“Train up a child in the way it should go”: A promise of faithful children, instruction on skill and potential directing, or a prohibition against non-disciplining parents?

“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” Often times this text is understood to teach if parents teach their children the way of Christ then even if they leave the way, at some point in the future they will return. While this interpretation seems correct and is well intended it does not really do a service to the text at hand. The Hebrew is as follows, “חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכֹּ֑ו גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה” Translated literally: Train a child according to his way; even when he is hold he will not depart from it. I render עַל־פִּ֣י “according to” and דַרְכֹּ֑ו “his way” “derek” means way, and there is a masculine, third person singular, pronominal suffix, attached to derek. Thus the translation, “his way” or more literally the way of him.

This translation opens two other possible and I would venture to say probable explanations of the text. The first, “according to his way” would refer to the child’s way or his natural bent. If one were tempted to make one’s son a lawyer and his way was to be an artist then that would be a failure to apply this passage. This verse would teach us the wisdom of not controlling and governing the lives of our children based on our dreams and aspirations; not trying to fit them into the mold we desire, but taking advantage of their natural abilities and mold those, to the extent of them having those qualities, for the remainder of their life time. Furthermore, it is suggested by some that the word translated child לַ֭נַּעַר is better understood to be a child in late adolescence, hence ready to go out into the world. לַ֭נַּעַר (child) Coupled with חֲנֹ֣ךְ (train, instruct, disciple) may give place to this interpretation. The modern equivalent would be a father instructing his son to be diligent and studious as he is sending him off to college. Strong’s, though, says the word can refer to a person from infancy to adulthood, the word does not exclusively refer to older children, though it does often.

The second interpretation is diametrically different. The verse could be prohibition and a warning rather than a positive command and a blessing. Once again the phrase “according to his way” will be examined from a different light. Instead of viewing this as the child’s natural bent, let us view it as the child left to himself. Once again we will notice the word דַרְכֹּ֑ו (his way). This time though we will notice how the word his used without the pronominal suffix– now some examination of “way” as it is used in connection with a persons activities.

Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse: My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood. (Proverbs 1:14-16)

And they lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives. So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof. Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets: (Proverbs 1:18-20)

They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices. For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Proverbs 1:30-32)

There are many other uses. This was done just to note that often times in Proverbs when ones way is spoken of it often has a negative connotation. With the exception in walking the way of God, or way connected with God or wisdom. Let’s not one in particular

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)

If 22:16 is connected to 22:6 than discretion can be seen. Since folly is bound up in the heart of a child it must be driven out of him through healthy corrective. A child left to his own (undisciplined) remains a fool, he will move out on his own, and remain foolish causing destruction to God and his way (Proverbs 19:3). Connecting the two verses, training or instructing a child would equal driving foolishness out of him. Proverbs 22:15 calls for healthy corrective early in life, so that when they are old they will not remain foolish. If this interpretation is correct, then Eli’s suspect behavior was a result of a failure to imbibe the text at hand. His sons were immoral (1 Samuel 2:12-25) because he did not restrain them ( 1 Samuel 3:13).

What of the imperative? Why would God command someone to train up a child according to folly? An imperative (a command) does not always have the same force in every context. For example, “greet one another with a holy kiss” is an imperative but it has the force of a strong plea or desire, similar to one asking another to pass a fork, or hand me the remote. Go to bed! is also an imperative and has a much stronger force.

What of the positive command? There are some places in the Bible when an imperative is used in neither way, and the compliance of which would result in sin. Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). It is more of a taunt than a command. The force is [If] you destroy this temple [then] I will raise it up. In Amos, God said, “Come to Bethel, and transgress; at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years” (Amos 4:3-4). This is not a positive command, but rather the force is, [if] you come to Bethel and Gilgal and continue to worship the way you are living then you will be sinning. This also may be viewed as a taunt. Proverbs 22:6 may be viewed similarly, [If] you train up a child according to his way (the way of folly) [then] when he is old he will not change his ways.

In my judgment the second and third explanation hold the most weight.