Prov. 22:6 translation and meaning
(© 10 June May 2015, Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th.D.)
The translation of this verse is difficult. There are three possibilities.
(1) Kidner’s work on Proverbs states: “The training prescribed is literally ‘according to his (the child’s) way,’ implying, it seems, respect for his individuality and vocation, though not for his self-will (see v. 5, or 14:12). But the stress is on parental opportunity and duty.”
(2) Others say the verse is a warning: If you train up a child according to his own way, he will be set in his damnation–he will not depart from it. In other words, “Be sure your sins will find you out” (Numbers 32:23), sooner or later. Or, you can get away with sin, but not forever. You can also blindfold yourself and walk across the interstate safely a time or two.
(3) The KJV set the traditional understanding when it understood this as a covenant promise: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Likewise the NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NMB, Young’s Literal, NJB). There is an unusual combination of words in the verse that centers around the Hebrew words ‘al pi’, which often together mean “according to the commandment, order of any one.” Now combine that with the following word, which literally means “his way” and you have “train a child according to his way,” which probably means “according to the truth of his way.” Does that mean the child’s truth or the trainer’s truth? Or Gesenius Hebrew lexicon renders the two words above in Proverbs 22:6 simply as “according to,” giving a full translation as “train up a child according to his way,” which seems to be a warning not to let a child have his way. But Gesenius adds that one is to train him “as to his manners and habits.” This would seem to mean that the trainer is the one in charge, not the child.
In the Basics of Biblical Hebrew, Gordon P. Hugenberger argues for what seems to me to be the best way to understand the verse:
The most serious difficulty with the traditional understanding of Prov. 22:6, however, is the startling fact that in the Hebrew text there is virtually no basis to justify the all-important qualifier “should” in the phrase, “the way he should go.” The Hebrew merely has . . . “according to his way, as is correctly indicated in the margin of the New American Standard Bible. Although in theory, [his way] could be an elliptical means for expressing “the way he should go,” there are, in fact, no biblical examples which support this interpretative expansion. Forms of [derek, way] with a pronominal suffix, such as (his way), are well-attested in the Bible; there are 25 examples in the book of Proverbs alone. None of these requires a rendering similar to “the way he should go.” Instead, in each case, “his way” (8:22; 11:5; 14:8; 16:9, 17; 19:3; 20:24; 21:29), “his ways” (3:31; 10:9; 14:2, 14; 19:16), “her ways” (3:17; 6:6; 7:25), “their way” (1:31), etc, refer to the way these persons actually go. The evidence is similar for analogous expressions, such as “the way of wicked men” (2:12), “a man’s ways” (5:21), “the way of a fool” (12:15), etc.
Accordingly, Prov. 22:6 is not so much a promise, as it is a solemn warning. Parents, if you train up your child “according to his way”—in other words, if you quit the hard work of loving discipline and just give in and let your child have his own way—you will reinforce his sinful proclivities to such a degree that, apart from supernatural intervention, “even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The book of Proverbs elsewhere places similar urgency on the discipline of children and the danger of being left to follow one’s own way: “Discipline you son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death” (19:18). “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (22:15). “The rod of correction imparts wisdom, a child left to himself disgraces his mother” (29:15).
Rightly understood, this verse is not a promise, though the Bible does promise that if we rear children rightly, we have the general covenant promise that he/she will embrace God’s promises, but this verse is a warning. The warning is amply illustrated in our culture where children rule over parents, get their own way.
Thus, in the Bible we have a two edged sword regarding the rearing of children. If we teach them God’s word, they will embrace God’s promises:
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: 3 that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth. 4 And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4)
Recall what happened to Adonijah when King David had never disciplined him:
And his father had not rebuked him at any time by saying, “Why have you done so?” He was also very good-looking. His mother had borne him after Absalom (1 Kings 1:6).
Moreover, let us not forget these verses:
For whom the LORD loves He reproves, even as a father, the son in whom he delights (Proverbs 3:12).
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives (Hebrews 12:6, ESV).
And sometimes this means corporeal punishment:
He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly (Proverbs 13:24).
13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. 14 If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol [future punishment]. (Proverbs 23:13-14) ESV)
Our culture has taken the Lord God head on, thinking in their rebellion that we must never strike our children, rebuke them, or disappoint them. Of course, we must always do so out of love and to teach them respect for authority. Evangelism begins at home with the rod. A child who does not respect godly human authority (horizontal authority) will reject the Gospel, for he/she believes his opinion is greater than anyone else’s opinion (vertical authority). Show me a child who hates his parents, hates to take orders, and I’ll show you a child who will grow up to murder others. Or, turn this around, show me a murderer, and most likely he/she was not taught to respect authority, and considers himself wiser than “seven men who can answer sensibly” (Proverbs 26:16). In the days of Cotton Mather (1663-1728), some Quaker women entered “their assemblies” (probably churches) “stark naked as ever they were born,” and they were “adjudged unto the whipping post for that piece of devilism” (Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America, 2:527). I bet they didn’t do that again!
 Kidner, p. 147.
 Gesenius, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 292.
 Gary D. Pratico, Miles V. Van Pelt, Basic of Biblical Hebrew, 2001, pp. 284-5.