Is Proverbs 22:6 a guarantee?

A number of years ago, I got a Sunday night call from a pastor who was facing backlash from a prominent deacon in his church. The critic was taking exception to his statement that Proverbs 22:6 wasn’t a guarantee – “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” I believe this came up in an exchange over the prospects of a wayward son. The layman was “claiming the promise” that his son, having been brought up in a seriously Christian home and church, would eventually straighten up and fly right. When the pastor ventured to suggest the verse wasn’t an ironclad warranty, the distraught, indignant dad said he was denying the truth of Scripture, and was threatening to take his complaint to others in the church.

What can one say to this?

Well, a not-so-impressive approach is to suggest that it might well be the case that the man and his wife hadn’t “trained him up in the way he should go” after all. If they had, the boy wouldn’t be on the wrong path. In other words, the proof was in the pudding.

Or, we could say, “Just wait. It’ll all work out, just as the Bible promises.” But we can all think of Christian families where all but one of the kids turned out well, and where it is hard to say how the black sheep was trained significantly more poorly than the others.

A much better approach is to see Proverbs as a divine book of moral generalities, of rules of thumb, rather than a book of pointed prophecies, physical laws, or contractual obligations. That’s just what proverbs or aphorisms are meant to be, whether we’re talking about such secular versions as “a stitch in time saves nine” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder” or the inspired, biblical counterparts, “A gracious woman gains honor” (12:16) or “Wealth obtained by fraud will dwindle” (13:11). Though we can think of exceptions to these rules, there is deep and life-important truth in them.

As with all Bible interpretation, it’s important to know what sort of language is being used to convey God’s infallible, inerrant revelation. When someone insists that Jesus is made of wood because He says He’s a gate (John 10:9) or that He’s made of flour because He says he’s bread (John 6:35), they mistake figures of speech for literal talk.

Imagine a young man who manages to walk blindfolded across a busy street. What if, on the opposite curb, he says, “See, those who told me I would be a fool to do this are wrong. I don’t have a scratch on me.” Of what would we make of the statement from a heavy smoker dying of lung cancer, “They said it would do me good to exercise regularly and watch my cholesterol. I did both religiously, and now I’m dying.”

As for Proverbs 22:16, the verse in question, it teaches us that sound religious and moral upbringing is a wise investment of time and energy. It’s the sort of thing that pays off in a big way. And to neglect it is to flirt with disaster.

With this view of Proverbs, you don’t lose trust in Scripture when the skeptic says, “Aha, I know a lazy man who lived like a king all his life on his inheritance” as a way to refute Proverbs 24:33-34 (“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,  and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”) The problem would arise if, in general, laziness proved to be better path to success than hard work. Which it won’t. And neither will laissez-faire parenting, where the kids are allowed to run wild and ignorant. Sure, one of the kids might turn out well, but you have to feel mighty lucky to go with passive parenting.

About Mark Coppenger

Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, director of the Seminary's Nashville extension, and managing editor of Kairos Journal. He received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University. He has published several books and has contributed to such publications as Teaching Philosophy, Touchstone, American Spectator Online, and USA Today.
  • My question is on a practical level- what parent is able to actually train up a child in the way he should go? We each, to some degree, mess with the recipe. And we all know, when you exchange flour with baking soda, that cake isn’t a contest winner for sure. To what extent do we simply admit, as a parent, I’m a sinner. No matter how perfect everyone thinks my household is, the truth is, behind those closed doors, my selfishness and pride kick in, and the kids have a front row seat to the show. That right there demands a different outcome. Could Prov. 22:6 not be taken as a matter of absolute truth, with the wild card not being God, but the sinful parents? Wouldn’t that drive us to our knees, begging for God’s grace, the power of the Holy Spirit, and glorying in the righteousness of Christ? I think too often we run to the “this is a generality” card because it allows us to maintain the facade of perfect parenting, instead of owning, in humility, that we are sinners.

    Appreciate your post… real and relevant!

  • dan phillips has a good book on proverbs where he covers this issue very well – “god’s wisdom in proverbs”

  • “As with all Bible interpretation, it’s important to know what sort of
    language is being used to convey God’s infallible, inerrant revelation.” Indeed!

    Whenever people try to take Proverbs as iron-clad promises to be followed 100% of the time with absolute certainty of their fulfillment, I point them to Proverbs 26:4-5, back-to-back verses which read (in the ESV),
    “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
     Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

  • Kirby Johnson

    There is a better way to translate that verse from the Hebrew,and Dan Phillips does a great job of showing how in his book, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs. You’ll appreciate it. I did.

  • Dave

    Not to mention that the moment you start listing all the possible exceptions to a proverb is the same moment that the proverb is no longer brief or memorable…

  • I have heard that “in the way he should go” could be translated “according to his bent” making the proverb a warning rather than a promise or a probability. It was being suggested that we are actually being told that if we raise our children acquiescing to their particular leanings (i.e. self-centred, self-indulgent) that you are in essence digging ruts in the road for them … that it will be harder for them to leave those ways. Have you heard this potential interpretation?

    • ErnieBillyRon

      “according to his bent” was first taught by the Jewish scholar Saadia 900 years after Christ. While the “bent” view may be practical, it is not what Solomon originally taught.