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Is Proverbs 22:6 a Promise?

Proverbs 22:6—”Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

A debate ensues regarding the interpretation of this verse, particularly concerning whether it should be regarded as a promise. David Sorenson, in his commentary on Proverbs, asserts, “The promise is that when he is old, he will not depart therefrom.”1)David Sorenson, The Proverbs: Godly Advice for Young Adults, Northstar Ministries (Duluth, MN: 2006), p. 207 Noteworthy in Sorenson’s commentary is the absence of an explicit rationale for considering this statement a promise, a characteristic shared by many who interpret it as such.

Interestingly, a noticeable division in the interpretation of the verse in question can be observed within Fundamentalist and New Evangelical circles. Fundamentalists tend to regard it as a promise, whereas New Evangelicals generally reject this interpretation. However, it would be fallacious to conclude the correctness of an interpretation solely based on the ideological leanings of a particular camp; this would constitute a genetic fallacy. Even flawed sources can occasionally present accurate information. Therefore, the validity of interpretations should be assessed based on their intrinsic merit rather than the ideological affiliations of their proponents.

I conducted an experiment to evaluate the veracity of this verse. The necessity for such a test arises from the absence of grammatical indicators definitively categorizing a passage as a promise or otherwise. A universally acknowledged principle for interpreting Proverbs is to contextualize them within the genre of Wisdom literature, which frequently employs generalizations. Sid S. Buzzell, in the introduction to Proverbs in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, underscores this by stating, “Many of the proverbial maxims should be recognized as guidelines, not absolute observations; they are not ironclad promises. What is stated is generally and usually true, but exceptions are occasionally noted.”2)Sid S. Buzzell, Proverbs in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, (ed. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck), Victor Books, Vol. 1, p. 904 Another influential work on hermeneutics, commenting on Proverbs 16:3, observes, “a person might assume that Proverbs 16:3 is a direct, clear-cut, always applicable promise from God that if one dedicates his or her plans to God, those plans must succeed. …that the proverb is not a categorical, always predictable, ironclad promise, but a more general truth; it teaches that lives committed to God and lived according to his will succeed according to God’s definition of success.”3)Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible for All Its Worth (Second Edition), Zondervan Publishing House (Grand Rapids, MI: 1993), pp. 219-220

Proverbs frequently asserts that righteousness leads to wealth and prosperity, contrasting it with the poverty and brevity of life associated with wickedness. However, akin to the sentiment expressed in Psalm 73, Proverbs also cautions against envying the apparent success of the wicked, as articulated in Proverbs 24:19. This raises the question: why envy those who consistently face impoverishment and premature death? Hence, it becomes evident that Proverbs operates on a generalizing principle throughout its discourse.

I would like to emphasize that the conception of proverbs as generalizations is rooted in the ancient cultural context, as elucidated by David Aune through reference to ancient rhetorical texts.

A proverb or a maxim is a concise unattributed saying which gives a pithy expression to an insight about life or moral truth, the validity of which is generally recognized and approved. Aristotle defined the maxim (γνωμη) in these words (Rhet. 2.21; 1394a): ‘A maxim is a statement that treats neither particulars—like what sort of fellow Iphicrates is—but things in general, not just anything in general—like the fact that the straight is the opposite of the crooked—but those things pertaining to human action, things that are to be chosen or avoided.’ A more succinct definition is found in the slightly earlier handbook of Anaxinines (Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 11m 1430b): ‘The maxim is, in a word, an expression of one’s personal conviction about some general principle of human action.’ Rherorica ad Herennium is the earliest extant treatise in which sententiae is used as a technical rhetorical term, which he defines as ‘a declaration derived from social behavior, which succinctly presents either what is or what ought to be a fact of life’ (4.24).4)David Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament & Early Christian Literature & Rhetoric, Westminster John Know Press (Louisville, KY: 2003), p. 386

Following the aforementioned quotation, it may be noteworthy to observe that throughout my exploration of ancient Jewish and Christian literature, Proverbs 22:6 is never hinted at as a promise. In my readings, I have encountered it only once in Genesis Rabbah, where its relevance to our discourse is absent in the context of its citation. Similarly, in Ruth Rabbah 6.4, a passing comment vaguely reminiscent of Proverbs 22:6 appears: “A man may learn Torah in his youth and forget it, but in his old age it returns to him.”5)The Midrash Rabbah (Ed. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon), The Soncino Press (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 8, p. 77 This remark, however, does not directly address our verse nor provide substantive insight, as the implication of Proverbs 22:6 is that a child, once trained, remains steadfast in their upbringing without departing from it and then returning later in life—a distinction worth noting.

Additionally, numerous references in Rabbinic texts depict King Manasseh’s repentance for his sins and his return to the God of his father. This narrative is evident in the Prayer of Manasseh and various other rabbinic texts, recounting his repentance and prayer despite purported attempts by angels to obstruct his communication with God. This motif recurs in tales such as the Pesikta de-Rab Kahanna,6)Pesikta de-Rab Kshanna (Trans. William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein), Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA: 1978), p. 376 wherein a fanciful legend portrays God’s intervention to ensure Manasseh’s prayer reaches heaven. While these narratives are prevalent in Rabbinic literature, they are regarded as anecdotal and should be approached with discernment rather than as authoritative accounts. This legend suggests a return to previous training, whereas Proverbs 22:6 implies a consistent adherence to the right path since youth.

In the first century, Philo, a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt, expressed in his work On the Change of Names 91:

for every foolish person thinks that the man who is very rich and overflowing with external possessions, must at once be wise and sensible, competent to give answer to any question which any one puts to him, and competent also of his own head to deliver advantageous and sagacious opinions. And, in short, by such men prudence is supposed to be identical with good fortune, while one ought, on the contrary, to consider good fortune as consisting in being prudent; for it is fitting that what is unstable should be under the direction of that which stands firmly.7)The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged New Updated Version (Trans. C. D. Younge), Hendrickson (Peabody, MA: 1997), p. 597

Philo’s perspective highlights a generalization prevalent in his time, where wealth was often conflated with wisdom. He noted the fallacy that many believed a person possessing great riches must inherently possess wisdom and sagacity, capable of offering astute counsel and insights. However, we can recognize that a wise individual may leave their riches to a foolish heir. Similarly, in contemporary times, while it is foolish to spend money on lottery tickets, some individuals do win substantial sums through chance rather than prudence.

This illustrates the challenge of distinguishing between individual verses as promises or generalizations. Philo’s insights underscore the complexity inherent in interpreting biblical verses within the broader context of wisdom literature and societal perceptions of wealth and wisdom.

A test is deemed necessary due to the absence of a grammatical distinction mandating the interpretation of any verse in Proverbs as a promise, in contrast to the prevailing generalizations found throughout the book. Grammatically and syntactically, there exists no definitive rule compelling an interpretation as either a promise or a generalization. Indeed, the genre of the text holds greater significance than grammatical structure. Proverbs, categorized as poetry and specifically Wisdom literature, operates with distinct syntactic and grammatical conventions compared to other genres. For instance, Psalm 24:6 presents a grammatical peculiarity: “This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.” Strict adherence to grammatical rules might misconstrue this verse as addressing God by the name Jacob, which is not the case. The poetic nature of the text necessitates a nuanced interpretation of its grammar. Therefore, the genre dictates how we interpret grammatical constructs, superseding mere grammatical factors in our analysis.

The methodology I devised to discern whether a verse in Proverbs constitutes a promise involved systematically documenting all verses throughout the book and categorizing them as either promises or generalizations. However, it’s important to acknowledge the inherent subjectivity in this process, and I am open to others undertaking similar tests to compare conclusions.

My approach was to determine if a verse in Proverbs qualifies as a genuine promise by cross-referencing it with other parts of the Bible where it appears unequivocally as a promise. This method eliminates ambiguity arising from the poetic genre of Proverbs. A true promise found in Proverbs should also be evident elsewhere in the Bible, particularly in texts outside the realm of Wisdom literature. This comparative analysis serves to confirm the nature of promises within Proverbs and facilitates a clearer understanding of its teachings.

For instance, a promise of long life is articulated to those who obey their parents. In Ephesians 6:1-3, Paul instructs, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.” This reference correlates with the fifth commandment in Exodus 20:12, which stipulates, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” A comparison of these verses reveals Paul’s adjustment in his application of the promise. The commandment in Exodus 20 links obedience to parents with the promise of the Jews’ continued residency in the promised land bestowed by God. Implicit in this commandment was the transmission of Jewish religious and legal traditions from parents to children, a fundamental aspect of the covenant ensuring their tenure in the land.

Paul adapts this concept for his Gentile audience, broadening the promise to encompass longevity in general. This adjustment finds support in various expressions throughout the Old Testament and is consistent with the broader themes of Proverbs. Wisdom literature acknowledges the occurrence of chance events in human affairs, as exemplified in Ecclesiastes 9:11: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” This verse underscores the rationale for interpreting many Proverbs as generalizations rather than absolute promises.

In Proverbs 3:1-2, the phrase “My son” suggests a paternal admonition, wherein a father addresses his child, urging obedience to his instructions with the promise of longevity:  “My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.”

Proverbs 4:10 “Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings; and the years of thy life shall be many.”

Proverbs 4:20-22 “My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings. Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart. For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh.”

Proverbs 7:1-2 “My son, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye.”

Proverbs 20:20 presents a contrast to the usual pattern of obedience leading to longevity by warning against disobedience, stating: “Whoso curseth his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness.” This verse illustrates how clear promises can be derived from Proverbs by juxtaposing them with established promises found outside of Wisdom literature. The unequivocal declaration of the consequence for disobedience in Ephesians 6:1-3 reinforces this understanding. Interestingly, among the few promises discerned within Proverbs using this method, this particular admonition recurs frequently, emphasizing the significance of obedience to parents for attaining long life.

However, within the broader existential context, one may question the absolute validity of this principle as a promise. Real-life experiences often challenge such assertions; tragic occurrences, such as childhood illnesses or accidents, can befall obedient children, challenging the notion of obedience necessarily leading to longevity. Despite these existential complexities, the principle of obeying parents and enjoying a long life persists as a widely accepted and intuitively understood concept, rooted in common sense. Despite occasional doubts raised by unpredictable events, the innate association between obedience and longevity remains deeply ingrained within our collective consciousness.

The additional promises discovered in Proverbs align with biblical principles, yet their consistency in an existential sense may vary. This observation can be attributed to Proverbs’ connection with the covenantal framework established in God’s covenant with the Jewish nation, as outlined in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. For instance, adherence to practices like tithing, as mentioned in Proverbs 3:9-10, is associated with prosperity. However, there are promises in Proverbs that extend beyond the confines of the covenant with the Jewish nation, addressing universal principles applicable to all people.

For example, Proverbs 2:1-6 asserts that those who earnestly seek wisdom will attain it—a promise echoed in various passages throughout the Bible, such as Jeremiah 29:13, which states that those who seek God will find Him. Similarly, Proverbs 1:23 promises that those who repent will receive the outpouring of God’s Spirit—a concept affirmed in Acts 2:38 and Acts 17-18. These promises, consistent across different biblical texts, validate the principles espoused in Proverbs. However, they comprise the majority of the substantiated promises identified in Proverbs according to the criteria devised for examination.

Generalizations permeate throughout Proverbs, a fact that appears self-evident without necessitating specific examples for validation. However, these generalizations, when juxtaposed with other biblical passages, are not explicitly designated as promises. Instances exist within Scripture that contradict such sweeping assertions. Consider the life of King David, characterized by numerous adversities, including opposition from King Saul, his son Absalom, and betrayal by his counselor Ahithophel, among other adversaries such as the Philistines and Ammonites. Despite these challenges, David is revered as a man after God’s own heart. His life experiences serve as a testament to the fallacy of certain proverbs implying that godly individuals are immune to hardships; these proverbs are not promises but generalizations.

Proverbs 2:7-19 suggest that wisdom provides protection from wicked individuals, including the allure of the “strange woman.” However, this assertion does not align with the experiences of biblical figures like David and Solomon. For instance, David’s marital choice included a wife who was the daughter of Talmia, the Gentile king of Geshur, as documented in 2 Samuel 3:3. This queen bore children who later vied for the throne, such as Absalom and Adonijah, who attempted to usurp Solomon’s rule before David named him as his successor.

Given David’s tumultuous life, it raises questions about the verse in Proverbs 14:34, which states, “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” David’s reign, marked by conflicts and internal strife, challenges the notion of Israel’s exaltation during his rule. Despite being heralded as a paragon of righteousness, biblical commentary frequently compares subsequent kings to David, noting shortcomings like “his heart was not perfect as David his father” or acknowledging acts “in the eyes of the Lord as did David his father.” The period of David’s reign witnessed wars and revolts, including the rebellion led by Absalom, which complicates the assertion of Israel’s exaltation as a nation during this era.

Proverbs 8:21 suggests that loving wisdom leads to inheriting substance, implying a correlation between wisdom and material wealth. However, this assertion is not universally applicable, as exemplified by Ecclesiastes 9:15, which recounts the tale of a poor wise man whose noble deeds went unrecognized. Similarly, while Proverbs 24:3-4 posits that building a house with wisdom fills it with riches, real-life examples challenge this notion, as seen in the case of wealthy fools like Nabal or the rich man in Luke 12:20, who is rebuked by God for his lack of foresight. These instances underscore the complexity of the relationship between wisdom and wealth, suggesting that while wisdom may indeed contribute to prosperity in some cases, it does not guarantee material riches for every wise individual.

In Proverbs 10:22, the notion of God’s blessings leading to wealth devoid of sorrow is conveyed, with similar sentiments echoed in 13:21 and 13:25. Moreover, righteousness is depicted as a safeguard against untimely death in Proverbs 10:2, along with the suggestion of the righteous enjoying longevity while the wicked face premature demise, as evidenced in 10:27 and 11:4. Additionally, righteousness is portrayed as a means of deliverance from trouble, as illustrated in 11:8 and 11:21. This recurrent theme is evident throughout various verses in Proverbs, wherein the righteous are often depicted as prosperous, while the wicked encounter failure or misfortune. Such verses include 12:3, 12:7, 12:13, 13:9, 14:11, 14:19, 16:7, 18:10, 19:23, 21:21, 22:4, 28:18, and 28:20, collectively reinforcing the general notion that righteousness leads to prosperity while wickedness results in adversity.

Frequently, Proverbs depicts the righteous as prospering while the wicked face poverty (Proverbs 10:3). Proverb 15:6 encapsulates this notion: “In the house of the righteous is much treasure: but in the revenues of the wicked is trouble.” However, such assertions cannot be construed as absolute promises, as underscored by Proverbs 15:16, which prioritizes the fear of the LORD over great riches accompanied by trouble, and 16:8, which extols righteousness over wealth acquired through unjust means.

Moreover, verses like Proverbs 24:16 challenge the notion of absolute safety for the righteous, as it suggests that even the just may fall multiple times. Similarly, Proverbs 24:19 advises against envy toward the wicked. But if the wicked are generally impoverished throughout Proverbs, why would they be envied? These instances raise questions about the consistency of Proverbs’ teachings when interpreted as literal promises.

However, such apparent contradictions are resolved when these passages are understood as generalizations rather than strict promises. Viewing them through this lens allows for a nuanced interpretation that aligns with the broader themes and intentions of Proverbs.

In general, Proverbs espouses principles of life that are observable and applicable. However, regarding Proverbs 22:6 as a promise raises questions and lacks justification for several reasons. Primarily, such an interpretation appears to align with the erroneous theology often associated with the concept of “godparents,” suggesting that parents can dictate the spiritual outcome for their children. While godly parents may provide a nurturing environment and impart moral guidance, the ultimate responsibility for one’s faith rests with the individual. Faith is inherently personal and cannot be transferred or delegated by others, including parents. It is imperative to recognize that individuals must develop their own beliefs and convictions, independent of external influences.

This brings us to the second point: free will. Each child possesses their own volition or free will. While a parent’s actions undoubtedly have an impact on the child, the child retains the capacity for independent choice. This notion intersects with the third point: the inherent sin nature. From birth, every individual inherits a sinful disposition. Despite having the freedom to accept Christ and be saved, this decision is complicated by the inherent conflict posed by the individual’s sinful nature. A parent cannot coerce a child into salvation; the child’s free will remains paramount. Furthermore, the child’s sinful nature may lead them down a path divergent from what their parents intended or influenced, highlighting the complex interplay between individual choice and innate tendencies.

Within the book of Proverbs itself, no substantial evidence supports the assertion that Proverbs 22:6 constitutes a promise. Neither grammatical nor contextual reasons within the text suggest its categorization as such. Furthermore, upon comparing its content with other established promises throughout scripture, there is insufficient justification to interpret it as a promise. In reality, the promise concerning children places the onus of responsibility on the child. They are urged to obey their parents for the promise of long life. However, this presupposes that parents are guiding them along the right path. Ultimately, the responsibility for the outcome lies with the child, underscoring the importance of directing emphasis toward their actions and choices.

Indeed, this perspective finds support within Proverbs itself. Consider Proverbs 17:21, wherein it is stated, “He that begetteth a fool doeth it to his sorrow: and the father of a fool hath no joy.” This verse suggests that a virtuous individual experiences sorrow over a wayward child. Similarly, Proverbs 17:25 underscores this sentiment: “A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him.” Here, we observe godly parents experiencing grief over a foolish child. The manifestation of sorrow and grief by these parents serves as evidence of their godliness, as it reflects their disappointment in their child’s misdirection.

Proverbs 28:10 asserts, “Whoso causeth the righteous to go astray in an evil way, he shall fall himself into his own pit: but the upright shall have good things in possession.” This verse elucidates the notion that even the righteous may succumb to wayward paths. Despite being presumably nurtured by righteous parents, they can still be led astray.

When a child deviates from the right path, it is not uncommon for Christians to immediately cast blame or question the parenting skills of the parents. Such an accusatory stance mirrors the plight of Job, besieged by unsympathetic counselors. Little solace is offered to parents who are clearly grieving over their child’s misstep. Instead, they are callously targeted while in distress. This misinterpretation of the verse as a promise often leads to such actions. Regrettably, I have witnessed and heard of numerous instances where this occurs, and it is profoundly troubling. The child’s wrongdoing should be attributed to their own rebellious actions, not seen as a reflection of parental failure. It resembles the scenario where Benny Hinn assures a parent of their child’s healing, only for symptoms to resurface later, and Hinn blames the lack of faith in the parent for the recurrence. Similarly, in the misguided interpretation of Proverbs, parents are faulted for not meeting the stringent conditions necessary to fulfill this perceived promise.

Indeed, this raises another critical consideration where the notion of a promise becomes untestable and unverifiable. Given the inherent imperfection of humanity, no individual can claim to have flawlessly nurtured any child. From this perspective, it prompts us to question why some children do indeed adhere to the right path. If this were a promise, it would necessitate a reciprocal effect, implying that since none of us can perfectly guide children toward godliness due to our sinful nature, theoretically, no child should consistently adhere to such guidance. This logical deduction underscores the practical implications of the verse. If there exists a positive aspect of the promise, there must also be a corresponding negative facet that nullifies it. However, interpreting it as a generalization logically implies that, in general, children who are raised to follow God’s teachings will indeed grow up to do so.

It is worth noting that the term “child” in this context is represented by the Hebrew word na‘ar, typically translated as “young man.” Na‘ar does not inherently imply familial relations, such as parentage, thus raising questions about whether the verse specifically pertains to parenting. More frequently, the term na‘ar does not imply a biological kinship, and it is more aptly understood within the context of a teacher-student relationship, given the instructional dynamics at play, rather than solely as indicative of a parent-child bond. In the Wisdom literature of the Bible, na‘ar appears in various contexts, with only a few unequivocally referring to parent-child relationships. Job 29:5 stands out as the primary exception in this regard, explicitly mentioning parental connections. Conversely, Job 1:19 illustrates Job’s servant addressing Job’s offspring as “young men,” demonstrating a broader application beyond familial bonds. Supplementing this analysis with other poetic texts, one may examine verses such as Psalm 37:25, 119:9, and 148:12 for further insight.

Indeed, interpreting the verse through the lens of a teacher-student relationship appears to be the more precise approach. Randall Price and Wayne House emphasize this perspective, noting the significance of this technical understanding within Proverbs:

This technical understanding is important in Proverbs, which is addressed to “royal sons.” Class distinctions were clearly marked not only in Israel but also at Ugarit, where the only ancient cognate for the term na‘ar is a term of status used for guild members serving in the domestic sphere and as superior military figure. Based on the ancient Near Eastern usage of the term as a background for the usage in the Bible, this verse should not be employed for early childhood training, since the proverbial na‘ar was in the process of being apprenticed in wisdom for taking on royal responsibilities consistent with his status.

In the same way, the word hanak (“train up”) is used almost universally with the dedication or initiation of temples, houses, altars, or walls. Thus, the obligation to a young wisdom “squire” would be to recognize his status as and initiate him into his official capacities or responsibilities with the respect fitting his status. Given this understanding, the phrase “on the way they should go” meant “according to the standard and status” of what would be demanded of the na‘ar in that culture. Therfore, the acquisition of hokmah “wisdom” (a skill in living life) is a duty obligated to the elite whose role in society was to lead, govern, and rule, a training commensurate with its status.”8)Randal Price with Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), p. 158

My friend, Thomas, has authored a well-informed article advocating the interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 as a promise.

As far as I am aware, his article represents the sole endeavor to validate Proverbs 22:6 as a promise rather than an assumption. Consequently, I am compelled to engage with it due to the absence of alternative options. In this article, Thomas asserts, “Every time ‘will not depart,’ the future tense of the verb in question, appears in the Old Testament, and God is making the statement, certainty, not mere possibility, is in view.”9)Thomas Ross, “Children of Obedient Parents Turning out for God—Certainty or Mere Possibility in Proverbs 22:6?, p. 3; PDF available at faithsaves.net

However, there are several issues with this assertion. Firstly, in footnote 13 associated with this claim, he appears to backtrack on the notion of certainty. He states, “Even if texts where the verb was a principle instead of a promise appeared in the Bible—and there are no clear instances—the person who would deny that Proverbs 22:6 is a promise would need to prove that the ‘principle’ sense is not just found somewhere in the Bible, but is the actual idea in Proverbs 22:6.”10)Thomas Ross, “Children of Obedient Parents Turning our for God—Certainty or Mere Possibility in Proverbs 22:6?, p. 3, n. 13; PDF available at faithsaves.net

This commentary suggests that he starts with the presupposition that Proverbs 22:6 is indeed a promise, and even if presented with contradictory evidence from other verses, he would still dismiss arguments against his position. Notably, he fails to address the genre of Proverbs, focusing his argument primarily on the verb in the imperfect form translated as “will not depart.”

Furthermore, the only verse he cites from Proverbs, aside from 22:6, containing the imperfect form of this word is Proverbs 27:22, which states, “Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.” By selectively disregarding the genre, he contends that a fool is guaranteed to remain a fool. However, within Wisdom literature, the fool serves as the quintessential example of what one should avoid. Portrayed as devoid of wisdom, the fool is consistently depicted as stumbling, as seen in Proverbs 10:8 and 10:10, establishing a pattern of generalizations.

Does every fool necessarily serve the wise, as suggested in 11:29? Is it universally true that “every” fool engages in strife, as stated in 20:3? Moreover, interpreting 27:22 as a promise would suggest an absence of repentance for the fool, implying perpetual foolishness that cannot be separated from the individual. Viewing it as a promise would imply that a fool cannot repent of foolishness and be saved—a notion Thomas would likely reject.

Thirdly, a substantial portion of the verses referenced are prophecies, inherently employing the imperfect form of the verb as they pertain to future fulfillment. However, it is crucial to recognize that prophecies are not utilized in the same manner as the verb in the imperfect form within Wisdom literature. Despite this distinction, the verses cited fail to withstand the criteria that was unreasonably set forth.

The listed verses include Genesis 49:10; Exodus 8:11; 23:25; 33:23; Deuteronomy 2:27; 7:4, 15; 31:29; Judges 9:29; 16:17; 1 Samuel 17:46; 2 Samuel 7:15; 12:10; 2 Kings 23:27; Isaiah 3:18; 5:5; 10:27; 11:13; 14:25; 25:8; 31:2; Jeremiah 32:40; Ezekiel 11:18–19; 16:42; 23:25; 26:16; 36:26; Hosea 2:17; Amos 6:7; Zephaniah 3:11; Zechariah 9:7; Job 34:20; Proverbs 22:6; 27:22; Daniel 11:31; 12:11; 1 Chronicles 17:13; 2 Chronicles 30:9; 33:8. While these are purported to be verses spoken by God by his own criteria, a number of them do not feature God as the speaker (e.g., Deuteronomy 2:27; 31:28; Judges 9:29; 16:17; 1 Samuel 17:46; Job 43:20).

Among the broader references, Deuteronomy 7:4 serves as a cautionary admonition rather than a promise. If Judges 9:29 is construed as a promise, it stands as a failed pledge uttered by Gaal. Furthermore, out of the mere three verses sourced from Wisdom literature, Job 34:20 appears dubious as a promise, given its attribution to Elihu, while Proverbs 27:22 decidedly lacks the characteristics of a promise as expressed above.

In footnote 4, the assertion is made that, “Parents who neglect proper child training during their young ones’ earliest years, but begin to obey Scripture in this area, ought to recognize that God in His grace still is able to work powerfully in their children’s lives. However, Proverbs 22:6 is no longer a certain promise for such parents.”11) Thomas Ross, “Children of Obedient Parents Turning our for God—Certainty or Mere Possibility in Proverbs 22:6?, p. 1, n. 4; PDF available at faithsaves.net This can be distilled as follows: if one’s parenting falls short of perfection, this promise loses its certainty. Essentially, this serves as the escape clause invoked when asserting the verse as a promise. Given the impossibility of attaining flawless parenting, there exists no realistic basis for interpreting this verse as a promise. Any positive outcome in a child’s life is attributable to God’s grace, particularly in matters of salvation, as it is through God’s grace that a child is saved. A parent cannot coerce a child’s salvation; while we can articulate the gospel clearly, the child must respond with repentant faith.

The sentiment expressed here exemplifies the tendency to blame and criticize grieving parents when their children stray from the right path, often attributing fault solely to the parent. This notion prompts contemplation on the requisite level of scriptural knowledge, Christian growth, spiritual maturity, and progressive sanctification needed to successfully parent children. Such an idea fosters a sense of elitism among certain individuals, cultivating a mentality of being “super saints” who have achieved perfection, as evidenced by their children’s exemplary faithfulness. Implicit in this mindset is a subtle boastfulness, as if to say, “I have achieved what even God could not do in raising children,” a notion contradicted by the failures and sins of Christians, Israel and Adam.

The biblical analogies of God as a Father, such as in Isaiah 1:2 and Luke 3:38 (where Adam is referred to as the son of God), provide pertinent examples of parental failure despite fulfilling parental responsibilities. The designation of God as our Father holds profound significance and should not be dismissed simply because it does not align with the presupposition that Proverb 22:6 constitutes a promise.

Moreover, the characterization of God as a perfect Father in Matthew 5:48, who bestows only perfect gifts according to James 1:17, raises pertinent questions regarding the persistence of sin among Christians, Israelites, and even Adam. This discrepancy prompts a deeper exploration of the implications of divine Fatherhood and human frailty within the context of parental responsibility.

As expounded in this article, the author asserts, “In light of these Divine promises, it is not surprising that neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament record a single unambiguous example of parents who did everything they were supposed to do for their children, yet their children rejected God and refused to walk in holiness.”12) Thomas Ross, “Children of Obedient Parents Turning our for God—Certainty or Mere Possibility in Proverbs 22:6?, p. 4, n. 4; PDF available at faithsaves.net However, this argument rests upon an argument from silence. The biblical narratives do not furnish sufficient details about individuals’ lives, particularly in the realm of parenting, to substantiate such a claim, given that the Bible encompasses a broad array of themes beyond parenting. Additionally, historical inconsistencies within biblical accounts defy the assumption of consistent outcomes; numerous instances exist where godly individuals raised children who succumbed to idolatry, a recurring reality throughout biblical narratives.

Moreover, contrasting implications arise. In 1 Timothy 3:4-5, it states, “One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” This passage delineates the qualifications for pastors and deacons. Two pertinent points emerge. Firstly, the term “household” suggests inclusivity, encompassing all members of the household, including, as cultural context would suggest, any slaves. It extends beyond the realm of parenting alone. Additionally, the reference to “children” within the household implies those currently residing in the home, contrary to the interpretation posited by my friend, who contends it encompasses children throughout their entire lives. 13)Thomas Ross, “Children of Obedient Parents Turning our for God—Certainty or Mere Possibility in Proverbs 22:6?, p. 5, n. 24; PDF available at faithsaves.net Such an interpretation would render the passage meaningless, as children may grow up, relocate, and lead independent lives, making it impractical for parents to oversee their actions continuously. Moreover, in ancient times, prior to the advent of modern communication methods, such as phones, the notion of a pastor being held accountable for a child’s actions at a long distance would be even more untenable.

Secondly, the “if” clause in verse 5 functions as a first-class conditional clause, presuming the statement to be true for the sake of argument. It can be equivalently translated as “since.” In essence, “since” a man is unable to govern his own household, he is thereby rendered incapable of overseeing the church and consequently disqualified from serving as a pastor or deacon. The premise here is that a godly man, not a novice as stipulated in verse 6, possesses the maturity requisite for pastoral leadership. However, it remains plausible for someone within his household to commit actions leading to his disqualification from pastoral service. The passage delineates a spectrum of transgressions that can render a pastor ineligible, yet these are attributed to the failures of individuals within his household, rather than his own shortcomings. This presupposes that he has diligently fulfilled his responsibilities in overseeing his household and imparting proper training to his children, but one or more individuals within the household have chosen to rebel.

Now, let me outline some of my findings succinctly. A notable observation pertains to the prevalence of imperatives in the book of Proverbs. The imperative verb “train up” a child is prominently featured. Through manual enumeration, as I lacked sophisticated software, I identified a total of 129 imperative forms within the text. Among these, some instances contain multiple imperatives, with one verse even featuring four imperative forms. In chapters 1-9 alone, there were 77 imperatives, of which 63 were closely associated with the phrases “my son” or “my children,” either explicitly within the verse or within its surrounding context. This suggests a prevalent connection between imperatives and parental guidance, as opposed to a mere teacher-student relationship.

Enumerating imperatives contextually linked with “My son/children” in Proverbs 1-9, we find:

  • Proverbs 1:8, 11, 15; 3:3 (2x), 4, 5, 6, 7 (2x), 9, 21; 4:1 (2x), 4 (2x), 5, 6, 7 (2x), 8, 10 (2x), 13 (2x), 15 (3x), 20 (2x), 21, 23, 24 (2x), 26, 27; 5:1 (2x), 7, 8, 15, 18; 6:3 (4x), 5, 6 (3x), 20, 21 (2x); 7:1, 2 (2x), 3, (2x), 4, 24 (2x); 8:32, 33 (2x).

Additionally, imperatives not contextually linked to “My son/children” in Proverbs 1-9 include:

  • Proverbs 3:28 (2x); 6:6 (3x); 7:18; 8:5, 6, 10; 9:5 (2x), 6 (3x), 8, 9 (2x).

However, there is a significant shift in focus from chapters 10 to 31. In this later section, out of the 52 imperatives identified, only 16 were associated with the phrases “my son” or “children.” The thematic emphasis on parenting becomes less consistent. Notably, six of these imperatives occur within chapter 31, which comprises the prophecy delivered by Lemuel’s mother—refer to Proverbs 31:6, 8, 9 (3x). Consequently, only 10 imperatives are linked with parenting in chapters 10-30. Specifically, imperatives contextually connected with “My son/children” in Proverbs 10-30 include: Proverbs 19:27; 23:19 (3x), 26; 24:13, 14, 21; 27:11 (2x). Additionally, Proverbs 19:18; 23:22; and 29:17, which explicitly address parenting, bring the total to 13 verses related to parenting in this section.

Conversely, imperatives unrelated to parenting in chapters 10-30 include: Proverbs 13:20; 14:7; 16:3; 17:14; 19:20 (2x); 20:13(2x), 16 (2x), 18, 22; 22:6, 10, 17 (2x); 23:7, 12, 23; 24:11, 27 (2x); 25:7, 16, 17, 21 (2x); 26:5; 27:13 (2x), 23; 30:8 (2x), 15.

This rudimentary statistical analysis does not conclusively validate my assertion, but it does suggest a strong likelihood that Proverbs 22:6 pertains more to the teacher/student relationship rather than solely focusing on parenting, as traditionally interpreted. It’s worth noting that while the phrase “my son” does not always precede an imperative, it frequently does, particularly within chapters 1-9. Technically, in Hebrew, the verb precedes the subject.

Moreover, the notion of training a child is inherently linked to instructing them, a concept commonly associated with the teacher/student dynamic, as evidenced in Proverbs 5:13: “And have not obeyed the voice of my teachers, nor inclined mine ear to them that instructed me!” Additionally, it is important to recognize that historically, and even until relatively recent times, teachers also employed corporal punishment, reinforcing the idea that discipline extends beyond parental spanking.

In summary, it is likely that Proverbs 22:6 primarily addresses the role of the teacher in guiding and instructing the student, including the possibility of administering corrective measures when necessary.

This analysis aims to provide clarity for individuals who have encountered misinterpretations or misapplications of this verse by misguided individuals. It is intended to prevent unwarranted accusations against devout individuals whose children have strayed from the path of righteousness. Moreover, it serves as a reminder to pastors to exercise caution in their teachings regarding this verse, recognizing the potential harm caused by presenting it as an unconditional promise.

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Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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