Why isn't Proverbs a How-To Book on Parenting?

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In two previous blogs, which you can find here and here, I pointed out several important things about the biblical Proverbs to show that Proverbs is not a how-to manual for parents of children. Here are some additional reasons:

First - Proverbs is not mainly for parenting young children

In the strictest sense, Proverbs is not mainly for parenting young children. Its primary purpose was to train royal young men how to lead God’s people in faith and obedience to God’s Word, and to urge them to follow wisdom’s way and reject folly’s way.

Second - Proverbs shows how we all make choices between wisdom and folly 

By implication, Proverbs shows how we all make that choice between wisdom and folly, and the consequences that may occur through those choices.

Third - The main hope of Proverbs

The main hope of Proverbs is not that a young child would become an obedient, moral and faithful Christian because a dutiful parent taught him the way, but that God the Father sent Jesus, his begotten and royal Son; Jesus the true Wise man, who, by his Word and Spirit, gives to his believing, covenant people insight and knowledge for righteous living.

So, is this saying that Proverbs is not for parenting or that it has nothing to say at all about parenting?  Not at all.  Let’s look at a few more points about Proverbs before seeing how it applies to parents and children.

Fourth - Proverbs is not a collection of absolute promises

Often times people will read a Proverb and expect that if one does just as the Proverb says then it will come true.  For example, parents read Proverbs 22:6 that if they “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  For some, the children grow up, become godly young men and women, and remain faithful to the Lord.  Many parents who are blessed with such children conclude that it was due to their good training that their children continued in the way of the Lord.

However, what about those parents who were faithful and diligent, but whose children reject the things of Christ?  I’ve known many who became deeply discouraged or depressed because they attribute the foolish choices of their children to be their fault, not the children’s guilt (a book worth reading is When Good Kids Make Bad Choices by Fitzpatrick and Newheiser). I’ve been told many times and have heard from “professionals” in the Christian child-training business that it is indeed the fault of the parents.  The argument is that since Proverbs 22:6 is God’s Word and God’s Word is never wrong, therefore the only conclusion is that the parents failed.

I’ve heard such accusations and reasons for wayward children, such as:

  •  “If you had read the Bible to your children and made them memorize Scripture, they would not have rebelled.”
  •  “If you had used the rod (stick, whip, belt, spoon) more than they would not have rebelled.”
  • “If you had homeschooled your child, then they would have turned into wonderful, upright and moral people.”
  • “If you had them involved in more church events or made them get involved in wholesome activities and kept them busy most of the time then they would not have turned out so bad.”

Many times parents had done all those “right” things and their children still left the faith or had become rebellious to one degree or another.  But a frequent rebuttal from those “perfect parents” is “Well, you must have done something wrong!”

The problem with that mindset is it assumes rearing children to come to and grow in faith in Jesus Christ is by works.  Scripture rejects that whole notion, and yet the majority of what is purported to be “biblical” child training is based on that works premise.  Another problem with that is the false assumption that this Proverb, or any other Proverb for that matter, is a conditional promise, when in fact it is not.

Take a look at Train Up a Child: What Does Proverbs 22:6 Actually Mean?

Fifth - Proverbs is a collection of observational generalities about life

Proverbs is a collection of observational generalities about life, especially from the perspective of how life will probably turn out if you are wise or if you are foolish.  As Dr. Sam Storms points out, Proverbs gives us pithy statements or concepts of compressed experience. “Its principles are timeless and therefore applicable and relevant to all people in every age.”  He also says, “Proverbs give expression to general maxims concerning life. The exceptional, unusual and unprecedented are beyond the range of proverbial wisdom.”

Dr. Tremper Longman in the Baker Commentary (2006) on Proverbs states that this book “Does not teach a universally valid truth…Proverbs is only true if stated at the right time and in the right circumstance.”  He gives examples, such as Proverbs 15:23 compared with 27:14; and Proverbs 26:4-7 compared with 26:9.  Further, as he shows from the research, Proverbs 10:1 to 31:31 is an assortment of advice, observations, and warnings.

Sixth - Proverbs does have principles for parents

Proverbs still offers to believing parents principles that will inform how to apply God’s Word to life. They are derived from the book even though they are not the main points of the book.  I’ll save this for another article.

Seventh - Beware of the ways we can misuse Proverbs

Finally, as Dr. Futato, an Old Testament Hebrew scholar and my former professor taught us in seminary, there are three admonitions for us about the book:

  • Don’t moralize.  They are not merely promises for the here and now but are covenant observations, pointed truths, which time will often prove true.
  • Don’t isolate.  In other words, Proverbs must be read in the context of the whole Word of God and is to be read with the theological glasses of the New Testament.  The New Testament shows us how to properly understand the Old Testament, including the book of Proverbs.
  • Don’t absolutize.  By this, he meant that we ought not take individual proverbs as little golden nuggets of advice in order to make our personal lives better.

Proverbs is not primarily a how-to manual for parents of children, especially little children.  Nevertheless, we can find some concepts and principles that can be applied to parents and their children.  At the same time, we make a mistake to view the book as anything other than for what God intended. 

What do you think?  

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Dr. Don

Proverbs is not a child training manual (pt 2)

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In the previous post, Proverbs is not a child training manual (pt 1), we answered the question, Is Proverbs for parenting?  The answer is no and yes.  There are a number of books and materials available that use Proverbs primarily as a textbook or manual for parenting young children.  While I often wish children were born with a foolproof manual for child rearing, there is no such thing; not even Proverbs.   

As I’ve said in a previous blog, to merely look at the book of Proverbs as a parent’s manual for child training is to miss the main purpose of the book.  So, on the one hand, Proverbs was not written exclusively for mom or dad to figure out how to teach or discipline their child.  In that way the book is not for modern parenting.

On the other hand, Proverbs was written primarily to Jewish fathers of royal or priestly lineage to train their sons in God’s righteous way of living. Out of those specific principles we can draw applications that might apply to parents and their children today. Before jumping on our pragmatic impulses for the book we must first understand the background and original intent of Proverbs.

1 - Proverbs is a collection of sayings

Proverbs is a collection of sayings collected and composed by various individuals. While King Solomon authored the bulk of these sayings, other wise individuals including Agur and King Lemuel wrote the rest of the proverbs. A few of the proverbs were even taken from other cultures.  Many believe that King Hezekiah’s men may have contributed some proverbs, but certainly collected them (as indicated in Proverbs 25:1-29:27 in the Hebrew text).

Many scholars believe that Proverbs was originally organized as seven poems of twenty-two lines. Each of these twenty-two lines began with a letter of the alphabet (much like Psalm 119 was written).  This is significant because in biblical numerology the number seven indicates completeness or perfection, and there are twenty-two letters in the Old Testament Hebrew alphabet.  The lines are addressed to the son by a father or elder.  A good and faithful father was to build his “perfect” house upon seven pillars.  Other sayings were later collected and added to the core teachings, making the book what it is today.

The students were older sons.  We know this because of the terms used for sons or children refer to progeny (almost exclusively male) or young men who were at a point in their lives to own the covenantal faith of their fathers for themselves or to reject the faith.  The first chapter makes clear that the purpose of Proverbs is to train young men to fear the Lord; and to fear the Lord is to know, to trust, to obey the Lord of the covenant.

In the strictest sense, Proverbs was written for fathers of royal households to train their older sons in wisdom. Wisdom is knowing how to skillfully apply God’s Law to daily matters of life.  We know this is the case not only because of the language used but because of the emphasis upon things that were important for royalty, such as how to conduct yourself in the presence of the king (Proverbs 23:1-3).  So Proverbs was written and collected primarily to young men (in their teens and early twenties) who were royalty and preparing to lead Israel according to Deuteronomy 17.  Proverbs was to help fathers lay a foundation and offer guidance to these royal men as they seek their way in the world, to be skilled in the art of life. It was not merely a general book for parents of little children; it was a manual for the royal family.

2 - The immediate purpose of Proverbs

The immediate purpose of Proverbs was to appeal to these young men to make a serious decision that would affect their lives. It appeals for them to decide whether they will give their loyalty and allegiance to the way of wisdom (life by faith in the Lord and obedience to his Law-Word) or to folly (the way of an unbeliever or one who breaks covenant with God). 

We know this because Proverbs is compiled in two main sections, and at the end of the first section we see what happens when a father’s call to wisdom (covenant faithfulness and life) is rejected.  This is very similar to the main idea in Jeremiah 7.  At the end of the second section, the father’s call seems to be left up in the air.  The son must now decide what to do and who to serve.

We also know this because Proverbs talks about two kinds of people: the wise and the unwise (Proverbs 1:4-5).  Those who are wise are faithful to the Lord. They are ones who rightly apply God’s Law-Word to all of life (personally, home, as princes or kings over God’s people).  Wisdom is walking in the way of righteousness, and righteousness is living according to God’s Law. More explicitly, righteousness is applying God’s Law to relationships in life.  This is why we see in Proverbs many applications of the Ten Commandments.  For example:  honor your parents (Prov. 19:26), do not murder (Prov. 1:10-19), do not give in to adultery (Prov. 2:16-29), do not steal (Prov. 30:7-9), let there be no falsehood (Prov. 12:19), and do not covet (Prov. 15:27).

The unwise can be simple (with a weak or simple faith) or can be foolish (who is a covenant breaker).  The fool is one who may hold on to an external faith, a nominal claim to believe in the one true God; but he thinks and lives like an unbeliever.  

The truly wise will seek and obey the God sits on his holy hill, known as Mount Zion. The fool will seek and follow the pretender-god who sits on his or her hill.  As you may know, in the ancient new east only gods were permitted to live on top of the highest hills.

Now, this is important to understand.  As a young man learns from his father and mentor about how to proceed in his journey of life he is constantly given comparative and contrasting treatments of one who is really wise and one who is foolish. At the end of the first segment, the youth is introduced to a beautiful woman: Lady Wisdom.  Her beauty and virtues are modeled before him in chapter eight. Then, in chapter 9, he encounters another woman: Lady Folly.  Now, there are two women who vie for his attention, trust and loyalty.  Take note that the description and the appeal for such trust and loyalty would be missed by and inappropriate for young children or ladies.

Both Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly are described as residing on high hills.  Lady Wisdom comes to symbolize the one true God of Mount Zion.  Lady Folly represents Marduk and Ishtar or Baal and Asherah.  You will know a fool because he is one who says there is no one true God.

The main appeal in Proverbs is to raise up a perfect, royal son who would live exclusively by wisdom; that is, according to God’s perfect will.  The story of the Old Testament is the story of a search for such a perfect man who would rule God’s covenant people as the all-wise king.  While Solomon becomes the example of such a person, even in his wisdom he still fails the Lord.  Therefore, even the best of the wise sons did not attain to pure wisdom.  So, the hope of Israel was to wait until a greater one would come. One who would be mightier than David and wiser than Solomon. 

It isn’t until Jesus comes, the begotten Son of the Father who grows in perfect wisdom and stature, that a son of Wisdom’s way is the perfect Wise One (Matt. 12:19; Lk. 2:41-50; 1 Cor. 1:30 and Col. 1:15-16).

3 - The ultimate purpose of Proverbs

So, you see, in the strictest sense, Proverbs is not mainly for parenting young children. Its primary purpose is to train royal young men how to lead God’s people in faith and obedience to God’s Word, and to urge them to follow wisdom’s way and reject folly’s way.  The main story of Proverbs is to show how we all must make that choice, and how even the wisest among God’s faithful people fail to walk the way of righteousness. The main hope of Proverbs is not that a young child would become an obedient, moral and faithful Christian because a dutiful parent taught him the way, but that God the Father sent Jesus, his royal Son, to live righteously and to rule in perfect wisdom.  He is true Wisdom who, by his Word and Spirit, gives to his true, covenant people insight and knowledge for righteous living.


What are your thoughts? Did you know this about Proverbs? How does this affect you, particularly if you are a parent? 

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Dr. Don

Parents - Cuddle Your Children!

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Parents, Cuddle Your Children is written by Laurie Fendrich for The Chronicle of Higher Education(January 8, 2012, 1:04 pm).

________________ 

Reading Nicholas Kristof’s column, “A Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug,” in today’s New York Times, about the “landmark warning” recently issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics saying “toxic stress can harm children for life,” I was struck once again by the deep insecurity, not to mention impoverishment, of the modern mind. No matter how obvious the observation, how eternal the topic, how great the works of literature that have tackled any given theme, or how insightful the philosophers who have studied a matter, the modern mind cannot fathom reaching a conclusion without relying on scientific studies.

Kristof notes that “two decades of scientific research” have led scientists to conclude that when parents abuse alcohol or drugs, or threaten or beat their children, or even when they never cuddle their crying children, or read or tell them stories, the children end up as adults with serious problems. Because poor parents are themselves stressed, they tend to raise their children in abusive situations more often than parents who aren’t poor. Thus “toxic stress” shows up more often in poor families, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

In particular, Kristof reports that new scientific studies demonstrate the physical effects of parental abuse of children—showing, for example, how specific hormones released by a stressed child affect both the body and the development of the brain, and how the brain is then permanently molded in a bad way. When bad things happen to babies and small children, the science says, it becomes exceedingly difficult to repair the damage later on. Infants and young children subject to early stress grow into stressed children who cannot learn, no matter how much remedial effort is made, and from there they turn into stressed adults with a variety of physical ailments, such as diabetes and heart disease, or often exhibit criminal behavior.

The science in its particulars is all well and good, but the conclusions drawn are what any reasonably educated person already knows. Perhaps Kristof is right that scientific studies about how “toxic stress” on infants and young children affects their future will have “revolutionary implications for medicine.” (Do I see more drugs aimed at small children on the horizon? Heaven help us if this leads yet again to eugenics.) But he’s wrongheaded to think that merely because science demonstrates something, society will take action. Will the new science on “toxic stress” in small children be able to “more effectively chip away at poverty and crime,” as Kristof suggests? I doubt it. To do the latter requires political will, not science. This, in turn, requires a society in accord when it comes to its social and economic priorities—something we certainly do not have in America.

The works of two great philosophers on the matter of infancy and early childhood—Plato, in the Republic and the Laws, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Émile—offer as much wisdom on childrearing as that offered by the conclusions reached by scientific studies. Even putting aside their sometimes questionable and quirky ideas on such matters as whether to swaddle infants (Plato, yes, Rousseau, no), we see both philosophers deeply in favor of rocking and holding (i.e., cuddling) infants and small children. To this they each add the importance of play and storytelling, not to mention the affection of family.

Today, because we live in a post-Darwin age of “social constructs,” we find the idea of “man’s nature” too teleological for our taste. To Plato and Rousseau, however, it would have been preposterous to discuss child rearing without embedding it in this idea. How can you tell how to direct the education of a child without having in mind an idea of the adult you want?

Where Plato argued man’s nature lay in his ability to reason, and the goal of child rearing was to produce reasoning citizens, Rousseau argued man’s nature lay in his essential goodness. For Rousseau, the goal was to try to recapitulate that natural goodness, destroyed when society was formed and men turned vain and competitive, by raising children in such a way that they ended up good and decent–that is, “virtuous”–citizens. In both cases, rearing the young was the most important thing a society does, and how a society chooses to rear its young determines whether it ends up with denatured human beings (like the Spartans), good citizens (as described, differently, by Plato and Rousseau), or natural human beings (as in Rousseau’s “ideal” of his imaginary Émile).

Without any ideas about “man’s nature,” our thinking about the purpose of raising children inevitably lands on the lowest common denominator–searching for a means by which to make children end up “successful” adults–measured, of course, mostly by how much money they end up with. Plato and Rousseau, by contrast, aimed for healthy citizens (in Rousseau’s case, healthy citizens meaning happy citizens).

In any event, we live in a sorry time if we need either science or philosophy to tell us that infants and small children need cuddling.

Proverbs for Parenting Misapplied!

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Proverbs for parenting, misapplied?  Yes, most of the time it is.  Here is what I mean.  Proverbs is not a how-to manual for raising children.  There, I’ve said it!  Now, before you shoot me, at least hear me out.

One of the first evangelical Christian seminars I attended was by Mr. Gothard.  His Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts or Basic Life Principles seminar came out of his youth work and had become widely popular in the 1970s.  It seemed everyone was going to this five-evening event and this spiritually hungry seventeen-year-old joined them.

Knowing virtually nothing about Christ or the Bible as a teen, his material seemed weird but good.  His idea about the chain of command (God-parent-child) was hard to swallow, however, I figured it was because I was such a terrible rebel.  He declared that authority and discipline were “keys” (he always has keys and principles drawn from life experiences and the Ten Commandments).  He used a few Bible verses to prove spanking was a key method for getting children to comply and conform.

I attended his seminar twice and then went to his advanced seminar.  The problem came about while applying his “foolproof” methods to life.  Those principles did not work for me the way they did in those testimonies he shared.  For example, he claimed that if a teen went to his or her parent and asked forgiveness for disobedience, the relationship would be restored, God would bless, and everything would turn out well.  So, I asked my non-Christian father to forgive me for being a rebel son (which, comparatively speaking, I really wasn’t).  Instead of forgiving me and improving our relationship, my father only got more agitated with me.  Our relationship never became better the way the seminar led me to believe. That’s only one of many illustrations for how Gothard's principles did not achieve what they promised.  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate Gothard’s materials against Scripture and have found them to be terribly skewed.  Gothard is not alone as an “expert” in supposed "biblical" child training; a travesty to be sure!

One of the things he taught was that Proverbs is God's manual for parenting. He also claimed the central method for achieving obedience and conformity in children is by using the rod; you know: the stick, the switch, the belt, the paddle, the thing that is used to apply pain to the bottom of the child in order to deliver the lesson to the top of the child.  Think of child training like that game at the fair, the one where you take this huge, weighty hammer and slam the bottom plank with enough force that the metal thingy will slide all the way to the top and ding the bell?  In other words, smack the child firm enough so that lesson will ding in the child's head.

That was one concept about child training that seemed plausible and acceptable, which became the centerpiece for my philosophy on child training for too long.  Do you see a child who is wayward?  He needs more whacks.  Have a child who is disrespectful?  She needs more lashes to her legs. The rod was the default switch that would fix and cure all woeful thinking and behavior.  When do you start?  When the child is an infant.  When do you quit?  When your son or daughter no longer behaves like a child or when the son or daughter marries and leaves the home.  How do you know?  Read Proverbs!

Since the 1970s, I’ve read many books and magazine articles, attended conferences, listened to seminar speakers, and even taught and pontificated on the necessity of following Proverbs as a manual for parents and using the rod unsparingly to inculcate good morals and so-called biblical values.  Sadly, I was wrong.  You can read a longer explanation in Our Planned Parenthood.  Here’s why I was wrong:

First

First, to see any portion of the Bible as a technical manual for life misunderstands and misapplies the Scriptures.  Much has already been said and written on this subject, so it’s not necessary to detail the reasons in this post.  Yet, this I must say: to see Proverbs as primarily a how-to book on parenting misunderstands its purpose and risks abusing it (and one’s children).  A valid interpretation will pay careful attention to the character of the text, the purpose of the text, and to the contexts of the verse(s) being interpreted.  To segregate a verse or passages of Scripture from those contexts does a disservice to the text.  Therefore, verses on using the rod to beat children or any other “child training” scriptures must be understood in its immediate context and also within the context of the whole Bible.

Here are things we must consider in studying and applying the Bible:

1.      Application flows from Scripture’s main redemptive-historic purpose in Christ. That is, it comes from God’s unfolding plan for redeeming his people through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, all he is and all that he has done, is the umbrella under which the story and doctrines of the Bible are found.  The big idea about Proverbs is that it points us to real wisdom and the personification of true wisdom, who is Jesus Christ (more on this in another blog).  True Wisdom is the God-Man who came to save his people from their sins and to restore them to a right relationship with God the Father.

2.     After considering how the passage fits into the overall context of redemptive history, one must consider the original purpose of the passage – to who was it originally written and why? What was the history behind the writing?  What were the questions or problems God was addressing that gave rise to those particular Scripture(s)?  So, the process for understanding the Bible is from the general to the specific, and with regard to the Bible, it is from redemption to redemption applied.

3.     How was it written (take into consideration the genre, grammar, etc.)?

4.     Then, how does this passage apply God’s saving grace in Christ to the very heart of the broader audience (the world), then to the important audience (God’s covenant community), and then to the individual.  Take note that as Westerners we often tend to view everything from Scripture as applying mostly to individual me, without considering the fact that we are intimately, socially, and spiritually connected to God and his covenant people.

5.     After these basic considerations are made, then we may ask how to apply the teaching(s) of the text(s) to our lives in a way that glorifies God and forms Christ in us as individuals, families and the local church.   This application is what biblical wisdom is all about – skillfully applying God’s thoughts to the various issues and contingencies of life.

Second

Second, much, if not the majority, of the child-training materials I have read use selected portions of the Bible to advocate their philosophy of parenting in a way that mainly promotes their presuppositions (assumptions) rather than what the Bible actually teaches.  In other words, many of these materials use the Bible to validate their philosophy of parenting.  This is called proof-texting. 

Granted, we all have our presuppositions or core beliefs about life.  Those core beliefs come from the culture in which we live, the religious or Christian perspectives we’ve learned, and from the very composite of who we are as individuals (our upbringing, personality, mind-body composite, spiritual life, and so forth).  It is impossible for us to come to the Bible and various matters in life without the influence of our presuppositions.

What are some of the presuppositions that have influenced the majority of the materials I’ve run across over the years?  For one – spanking must be used to train children.  If a parent does not spank the child then the child will not learn ________ (you fill in the blank).  If a parent does not spank, then the child will definitely become an irresponsible, worthless rebel.  Another one claims, “children must be seen and not heard.”  Yet another, “Father always knows best.”  Or how about, “All authority, especially the authority of the father, must always be respected and obeyed.”  And then there is the implied teaching that subservient compliance to parents is true godliness that must be achieved or else.

So, Proverbs is not a how-to manual for rearing children.  Or more correctly, it is not merely a how-to manual.  Having said that, I will say that Proverbs is a very applicable book that does inform how we think and what we do as parents and children.  But before we go off and simply apply what we presume to be Proverbs' unbreakable axioms for parenting and child training we first need to back up and see what Proverbs is all about.  Stay tuned.

This article was originally published March 2010 on the blog site, X-Paradigm for Parents.

In the meantime, check out some better parenting resources below:

Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus
By Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, Jessica Thompson

Train Up a Child: What does Proverbs 22:6 actually mean?

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

Train Up a Child: What Does Proverbs 22:6 Actually Mean?

[The original article was written by Dave Miller on November 13, 2014, and found in SBCVoices.com ]

She was not happy with me, not at all. I was teaching Proverbs 22:6, which says essentially the same thing in every modern English translation, some variation of the ESV translation above.  I made an observation about the nature of proverbs. They are statements about the general course of life but are not meant to be ironclad promises or absolute guarantees. That bothered her. Still single, she anticipated getting married and having children, but if she did not have a guarantee that her children would turn out great, she wanted nothing to do with the whole thing.

Maybe she thought kids came with some kind of money back guarantee as well?

I don’t mean to ridicule her – actually, her interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 is common. Many have interpreted this to be a heavenly guarantee of success in the child-rearing task. If they did their job right, they could lay their heads on the pillow at night with full assurance that the outcome was fixed, their children would turn out great and there was nothing to fear. This verse has been a great comfort to parents of young children embarking on the awesome and fearful task of raising children.

This verse is often a dagger in the heart of parents of older children. These parents, having done the best they knew to do, have watched their children wander from the straight and narrow path into sin, skepticism or indifference. Some in the church will look at them askance – what did you do wrong? How did you let this happen? If you had done your job right, you would not have to worry about your children going astray. Proverbs 22:6 is sometimes used as a hammer to beat down the already heartbroken people who have watched their prodigals leave the home.

I’ve struggled with understanding this passage. On the surface, it does seem to be a promise – “they will not depart.” On the other, there seem to be clear exceptions to this rule. I have several different attempts to put this verse in its proper perspective. But in this article, I want to advance a theory about this book. Here it is in a nutshell.

Because of faulty translations of the verse, we have been misinterpreting this verse all along. In fact, it says almost exactly the opposite of what we’ve taken it to mean.

 

Reexamining a Familiar Verse

I’m not sure if familiarity breeds contempt, but in Bible translation and biblical interpretation, familiarity most certainly does engender sloppiness. We assume that the verse means what we’ve assumed it means.

My understanding of this verse was shaken when I read an article in the scholarly journal, Bibliotheca Sacra (Volume 171, Number 683, July-September 2014). It is part 3 of a 4 part series called, “My Favorite Mistranslations,” by Douglas K. Stuart, a professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The articles are based on his W.H. Griffith Thomas lectures in February of 2013. The relevant section begins on page 266. Here is a video of that lecture that formed the basis of the article. The article itself is not online, as best I can find.

While I took three years of Hebrew (over 30 years ago), I am not competent to do much more than report the exegetical findings of Dr. Stewart. I can read some lexicons and peruse his points. What little understanding of Hebrew I still have leads me to believe that Dr. Stuart is correct in his reinterpretation of this verse and his criticisms of modern translations and exegesis. Maybe some of the readers have the level of exegetical expertise to engage Dr. Stuart critically.

He has me convinced that we have essentially biffed the translation and interpretation of this verse, and that it means pretty much the opposite of what we’ve taken it to mean. It is not a promise to good parents, but a warning to bad parents, those who shirk their responsibilities to guide their children, especially teenage children, in the ways of the Lord.

Traditional Interpretations

The assumption has been that this passage is about raising up children, teaching and training them, and guiding them “in the way they should go.” If we do that, when they are grown up they will not depart from that path.

Of course, many have pointed out that the Proverbs are a unique form of Scripture – statements about choices and consequences that are not meant to be taken as ironclad guarantees. But nonetheless, this is seen as a factual statement about the blessings that come to those who lead their small children rightly.

There are three key truths that are almost universally present in translations and in interpretations of the verse.

1) This verse is about raising children.

2) This verse tells us to carefully train children to live the right way.

3) This verse says that those who are raised rightly will continue to live rightly (whether that is given as a guarantee or not).

It is my thesis (well, Stuart’s) that none of these points is an accurate reflection of Proverbs 22:6.

Examining the Verse

Let’s look at some of the key points that Dr. Stuart makes about this verse. The key points to properly interpreting this passage are in the first statement, the premise. “Train up a child in the way he should go.”

1) This verse is about adolescents, NOT about children. 

The word that is almost universally translated “child” is na’ar, and it generally refers to a “marriageable male who is still single” – a young teenager. BDB gives as the primary meaning, “boy, lad, youth.” Though it can refer to a younger boy, the most common object of the term is a young man. Stuart’s article has a lot of helpful information on the meaning of the word.

The verse is focused on how parents are to raise their adolescent children. It’s a youth group verse, not a nursery verse!

2) It is NOT about how a child “should” go, but about him going his own way.

According to Stuart, the key to the mistranslation of this verse, and the common misunderstanding of it is the addition of the word “should” in English translations, something that is not supported in the Hebrew text.

A more literal and faithful translation might be “Raise a teenager in his way.” The verse is about letting a teenager go his own way without instruction, correction or discipline. It is about “letting him choose for himself” and set the course of his own life. While this is held out as good parenting by many in our world, it is decried here as dangerous, with disastrous results.

Stuart traces the history of the mistranslation of the verse, focusing on problems in the Septuagint translation of the verse that led to issues with Jerome’s translation into the Vulgate, which led to the KJV translators misinterpreting and mistranslating the verse. Rather than correcting that mistake, all the English translations have followed the pattern of the familiar KJV.

3) “When he is old, he will not depart” is a warning, not a promise.

This is the gist of his argument. This is not a promise to parents who raise their children properly but a warning to those who allow their adolescents to grow up without guidance, who raise them to go their own way.

Medieval Jewish philosopher Ralbag offered this interpretation of the meaning of the verse:

Train a child according to his evil inclinations and he will continue in his evil way throughout life.

Richard Clifford, in his commentary on Proverbs, gives this paraphrase.

Let a boy do what he wants and he’ll grow up to be a self-willed adult incapable of change.

Stuart gives his own translation of the verse.

Train an adolescent in his own way and when he is old he will not depart from it.

This verse is meant to be a warning about the bad results of permissive parenting, of failing to set boundaries and give guidance to adolescents. They will develop character and form (bad) habits that will stick with them throughout life.

What Does Proverbs 22:6 Mean?

It is a simple warning to parents as their children enter the adolescent years (though the warning also applies to parents of small children). We must not simply let children go their own way and do their own thing. Solomon had a deep sense of the broken nature of the human soul. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child and the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.” We are not only born sinful, but also foolish with a tendency to make the wrong choices that bring devastating consequences on our lives. We must be guided, instructed, and disciplined to walk in the ways of God. That is a parent’s job – to go to war against the inborn sin and folly in a child’s heart and drive it out.

And the parent who sits back and says, “I’ll just let my child pick his own way” is an utter fool. That child will go his own way and develop character flaws that will follow him and plague him all his life.

 

Proverbs is not a child training manual (pt 1)

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Did you know that the Old Testament book of Proverbs is not a child training manual?   While Proverbs has been used as a textbook or manual for training little children, that was not the original purpose of the book. 

So, Proverbs is not for parenting children? No.  Here are seven reasons why:

1  In the strictest sense, Proverbs was written to help train young men.

Expecting the book of Proverbs to be first and foremost a child-training manual is wrong.  It is not even that in a secondary sense.  It is making the book into something God did not intend for it.  Its primary purpose was to help fathers or teachers train young men how to lead God’s people in faith and obedience to God’s Word and to urge them to follow wisdom’s way and reject folly’s way.

To press Proverbs into our contemporary desire to make it a manual for parents is like making the book of Ruth a textbook for how young women find their future husbands or using the Song of Solomon as a how-to manual for love, marriage, and sex.  

2  The main hope of Proverbs is not about raising a Christian child.

Proverbs' main hope is not that a young child would become an obedient, moral and faithful Christian because a dutiful parent taught him the way.  Rather, it is ultimately about God the Father and his godly, wise, and obedient son, Jesus.  The Father, by his Word and Spirit, gives his covenant people insight and knowledge for righteous living.  However, as we see from the New Testament, Jesus was the perfect son and disciple who grew "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52).  He rejected the way of the fool and pursued God's way of wisdom (Matthew 4:1-11).  Through suffering, he learned obedience as a faithful son (Heb. 5:8).  

Ultimately, Jesus followed the righteous path and did so for his people.  He suffered the consequences of living and doing what is right but he did so for God's children (Heb. 2:10; 13:12; 1 Pet. 2:21; 3:18).  On the Cross, he paid our penalty for being fools who rejected God and sought our own paths.  Then, after his death and burial, he came back from the dead.  Being the good Son, Jesus earned the right to sit as God's right-hand man to rule and guide.  That was the objective for all good sons who followed in wisdom's way.

So, is this saying that Proverbs has nothing to say at all about parenting?  Not at all.  Let’s look at a few more points about Proverbs before seeing how it applies to parents and children.

3  Proverbs is not a collection of absolute promises.

Often times people will read a Proverb and expect that if one does just as the Proverb says then it will come true. For example, parents read Proverbs 22:6 that if they “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  For some families, the child grows up, become godly young men and women, and remain faithful to the Lord.  Many parents who are blessed with such children conclude that it was due to their good training that their child continued in the way of the Lord.

However, what about those parents who were faithful and diligent but whose children reject the things of Christ?  I’ve known many who became deeply discouraged or depressed because they attribute the foolish choices of their child to be their fault, not the child’s guilt (a book worth reading is When Good Kids Make Bad Choices by Fitzpatrick, Newheiser, and Hendrickson).  I’ve been told many times and have heard from “professionals” in the Christian child-training business that it is indeed the fault of the parents.  The argument is that since Proverbs 22:6 is God’s Word and God’s Word is never wrong, therefore the only conclusion is that the parents erred.

I’ve heard other such accusations and reasons for wayward children, such as:

  • “If you had read the Bible to your children and made them memorize Scripture, they would not have rebelled.”
  • “If you had used the rod (branch, stick, whip, belt, spoon, paddle) more then they would not have rebelled.”
  • “If you had homeschooled your child, then they would have turned into wonderful, upright and moral people.”
  • “If you had them involved in more church events or made them get involved in wholesome activities and kept them busy most of the time then they would not have turned out so bad.”

Many times parents had done all those things and their children still left the faith or had become rebellious to one degree or another.  Yet a frequent rebuttal from those “perfect parents” is, “Well, you parent, must have done something wrong!”

The problem with that mindset is it assumes rearing children to come to believe and grow in faith in Jesus Christ is by works.  The parents' works.  Scripture rejects that whole notion and yet much of what is purported to be “biblical” child training is based on works.  Another problem with that is the false assumption that this Proverb or any other Proverb is a conditional promise, when in fact it is not.  To better understand Proverbs 22:6, read this article.

4  Proverbs is a collection of observational generalities about life, not absolute promises.

Especially from the perspective of how life probably will happen if you are wise or if you are foolish. As Dr. Sam Storms points out, Proverbs gives us pithy statements or concepts of compressed experience.  “Its principles are timeless and therefore applicable and relevant to all people in every age.”  He informs us, “Proverbs give expression to general maxims concerning life.  The exceptional, unusual and unprecedented are beyond the range of proverbial wisdom.”

Dr. Tremper Longman in the Baker Commentary on Proverbs (2006) says that Proverbs “Does not teach a universally valid truth…Proverbs is only true if stated at the right time and in the right circumstance.”  For examples, he points to Proverbs 15:23 compared with 27:14; and Proverbs 26:4-7 compared with 26:9.  Further, as he shows us from the research, Proverbs 10:1 to 31:31 is an assortment of advice, observations, and warnings, not absolute promises.

5  Proverbs still offers parents principles that informS US how to apply God’s Word to life.

That includes child training.  I’ll save this for another article.

6  There are ways to misuse Proverbs

As Dr. Futato, an Old Testament Hebrew scholar and professor, taught us in seminary there are three admonitions for us about the book:

  • Don’t moralize.  They are not merely promises for the here-and-now.  Instead, they are covenant observations and pointed truths which time will often prove true.
  • Don’t isolate.  In other words, Proverbs must be read in the context of the whole Bible and to be read through the theological lenses of the New Testament.  The New Testament shows us how to properly understand the Old Testament, including the book of Proverbs.
  • Don’t absolutize.  By this, he meant that we ought not to take individual proverbs as little golden nuggets of advice or dictums in order to make our personal lives better.

These are seven reasons why Proverbs is not given to God's people to be a child training manual. There are many more reasons, which could be offered here but hopefully, a case has been made and you get the point.  What is Proverbs for?  See the next blog post.

By implication, Proverbs shows how we all make that choice between godly wisdom and pure folly, and the consequences that often occur through those choices.

- Dr. Don

 

When Good Kids Make Bad Choices: Help and Hope for Hurting Parents
By Elyse Fitzpatrick, James Newheiser, Laura Hendrickson

How to Love My Child with True Affection

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How do I love my child with true affection?  

God has given his own children the call, duty, and ability to love him and to love others.  God has also given to his children who are parents of their own children a wonderful description of what it means to love.  These qualities are seen in, though not limited to, the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians.  The verses quoted below are from the English Standard Version

All of these qualities find their source and perfect expression in God through Jesus Christ.  If we are in Christ we too should express these qualities more and more, not only to other Christians but especially toward our own children.  Taking our guide from this “love chapter” let’s see how we, as parents, can apply these qualities and Christ-like behaviors:

1.  1 Corinthians 13:1

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Does my speech to and around my children come from a heart of love?  If not, then I am just an irritating noise maker.

In what ways can I speak with love to and around my children?

2. 1 Corinthians 13:2

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith,  so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

How often do I use God’s gifts he has given me in loving service to my child(ren)?

How can my family and I use our gifts more fully to serve one another?

3. 1 Corinthians 13:3

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Do I  serve my child(ren) well? Sacrificially? Do I serve from a heart filled with love for him or her?

In what specific ways can we serve each other sacrificially with hearts filled with genuine love?

4.  1 Corinthians 13:4

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant

Love is unselfish as seen in the fact that love is patient.  To have this kind of patience is to have restraint even when you have a right to act.  Love is long-suffering.  The idea is that I restrain my words and actions when wronged or provoked even when I have the right to act unless there is a sin I need to address through gentle rebuke  (Matt. 18; Gal. 6:1)

Am I impatient with my child(ren) or am I longsuffering?

How can I model patience with my family and teach them to be patient with each other?

5.  1 Corinthians 13:4

Love is kind…

Love is kind.  It has the desire and ability to bestow good on another.  It proceeds from a tender heart with goodwill that contributes to the happiness of others.  God is kind even to evil ones (see Luke 6 as an example).

In what ways do I tangibly show good will to others in my family that intentionally contributes to their happiness?

Are the majority of my actions toward my child(ren) acts of kindness?

How can we as members of Christ’s church be kind to one another?

6.    1 Corinthians 13:4

Love does not envy…

Love is not envious.  Love does not feel an uneasiness at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness others enjoy.  As a parent, I am do not get angry or envious of my child when he or she is enjoying something.  Love does not have a sense of hatred for others with a desire to depreciate them.  So, I do not belittle or shame him, especially if he has something that I wish I had.  Love does not take offense when my child has obtained what desire to have.

When am I envious?  How am I going to repent and put on Christ by rejoicing with my child(ren) who rejoices?

What shall I do to help my child(ren) and family in their sin of envy?

Am I jealous of my child(ren)?

7.   1 Corinthians 13:4        

Love does not brag…

This means that my love is not ostentatious, nor has an anxious display of oneself for the purpose of building myself up at the expense of putting my child down.  It does not seek to be the focus of attention.

Do I, as a parent, campaign for the center of attention?  Do I rob my child of well-earned rewards, taking the spotlight from her?  How and when will I repent?

How will I gently confront my child(ren) when he or she has an unhealthy, ostentatious attitude and behavior?  Take note that this is quite different from a child developing a healthy confidence in things well done.

8.  1 Corinthians 13:4

Love is not arrogant

This says that love is not all puffed up and swollen with a proud vanity.

Is life all about me, as a proud and arrogant person?

Am I self-centered so that I demand that my children live for me?

In what ways do I show my own arrogance? How strongly does my arrogance show?

In what ways do I show true repentance, putting off pride and by faith putting on humility in Christ?

How can I model humility around my family and nurture them in the grace and virtue of humility?

9.  1 Corinthians 13:5

Love is not rude.

Another way to say this is that love does not act unbecomingly or unseemly.  Rudeness is discourteous, impolite, and disrespectful. Therefore, love does not unnecessarily embarrass others.  Parents often tend to see rudeness in children but the problem comes when I, as a parent, am rude, inconsiderate and disrespectful toward my son or daughter.

Am I rude? When and how?

What shall I do to repent of rudeness and exercise faith by being truly polite and respectful?

How can I lovingly correct my family members when they are rude and encourage them to show true consideration, courtesy, and respect?

10.  1 Corinthians 13:5

It does not insist on its own way

This is to say that love does not seek its own benefit.  It seeks the benefit of others.

Do I always demand that I get my way as a parent? Do I always have to have things my way in my family?

Am I mature and secure enough to find ways that will benefit both me and my child(ren) in situations?

When do I behave and show actions that are genuinely for the advantage and benefit of my child(ren)?

In what specific ways can our family members seek to benefit each other?

11.  1 Corinthians 13:5

Love is not irritable or resentful

Loves is not easily provoked.  It isn’t easily angered.  It doesn’t have a trigger temper that either stems from bitterness nor does it lead to bitterness.

Do I have a trigger temper? When and how? Am I always on edge or do I have anger and bitterness boiling under the surface?

How shall I cease from such an unloving way?

How can we guard each other against trigger tempers?

What are some calm and gracious ways to handle my child(ren)’s anger?

What good shall I think and do to resolve the collateral damage caused by me or my child(ren)’s anger?

12.  1 Corinthians 13:5

Love is not resentful

Love does not take into account a wrong suffered.  Love is unwilling to bring to mind a specific wrong and keep it into a mental registry of wrongs committed from which I will develop a plan for retaliation.

Do I do this? How, when and with whom? How can I put that off and put on love?

What can we do in our family to protect one another from bitterness, or allowing others to keep a mental registry in order to seek retaliation? Especially since Jesus Christ took the registry of our sins and the sins of our fellow believers upon His record and paid for them with His own sacrificial life and death?

13.  1 Corinthians 13:6

Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.

Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness or evil but finds great delight in justice and truth.

Do I rejoice at the demise of others? Am I happy when others engage in sin or evil? Do I seek to engage in unrighteousness or evil? Then I need to repent.

How do we or can we celebrate good things in our family?

How can we encourage and foster attitudes and an environment that does good and righteousness?

What are some tangible, godly ways to delight in truth?

14.  1 Corinthians 13:7

Love bears all things

This means love covers over so as to protect.

Do I protect my child(ren)’s welfare or life? What about her or his reputation (do I keep from gossiping or slandering my own child, especially she he or she frustrates or angers me?)

How do I and how will I protect her or his reputation, welfare or life?

15.  1 Corinthians 13:7

Love believes all things

This is not saying that we are to be gullible, easily fooled or conned.  This is saying that we put the best construction on things or see things from a positive light unless there is sufficient evidence to believe otherwise.  When love has no such evidence it believes the best about our children.

Is it my habit to be gullible or easily fooled by my child?

Or am I the type of person to always see my child’s actions negatively? In other words, do I accuse my child of something without merely because I suspect he or she has done something?

How can we foster an environment within my family that puts things in the best possible light?

And what just and merciful thing should we do when there is evidence to the contrary, that my child is guilty of something?

16.  1 Corinthians 13:7

Love hopes all things

We do not hope in our environment, circumstances, or in people.  Rather we have hope in Jesus Christ who works all things together for our good.

Am I hopeful?  Do I manifest or exude hope with and around my child(ren)?

How can we display hope with one another in my family in such a way that we are realistically and biblically hopeful?

17.  1 Corinthians 13:7

Love endures all things

Love perseveres. It is resilient and it teaches the child to be resilient.

Do I easily give up? Am I a chronic quitter? Or do I persevere as a father or mother?

What are some ways that we can encourage one another to persevere in our Christian walk?

Who in my family, right now, needs the most encouragement to persevere? What am I or are we going to do about it?

These are a few ways to apply love toward our children.  Certainly, you can think of several more under each quality.  What would they be? 


 

Here are “love” prayers for you:

Dear Father, I pray that I would become more and more like Christ, filled with a heart of genuine love for You and my child(ren). I pray that I would have love in my speech, at the center of all I know, and that love would be the source of my faith. By grace give me patience. Make me demonstrably kind. Keep me from bragging. Eradicate my pride and replace it with Christ. Keep me from being rude and self-seeking. Remove from me my hot temper. Purge my mind of my registry of sins I am keeping against my family members, and help me not to dwell on those sins. Empower me so that I am repulsed at unrighteousness, but delighted with good things. May I always rejoice in truth. Lord. May I always have a heart to protect my child(ren), to always put things and others in a positive light (unless of course there is evidence to the contrary). By your Spirit help me to persevere as a believer in Christ and as a loving parent always in this life until the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Dear Father, I pray that each one of us in our family would become more and more like Christ, filled with hearts of genuine love for You and one another.  May each one of us have love in our speech, have love at the center of all we know, and that love would be the source of our faith.  By grace give us patience.  Each day make us demonstrably kind.  Keep us from bragging.  Eradicate our pride and replace it with Christ’s humility.  Keep each of us from being rude and self-seeking. Remove from us any hot tempers.  Purge our minds of any registries of sins we might be keeping against others.  Please help us not to dwell on those sins, and restrain us from seeking revenge or retaliation.  Empower each one of us so that we would be repulsed at unrighteousness, but delight in good things.  May we always rejoice in the truth. Lord, may we always have a heart to protect others and to always put things and others in a positive light (unless of course there is evidence to the contrary). By your Spirit, help me and my child(ren) to persevere always in this life until the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.