Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Everyone has a family. Young and old, married and single, male and female – everyone is involved in some kind of family. So the book of Proverbs has something for every one of us today. How does God help us to live wisely, even beautifully, in our family relationships? We all want that. God wants it. But we get there not primarily by sorting things out with one another but primarily by seeing Christ in a new way.
Husbands and wives growing in wisdom toward one another
An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
The climax of the book of Proverbs is a poem in praise of the ideal woman. She is a role model. The phrase “an excellent wife” is, more literally, “a woman of strength.” In fact, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, reads “a manly woman.” The ideal woman is strong. How so? This poem goes on to say that she works hard, she makes money, she is kind to the poor, she’s fearless about the future, she enhances her husband’s reputation, she speaks with wisdom – all this and more. Verse 17 sums it up: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.” And in her strength she is not competing with her husband. She isn’t going through an identity crisis over sexual politics. She is beyond that. She is giving herself away to her family and her community. She has high standards, and she lives by them. This woman is rare – “An excellent wife who can find?” – and far more precious than jewels.
Where the ESV says, “[Her husband] will have no lack of gain,” the word translated “gain” is “loot, plunder, the spoils of war.” Why that wording? Because life is struggle. This woman is not living in a perfect environment where life is a breeze, but she’s up to the challenge. No wonder her husband trusts her. He feels honored to be her husband. This woman that God gave him is his greatest earthly treasure. In fact, there is only one person this husband trusts more than his wife, and that is Jesus Christ himself. She has won a deep place in his heart. She is an excellent wife.
Right now some women might be feeling, “My standards have not been that high. I haven’t gotten through to my husband at that level. I don’t feel strong, I feel defeated.” Here’s what you need to know. When Abraham wanted a wife for his son, he sent off to a distant land to find her (Genesis 24). And when God wanted a wife for your husband, he reached across an infinite expanse from heaven to earth to arrange the whole flow of history to bring you to your man. God sees you as the ideal woman for your husband – or your husband-to-be. God sees you as a precious gift, under Christ. God values you. And God’s strong affirmation of you is where you get new strength to grow as a godly wife.
Some of us men might be feeling, “I haven’t trusted and valued and affirmed my wife, as she deserves.” Let’s think about that, because the primary message here is for us husbands and husbands-to-be, which is nearly all of us men. What does the word “husband” mean? We have our word “husbandry,” which means cultivation. And when “husband” is used as a verb, it means to cultivate. If you are a husband, here is your job: to cultivate and nurture your wife. Your lifetime impact on your wife should be that her life opens up and she becomes all that God wants her to be. God is calling you, as her husband, so to care for her, that in her latter years she’s thinking, “What a great life I’ve had! My husband understood me. He cared for me. He inspired me to grow in Christ.”
How does a husband do that? Not by browbeating her – God doesn’t treat us that way – but by encouraging her. It’s what we see in these verses:
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.
Her children rise and speak respectfully to their mom and they tell her why they esteem her as a woman of God. Where did the kids learn that? From dad. He sets the tone. The key word in these verses is “praise.” It appears three times. A husband cultivates his wife by setting a tone of praise in their home. No putdowns. No fault-finding. The picture here is of the wise woman giving herself to her family and to others, and she is receiving praise from her husband and children at home and from her community “in the gates.” God wants to fill our homes and our church with this beautiful wisdom where men are not passive but overtly setting a positive tone and women are thriving.
What does the husband say? “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” How does your wife excel? Tell her. Tell her in front of the children. Have this conversation at the dinner table. And if you can’t think of any way in which your wife excels and deserves to be praised, then it’s on you, because God called you to husband her into excellence. Is your wife becoming magnificent because she married you? The word “excellently” in verse 29 is the same word translated “excellent” in verse 10. God wants to see your wife become more and more capable because of you. And he wants to hear you and your kids cheering her on all the way.
Men, this isn’t about a pep talk. This is about the gospel. This is about God. How you see God will inevitably show up in how you treat your family. You can fake it at work, but you can’t fake it at home. How you really see God – not what you’re supposed to believe about God but what you really believe – it will show up in how you treat your wife. A. W. Tozer wrote, “The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of him.” If your concept of God is beneath who he really is, then you will have unworthy thoughts about your wife and unworthy words to her. And the problem is not her. The root problem is, your Jesus is not the real Jesus. Your Jesus is not big enough to set you free. If you cannot bring yourself to praise your wife and you live with her in silent mediocrity, there is a reason. The reason is how you see Christ. You may have no complaints about him. He may seem to you an unobjectionable Savior. But if you have no passion for him, it’s because you do not see in him mighty passion for you. That vision of Christ is unworthy of him. The truth is, the Lord Jesus Christ is burningly passionate for you. See him in his grace and glory toward you, rejoicing over you with all his mighty heart. It will change how you treat your wife – and a lot more.
My dad grew up in a Swedish-American home where they didn’t express love, they didn’t talk about the deep things of the heart. It wasn’t their way. But it is God’s way. Dad understood that about God. So when dad got married and started his own home, he made a decision. He launched a new tradition. And I grew up in a home where we openly expressed our love for each other. It didn’t take three or four generations for this to evolve. Dad changed it suddenly because of who God is. Some of my best memories are the family sitting around the dinner table and dad saying, “Let’s take time now to affirm each other.” He set that tone. It was the gospel in our home. It’s what God has for every family here, starting today. Men, let’s repent of our silence and the sin of withheld love. Have we robbed our families of the love they deserve? Have we truly and worthily represented Christ to our families? Or have we in effect denied the gospel in our homes? And here’s a basic principle, men: If you don’t get radical, nothing will change. Christ got radical for you at the cross. And he put you with your wife because he loves her. He put you with her as a mighty blessing to her. So get radical, change, begin a new tradition in your home, starting today. Don’t you think the Lord will help you, if you step out in new obedience? Your family will rejoice over you.
Children growing in wisdom toward their parents
A wise son makes a glad father,
but a foolish man despises his mother.
If one curses his father or his mother,
his lamp will be put out in utter darkness.
Let your father and mother be glad;
let her who bore you rejoice.
Every one of us have a dad and mom. So God is speaking to all of us here. How can we grow in wisdom toward our parents? The key words in Proverbs 15:20 and 20:20 are “despises” and “curses.” Those words are the opposite of what God wants. What does God want? It’s in the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). And that command not to despise, not to curse, but to honor our parents – that command applies to us all our life long, even after we grow up and leave home.
What is God saying? To despise our parents is to treat them as worthless. To curse our parents doesn’t mean to swear at them but, like despise, to treat them as beneath us. And to honor our parents is to treat them as weighty and worthy, just because they’re our parents. They don’t have to earn our respect, we owe it to them. The burden is not on them but on us – according to God. That helps teenagers who sometimes think their parents are dumb. God says, even if you do think your parents are dumb, you still owe them respect.
How can all of us fulfill our obligation to honor our parents? We don’t have to agree with them. We don’t even have to stay close to them. Sometimes a little distance helps. But we can honor them in two ways. One, we can thank them. We can stop blaming them for their failures and thank them for their successes. Even if your parents were not Christians, still, if they taught you right from wrong with the understanding they had, they did their job. Thank them. Let them know they made an impact that you appreciate now. Two, if your parents were Christians, imitate them. The Bible says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God . . . , and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). It doesn’t say, “Imitate their style.” The style is passé. The faith endures – or at least it deserves to. My own parents lived out the Christian faith. In our home, Jesus Christ was loved and the Bible was revered and we were expected to live as Christians. The cause of Christ was the defining center of our home. If we ran short of money, we still tithed. Christ came first. I was taught to give him my all. That is the faith. And God is saying, “Don’t let it die. Keep that fire burning for a new generation.” We can honor our Christian parents by reproducing in our wishy-washy times an all-out Christian faith. And our parents will rejoice over us, even as the styles change.
Parents growing in wisdom toward their children
Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Your few years with your kids are a life-shaping opportunity. It might feel right now as though it will never end. But it will, and soon. Right now is your moment for enduring impact. There is more at stake for your child than getting into the best schools and the best sports and the best jobs. Your child has an eternal destiny. God has called you to train up your child to go to heaven. That is ultimately the way he should go. How do you help your child?
The word translated “train up” means “dedicate.” Dedicate your child to Christ. Your role is not to get him ready for the American Dream. That’s an easy way to hell. Your role is to raise him for Christ. This Hebrew word is related to an Arabic verb that was used of rubbing the palate of a newborn child with a date mixture, to get the child to suck. It means to accustom a child to a taste and to motivate the child to take it in. And the best way for you to influence your child in that way is for you to be a dedicated Christian. Children sense hypocrisy immediately. They also know sincerity. If you want your children to be passionate for Christ, let them see that passion in you. You dedicate your child to Christ by dedicating yourself to Christ so enthusiastically that your child tastes how good it is and wants more. Francis Schaeffer wrote this:
One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative. Christianity today is not conservative, but revolutionary. To be conservative today is to miss the whole point, for conservatism means standing in the flow of the status quo . . . . [W]e must teach the young to be revolutionaries, revolutionaries against the status quo.
As our children enter young adulthood especially, they learn to love that spirit and passion and boldness. What a joy it is, as a parent, to be the one to give it to them!
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
But there is another dynamic at work in our kids. Let’s be realistic about it. This word “folly” means “the willful refusal to make moral choices.” It is not wanting to grow up and enter adulthood with its moral demands. That folly is in a child’s heart, but we don’t object to it any more. It used to be that boys became men by age 21. But today we have a new category between boyhood and manhood, a prolonged adolescence. These are men who aren’t men, they don’t know what they want, they don’t make money, they don’t get married, they don’t have kids, they don’t buy a house. They live with mom and dad and play video games. But God calls us into adulthood, even before we feel ready:
Joshua was Moses’ assistant from his youth (Numbers 11:28);
God called Samuel into the ministry when he was a boy (1 Samuel 3);
David was anointed king as a young man (1 Samuel 16);
Josiah, the reformer king, was eight years old when he began to rule (2 Kings 22-23);
Daniel was a young man when he stood up to Babylonian culture and prevailed (Daniel 1);
Timothy was young enough to be called “my child” by Paul but was entrusted with the responsibility to lead the church into the post-apostolic era (1 Timothy 4:12; 2 Timothy 2:1);
John Quincy Adams was appointed by Congress as diplomatic secretary to the Court of Catherine the Great of Russia when he was fourteen years old. A year later he traveled unaccompanied for six months from St. Petersburg to Paris, stopping along the way in Stockholm to negotiate trade between the U.S. and Sweden;
David Farragut went to sea at age ten, fought in the War of 1812 at age eleven, and by age twelve rose to the rank of captain and commanded a captured British ship;
Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached his first sermon at age fifteen, pastored a church at sixteen, and at nineteen was preaching to crowds of 5000 people in London.
Our children have immaturity in their hearts, but they also have greatness in Christ. We parents help them into the greatness with the rod of discipline. It’s hard to read the Bible and get the impression that children should never be spanked. You have to figure this out for yourself, and some kids only need a stare to melt their hearts. But every child needs coaching and punishments and rewards that help them grow up and become men and women of destiny.
In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence,
and his children will have a refuge.
The greatest legacy we can leave our kids is how to trust in God when everything is on the line. Inevitably, life gets harder than we ever dreamed it would be. At those moments, when godly parents bow down and trust Christ, they are teaching their children how to draw strength from God in suffering. And those kids in their day will also find a refuge in God. I remember a man in my boyhood church who dying of cancer and suffering intensely. My dad went to see him and asked, “Rolf, would you like to die?” And Rolf said, “No, Ray. This might be the greatest day of my life.” I don’t know what else he left to his family, but that’s a great legacy of faith!
All of us growing in wisdom from the Lord
Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.
Everything depends on how we see God. When we suffer, it is so easy to see God as harsh and demanding and brutal. It feels like rejection. It feels like abandonment. It feels like loss. But the truth is, God is treating us as sons. God is leading us into maturity and wisdom and greatness. Some things in our lives we urgently need to lose, so that we can enter into infinitely greater things that will last forever and never be taken from us. Christ himself suffered. He was a perfect son of God, and even he learned the hard way (Hebrews 5:8).
But Jesus suffered in a way we never will. At the cross, he really was rejected, so that we will never be rejected. He was abandoned, so that we will always be held close. He was lost, so that we would be found. He was treated as an outcast and even an enemy, so that we would be treated as family. Whatever else God is doing in your life today, however painful it may be, if you are in Christ God is not forsaking you, God is not dismissing you, God is not hostile toward you. He is treating you as a son, a beloved son. His love is taking you deeper, because he deeply accepts you and rejoices over you and values you and understands you and has a magnificent future for you. Will you trust him and take the next step forward?