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