Previously we examined Proverbs 13:24, a passage from which we understood three powerful principles: (1) proper discipline is associated with the use of the rod, (2) proper discipline is associated with love, and proper discipline is not described here in terms of abuse or causing harm, nor is it described as punishment.
While 13:24 is clear in regard to these principles, there are some important details that are not so easy to discern from that passage alone. Among them is the exact nature of the rod itself. Is the rod to be taken literally as referring to an implement for inflicting physical pain as a part of discipline, or is it instead a metaphor for general (non-physical) guidance and correction? Proverbs 22:15 is a helpful verse for helping us understand the meaning and application of the rod in Proverbs: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” (NASB)
Before discussing the specifics of the verse there is some important hermeneutic (interpretive) groundwork that must be considered. On this and other challenging passages we often see two competing methods of interpretation employed. On the one hand, is the literal grammatical-historical method of interpretation. This approach is literal, in that it seeks to understand the natural or literal meaning. It is grammatical, in that it follows the rules of grammar of the language used. And it is historical, in that it recognizes the importance of historical context of the grammar and other aspects of the writing. The literal grammatical-historical approach seeks always to find the intended meaning by looking for the plain sense of a passage. This methodology recognizes there is figurative language used in the Bible, but waits for the text itself to announce when figures are being used.
On the other hand is allegorical interpretation or spiritualization. Allegorical interpretation often either seeks a deeper meaning or seeks to resolve perceived conflicts in the text by interpreting in a non-literal way. This approach is not as concerned with rules of grammar and context, but gives the interpreter instead more influence in determining the meaning.
In order to understand this (or any other) passage, it is important to first agree on a set of interpretive principles, otherwise we find ourselves speaking different languages (I say bad, but mean good; you say bad but mean bad – we won’t get very far without defining our terms). I find that most theological disagreements are rooted in interpretive method, and if we aren’t aware of our interpretive presuppositions and assumptions, then we are inviting irreconcilable differences.
So, in the spirit of transparency, I approach the text from a literal grammatical-historical method. I seek to understand the authors’ original meaning in the original languages and context, and then diligently apply what it says – as it says. And there is an important interpretive rule I adhere to: I may not assume a non-literal interpretation unless the literal is first ruled out by the immediate context of the text itself. Furthermore, I find, again, that most theological conflict is related directly to the application or non-application of this particular rule.
Proverbs 22:15 is a verse that, having various hermeneutic methods applied to it, has been made to say strikingly different things. Let’s begin to examine the verse itself:
Folly or foolishness (Heb., iuelet, feminine singular noun) is being bound (Heb., qasurah, verb passive participle) in the heart (Heb., beleb, preposition and noun) of a child (Heb., nayer, masculine singular noun), a rod (Heb., shebet, masculine singular noun) of discipline (Heb., musar, masculine singular noun) will cause it to be distant or far (Heb., yarechiyqenah, hiphil or causative verb, imperfect, third person singular feminine suffix) from him (Heb., mimenu, preposition with third person singular masculine suffix).
First, the reader will notice that there is an interesting admixture of feminine and masculine words. It should be noted that words often grammatically are either masculine or feminine, but that does not mean that they are limited to referencing only masculine or feminine. For example, the Hebrew word for folly is a feminine word, but that is no indication that foolishness itself is feminine. The Hebrew word for discipline is also a masculine word, but again – not implying only an application to males.
As the passage flows, we are told that the hearts of children brew foolishness. The Hebrew nayer (translated child in the NASB) is used of children of all ages in the Bible: Moses as an infant crying in the basket (Ex. 2:6), Samson as a growing boy (Judg 13:24), and Abram’s “young men” who ate well (Gen 14:24). There are many, many other uses of this word (more than 250 in the OT), but these few I have mentioned illustrate the breadth of the term. It can reference a child anywhere from newborn to teenager.
The Greek Septuagint (LXX), an early 3rd – 2nd century BC translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the Hebrew nayer with the Greek neos. Though the Greek word has additional meanings, it usually references young men (teenagers). Interestingly, though, the Greek translation of nayer in Exodus 2:6 is paidion, and paiderion in Judges 13:24. The Greek translation implies that the term used in Proverbs 22:15 is one speaking of young men – teens, not infants or children. However, the passage was originally written in Hebrew, and nayer is not as limited as is the Greek paidion. In short, the Hebrew term is inclusive of a broad range of child from infancy to young adulthood.
Based on the employment of this term, it seems Solomon is telling us that foolishness knows no age limitations in the hearts of children. It is constantly – and naturally – being fomented in their hearts. Solomon identifies in other contexts the consequences of foolishness, and they are very unpleasant. He instructs here that this foolishness can be avoided.
The vehicle Solomon identifies is the rod of discipline. It is at this juncture we discover a hermeneutic challenge. The issue is just this simple: those who favor physical discipline view this reference as at least being partially literal – that the shebet is at least in part a literal shebet, whereas those who do not favor physical discipline suggest shebet is figurative – a metaphor for parental guidance in general or a metonym alluding to shepherding a young person.
But the only view with which we should be concerned is that of Solomon, as the author of the text. The term shebet is used eight times in Proverbs, though perhaps not all by Solomon. In addition to 22:15, the other uses are as follows:
10:13 – On the lips of the discerning, wisdom is found, But a rod is for the back of him who lacks understanding.
13:24 – He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
22:8 – He who sows iniquity will reap vanity, And the rod of his fury will perish.
23:13 – Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.
23:14 – You shall strike him with the rod And rescue his soul from Sheol.
26:3 – A whip is for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, And a rod for the back of fools.
29:15 – The rod and reproof give wisdom, But a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.
Here is the question: What specifically in the contexts of these passages gives indication that the language is intended as non-literal?
How does one “strike” a person with a metaphorical rod? Why would a person be afraid of “striking” a person with a metaphorical rod for fear of killing him? (“Oh my goodness! I am afraid that if I give general parental structure and guidance – nonphysical, of course – that my child might just fall down dead. Oh My! I am not so sure I want to parent with a metaphorical rod…”) I don’t mean to be glib – of course this is a serious topic, and certainly no laughing matter. Especially in recent months attention has been drawn to child abuse cases in which parents who were claiming to discipline their children actually harmed them to the point of death. That is despicable child abuse. This is something that does not result in death. This is something that never harms a child. This is something that offers the child freedom from foolishness.
Especially in light of 23:13-14 (which I plan to examine in detail in a future installment), there is no textual basis to understand the meaning as non-literal. And if there is nothing in the text itself to suggest a non-literal meaning, then how would we justify a figurative interpretation? These are challenging issues, for sure.
Having introduced some of the hermeneutic underpinnings of this passage, I have only covered half of the verse. We still must consider the exact nature of the rod and its application, and we must observe the purpose for the rod – a purpose identified in the last phrase of 22:15. So, while it is tempting to outline some principles from the passage, we haven’t yet earned that right, because we haven’t yet finished assessing the passage. In the next installment, we will finish 22:15, consider some principles from this passage and introduce 23:13-14.
In the meantime, I ask every reader to diligently consider each passage and test his or her own hermeneutic assumptions. Those assumptions will have more to do with the conclusions we draw than we may realize. Are we open to what the Bible has to say, or are we so influenced by our own preferences that we will not listen? We all must ask these questions, and we all must be diligent in answering them.