“Train up a child in the way he should go (on his own customized path), and when he is old/older/grown he will not depart/will return.” (Proverbs 22:6)
This passage has given parents and Bible teachers fits for many years. There are lots of different explanations regarding what this text is teaching (including a few I’ve included in the verse above).
If we do our job correctly as parents, does that mean that our children will never go down the wrong trail? What then of the dozens of families we know who trained their children well (imperfectly, but in the right direction), and their children rebel?
Does it mean that if we train our children correctly, they may still rebel for a time, but then they will come back to our faith later, when they have gotten the rebellion out of their system? What then of the families we know where the rebellious child never does return to the faith?
So which is it? Will they never depart or will they return? I believe the answer to both questions is: Yes. And No.
Here’s what I mean: I believe the Proverbs are speaking about general truths, not making absolute truth claims. I don’t think there is any way we can assume that the Proverbs are absolute statements that are true for all people, in all places, at all times. For example (please consider):
“Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh, and strength to your bones.” (Proverbs 3:7-8, NKJV)
Are all godly people you know healthy?
Or what about this:
“A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” (Proverbs 10:4, ESV)
“The generous soul will be made rich.” (Proverbs 11:25a)
Are all the diligent, hard-working (or generous) people you know rich? (I didn’t think so!)
“No grave trouble will overtake the righteous, but the wicked shall be filled with evil.” (Proverbs 12:21, ESV)
Do you know any righteous who have ever had grave trouble?
“The hand of the diligent will rule, but the lazy man will be put to forced labor.” (Proverbs 12:24, ESV)
Unless he goes on welfare!
“Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings.” (Proverbs 22:29a, ESV)
Have all the skilled craftsmen you know met with world leaders?
“The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.” (Proverbs 30:17, ESV)
How many rebellious teens do you know who have had their eyeballs eaten out by birds?!
This is an issue of Biblical Hermeneutics. That is the study of how we understand each book or section of the Bible through the lenses of its own literary genre.
So am I saying the Proverbs are not true? Absolutely not! Am I saying they aren’t the Word of God? No way! They ARE true! However, they are true in the way that they intend to be understood: As broad general statements of truth that generally apply to the general world (but of which there will be notable exceptions – as I pointed out in the passages above).
I hope that this shift in your perspective on the nature of the book of Proverbs, and the Hermeneutic method (or set of lenses) through which we should read it, will help you to make more sense of the entire book, including this difficult and troubling passage that has plagued so many guilt-ridden parents for so long.
For more info on this, please listen to this short teaching: www.biblicaltraining.org/proverbs/hermeneutics
Israel Wayne is an Author and Conference Speaker and the Director of Family Renewal, LLC. He is also the Site Editor for www.ChristianWorldview.net. Check out his book, Full-Time Parenting: A Guide to Family-Based Discipleship in e-book and print.