Sparing the Rod (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

There has always been something that bothered me about how some people use the biblical injunction to “spare the rod.” Now I think I have finally figured out what it is.

As I have mentioned before, our small group is reading through Ted Tripp’s book Shepherding a Child’s Heart. We have now finished the first part in which he presents his views of discipline and child-training. The second part is divided down by specific age levels and gets into more practical concerns. Mr. Tripp has a lot of good points to make. But I think there is one fundamental point on which I would disagree with him. He, like many others today, seems to take the rod as synonymous with discipline. because of this, he dismisses as unbiblical all other methods of discipline (other than communication) including time outs and loss of privileges, etc.

The most commonly cited verse is Proverbs 13:24:

“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” (NIV)

This verse makes use of that great biblical poetical technique, parallelism.  It has a negative and then a positive half, both of which say much the same thing. There is a cross pattern here so that the first part of the first verset corresponds to the second part of the second and vice-versa. We might set is up thusly:

He who                 spares the rod             hates his children;

He who                  loves his children      is careful to discipline them.

The thing about biblical parallelism though is that is rarely just repetition. We who are less familiar with it often take it to be just redundant. But in biblical parallelism, there is meaning. Even if the exact words were repeated again, which they almost never are, there would still be added meaning with each repetition.

In this verse, the negative in the first half “hates his children” is paralleled by its opposite in the second half “loves his children.”  This is one way that Hebrew can do parallelism. But there are many ways.  In the other halves of these versets, I think what we have is a movement from the particular to the general. That is, the rod is one form of discipline and, well, discipline in the second half is a broader more general term.

What I think Mr. Tripp and others often do is to read this verse and think that the rod equals discipline. But I don’t believe that is the case. Rather, the rod in the first half of this verse is one example of a form of discipline. It is not meant to sum up all of discipline. [In Mr. Tripp’s defense, he does very strongly say that the rod must be used with communication; but I also believe he is too dismissive of other forms of discipline.]

The rod is used in other verses where I would also say that it is used as a part to stand for the whole. Some of the most commonly cited are:

” Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away.” (Prov. 22:15)

“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.” (Prov. 23:13)

In the second of these, we have to opposite of what we found in the Proverbs 13 verse: a move from the general to the specific, discipline to rod. In Proverbs 22:15, I would take the rod as emblematic of discipline. It is the most obvious symbol of discipline being used to stand for all of discipline, but that does not mean it is all of discipline. None of these verses say to me that the rod and only the rod equal discipline.

I fear none of this is going to be very convincing to one who is otherwise convinced that the rod is the only way to go. All I can say is that this is how biblical parallelism works. It is not at all uncommon for the part to stand for the whole or for parallelism to move from the specific to the general or vice-versa.

I realize this is getting a bit long and I still have a few more thoughts to share but I think I will save them for a part 2.


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Links « Sparing the Rod (Part 1) […]


  2. […] who loves him is diligent to discipline him” [ESV]. (See my earlier posts on this verse here, here, and here. I guess I’ve blogged on this a […]


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