In the church where I grew up, parents frequently requested prayer that their wayward adult children would return to God. This request involved two very emotional issues. The first was: the parent didn’t want their child tortured for eternity in hell fire. This is very sad because they believed hell was where God poured out his wrath on those he hated; they didn’t understand that the Father loves us all and is not interested in punishing us.
The second emotional issue in this request is perhaps even more sad and hurtful; the parents, and the rest of the church, believed that God promised a positive result for their children if parents would just do their job. So the eternal torture of their children was the parents’ fault.
Train Up a Child
Proverbs chapter 22 clearly says (in the King James Version which we read):
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
We understood God’s promise this way: if parents train children as they should then they will never depart from following God. Therefore, if they do depart it is clear that the parent failed to train them properly. What other explanation is there?
Contrite as parents might be, they had failed. And their children were now on the road to hell because of them. Parents bore tremendous guilt and pain for this failure.
However, this verse isn’t a promise at all; it’s a proverb—a bit of wisdom that is generally applicable to life. Of course it is better to train a child well than to allow negative influences to guide them or for parents to model negative behaviors. This is the wisdom of the passage; it is excellent advice, but to claim it as a promise from God is cruel.
This proverb is part of a large collection of Jewish wisdom literature in the Old Testament that includes the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature was common in the ancient Near East, and nations shared wisdom with each other. Most of Proverbs chapters 22-24 are borrowed from the Egyptian writing The Instruction of Amenemope.
Biblical wisdom literature is filled with useful insights based on observation and reflection. It is worth reading, but it is not composed of promises or instructions from God.
There is a Way which Seems Right
When I was young I knew there were other religions, but I knew little about them. After I was accepted for a special comparative religions class, I remarked to a friend that I would now learn why Buddhists bowed to Mecca. That class was immeasurably helpful in my development.
But I was still a fundamentalist. One day I could hold back no longer; I had to go on record about these false religions. I told the class that these other religions were wrong. When they asked for evidence I quoted with confidence from Proverbs chapter 14—in King James of course:
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
This verse is so important that it is repeated in Proverbs chapter 16. Without doubt, I knew exactly what it meant: God was saying that Christianity was the right way and all other ways lead to spiritual death.
The teacher responded, “Well that could mean anything!”
I had never considered this before; I had always read the verse in light of what I had been taught. This was my indefensible proof and she destroyed it without effort.
More Recent Proverbs
Proverbs are not limited to the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern literature. A favorite, more recent, writer of proverbs gives us the following:
- Little strokes fell great oaks
- Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day
- Plough deep while sluggards sleep
- Remember that time is money
- Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise
Do you recognize who he is? It is Benjamin Franklin of course. We use his proverbs all the time; some of them sound like they come from the Bible. They are good observations because they provide insight into life that is generally applicable.
However, they are not hard and fast rules to live by. Neither are they promises. In fact, there is no authority at all in Benjamin Franklin’s words. It is the same with the proverbs of the Bible; they are good observations and insights, we can often learn something from them, and they are easy to remember. But they are not authoritative and they are not promises.
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Have a great day! ~Tim