Proverbs 22:6: Promise or Principle?

January 6, 2020 at 10:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Question: I’m a parent and I would like to claim Proverbs 22:6 as a promise from God, that if I train my children to follow Christ and to do what’s right, then, as they get older, they will continue on that path and not depart from it. But I’ve heard at least a couple of preachers say that Proverbs 22:6 is a principle and not a promise. Is that true, and how can I tell?

Answer: First of all, I want to commend you for thinking Biblically, and therefore correctly, about your responsibilities as a parent, and for your desire to take hold of promises from the Word of God.

The Proverbs are part of the Biblical genre known as “wisdom literature.” They are often described as a collection of “wisdom sayings” gathered by King Solomon and other writers, that are intended as guidelines to help people live God-fearing and God-pleasing lives because they are generally true. Since the Bible must be read in context in order to apply it correctly, it helps to know that the Proverbs are expressions of wit and wisdom designed to be memorable and evocative, while still being inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore inerrant and infallible. This tension has caused problems of interpretation for many Bible scholars and commentators. Before I get to your specific question, let me give you a couple of examples.

Proverbs 21:19 says, “It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.” Is this a promise or a principle? The promise is that living with a quarrelsome and browbeating woman will always be a miserable experience, and, while living in the wilderness can be rough, it is actually better than the alternative. However, it is not a “blanket promise” in the way that a verse like John 3:16 is. For instance, there might be a rabid grizzly bear roaming in a particular area of wilderness. THAT would not be preferable to sharing a house with even the orneriest, big bad mama we can imagine. So, for this reason, we are tempted to use verses like this to support the argument that the Proverbs are only situation-specific promises, and are really more like principles.

However, look at Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Have you ever heard a preacher say, “That’s just a principle, and not a promise. Most of the time we should trust in the Lord and His direction for our lives, but not always?” I doubt it, and if you have, then I want to meet that preacher. No, we are quick to latch onto certain Proverbs as promises and to dismiss others are mere principles, when the Bible does not authorize us to be that cavalier with the Scriptures.

So, what does all this have to do with Proverbs 22:6? I’ll tell you what. The interpretation and application of Proverbs 22:6 is fraught with situational temptation.

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it

Proverbs 22:6

Imagine you are a preacher preaching to a congregation where an older couple is present, and they have served faithfully in church for many years, having brought up their son from his birth to be faithful right alongside them. This couple was consistent with discipline. They attended services faithfully. They gave sacrificially. They weren’t hypocritical. They glorified God in church and out of church, and they did their dead level best to bring up their child in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord. However, once Junior moved out on his own, he stopped going to church, got into trouble with the law, took up drugs, alcohol, and fornication, and is now living like the devil’s disciple. What does the preacher say when he gets to Proverbs 22:6? He can’t say God was wrong. The more political spin is to say it’s a principle and not a promise, and that, even though Dad and Mom did a fine job raising Junior, they can’t really be responsible for his choice to deviate from the general principle of Proverbs 22:6.

So, I think the most common answer to your question is that, while it is admirable that you want to claim a promise from God, you had better not be too hasty. You’re just a young parent, and you should do your best, but don’t count on your little tyke growing up to do what’s right. In other words, hope he falls under the general principle, but don’t blame God (or yourself) for breaking a promise if he goes astray.

I am not going to give you that answer, because I really don’t think it’s the right way to read or apply that verse, for two reasons.

1. We have to be careful about importing our modern word-usages into Bible verses that were translated a long time ago. We have a tendency to read “Train up a child in the way he SHOULD go” and place a moral value judgment on the word “should.” If I say, “We SHOULD treat people with respect,” then it is clear that I mean we ought to treat people with respect because it is the morally right thing to do. Likewise, we read Proverbs 22:6 and we automatically think that it means that the way a child SHOULD go is God’s way, and to go another way is the morally wrong way to go. That is a true statement, but I do not think that is the way the Holy Spirit intended for us to use “should” in that verse.

The other way to use “should” is to say, “A round ball placed at the top of a hill SHOULD roll down the hill.” This is not a moral judgment. It’s an expression of a natural tendency. I believe that this was the intention of the translators in Proverbs 22:6 (and the meaning that best matches the original Hebrew text). In other words, the verse is telling what happens if parents train their child in the way he has a natural tendency to go. I would never presume to correct the King James translators, but I think the modern wording (versus the 1611 wording) would sound more like, “Train up a child according to his way…”

This changes the whole dynamic of the principle vs. promise question. Because now we are talking about a couple of additional options for understanding the verse. For one, it could be telling parents to watch our children to see what sort of natural tendencies and talents they appear to have, and then to encourage them along those lines. Then, when they are “old” they won’t “depart” from doing what they love to do and have been naturally gifted to do. Or (and this is the option I really think is correct, although it is admittedly the minority view among Bible scholars), because children are naturally sinful, the way they “should” go (apart from our correction), or the way they have a natural tendency to go, unless they are changed by God, is toward evil and sin. Therefore, the verse would be both a promise and principle, but primarily a warning for parents of the consequences of reinforcing children in their own sinful ways, until they get to the (“old”) age when it would be too late for us to influence them to change.

Now, I will admit that, while I do not hold to the “moral value” interpretation of “should,” in Proverbs 22:6, nearly all other Bible teachers historically HAVE held to that view, and if you are inclined to agree with them, I would only caution you not to adopt a casual view of dismissing what seem to be God’s promises. If Proverbs 22:6 is TRUE (and it certainly is, regardless of whether it is a technical promise or a technical principle), then no parents of grown, and yet wayward, children can shake a fist at God, and accuse Him of not keeping His Word. God’s standards are always higher than ours, and even the best parents in the world have been far from perfect, and need God’s wonderful and amazing grace if they are to even have a hope of bringing up children that glorify Him.


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