Proverbs 22:6 – The Training of the Child
"Train up a child in the way he should go; And when he is old he will not depart from it"Proverbs 22:6
In the families of the Reformed Churches, the Lord has granted many children. These children are God's children by covenant, and so are exceedingly rich with promises. This royal identity of the children gives to parents the obligation to bring up these children in such a way that the children come to know and love their Father in heaven. That beautiful task, though, is difficult (as every Christian parent experiences), and therefore encouragement from God's Word is fitting. Encouragement for the task is found in a passage of Scripture as Proverbs 22:6.
This verse mentions a duty given to parents: "Train up a child in the way he should go." It mentions also a promise: "And when he is old he will not depart from it." Here is recorded, in a concise and understandable manner, both what God demands of the parents of His children and what God has promised to the parents of His children. The article that follows attempts to draw out first the actual meaning of the text, and then attempt to trace why Solomon could be so certain of the truth of his proverb.
The meaning of the text
So very many of our families know from bitter experience how it hurts to see a loved one break with the Lord. Children, brothers, sisters, spouses, even parents: numerous of us have relatives that give us very deep disappointment because of their unwillingness to submit to God and His Word. No doubt, it is the parents who hurt the most, for unbelief in a child is seen to reflect on shortcomings in the upbringing.
As we set ourselves now to listen to God's word in our text, we need to make a concerted effort to set our emotions and experiences aside, and strive to listen to what the Lord says. Please remember that our emotions, and the way we experience and digest events in our lives, are affected by our fall into sin. So we cannot build on our emotions, nor can we build on our experiences. God's Word, on the other hand, is the light for our path, a light pure and true.
Not human wisdom
The book of Proverbs was largely written by King Solomon. Scriptures say concerning this man that he was very wise, yes, "wiser than all men" (I Kings 4:31). Yet Solomon's wisdom was not a wisdom built simply on practical and daily living (though that too); his wisdom was given to him by God the Holy Spirit. In answer to God's offer in the dream, Solomon asked not for money or power or long life or peace; he asked for "an understanding heart" so that he could "discern between good and evil" so that in turn he could lead God's people well (I Kings 3:9). God in turn promised to give Solomon "a wise and understanding heart" (vs. 12). The result of God's promise was that "the wisdom of God was in him" (3:28).
For the benefit of the people of his kingdom, Solomon "spoke 3000 proverbs" (1 Kings 4:32). Through these proverbs he sought to put into pithy sayings the wisdom God gave to him – so that in turn the people of Israel might be taught what God had revealed in His Word, might be confronted with the applications of God's word in the nuts and bolts of real life. That is true also of the single proverb quoted above. Proverbs 22:6 is not human wisdom as you may find it in the writings of experienced parents or teachers. This proverb is instead a word from God given to the parents of Israel through the mouth and mind of Solomon, their wise king and teacher.
What, then, does God say to His people through His servant Solomon? In the translation of the NKJV the text tells us to "Train up a child in the way he should go." The word translated as "train up" is used elsewhere in Scripture only in the context of 'dedication'. We find it, for example, in the passage that records the opening ceremonies of the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem. After the temple was completed, "the king and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord… So the king and all the children of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord" (1 Kings 8:62f). We understand the significance of the ceremony: the temple was used for the first time, and its first use set the pattern for how it was to be used for time to come.1 This is the word Solomon uses in his instruction to his readers about the youngsters in their midst. What Solomon wants to tell the people of his kingdom is this: a youngster needs to be instructed today in the pattern of behaviour that is to stamp its life and habits in time to come. From birth onward, the child has to become accustomed to a particular walk of life, has to be made experienced in that walk of life. As the dedication ceremony in the temple 'broke in' the temple, set the pattern for future use, so the youngster needs to be 'broken in', needs to be made accustomed to a particular pattern of living.
We understand: it happens only once that you use a building for the first time in order to set the pattern for future use. After such a dedication, the challenge is to keep using the building according to the purpose expressed at its dedication. A child, though, different from a building, is a living thing. Each day, as it were, is a new beginning, provides new circumstances and opportunities. Solomon's point with his instruction in our text is that each day again the youngster has to be made experienced in the way it is to walk, each day again parents need to cause the child to become accustomed to a Godly walk of life. With the child its never a one-time effort, or a some-time effort; because the child is a living being there is need for daily, constant, persistent, all-the-time effort to make the child experienced in the way of the Lord.
On this point, Solomon's choice of word for 'child' is important to note. Possibly the word can best be translated in English with the word 'youngster'. Not so much the age is important here as the inexperience. The word Solomon uses for 'child' is used elsewhere in Scripture to describe Moses when his mother laid him in the basket and put the basket in the Nile (Exodus 2:6). It's also used of Solomon when he became king at age 20 or so (1 Kings 3:7). It's used too of Rehoboam when he became king at age 40 (2 Chronicles 13:7). All are called a 'child', a 'youngster', and the point of the word is that all were young in the sense that all needed training, all needed guidance and instruction to carry out the tasks laid before them. This, now, is Solomon's instruction to the people of his realm: give such 'youngsters' the instruction they need. Whether the youngster be two months or two years of age, or even 22 years of age, Solomon would have the people of Israel persist in getting them used to the way they need to act.
"The way he should go"
Our translation speaks further of "the way he should go.” That translation maintains some of the ambiguity of the original, for the original is open for two meanings. That is: in our verse Solomon does not specify whose way the child needs to learn to follow. Are the parents in Israel to get the youngster accustomed to God's way? That's certainly true, and it's also an acceptable understanding of what Solomon writes. It's also possible, though, to understand Solomon's instruction as: the youngster needs to be taught according to the requirements of its own character. And that's certainly true too. The one child needs to be approached like this, and the other like that; children are not all the same.2 That, if I may so say, needs to make us very cautious of criticising the parents of another family. Different children need different approaches. As it is, though, we need not make a choice between the two possible understandings; we need to accept them both. A youngster needs to be made experienced in the way of the Lord, and as parents daily seek to train the child in that way they need to take into account the child's character, ability, attitude, etc. All the Scripture is clear: the central thing is that youngster needs to become accustomed to the Lord's service.
"When he is old"
Solomon lays before his people what the results of such training will be. Says he: "And when he is old, he will not depart from it." "When he is old": those words form the opposite of the word 'youngster'. Exactly what is to be understood by the phrase is hard to determine; are we to think of being 80, or 60, or just older-than-a-youngster? From the use of the term elsewhere in Scripture,3 it's evident that we need to think of the twilight years of one's life – whenever that may be.
"He will not depart from it"
The final phrase of Solomon's proverb is clear. A person accustomed since childhood to the way of the Lord will not turn aside from the Lord's way in his twilight years. Instead, that aged person will remember the instruction of his youth, will live according to what has been drummed into him.
The duty and the promise Solomon lays before the parents of Israel are, then, clear. Parents are daily to cause their youngsters to become accustomed to the way of God, and when the child is old he will not turn from that way.
Precisely that conclusion, though, gives us so many questions that we'd clearly love to lay before Solomon. Our experience tells us that so many youngsters do not cherish the training they've received in their youth, do not in old age walk on the way they've been taught. Does that not give the lie to what Solomon writes? Or are we to conclude that some of us as parents have done a worse job than others of us, and that's why (some of) our children have turned from the Lord's way?? But that seems so cruel, so harsh, precisely because we’re sure we have done our best to make our children experienced in the way of the Lord. So we wonder: where does Solomon get this wisdom from? Does Solomon state here simply "what generally takes place without implying there are no exceptions to the rule"?4 Must we understand Solomon's word here to be a proverb and not a promise after all?? To answer those questions, I need to take you for a walk through the Scriptures Solomon had. Through those Scriptures not Solomon but God answers so many of our questions.
The source of Solomon's proverb
The first passage5 we need to consider is Genesis 17. That chapter relates the fact that God made His covenant of grace with Abram. God said to Abram in vs. 7:
"And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you."
Notice the promise of God: He would be God not just for Abram alone, but equally for his descendants after him. Abram's children, grandchildren, great grandchildren into countless generations were claimed by God to be His. These children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren were then rich, heirs of God's promises, God's grace, of forgiveness of sins and life eternal. On the basis of a text as this, Solomon could know that the youngsters in Israel of his day – his own children included – were different before God than the youngsters of (say) Moab; those of Israel had promises others did not have. God included the children in His covenant, was genuinely interested in these children. Just how much God was genuinely interested in the children was pointed up in the exodus from Egypt, for God delivered not only the adults who loved Him, but delivered also their children from bondage. More, it was not die adults but specifically the children who later inherited the Promised Land. Yes, the youngsters in Israel were precious to God.
These children, though, did not automatically receive the riches of God's promises to them. By the ordinance of God, the faith and conduct of the older generation would greatly impact the next generation. I refer to Genesis 26. There God said to Isaac these words:
"And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (vss 4f).
That is to say: Abraham’s obedience was a blessing for his son Isaac and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren into many generations. Because of Abraham's faith in God and obedience to God, God graciously blessed the next generation and the next and the next, etc.
This connection between the faithfulness of one generation and the faithfulness of the next receives a mention also in the second commandment of the covenant God made with Israel at Mt Sinai. Says the Lord in that commandment:
"You shall not make, for yourself a carved image.., you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments." Exodus 20:4ff
That is: disobedience in the Lord's service in the parents provokes God's jealousy so that the parents' sins come back in the lives of the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren. Equally, God shows mercy to thousands, into so many generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments.
Just before he died, Moses tied up for the people of Israel the instruction God had given over the years. That includes the following word:
"I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live" (vs. 19).
Notice it: you choose life, "that both you and your descendants may live.” Yes, the children of Israel are precious to God, His children by covenant, heirs of very rich promises. But the children do not automatically receive the riches; the parents faith and faithfulness impacts greatly on the next generation.6
These are the Scriptures that Solomon had. He's read the Scriptures, he's worked with the Scriptures. Now he writes a proverb, and he says:
"Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it."
Is Solomon recording here a general truth based on human observation? Or is he repeating for his people what he has learned from the Lord his God? Certainly what he says agrees with God's promises in Scripture: the children entrusted to believing parents are God's children by covenant, precious in His sight, and God uses the faithfulness of one generation to the benefit of the next generation. That's the principle God was pleased to reveal, the principle the parents of Israel were instructed to believe and apply. And that's the principle Solomon records for his people in Proverbs 22:6. This text is not a general truth; it is a promise from the Lord to the parents of Israel.
In fact, it is because of the connection God placed between the faithfulness of the parents and His blessing on the children that God also told the parents of Israel to make it their business to teach His covenant children His ways. Said the Lord to His people through Moses in Deuteronomy 4:
"Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren.., that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children" (vs. 9f).
And in Deuteronomy 6:"And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (vss 6f).
Precisely because of the connection God laid between faithfulness in the parents and blessings for the children, God insisted that the parents in Israel were themselves always to be busy with the word of the Lord, and were to speak about it with their children always too. The training of the youngsters was not to occur only when the Scriptures were read at the tea table, nor only when the parents took the children to the tabernacle on the Sabbath, nor only when a baby had to be circumcised. Rather, all the time the parents of Israel were to know and to show that they lived every moment of their days in the presence of their holy and gracious covenant God. And it was for them to impress on the youngsters around them that those youngsters also lived every moment of their days in the presence of their holy and gracious covenant God. That is: day by day the older in Israel were to get the younger so accustomed to the service of the Lord that the younger knew the Lord and His ways inside out and backwards, and the service of the Lord became an ingrained habit.
There is nothing new in Solomon's instruction to the people of his realm. Both the instruction to train the children and the promise of God on that training had been abundantly revealed to Israel in years gone by.
Since the days of the Old Testament, God has not changed. The children granted to believing parents in the New Testament dispensation are also God's children by covenant, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. It is what Peter said on the day of Pentecost:
"For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." Acts 2:39
So it is that children of believers today, even of one believer only, are holy before God, precious to Him (1 Corinthians 7:14).
That reality means that the obligation for parents of the New Testament dispensation is the same as was the obligation for parents of the Old Testament dispensation. Paul says it like this:
"And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to Wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." Ephesians 6:4
To 'train up' a child, to get the youngster accustomed to the service of the Lord, remains very much the task of the parents today. That is why, when parents bring their little ones to church for baptism, they promise "to instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he is able to understand, and to have, him instructed therein to the utmost of your power."
Just as the duty for parents remains the same over the years and generations and dispensations, so too does the promise. In II Timothy I, the apostle Paul thanks God when he remembers Timothy and "the genuine faith that is in you" (vs. 5). This faith, Paul adds, "dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice." That is: Here is godliness, faithfulness – it's called "genuine faith", and literally it says "unhypocritical faith"- in the generations. According to the principle of the Old Testament, the "genuine faith", this "unhypocritical faith" of the one generation results in blessings upon the next. God works through the generations still. God has not changed, and so today's parents are to tell the covenant children God entrusted to them about the Lord and His service, are daily to impress upon them how to serve their heavenly Father, and God for His part continues to promise His blessing on the parents' labours: when the youngster is old he will not turn from it.