Proverbs 22:6 – Thinking it through [Part 1]

Friend:
Sorry, I feel compelled to continue our conversation onProverbs 22:6 outside of the Bible study.

James:
No apology necessary, it is through this type of discourse that we sharpen one another and study to show our selves approved. I appreciate you writing to further clarify your position. I pray in the name of Jesus that God will shine his light unto our path in especially in this area. Amen.

Friend:
First, I want to start off with how I was “trained”. AtBryanCollege, My wife and I took a course entitled “Poetic Books”, which covered the wisdom literature in the Old Testament. We were taught that Hebrew poetry, of which Proverbs is an example, follows a number of poetic conventions. The use of many forms parallelism, acrostics, and hyperbole are common in this literary form. These devices were use to place emphasis and aid in memorization.  

James:
I agree that there is poetic writing in the Bible and especially in the book of Proverbs. This is abundantly evident by the various types of distiches (two lined structured poetry) used in the book of Proverbs. I have not personally seen any use of acrostics in the book of Proverbs or the bible for that matter but I agree that it is commonly found in some types of poetic literature. Incidentally, the literary devices you refer to (parallelism, acrostics, and hyperbole) are not exclusive to poetry alone. In fact, theses devices can exist in other type of narrative.

Friend:
Proverbs are intended a simple distillation of general wisdom in to a form that is easy to understand and remember. They are not intended to be precise grammatical or elaborate fully on any single subject. They often use deliberate exaggerations in order to make a specific point.

James:
Not all proverbs are intended as “a simple distillation of general wisdom in to a form that is easy to understand and remember”. Many proverbs are “intended to be precise grammatical[ly]” That proverbs often use “deliberate exaggerations in order to make a specific point” is not a point of contention. However, any unabridged dictionary would disagree with your unwarranted attempt to limit the semantic field (meaning) of the term “proverb.” A proverb does not have to be a “general” truth; a proverb can exist as a specific truth (more on this later). Literary devices (such as a literary element e.g. theme, setting, conflict, etc. or a literary technique e.g. allegory, symbolism, metaphor, etc)) are often used in proverbs but a proverb is not a literary device. A proverb is a designation given to a sentence (that may or may not contain a literary device) based on certain criteria (i.e., old, popular, practical, pithy, etc.). The criteria for designating an expression as a proverb are actually quite subjective. For example, someone reading this email many years from now could take my sentence “Literary devices are often used in proverbs but a proverb is not a literary device” and use it so aptly and profusely that it attains proverb status despite the fact I meant for the sentence to convey an absolutely (and not generally) true message. Whether an expression is or is not a proverb can be argued (at times without certainty), the same can not be said about a literary device. For example, according to Proverbs 1:20 (KJV) “Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets.” It is unarguable that “Wisdom” is being personified (when an abstract concept, such as a particular human behavior or a force of nature, is represented as a person).

In addition, it is important to remember that absolute truths can fit the proverb genre as suitably as general truths or maxims (i.e. an absolute truth can be old, popular and practical). In other words, there exist proverbs or wise sayings that illustrate unquestionable, absolute truth. For example, it is obvious that Proverbs 18:10(The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe) is unquestionably true. Another example, Proverbs 30:5-6 (Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar) is a poetic proverb called a Synthetic Tetrastich (four lined poetry containing truth or doctrine where the four lines have something in common, yet they are not antithetical or synonymous). Certainly,Proverbs 30:5-6 is an absolute truth and yet it is a proverb. Finally, the contents of the book of Proverbs are not exclusive to general (non-absolute) truths. The book of Proverbs also contains prophecy, instruction, poetry, and expostulations (this list is not exhaustive) that contain “precise grammatical” sentence structures.

Friend:
Proverbs 10:30 says, “The righteous will never be shaken, But the wicked will not dwell in the land.” It is obvious all righteous men falter at some point. It is a hyperbolic statement, not an absolute one.

James:
A couple of things, first of all, a hyperbolic statement can convey an absolute message, the two do not necessarily oppose one another despite your implication above. For example, if I said “I’ve heard that excuse a million times,” is quite obvious that I am exaggerating, still, the absolute truth I undoubtedly convey to the reader is that I have been exposed to that particular line of reasoning on many occasions. Secondly, Proverbs 10:30 (The righteous shall never be removed; But the wicked shall not dwell in the land) is an antithetical distich, two line poetry where the first line is the opposite of the second. As such is the case, the KVJ rendering appropriately contrasts “never be removed” with “not dwell.” Either way, there is no hyperbole apparent in verse thirty, in fact, there are at least two scripturally sound ways of looking at this verse. The first interpretation suggests that the righteous shall never be removed because he is built on the eternal foundation (cf. verse 25). The second interpretation reminds us that the truth here is eternal in its scope and God has planned another chapter where “We look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13 ).

Friend:
Proverbs 3:9-10 says, “Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine.” Although they are stated in a grammatically absolute fashion, they are intended to be hyperbolic and are making general statements. These are important points to understand when interpreting Proverbs.

James:
These statements are not really hyperbolic; the language used here does not intentionally exaggerate anything.  Rather, “barns …filled with plenty” and “vats…overflow[ing] with new wine” are simply idioms for prosperity.

Friend:
In light of this information, we were taught that when interpreting Proverbs, we should assume that a proverb is not an absolute truth, unless the principle is supported elsewhere in Scripture in a context that can be interpreted absolutely.

James:
This is not a wise technique. Your assumption is based on a logical fallacy of presumption called “hasty generalization.” This fallacy occurs when one draws a general rule (biblical proverbs are non absolute truth) from a single, perhaps atypical, case (which you have yet to irrefutably identify in scripture). You cannot make it a rule of thumb to assume that biblical proverbs are not absolute truth especially when it has been demonstrated otherwise. Keep in mind that the word for Proverb is taken from ‘mashal’ which is the Hebrew word ‘to rule’. A proverb is a doctrine which ‘rules’ and governs the life of a believer. The Hebrew משלים  ‘meshalim’, from משל  ‘mashal’, to rule or govern, denotes a collection of weighty, wise, and authoritative, sayings, that should govern a believer’s conduct whether civil or religious. It is God speaking truth to us through proverbs, which according to the Jews was the most sapient of writings (both canonical and apocryphal). Biblical proverbs certainly deserve more authority than any plain old proverb and thus they cannot really be compared when it comes to the feasibility of the message conveyed. Therefore (and contrary to your teaching) we should assume that a proverb is not absolute truth only when the language and context compels us to go in that direction. So far the only criteria that is consistently used by the proponents of the “Proverbs are not promises” movement is the feasibility of the proverb’s message, as if Oprah saying “The mouth of the just bringeth forth wisdom” is the same as God saying “The mouth of the just bringeth forth wisdom”. Truth from God is truth indeed and does not need to be redundant in order to further establish it truthfulness. Let the language God is using to communicate His truth guide your interpretation of it.

Friend:
Otherwise, we must interpret all Proverbs as absolute statements, since we have no other indicator as to which are meant as absolute statements and which are meant as general statements of wisdom. This alternative is a slippery slope that leads to very contrived interpretations of many of the proverbs.

James:
Interpretations are never contrived when you have on your “biblical eyeglasses.” God’s point of view is the only valid lens in which to view His truth.  For many of the proverbs in the book of Proverbs, more is meant than meets the eye. This is precisely why they are referred to as “dark sayings”, riddles for the natural man (1Co2:14) but meat for the spiritual. For example, in Proverbs 11:5 (The righteousness of the perfect shall direct his way: but the wicked shall fall by his own wickedness) it is easy for the lay reader to not understand that the “righteousness of perfect” refers to those who are perfect in Christ, complete in him, perfectly justified by his righteousness; and it is this righteousness that makes their way plain; it is the direct way, the highway, the pathway to eternal life and happiness. God himself expresses the purpose of Proverbs in the beginning of the first chapter, the design is to lead men “to know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; to give subtilty to the simple, and to the young man knowledge and discretion.

Friend:
Clearly, you cannot build an absolute doctrine off of a single proverb that has no direct support elsewhere in the Bible. You should read it for what it was intended to be by the author: a wise principle for successful living.

James:
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “direct support”; my understanding is that a scripture passage is directly supported if the truth it conveys is evident in another passage. It is true that we should interpret scripture in light of other relevant passages in scripture, but at the same time God does not have to say it twice in order for me to believe it. Once is sufficient for me, even if it is from the book of Proverbs provided the interpretation of the truth conveyed is guided by the rules of language, context clues, and of course, other scripture. For instance, Paul inRomans 12:20 quotes directly fromProverbs 25:21. Proverbs 25:21 is not quoted directly anywhere else in scripture. Am I to believe that Paul cannot claim his message was absolute truth because he quoted from Proverbs and because there exists no “direct support” forProverbs 25:21 elsewhere in scripture?

Friend:
I believe that this is the only way to interpret Proverbs coherently in light of all of Scripture and the purpose and conventions of the Hebrew poetry used in Proverbs.

James:
I fear I do not share this belief with you. I cannot ignore literary devices or the lack thereof and simply relegate the entire book of Proverbs to non-absolute maxims simply because the chapter and verses happen to be found in the book of Proverbs. I have clearly demonstrated that there exist proverbs in the book of Proverbs that are definitely absolute. Your technique must answer for this.

Friend:
My Old Testament professor and I are not alone in this interpretation technique for Proverbs. In the book Reading the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart states, “Proverbs are not guarantees from God, but poetic guidelines for good behavior.” In the NET Bible, a new translation of the Bible from the current experts in Biblical languages, the translators made a translation note specifically forProverbs 22:6, which states, “The expected consequence of training is that it will last throughout life. The sages were confident of the character-forming quality of their training. However, proverbs are not universal truths. One can anticipate positive results from careful child-training-but there may be an occasional exception.” In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a theologian that would interpretProverbs 22:6 as an absolute statement.

James:
Oh really? Well how about Adam Clarke’s Commentary onProverbs 22:6, after reading his notes I think you’ll agree that he interpretsProverbs 22:6 as an absolute statement. For your convenience, I’ve included it below.

“Train up a child in the way he should go – The Hebrew of this clause is curious: חנך לנער על פי דרכו  chanoch lannaar al pi darco, ‘Initiate the child at the opening (the mouth) of his path.’ When he comes to the opening of the way of life, being able to walk alone, and to choose; stop at this entrance, and begin a series of instructions, how he is to conduct himself in every step he takes. Show him the duties, the dangers, and the blessings of the path; give him directions how to perform the duties, how to escape the dangers, and how to secure the blessings, which all lie before him. Fix these on his mind by daily inculcation, till their impression is become indelible; then lead him to practice by slow and almost imperceptible degrees, till each indelible impression becomes a strongly radicated habit. Beg incessantly the blessing of God on all this teaching and discipline; and then you have obeyed the injunction of the wisest of men. Nor is there any likelihood that such impressions shall ever be effaced, or that such habits shall ever be destroyed.

חנך  chanac, which we translate train up or initiate, signifies also dedicate; and is often used for the consecrating any thing, house, or person, to the service of God. Dedicate, therefore, in the first instance, your child to God; and nurse, teach, and discipline him as God’s child, whom he has intrusted to your care. These things observed, and illustrated by your own conduct, the child (you have God’s word for it) will never depart from the path of life.”

You should also check out Dr. Burton Coffman’s Commentary online. By the way, I’m sure this list is not exhaustive.

Friend:
There are no other verses in Scripture that directly support an absolute reading ofProverbs 22:6, so according to a consistent reading of Proverbs, verse 22:6 should not be interpreted absolutely.

James:
Oh really? Lets look at Genesis 18:19 (For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.) Now the text says that because God knew Abraham (“he not only prayed with his family, but he taught them, as a man of knowledge; he commanded them as a man in authority, and was prophet and king, as well as priest, in his own house”) and his resolve to command or “train” if you will, his children and his household after him (“to serve and worship the Lord: not his own children only, but his servants also, all in his family; lay his injunctions on them, use his authority with them, give them all needful instructions, and take such methods with them as would tend to propagate and preserve the true religion after his death”), God knew that they (his household) would keep (or not depart from) the way of the Lord (i.e. to do justice and judgment).

In Psalm 78:5-8 ([God] … appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded [the] fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments), the reason the “generation” would not “forget the works of God” but keep his commandments is because of the training (declared unto the children) and the fact that they would put their hope in God. The following verses are promises for those that put there hope in God (Psalm 91:14, Psalm 130:7, Psalm 146:5,Jeremiah 17:7-8). Certainly you can see that there is a direct correlation between the training and its results (not forgetting the works of God & keeping his commandments) that cannot be broken (John 10:35).

Friend:
Ephesians 6:4 restates the first half ofProverbs 22:6 as a command (train your child), but does not mention the second half (they will not depart). IfProverbs 22:6 is an absolute promise, why did Paul not mention it here?

James:
I’m afraid that you have committed a fallacy of prepositional logic (presumption) called “affirming the consequent.” In this logical fallacy the antecedent (Proverbs 22:6 is not an absolute promise) is presumed true by affirming the consequent (Paul only mentions the first half).

Your argument follows:

(1) IfProverbs 22:6is an absolute promise, then inEphesians 6:4, Paul would mention not only the first half but the second half as well.

(2) Paul inEphesians 6:4mentions the first half ofProverbs 22:6but not the second.

Therefore:

(3)Proverbs 22:6is not an absolute promise.

This argument is clearly fallacious; there is any number of reasons why Paul might not have mentioned the second half ofProverbs 22:6: e.g. it did not fit with the structure or purpose of his sentence (i.e. provoke not you children to wrath …), he thought it was obvious to his audience and thus unnecessary to state, the Holy Spirit advised him otherwise, etc. Paul not mentioning the second half ofProverbs 22:6does not show thatProverbs 22:6is not an absolute promise.

Friend:
If Proverbs 22:6 were interpreted absolutely, then it would contradict some of the other teachings of Proverbs. Proverbs 15:5 says, “A fool rejects his father’s discipline.” There are other Proverbs that teach that a child should not reject his father’s teachings and gives consequences of that rejection (Proverbs 4:1-6). If Proverbs 22:6 is interpreted absolutely, then a child cannot reject his father’s teaching if it is according to God’s way. Proverbs 15:5 would be an unnecessary teaching, as well as many other proverbs.

James:
Your logic is very confusing here and clarification is needed before I can respond intelligently. However, your assertion that an absolute interpretation ofProverbs 22:6 contradicts other teachings in Proverbs is without merit. There is no discord betweenProverbs 22:6 andProverbs 15:5. We are commanded to train up a child in the way he should go (God’s way). For parents that chose not to follow this command chances are good that they will end up with a “fool” for a child, a fool that will reject his father’s discipline and merit the consequences of that rejection. You have not demonstrated howProverbs 22:6 makesProverbs 15:5 unnecessary.

Friend:
The rest of Scripture clearly teaches that we are each responsible for our own actions before God. That is why there are so many proverbs that teach that a child should follow their father’s teaching. The Israelites suffered from both sides of the same coin: 1. they did not teach their children the way they should have, 2. when they were clearly taught, they rejected it. The Israelites were intended as a clear example of man’s sin nature, that they will still reject God even when taught the proper way by their parents, prophets, rabbis, and even God himself.

James:
God would be playing a cruel joke on mankind to give us children, then give us instruction such as Proverbs 22:6, and Deuteronomy 11:18-20 and then give no guarantee that guiding them to heaven was possible. In Ecclesiastes 12:13 (…Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man) we are told that our job is to fear God and keep his commandments. “There is finally nothing else left, that’s all there is. It isn’t this, that we may amass a fortune; it isn’t this, that we may attain unto fame; but it is this, that we walk in the precepts of God, that we fear God and keep His commandments. We are stewards of God’s gift, our children. That child is given into our trust because it isn’t ours; they are loaned to us. We are taking care of someone else’s children; remember that! We are taking care of God’s children and he has given us the formula for how to do it right.” – Rev. Henry Vander Kam (http://www.covenant-urc.org/sermons/hvpr22;6.html) Also, consider the following excerpt:

They are to be trained up in the way “they should go.” It cannot be the way they want to go. Each child defaults to foolishness and sin from our first parents. Without training against that default instinct, they will grow into committed and hardened sinners. No training is default training – you will have a fool for a child (29:15). The way they should go is the way of righteousness laid out plainly in Scripture (Deut 6:4-9; 29:29;Eph 6:4).

When they are “old,” they will follow the training. Here is a promise to be believed, but it also allows for possible difficulties during adolescence, or the teenage years, before they are “old.” Properly trained as a child, the teenage years do not have to be difficult. If trained consistently, they will revert to that training as an adult. Believe it! Count on it!

What is child training? It is a consistent example of righteous living that the child can first feel and then observe as they grow up. It is teaching the existence of God and the absolute authority of the Bible. It is enforcing God’s rules and parental authority strictly and severely. It is teaching by reproof and the rod. It is teaching by repetition throughout the day. It is using both positive and negative reinforcement for behavior. It is a very open relationship with children, allowing them to know you and learning them well.

What is not child training? Yelling is not child training. Sending them to a Christian school is only a part of child training. Browbeating or nagging them is not child training. Spurts of rules and punishment is not child training. “Time out” is not child training. Playing catch in the yard is not child training. Sesame Street is not child training. Putting the mother in charge is not child training. Rocking them tenderly is not child training. Giving them an allowance without hard labor is not child training.
– From http://www.letgodbetrue.com/proverbs/22_06.htm

Friend:
I just want to finish with an ironic note. Most likely Solomon was the author of Proverbs 22:6. If Proverbs 22:6 is an absolute precept, then he probably didn’t practice what he preached. Just take a look at his children. Under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son,Israel split. Rehoboam abandoned the Lord, which led to the conquering ofJerusalem and plundering of theTemple by the Egyptians. This is not intended as a defense of a non-absolute reading of Proverbs 22:6, just an interesting irony.

James:
Whether or notProverbs 22:6 is an absolute precept has nothing to do with whether he practiced what he preached. In other words, even itProverbs 22:6 were not absolute; Solomon still did not practice what he preached. The bible does not give us many details about how David trained his many children; he was a king who had many wives and many children. The bible speaks to his relationship with God, not his kids. I would venture to say that he had very little to do with his kids.

Besides polygamy being outside of the will of God, another negative side effect is the acquiring of more responsibility than was designed for us to handle as husbands and leaders of the family. Solomon couldn’t have had much time for his kids seeing how most of his time was spent acquiring riches and giving his evil wives the many things they asked for.

Friend:
Hope this helps clarify my position.

James:
And I hope I have clarified mine, or this leads to further fruitful discourse.

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