This proverb sets out two stages in the process of godly child rearing: first, the method, “Train up a child in the way he should go”; and second, the result, “when he is old he will not depart from it.”
The method involves three parts:
The Concept of Training – “Train up.” This does not denote corporal punishment but rather includes three ideas: Dedication—this is the consistent meaning of the word in its other OT occurrences (Deut. 20:5; 1 Kin. 8:63; 2 Chr. 7:5). Child training must begin with dedication of the child to God; the parent must realize that the child belongs exclusively to God and is given to the parent only as a stewardship. Instruction—this is the meaning of this word as it is used in the Jewish writings; the parents are to instruct or cause their children to learn everything essential in pleasing God. Motivation—this is the meaning of the word in Arabic, as it is used to describe the action of a midwife who stimulates the palate of the newborn babe so it will take nourishment. Parents are to create a taste or desire within the child so that he is internally motivated (rather than externally compelled) to do what God wants him to do.
The Recipient of Training – “a child.” This is one of seven Hebrew words translated by the English word “child” and would better be translated by our word “dependent.” As long as the child is dependent on his parents he is to be the recipient of training, regardless of his age.
The Content of the Training – “in the way that he should go.” The thought is that at each stage of development the parents or guardians are to dedicate, instruct, and motivate the child to do what God evidently has best equipped the child to do for Him. This is graphically illustrated by Joshua when he said, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). Proverbs are wisdom statements: general truths about the most important issues of life. If God’s process has been followed, the desired results usually occur. A child can reject the training of godly parents, but usually godly parenting results in godly adult offspring. The result includes the time of realization—“when he is old”—this is best understood as being parallel with “a child,” hence, “when he is independent,” that is, no longer economically dependent upon parents, referring to the time when the child leaves the parents’ home to establish another home. The result includes the nature of realization—“he will not depart from it.” Persistent, careful, godly parenting produces adult children whose Christian faith and commitment are unwavering.
This article is an excerpt from the NKJV, Open Bible.
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