"Do not withhold discipline from a child;
If you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
If you strike him with the rod,
You will save his soul from Sheol." Proverbs 23:13-14 (ESV).
Because of a recent discussion on parenting, I thought I would comment on the meaning of this text. Sometimes those who get into all kinds of theories of child-rearing struggle to take the wisdom from Proverbs in a straightforward way, and they begin to invent unlikely interpretations of what are really simple observations of wisdom. Truly, understanding Proverbs is not all that complicated. The beauty of Proverbs is found in its earthy statements which are so readily seen in everyday life.
On the other hand, because we come to the Scripture with many ideas which we perceive to be normal but do not square with a biblical understanding of reality, our common-sense interpretations of Proverbs can sometimes miss the mark. We must make sure that we understand the proverbs as God wants us to understand them. With that in mind, let’s look at the text.
This pair of proverbs is part of the “words of the wise” (Prov 22:17) which we must hear so that our trust will be in the Lord (22:19) and so that we will know what is right and true (22:21). The pair begins with a simple instruction – do not keep discipline away from a child. Discipline includes both verbal instruction/reproof (Psa 50:17) as well as corporal punishment (Prov 13:24). In this text, the parallel with the rod shows that corporal punishment is the predominant idea. The child in Proverbs could be any young person ranging in age from infancy to young adulthood, with the common understanding that he lacks wisdom (cf. Prov 7:7; 20:11; 22:15; 29:15). In this text, the child clearly needs the discipline through which he can gain wisdom.
The second half of the proverb gives the condition that if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. A rod is simply a stick or a staff that in Scripture could be used as a tool for a wide variety of situations. Now comes a crucial point that the proverb seeks to teach: the youth will not die because of the discipline. The relationship between discipline and death is actually exactly the opposite. Discipline saves from death. In other words, the second half of verse 13 is not saying that the child will not die from a beating. It is not addressing that at all. Rather, it is saying that striking with the rod will not cause death, and the death in mind here is not merely cessation of biological activity but being cut off from a relationship with the living God.
Life and Death
As we read this proverb, we must understand the concept of “death” in Proverbs. When Proverbs speaks of life and death, it often points to more than the narrowest idea of biological function. Derek Kidner says, “In several places it is not too much to say that ‘life’ means fellowship with God….[S]ome of the major Old Testament expressions for godliness are interchangeable with ‘life’ or ‘to live’” (Proverbs, 53-4). Bruce Waltke agrees, “In sum, ‘life’ in the majority of Proverbs texts refers to abundant life in fellowship with God, a living relationship that is never envisioned as ending in clinical death in contrast to the wicked’s eternal death” (Old Testament Theology, 909). Thus Kidner goes on to say of death, “The Old Testament looks at the subject in depth: death is a whole realm in conflict with life, rather than a single and merely physical event” (Proverbs, 55).
Save His Soul
The second proverb in this pair (v. 14) makes this point explicitly clear. Striking the youth with a rod will actually result in saving his soul (that is, saving him) from Sheol or the grave (note the parallel with death in the previous verse). The discipline envisioned in this pair of proverbs is life-giving. It enables a child to enjoy life with God, a life that even physical death cannot kill (compare the following two proverbs in vv. 17-18). It saves him from separation from God.
I would like to point out one common modern misconception which may inhibit us from understanding these proverbs, even though they speak plainly. Once we understand what they say, we might immediately question, “How can corporal discipline result in spiritual good?” We are accustomed to putting a hard division between physical and spiritual. It is part of our Enlightenment heritage. However, the Scripture does not do this. In order for these proverbs to make perfect sense, we simply need to remember the ideas that inform the noble historic Christian teaching of “means of grace” (or perhaps even better stated as “gifts of grace” or simply “graces”). God gives us ways to enjoy his favor. He grants his favor through our obedience to his instruction. This is the way that God has given to us to enjoy his blessing (which equals abundant life with him).
Before I close, I need to give all the obligatory caveats and cautions about spanking which any parent with an ounce of common sense and anything faintly resembling godly love already knows. But since you already know them, I’ll just consider it done.
So, in the end, these two proverbs really do say what you basically thought they said in the beginning, with perhaps a little twist. Discipline, which definitely includes spanking, is the way a wise person trains up a child in the way he should go. Discipline is for a child’s eternal spiritual good.
 Bruce Waltke argues that v. 14 escalates the instruction beyond a condition to an obligation which has the force of “You must strike him with a rod.” See The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 252.