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.

Hard-Headed

February 28, 2014 at 11:06 am | Posted in Common Expressions | 4 Comments
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My wife’s mother, who has been married to the same man for almost fifty years, gives this marriage advice: “If you want your marriage to work, you must be hard-headed about the right things.” Generally speaking, the expression “hard-headed” means stubborn. I think what she means, though, is that when times get tough in your marriage, you need to be downright stubborn about keeping the vows you made before God, and committing to stay together and work through the difficulties, no matter what.

I could not find the expression “hard-headed” in the Bible, but I did find a reference to hardening of the face.

A wicked man hardeneth his face: but as for the upright, he directeth his way.

Proverbs 21:29

This kind of hardening is not good. It refers to stubbornness that ignores wisdom. It is the outward result of the inner hardening of the heart.

The hardening of the heart is a process, and a head is hardened by repeated stubbornness. The hardening of the heart involves both our own wills and God’s will, and a hard head is the result of God finally reinforcing what we want to think, anyway. The hardening of a man’s heart occurs when God gives him over to his own way. A hard-headed man can’t “change his ways,” because they’re his ways, not God’s ways. The hardening of a person’s heart negates that person’s warning system. It keeps him from seeing the danger in the direction he’s “heading” (no pun intended). A hard-headed person is sometimes called a dullard. He’s sleepy and lulled into a false sense of security. When someone is hard-headed, he is unable to see the danger which is abundantly clear to others. Don’t be hard-headed when it comes to sin and disobedience. The only thing hard about a believer’s head when it comes to sin should be his helmet.

And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:

Ephesians 6:17

O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!

Psalm 119:5

Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? a man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.

Ecclesiastes 8:1

Fortifying the Fulcrum

January 24, 2013 at 10:20 am | Posted in Ecclesiastes | 4 Comments
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Sometimes the key to wisdom is balancing competing interests. Good leaders place themselves at the fulcrum.

If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.

Ecclesiastes 10:4 (emphasis added)

On one side is pride.

There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler: Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.

Ecclesiastes 10:5-7

Pliability is on the other side. Rulers must not be too proud, nor too pliable. They must be willing to listen to counsel, but not to be overcome by pressure.

Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.

Proverbs 11:14

Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.

Proverbs 27:5-6

Likewise, those who work under leaders must be balanced.

He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him. Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.

Ecclesiastes 10:8-9

On the one hand, workers must be aware of their position. When you work it is important to consider where you “stand.” When we dig ditches or break through hedges or chop wood or pick up and move heavy rocks, we need to watch our step, but the same principle applies to the work of the ministry, which can be as dangerous spiritually as theses types of physical labor are dangerous literally. The work of the ministry does require some “heavy lifting” and “getting down into ditches” and poking around in people’s lives even though they might bite you like a serpent. But the Lord empowers us to do these things while we watch where we stand.

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Psalm 1:1 (emphasis added)

We deal with sinners and with scorners, but we don’t “stand” in their “way” and we don’t sit in their “seat.”

If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct. Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.

Ecclesiastes 10:10-11

Workers balance position on one side and preparation on the other. Cutting wood with a dull ax is a problem of preparation, and so is trying to handle a snake that hasn’t yet been charmed. Talking to a babbler is like dealing with a deadly snake when it comes to spiritual matters. It requires preparation. Both of these dangers for workers can be balanced with precaution.

The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want.

Proverbs 21:5

At work and in your Christian walk, take precautions. Be diligent. Think it through. Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread. Precaution will balance out your positioning and your preparation.

Another thing that must be balanced is our communication.

The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself.

Ecclesiastes 10:12

Communication can be destructive. Foolish words can hurt others, but here we learn that we can destroy ourselves with our own foolish words.

The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness.

Ecclesiastes 10:13

In addition to being destructive, some communication is just downright dumb. In the Bible foolishness is often described as deadly, and “mischievous madness” is just dumb. Once you’ve talked yourself into a hole it’s better to shut your mouth than to try to talk your way out.

A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?

Ecclesiastes 10:14

Balanced on the other side of destructive and dumb communication is determined communication. Determination is a good thing, but it can also be a dangerous thing because sometimes it attracts pride. It is not bad to use words, but it is foolish to be “full of words,” especially when it comes to making bold assertions about the future.

The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city.

Ecclesiastes 10:15

“He knoweth not how to go to the city” was an ancient proverb for someone who was demanding – someone who was so busy bossing everybody around that he wore everyone out and missed the obvious signs about how to get to the city.

The balancing principle for dumb and destructive communication on the one hand, and determined and demanding communication on the other hand, is learning to be delicate. We want to be somewhat determined and demanding about truth, but we don’t want to tip over into being destructive or dumb.

Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.

Colossians 4:6

Salt is a little bit delicate. Too little, and the food will be bland; too much, and the food will be inedible.

Turning Up the Heat – Part 1

March 19, 2010 at 9:30 am | Posted in Bible Studies | 13 Comments
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Lord, let us hear from You. Thank You for Your patience, for Your love, for Your saving grace. One of the benefits of our salvation is having ears to hear. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. In the precious name of Christ I pray. Amen.

And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.

Malachi 3:3

This verse says He shall sit, and the “He” is the Lord Jesus. It is partially a reference to a time when He shall come to defeat the Antichrist, and shall establish His kingdom on Earth for 1000 years. Not all theologians believe in this, but many of those who do call it the Millennial Reign. But Malachi 3:3 also speaks of the work of Christ in the lives of believers today.

If you have been born again – if you have been saved – if your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life – if you have trusted Christ as your Savior – then this verse applies to you. I want us to notice 3 things about this verse:

1. The position of the Refiner
2. The purpose of the refining
3. The product of the refining

The Position of the Refiner

When we look at the position of the refiner, we are a little concerned: “And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…” Sitting is a position that we usually equate with laziness or a lack of concern.

[Let me pause here for a brief tangent on the topic of “sitting.” If you are a Christian boy or man – especially a teen-aged boy or young man – do not let yourself be caught sitting while someone else is working in front of you. A lady who is carrying something heavy should never have to excuse herself to get by you because you are loitering in her way. As someone who has been frustrated in the past by the failure of unbiblical church “youth groups,” I have seen this happen numerous times. If you are in a position of leadership in church youth ministry, or, more to the point, if you are a Christian parent or elder, please stress to teen-aged boys and overgrown “youth group” males that they are to be:

Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;

Romans 12:11

The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuse to labour.

Proverbs 21:25

Slothful is the Bible word for lazy. A Christian should be diligent, not lazy.]

Okay, back to the point: We see the that the Refiner in Malachi 3:3 is sitting – sitting before a hot cauldron or pot of molten silver. In this illustration, you and I, as Christians, are the silver. And we are in the heat, but the Refiner is just sitting. We are tempted to ask, “What do you mean He’s sitting? I’m in the fire! Things are really getting hot for me! I’m having troubles – troubles at work, trials at home, suffering in my body! Why is He just sitting? Doesn’t He care?”

The temptation to think this way comes from a misunderstanding about the nature of God. God is not a nervous parent, up at 2:30 a.m., pacing the floor, wringing His hands, waiting for the phone to ring, and muttering, “Why won’t My son call me if he’s in trouble? Why won’t My daughter come home – I don’t know where she is?” Nor is He snoring soundly while His children are getting into all sorts of trouble beyond the realm of His consciousness. No, the Refiner of silver sits because He’s in it for the long-haul.

I work in an office, and when I have some very important paperwork to attend to, I sit down and pay attention. The Refiner must pay close attention. He will not let the refining fire He’s attending cool down too much or get too hot. Our Lord sits as a Refiner because He is determined to do a thorough and complete job.

Another reason the Refiner is sitting is because He is the King, and is in total control. He’s sovereign. When an earthly king receives his subjects, he sits and they stand. They are nervous and stressed. They want their requests granted, but they are uncertain. The king is sure. He is calm and regal. He knows he has the power. If he declares it to be, it is so. Our Lord Jesus, the Master Refiner, is sitting because He paid a high a price for us, and He wants us to be pure. He’s not sitting because he doesn’t care – He’s sitting because he does care.

I believe it was Charles Spurgeon who used the analogy of an infant with a dirty face. This child is crying because his mother is vigorously scrubbing his face clean. The child is greatly agitated, but the mother is smiling, calm, and humming a merry tune. The mother has the peaceful and purposeful assurance that a clean face is the best thing for her child at that moment. How often we cry to the Lord to be relieved of our sufferings! We do not realize that the relief we are crying for would not be good for us. Our Lord loves us too much to let us stay defiled. He paid too high a price for His silver and gold to let it remain full of impurities.

That is the position of the Refiner: sitting. Next time, we will delve a little more into the the purpose of the refining.

The Know-It-Alls that Don’t Know Much

September 1, 2009 at 7:22 am | Posted in Biblical Parenting | 16 Comments
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The Book of Proverbs is a good place to find wisdom in all areas of life, including the area of child-rearing. When parents want to know what the Bible says children should grow up to be, they should start by finding out what the Bible says children already are.

Children are simple (Proverbs 7:7), in the sense of being unwise, and – not to put too fine a point on it – simply foolish (Proverbs 8:5). The simple, foolish, and unwise are marked by a list of very fundamental things about which they are ignorant, or, in other words, things about which they do not know.

Children do not know about danger.

A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished.

Proverbs 27:12

Children do not know about discernment.

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.

Proverbs 15:17

Children do not know what is truly to be desired.

The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuse to labour.

Proverbs 21:25

Children do not know what is truly to be despised.

A fool despiseth his father’s instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.

Proverbs 15:5

Children do not know what is truly to be denied.

Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.

Proverbs 30:7-9

Children do not know what is truly to be devised.

He that deviseth to do evil shall be called a mischievous person.

Proverbs 24:8

Children do not know what is truly to be destroyed.

For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.

Proverbs 1:32

Children do not know what truly brings disgrace.

He that wasteth his father, and chaseth away his mother, is a son that causeth shame, and bringeth reproach.

Proverbs 19:26

Children do not know what truly brings despair.

A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him.

Proverbs 17:25

Children do not know what causes true disrepair.

He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls.

Proverbs 25:28

Children do not know what is truly disgusting.

A righteous man hateth lying: but a wicked man is loathsome, and cometh to shame.

Proverbs 13:5

Children do not know what is truly deadly.

Correction is grievous unto him that forsaketh the way: and he that hateth reproof shall die.

Proverbs 15:10

Children do not know where to find direction.

In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

Proverbs 3:6

Children do not know from what to depart.

Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.

Proverbs 3:7

Foolishness comes naturally to children. It is bound up in their hearts. Parents face a tough task in trying to extricate, from the hearts of the little ones they love so much, ignorance of all these things: danger, discernment, desire, despicability, denial, devices, destruction, disgrace, despair, disrepair, disgust, death, direction, and departing. Thankfully, the Lord has given us clear instruction on one other thing that children do not know, but that will drive the foolishness from their hearts: discipline.

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

Proverbs 22:15


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