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Children of Obedient Parents Turning out for God—Promise or Mere Possibility in Proverbs 22:6?[i]
Does the Bible teach that godly parents who raise their children as they ought have a Divine promise that their children will be saved and live for Him, or is such only a possibility? If they do what is right, can they be certain that God will save their children and lead them to follow Him, or must they fear that, despite doing everything that they ought to do, their children could end up tormented in fire and brimstone for all eternity, so that it would have been better for them to have never been born (Mark 14:21)? A number of texts of Scripture relate to the question.
The locus classicus for the doctrine that parents have a Divine promise that their children will be saved and live for God if they are raised properly is Proverbs 22:6:
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.[ii]
The natural and obvious reading of this passage is that the verse is a promise—if one obeys the command[iii] to train up a child in the way he should go, in the way of spiritual and ethical righteousness, then when the child is old,[iv] he will not depart from it. The meaning of the verse is accurately rendered in the Authorized Version.[v] Proverbs 22:6 is exemplified, with very significant linguistic parallels,[vi] in other books of the Bible:
“And he walked in all the ways of Asa his father; he turned not aside from it, doing that which was right in the eyes of the LORD.” (1 Kings 22:43a)[vii]
“And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left.” (2 Kings 22:2)
“And he walked in the way of Asa his father, and departed not from it, doing that which was right in the sight of the LORD.” (2 Chronicles 20:32)
“And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father, and declined neither to the right hand, nor to the left.” (2 Chronicles 34:2)[viii]
Proverbs 22:6 therefore states that a child trained up in holiness will not depart from that righteous way. But is the verse a promise, or only a principle that can—and will—fail at different times? The verse is unquestionably a promise, a certainty guaranteed by the omnipotent and faithful God. Every time “will not depart,” the future tense of the verb in question,[ix] appears in the Old Testament, and God is making the statement,[x] certainty, not mere possibility, is in view.[xi] Thus, Proverbs 22:6 means exactly what it appears to mean to one who simply takes the verse at face value—a child who is trained up in the way he should go will not depart from that right way.
Other texts in Scripture confirm the fact that parents who train up their children rightly can rejoice in a joyful certainty that their children will be saved and serve God. Proverbs 29:17 states: “Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” As Proverbs and the rest of the Bible—not to mention experience—makes clear, a wicked and unconverted child does not give rest and delight to godly parents. Proverbs 29:17 teaches, as does Proverbs 22:6, that a child who is properly trained will be saved and serve the Lord. Similarly, Proverbs 23:13-14 declares: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” This passage guarantees that a properly disciplined child will come to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and will not go to hell.[xii] Other texts in the book of Proverbs make similar promises.[xiii] In light of these Divine promises, it is not surprising that neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament record a single example of parents who did everything they were supposed to do for their children, yet their children rejected God and refused to walk in holiness.
The fact that the New Testament requires spiritual leaders to have godly children[xiv] also demonstrates that Proverbs 22:6 and similar texts are promises. The pastor, and every other spiritual leader,[xv] must be “one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Timothy 3:4-5).[xvi] He must have “faithful children not accused of riot or unruly” (Titus 1:6),[xvii] because otherwise he is not “blameless” (Titus 1:7; 1 Timothy 3:2).[xviii] The fact that every minister who has children that grow up to be unregenerate and unfaithful[xix] is not qualified for office only makes sense if believers who properly raise their children can be certain that they will live for God—while ungodly children are certainly responsible for their own wickedness,[xx] such a tragic result also evidences a moral failure on the part of their unhappy parents, for the requirement that the bishop have faithful children is as much a moral qualification[xxi] as are being vigilant, sober, and of good behaviour, or not being a striker, greedy, or covetous. The fact that pastors are disqualified if their children go bad, no matter how old those children are,[xxii] also demonstrates that Proverbs 22:6 is a promise that even into old age children who are trained correctly will not depart from the way of righteousness. The New Testament provides further evidence that Proverbs 22:6 and other Old Testament texts promise that parents who raise their children correctly can be certain that they will have a godly seed.
Proverbs 22:6, other Old Testament passages, and the New Testament, harmoniously teach that parents who raise their children properly can be certain to have a godly family.[xxiii] Christian parents should rejoice at the Divine guarantee that they can have saved and holy children, act in faith on such promises, and plead them before God in prayer. They should reject the false doctrine that it is possible for parents to do all that they ought to do and have their children reject Christ and live for the devil. They should also be soberminded and zealously, passionately determined that they will live lives of faith, love, and holiness before God themselves, since, while their children are certainly moral agents who are personally accountable if they reject Christ, parents with ungodly children do bear the responsibility, in every case, of having failed in their childrearing.
[i] This study, by Thomas Ross, is available on the Internet at http://faithsaves.net. The author grants permission for it to be reproduced and distributed by others, as long as its contents are not changed in any way. All other rights are reserved. If the Greek and Hebrew fonts below are garbled, please download the PDF file on this page, or download the standard Accordance Bible Software Hebrew and Greek fonts, Yehudit and Helena.
[ii] :hÎ…n`R;mIm r…wñsÎy_aáøl Ny#Iq◊zÅyŒ_y`I;k M¶A…g wóø;k√råd y∞IÚp_lAo rAoÅ…nAlœ JKâOnSj
The Targum reads: :hynym yfsn absn dk ald hyjrwa lybql aylfl jkwa
[iii] “Train up” (JKâOnSj) is an imperative: “Train [thou] up,” not a future indicative, “If thou shalt train up.”
[iv] Nothing in Proverbs 22:6 breathes the slightest hint that a child that is trained up properly may reject Christ and go into the world, but when he reaches old age he will repent and turn to the Lord and the way of righteousness. The verb rendered “when he is old” in the verse, a Hiphil of Nqz, means “to grow older” (The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, trans. & ed. M.E.J. Richardson). As the child grows older year after year and decade after decade, he will continue in the way of righteousness, not reject it and then repent decades later when he has dishonored God, destroyed his life, filled his parents with shame and grief, and become an old man. Compare the continuity of development in the only other Hiphil of Nqz in the Old Testament, Job 14:8.
[v] y∞IÚp_lAo means “according to” (cf. Exodus 17:1, h¡DOwh◊y y∞IÚp_lAo, “according to the commandment of the LORD”). The Hebrew wóø;k√råd y∞IÚp_lAo, rendered in KJV margin as “in his way,” means “in the way he should go.” The idea of the text is a moral command—the way of righteousness—not some sort of other training, such as training a child in job skills. This is evident because the verb Knj, “with Vl to train up Pr 22:6,” (HALOT), means, in all the other texts where it is found, “to dedicate” (ibid.) or consecrate to Jehovah (Deuteronomy 20:5; 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chronicles 7:5). The verb is related to the noun h;Dk¨nSj, which is always used of a believer’s dedication or consecration of an object to his God (Numbers 7:10–11, 84, 88; Psalm 30:1; Daniel 3:2–3 (here of an idolator dedicating something to the false god in which he believes); Ezra 6:16–17; Nehemiah 12:27; 2 Chronicles 7:9; cf. JKwønSj, “Enoch,” the holy man whose name means “dedicated [to God],” Genesis 5:24. Thus, Proverbs 22:6 speaks of a training up that is a consecration to God, not to an ability to lean how to farm or to engage in building construction. That training in “his way” (wóø;k√råd) is in “the way that he should go” in the sense of the way of holiness, rather than in some morally neutral way or way of professional skills, is likewise evident from a consideration of the entire verse. Every time the verb “depart” (rws) in Proverbs 22:6b is found in the book of Proverbs, it is related to spiritual or ethical departing, never to a morally neutral departing (Proverbs 3:7; 4:24, 27; 5:7; 9:4, 16; 11:22; 13:14, 19; 14:16, 27; 15:24; 16:6, 17; 22:6; 27:22; 28:9). The righteous “depart from evil” (3:7; 13:19; 14:16; 16:6, 17) and “from the snares of death” (13:14; 14:27) and “from hell” (Proverbs 15:24) and “depart not” from righteousness (5:7). Furthermore, every time the verb “depart” controls a clause with the word “way” (JK®r®;d) in Scripture the departure relates to spiritual and ethical matters (Exodus 32:8; Deuteronomy 9:12, 16; 11:28; 31:29; Judges 2:17; Psalm 119:29; Isaiah 30:11; Lamentations 3:11; Malachi 2:8; cf. Job 21:14; 34:27; Proverbs 16:17). Thus, the “way” from which the child that has been trained up and consecrated to Jehovah will not depart is the way of holiness and spiritual righteousness, the way of the faithful people of God.
[vi] Proverbs 22:6; 1 Kings 22:43; 2 Kings 22:2; 2 Chronicles 20:32; 34:2 all contain the verb “depart” (rws) negated with the same particle (aøl) connected to the verb with a maqqef, and the same word “way” (JK®r®;d) as in Proverbs 22:6. The texts allude to each other.
[vii] Note that the failure of 1 Kings 22:43b is not one of Jehoshaphat’s personal piety, but took place because “as yet the people had not prepared their hearts unto the God of their fathers” (2 Chronicles 20:33).
[viii] Compare the positive instances of not departing from righteousness in 2 Kings 18:6; 27:2; and the instances of not departing from evil in 2 Kings 3:3; 10:29, 31; 13:2, 6, 11; 14:24; 15:18, 24, 28; 17:22.
[ix] Technically, the imperfect form of rws when the verb is not conveying an imperatival force or some idea other than a simple affirmation about the future and is not connected to a waw-conversive, or when in the perfect tense rws refers to a simple future idea because of the context and the presence of waw-conversive.
[x] That is, a text such as Judges 9:29 does not count. Gaal the son of Ebed is not infallibly faithful in his promises—but Jehovah is. Similar instances to Judges 9:29, where a man is making an affirmation about the future, appear in Judges 20:8; Job 15:30; 27:5.
[xi] The forty verses in the category in question are: Genesis 49:10; Exodus 8:11; 23:25; 33:23; Deuteronomy 2:27; 7:4, 15; 31:29; Judges 9:29; 16:17; 1 Samuel 17:46; 2 Samuel 7:15; 12:10; 2 Kings 23:27; Is 3:18; 5:5; 10:27; 11:13; 14:25; 25:8; 31:2; Jeremiah 32:40; Ezekiel 11:18–19; 16:42; 23:25; 26:16; 36:26; Hosea 2:17; Amos 6:7; Zephaniah 3:11; Zechariah 9:7; Job 34:20; Proverbs 22:6; 27:22; Daniel 11:31; 12:11; 1 Chronicles 17:13; 2 Chronicles 30:9; 33:8. Isaiah 18:5 might also fit. None of these texts can be proven to be anything less than a promise, while the overwhelming majority are clearly infallibly certain promises. The burden of proof is on the advocate of the view that Proverbs 22:6 is merely a principle that will fail at times to find a text where his weakened sense of the verb in question unquestionably appears. His position fails to meet that burden of proof. Even if texts where the verb was a principle instead of a promise appeared in the Bible—and there are no clear instances—the person who would deny that Proverbs 22:6 is a promise would need to prove that the “principle” sense is not just found somewhere in the Bible, but is the actual idea in Proverbs 22:6, against the overwhelming majority of instances where the verb conveys an actual promise—and this also cannot be done.
It should also be noted that, while the position that Proverbs 22:6 is a promise is not dependent on the view that there are no statements in Proverbs that are simply principles, not promises, the idea that the inspired proverbs are generally principles which have exceptions, rather than promises, is more easily stated than proven. A text such as Proverbs 3:1-2 could indeed be a promise to a son of Solomon, the theocratic head of the theocratic nation of Israel. The Old Testament dynamic of partial and ultimate fulfillment of promises, so that all the godly will not just live long lives but live forever and inherit the Millenial earth in undisturbed peace and prosperity, should also be kept in mind when interpreting Proverbs.
[xii] It is outside of the scope of this analysis to deal with those who deny that lwøaVv actually does refer, with some frequency, to torment in hell, arguing instead that in Scripture Sheol refers only to the grave. It will merely be noted how incredibly inane it would be, if “hell” were merely the grave, to warn: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:17), since then Psalm 9:17 could with equal accuracy have stated, “The righteous shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that remember God,” since all the godly people of David’s day went to the grave as did the wicked. It is also beyond credulity to believe that when David penned Psalm 86:13 (“For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell.”) he was not rejoicing that God’s mercy had saved him from torment in hell fire, but he was looking forward to being buried in a shallow grave rather than a deep one.
[xiii] For example, Proverbs 29:15 guarantees that the rod and reproof will give wisdom, and thus a properly disciplined and trained child will not be a fool, but a wise man, which requires regeneration and a walk with God. Proverbs 22:15 promises that a properly disciplined child will not have foolishness near to him, and so he will not be an ungodly man, the fool of the book of Proverbs. Note also Proverbs 20:7.
[xiv] 1 Timothy and Titus do not affirm that every pastor must be married and have children—the chief Shepherd was unmarried (1 Peter 5:4). A pastor whose wife and children are martyred in persecution is not instantly disqualified from his office. Rather, the pastoral epistles teach that elders with a family must have a godly household.
[xv] If the office of the deacon requires a godly family (1 Timothy 3:12), how much the more must evangelists, church planters at home and abroad, and other ministers, have a godly family to be qualified for office?
[xvi] touv i˙di÷ou oi¶kou kalw◊ß proiœsta¿menon, te÷kna e¶conta e˙n uJpotaghØv meta» pa¿shß semno/thtoß (ei˙ de÷ tiß touv i˙di÷ou oi¶kou prosthvnai oujk oi•de, pw◊ß e˙kklhsi÷aß Qeouv e˙pimelh/setai);
[xvii] te÷kna e¶cwn pista¿, mh\ e˙n kathgori÷aˆ aÓswti÷aß h£ aÓnupo/takta.
[xviii] Note the specific connection of the requirement of faithful children and blamelessness in Titus 1:6-7; the bishop must have faithful children, “for” (ga¿r) he must be blameless.
[xix] The requirement that the minister have te÷kna . . . pista¿, “faithful children,” includes the fact that their children must be believers, not unsaved people, but it is not limited to belief—backslidden and unfaithful regenerate children also disqualify the minister, for such are certainly able to be “accused of riot” and are “unruly” (Titus 1:6) and are not in “subjection with all gravity” and well “rule[d]” (1 Timothy 3:4-5). The other references to pisto/ß in Titus signify “faithful,” not simply “believing” (1:9; 3:8). Note also that in the very large majority of the uses of pisto/ß by Paul in syntactical constructions similar to that in Titus 1:6, the word means “faithful”; out of 22 uses (1 Corinthians 1:9; 4:2, 17; 10:13; 2 Corinthians 1:18; Colossians 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:24; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 1 Timothy 1:12, 15; 3:1, 11; 4:9; 6:2; 2 Timothy 2:11, 13; Titus 1:6, 9; 3:8; Hebrews 3:5; 10:23; 11:11), only one possibly means simply “believing” (1 Timothy 6:2), and even this instance could reasonably be viewed as “faithful.” Likewise, either 90% or 100% (depending, again, on 1 Timothy 6:2) of the uses of pisto/ß in the accusative case, as it is in Titus 1:6, signify “faithful” (Acts 13:34; 16:15; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Timothy 1:12; 3:11; 6:2; Titus 1:6; Hebrews 3:2; 11:11; 3 John 5). In the very close linguistic parallel to Titus 1:6 in 1 Corinthians 4:17, employing both pisto/ß and te÷knon, “faithful” is the idea conveyed. The broader use of pisto/ß in the New Testament supports the truth established by the immediate context of Titus 1:6 that the children of overseers, elders, or pastors must be not only regenerate but also obedient. Furthermore, Scripture teaches that people are to treat those who are rebellious and backslidden, and consequently subject to church discipline, as heathen men and publicans (Matthew 18:15-20), so children who are riotous and unruly are to be treated as unregenerate persons, not as true believers, for at least as long as they remain in their rebellious state.
[xx] Ezekiel 18:20; Deuteronomy 24:16, and a plethora of other Biblical texts prove that each individual is responsible before God for his own sin. Samuel’s sons were responsible for making themselves vile, and Samuel was responsible for not restraining them (1 Samuel 3:13; the translation “restrain” for h™DhIk in the Authorized Version is correct: “restrain them. Hebrew kihâ bām. BDB, KB give ‘rebuke’ as the meaning of kihâ. But this cannot be right; Eli did rebuke his sons (2:22–25).” Pg. 98, 1 Samuel, P. K. McCarter, Jr. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Parents will be held responsible before God for their sins in bad parenting, and children will be responsible for the personal sins they commit in becoming ungodly and rebellious, even though those sins would not have been committed had their parents obeyed Proverbs 22:6 and not failed in their parenting. The fact that parents do not bear the iniquities of their children, but are held accountable for their own sins in raising their children, is completely consistent with the view that God promises a godly seed to parents that raise their children properly; only improper hermeneutics or illogic would view the two propositions as in conflict.
[xxi] The clauses te÷kna e¶cwn pista¿ (“having faithful children,” Titus 1:6) and touv i˙di÷ou oi¶kou kalw◊ß proiœsta¿menon, te÷kna e¶conta e˙n uJpotaghØv meta» pa¿shß semno/thtoß (“one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity,” 1 Timothy 3:4) are adjectival, describing the elder or bishop in the same way that simple adjectives such as “blameless” (aÓne÷gklhtoß) do.
[xxii] The qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are not limited to the time that the children are in their parents’ house. The qualification is not limited to “young children,” “infants,” or the like; it simply says that the elder’s “children” must be walking in the way of holiness, without any limitation as to age. As long as the elder is a parent and his children are his children—that is, for the entire course of their lives—so long do the requirements of 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and Titus 1:6 last, even as in the Old Testament Samuel was responsible when his adult, married sons made themselves vile (1 Samuel 3:13). The word employed for “children” in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, te÷knon, is employed in Scripture for those who are descended from their parents, without regard to age, and without a limitation to children still at home (cf. Matthew 23:37; 27:25; Luke 13:34; 19:44; Romans 9:8; Galatians 4:25). It is used in Acts 13:33 for the apostle Paul and for other “men of Israel” (Acts 13:16) for “men and brethren” (Acts 13:26), and even for one who grows up, becomes rich, rules a wealthy household, grows older, and is already dead (Luke 16:25). Furthermore, it is easy to hide the rebellion of children when they are very young and still at home; it is when they are older and their rebellion becomes obvious that parenting failures become public. It is entirely unreasonable to say that as soon as a pastor’s children become rebellious enough to reject his authority, run away from home, and totally give themselves to the world, the requirement of his office to have a godly seed comes to an end—and certainly it is very difficult to argue that a man with such children is “blameless” in his parenting (Titus 1:6-7).
[xxiii] The exegetical analysis in this composition is sufficient to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that God has promised that properly trained children will be saved and live for God. Speculation about how such certainty is consistent with the freedom of the will, Divine sovereignty, and other such high and lofty topics may be worth pondering, but they do not determine what Proverbs 22:6 or any other passage of Scripture means. Far less does personal experience or the limited, fallible evaluation of the lives and families of other people determine the proper interpretation of Scripture. Whatever the Bible teaches is true, whether frail and finite men can figure out how to fit it into systems of speculative philosophy or not—and whether or not God’s infallible revealed truth matches the extremely limited and easily mistaken personal observations of mortal creatures has no bearing whatsoever upon proper Biblical interpretation.
One might object that Isaiah 1:2 proves that Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise; God was a perfect Father to Israel, but the nation rebelled. Similarly, Luke 3:38 reads, “Adam, which was the son of God” (touv ∆Ada¿m, touv Qeouv), so Adam was God’s son, but he rebelled. However, neither passage proves Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise. There are various senses in which God is Father. He is eternally Father by nature of His eternal Son; He is the adopted Father of believers. He is Father to the nation of Israel as His adopted national people. One cannot assume that because God acts as Father to a nation, all aspects of literal human parenting are directly applicable or directly transfer, even apart from considerations such as the fact that true spiritual Israel will indeed be faithful and the unconverted Israelites are not reckoned as being God’s true nation or children. God’s relationship to Israel is represented in Scripture with many metaphors, from husband/wife (Jeremiah 31:32), to farmer/vineyard (Isaiah 5), to father/son (Isaiah 1:2), to suzerein/vassal (Deuteronomy), to eagle/eaglet (Deuteronomy 32:11), and so on. In 1 Timothy 3:4-5, the overseer must have a faithful family or he is disqualified, but one would hardly argue that since national Israel is represented as an adulterous harlot at one point (Ezekiel 16:32-35) God has failed as an overseer, and so He is not qualified to oversee the nation and must cede His sovereignty. Likewise, it would be very poor hermeneutics to ignore the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and allow an overseer to have a wife who is an adulterous harlot because of the family metaphor in Ezekiel 16. Proverbs 22:6 is a promise to human parents concerning their literal progeny, and the literal interpretation of the passage cannot be set aside because of one of the many metaphors God employs of His relationship with Israel. Similarly, even apart from the fact that Adam was converted and entered the kingdom of God as one of His servants (Genesis 3:15, 20), God’s position as Creator over Adam as His created “son” is clearly categorically distinct from the situation envisaged in Proverbs 22:6. If the fact that God calls Adam His created “son” means that Proverbs 22:6 cannot be a promise to human fathers concerning their literal offspring, one would have to argue also, based on Luke 3:38, that it is a priori impossible that God could even possibly make a promise to human fathers that their children would turn out right in this world without contradicting His own nature. Any verse that would seem to be such a promise would have to be be re-interpreted because of God’s creative act over the world and the use of the word “son” in Luke. Clearly, Luke 3:38 does not address the same situation as Proverbs 22:6, and the Lukan text does not at all change the natural, grammatical-historical interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 as a promise.