, retained the same wording (not uncommon with well-known verses***) rather than seeking to express the literal sense of the Hebrew. This, in turn, fed into faulty exposition, with the verse being held up as a promise that if parents would only be careful to raise their children in a godly way, they could be confident their children would continue to follow after God their whole lives.

This is, sadly, not what we always observe. Sometimes, the children of godly parents—parents who made every possible effort to guide their children in godly behavior according to biblical truth—may still end up rejecting the Gospel of Christ and living contrary to God’s ways. Surely, proper biblical training has a critical role in the life of a child; parents should take every opportunity to teach their children the truth of God’s word (Deuteronomy 6:6–9) and direct them in the way of godly behavior. But ultimately it is the Lord God who turns people to Himself. No amount of parental instruction can ensure, without the intervening grace of God, that a child will consistently live the way that the Lord prescribes.

What application can we draw from this? First, in view of the warning we see in Proverbs 22:6 against not forsaking godly correction, parents must endeavor to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), trusting God with the outcome. However, parents should not assume that there is some sort of “spiritual checklist” when it comes to raising children, thinking that if they do everything required and check all the boxes, their children are guaranteed to become godly believers. That is why it is so important for parents to pray for the spiritual well-being of their children—that they would come to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, and that they would faithfully follow after him.

But perhaps you are a parent of a child who is already grown (or nearly grown) and is not walking with the Lord. You did everything possible to teach him the truth of God’s word, but he still rejected it. Your heart aches for your child—for there is perhaps no hardship greater than seeing your child dismiss the only way to salvation through Jesus Christ. But know this: the Scriptures do not condemn you. I am sorry if you have endured teachers using Proverbs 22:6 as if it somehow brands you as a bad parent. That is not true. Continue to pray for your child, that God in His grace would bring conviction regarding the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And even if you know in your heart that there were aspects of parenting that you neglected, and that you may not have done everything you could have to instruct your child in the way of godliness, remember that God’s grace truly is great. He has brought to salvation children from all kinds of homes, and His grace can overcome any shortcoming in parenting.

*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

**Prior to the King James Version, in 1599 the Geneva Bible missed the sense of the Hebrew altogether with “Teach a child in the trade of his way.”

***For an explanation of this noted tendency, see the four-part article series “My Favorite Mistranslations” by Douglas K. Stuart in Volume 171 (issue numbers 681–684) of Bibliotheca Sacra (2014). Part 3 gives special attention to “according to his way” versus “the way he should go” in Proverbs 22:6.

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