“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
This verse has been used as a proof text for so many things in children’s ministry: evidence of the need for Sunday school, home Bible studies and so much more. And of course, none of that is a bad thing. But it can also be used as a stick to tell off those whose ‘teaching’ is deemed inadequate.
So, what does this verse really mean? Let’s break it down phrase by phrase.
Which children are we talking about?
I’m 29 now. I’d consider myself a pretty capable adult. I pay my bills on time and hold down a job and I even eat my greens. I do however still have the moments when I feel like a complete imposter, a child who has no idea what they’re doing and is just making it up as I go along.
I also still have a need to call my mum when I get stuck. I rely on her and the other ‘real’ adults in my life when it comes to new things. That is the graceful gift of humanity, we have the option to remain a child even when we are an adult.
The subject of the verse is nahar, which means ‘boy’ at its most basic translation. Notes on gender aside, we might naturally jump to children and decide this is about our pre-teen or children’s ministry. But the reality is that age is far less of a factor in the original meaning. A nahar could be as young as newborn or as old as 20. The truth of our childhood title remaining into old age is enfolded into the original meaning of the verse.
Interestingly, the nahar are also the metaphorical scattered ones of Israel in Zechariah 11:16. The use of the word here reminds us that we are and always will be children of God, just as we are the children of our parents.
Proverbs 22:6 is not only a hopeful reminder of our place in the family of God and the spiritual parents God has put in our lives. It is also a humbling reprimand to not see ourselves as all sorted in our understanding of God and to approach our teaching of the next generation with the illusion that we’re all sorted does a disservice to us and them.
And what does it mean to teach them?
The other questionable use of this verse is as a proof text for an educational style Sunday school. To teach in the time of Solomon does not come with the same modern Western, post-Enlightenment baggage that we might like to hang off it. It’s possibly why the NIV translates it as “start them off”.
Hanak – the word for teach or train used as the verb in this verse – is similar to an Arabic word that refers to a practice in which midwives would rub the palate of a newborn child with a chewed date or oil so the child could learn to suckle. This deeply intimate and tactile ancient practice is therefore folded into the meaning of this verse.
Hanak also means to dedicate. They hanak-ed the temple in 1 Kings 8:63, and Hannah hanak-ed Samuel by offering him to Eli (1 Samuel 1:28). To teach is also to dedicate – to give that child over to God and trust that they are a temple of the Holy Spirit.
To teach our children is not just about getting them to memorise ideas about God and admonish them when they forget or in some way stray from our personal ideals. Any teacher outside of Victorian England would question that teaching practice anyway. To start our children off on their spiritual education is as tender as rubbing a date on the roof of a newborn’s mouth so they realise their natural need for milk. It is as extravagant as the temple in Jerusalem and as costly as Hannah’s price for Samuel.
“The truth is the precarious nature of a child’s faith – at any age – is part of its gift”
What if they turn from it?
The beautiful ideal of this verse is hard to see in the 50 percent of children who leave church before they hit adulthood (see the Sticky Faith research and any other studies on faith retention). Even the most dedicated and faithful of parents can watch in horror as the child they’ve trusted to God, taken faithfully to church each Sunday, read Bible stories to at bedtime and prayed with and for over many years wanders from the faith.
There is no easy answer to this promise. There are potential platitudes about the age of “when they are old” being unknown so that even when we are long gone, and they are old themselves the Lord can call them back to Godself. These are all true, of course. I have seen even in my few years in Church leadership the power of funeral ministry to kindle a faith whose original spark was found in the faith of a parent or relative who they mourn for.
However, that might not always be the comfort we crave. The truth is the precarious nature of a child’s faith – at any age – is part of its gift. Each child of God is there but for the grace of God. All we can do is dedicate, teach and pray.