Proverbs 22:6 – One of The Most Misunderstood Bible Verses
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (NASB). The NIV renders the second line thus: “And when he is old he will not turn from it.”
Does Proverbs 22:6 always work for the children of believers?
Before discussing the practical application of this verse, we should examine quite carefully what it actually says. The literal rendering of the Hebrew is “Initiate, train the boy” (na’ar refers to a young male from childhood until he reaches majority); the verb does not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament with the meaning “train up.” Normally the verb means “dedicate” (a house or a temple [Deut. 20:5; 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chron. 7:5], or else a dedication offering [Num. 7:10]). This seems to be a cognate with the Egyptian h-n-k-n-k (“give to the gods,” “set up something for divine service”).
This gives us the following range of possible meanings: “Dedicate the child to God,” “Prepare the child for his future responsibilities,” “Exercise or train the child for adulthood.”
Next we come to what is translated “in the way he should go.” Literally, it is “according to his way” (’al-pîC darkôC); ‘al-pîC (lit., “according to the mouth of”) generally means “after the measure of,” “conformably to,” or “according to.” As for darkôC, it comes from dere (“way”); and this may refer to “the general custom of, the nature of, the way of acting, the behavior pattern of” a person. This seems to imply that the manner of instruction is to be governed by the child’s own stage of life, according to his personal bent, or else, as the standard translations render it, according to the way that is proper for him—in the light of God’s revealed will, according to the standards of his community or his cultural heritage. In this highly theological, God-centered context (“Yahweh is the maker” of both the rich and the poor [v.2]; “The reward of humility and the fear of Yahweh is riches, honor, and life” [v.4]), there can be little doubt that “his way” here implies “his proper way” in the light of the goals and standards set forth in v.4 and tragically neglected by the “perverse” in v.5. Yet there may also be a connotation that each child is to be reared and trained for God’s service according to the child’s own personal and peculiar needs and traits.
The second line reads gam kîC (“even when”) yazqîCn (“he gets old”—zāqēn is the word for “old” or “an elder”), lō’ yāsûCr (“he will not turn away”) mimmennāh (“from it,” i.e., from his derek), which seems to strengthen the interpretation “his proper way,” “behavior pattern,” or “lifestyle” as a well-trained man of God or good citizen in his community.
What this all adds up to, then, is the general principle (and all the general maxims in Proverbs concerning human conduct are of this character, rather than laying down absolute guarantees to which there may never be an exception) that when a godly parent gives proper attention to the training of his child for adult responsibility and for a well-ordered life lived for God, then he may confidently expect that that child—even though he may stray during his young adulthood—will never be able to get away completely from his parental training and from the example of a Godfearing home. Even when he becomes old, he will not depart from it. Or else, this gam kîC may imply that he will remain true to this training throughout his life, even when he gets old.
Does this verse furnish us with an iron-clad guarantee that all the children of conscientious, God-fearing, nobly living parents will turn out to be true servants of God? Will there never be any rebellious children, who will turn their backs on their upbringing and fall into the guilt and shame of a Satan-dominated life? One might construe the verse that way, perhaps; but it is more than doubtful that the inspired Hebrew author meant it as an absolute promise that would apply in every case. These maxims are meant to be good, sound, helpful advice; they are not presented as surefire promises of infallible success.
The same sort of generality is found in Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (NASB). This surely does not mean that all children are equally willful and rebellious and that all of them stand in need of the same amount and type of discipline. Nor does it guarantee that a person brought up in a well-disciplined home will never stray off into the folly of sin. There may be exceptions who turn out to be worldly-minded egotists or even lawbreakers who end up in prison. But the rate of success in childrearing is extremely high when the parents follow the guidelines of Proverbs.
What are those guidelines? Children are to be accepted as sacred trusts from God; they are to be trained, cherished, and disciplined with love; and they are to be guided by a consistent pattern of godliness followed by the parents themselves. This is what is meant by bringing them up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). This type of training implies a policy of treating children as even more important than one’s own personal convenience or social life away from home. It means impressing on them that they are very important persons in their own right because they are loved by God, and because He has a wonderful and perfect plan for their lives. Parents who have faithfully followed these principles and practices in rearing their children may safely entrust them as adults to the keeping and guidance of God and feel no sense of personal guilt if a child later veers off course. They have done their best before God. The rest is up to each child himself.
Article adapted from the outstanding reference book by Dr. Gleason L. Archer Jr., New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan’s Understand the Bible Reference Series) (Kindle Locations 6571-6579). Grand Rapids: Zondervan (Reprinted 2011).
About Dr. Gleason L. Archer
Gleason L. Archer Jr. (1916-2004 – B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University; B.D., Princeton Theological Seminary; L.L.B., Suffolk Law School) was a biblical scholar, theologian, educator, and author. He served as an assistant pastor of Park Street Church in Boston from 1945 to 1948. He was a Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary for 16 years, teaching New Testament, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. From 1965 to 1986 he served as a Professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He became an emeritus faculty member in 1989. He also served for many years as a minister of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
The remainder of his life was spent researching, writing, and lecturing. Archer served as one of the 50 original translators of the NASB published in 1971. He also worked on the team which translated the NIV Bible published in 1978. I give this introduction, because many people are not familiar with Archer (unfortunately), but he was a brilliant Christian scholar who could have excelled as a lawyer (his father was the founder and president of Suffolk Law School), and chose to use his exceptional gifts to defend the inerrancy and integrity of the Scriptures over the span of his entire adult life. I would say that along with Bruce Waltke and Walter Kaiser Jr., he was one of the most influential Old Testament Evangelical Scholars at the end of the Twentieth Century. Legend has it, (I have not been able to verify whether this is 100% true or not) that he was so gifted in languages that for fun (and as a challenge) he would study the Bible in a different language every year to continue to grow and develop mentally.