(some quick notes)
Proverbs 22:6 has been the hope and the dashed hope of many parents:
6 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)
While there is a tendency for children to follow after their parents’ instruction, there are many instances of parents from careful, loving parents who find their children become something quite a bit different than they had hoped. In practice, this proverb seems to not hold its promise as well as it seems like should.
The usual response is that the proverbs are general statements and not universal promises (this is true). All of the proverbs must be read together (as well as the rest of the scripture) – we can’t pluck one sentence out and make it more definitive than it is (which is true).
However, there may be a better way to understand this proverb. I first heard this reading suggested by Dr. John Street (TMC), and I have since found it to be both a better translation linguistically and a better understanding pastorally.
Here’s the Hebrew (don’t worry if you can’t follow the letters).
Proverbs 22:6 (BHS/WHM 4.2)
6 חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃
First word: hnk: it is an imperative. It means to “train up” or “dedicate”. The word is used in three other places: Deuteronomy 20:5, 1 Kings 8:63 & 2 Chronicles 7:5 where it refers to “dedicating” something, turning it over to a use.
If we take the otherwise translated meaning, we have “Dedicate a child” that is, turn a child over to … what? That is the question.
Here is some more on the word:
ḥānak is best understood as “inaugurate.” There is not in the term itself the notion that dedication is to someone or to something, though that concept is present in the synonyms. With one exception (Prov 22:6, where the meaning is “start”; cf. neb), ḥānak and its derivates refer to an action in connection with structures such as a building (I Kgs 8:63), wall (Neh 12:27), an altar (Num 7:10), or an image (Dan 3:2).
ḥānak is almost certainly a community action which in the case of cult structures involves offerings. The ceremony of dedication (ḥănūkkâ) for Solomon’s altar extended over seven days (II Chr 7:9). Dedication of Solomon’s temple as well as the temple at Ezra’s time was marked by numerous sacrifices (I Kgs 8:63; Ezr 6:17).
Victor P. Hamilton, “693 חָנַך,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 301.
1) TO MAKE NARROW, and intrans. TO BE NARROW, enge fehn, i.q. חָנַק, עָנַק, which see. Hence חֵךְ for חֵנֶךְ, Arab. حَنَكُ jaws; compare עֲנָק a neck, (from the kindred root עָנַק, ) & הָנַק to strangle.
(2) denom. from חֵךְ, حَنَكُ jaws, palate, properly ἐμβύειν, to put something into the mouth, to give to be tasted; then by a common metaphor, in which taste is applied to understanding (see טַעַם and Job 12:11)—(a) to imbue some one with any thing, to instruct, to train up (compare نشع to put something into one’s mouth, also to instruct, to train). Pro. 22:6, “train up a child according to his way,” as to his manners and habits. It is thus applied to inanimate things, hence—(b) to initiate, a house (that is to dedicate, or to commence to use). Deu. 20:5, the temple, 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chr. 7:5. (Arabic حَنَكَ to understand. As to the meaning to perceive as ascribed to the Æth. ሐነከ፡ it does not rest upon sufficient authority; see Ludolfi Lex. Æth., page 40, whilst the additional meanings to know, to perceive by the sense, are altogether incorrect).
Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 292.
Next word: lan‘ar: a boy, a child (it is male, but it can be used generically of children). As used in the Proverbs, it usually means a “foolish child” – because children haven’t learned anything yet. The “simple” in the Proverbs are those who simply don’t know. Proverbs 1:4, 7:7, 20:11, 22:6, 22:15, 29:15.
Here is the tricky part
‘al-piy: according to the mouth of
Darekko: His way
The rest is simply: because when he is old, he will not turn from it (literally turn from “her”. “Way” (path, course of life) is feminine in Hebrew.
The phrase “according to his mouth” is used 50 times in the Hebrew OT. Most uses refer to something which is said (such as a command; see, e.g., 2 Kings 24:3). However, Leviticus 24:12 translates the phrase there as “the will of” (the LORD).
Thus, the phrase means “the way he wants to go” – that is what the child desires to do.
The LXX does not have this Proverb (the text goes from v. 5 to v. 7); so we have no help there.
Waltke (who is the great expert here) states that Grammatically and rhetorically the proverb could be translated as, “Dedicate a youth according to his foolish way, and when he is old he will not depart from it!”
Even though that is the straightforward reading, he goes and says, it can’t really mean that. The sarcasm of the proverb seems to sharp. Waltke argues that old age is crowned with glory (Prov. 20:29). But an old fool with grey hair is still a fool – so I don’t find that persuasive.
When we look at the surrounding proverbs (which may give a hint) we have warnings of what NOT to do: V. 5: keep away or suffer the consequence. V. 7: Don’t borrow, or suffer the consequence. V. 8, don’t be unjust, or suffer the consequence.
And so, dedicate your child to his desire and he’ll be happy to go there – and stay there.
The parallel here may be:
15 The rod and reproof give wisdom,
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
Proverbs 29:15 (ESV)
Murphy (Word Commentary) calls the key clause “according to the mouth of his way” “obscure Hebrew” and merely goes with the “”common translation,” “The way he should go”.
עַל־פִידַרְכּוֹ can have no other meaning than “according to the standard of his way” (Gen. 43:7; Lev. 27:8, etc.), i.e., according to the way that is determined for him, according to the calling and the manner of life for which he is intended. With this interpretation, which is as simple as it is pertinent, HITZIG’S emendation may be dismissed as superfluous: עַל־פִּירֻכּוֹ, “according to his tenderness, since he is still tender.” [Notwithstanding the “simplicity” of the interpretation “in accordance with his way, or his going,” three different meanings have been found in it. It may be, a) “his way” in the sense of his own natural and characteristic style and manner,—and then his training will have reference to that to which he is naturally fitted; or b), the way in life which he is intended by parents or guardians to pursue; or c) the way in which he ought to go. The last is moral and relates to the general Divine intention concerning man’s earthly course; the second is human and economical; the first is individual and to some extent even physical. Yet although the third presents the highest standard and has been generally adopted and used where little account is made of the original, it has the least support from the Hebrew idiom. So DE W., B., K., S., H. (?), and others.—A.]
John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Proverbs (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 192.
Train up a child in the way he should go: Train up a child is rather unnatural English, but the sense is clear. Other English versions say “teach children,” “give children training,” or “start a child.” The way he should go could refer to what is good and right in life, which may be expressed as “in the right way” (NRSV) or “on the right road” (REB). Or it may have the sense of training for life, as in “Teach children how they should live” (TEV) or “Give a lad the training he needs for life” (Scott). A common rendering in Pacific languages is “Teach children to do what is right.”
William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Proverbs, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 2000), 463–465.
The NET note reads:
tn The expression in Hebrew is עַל־פִּידַּרְכּוֹ (’al-pi darko), which can be rendered “according to his way”; NEB “Start a boy on the right road.” The expression “his way” is “the way he should go”; it reflects the point the book of Proverbs is making that there is a standard of life to which he must attain. Saadia, a Jewish scholar who lived a.d. 882-942, first suggested that this could mean the child should be trained according to his inclination or bent of mind. This may have some merit in practice, but it is not likely what the proverb had in mind. In the book of Proverbs there are only two ways that a person can go, the way of the wise or righteousness, and the way of the fool. One takes training, and the other does not. Ralbag, in fact, offered a satirical interpretation: “Train a child according to his evil inclinations (let him have his will) and he will continue in his evil way throughout life” (J. H. Greenstone, Proverbs, 234). C. H. Toy says the expression means “in accordance with the manner of life to which he is destined (Proverbs [ICC], 415). W. McKane says, “There is only one right way – the way of life – and the educational discipline which directs young men along this way is uniform” (Proverbs [OTL], 564). This phrase does not describe the concept perpetuated by a modern psychological interpretation of the verse: Train a child according to his personality trait.