Ryle’s interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 matches with the way most English translations and most English readers understand this verse. Nevertheless, several scholars have questioned this interpretation and offered various alternatives. I’m not going to examine all the alternatives here, although I will mention some as we work through the text. I simply intend to show why I believe that the common interpretation is the correct one.
This proverb comes near the end of the major section of the book of Proverbs, 10:1-22:16. In this section of the book most of the proverbs are in the form of a saying. A saying in Scripture is basically a sentence with two parallel lines that expresses a general truth about life. It does not give a command or instruction directly; rather, it shows the reader a general truth about life that the reader must take into consideration if he is to live wisely and righteously. It is a self-contained statement with little connection to its context. Here are a couple examples.
Line 1: A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
Line 2: and favor is better than silver or gold. (Prov 22:1)
Line 1: The rich and the poor meet together;
Line 2: the Lord is the maker of them all. (Prov 22:2)
Proverbs 22:6, however, is not a saying, although it is a one sentence statement of general truth. It is an admonition. The difference between the two is that the admonition gives a command. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child.” This is an imperative, a command. This text is not informing us of something as much as it is instructing us to do something. It is not descriptive but prescriptive.
Yet like a saying, Proverbs 22:6 is composed of two parallel lines or clauses.
Line 1: Train up a child in the way he should go;
Line 2: even when he is old he will not depart from it.
It is important that we pay attention to the relationship between these clauses. The second clause is a consequence of the first clause. This means that whatever the first clause is telling us to do, the result of doing it is that “when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Unfortunately, the meaning of the first clause is what scholars squabble about. There are basically three questions that need to be answered. (1) What does the term “train” mean? (2) What does “child” refer to? (3) What does “in the way he should go” mean?
1. What does the term “train” mean? The Hebrew verb khanak is used five times in the OT. Twice it refers to “dedicating” or “initiating” a house (Deut 20:5), and twice it refers to “dedicating” the temple (1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chron 7:5). Based upon this information and the usage of the cognate noun, some suggest that “train up” would be better translated as “dedicate/initiate.” Thus the verse would not be talking about child training, but about initiating.
However, three things indicate that “train up” is indeed a proper understanding. First, the adjective form of khanak does mean “trained, tried, or experienced,” so it is not out of the question to see khanak as indicating some kind of training. Hebrew lexicons routinely gloss khanak in Proverbs 22:6 as “to train up.” Second, this is the only use of khanak connected with a personal object (using the preposition le). It is different than dedicating or beginning to use an inanimate object like a building. Third, and most importantly, the idea of dedicating/initiating a child cannot sustain the result mentioned in the second clause. How does an act of dedicating/initiating a youth according to his way result in him never departing from that way? The idea of “training” fits much better.
2. Some scholars also take issue with the traditional interpretation of the term “child.” They contend that the “child” mentioned here is actually a young man. Therefore, they say, the verse is not talking about how we deal with children, but how we initiate a young man into adult status and responsibilities. There is some merit to this consideration. The Hebrew word is na’ar, which is used in the OT of a wide range of ages: infant (Ex 2:6), weaned child (1 Sam 1:24), young child (Jer 1:6), lad (Gen 22:12), adolescent (Gen 37:2), young man of marriageable age (Gen 34:19), etc. No married person is ever called a na’ar. But the term is also used of “servants” (e.g. Gen 14:24; 18:7; Judg 8:20; 1 Sam 21:5-6). It may focus more on the status of the person than on the age, per se.
In the end, however, I do not believe that this objection is all that significant. Given the command to “train up,” it really makes little difference to the interpretation of this verse if we are talking about a little baby or college student. Na’ar as used in Proverbs 22:6 could refer to any young person still in the formative years of life, still under the direction or tutelage of another, which would be from birth up to young adulthood. The command is for that young person to be trained. Those who object err in trying to force a narrower meaning on the term when the context does not require it.
3. Perhaps the most challenging question of all is what “in the way he should go” means. The phrase could be translated, “according to his way.” But what is “his way”? Two common views among recent commentators and preachers are that it means that a child should be trained (1) according to his personal natural inclinations, or (2) according to the nature of youth in general. The first view, although it sounds plausible to us in our psychologically oriented society, is totally foreign to the perspective of Proverbs as a whole. It is commonly preached, but few scholars accept it.
The second view has more to commend it. It understands the verse to mean, “Train a child in a manner befitting a child…[O]ne should train a child using vocabulary, concepts, and illustrations a child can understand” (Duane Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 188). I doubt that anyone would disagree with this idea, but is this what the verse itself is saying?
I do not believe so. The fatal flaw in this interpretation is that it cannot make adequate sense of the result clause which follows. On this interpretation, the verse would read, “Train up a child [or young person] in a manner befitting a child, and when he is old he will not depart from the manner befitting a child.” This is definitely not what we are after in our training! To be fair, these interpreters do not take it this way. They understand the verse to say that if we train up a child according to the nature of youth, then he will be equipped to go on in the right way throughout life. But in so doing they have subtly changed the meaning of the pronoun “it” at the end of the verse to be different from the meaning of its antecedent.
The traditional interpretation of this phrase, meaning “in the way he should go,” is still the best. Allen Ross rightly says, “In the Book of Proverbs there are only two ‘ways’ a child can go, the way of the wise and the righteous or the way of the fool and the wicked” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary). The command is to train up young people in the way of wisdom, and the expected result is that the young people will adhere to this way throughout their lives.
So I have gone through all that to tell you that you already basically knew what the verse means! But seriously, it is good to be confident in your understanding of this verse so that as Dr. Ryle skillfully and practically applies it to our child-rearing, we will benefit from it. Prepare to be edified!