One of the questions that often comes up when studying the Old Testament volume of Proverbs in the Bible is simply this: Are Proverbs God’s promises?
In other words, since many of the proverbs offer a resulting benefit if you heed the wisdom action called for, are these proverbs (the “if you do this then this will happen” sayings) essentially guaranteed promises of blessing from God.
THREE KEY PRINCIPLES
Here are three principles to guide studying and applying Proverbs.
First, make sure the interpretation of any Proverb is accurate, before moving to application. In other words, if we don’t get the interpretation right, we cannot expect the application accurate.
This is especially true of understanding Proverbs 22:6. For years, Christian parents have taken this to be a guarantee from God that the consistent training they gave their children in spiritual things would necessarily result in their grown children continuing to follow the Lord.
And if you turn this proverb around, it is either very confusing or very guilt-producing. Many a faithful Christian parent have watched their children, faithfully trained in spiritual things and prayed over, NOT continue in the “way they should go” (i.e., following the Lord). Sadly, faithful parents of wandering young adults often wallow in self-condemnation. “We must not have done enough to train them. We failed. We should have prayed more; we should have done (this) more or (that) more.”
But the truth is this proverb has been poorly translated (and interpreted), resulting in unhelpful, even hurtful, application.
In 1988, Ted Hildebrandt writing in the Grace Theological Journal pointed out what Hebrew scholars have known for years
- The leading Hebrew word in the English version of the verse (i.e., hanik) often translated “train up” can indeed mean “to stimulate desire for” or "to nurture, instruct and discipline.” But this rendition is rare. Hanik word is used 5 times in the Old Testament. Outside of Proverbs 22:6, it is found in contexts of dedicating or initiating the use of buildings. More often it designates a “dedication” of something for its proper use.
- The second key Hebrew word translated “child” may be understood to designate a maturing young person, someone still in development.
- Accordingly, the following phrase “in the way he should go” is better translated “in keeping with his capacities” or “in keeping with his way,” speaking of developing a young person in his/her talent and gift.
Hildebrandt offers a quite different understanding of this verse. He concludes that Proverbs 22:6 is speaking about celebrating and dedicating, with appropriate dignity, a trained young adult to his responsibilities in his society and culture. We most often see this in the graduation of a young adult from university or trade school, with a specific skill set ready to be utilized in the larger world. Someone so honored and appropriately commissioned to an important role will not quickly leave his post or the work assigned to him. You can expect such a one to work with dedication and longevity.
Understood this way, this proverb calls for a proper dedication, or commissioning, to an important assignment. It is wise, this verse urges, to celebrate when a young adult is prepared and eager to be dedicated to a key responsibility.
Bottom line: Proverbs 22:6 is actually NOT about child training at all. Yet the traditional translation of this verse perpetuates an imprecise interpretation (often repeated in Christian circles), one which has often unnecessarily produced parental guilt.
A word to the wise. Get the interpretation correct! Do some extra digging, especially when any specific interpretation of a scriptural proverb does not fit well with real life experience.
Second, keep in mind that Proverbs are divinely inspired “wisdom sayings,”not merely a grocery list of suggestions.
In his helpful commentary, Derek Kidner reminds us that Proverbs is “not a portrait album or a book of manners; [more substantively Proverbs] offers a key to life. [In this volume, all of the ways we choose to live are] assessed by one criterion, summed up in the question, Is this wisdom or is this folly?” (cf. Proverbs, p.13).
Many ancient sages centuries before Christ Jesus was born offered their cultures “wise sayings.” Yet Kidner observes, “the wisdom taught [in Proverbs] is God-centered, and even when it is most down-to-earth it consists in the shrewd and sound handling of one’s affairs in God’s world, in submission to His will” (pp.13-14).
In other words, when someone fears the Lord, putting into play the Yahweh's wisdom sayings found here, he/she has the assurance that following these precepts gives him the very best opportunity to experience life at its best. Seeking God wisdom, then living obediently in God’s wisdom, is true LIFE.
Third principle, while it is true that PROVERBS can be the key to life-at-its-best, it is also true that there are exceptions to the Proverbs. Consider these examples:
Proverbs 15:1 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Proverbs 16:7 When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with Him.
What excellent advice for wise living! In most situations where wrath and anger erupt, the best course of action is to answer softly instead of increased saber-rattling. And, in many situations (perhaps most!), the Lord often does work to bring about peace with an enemy.
But does it mean that a “soft answer” will ALWAYS turn away wrath…or that a “harsh word” ALWAYS stirs up anger? Or that any enemy you ever have will ALWAYS decide to be at peace with you? 100% of the time? Hardly. Many of Jesus’ faithful followers have been martyred by their enemies.
No -- a Biblical proverb doesn’t intend to offer a full-proof guarantee in every situation. Indeed, Proverbs does offer the way to breathe God’s wisdom and life into any situation. They point to a usual, even expected outcome. But not every Biblical proverb is a guarantee in every situation.
Nonetheless, God’s wisdom in Proverbs is trustworthy, wonderfully helpful beyond measure. The Lord breathed out these proverbs (2 Timothy 3:16). He stands behind each of them and sovereignly (i.e., freely) bestows their benefits upon one who diligently lives out His wisdom. Only a fool tries to navigate through life without God’s wisdom.
Our Father's wisdom is found not only in Proverbs, but even more wonderfully and fully in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Him - uniquely in Him - are all the treasures of God’s wisdom and knowledge (cf. Colossians 2:2-3).
And, how cool is it (very cool, I'd say!) that by God the Holy Spirit, the Lord Himself is eager to express His life of wisdom in and through us each day.