I was discussing Proverbs 22:6 with a friend last Sunday. While growing up, I typically had heard the verse preached to say that if Christian parents give their children a proper Christian upbringing, they will never stray from it — or if they should happen to stray from it, they will certainly return, on the basis of this verse.
I have also seen the verse interpreted (e.g., here and here) to the effect that parents ought to be careful to consider the strengths and interests of their children and cultivate them in order to ensure that their child realizes his full potential. Raising a child this way certainly seems common-sensical, but the second half of the verse doesn’t seem to fit well with this understanding of the first half. One would expect something about the child realizing his full potential or having increased opportunities in life or the like, but retaining one’s interests and strengths at the end of one’s life would seem to be natural whether one’s parents carefully cultivate such or not.
Others (such as Keil and Delitzsch) understand the verse to teach that training according to the “way” of a child is equivalent to using methods of training which are suitable to a younger person. But “way” in Proverbs seems to have more to do with morality than methods.
Another friend of mine, Greg Stiekes, preached on this passage some time ago in my hearing, and espoused an interpretation of it which I had never heard before. But upon studying the text as a result of that sermon, I find myself embracing the same interpretation. (I should note that a summary of the position is found in Practico and Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew, at the end of chapter 23 (284-85 in my edition); I have drawn some of the material below from that summary.)
Some points which moved me from what I had previously thought the verse taught:
1) There is a conjunction between the two halves of the verse which seems to be best translated “even” : “Even when he is old . . .” (NAS). This would seem to indicate a continuance in the way from which the child will not depart throughout the child’s life, not a falling away from and then a return to it.
2) Major translations typically translate part of the verse as “in the way he should go” (e.g., KJV, NAS, ESV, NIV), but this is saying more than the text says. The text merely says “his way,” and the same construction is typically translated thus elsewhere.
3) And in Proverbs, a person’s “way,” as a rule, refers to the way they do go, not the way they should go (although for the righteous, the two are equivalent).
Quite simply, what we end up with is a verse that says “Train up a child in his way, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
In Proverbs, it is axiomatic that there are two ways: a good way and a bad way. The good way is the way of life and godliness and the wise (e.g., Pro 2:20-21; 10:17; 12:26), and the bad way is the way of death and sin and the fool (e.g., Pro 2:12-15; 9:6; 15:9). It also seems clear that Proverbs typically views young people (including children) as simple/naive ones (note the parallelism in Pro 1:4 and 7:7), who if left to themselves follow the bad way (note Pro 22:5; 29:15); this is why discipline is necessary for children.
When Proverbs 22:6 speaks of a child’s “way,” then, the context of Proverbs seems to indicate that it ought not to be understood as something positive.
What the verse seems to be teaching, then, is that as a general rule (for this is, after all, a proverb), when a child is left to his own ways, those ways will be reinforced (not corrected) and even when the child is old, he will continue in those ways.
It might be objected, however, that Proverbs 22:6 is a command. Why would Scripture command parents to allow their children to live as they wish? The answer, of course, is that this verse is couched as a command for rhetorical effect. A similar “command” is found in 19:27: “Cease to hear instuction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.” Proverbs 22:6 ought to be understood as an implicit “if-then” statement, not an encourgement to parents to let their children live their own way.
Of course, in the end, if my understanding of Proverbs 22:6 is correct, it strikes at the same truth as the traditional understanding — from the opposite direction. If it is a general truth that a child “trained up” in his own way will not depart from it, then it may also be taken as a general truth that a child trained up in the way of righteousness will continue on in that way as well. The broader lesson in either interpretation seems to be that the initial training (“train up” is elsewhere typically translated with “dedicate” or the like, and has the nuance of beginning of something — in this case, a person’s life) which children receive will have a very strong influence on the rest of their life.
This brings up another point — an objection which has been lodged against both the traditional interpretation and the one here espoused. It is pointed out that there are certainly children who are brought up according to their own way, who later walk in godliness. Conversely, there are also children who are brought up by godly parents, who later cast away their upbringing in righteousness. (In fact, the “children” which God himself brought up later rebelled against him — see Isa. 1:2.)
People who understand Proverbs as always setting forth statements and promises which brook no exception may find their faith subtly weakened when a statement in Proverbs just doesn’t seem to hold true in a particular situation. In the case of Proverbs 22:6, God-fearing parents with a child who has left his godly heritage might on the one hand become convinced of their failure as parents — or on the other hand, might even question the integrity of Scripture.
The response, of course, is to note that Proverbs contains proverbs — general statements, which, all other things being equal, hold true. It seems generally true that children raised by God-fearing parents will follow the faith of their parents. Likewise, it seems generally true that children left to their own way, and not trained in the way of righteousness, will default to that way in their lives.
In addition, of course, while a child left to his own devices will generally continue in that way, God can and does providentially intervene in the lives of such people in order to clearly demonstrate the life-changing power of the gospel.
In my view, then, handling the issue of genre properly is more significant than choosing “his (own) way” over “he way he should go.”