June 8, 2016

Reconsidering Proverbs 22:6 & the “Way He Should Go”

by Eric Davis


Parenting is no easy task. Charles Spurgeon once said, “He who thinks it easy to bring up a family never had one of his own. A mother who trains her children aright had need be wiser than Solomon, for his son turned out a fool.”

Thankfully, God has not left parents to grope about for advice in their exalted task. Scripture is full of guidance. However, it seems that one of the most commonly-quoted parenting verses is frequently subjected to misunderstanding.

“Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). (ESV, NASB)

The verse is predominantly understood in a few ways.

  • The verse is a promise of blessing consequent of godly parenting.

In other words, if a parent raises a child up according to how he should be raised (e.g. hearing the gospel, godliness, godly example), then that child will trust in Christ and live a godly life even into old age. This rendering has hampered many a parent as they watch perplexed when their child appears to defy their godly parenting. Many have understandably wondered, “When will he/she turn back to the way he should go?”

  • The verse is not a blanket guarantee, but a general observation consequent of godly parenting.

 In other words, if a parent raises a child in godliness, though it is not guaranteed that the child will embrace Christ and live accordingly into adulthood, it is likely that they will. This interpretation maintains the correct idea that Proverbs are not absolute guarantees in life, but observations generally true to life.

  • The verse encourages parents to train children in age-appropriate ways and/or according to their specific giftedness.

 In other words, the verse is an encouragement to raise a child according to his/her stage in life, while observing respective God-given gifts and abilities. Thus, the child should be trained in the way that he/she, specifically, should go as God has sovereignly wired them. If they do “not depart from” that “way,” then they will thrive in those particular gifts and abilities (e.g. vocation).

Warning Road Sign

However, it is doubtful that these interpretations of Proverbs 22:6 are correct. The verse is not likely a general promise of blessing consequent of godly training and parenting, but a general warning consequent of letting a child live according to his/her natural, selfish desires.

Thus, a more likely translation is something like, “Start out/begin a child in his own way; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The idea of the verse would be, “If you raise your child in a way that allows them to continue in their natural, self-centered desires, getting their own way, then they will grow up fully-given to self-centeredness.”

Several reasons clue us in as to why the verse should be understood as a warning:

1. The view which sees “his way” as age-appropriate or God-given giftedness does not seem to the context of the verse, Proverbs, or Scripture as a whole.

As far as age-appropriateness goes, Dan Phillips rightly points out that training a child according to his age does not fit with the idea of him not departing from it “even when he is old” (God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, 361). One would not wish their child to continue in their nascent training as a 50-year old.

The understanding of “his way” as a God-given giftedness/personality does not fit either. Often parents do not know their child’s particular vocational knack. How many times have parents said things like, “I think Johnny will grow up to be an athlete,” and Johnny ends up writing code? This approach almost says, “Well, hopefully you can identify their existing giftedness, according to their personality traits, and raise them accordingly.”

billboard-63978_12801That understanding is too narrow when it comes to parenting and Proverbs. The context of parenting in Proverbs seems to focus less on identifying vocation, personality, or skills, and more on shaping character and discipline. Similarly, this understanding of the verse seems to be colored by an overly psychologized interpretation that is inconsistent with Scripture.

2. The phrase “he should go” does not exist in the original language, nor is it implied.

The phrase, “in the way he should go,” suggests the way of life which is right before God. The “should” advocates a moral “ought.” However, there is no “he should go” in the original.

Then why is it included in many English translations?

Among English translations, it’s likely that the word “should” first appeared in the KJV. Why did they include the word? Hard to say exactly. But, Proverbs 22:6 does not occur in many traditions of the Septuagint. When Jerome produced the Vulgate translation late in the fourth century, he prefaced the verse with, “It is a proverb:”, then translated it, “A young man, according to his way, even when he is old, will not depart from it.” Douglas Stuart proposes that Jerome included the preface due to the missing Proverb in various Septuagint translations, as a way to ensure the reader that it is canonical (Bib. Sac. 171 (July-Sept. 2014): 269).

Further, Stuart suggests that the KJV translators inserted the phrase, “in the way he should go” in an effort to clarify what they supposed was the meaning of the verse, though unsubstantiated from the Hebrew. In any case, once the phrase made it into the KJV, it seems that many other English translations followed in step (e.g. ASV, NIV, GNT, HCSB, NET, CEB, NKJV, ESV, NASB). And, once a translation becomes widely held, it is difficult to reverse the momentum, hence the popular rendering of Proverbs 22:6. Translations in other languages, for example, in French, have even rendered the verse similarly (e.g. BDS, LSG, NEG1979).

Whatever translational reasoning occurred, the phrase “he should go” does not occur in the Hebrew text. Consequently, it should not be inserted into the English. Instead, the Hebrew phrase, עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכֹּ֑ו, literally reads “according to,” or, “in,” “his own way.” But, to whom does “his” refer? The antecedent is the child.

Further, it is debatable if the Hebrew word חֲנֹ֣ךְ should be rendered, “Train up.” Phillips gives a thorough discussion of the word, demonstrating it’s better translated, “start out” or “begin” (367-8).

Thus, the verse is better rendered something like, “Start out/begin a child according to his own way; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” But, is God commanding a parenting which bows to the whims of the child’s way? Obviously not. The command is to be understood as a warning of a child left unparented. And, as the next point demonstrates, this fits well into the context of Proverbs.

3. The interpretation as a general warning seems to be more contextually consistent with the many cautions in Proverbs.

proverbs-bible-bookThe book of Proverbs has the gravity of depravity running through nearly every verse. In the book, the way of the fool is not unlikely, but inevitable, apart from diligent exertion in godly wisdom and discipline. To end up as the fool in Proverbs, one must simply do nothing; go the way of their nature.

Thus, the fool is the individual who goes his own way in life (Prov. 12:15). He does things his way. He is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly (Prov. 26:16). He cannot receive reproof (cf. Prov. 15:5, 12) because he trusts in his own way and in his own heart above his God (Prov. 3:5-7, 28:26). Everything in Proverbs cries out, “Do not let yourself or your children follow the natural human inclination!” To “let go and let God” in Proverbs would be catastrophic.

In that context, the many Proverbs pertaining to children and parenting make sense. For example, Proverbs begins with an introductory exhortation to sons, warning them to not go the way of the wicked (Prov. 1:8-19). Children desperately need the wise, godly counsel of their parents because (cf. Prov. 2:1-11) because they come pre-packed with utter foolishness (Prov. 22:15). All of us enter the world as hard-wired fools. Thus, their own way will lead to destruction of self, family, and society.

Parental correction, then, is commended in Proverbs as God’s means of grace for children (cf. Prov. 19:18, 22:15b). Though not bringing regeneration, parents do a real work of deterring foolishness (Prov. 20:30, 23:14). A child’s own way needs to be driven from him. And, as Derek Kidner writes, “It will take more than words to dislodge it” (Proverbs, 47). Parental love will mean the infliction of pain (Prov. 13:24b). To refuse the child the rod is a form of hate (Prov. 13:24a). God’s merciful implement to bring significant restraint to the catastrophe of human depravity is the biblical administering of the rod. A child who gets his own way will end up a living disgrace to his family (Prov. 29:15).

So, the context of parenting in Proverbs leans more towards warnings pertaining to depravity’s consequences. The interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 as a general warning seems to be more contextually consistent with the many cautions regarding depravity in Proverbs.

4. The interpretation as a general warning seems to be contextually consistent with the biblical understanding of depravity.

Every human being enters the world opposed to God (Ps. 51:5). When God observed the pre-flood population, he saw that “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Biblical books such as Judges do humanity great good by answering the question, “What will a population look like who gets their own way?” Apart from God’s grace in regeneration, all humanity will do and seek unrighteousness (Rom. 3:10-12). Therefore, anyone left to themselves will only deepen in sin.

Consequently, the phrase, “according to his own way” in Proverbs 22:6 could not be referring to a righteous way, but unrighteous. It stands to reason, then, that the absence of the phrase “the way he should go” and the presence of “according to his way” in Proverbs 22:6 would favor a meaning which warns against the sinful direction which a child will naturally take into adulthood when left unhindered.

5. Other exegetes have understood Proverbs 22:6 as a warning in light of depravity.

Though not many. A few English translations render the verse without the phrase “in the way he should go.” For example, the Knox Bible reads, “There is a proverb; a boy will keep the course he has begun; even when he grows old, he will not leave it.” The Lexham Bible reads, “Train the child concerning his way; even when he is old, he will not stray from it.”

Richard Clifford appropriately paraphrases the verse, “Let a boy do what he wants and he’ll grow up to be a self-willed adult incapable of change!” (Proverbs: A Commentary, 196).

Jay Adams writes of Proverbs 22:6:

“[T]he passage reads, ‘train up a child after the manner of his way,’ that is, after the standard or manner in which he wants to be trained. The verse stands not as a promise, but as a warning to parents that if they allow a child to train himself after his own wishes they should not expect him to want to change these patterns when he matures. Children are born sinners and when allowed to follow their own wishes will naturally develop sinful habit responses” (Competent to Counsel, 158).

Others have taken the warning view, such as Douglas Stuart and Saadia ben Yosef (Bib. Sac. 171 (July-Sept. 2014): 266-273), Ralpag (J.H. Greenstone, Proverbs with Commentary, 196), and Dan Phillips (God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, 353-79). Phillips’ commentary on Proverbs (a must for your library) contains a helpful, 26-page discussion devoted entirely to the issue.


More could be said regarding this reconsideration of Proverbs 22:6. The common translation, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6), should omit the phrase “the way he should go.” Instead, the English translation ought to read something like, “Start out a child in his own way, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

The verse is not a promise of blessing consequent of godly training and parenting, but a warning against letting a child live according to his/her natural, sinful desires. In addition to grammatical reasons, this understanding seems to better fit the context of Proverbs and Scripture as a whole.

So What? 

  • A parenting method which does not implement biblical discipline and instruction risks leaving the child to his own, depraved way. The child’s sinful nature will drive him towards increasingly destructive and enslaving manifestations of self-centeredness. 
  • Parents demonstrate love towards their children (despite a child’s potential protest) when they implement God’s kind of discipline and instruction. Though parents cannot ensure regeneration, they can incrementally decrease the child’s destructive, self-willed tendencies, thus saving him from going his own way.
  • Provided a child was not left to his own way, Proverbs 22:6 may not be used to blame parents should the child go astray. Fathers and mothers are called to parent with the highest goal of parenting in a way that pleases God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31, 2 Cor 5:9), and leave the results up to him. If a child rebels, it is in spite of good parenting, not because of it.
  • Should a child/children repent and follow Christ, parents can give glory to God for using their imperfect efforts to discipline and instruct the child in the Lord.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • 4Commencefiring4

    That view surely does turn the traditional one on its head. And perhaps you’ve made a good case for it. Food for thought.

    Yet, even if that is the meaning, it’s just as “general” and non-binding as the more popular one. In other words, train up a child in accord with his natural, sinful bent and when he is old he’ll continue in it.

    Well, just as those raised with the Word of God don’t always become believing adults, many people whose childhood lacked any spiritual input at all later become believers. God finds them anyhow.

    So it works–or doesn’t work–both ways.

    • Jason

      I don’t disagree that a person who lives their own way can be snatched out of that life in a moment by God’s undeserved grace.

      However, that is the beginning of a new spiritual life, and we need regular direction from more mature believers and our heavenly Father in much the same way as a physical infant needs parents to avoid continuing on in our spiritually immature ways.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        Spiritual immaturity, while certainly not the ideal, is not exclusive of salvation. That is, if we posit that only those who exhibit a lifetime of a consistently maturing walk and evidence of sanctification are truly saved, then an awful lot of people who sincerely embraced the Gospel at some point in their lives, and who would never dream of denying Christ for a moment, are actually lost.

        If that’s so, then it begs the question of just what we think Paul meant when he wrote, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” Lots of people who have done that–with a sincere conviction of heart and a truly broken spirit–might also need help, years later, even finding 1 Samuel or Hebrews if you handed them a Bible.

        Does that mean they are actually lost and deceived, despite having believed the above promise? I would hope not. God is the only One Who knows who are truly His sheep, but we often like to assess that ourselves based on our reading of Scripture and how a given person lives.

        Don’t we all know people who we think are brothers and sisters in the Lord and whose lives seem to be somewhat hot and cold at times, or who behave in ways that, ideally, a “mature” believer would not? Sure we do. Or maybe, as Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” At times, WE are the ones who need a course correction. Or is it just me?

        But I trust that doesn’t mean it’s all a sham. Are we not all on a sort of sliding spiritual scale, none having arrived and some seemly stuck in “park”?

        • Jason

          Certainly, spiritual maturity is not required for salvation, but the reality of new spiritual life doesn’t counter the proverb. Rather the truth of it can be seen all over again when a person is called out of the world into a new life in Christ. Believers need scripture, mature leadership, and the Spirit’s guidance to depart from our old ways.

          I urge anyone who gets bothered by discussion of maturity because they feel it “takes away” from the topic of salvation to study deeply Hebrews 5-6. Somehow, people always seem to start paying attention at 6:4, which leads them to the question of “What is the author trying to say about salvation?” and commit the very error the author is warning against. Even the title most translations give this chapter encourages that thinking.

          In reality, this chapter’s topic is explicitly laid out in 6:1-3 (lead into by chapter 5 and its lamentations about immaturity). What follows is the explanation for why the author is encouraging the Hebrews (contrary to the warnings of nearly all today) to “leave the elementary teachings about Christ in order to press on to maturity”.

          There’s no danger in doing so specifically because endlessly waxing on about the elementary doctrines isn’t going to reclaim anyone who understood them and turned away, since that would mean a “second” new life which would require Christ to be crucified all over again (argument from absurdity).

          Instead, throughout scripture, we’re called to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12) instead of constantly sticking to our immaturity for fear that perhaps some of us still need another crucifixion.

    • Eric Davis

      4C4 – agreed, that those various scenarios certainly happen. Thanks for bringing that up. And, though those scenarios are possible, Prov. 22:6 cannot properly be used to describe the positive scenario.

  • Dan Phillips

    Good work, and thanks for the interaction.

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you, Dan. Been enjoying your Prov. commentary. Good stuff.

  • Ira Pistos

    That was enlightening. Thanks.

  • Kermos

    If we look at the Hebrew interlinear, we find these words (in the order of appearance in Proverbs 22:6):

    חֲנֹ֣ךְ : ḥă-nōḵ : chanak : to train up, dedicate : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/2596.htm

    לַ֭נַּעַר : lan-na-‘ar : naar : a boy, lad, youth, retainer : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/5288.htm

    עַל־ : ‘al- : al : upon, above, over : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/5921.htm

    פִּ֣י : pî : peh : mouth : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/6310.htm

    דַרְכּ֑וֹ : ḏar-kōw : derek : way, road, distance, journey, manner : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/1870.htm

    גַּ֥ם : gam : gam : also, moreover, yea : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/1571.htm

    כִּֽי־ : kî- : ki : that, for, when : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/3588.htm

    יַ֝זְקִ֗ין : yaz-qîn : zaqen : to be or become old : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/2204.htm

    לֹֽא־ : lō- : lo : not : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/3808.htm

    יָס֥וּר : yā-sūr : sur : to turn aside : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/5493.htm

    מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ : mim-men-nāh : min or minni or minne : from : http://biblehub.com/hebrew/4480.htm

  • Kermos

    Dear Eric,

    Proverbs is a book of wisdom (Proverbs 1:2), and Christ is the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). Let us not forger Proverbs 22:6 is strongly reminiscent of Deuteronomy 6 that the Word of God be bound in our very being, and that our households be consumed in the Word of God! An overwhelming point is this: our Lord Jesus trains up the child of God, and the child of God will not depart (John 10:29)!

    Above, I pasted the entirety of the Proverbs 22:6 Hebrew Interlinear, and the parallelism between the NASB’s rendering with the Hebrew is undeniable.

    You discount Proverbs 22:6 to something less than a promise. In fact, you assert that your interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 brings the verse in line with the many cautions in Proverbs as well as gravity of depravity running through nearly every verse. I do not dispute the depraved nature of man. Yet, let us consider just one chapter of the book of Proverbs, that is, chapter 22, pasted below in it’s entirety.

    Verse 2 qualifies the entirety of mankind, and God’s dominion over the entirety of mankind.

    Verse 4 qualifies as a promise; nevertheless, none of this can be accomplished without the Power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), that is, Christ.

    Verse 6 is a promise in “dedicate youth over mouth way moreover when become old not to turn aside from.”

    Verse 9 qualifies as a promise.

    Verse 11 qualifies as a promise.

    1 A [good] name is to be more desired than great wealth, Favor is better than silver and gold.

    2 The rich and the poor have a common bond, The LORD is the maker of them all.

    3 The prudent sees the evil and hides himself, But the naive go on, and are punished for it.

    4 The reward of humility [and] the fear of the LORD Are riches, honor and life.

    5 Thorns [and] snares are in the way of the perverse; He who guards himself will be far from them.

    6 Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.

    7 The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower [becomes] the lender’s slave.

    8 He who sows iniquity will reap vanity, And the rod of his fury will perish.

    9 He who is generous will be blessed, For he gives some of his food to the poor.

    10 Drive out the scoffer, and contention will go out, Even strife and dishonor will cease.

    11 He who loves purity of heart [And] whose speech is gracious, the king is his friend.

    12 The eyes of the LORD preserve knowledge, But He overthrows the words of the treacherous man.

    13 The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside; I will be killed in the streets!”

    14 The mouth of an adulteress is a deep pit; He who is cursed of the LORD will fall into it.

    15 Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.

    16 He who oppresses the poor to make more for himself Or who gives to the rich, [will] only [come to] poverty.

    17 Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise, And apply your mind to my knowledge;

    18 For it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, That they may be ready on your lips.

    19 So that your trust may be in the LORD, I have taught you today, even you.

    20 Have I not written to you excellent things Of counsels and knowledge,

    21 To make you know the certainty of the words of truth That you may correctly answer him who sent you?

    22 Do not rob the poor because he is poor, Or crush the afflicted at the gate;

    23 For the LORD will plead their case And take the life of those who rob them.

    24 Do not associate with a man [given] to anger; Or go with a hot-tempered man,

    25 Or you will learn his ways And find a snare for yourself.

    26 Do not be among those who give pledges, Among those who become guarantors for debts.

    27 If you have nothing with which to pay, Why should he take your bed from under you?

    28 Do not move the ancient boundary Which your fathers have set.

    29 Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.

    Clearly so much of this is about God, refining of man’s path, correction of man’s error, identifying destruction, even promises.

    I thank God for the promise that I can now see recorded in Proverbs 22:6. God’s lovingkindness endures forever!

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  • Corey Fleig

    I’d like to contribute my own shortsighted, subjective, ignorant opinion, if I may!
    I’ve read a lot of comments from those who use a generic name, not their real name. I used to be sympathetic, because I can think of a few guys that really will get persecuted for their blog posts, so I grant them some latitude. Others however, claim that being anonymous keeps the focus on the subject at hand, and avoids ad hominen attacks. I accept that, but I also want to know who these people are, because I want to test what every man says according to scripture, and it really helps to know some information.

    For example, I have no idea who “4commencingfire4” is. Man? Woman? 3.034 point Calvinist? Part charismatic, part presbyterian, part pirate? And who is “Kermos?” He/she loves to reference Hebrew, and I can appreciate that. But I’d like to know more before I place confidence in websites like “JesusDelivers.Faith”.

    For what’s its worth, I’d like to see more commenters share a little about themselves. I’m Corey, I’m a recovering sinner, and I’ve sat under MacArthur’s preaching for 36 years. I hope you don’t hold that against me! Nice to meet so many of you.

    • Kermos

      God bless you Corey,

      Who I am is of little consequence. Who Christ is, is everything of consequence!

      Here is the statement found at http://www.JesusDelivers.Faith/ChristianWritings/OneSpiritAndOneHeartInGod/ (slightly edited):


      I believe in one God, eternally existing as three distinct and equal persons being Love (Genesis 1:26 [plurality], Isaiah 48:16 [all three mentioned], Romans 1:7 [Father], John 8:58 [Son, referring back to Exodus 3:14], John 15:26 [Spirit], 1 John 4:8 [Love]).

      I love my God, my heavenly Father, Who loves me. I was formerly a slave to sin, dead in my trespasses against the Mighty and Just God, yet now I live for God opened my eyes to see that I was purchased, the ransom for my crimes against God paid by the very blood of His Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. God has given me the precious gift of His indwelling Holy Spirit. When the Father in heaven looks at me, I am safe and heard because I am covered by the blood of Jesus! I know God loves me because He disciplines me (Psalm 94:12, Proverbs 3:12, Hebrews 12:6, Revelation 3:19). There is no greater joy than knowing my God, and being known by Him! May I, unworthy as I am, yet this Lord’s House, be an instrument of peace.

      The English word ceramic is related to the Greek word kermos, potter’s clay. I am thankful to the Potter for this name that honors Him.

      May the Lord Jesus, Who created all that is seen and unseen, bless this time given to each of us.

      • Sam

        @Eric and Kermos: I am just a
        student working on proverbs 22:6 in Nigeria because of the flying arguments as
        regards the correct interpretation. Unfortunately we cant get to the heart of
        Solomon to know what he actually wrote and meant….But through Hermeneutical
        principles, we can be able to salvage the meaning of the Original text, and if
        not that, the closest should lead us…THE CLOSEST TO THE ORIGINAL I PERUSED WAS
        BIBLIA HEBRAICA STUTT GARTENSIA…and the Hebrew text seen there in is
        synonymous to what Kermos presented from the INTERLINEAR….NOW WHERE DOES THE
        PROBLEM LIES? what is Eric’s source (that knocks off- ‘he should
        go”)? lets resolve on this —-“PIY”, Meaning He should
        go…I am waiting to see you help this student…Thanks

        • Kermos

          May Lord Jesus bless you in this undertaking, Sam!

          Whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

          Know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20-21).

          Sam, I encourage you to pray, asking Lord Jesus for clarity on Proverbs 22:6. For the King of Glory said “ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full” (John 16:24).

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