Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it. (NASB)
Parenting is not an easy task. But Proverbs 22:6 is an easy verse from which to find hope that our children will turn out “OK” if we train them well. It’s often misquoted as a command with a promise: “If we train our kids correctly in the Lord, then, when they are older, we can be confident that they will walk with the Lord, no matter what happens in the volatile teenage or young adult years.”
The verse has been used by some to heap guilt upon parents whose adult children are not walking with Christ, suggesting that the parents did not work hard enough to “train up” their children. It also has been used by well-meaning folk to provide hope that ungodly children will return to a godly lifestyle at some point in their lives. However, both of these usages are incorrect and can cause great discouragement. The passage does, in fact, express hope, but no promise.
Proverbs 22:6 is a “proverb” — no more, and no less. OK, maybe a bit more, as it is an inspired proverb contained within the Holy Scriptures. But, in understanding Scripture, one must take into account many things, such as the context, author, historical setting and literary genre.
The Bible features many literary genres, including narrative (like Genesis), poetry (like Psalms and Song of Solomon), wisdom literature (like Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) prophecy (the major and minor prophets), apocalyptic (like Revelation), parables (Jesus’ parables within the gospels) and epistles (the New Testament letters). Each genre serves different purposes, which the reader must keep in mind to correctly understand it.
In the case of Proverbs, one needs to understand the genre of “wisdom literature” and, more specifically, the “proverb.” The wisdom literature of the Bible contains wise sayings, poetry and teachings that give guidelines for people to follow. The book of Proverbs is a collection of pithy, wise sayings that harbor general truths, but not necessarily promises. A proverb is brief and poetic to be memorable, enabling it to be handed down from generation to generation, providing a form of wise and moral grounding.
An example of a popular proverb that is not from Bible and that we use today is, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Of course, when we repeat this proverb we don’t actually believe that eating an apple every day guarantees excellent health. But we do believe that, in general, healthy eating contributes to physical health.
In the same way, biblical proverbs contain general truths, but not promises. The general truth contained in Proverbs 22:6 says that if a parent works hard to train his or her children to live a godly lifestyle, then it is likely that the children will continue to walk in those ways throughout their lives. The phrase to “train up a child in the way he should go,” contextually, in the proverbial genre, means that parents need to be dedicated to teaching their children to live moral and godly lives.
Training involves more than instruction — it also includes living out our lives in front of our children, modeling godly morals. It includes giving children practice and correction to help them learn the godly lifestyle. It requires dedication on the part of parents. In fact, the whole focus of this proverb is on the parent, not the child.
It’s generally true that a child raised by godly parents to live a godly lifestyle will continue to live out this lifestyle. I believe that many students at Biola are here because they have been trained well by godly parents. But it is not a guarantee. There are many children who have been raised well by godly parents who have bought into the ways of the world and no longer follow Christ. Proverbs speaks to this as well. But this specific proverb challenges parents to raise their children well and offers hope that the probable outcome will be glorious.