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