Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 22:14-22; Hebrews 7:26-8:6; Proverbs 23:12-35; Isaiah 42
Proverbs 23:13-14 has been used by some to dismiss the Bible’s ethics as outdated if not barbaric. Some claim it promotes beating children regularly to ensure they do what they are told. The claim is that so long as parents don’t actually kill their children, they can inflict severe bodily punishments in order to save their souls. Tragically, it has to be admitted, that some parents have taken this advice to the extreme. Whether they were motivated by biblical teaching or their own anger and rage could be debated. What is clear, however, is that such an interpretation goes against the intent of this passage.
The context for these proverbs is a series of instructions from a father to his son (Proverbs 23:12-28). One word found throughout this section is ‘heart’, occurring six times in these verses. The rod of discipline thus falls within the context of winning the son’s heart, mind and soul, not just getting compliance or fearful obedience. More broadly, throughout Proverbs, the goal is instruction in wisdom and character formation. The son is called to accept his father’s and mother’s instruction (1:8), to listen, develop understanding, seek after discernment, know the Lord, and find knowledge pleasant to his soul (2:1-11).
Within the context of loving instruction, the rod is given a role. This is a sturdy stick that is meant to cause pain. We cannot escape the idea that the Bible endorses using physical discipline. It may seem paradoxical to us, but the rod is to be used because of the parents’ love for their children (13:24). The idea is that sometimes it take a physical sting to jolt the child’s attention to his error. Current psychological research is bearing out the importance of teaching children their limits. Studies have found that children develop psychological problems both when their parents fail to love them and when they try to always give them what the children want. As the Bible teaches, balance is needed.
The rod has its place, primarily to deal with folly in the child (22:15). The Hebrew term used here involves wilfulness stubbornness. Contrary to some ideas put forward today, children are not born good, but have folly in their hearts. The pain of life removes some of these faults, but parental discipline also has an important role (29;15, 17). This does not mean the rod should be dished out daily. As Charles Bridges’ nineteenth century commentary on Proverbs notes, the rod is best used like a medicine, given occasionally for a specific problem. If used frequently like food, it loses its effectiveness as medicine.
To punish in love means it must be done under control, for the child’s good, and not in anger or retaliation. However, the rod is not the primary means of discipline. Far fewer proverbs mention the rod compared to those encouraging instruction. The predominant emphasis is on teaching, talking, encouraging and leading by example. The primary force behind parenting is not the rod, but the Lord. The goal is to lead the child to a relationship with the Lord and to deepening knowledge of God (2:5). Yet along the way, certain types of foolishness require physical pain to get one’s attention. Folly is not a lack of knowledge or wisdom, but self-sufficiency arising from pride and arrogance. It holds wisdom in contempt and leads to moral corruption.
This returns to the principle addressed in today’s proverbs. As parents, we want nothing more than to protect our children from pain and hurt. Yet by refusing to discipline them, and never wanting to cause pain (whether physical or by denying them something) we may contribute to their death (19:18; 23:14). This may even be literal, as today’s proverbs list the painful consequences of foolish lives characterised by selfishness, drunkenness, infidelity, or violence. How tragic, but realistic, to imagine the world beating on someone who doesn’t feel it because all he wants is another drink (23:15). The pain of discipline administered by loving parents is potentially redemptive and ultimately less severe than the self-inflicted pain of folly.