Proverbs is not a child training manual (Part 1)

Proverbs is not a discipline manual

Did you know that the Old Testament book of Proverbs is not a child training manual?   While Proverbs has been used as a textbook or manual for training little children, that was not the original purpose of the book. 

So, Proverbs is not for parenting children? No.  Here are seven reasons why:

1  In the strictest sense, Proverbs was written to help train young men.

Expecting the book of Proverbs to be first and foremost a child-training manual for little children is wrong.  It is not even that in a secondary sense.  It is making the book into something God did not intend for it.  Its primary purpose was to help fathers or teachers train young men how to lead God’s people in faith and obedience to God’s Word and to urge them to follow wisdom’s way and reject folly’s way.

To press Proverbs into our contemporary desire to make it a manual for parents is like making the book of Ruth a textbook for how young women find their future husbands or using the Song of Solomon as a how-to manual for love, marriage, and sex.  

2  The main hope of Proverbs is not about raising a Christian child.

Proverbs' main hope is not that a young child would become an obedient, moral and faithful Christian because a dutiful parent taught him the way.  Rather, it is ultimately about God the Father and his godly, wise, and obedient son, Jesus.  The Father, by his Word and Spirit, gives his covenant people insight and knowledge for righteous living.  However, as we see from the New Testament, Jesus was the perfect son and disciple who grew "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52).  He rejected the way of the fool and pursued God's way of wisdom (Matthew 4:1-11).  Through suffering, he learned obedience as a faithful son (Heb. 5:8).  

Ultimately, Jesus followed the righteous path and did so for his people.  He suffered the consequences of living and doing what is right but he did so for God's children (Heb. 2:10; 13:12; 1 Pet. 2:21; 3:18).  On the Cross, he paid our penalty for being fools who rejected God and sought our own paths.  Then, after his death and burial, he came back from the dead.  Being the good Son, Jesus earned the right to sit as God's right-hand man to rule and guide.  That was the objective for all good sons who followed in wisdom's way.

So, is this saying that Proverbs has nothing to say at all about parenting?  Not at all.  Let’s look at a few more points about Proverbs before seeing how it applies to parents and children.

3  Proverbs is not a collection of absolute promises.

Often times people will read a Proverb and expect that if one does just as the Proverb says then it will come true. For example, parents read Proverbs 22:6 that if they “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  For some families, the child grows up, become godly young men and women, and remain faithful to the Lord.  Many parents who are blessed with such children conclude that it was due to their good training that their child continued in the way of the Lord.

However, what about those parents who were faithful and diligent but whose children reject the things of Christ?  I’ve known many who became deeply discouraged or depressed because they attribute the foolish choices of their child to be their fault, not the child’s guilt (a book worth reading is When Good Kids Make Bad Choices by Fitzpatrick, Newheiser, and Hendrickson).  I’ve been told many times and have heard from “professionals” in the Christian child-training business that it is indeed the fault of the parents.  The argument is that since Proverbs 22:6 is God’s Word and God’s Word is never wrong, therefore the only conclusion is that the parents erred.

I’ve heard other such accusations and reasons for wayward children, such as:

  • “If you had read the Bible to your children and made them memorize Scripture, they would not have rebelled.”

  • “If you had used the rod (branch, stick, whip, belt, spoon, paddle) more then they would not have rebelled.”

  • “If you had homeschooled your child, then they would have turned into wonderful, upright and moral people.”

  • “If you had them involved in more church events or made them get involved in wholesome activities and kept them busy most of the time then they would not have turned out so bad.”

Many times parents had done all those things and their children still left the faith or had become rebellious to one degree or another.  Yet a frequent rebuttal from those “perfect parents” is, “Well, you parent, must have done something wrong!”

The problem with that mindset is it assumes rearing children to come to believe and grow in faith in Jesus Christ is by works.  The parents' works.  Scripture rejects that whole notion and yet much of what is purported to be “biblical” child training is based on works.  Another problem with that is the false assumption that this Proverb or any other Proverb is a conditional promise, when in fact it is not.  To better understand Proverbs 22:6, read this article.

4  Proverbs is a collection of observational generalities about life, not absolute promises.

Especially from the perspective of how life probably will happen if you are wise or if you are foolish. As Dr. Sam Storms points out, Proverbs gives us pithy statements or concepts of compressed experience.  “Its principles are timeless and therefore applicable and relevant to all people in every age.”  He informs us, “Proverbs give expression to general maxims concerning life.  The exceptional, unusual and unprecedented are beyond the range of proverbial wisdom.”

Dr. Tremper Longman in the Baker Commentary on Proverbs (2006) says that Proverbs “Does not teach a universally valid truth…Proverbs is only true if stated at the right time and in the right circumstance.”  For examples, he points to Proverbs 15:23 compared with 27:14; and Proverbs 26:4-7 compared with 26:9.  Further, as he shows us from the research, Proverbs 10:1 to 31:31 is an assortment of advice, observations, and warnings, not absolute promises.

5  Proverbs still offers parents principles that informs us how to apply God’s Word to life.

That includes child training.  I’ll save this for another article.

6  There are ways to misuse Proverbs

As Dr. Futato, an Old Testament Hebrew scholar and professor, taught us in seminary there are three admonitions for us about the book:

  • Don’t moralize. They are not merely promises for the here-and-now. Instead, they are covenant observations and pointed truths which time will often prove true.

  • Don’t isolate. In other words, Proverbs must be read in the context of the whole Bible and to be read through the theological lenses of the New Testament. The New Testament shows us how to properly understand the Old Testament, including the book of Proverbs.

  • Don’t absolutize. By this, he meant that we ought not to take individual proverbs as little golden nuggets of advice or dictums in order to make our personal lives better.

These are seven reasons why Proverbs is not given to God's people to be a child training manual. There are many more reasons, which could be offered here but hopefully, a case has been made and you get the point.  What is Proverbs for?  See the next blog post.

By implication, Proverbs shows how we all make that choice between godly wisdom and pure folly, and the consequences that often occur through those choices.

- Dr. Don

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