Proverbs 22:6: Promise or Warning?

Train up a child in the way he should go:
And when he is old, he will not depart from it. (Prov 22:6, KJV)

This verse has been used by many parents as a promise that if they are diligent to discipline their kids, then their kids will grow up and hold fast to the ways of God. However, this in turn has resulted in many parents feeling as if God has broken His promise to them when their child turns from the faith. I think it is important to realize a couple things about this verse.

First, proverbs are not promises. They are axiomatic (self-evident) sayings about how life normally works. However, there are plenty of exceptions to proverbs, because life is complicated by many factors. When reading a proverb, it is important to know they do allow for exceptions. For example, although Prov 21:17 says the one who loves pleasure will be a poor man, there are plenty of people who love pleasure that are some of the richest people on the planet. This does not invalidate the proverb on its own. We recognize exceptions, and hold on to the main point.

Second, Proverbs 22:6 is likely a negative warning rather than a positive promise. The word for train up a child (חנך) is used elsewhere to refer to dedicating a house (Deut 20:5) and the temple (1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chron 7:5). The traditional gloss of “train up” is not bad—the idea appears to be on some kind of initiation (“initiate a child”?).

The most controversial phrase is “in the way he should go.” In the Hebrew, the phrase is literally, “his way” (דַרְכֹּו). The important question is what kind of way is the youth’s way? In the same chapter we see that foolishness is bound up in the heart of the child, and only discipline can drive it from him (Prov 22:15). The next chapter admonishes parents not to withhold discipline from the child/youth, because he needs it (Prov 23:13). Indeed, out of the 6 other uses of “youth/child” (נַעַר) in Proverbs, each occurrence does not speak favorably of the moral disposition of youth (Prov 1:4; 7:7; 20:11; 22:15; 23:13; 29:15).

With this in mind, “his way” likely refers to the sinful disposition of the youth. Thus, this particular proverb functions as a warning. If parents train up a child to embrace his own ways, apart from exceptions (e.g., God’s intervention) the child will embrace that lifestyle throughout his life.

With that in mind, my translation would be as follows:

Train up a child in accordance with his own (sinful) way, and even when he is old he will not turn from it.

By way of application, the main message of the proverb is clear. Whether it is positive or negative, Proverbs 22:6 is stressing the importance of parenting and the tendency of children to hold to the patterns of their youth. However, we should avoid using such a proverbs as promises that have no exceptions.

What Does Being “Cut Off” Mean in the OT?

Throughout the Old Testament there are numerous times where it is said of an individual, a family, or a nation that they will be “cur off.” But what exactly does that mean? The main theories are as follows:

  1. childlessness and premature death
  2. premature death caused by God
  3. capital punishment administered by a human court
  4. cessation of existence after death so as not to enjoy eternal life
  5. proclamation of God’s judgment

In evaluating what this phrase means, it is helpful to examine the main offenses in which being “cut off” is an appropriate penalty (Stuart, Exodus, 284).

  • failure to practice circumcision (Gen 17:14)
  • failure to eat unleavened bread during Passover (Exod 12:15, 19)
  • illegally manufacturing or using the sacred anointing oil (Exod 30:32–33, 38)
  • violating the Sabbath (Exod 31:14)
  • eating sacrificed food while ritually impure (Lev 7:20–21)
  • eating the fat or blood of a sacrifice (Lev 7:25, 27)
  • slaughter/sacrifice outside the tabernacle (Lev 17:4, 9)
  • forbidden sexual practices (Lev 18:29; 20:17–18)
  • child sacrifice (Lev 20:2–5)
  • necromancy (trying to divine the future by contact with the dead; (Lev 20:6)
  • worship function by a defiled priest (Lev 22:3)
  • failure to observe the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29–30)
  • failure to commemorate Passover (Num 9:13)
  • defiant, intentional sin (Num 15:30–31)
  • failure to purify oneself after contact with the dead (Num 19:13, 20).

When examining these passages there are a couple of helpful observations. First, the nature of many of these offenses indicate that they could take place without others knowing about them. Second, in some of these passages, God himself says He will be the one who cuts off the individual guilty of certain offenses (cf. Lev 20:3).

These observations seems to indicate that the penalty of being “cut off” is not something a human court enforces, but something that is divine in nature. Numbers 15:31 gives insight into why individuals are “cut off” from the people: “Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.” Two reasons: (1) he despised the Word of God and (2) he flagrantly broke God’s commands.

In putting all of this together, it seems best then to understand the “cut off” formula to be something like a divine curse. In other words, the individuals who are rebel against God’s gracious covenant are put under the divine judgment which inherently belongs to covenant breakers. This doesn’t mean the individual will die immediately, but his rebellion and disobedience has sown God’s covenant curses (Lev 26; Deut 28) which will include eventual death. The cut off formula could perhaps be rephrased like this: “Because you are rebellious against your God and have broken His covenant, now then the curse which disobedience brings will belong to you [and usually the family as well].”

photo credit: 270:365 via photopin (license)

This post first appeared February 28, 2015.

How Do the Righteous Speak?

Jesus himself said that “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt 12:34b). It is an undervalued axiom in our culture that what we say—whether verbally, over text, or on social media—these acts of communication reveal our hearts.

Proverbs provides some of the most pithy and helpful statements on how a righteous man communicates. Often Proverbs will contrast the righteous and his communication style and the non-righteous man. What follows are only a few examples from Proverbs on how the righteous one’s communication is described.

  1. The Righteous Brings Benefit by His Words.

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
But the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Prov 10:11).

The lips of the righteous feed man,
But fools die for lack of understanding (Prov 10:21).

I have known some people who I literally cannot listen to enough. It seems that every time they speak, they are literally feeding me and providing me with something that will sustain me in life. That is the mark of righteous speech. The words of the righteous provide tremendous benefit to all those who will listen. As Proverbs makes clear elsewhere, this is largely due to the fact that the righteous individual is also wise—having a mastery on the issues of importance in life.

  1. The Righteous is Valued because of His Words.

Righteous lips are the delight of kings,
And he who speaks right is loved (Prov 16:13).

The tongue of the righteous is as choice silver,
The heart of the wicked is worth little (Prov 10:20).

The lips of the righteous bring forth what is acceptable,
But the mouth of the wicked what is perverted (Prov 10:32).

In line with the previous point, those who speak well and benefit others are prized because of their intrinsic value. This is no surprise.

  1. The Righteous Speaks with Wisdom and Insight.

The mouth of the righteous flows with wisdom,
But the perverted tongue will be cut out (Prov 10:31).

The one who is righteous is also necessarily wise. Therefore, the speech of the righteous is imbued with wisdom, understanding how the world works and helping others see that through his or her speech. In contract, there are also those who simply deserve to have their tongue cut out because they twist and deceive people—they hurt instead of help.

  1. The Righteous Thinks before He Speaks.

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,
But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things (Prov 15:28).

Oh how much we need this listen more than ever. Our society prizes the quick and witty, but Proverbs highlights the prudent and thoughtful. There is a time for haste, but the wise man or woman knows that should be the exception and not the rule. Those who are righteous know time and thinking must precede helpful communication.

What is your favorite Proverb on communication?

Elijah: Man of God or Coward?

One of the most epic stories in the Bible is where Elijah squares off against the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. There are 450 prophets of Baal, and just 1 Elijah. Yet through a dramatic display, Yahweh shows himself to be the true God, and Elijah convinced the people to slaughter the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18:40).

After the contest, Yahweh brings rain upon the land, relieving a 3 ½ year drought. Ahab, the king of Israel, sees all of this. Then, he returns to Jezreel and tells Jezebel, his Baal-worshipping wife, what Elijah had done. She sends Elijah a message, in which she promises to make him like the prophets of Baal (i.e., dead).

What is Elijah’s response?

Actually, this is where there are two diverging ideas. One idea follows the majority of English translations and claims that Elijah becomes cowardly and flees Jezebel and begins to mope over his existence. This idea is backed up by the translation, “Elijah was afraid” (1 Kings 19:3).

The problem is that there is good evidence that the Hebrew reads “Elijah saw.” In fact, the consonantal spelling of “Elijah was afraid” and “Elijah saw” are actually the same. It is only the pronunciation that is different. Older English translations translated this phrase as “Elijah saw,” but most modern translations have gone to “Elijah was afraid,” citing non-Hebrew evidence and the context that Elijah’s fear was the motivation for fleeing from Jezebel.

In contrast to the majority opinion, I don’t think Elijah was a coward, nor was he afraid of Jezebel.

First, with regard to the Hebrew reading, it is much easier to change “he saw” to “he was afraid.” But it doesn’t make sense for a scribe to edit “he was afraid” to “he saw.” Hence, by that simple test, “Elijah saw” is much more likely to be the original reading.

Second, the overall context lends support to Elijah’s boldness. I mean, come on! He literally just stood on a mountain alone against king Ahab, the people of Israel, and 450 prophets of Baal! It is unlikely in the extreme that Elijah would buckle at the knees at the sound of a boisterous woman like Jezebel immediately following such an experience.

So, if Elijah was not afraid, why did he run? If we take the reading as “Elijah saw.” To answer this, we must ask what did Elijah see? The best explanation seems to be that Elijah saw that the repentance from Baal worship to Yahweh which he hoped to inspire was short-lived. Ahab did not depose Jezebel. Rather, he allowed (and possibly encouraged) the threats against Elijah’s life. Thus, the leadership of Israel did not return to Yahweh. The people were not showing signs of long-term revival. Thus, Elijah’s proclamation, “I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kgs 19:4). In other words, just like his predecessors, Elijah could not bring about the heart change that the nation needed.

But still, why did Elijah run south? Why did Elijah ask God to kill him? If our observations are correct so far, we can surmise that Elijah ran, not because of fear, but to escape Jezebel killing him. If Jezebel were to kill the prophet Elijah, it would be seen as a victory for Baal. Elijah could not stomach the thought of glorifying Baal, so he went far south where his death would not have a link to Jezebel or Baal worship. There, because of his brokenness, Elijah asked God to take his life. Elijah realized that he had failed to affect repentance in the nation, and it broke his heart. He was done.

This picture of Elijah is a bit different than the picture painted by the majority of commentators. Yet, I think it provides an accurate picture of Elijah. He was not an unfaithful prophet who stopped trusting in God and feared Jezebel. Rather, he served the Lord faithfully and had his heart broken by the stubborn, unrepentant spirit of his people.