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.

Peter Goeman
Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.
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