“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6). That’s a proverb most of us have known most of our lives. Just teach youngsters God’s way and, when they are older, God’s way will be their way.
It sounds good—unless there is a child who does “turn from it.” Then it is not very consoling to a faithful parent whose child rejects God’s way. What then? Does the promise still hold?
Here’s my own translation of this familiar text, a rendition I came up with years ago after studying the Hebrew text carefully and thoroughly:
Rub chewed dates on a child’s palate so he can swallow.
Then feed him in pieces he can chew,
so that even when he has a beard
or becomes like a she-camel whose lower lip hangs down,
he’ll not forget what he ate or stop eating it.
You have to admit that version gets your attention—and it’s really quite accurate.
The goal is not so much that she will not depart from it, but that this faith will not depart from her.
The responsibility the text refers to is not that of teachers or parents alone—it’s the community’s responsibility. It’s like an Old Testament version of the baptismal question asked of the congregation: “Do you promise to love this child, pray for this child, instruct this child in the faith, and encourage this child in the fellowship of believers?” The subject of the verb in the sentence is each one who reads it. It is you. It is me. It is all of us. “Attention everyone!”
“Train.” That’s the task. The original includes the Hebrew word for “mouth” or “palate.” It came from the Hebrew midwives’ habit of taking a bit of chewed date and rubbing it inside a newborn’s mouth to prepare the child to suck and swallow. This training is not programming but preparing, enabling the child to accept what is good for him or her.
And do that “in the way he should go.” A more accurate translation would be “after the manner of a child.” The word “child,” by the way, is used in Scripture to refer to almost anyone from an unweaned child to an adult of marriageable age. The idea is to train a child, whether 3 or 23, to swallow, and then to offer the kind of food that is appropriate for his or her age—so I suggest “in pieces he can chew.”
“And when he is old he will not turn from it.” The literal reading is “so that even when he is bearded . . .” Using the Arabic root behind the Hebrew word, the picture becomes feminine—though perhaps not complimentary: “like a she-camel whose lower lip hangs down.”
Behind this is the idea of maturity. The task of the entire community, beginning as soon as possible and continuing as long as possible, is to enable each person to reach a mature faith. The goal is not so much that she will not depart from it, but that this faith will not depart from her. It is not a guarantee but a guideline.
That is the task, the privilege, of each parent and of us all. It is also the task and the privilege of Calvin College. As we reflect on the gifts God has given us in the college and the opportunities God affords us there, let’s pray that the faculty and staff, along with and in addition to us all, will further prepare the next generation to swallow God’s truth and its implications in such a way that, when they’re old enough to shave or even begin to sag, their appetite for God’s truth will only increase.