Thursday 17 November 2011

The Rod Verses: Taking other Proverbs literally

This is the second in a three-part series on the "rod verses" included in Proverbs. Part 2 (Taking other Proverbs literally) was preceded by Part 1 (Taking the rod verses literally) and will be followed by Part 3 (What are they really saying?).


"A wise man will hear and increase learning,
And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel,
To understand a proverb and an enigma,
The words of the wise and their riddles."

Proverbs 1:5-6

These two verses included in the opening paragraph of the Book of Proverbs give us an important clue as to how the proverbs are to be read. This book is not a set of direct instructions, but is rather proverbial wisdom literature that makes liberal use of metaphor, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, and other types of figurative language, none of which are intended to be taken literally.

Taking Proverbs Literally

In spite of the figurative language used throughout this book of wisdom, there are many who insist upon a literal interpretation of the five "rod verses". This literal interpretation is then applied in a pseudo-literal manner to form the idea of a "biblical model" of corporal punishment of children.

What would it look like if we took other proverbs literally? This is the question we will be exploring. My comments on each will be brief; the concept as a whole will be expanded upon in the "Figurative Language" section below.

Proverbs 1:8-9 "My son, hear the instruction of your father,
And do not forsake the law of your mother;
For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
And chains about your neck."

Proverbs 6:20-21 "My son, keep your father’s command,
And do not forsake the law of your mother.
Bind them continually upon your heart;
Tie them around your neck."

Proverbs 7:1-3 "My son, keep my words,
And treasure my commands within you.
Keep my commands and live,
And my law as the apple of your eye.
Bind them on your fingers;
Write them on the tablet of your heart."
These proverbs could be used to make a case for a modified version of Tefillin, with a parent's instructions physically bound around the child's neck.

Proverbs 1:31 "Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way,
And be filled to the full with their own fancies."

Proverbs 18:20 "A man’s stomach shall be satisfied from the fruit of his mouth;
From the produce of his lips he shall be filled."
Just as we recognize that the phrases "fruit of their own way" and "fruit of his mouth" are referring to something other than physical fruit, it is not unreasonable to presume that the phrase "rod of correction" is referring to something other than a physical rod.

Proverbs 3:21b-23 "Keep sound wisdom and discretion;
So they will be life to your soul
And grace to your neck.
Then you will walk safely in your way,
And your foot will not stumble."
To read this as a guarantee that the wise will not trip is to miss the bigger picture. Furthermore, reading the proverbs as promises can lead to much spiritual abuse; for instance, the idea that the wise will always be safe (as this proverbs states) lends support to the popular notion that those who experience injury or illness are experiencing the wrath, punishment, or discipline of God.

Proverbs 4:17 "For they eat the bread of wickedness,
And drink the wine of violence."
The bread of wisdom...the wine of violence...the rod of correction...

Proverbs 10:10 "He who winks with the eye causes trouble,
But a prating fool will fall."
Is this a warning against winking...or is there a larger meaning behind the words, perhaps a warning against being dishonest, sowing discord, mocking others, or tempting others into sin?

Proverbs 12:11 "He who tills his land will be satisfied with bread,
But he who follows frivolity is devoid of understanding.

Proverbs 28:19 "He who tills his land will have plenty of bread,
But he who follows frivolity will have poverty enough!"
These are very wise sayings, yes, but they are not promises or guarantees. Many a hard and faithful worker has fallen on hard times; many who work hard to till their land still go without food; many who are frivolous have more earthly riches than they could ever hope to use.

Proverbs 14:1 "The wise woman builds her house,
But the foolish pulls it down with her hands."
A literal interpretation of this would have many of us learning a few new trades; however, it would miss the deeper meaning and true wisdom in this proverb.

Proverbs 14:3 "In the mouth of a fool is a rod of pride,
But the lips of the wise will preserve them."
There's the rod again - only this time, it's a rod of pride. Is there a literal rod in the mouth of the foolish?

Proverbs 17:12 "Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs,
Rather than a fool in his folly."
Truly, I would take the fool over the mama bear robbed of her cubs! But to argue the point would be to miss the point of the verse altogether.

Proverbs 18:22 "He who finds a wife finds a good thing,
And obtains favor from the LORD."

Proverbs 19:13 "A foolish son is the ruin of his father,
And the contentions of a wife are a continual dripping."
The contrast of these two proverbs is an interesting one. A wife is a good thing, but a contentious wife is (like) a continual dripping. The first proverb is not a definite statement, but rather a generally true idea.

Proverbs 19:4 & 7 "Wealth makes many friends,
But the poor is separated from his friend.
All the brothers of the poor hate him;
How much more do his friends go far from him!
He may pursue them with words, yet they abandon him."
All of the brothers of the poor hate him, and all of his friends abandon him. Is this always and invariably true?

Proverbs 19:24 "A lazy man buries his hand in the bowl,
And will not so much as bring it to his mouth again."
I love the imagery here; to take it literally, however, would be foolish.

Proverbs 20:4 "The lazy man will not plow because of winter;
He will beg during harvest and have nothing."
...generally speaking, that is. Many lazy people, in spite of their laziness, do not go without. The Proverbs are not literal truths or guarantees; they are, however, very true when read as the wise sayings they are.

Proverbs 20:13 "Do not love sleep, lest you come to poverty;
Open your eyes, and you will be satisfied with bread."
Tired moms like myself are doomed. I love my sleep.

Proverbs 21:9 & 19 "Better to dwell in a corner of a housetop,
Than in a house shared with a contentious woman.
Better to dwell in the wilderness,
Than with a contentious and angry woman."
Truly better? Is this the advice we should offer to our friends who are having marital troubles, or the tactic a man should employ when living with a contentious and angry woman?

Proverbs 21:17 "He who loves pleasure will be a poor man;
He who loves wine and oil will not be rich."
The entertainment industry alone proves that this is no promise or guarantee. Many who love pleasure luxuriate in their riches.

Proverbs 23:2 "Put a knife to your throat
If you are a man given to appetite."
The instruction is clear; there is really no gray area here.

Proverbs 26:3 "A whip for the horse,
A bridle for the donkey,
And a rod for the fool’s back."
It is interesting that we no longer use corporal punishment on criminals, and yet we strike our children based on similar proverbs.

Proverbs 26:4-5 "Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes." or don't?

Figurative Language

This is only a minute sampling of the proverbs that make use of some type of figurative language. The idea of taking any of the above proverbs literally is unimaginable. Despite this, there are many who read the proverbial rod verses and, ignoring the figurative language they contain, use them to create an entire model of corporal punishment of children. As with other proverbs, this literal interpretation fails to unearth the rich wisdom and meaning the verses contain.

I would like to draw particular attention to two of the forms of figurative language used throughout the Book of Proverbs: metaphor and hyperbole. According to Merriam-Webster, these two terms are defined as follows:

Definition of metaphor:

a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language

Definition of hyperbole:

extravagant exaggeration (as “mile-high ice-cream cones”)

In addition to making use of such analogy and exaggeration, it must be stressed that the proverbs are general principles, not promises or guarantees. Interpreting them as promises lends support to many atrocities, including spiritual abuse ("your financial/health/marital struggles are evidence of your unrepentant sin...") and prosperity theology (the "health & wealth gospel").

The Bible includes narrative, prophesy, law, proverbs, poetry, epistles, and more. To take it "literally" where it is not intended to be is to misunderstand it. Scripture must be viewed as a total work and grounded in context (exegesis), not used backwards to support man-made concepts (eisegesis). When reading Scripture, we are to be wise and discerning, testing the spirits, and recognizing hyperbole and metaphors where they clearly exist.


From the above examination, we can draw three conclusions:
  1. Proverbs are not promises or guarantees.
  2. Proverbs make liberal use of metaphor.
  3. Proverbs make liberal use of hyperbole.

With this foundation in mind - first, the comparison between the "biblical model" of corporal punishment of children and the underlying rod verses themselves, and second, the exploration of the figurative language used throughout the Book of Proverbs, we can move on to the meat of the series in Part 3: What are the rod verses really saying?


  1. I love how much thought and research you put into your posts. Absolutely love it.

    The image I'm coming away with from this? A man saying, "My wife has PMS; I'm going camping." You know, that might not be a bad idea... ;)

  2. As the wife of a poet, my skin crawls when someone tries to use the proverbs as literal promises. Blech!

    But as a society, we're so far removed from the art of crafting words beautifully to illustrate concepts that we seem to have forgotten it was ever done at all.

  3. Consider this article by David Miller:
    "Lest someone get the idea that Solomon used the term “rod” figuratively, without intending to leave the impression that parents should actually strike their children with a rod, he clarified the target: “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell” (23:13-14). A proper balance is obviously needed between verbal reproof/encouragement on the one hand, and the application of corporal punishment on the other, as seen in the following words: “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. Correct your son, and he will give you rest; yes, he will give delight to your soul” (29:15,17, emp. added). The immense importance of the interplay between positive instruction, encouragement, and nurturing, in conjunction with appropriate physical punishment, cannot be overestimated nor successfully discounted."
    Also, he points out that if Proverbs 10:13 and 26:3 are obviously literal understandings of the word "rod" why would Solomon suddenly switch to the figurative use in the passages in question?
    Also, I can't help but add a quote in the article for a professor over a hundred years ago, but just as relevant today:

    "The primitive rigour of the Book of Proverbs is repudiated by modern manners. Not only in domestic training, but even in criminal law, people reject the old harsh methods, and endeavor to substitute milder means of correction. No doubt there was much that was more than rough, even brutal, in the discipline of our forefathers. The relation between father and child was too often lacking in sympathy through the undue exercise of parental authority, and society generally was hardened rather than purged by pitiless forms of punishment. But now the question is whether we are not erring towards the opposite extreme in showing more tenderness to the criminal than to his victim, and failing to let our children feel the need of some painful discipline. We idolize comfort, and we are in danger of thinking pain to be worse than sin. It may be well, therefore, to consider some of the disadvantages of neglecting the old-fashioned methods of chastisement."

  4. The reality that correction, punishment, and discipline can be done without striking seems to be lost on so many. My mother spanked me, my father did to guess which one I have always respected more? I never questioned my father's authority, nor disrespected him. My mother on the other hand, she and I were at constant loggerheads. That's just one small personal example. My father corrected me, my father disciplined me, but he did not do it with a literal rod or his hand.

    Your post is inspiring. I couldn't agree with you more. I had always planned to be a spanker (after all, my mother did it, and I "turned out okay.") but then I remembered that we are told by His Word that we are to do everything we do to the glory of God. When I delved into His Word on the subject of discipline, I found nothing to literally support corporal you are so eloquently demonstrating. Thank you!

  5. hi..

    I like this alot. Maybe if you like I can send you some info on proverbs which might spark your research interests more.

    Let me know.

    All the best

    sam -

  6. Samuel, that would be most welcome indeed.

  7. Brilliant, as always! I am so thankful for your deep love and respect for God's Word, and that it matters enough to you to go beyond a superficial reading into the heart of what God is truly teaching us. <3 Thank you!

  8. These are really great posts! I appreciate you taking the time to write it so well.

  9. Karyn, what a great example. Although personally, I'm the one in need of the camping trip at those times!

    Mama Psalmist, interesting point. Little value is placed on poetry in our society, so it is little wonder we struggle to recognize the depth such language contains.

    Denise, thank you for sharing that perspective. The rod is also used in a clearly figurative manner elsewhere in Proverbs (such as chapter 14, the rod of pride in the fool's mouth), so it's not as straightforward as the author would suggest. I will examine the issue more on Monday in Part 3. As for discipline, it is often painful all on its own; the parent does not need to add additional pain on top of that in order for the child to understand the seriousness of the issue. There are more effective ways than pain in discipling a child into maturity. The Bible clearly, however, speaks against a hands-off permissive style of parenting; I believe we are in agreement on that point.

    Anon, thank you for sharing your experience. A parent who accepts his authority with calm certainty rather than attempting to enforce it through pain is often far more effective in his discipline, winning his child's trust and respect rather than fear.

    Dulce, Ashley, Nicole, thank you. I deeply appreciate your encouragement.

  10. I've really enjoyed reading these posts... well done!!

  11. That verse in chapter 14 is not "clearly figurative," it's only figurative in the footnote!

    Also, I would appreciate it if you didn't censor my last comment in the other post. I spent a lot of time on that one and I wish you would inform us ahead of time if there are other reasons besides insults that you censor a comment so that we are not wasting our time.

  12. Denise, I have not censored a single comment and do not appreciate the accusation in the least. Comments are currently moderated and I was not at home this afternoon to publish them. Now that I am home, I have published everything that was there. Censorship has never had a place here nor will it in the future.

  13. "That verse in chapter 14 is not "clearly figurative," it's only figurative in the footnote!"

    I'm not sure what you're saying here. Are you saying that the "rod of pride" in the fool's mouth is not necessarily figurative? That there truly is a rod in the fool's mouth?

  14. Denise, I have to apologize, I believe I spoke too harshly. Although I had told you before that I don't censor comments here and thus did not appreciate the accusation, I can understand why the delay in publishing would make you think I had removed it. I do appreciate and value the time you have put in to your replies.

  15. HHW,
    I guess I thought you were censoring my comment because I saw someone's comment that afternoon. It must have been the time change or something.

    Thanks for reading the article. Regarding, Proverbs 14:3, I didn't get a chance to look at other translations, but when I read that verse in the ESV it said: "By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back..." and the footnote states that it could also mean the "rod of pride."

  16. Ah, that makes far more sense, thank you for clarifying. I hadn't noticed that difference in translations.

  17. To claim there is no evidence in the Scriptures for corporeal punishment is a bit far-fetched. stone your rebellious son, the proverbs as instructions (not just flowery philosophical metaphors), and most importantly, Jesus dying a physical death on the cross to satisfy the wrath of God are enough for me to consider allowing for physical consequences for sin.

  18. L&L, I specified no corporal punishment of young children, not no corporal punishment in general. None of the examples you briefly mentioned support the idea of striking a young child.

    I do wholeheartedly agree with you that the rod verses are not "flowery philosophical metaphors", but rather very weighty warnings given to parents on the subject of authoritatively disciplining, correcting, teaching, and guiding their children along right paths. They are not to be taken lightly nor brushed off at all.

  19. Shared!! This is awesome, and exactly how I feel about the subject. We are Christians, but never hit/spank our children <3

  20. If you can't get your children to learn from you without physically striking them, you'd make a poor public school teacher. Kids aren't dummies. They must know a lot of preachers are adulterers and moral failures. Yet preachers never get hit for their own sins. Why are children't sins a lot worse than those of grownups? One preacher who hollers the loudest about sin in america and the need to spank kids left his wife for a cute chick, ditched his family and started another one. How's that for hypocrisy?