Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 21:20-28; Hebrews 6:13-20; Proverbs 22:1-16; Isaiah 39
Two well-known proverbs about childrearing are found here. Proverbs 22:6 has been a source of hope and encouragement as parents endeavour to have their children follow a godly path through life. On the other hand, when children drift away from God, or parents become anxious that they might, this proverb seems to place much responsibility on parents and can be a source of guilty feelings. In terms of how to parent, Proverbs 22:15 has been received with enthusiasm and disparagement. It certainly runs counter to the idea that children are born morally good and only need nurturing and encouragement to develop strong ethics. However, the ‘rod of discipline’ has been used ruthlessly to where this verse is used to dismiss biblical perspectives on parenting and to question the ethics of the Bible itself.
First, we must keep in mind the general nature of Proverbs. They are not absolute promises or guarantees of certain results. They are maxims, along the lines of ‘look before you leap.’ This is not a rule about what to do before jumping, but a common sense principle about checking things out before committing to something. The Proverbs here neither promise that all children will turn out well if parented a certain way, nor do they recommend hitting all children with sticks. The purpose of the Book of Proverbs is to train people in how to discern when to apply good common sense, especially given that general principles seem to conflict with one another regularly.
However, questions have been raised about whether Proverbs 22:6 is even about parenting young children. The Hebrew word translated ‘child’ is elsewhere used for males of every age from unborn (Judges 13:5-12) to adults (1 Kings 11:28). Several other Hebrew words exist for a young child, but are not used here. The term used here occurs seven times in Proverbs, and never for a child. Proverbs 1:4-5 uses it for those to whom the book is addressed: young men who need training in wisdom. Many scholars hold that the term does not refer to children, but to young adults who have much wisdom to learn, especially young nobles preparing for prominent roles in society.
The idea of preparation for a significant role is carried through in the Hebrew verb translated ‘train.’ Its other uses focus less on the idea of teaching and more on the celebration and initiation of someone into a responsible role. ‘According to his way’ would then refer to the status and responsibilities associated with that position. Thus, this proverb seems less about parenting young children and more about marking the dignity and responsibility of a young adult taking on a significant position in society. This interpretation fits the context of Proverbs 22:1-9 which addresses social responsibilities, particularly of the wealthy towards the poor.
This proverb still applies to parenting. However, rather than emphasising a method of training children to ensure they ‘turn out okay,’ it provides insight into the coming of age of young adults. As an image of God, all adults have a privileged position in the kingdom of God. With that come status and responsibilities, and a new sense of dignity. These should be acknowledged and celebrated as the young person matures. Such celebrations remain an important part of Jewish culture. This proverb calls for more than a ceremony, but points to the importance of helping youth prepare for the responsibilities and challenges of adulthood – and then treating them as young adults, no longer little children. This can help encourage them to continue on the correct path of adult living.
Such advice counteracts any notion that Proverbs 22:15 encourages parents to regularly beat their children. Discipline is emphasised throughout Proverbs and the Bible. However, the discipline of Proverbs is aimed at instruction and training in wisdom. At the same time, the ‘rod of discipline’ appears to be taken literally, and is used in the context of punishment in Proverbs 23:13-14. We will look into this issue in more depth in a few days when we get to this passage.