After some weeks away we return to Proverbs and take up another of the principal themes of the book. If you remember, we have recently considered what Proverbs has to teach about the management of controversy, about the importance of hard work, and about the way the wise govern their tongues. We come now to another major theme, in some respects the principal theme of the book, viz. the wisdom first to be learned and then to be practiced in the raising of children.
I say that this may be the principal theme of the book because, of course, Proverbs is itself about raising children in a godly home, everything it teaches about wisdom, about the skill of living well, is intended, was intended originally for the instruction of children. Proverbs itself was life instruction for Israelite children before they left home. Its teaching is presented in the context of a wise and loving father appealing to his children and instructing them in the way of godliness. We tend to forget this when we are reading the book, but it was intended first as a manual for the discipleship of covenant children. Remember, as we pointed out in introducing the book many weeks ago, though there is no explicit mention of the covenant or the Law of Moses or Israel’s history with Yahweh, it is the Lord’s covenant name that is used throughout. The book begins by laying a foundation beneath all of its instruction and that foundation is “the fear of the Lord, that is, of Yahweh, God’s personal covenant name, is the beginning of wisdom.”
And that leads us to a most important theological fact, a fact that lies beneath all of the Bible’s teaching about raising our children: viz. that they already belong to the covenant community. They are not outsiders, but insiders. Proverbs is for them discipleship, learning to grow in the grace and the wisdom of a godly life which, it is assumed, they have already begun to live. You know that the promise of God’s covenant is “I will be a God to you and to your children after you,” a promise repeated very many times in one way or another in the pages of Holy Scripture, and the practical effects of that promise are the church membership of the infant children of believers and the duty of parents to nurture them in a faith and life that are already theirs. You don’t find anywhere in Proverbs or, for that matter, anywhere else in the Bible, the idea that is now so commonplace in evangelical Christian circles, that our children are unbelievers needing to be converted at some later stage of life. I don’t deny and the Bible certainly doesn’t deny that covenant children can be lost, we know the reality of that unhappy fact, but parents and all the more pious, interested, committed parents are to proceed on the assumption that they are already saved, in the same way that we disciple a convert and do not continue to evangelize him, as if he were still an outsider. We don’t know in the convert’s case either, whether he has truly been born again and that he will last – some don’t alas – but we proceed on the assumption that his profession of faith is genuine, the marks of new life that we believe we can see are the fruit of a deep spiritual transformation effected by the Spirit of God, and that God will continue the work he has begun in the man or woman’s life. We can be wrong about that, to be sure. But we don’t proceed on the assumption of failure and, the fact is, when parents raise their children in the love of God and the joy of salvation and the beauty of Christ’s righteousness, they find – they have always found – that their children embrace life in Christ just as the Bible says they will. It is God’s appointed method for the development of sound Christians in Christian homes.
You can see the other paradigm in operation all around you: Christian parents proceeding on the assumption that their children are unsaved and evangelizing them. It is the prevailing paradigm in our times. Its results do not commend it! It not only lacks any biblical demonstration, it is a recipe for failure: treat a Christian as an unbeliever long enough and he becomes one!
In any case, this is manifestly not the approach taken in Proverbs. Everywhere the children who are the objects of this instruction are treated as insiders, as already the subjects of believing nurture, as already capable of absorbing the truth of God and responding to it and their parents are everywhere exhorted to nurture their children in the life of the covenant and the fear of the Lord. There is no mention anywhere of some spiritual frontier that must first be crossed before such a child is found in the realm of salvation and can begin to profit from all of this instruction that he or she has received from his or her parents. The Lord’s ways are a mystery and, hear me say this again, the spiritual experience of covenant children can be different from the norm, but what we have in Proverbs is the norm. It is, by the way, the experience of most children raised in serious, devote, loving Christian homes so we are not talking about hypothetical things, but the ordinary way of life in the family of God.
One more preliminary observation. It is true that much of the advice that the father (or mother) provides his (or her) children is advice that any child would receive to his or her advantage: to work hard, to avoid being a hot head, to live a sexually chaste life, and so on. But that is only because the Christian life, in God’s world, is the standard, the normal, the proper human life. We Christians are living the life everyone ought to live and at a deep level we’re living the life everyone really wants to live; everyone. To the extent that unbelievers live like Christians they shall benefit greatly whether or not they live that way for the right reasons or live that way consistently. Christians nowadays should be very alert to this fact. In this culture in particular we should be daily alert to this fact that unbelievers around us are borrowing our capital every moment of every day. They deny the foundations of morality – which are found only in God – but think it very important to be moral. They deny the basis for the special meaning of human life, but continue to act as if their lives and the lives of their children are deeply meaningful, and so on. We ought to be the most confident people in the world: everyone thinks like we do at bottom, but only we can give a reason for our way of thought!
So now to Proverbs and its teaching about parents and children. We only begin tonight; we will continue this large subject next Lord’s Day evening with the examination of one of the most important and also most controversial texts in Proverbs, viz. 22:6:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
But tonight we will lay the foundation for a careful consideration of that immensely important proverb. Proverbs takes it as a given that godly parents want nothing more in life than that their children should follow them in the faith of God and a godly life.
“My son, if your heart is wise, my heart too will be glad. My inmost being will exult when your lips speak what is right.” [23:15-16]
“The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice; he who fathers a wise son will be glad in him. Let your father and mother be glad; let her who bore you rejoice.” [23:24-25]
In the kingdom of God the generations should rejoice in one another, the joy and respect and gratitude should travel both ways.
“Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers.” [17:6]
But in Proverbs that bond is cemented by a shared faith, a shared commitment to the Lord, and a shared experience of his grace.
And even if that were never said so explicitly, we would know that it was true because of the tone of the father’s voice throughout the book: “My son…” “Listen to your father…” “Hear me, my son…” This was the way this father was taught by his father and he knows what a great difference it made.
“When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, [i.e. before my siblings were born] he taught me and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast to my words; keep my commandments and live.” [4:3-4]
Those of you who came to Christ out of unbelieving home backgrounds may well wonder what it would have been like to be raised by such a father, but I suspect that there are a good many in this sanctuary this evening who know very well what this good man is talking about. I had such a father – not perfect to be sure; he was, as most fathers, better at some things than at others – but a faithful father and I reaped the blessing of being his son and being raised in the home of my father and mother. It is one of life’s greatest blessings – and I suspect everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, knows it – to be raised by loving, affectionate, faithful, wise, admirable, and always interested parents. And for a Christian, to be raised by a father who loves the Lord, loves his children, and not only desires to see them grow up to spiritual maturity but is always at work to that end, that is blessing indeed! Parents, that is your calling, to be such fathers and mothers. If you know that you are not, then your first and foremost responsibility in life is to sanctify yourself for your children’s sake. Do you remember what the Lord Jesus said in his prayer about us John 17? He said he sanctified himself for our sake. He devoted himself to his calling in life in complete holiness because it mattered to us that he should do so. That’s the mind, that’s the heart of a faithful Christian parent. Your children, as the Bible says many times, are a sacred stewardship granted you by God. And it is the responsibility of a steward to be found faithful! [1 Cor. 4:2] Your children’s salvation is in a very important way placed in your hands!
And what makes a faithful steward in the matter of parenthood? Well, in the first place, he must understand his calling and have a realistic view of his children. Proverbs is nothing if it is not realistic. Your children are not going to become faithful Christians automatically; your children are not going to become faithful Christians if you don’t devote yourself to the task of making them so; quite the contrary.
“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” [22:15]
“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” [29:15]
Our children, all our children, even your children, have a spirit of rebellion and foolishness as part of their nature, their character. It is so even if they are already children of God. We know that, of course, because it is the same for us as Christian adults, no matter how many years we have walked with the Lord. There is that left over from our original nature that makes fools and rebels of us every hour of every day.
And so it is with our children. The result is that Christian parents have their work cut out for them if they are to turn their children into practicing Christians and shape their characters into those of godly men and women. Now don’t misunderstand me. I think you are Biblically minded enough not to misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we have the power to do this ourselves; obviously not. I am speaking instrumentally. This is how God himself does that work: through the faithful nurture of hard working and devoted parents. But I speak that way because that is the way the Bible speaks. In the same way that we are justified by faith, faith certainly being something we are responsible for, though faith is only the instrument not the cause of our justification, so our children grow up in faith and godliness by the instrumentality of the nurture they receive from their parents. In God’s world, in God’s covenant, such nurture is God’s appointed means of working salvation in the hearts of his children. It’s not the only means but it is the principal means.
And that nurture is not only made necessary but made more difficult by the fact that there is a sinful resistance to it bound up in the heart of every child, a resistance that must be overcome through patient instruction, discipline, and example in the context of a loving and happy home, i.e. a home atmosphere that commends the instruction and the discipline.
Christmas Sunday morning during the worship service our oldest granddaughter, now just two years of age, was given a piece of gum by her grandmother. It came from grandmother’s purse. It was the first piece of gum she had ever had and she loved it! Her mother had hoped to delay the gum experience, but her grandmother undermined her parenting plan. She had made an important discovery: there was something wonderful to be found in grandma’s purse. The next day she was sitting on her grandmother’s lap rummaging through her purse and before we knew it she had that package of gum out and was extracting a piece. Having seen it done once, she knew exactly how to do it herself. However, her mother didn’t want her to have a piece of gum and told her “No, you may not have a piece of gum now.” I happened to be sitting nearby and what followed was both very funny and a study in the human condition. She kept after that gum, trying desperately to get it unwrapped fast enough to get it into her mouth before her mother could stop her. Her mother was saying “No!” but her two year old fingers were flying as fast as she could make them go. She had discovered chewing gum and wanted that next piece of ambrosia! I’m glad to say that her mother prevailed, Bryonie was crestfallen and burst into tears, but it served as a picture of what parents are up against. Children do not want to obey; they want their own way; and are foolish enough not to appreciate that their parents know better than they do what is good for them. Listen to this from Thomas Howard:
“[The parent must learn] the paradox that authentic freedom is won not by the child’s being granted every wish (an infinite number of chocolates, dancing on the window sill, etc.), but rather by curbing and channeling and, alas, denying. And in the denial (and perhaps punishment) he will observe again that there is a lamentable discrepancy at work in things, tearing at the fabric of the diagram – in this case a discrepancy between inclination (more chocolates [or chewing gum!]) and perfection (good teeth). He will see also that the truth of the matter is not necessarily known intuitively by the growing child, but that facts have to be learned, either by authority (thou shalt not put thy pinkie in that gas flame) or by experience (ouch). And he will see at work over a long, long span of time the difficult notion that reward or fulfillment commonly follows rigor and renunciation and austerity (the winning pole vault, the Ph.D), and is not available on demand.
“[Because the parent in his own experience has observed] that his greatest liberty occurs (he can only see this in retrospect, since it vanishes the moment it is looked at) when he is least conscious of himself – when he is hard at work on some piece of research, focusing on the data, or when he is carried away upon hearing an aria sung by Birgit Nilsson, or when he is loving his wife, either passionately or in some simple act like bringing breakfast to her in bed. … And, conversely, he may discover if he visits his psychiatrist often enough that there is an unsettling ratio between a person’s unhappiness and his concentration on himself.” [Thomas Howard, Chance or the Dance, 156-157]
In other words, the great lessons of life, of wisdom, of godliness, and of true happiness do not come naturally. They have to be learned and, indeed, learned again and again and again until they take root in the mind and heart. We parents are still learning them and it should not be difficult to understand that our children are at just the beginning of this same long process. We need help and so do they to learn lessons so contrary to our sinful natures.
And that is what we see demonstrated for us in Proverbs, a parent who is teaching all the time, just as he was commanded to do in Deuteronomy 6:7:
“These words which I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
And that is precisely the impression of this father that we get in reading Proverbs. This man is talking to his children about life, about the Lord, about right and wrong, about wise living and its rewards, about folly and its punishment all the time! And he is doing it in a homely way, sharing with his sons and daughters his own experience of the world and the life of faith. We have already looked at his very candid teaching about sex, how wise and homely and practical it is. He warns, he cajoles, he encourages, he instructs and all from his own experience of life. I love this from Alexander Whyte:
“Our old ministers used to lay this vow on all fathers and mothers at the time of baptism, that they were to pray both with and for their children. Now, that is a fine formula; it is a most comprehensive, and, indeed, exhaustive formula. Both with and for. And especially with. With, at such and such times, on such and such occasions, and in such and such places. At those times, say, when your boy has told a lie, or struck his little brother, or stolen something, or destroyed something. To pray with him at such times, and to pray with him properly, and, if you feel able to do it…to tell him something after the prayer about yourself, and your own not-yet-forgotten boyhood, and your father; it makes a fine time to mix talk and prayer together in that way…. I have unbounded faith in those prayers, both for and with, in which there is much affection. It is want of affection, and want of imagination, that shipwrecks so many of our prayers.” [Bunyan Characters, i, 165-166]
That is the kind of father we are given to see at work in Proverbs, raising his children, teaching them right from wrong, teaching them to fear the Lord and to see the world and their own lives through the Lord’s and their father’s all loving eyes.
One of the great advantages of having children to raise for the Lord, and every deeply interested Christian parent finds this out very soon, is that it forces us who are parents to grow ahead of them so that we can give them the instruction and example that they need. Here is Esther Edwards recounting a conversation she had with her father, the famous Jonathan Edwards.
“Last eve I had some free discourse with my father on the great things that concern my best interest. I opened my difficulties and he as freely advised and directed the conversation as removed some distressing doubts that discouraged me much in my Christian warfare. He gave me some excellent directions to be observed in secret that tend to keep the soul near to God, as well as others to be observed in a more public way. O what a mercy that I have such a father – such a guide.” [Esther Edward’s Journal, Sept. 11, 1756]
Two things strike me about that journal entry. First, Esther’s father had really good advice to give to his daughter and, second, she had such a relationship with him that she sought him out for his counsel. It is a good way of measuring the effectiveness of your parenting, fathers and mothers: have your children learned that you are the one to come to for really sound advice and do you have the kind of relationship with them that makes them want to come to you?
But there is a second fundamental piece of Proverb’s doctrine of godly parenthood. If our children have folly in their hearts, and it’s going to require long and patient work to drive it out of them and to replace it with something better, then they must have love in their homes. In Proverbs as everywhere in the Bible love is the key to everything and even the right things done without love become the wrong things. In Proverbs the godly father, the wise father is a man who loves and delights in his children.
“…for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” [3:12]
And this is what we see throughout the book: a father who loves his children, wants the very best for them, and is willing to work hard to help them grow in the grace and knowledge of God and a godly life. It should be obvious to every Christian child that his parents love him more than life itself. It should be something that we take for granted in the Christian home, that we have this kind of passionate and deathless love for our children and our children know it. The Bible reminds us of this in both positive and negative ways.
“Fathers, do not exasperate your children…” [Eph. 6:4; Col.3:21]
says Paul, as much as admitting that it is a particular failing of fathers to be harsh with their children and not gentle, sympathetic, tender, and loving. But we have it as well in the wonderful statement we find in Psalm 103:13:
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
We might have expected to find the thought the other way round: as the Lord is compassionate toward his children, we human fathers should be compassionate toward our children. But here the Lord likens his own compassion to what we all know ought to be the compassion of a loving father and often is. A loving home is the context of salvation for covenant children. In a loving home, which is a happy home, everything works to best advantage: instruction, discipline, and example.
I want to finish with two examples of that loving atmosphere that Proverbs teaches us ought to dominate the childhood of Christian children. You may have heard these from me before, but they are timeless in their beauty and value and are worth repeating again and again.
The first is from Martin Luther, this a letter he wrote to his four year old son Hans, August 22, 1530.
“My dearest son:
I’m glad to know that you learn well and pray hard. Keep on, my lad, and when I come home, I’ll bring you a whole fair. [My dad used to travel a lot and he always brought gifts home for the four children in the house. We were always very anxious to see him arrive because we knew there would be a present in his suitcase.]
I know a lovely garden where many children in golden frocks gather rosy apples under the trees, as well as pears, cherries, and plums. They sing, skip, and are gay. And they have fine ponies with gold bridles and silver saddles. I asked the gardener who were these children, and he said, ‘They are the children who like to pray and learn and be good.’ And I said, ‘Good man, I too have a son, and his name is Hans Luther. Couldn’t he come into the garden, too, and eat the rosy apples and the pears and ride a fine pony and play with these children?’ And the man said, ‘If he likes to pray and learn and be good, he too may come into the garden, and Lippus and Jost [the sons of Melanchthon and Jonas] as well; and when they all come together, they shall have golden whistles and drums and fine silver crossbows.’ But it was early, and the children had not yet had their breakfasts, so I couldn’t wait for the dance. I said to the man, ‘I will go at once and write all this to my dear son Hans that he may work hard, pray well, and be good, so that he too may come into this garden. But he has an Aunt Lena he’ll have to bring too.’ ‘That will be all right,’ said he. ‘Go and write this to him.’
So, my darling son, study and pray hard and tell Lippus and Jost to do this too, so that you may all come together into the garden. May the dear God take care of you. Give my best to Auntie Lena and give her a kiss for me.”
Your loving father,
That is a particularly beautiful example of what Proverbs is after in the nurture of our children: in tone, in spirit, in content, and in that imagination that reaches the mind and heart of a little boy and of our children at every stage of their development. Gentlemen, and, necessary changes being made, ladies, is it so between you and your children? It should be if you value their souls as the Lord has taught you to value them and if you are a faithful steward of the Lord’s children as you have been commanded to be and are privileged to be.
The second picture of such a loving, happy home, comes from the autobiography of John Paton, the Scottish missionary to the cannibals of the South Sea Islands in the 19th century. The early chapters of that very great book are a wonderful picture of a godly home and of the impression the parents of that home made in every good way upon their children. But a scene that sums up that home and that parenthood is this. Paton is leaving home for the first time, to make his way to Glasgow, to schooling in preparation for the ministry. He was I think about 18 years of age.
“Two days thereafter I started out from my quiet country home on the road to Glasgow. Literally “on the road,” for from Torthorwald to Kilmarnock—about forty miles—had to be done on foot, and thence to Glasgow by rail. Railways in those days were as yet few, and coach-traveling was far beyond my purse. A small bundle contained my Bible and all my personal belongings. Thus was I launched upon the ocean of life. I thought on One who says, “I know thy poverty, but thou art rich.” [It was a poor home, it was a crofter’s home, but what a wealth it produced for its sons and daughters.]
My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half-mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence, — my father, as was often his custom, carrying hat in hand, while his long, flowing yellow hair (then yellow, but in later years white as snow) streamed like a girl’s down his shoulders. His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! [How come 19th century Victorians could write English so much better than you or me? Would you please explain that to me?] We halted on reaching the appointed parting-place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute of silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said: “God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!”
Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him—gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I was round the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me farther, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dyke [the stone fence] to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and began to return—his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as He had given me. The appearance of my father, when we parted—his advice, prayers, and tears—the road, the dyke, the climbing up on it and then walking away, head uncovered—have often, often, all through life, risen vividly before my mind, and do so now while I am writing, as if it had been but an hour ago. In my earlier years particularly, when exposed to many temptations, his parting form rose before me as that of a guardian angel.
“It is no Pharisaism, but deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped, by God’s grace, to keep me pure from the prevailing sins, but also stimulated me in all my studies, that I might not fall short of his hopes, and in all my Christian duties, that I might faithfully follow his shining example.” [25-26]
Your walking papers, dads and moms!