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Rethinking Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go…”

Proverbs 22:6 is often quoted by hopeful Christian parents as a promise from the Lord with respect to faithful parenting:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

More often than not, it’s suggested that if Christians faithfully rear their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, when those children are old, they will not depart from what they’ve been taught.

Or sometimes, it’s suggested that this verse promises that “prodigal sons” will invariably return.

And yet, how often has this not been the case?  Is God unfaithful to His Word?

It was suggested a number of years ago to me that the problem is not God’s unfaithfulness to his promise.  But rather, the problem is we have misunderstood this verse.

We think it’s a promise of rewards for faithful parenting.

In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  It’s a warning against unfaithful parenting!

I think it’s a severe enough mistake, common in many circles of Christian parenting literature, that I feel compelled to post this excerpt from a sermon on Proverbs that I think nails this verse.

“Train a child up in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Now, that is something we’re going to camp out [on] for awhile, because that is a verse that is another favorite verse of Proverbs that doesn’t mean what anybody thinks it does.  I very reluctantly — it takes a lot of hubris to say that everybody has translated a verse wrong — but everybody has translated that verse wrong.  People are — you’ll read more and more academics who are admitting that — but, traditional translations die hard, and, unfortunately, this is a well-beloved traditional translation.

The trouble is that…there are a number of troubles with taking it that way.  “Train up a child in the way he should go.” Let me give you a literal — a very literal — translation of that: “Initiate for the child on the mouth of his way; even when he is old, he will not turn from it.”  And I give you a more of a [loose] translation: “Start out a boy according to his own way; even though he may grow old, he will not turn from it.”  Now, what do you notice that’s missing there? What’s missing is, there is no “way he should go.”  And that is beyond argument not in the Hebrew; the Hebrew text says nothing like “the way he should go.”  There simply is no argument about that.  You have people interpret it that way, but it doesn’t say that.  It simply says, if you start out your child according to the dictate of his way, then when he is old, he won’t depart from it.

Now, when you think about that, if you don’t assume the traditional translation, does that sound like it’s saying that this is something you should do?  “Start out a child according to his way” — well, what is “his way” according to Proverbs?  We just saw at 22:15: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child.”  So, what is “his way”?  “His way” is a foolish way.  “His way” is a sinful way.  Left to himself, he’ll bring shame to his mother.  Didn’t we just read that?  So, if you start out a child according to his way, then when he grows old, he won’t turn from it.  Do you start getting what Solomon really is saying?  He’s saying something like 29:15 says: “A child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”  That’s a child who’s let loose.  Remember, Proverbs says again and again that there’s only two ways.  There are only two ways: there’s God’s way, and there’s our way.  And what is  our way like?  Well, it’s a way that seems right to the eyes of a man, but what’s the end of it?  Destruction…the way of death.

So, this is a verse that’s hinting at and giving the two ways: the one way is the child’s way, but by implication, the other way is God’s way.  But what this is actually is — this is not a promise.  And, unfortunately, many, many Christian parents have taken this as a promise. It’s not a promise; it’s a warning.  It’s not a promise that if you start out Johnny going to Sunday School, then although when he turns seventeen, he’ll start boozing and carousing and being sexually immoral, but you know eventually he’ll come back, because you took him to Sunday School.  That is not what this verse says.  What this verse says is that if you start Johnny out being accustomed to get Johnny’s way, and Johnny expecting that if he whines and cries long enough then he will prevail on Mom and Dad, and if you start Johnny out expecting the world ought to cater to Johnny’s whims and Johnny’s  expectations and Johnny’s demands, then even though his body will mature, he won’t.  He’ll never turn from that.  And you’ve known children like this, who grow up expecting the world to cater itself to them — and if they ever “get religion,” they think “religion” is the same thing.  That’s why so many churches are consumer-driven; they’ve got a bunch of Johnnies in them, who expect that God should do things their way, the church should do things their way, they should be able to customize it, they think God is the great “Burger King in the sky” — you know, where kids are king: “Special orders don’t upset us.”  And they’ve been led to expect that everything should cater itself to them.

That’s what this verse is warning against.  This verse is warning that if you start out a child assuming that he should get his way, he won’t depart from it.  Another indication of that is this word “will not depart.”  That verb, sur, the verb is used seventeen times in Proverbs.  Thirteen out of those seventeen times, it means, “departing from something evil.”  Only three of the times is it used of departing from something positive.  And then, the next one is this verse– which is what we’re trying to decide — what does that mean?  So, I want to try to make that plain.  What I’m saying is, when it says, “when he is  old, he won’t depart from it,” the traditional idea is: “Well, you’ve led him in a good way, and when he’s older, he won’t depart from that good way.”  But the verb usually means departing from something  bad.  So, naturally, we would assume that that’s what it means here.  And I think that  is what it means here.

Let me be as plain as I can: what Proverbs — what Solomon is saying is, “If you raise him to expect his own way, that’s a bad thing, and it’s a bad thing that he should depart from, but when he grows up, he won’t depart from it.  He won’t repent of it.  He won’t  leave it, because you led him to expect it.  You led him to think that’s the way things are supposed to be.”

Dan Phillips, “Insights from Proverbs (Children in Proverbs)”
Sovereign Grace Baptist Church  2007 Conference on Proverbs

(HT: threegirldad)

Posted in Parenting.

8 Responses

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  1. Teri says

    Ummm … I am going to have to really, REALLY meditate on this position of the verse. I am feeling a bit … confused and unsettled by this (so, you can tell which ‘take’ I have always had on this verse).

    Thanks for sharing …

  2. Evers says


    I’m glad for your honest response. I think this is a more precise (and therefore) correct exegesis of the text, which is why I offered it. I don’t mean to ram it down anyone’s throat, and am open to counter-arguments. Certainly, I am *not* denying the idea that God blesses faithful parenting in general; but am reluctant, as always, to see any verse wrestled out of context even if it’s to support a legitimate concept.

  3. Laura says

    I’ll have to follow this up with research of my own. We usually don’t consider the possibility of a mucky translation, but it does happen, and in my experience, clarifying it always makes a passage “work better”, i.e. fit reality more accurately. I think that would be the case here, if he’s correct about the Hebrew; I’ve known too many churched kids who’ve walked away from the faith to dismiss this reading. I’mm off to dig up some commentaries!

  4. Victoria says

    Wow… Honestly had never thought about it that way. Really, either translation is the same as the other… The way he “should” (the way we want him to) go: away from sin, entitlement, bad habits, danger, etc… is the opposite of “his way”. It’s simply stating that how ever we raise our children, is the way they will live their adult lives. One is dwelling on the positive conotations, the other is dwelling on the negetive. I for one am unable to see anything not to like about your way of stating it. However, I, too, will do a bit of research of my own, and contemplating. 😀 (I take so little on the net at face value… I’m going to get the Bible and look up those verses myself.)

    I would like to say thank you for bringing this up. This particular verse has been on my mind for the last week, and I’m wondering if I found it on purpose… LOL I’ve just decided we’re going to homeschool my first born (he’s 3.5). Well, off I go!

  5. Eric says

    The other way to look at this, of course, is from the perspective of genre: the book of Proverbs is not a collection of promises, but descriptions of the way things typically go. That’s where I thought you were going at first.

    So it seems to me that whether one translates the text in the traditional way or in the way you mention, one actually ought to come to the same conclusion. It’s not a promise that raising your children “in the Lord” guarantees their future faithfulness in Christ, but a warning against parents neglecting their children’s nurture and upbringing.

  6. Simon says

    This is an excellent explanation as to what Proverbs 22:6 actually does mean.
    I came upon this site by doing a search on expositions of the above verse. The reason I did the search is because the Bible Version I read (The KJ3 Literal Translation) actually translates this verse as follows –
    “Train up a boy on the mouth of his way, even when he is old he will not turn aside from it.”
    So I was looking for an explanation as to why my version had the word “mouth”.
    I now realize that the KJ3 translation is a very good one. My KJ3 bible continues to open my eyes as to how many verses in even the best of translations are not quite correct.
    The translator Jay P Green did a brilliant work here.
    So, well done with you explanation. I believe it is a very accurate exposition of the verse.

  7. BB says

    Thank you so much for clarifying what I’ve come to see as my least favorite verse in the whole Bible. My husband and I claimed this verse in the traditional way in the raising of our five sons–almost all of whom have chosen, after their teen years, to abandon their Christian beliefs. Although we have always had (and still have) close, loving relationships with them, I’ve struggled mightily with whether we were sold a bill of goods when we bought into that original promise. Thank you so much for shedding light on this murky, guilt-inducing topic. I wish this information was more widely known, as it would have saved me a boatload of grief, blaming myself for my boys’ decisions, and my subsequent bewildered anger at God and sense of abandonment. I imagine there are MANY Christian parents in the same situation.

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