Now it came to pass when Samuel was old that he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn was Joel, and the name of his second Abijah. They were judges in Beersheba. But his sons did not walk in his ways; they turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day—with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also.” 1 Samuel 8:1-8
When my children were babies I served in the church nursery once a month. One Sunday morning a little girl was crying unconsolably and reaching back for her mother who had just handed her to a nursery worker. The poor baby was suffering a severe case of separation anxiety, hardly unusual in a church nursery. But what was unusual was what I heard from a volunteer behind me. He was muttering quietly, blaming the mother for her child’s “misbehaving.” I bristled at his insinuation, but as a young, new parent I had little to support my objection so I said nothing. These many years later, I would have plenty to say, beginning with this: I’m glad that was the only time I ever witnessed such misbehavior on the part of a volunteer!
When I read today’s Old Testament chapters, including the passage above about Solomon’s sons, I was reminded of Proverbs 22:6. I’ve heard that passage quoted many times over the years.
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6
Some parents quote this verse with a tone like the Pharisee praying in the temple. All smug and self-righteous, the Pharisee thanked God for making him such a great and godly man, so superior to the loser a few feet away who was so sinful he had to lower his head in shame to pray. A parent whose child is a godly success might be tempted to assume this verse means they can take credit for their child’s great character. They might quietly, or not so quietly, quote the proverb while shaking their heads at someone else’s ungodly offspring. They preen, confident that this verse validates the parent of the godly and condemns the parent of the wayward. After all, if the Bible promises that a child who is raised properly will not depart from those good character traits they were taught, then it goes without saying that the parents of the prodigal must have failed to teach their child properly.
Ironically, another person who is likely to quote the proverb is the parent of a prodigal, the very same parent looked down upon by the self-supposed perfect parent. The prodigal’s parents cling to the verse as a promise from God and believe it guarantees that their child will eventually repent and return to the way he or she should go. “After all,” they think, “we taught them right from wrong. We took them to church every week. We taught them about God.” Surely God will bring them back. It’s a belief held in desperation and in fear of the alternative.
A different way of understanding this verse has become popular in recent years. Pointing out that the Hebrew word translated “way” is more accurately understood as “bend,” this teaching claims that the verse is not about teaching a child about God but rather about training a child according to that child’s individual design, his or her gifting, talents and personality, his personal bend. Can you imagine the pressure of believing that God is expecting you to know your child’s unique blend of personality, gifts and talents from the time they’re born? Those things seem to change and emerge throughout life, so parents could hardly be expected to base a child’s training on them, could they?
Personally I’m more intrigued with a third explanation for this verse, one I first encountered through Jay Adams, the pastor who pioneered the biblical counseling movement in the 70s and 80s. Adams, too, looks to the Hebrew for a better understanding of the verse. But he comes to a very different conclusion than either those who see it as a promise or those who see it as an admonition to tailor our teaching to the pupil’s individuality. Adams sees it more as a warning. To Adams, the verse is not encouraging us to train up a child according to his bend but actually warning us about what will happen if we do.
This understanding begins by noting that the phrase “he should go” isn’t actually in the Greek. The King James translators added it, and later versions adopted it. But it’s not in the original. With that in mind, Adams points out that we are all born bent. Perhaps you remember John the Baptist’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make His paths straight.” The Lord’s paths are straight. Apart from Him, ours are bent. The common, idealistic image that we have of babies is that they are innocence personified. But the scriptures actually say, “in sin did my mother conceive me.” One unemotional look at infants and we realize they are born caring only about themselves. They are demanding and ready to punish us for our insolence if we do not cater to their desires the instant they have them. No one has to teach them how to throw a tantrum or their cereal bowl. To Adams, this verse is warning us not to indulge the demands of the child’s bent nature, but rather to discipline the child so that they will depart from it. If we do not, Adams says, we can be assured that they will remain selfish, demanding people. This explanation fits perfectly with the rest of the Proverbs, which warn about bad behavior. Proverbs 22:15, for example, tells us that “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of correction will drive it far from him.”
These various opinions about the proverb came to mind as I was reading the Old Testament passage in today’s Bible reading calendar. Samuel was the greatest prophet Israel had seen since Moses. He began hearing from God when just a child. He grew up in the temple itself and as an adult was the one voice people could count on to give a correct judgment in that time of a kingless kingdom. All indications are that Samuel was himself a godly man, and yet his sons grew up to be scoundrels. So much so that people looked to the ungodly nations and preferred what they saw among the heathen over what they feared Israel would look like once Samuel was no longer around to restrain his sons.
Like most parents, I would give my life for any one of my children. But sadly, neither our love for our children nor our love for God guarantees that our kids will grow up to love the Lord themselves. The Bible gives numerous examples of righteous parents whose children grow up and choose unrighteousness. It seems rare to find parents whose grown children all follow the Lord. Most have at least one prodigal. These parents often look back in deep regret and ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong?” They have no trouble pinpointing many examples of how they blew it as parents. They can cite instances when they didn’t live up to the values they taught. They can tell you about the family devotions they didn’t have. They can recount times when they didn’t listen well, when they punished out of anger more than love, when they put their own desires for some quiet time ahead of their children’s desire for play time.
Speaking on behalf of almost every parent who has ever lived, I will tell you that we can all look back on a multitude of parenting mistakes. But those failures have never been the reason why children grow up to choose evil. The real reason is that they choose. And all the self-imposed parental guilt in the world doesn’t change the fact that in the end our children grow up and make their own choices. Some will choose the Lord. Some will choose worldly pleasure. And our years raising them can influence them, but it can neither earn us the credit for our godly offspring nor condemn us for our ungodly kids. Jesus warned us about this.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. —Matthew 10:34-38
As I read about Samuel’s sons, I am reminded that the prodigal’s parents deserve our compassion, not our condemnation. And as parents who have made mistakes—and sins—we must keep God, not our kids, in the center of our hearts and our eyes. We must trust in the nature of God. His mercy forgives us. His love calls to our children more powerfully than our mistakes drive them away. His wisdom restores our compassion for our kids even when they spite us. If our children go rogue, we must never lose sight of the big picture. They are not rejecting us as much as they are rejecting God as their king. Israel made an idol out of the political office of king that they saw in the heathen countries. Our kids may make idols out of the pleasures that Christianity forbids. And if we’re not careful we may make idols out of our kids, because anything we love more than God is an idol.
So we must pray and love and listen and wait. Wait on the Lord. Wait on our children. Wait like the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. And if by chance our kids seem perfect, we must never take an ounce of credit. It might not mean what we think it means. And we must remember to never mutter judgments we have no business making. There is one Lawmaker and Judge, and we’re not Him. I hope we understand what that means.