Proverbs 22:6 might be one of the most quoted verses of the Bible for children's ministry, but even youth ministry. And it should be.
In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible was produced. As one of the most widely distributed English translations, it often became the framework for future translations. What I mean by that is that translators for newer translations typically try not to stray far away from the KJV so that they aren't labeled as too edgy. For the most part, that's not a bad thing. When people decide to not use older translations as frameworks, one can easily create a translation that is purposefully so far out there in order to be unique. Nothing is wrong with unique, but unique needs to be right, not just cool or creative. What I plan to illustrate in this blog is my argument that the King James Version made a translation assumption that prevented future translations to consider a different understanding of Proverbs 22:6. So here is Proverbs 22:6 in the KJV:
"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."
The result of this translation is the typical interpretation and application of this passage in the evangelical church. That would go something like this: "If we teach our kids to love God, when they get older, they will continue to love God."
There is an issue with that interpretation, which is the fairly common exception to that rule. I personally have counseled a few families in my 8 years of youth ministry that couldn't pinpoint where things went wrong. "Why has my child left the faith? I did everything to teach them the right way."
The reality is that this exception in my opinion is more common than a typical exception to the rule should be. The first place many might go is to assume the parents didn't train them correctly. The truth is that honestly might be the real issue.
Some parents train their kids in the rules, but not the gospel. The result is that their child is frustrated with constantly missing the "mark" provided by the law. But they aren't met with the Romans Road. Romans 3:23 (we all have fallen short), Romans 6:23 (that although we deserve to die, Jesus died in our place, offering us the free gift of salvation), and Romans 8:1 (that those who trust in Jesus for their salvation [instead of their works] will not be condemned).
Other parents train their kids in the love of God, but not His holiness. These parents almost do the opposite of the first. They teach Romans 8:1 but don't teach Romans 3:23 or Romans 6:1-2 (that we should not remain in sin so that grace may abound). This way of teaching results in a child that grows up resting so much in grace, that grace turns into acceptance, and acceptance results in a lack of living a repentant life. I'm sorry (not sorry) to say that this is not the true Gospel. Sure, you have rightly trained your child to love others, but technically you have not rightly trained your child to love God.
So although those examples might clarify the most common interpretation of Proverbs 22:6, there are still examples. I think of the Pastor who has faithfully taught the Word of God in their church and in their homes, but their children still rebel. We even have examples in the lives of some of the first prophet/priests of God. Remember Eli's kids? Doing some really bad stuff in the tabernacle and parading around with the arc of the covenant? And what about Samuel's kids? They rebelled and it resulted in Israel asking for a king instead of one of Samuel's sons. And these situations happen. Does that prove that verse as wrong? I would still say no. But is there a better translation and interpretation of this passage? I would say yes.
Here is the verse in Hebrew which reads right to left:
חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל־פִּי דַרְכּוֹ גַּם כִּֽי־יַזְקִין לֹֽא־יָסוּר מִמֶּֽנָּה
"Train a young man on the lips of his way, then even when he grows up, he will not depart from it."
As you can see, there are already quite a few variations. You can also probably tell that my translation sounds weird, and that is because I'm providing a more literal translation. So let's take this word by word.
חֲנֹךְ - Train (a command)
לַנַּעַר - (object marker) + Young man (could be translated child or young lady. In Proverbs, there are a lot of male and female specific nouns for the sake of a poetic theme, but the interpretation should still be taken as boy or girl even if the literal word is young boy)
עַל־פִּי - This is a tough one. It literally means "On the mouth of." Most translators just skip over this idiom. I think it is used to highlight that rebellion is usually not just physical but is on the young man's mouth.
דַרְכּוֹ - "His Way." This is where we see the biggest dynamic at play in regards to the King James Version. Who is the author referring to when he uses the pronoun "His?" Is he referring to God's way or the Child's way? This is the key to translating this verse and interpreting it. The KJV interprets it as "God's way," and therefore translates it "The way he should go." As you will see, there is no words "go" or "should." Also, I believe it is in reference to the child because there is no other noun in the verse. If "God" was a noun in the verse, then the pronoun might be easier interpreted as referring to "God." Instead, "child" is the only noun in the verse, which seems like the more straight forward translation.
גַּם - "Also / Even So / Even When" (it functions like a conjunction)
כִּֽי־יַזְקִין - "Because / that / so that / when" + "He gets old" or "He grows." Note that the previous conjunction connects to the following word "so that/when." My translation renders it "Even When."
לֹֽא־יָסוּר - "Not" + "To Depart." Translated as "Will not depart"
מִמֶּֽנָּה - "From" (preposition) + "He/She/It" (Pronoun). Context points to the pronoun referring to "His way," which makes the translation "it" the best option.
Now that I've already walked you through the translation process, you might ask "What is the point? What is the interpretation?"
If you train up a child in the child's way, is the child going to learn how to not be selfish, but follow God? The answer is no.
When I decided to add the phrase "on the mouth of" and also translated it "young man" instead of "child," it gives us a vivid picture of what I would call a preteen.
And all the parents who have raised a young boy or girl hitting puberty say "AMEN!"
Raising a teenager is rough because on their lips, attitude, and actions are consistent selfish decisions. The "way" of someone fitting this description is selfishness. So if a parent allows their child's selfish words, actions, and heart to take root when they are that age, how would you expect your child to all of a sudden change when they grow up and go to college? The damage, although we pretend is limited, has been done.
Essentially, the interpretation of this verse becomes a negative promise:
"If you continue to allow your child to get his way, and do not teach them the way of the Lord, do not expect them to want the way of the Lord when they grow up."
After all that work, the application honestly remains similar. We must teach our children the gospel. We must discipline our children when they act selfishly (especially when they do so knowingly, but even in some cases when they don't realize it but can understand).
The key over and over is to constantly remind your child of our sin (not just their sin, but even the selfish attitudes of us as parents), to remind them that Jesus paid for that sin by taking on our punishment that we deserved, and to remind them that God wants us to take that forgiveness offered by Jesus and live a life that respects the great debt that Jesus paid on our behalf.
What does that look like? You'll probably get tired of me saying this over and over, but check out Deuteronomy 6:4-6
"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
We must be consistent in our pursuit of Jesus in our homes and with our children. The "do as I say and not as I do" culture is damaging and ultimately results in a child doing exactly what you do and not as you say. We have to model our faith as parents, we have to live out the Gospel with our whole lives (not just on Sundays wand Wednesdays), and we have to consistently remind ourselves and our children of the hope found in Jesus Christ.