Proverbs 22:6 – is it a promise, or a command, or a description of a general trend in human behavior?
James J. S. Johnson, JD, ThD
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).
What does that verse look like under a “Hebrew microscope”? Are there any details, in the Hebrew, that can clarify our understanding of this amazing verse?
For starters, consider whether the verbs involved (i.e., in Proverbs 22:6) are descriptive or imperative: is the verse telling us what to do, or is the verse describing to us how life works, or both?
The verb translated “train up” is the same verb that the noun “Hanukkah” is derived from – the root verb (ḥanak) means to “dedicate”. In this verse it is an imperative (in fact, the only imperative form of ḥanak in the Bible), commanding us what to do – it is not a descriptive verb, describing what occurs. Specifically, this command is a 2nd person masculine qal imperative verb, effectively indicating that the verse is a command directed at the child’s father. (More on the importance of that to follow.) So the child’s father is hereby commanded to “dedicate” the child in some way.
But in, or into, what “way” — is the child to be dedicated? In English translation the next verb is “go” but there is no such verb in the Hebrew text! Actually, the English phrase “way he should go” is a translation of one Hebrew word, pî (pronounced “pea”, like the small round green vegetable), as if pî was a noun meaning “way-he-should-go”. The noun pî is a construct form of the Hebrew noun peh (usually translated “mouth”), sometimes translated “entry” or “opening” – the idea being a mouth-like entrance to something, such as the earth’s “mouth” (Genesis 4:11; Numbers 16:30 & 16:32) or the “mouth” of a grain-sack (Genesis 42:27; 43:12; 43:21; etc.).
In this context (i.e., in Proverbs 22:6), the construct noun pî is directly linked to a form of the noun derek (“way”, i.e., pathway) that immediately follows pî in that sentence, in what is called a construct-absolute relationship. (Specifically the noun derek, meaning “way”, has a possessive pronoun suffix attached, producing the word darkô to convert the noun’s meaning to “his way”.) The meaning of these 2 nouns, as a noun coupling unit, is that the first noun (pî) is a “construct” noun, linked to the second noun (darkô), which is the “absolute” noun. In Hebrew grammar, a construct noun is built onto (i.e., appended or attached to) an absolute noun, so the idea is that the construct noun belongs to the absolute noun. An illustration of how pî is the construct form of the noun peh (meaning “mouth” or entry) occurs in Genesis 29:2-3, where the phrase “well’s mouth” is a translation of pî-habeêr (i.e., “mouth of the well”). Thus, the literal translation of the construct-absolute noun coupling pî-darkô (in Proverbs 22:6) is “mouth of his pathway”, i.e., the entrance of his path (in life) – i.e., whichever of the two destinies that the child takes in life.
Another important observation, to avoid the error of “adding to the Word”, when analyzing the absolute noun darkô, is to recognize that the verse does not specify what is “his way”, i.e., which pathway (of the child) is the one that the child’s parent is being told to dedicate (and thus direct) his child into. (Answering that question must involve other Scriptures.)
The next verb in the verse is translated “he is old”; it is a form of the Hebrew verb zakên (“to age”, i.e., to be or to become old, as used in Genesis 18:12-13; 19:31; 24:1; 27:1-2; Proverbs 23:22; etc.). Specifically, however, this verse uses a hiphîl imperfect form of zakên, i.e., a causative form that denotes action that is not completed – he is causing oldness. (The only other instance in Scripture, of a hiphîl imperfect use of zakên, is Job 14:8, which refers to the roots of a chopped-down tree aging and dying.) In other words, this use of zakên indicates the scenario of the child causing oldness, i.e., making old – but who is becoming old, the child or the parent (or both)?
The third (and last) verb in this verse, which is qualified by a negative (“not”), is translated “depart”, so combining the negative to the verb produces the phrase “not depart”. The root verb here is sûr, usually translated “to depart” (e.g., Numbers 12:10; 2nd Samuel 12:10) or “to turn aside” (e.g., Exodus 3:4; Judges 14:8; Ruth 4:1; 1st Kings 20:39). The action described (when the verb sûr is used) is turning aside, turning away, changing direction to avoid someone or something. So the idea here is that the time will come when the child will not “turn aside” from “his way” in life. (But, we wonder, what is “his way” that the child will eventually not “turn aside” from?)
But what is the relationship between the action of dedicating (a child) and the outcome of that child’s life? The linking particles are 2 Hebrew words, gam kî (translated in KJV as “and when”). The word gam is a conjunctive particle, often translated “and” or “again” or “also”. It is the second particle (kî) that is trickier to translate, because it can mean “because”, “in order that”, “when”, etc., depending on the words and phrases that contextualize it. To get the context it is necessary to look at whatever contiguous verse has a parallel meaning, because Proverbs uses Hebrew poetry format, and that involves message parallelism — sometimes identifying similarities, sometimes identifying contrasts.
(For more on that Hebrew grammar concept, consult “Genesis is History, Not Poetry” http://www.icr.org/article/genesis-history-poetry-exposing-hidden — as well as the analysis of Psalm 42:1-2 within http://www.icr.org/article/hart-for-god — and the analysis of Proverbs 26:4-5 within http://www.icr.org/article/how-do-we-answer-fools .)
Therefore, as a logic-linked couplet, consider the parallel messages of Proverbs 22:5-6, as if the pair were “twins”, providing together a linked unit of meaning:
5 Thorns and snares are in the way of the froward; he that doth keep his soul shall be far from them. 6 Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Notice various parallelism themes that link these two verses. Verse 5 refers to the soul-keeping person as avoiding the “thorns and snares” that are “in the way”. As a contrast, Verse 6 refers to the child not avoiding “his way” after aging occurs. In order to understand Verse 6 we need to understand what Verse 5 is saying, because the meaning of both is discerned by understanding their messages as a package, a unit of wisdom about living life.
Accordingly, Verse 5 defines 2 different pathways in life – the way of the “froward” and the way of one who “keeps his soul”. These are 2 basic choices in life. These 2 pathways can be compared to the 2 paths mentioned in Psalm 1 (q.v.), which are really the same 2 pathways mentioned by the Lord Jesus Christ, when He defined that choice between the “strait gate” and the “broad way”:
13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat; 14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Quoting Matthew 7:13-14.)
Therefore, the “froward” is unlike the one who “keeps his soul”. The “froward” person will live life with “thorns and snares”, but not so the one who “keeps” (i.e., guards) his soul. Matthew 7:13-14, like Proverbs 22:5, is a general description of universal realities regarding human destinies. It is upon this description, about how human life works, that Verse 6 follows.
In effect, Verse 5 reminds the reader that human destinies are the built-in result of cause-and-effect dynamics: namely, a froward personality has a thorns-and-snares life to look forward to; however, a soul-guarding personality will avoid living a life dominated by thorns and snares. These twin principles are a framework upon which Verse 6 builds, adding a practical application. Unlike Verse 5, which is descriptive only, Verse 6 is “dominated” by an imperative verb – the command to “dedicate” a child to the entrance of “his way”. But Verse 6 does not subtract the message of Verse 5!
Rather, the reality of what Verse 5 describes should motivate the parent (who is assumed by the 2nd person masculine singular in Verse 6, as Verse 6’s intended audience) to “dedicate” the child, because the child’s destiny alternatives are already known from Verse 5. Of course, only the child can choose – from the age of moral accountability onward – whether he (or she) will be “froward” or “soul-guarding” in character. The parent can (and should) provide early guidance, such as boundaries and consequences, to teach the child about these alternative destinies. This is leading the child unto the entrance of “his way”.
The parent’s duty is to lead the child to the choice, with sufficient training (and explanations) to ensure that the child’s choice is an informed decision. Yet having done so, the choice made (and thus the life chosen) by the child is still “his way” – not the parent’s way. Thus, the (well-informed) choice — about how to live life, etc. – is and remains the child’s choice, not the parent’s! Personal moral accountability before God is the essential key to understanding Proverbs 22:6, because Proverbs 22:5 is the very foundation whereupon Proverbs 22:6 provides a parental imperative.
And what about the aging aspect of Proverbs 22:6? Recall that it uses a causative verb form (of zakên) that also appears in Job 14:8. Consider how trees might “make a comeback” in life, if the root system obtains water at the right time.
7For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. 8 Though the root thereof wax old [same form of zakên as appears in Proverbs 22:6] in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; 9 yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. (Quoting Job 14:7-9.)
Thus, just as a chopped-down tree’s root system can again revive, producing above-ground maturity (aging, growing, developing) in a tree, the child’s pathway through life can experience a revival, using his own parentally-provided “root system” to support a “comeback” in life, so long as the right kind of spiritual “water” (i.e., the “water of life – see John 7:37-39) is obtained (i.e., accepted by the spiritually accountable child) at the right time.
(One way or another, God is honored, ultimately, in the child’s life – either by displaying God’s glory in redemption — or by showing His glory in judgment.)
Bottom line: parents can (and should) lead their children to “water” (escorting them to the right “doorway” for a “soul-guarded” life), but parents can’t make those children “drink”. However, each child will choose his (or her) own “way” in life, and time will tell what the child is really rooted to, sooner or later.
The above analysis may not clear up all of the questions that parents have about Proverbs 22:6, but hopefully it helps. ><> JJSJ email@example.com