What was Solomon really saying?
“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it,” Proverbs 22:6
The study of Proverbs can be fascinating and is always rewarding, but we need to enter it with seriousness and a desire to learn. Solomon wrote the most of the Proverbs found in the Bible, and all of them are written in poetic style. Poetry must be studied in a manner different than historical narrative or the epistles. Poetic literature, whether contemporary or ancient, offers challenges for the interpretation process.
The Proverbs are a class of literature that is somewhat unique, beyond the poetic style. Dictionary.com defines a proverb as:
1. a short popular saying, usually of unknown or ancient origin, that expresses effectively some commonplace truth or useful thought; adage; saw
2. a wise saying or precept; a didactic sentence
4. Bible. a profound saying, maxim, or oracular utterance requiring interpretation;
In short, most proverbs are truisms or statements that are true most of the time or in a general sense. Benjamin Franklin and Confucius are known for their proverbial sayings being both wise and true most of the time.
Another uniqueness of biblical proverbs stems from the uniqueness of the Bible itself. Second Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is God-breathed . . . .” That is, we hold that the whole of the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and is the exact representation of what God intended to reveal to His people. This would also apply to the Proverbs. Even so, there are those that view the Proverbs as being more than human truisms but less than inspired in the same manner that the Gospel about Jesus Christ is inspired. My view is that we cannot degrade the Proverbs as any less inspired by the Holy Spirit than any other portion of the Bible.
We begin this series of articles examining Proverbs 22:6 with an exegesis to understand what is being said by the writer. The first step will be to examine the words of the verse and then the two clauses of the verse and finally the verse as a whole. Before we begin our study, here are some of the contextual considerations that must be remembered.
• Proverbs is ancient poetic literature; it contains figurative and ancient language nouns that can be hard to translate.
• The immediate context is: the five books of Wisdom literature in the Bible. Each of these books is written in poetic style. The largest portion of the Proverbs was written by Solomon—whom the Bible declares to be the wisest man to ever live.
• Proverbs is part of the Old Testament, Jewish literature, and set in the culture of the ancient Middle East.
These factors must be considered when translating, reading, and in this case exegeting the verse.
Through the years pastors and teachers have taught from this passage. The lessons are numerous and many parents hear these lessons and “claim” the promise of Proverbs 22:6. The one thing that seems to be consistently absent from these messages is the core or foundational teaching of this passage. Many times the emphasis is placed on “the way he should go” or “when he is old, he will not depart from it.” A proper exegesis should begin with the first word or portion of the verse.
The verse begins with the Hebrew word chanak, to train. Using an old favorite lexicon, The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew Aramaic English Lexicon; we find that chanak means to “train up, dedicate.” The first meaning relates to “train, train up a youth.” The second meaning is sited as “dedicate, as formal opening a new house.” A later and equally popular lexicon gives the definitions in reverse order. This would seem to simply provide confusion to the translator or student. Even when using a lexicon or dictionary, the immediate context often is what determines the actual definition of a word in a particular verse. That is the case here in Proverbs 22:6.
The question to ask when context is a primary factor is, “Is there something in the verse or verses that will definitively determine the use of a particular translation of a word?” In verse 6, it is true either translation can be used. However, one must ask, “Which translation will make more sense logically?” Using chanak as dedicate relates better to structures such as the temple. Verse 6 refers to a person not to a building. That is problematic if translating chanak as dedicate; it is used consistently for dedicating a building such as in Deuteronomy. 20:5, 1 Kings 8:63, 2 Chronicles 7:5. Another Hebrew word is used for dedicating the firstborn to the Lord, for example, in Exodus 13:2, the Hebrew word for dedicate or consecrate is qadash, to set apart. (The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew Aramaic English Lexicon)
Another question that must be asked of a translated word is “are there other contexts in which the word is used that can guide the translation?” In the case of chanak, there is another very clear use of the same root word but in a different verbal tense. Genesis 14:14 contains the word chanike translated trained. The lexicon notes that this use can be translated “trained, tried, experienced;” and this is the only context in which it is used. In this passage, the use or translation is clarified by the context of the verse. “When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan,” Genesis 14:14. We also need to consider extra-biblical usage of a word for insight into the correct translation. Outside the Bible the same root is used to signify “armed retainers,” that is, paid warriors. (Retainers are warriors committed for one reason or another to the house of Abraham, not mercenaries)
The next aspect of this verse and word that should be considered is the specific form of the word. Trained, chanak is a verb and is also an imperative verb form, a command. This is a valuable aspect of the context that is not discussed very often. When God gives a command, it should be taken seriously. Yet, in this passage, there is little emphasis given to the command, “train up a child.” Before one can ask, “Can I claim this verse as a promise?” He or she must consider the command of God, train up. The puzzling thing is how can we claim a promise if a command is attached to it, and we give no thought to obey the command? This is exactly what has happened with this Scripture. Many parents want to claim this verse for their wayward children, but in the formative years, they did not do the important, commanded aspect of child-rearing, train.
The Command Continued
Taking this part of the exegesis and moving from the word train to the clause, “train up a child;” we can now discuss the meaning of the clause. Solomon is not telling parents to train household pets, servants, or one another. The specific command is to train children. While this may seem obvious, listening to parents stating that they are having problems with a child or that a child is out of control. Could it be that this command has not been obeyed? Through the years, I have had parents come to me as a youth pastor and ask me to work with their child or try to reach them. If everything worked well, I had from 1-2 hours a week with the son or daughter. I did not live with the kids or house them or feed them. My influence was very limited. Parents on the other hand had numerous hours each week to influence, guide, or teach their children.
It is interesting to note here that one of the reasons Roman society weakened was that their high moral values were undermined. For decades, the Romans taught their children at home and in Roman schools the foundational principles of Roman society and government. After Rome conquered Greece, the Romans became fascinated with the educational system of the Greeks. The Romans began to hire Greek pedagogues and philosophers to teach their children. The younger generation of Roman citizens adopted the morals, or lack thereof, of their instructors—trainers.
“Train up a child” is a command given to parents, not to youth pastors, school teachers, or anyone else. It is your responsibility as a parent.
The next portion of the exegesis is “train up a child in the way he should go.” Much has been said about this part of the verse; however, sound Bible study principles guide us to again consider the context. The construction of the book of Proverbs does not help much. Most of the Proverbs are either stand-alone statements or couplets. In a few passages, there may be 6-20 verses in a section. That is not the case with Proverbs 22:6, it is a proverb standing by itself.
What we do have is the context of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is a whole and to interpret a part of it, one must consider all of it. In this case, Proverbs 22:6, there are other passages in the Old Testament that have direct bearing on the meaning of the verse. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is another command that helps clarify the training process.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (ESV)
A couple of points in this passage address the training aspect of Proverbs 22:6. There is a command, “teach them diligently.” You cannot tell a child once to follow a rule and the child be perfectly compliant. You cannot tell a child twice to follow a rule and the child be perfectly compliant. You may have to tell the child over and over and over and over . . . and discipline for disobedience and explain your rational to a child and spend time with the child to see obedience come consistently in a child’s life. The point is; it takes time and effort to train a child to know and follow your wishes.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 also tells us part of what we are to be teaching and training our child to know and believe. We should be teaching, modeling, and affirming that there is One God and that we are to love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength. Moses further clarified that parents were to do the teaching, modeling, and affirming at home, when traveling, in the evening, and in the morning. Does it make you wonder if parents were to take these two Scripture passages and obey them, what difference it would make in the lives of their children?
Continuing in verse 6, there is the “promise.” Typically, Proverbs are not promises as much as they are instructions. This is true throughout the Proverbs. If that is true for the Proverbs in general, then should we not look at individual verses in the same manner? What if we looked at Proverbs 22:6 as an instruction with a result rather than a promise? When the instruction is fulfilled or obeyed, then there is an expected, not promised, result. Even the result is qualified—“when he is old he will not depart from it.” Solomon was a great example of this verse that he penned. During his middle years as king, his testimony in Ecclesiastes is that he tried everything the world had to offer; yet, he finally returned to the roots of his faith in God.
The result we expect is that if and when our children try the world and the “things” it offers they will discover more quickly than Solomon that those things do not satisfy and are empty. Even though I never left home formally, I certainly spent some time wandering spiritually and wondering about what was truth and what satisfied my soul. After about three years of this wandering spiritually, the Lord suddenly and decisively brought me back to the foundational teachings of my home and family. Now that I am old; I am so deeply committed to my beliefs that I could now be considered hard-headed and narrow-minded.
Let’s review quickly, Proverbs 22:6 contains a command to “train up a child,” an instruction “in the way he should go” that is clarified to mean to love the Lord with their heart, mind, and strength, and a result of obedience to the command—“when he is old he will not depart from it.” There has been an incorrect emphasis on the “promise” or the result without a proper understanding of the first and more important part of the verse, the command to “train.” What might happen if parents dedicated themselves to obeying the command of Proverbs 22:6? What if parents began from the beginning of a child’s life to invest in them personally and spiritually and stay involved in the lives of their children? It could make an incredible difference.
In the next discussion of this passage, we shall consider the command, “train up.” What is involved? How long will it take? How much will it cost me personally? What are some specific steps I can take?
(Copyright Living: Marriage, Family, Relationships and Mike Pickle original 2003, 2016; no portion of this may be reproduced for distribution—copied, printed, faxed, digitized—without expressed permission.)