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Train Up a Child and Everything Is Your Fault, Part 3: Is Proverbs 22:6 a Promise?

??????????In two previous posts[1] I’ve been discussing Proverbs 22:6 and the translation issues involved in what seems a rather ambiguous central phrase, “upon the mouth of his way” which seems best when translated “according to his way.” We considered how only two of the six suggested interpretations of this proverb provide a reasonable antecedent for the final pronoun in the proverb, demanding that “upon the mouth of his way” represent a specific path, not a method of training, and not a timing of training.

This left us with two potential interpretations. Train up a child in the way he should go… or Train up a child in his own fool path.

We suggested that both represented well developed themes in Proverbs and that both provided meaningful enrichment when considered within the bounds of the genre (i.e. literary forms and rules) of Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature as a whole.

But that’s the problem, really. Isn’t it? The real problem is not which of these two perpetual realities was the designed focus of this proverb, but what do we do with it when we don’t understand the real nature of Proverbs. So let’s discuss that.

Proverbs are NOT divine promises. In wisdom literature, there is no guarantee about what life brings you. This is the whole point of the book of Job, and forms a running theme in Ecclesiastes.

In the biblical world, Wisdom is both a genre and a concept.

As a Genre, Wisdom concerns the literary structures that appear in particular books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Some Psalms) dedicated to disclosing the path to a successful life before God in this world. Wisdom Literature is prescriptive and descriptive literature which instructs in all areas of life, preparing people to face the world, to avoid its perils and to travel its sure ground with a sense of purposeful existence before God and with men.

As a concept, Wisdom concerns a way of understanding reality as God constructed it and as men have perverted it.

Wisdom is cosmological. God has woven into the world order what the Egyptians called Ma’at—The cosmic and social order regulating all existence, the pulse of goodness and rightness imbued with inherent rewards and punishments. H. D. Preuss has, thus, defined Wisdom Theology as “Thoughts about order.” This type of wisdom is a created thing, and it behooves humans to discover the nature of it and to live in synch with it rather than at odds with it.

The first time I ever got into a wave pool, I almost drowned. Somehow, when the wave went up, I stayed at the bottom of the pool. As I struggled hard to break the surface, the bottom fell out and I crashed into the cement bottom. As I lay crumpled and in pain, the wave went up again, leaving me at the bottom. I went through this cycle several times. Thankfully, I eventually got myself straight. I started riding the wave up and down going with the pulse not against it. It was a lot of fun after that.

This is the essence of the pulse of wisdom woven into the fabric of the world. Things work a certain way and when you live a life that goes with the pulse of “the way of things” you live a better life than if you spend your days fumbling about doing as you please fighting “the way of things.”

Thus, Wisdom is also anthropological. Wisdom is the human quest to master life by discerning the Principles of Ma’at and getting in synch with them.

Wisdom speaks of what ought to be, but deals with what is. Wisdom literature looks life in the face and helps the young to make their way through it as easily and honestly as possible, avoiding those pitfalls and practicing those general principles which can destroy or else establish a person’s life under the sun. A person with wisdom knows how the world works and knows how to accomplish particular ends within it. One with wisdom sees the end from the beginning.

Thus, Wisdom sayings ARE NOT Divine Promises.

Wisdom involves a keen observation of the cause-effect structures inherent in the world, tracing out rewards and punishments inherent in particular actions. This world and its natural laws, however, are the product of the Divine One who has revealed Himself and His intentions through his creation in both sacred narrative AND the observable world. In Wisdom Tradition, therefore, a tension emerges over the freedom of YHWH, the unsearchableness of wisdom and the frequent reversal of fortunes.

Ecclesiastes 8:14 notes, “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.”

Indeed “Ma’at” often fails to punish and reward. Thus, in biblical wisdom traditions, Wisdom comes to be embodied in the fear of YHWH…where ultimate justice is eschatological and eternal.

Proverbs 22:6, poses some interpretive puzzles for us. “Train up a child according to his way and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

However we solve this puzzle in our own hearts, we must realize that it is NOT God’s personal promise to you that if you only raise your child right, all will be well, nor that there is no hope if you failed to keep your child from following his or her own foolish path.

Adam and Eve sinned in a perfect world with a perfect Father.

Children are human beings. Each is a little Adam or Eve. Each makes choices, has external pressures, internal pressures, and, sometimes, physiological issues that provide an environment far less perfect than Eden in which he or she makes these choices.

The best that wisdom literature will offer us is a pattern of likely success. You do better for your children when you deal with their folly, teach and discipline them in the fear of the LORD, and create the best possible environment for their upbringing. But the truth is that things happen, kids make mistakes, and they make choices for themselves as they mature. They are not automatons. They are not programmable computers.

I’ve seen homes where all the children save one grew up to be faithful Christians praising their upbringing. To be honest, however, in keeping my sense of this proverb, I’ve seen a lot more parents scratching their heads saying, “Where did we go wrong?” while, I—a profoundly imperfect parent open to the very same accusation—look on thinking… “They are exactly what you trained them to be.”

[1] “Train Up a Child and Everything Is Your Fault Part 1: Translation Issues in Proverbs 22:6” and Train Up a Child and Everything Is Your Fault, Part 2: What is the way of the Child?

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