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Is the Rod of Proverbs Literal or Metaphorical?

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It’s a question parents sometimes ask. “Is the rod of discipline in Proverbs talking about an actual rod of sorts? Or could I instead discipline my child with a metaphorical rod of my choosing?”

Proposed rod substitutions are numerous. You’ve probably heard of many. Hot sauce. Time outs. Warnings. Withholding cartoons. A flick. Sometimes these are assumed to be hermeneutically legitimate variations of the commended rob in Proverbs. So, is the rod in Proverbs to be taken literally or metaphorically?

God’s Love in Discipline

God loves children (Ps. 127:3). His love for them surpasses even that of a parent. And God commands parents to discipline their children (Prov. 19:18). So far from being mutually exclusive, God’s kind of discipline is a manifestation of love.  

“My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD or loathe His reproof, for whom the LORD loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:11-12).

Discipline is a means of common grace for humanity (Prov. 20:30). For children and adults, discipline paves the way for learning and wisdom. It is a critical, God-given means to deal with the curse of depravity and gift them with wisdom. All humanity needs to be taught the immense value of embracing discipline early on.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid (Prov. 12:1).

A wise son accepts his father’s discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke (Prov. 13:1).

For children, God commands the use of the rod:

He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently (Prov. 13:24).

Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him (Prov. 22:15).

Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol (Prov. 23:13-14).

The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother (Prov. 29:15).

All that is necessary to set a child up for a life of foolishness is nothing. Because they come prepackaged with foolishness and sin (Prov. 22:15, Jer. 17:9, Ps. 51:5), they are preset on a trajectory of wickedness. In his mercy, God has prescribed the rod of discipline. It’s a great favor to the child itself (for years to come) and to that society in which the child lives. They must be loved enough to administer a degree of restraint on that prepackaged foolishness, hence the rod.

What is the Rod?

The Hebrew word used in context of discipline (e.g. Prov. 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15) speaks of an object like a club, staff, or scepter (Brown-Driver-Briggs, 986). It was used to describe an instrument for beating cumin (Isa. 28:27), a weapon (2 Sam. 23:21), and as a shepherd’s implement either to muster or count sheep (Lev. 27:32; Ezek. 20:37), or to protect them (Ps. 23:4; Mic. 7:14) (Dan Phillips, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, 274). Obviously when it comes to a child’s discipline, we are not talking about a weapon.

The rod was also used as an instrument for either remedial or penal punishment. As a corrective instrument it was used for a fool (Prov. 10:13, 26:3, and a son (Prov. 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15) (Bruce Waltke, Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, 2:897).

Further, it’s worth considering the specificity of the term, “rod.” The Holy Spirit did not give us a general term. For example, it does not say, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, consequences will remove it far from him.” If the aforementioned verses said things like “penalties,” “punishment,” “reprimands,” or “negative reinforcement,” the rod would be open to a variety of arbitrary applications. However, in the context of disciplining children, it is the rod that is mentioned (Prov. 13:24, 23:13-14, 22:15, 29:15). There is a consequence, but the consequence is specified. Thus, for those who disagree, the burden of responsibility is upon them to demonstrate exegetically and contextually that the rod does not mean the rod.

Therefore, we conclude that the biblical data teaches an instrument which can inflict the memorable experience on the God-given soft spot of the child, without injuring, and in the context of love and understanding.

Many testify similarly:

“The rod is a parent, in faith toward God and faithfulness toward his or her children, undertaking the responsibility of careful, timely, measured, and controlled use of physical punishment to underscore the importance of obeying God, thus rescuing the child from continuing in his foolishness until death” (Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 104).

“God has thoughtfully provided parents with a ‘bull’s-eye’ that is a well-padded area which He kept free from sensitive internal organs” (Dan Phillips, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, 276).

“Pain can be a great teacher indeed. As any parent of a toddler will tell you, there are lessons that very young children will not learn without a spanking…[P]roperly administered physical discipline is an act of love, and as the Bible indicates, those who spare the rod are hating their children and not showing them love and affection (Prov. 13:24; 22:15; 23:13–14; Heb. 12:7–11)” (R.C. Sproul).

“It will take more than words to dislodge [foolishness]” (Derek Kidner, Proverbs, 47).

The Context of the Rod

Scripture teaches a few things as to the context of discipline. First, the context of the rod is God’s desire to form a measure of appropriate behavior towards others, while also sparing that child from the full capacity of his foolishness (Prov. 22:15). Second, the context of the rod is clearly the parent-child relationship. Proverbs speaks of the use from a parent to his child (Prov. 13:24). Third, the context of the rod is a relationship of tender love from the parent to the child. Parents are to love their children as themselves, considering them more important than themselves (Matt. 22:39, Phil. 2:3-4). Children then understand that the rod is an application of their ongoing love and care. Fourth, discipline should never be administered in anger or excess (Eph. 6:4). Doing so is sin against God and the child. Fifth, discipline should be administered in the context of understanding. A child must understand beforehand (and during) what the boundaries are, and the consequence for crossing them. Biblical discipline is the context of disobedience and inappropriate behavior, not because a parent is irritated or angry. Sixth, the rod is to be administered diligently; consistently (Prov. 13:24).

Conclusion

As Scripture is the inerrant, authoritative word of God, parents understand that lovingly administering the rod is an act of submission and obedience to God.

Tedd Tripp has wisely said, “The use of the rod is an act of faith. God has mandated its use. The parent obeys, not because he perfectly understands how it works, but because God has commanded it. The use of the rod is a profound expression of confidence in God’s wisdom and the excellence of his counsel” (Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 105).

Ultimately, this is a matter of heeding the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture.

Certainly, there is more that would need to be said about the biblical administering of the rod. For our purpose here, we understand that the rod is not hot sauce. And, parents can be assured that God is not asking them to treat their child with abuse or a lack of love when they administer the rod biblically. Scripture is God’s word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God loves our children more than we do; he is perfect in love (Matt. 5:48, 1 John 4:8). Therefore, what he says concerning the rod is ever and only love.

“Soft-hearted mothers rear soft-headed children; they hurt them for life because they are afraid of hurting them when they are young” (Charles Spurgeon, PP110).

“As for those parents who will not use the rod upon their children, I pray God He useth not their children as a rod for them” (Thomas Fuller, A Puritan Golden Treasury, 203).

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