“Train up a child in the way he is to go, and when he’s old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
This verse is very commonly quoted in the parenting world. It’s been taught to parents of all ages that if they bring-up their child in the church and teach him to love Jesus, they can rest assured that God promises He will not let them wander from the faith. But is this verse really saying that? Is it really a promise from God that our kids are automatically “safe” based-on the way we raise them?
Before analyzing this verse, we need to be aware of the genre that Proverbs falls under. Each type of literature found in the Bible has a different way it must be understood…in the same way that we naturally read the front page news with a different understanding than we read the comics. We understand the genre each falls under, so we don’t mistakenly assume Charlie Brown is reporting world news because we know it’s just comedy. If we misapply a biblical verse outside its genre, our interpretation will be faulty. If we understand and apply verses in a way that’s different from what the author originally meant, our interpretation will be faulty. The meaning of Scripture doesn’t lie in us or how we relate to the text, meaning is derived from the author’s original intention.
When we look at genre, Proverbs falls under wisdom literature. Specifically, it was written by a Hebrew sage (well, probably several, including Solomon), a very specific kind of person who wrote a specific kind of literature. There are other Hebrew sage writings available that aren’t Scripture that we can compare and see the content and type of writing is very similar. The sage is an observer of creation, watching and looking for where God has placed his hand and infused the world with His wisdom. The sage then writes little wisdom sayings, perfectly comparable to our proverbs: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” We have the genre filter in our head to understand that when I quote the last one, I’m not making a truth claim or promise that if I go to bed early and wake-up early I’m going to be rich, never sick, and super smart. (otherwise Evelyne would be the richest baby I know! haha!) It’s based-on a concept that is generally true and can be observed in our world, that those who get enough rest and start their day early tend to be productive and do well for themselves, and it’s wise to follow their example. These proverbs are a result of the sage observing his world, noticing God’s design, and telling us how to live a life of wisdom.
So when we read the verse, “Train-up a child in the way he is to go and when he is older he will not depart from it,” we understand that this is not God making us a promise that if we do certain things when a child is young, God will guarantee that the child will never be wayward or an unbeliever. It is commonly interpreted that way, and this causes lots of well-meaning, godly parents much pain when their grown child leaves the church. They feel betrayed by God because supposedly He made them a promise….when, in fact, He never did. This verse states an observation that, generally speaking, if parents raise their children in a wise and godly way, typically they will grow in wisdom and stay on the same path in adulthood. For the most part, that is probably true, but it is an observation, not a promise or guarantee.
This is another area of Scripture I’ve heard comments about recently, and while my desire is to encourage parents that yes, God will bring their children to Him, I’m struck by the potential for disillusionment if that doesn’t happen. I’m not trying to make any statements about what the new covenent means for the family, but in the context of this verse, we shouldn’t be putting promises in God’s mouth. My prayer is that my teaching, prayers, and love will work together with God’s grace in my children’s lives and bring them safely to His arms.