What does biblical discipline look like in a parent-child context? If spanking is a part of it, then when exactly? When are words enough?
Thankfully, the Bible answers these questions for us.
Let’s first settle the question about “the rod”—tbX in the Hebrew language, which is transliterated to Shebet. Each time we come across “rod” in the following verses, it is using this word, which means exactly what we would think it means: a rod, shaft, or club. You can do many things with the rod as we will see.
Understanding “the rod” is a simple thing to do as the Bible does not merely allude to it once or twice, but speaks in various places and in various ways as to the necessity of using a rod when necessary.
One of the first instances in Scripture where we see “the rod” being spoken of in a disciplinary sense is actually back in 2 Samuel during the time of King David when God was making His covenant with David, known simply as the Davidic Covenant. While God tells David about all that He is going to do through David’s lineage in a positive way, He also speaks to what He will do when Israel sins. Pay close attention:
Notice first of all that parental discipline with a rod is assumed, revealed in how God uses that as his prime example for inflicting pain on His children when they commit iniquity. Psalm 89 reiterates this, saying, “I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes” (v. 32).
Significantly: Who was the immediate king after David?—Solomon—the very man who wrote the majority of the book of Proverbs, in which our wisdom of godly parenting and discipline is found.
Later on in the book of Isaiah, we see what exactly “the rod” was for Israel when they sinned: “Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him” (5–6), (emphasis mine).
The warning for this kind of punishment went back even further than David—it went back to Moses himself: “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God . . . The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young” (Deut 28:1, 49–50).
God’s point to David was clear: I will be a father to them and I will discipline them when they sin, but my steadfast love will not depart from them. A parent who loves their children, disciplines in a way that at times will be painful—and oh how fleeting is that momentary sting?—in order to teach them of the ultimate reality that unchecked sin leads to eternal pain, even eternal death.
What may be helpful for us is to remember that “the rod” was also something that gently guided, as was often the case for shepherds. Their shepherd’s staff had an open curve at the end that they could use for both physically manhandling and gently guiding. We all know Psalm 23 where David said, “the LORD is my shepherd . . . thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (vss.1, 4).
Gentle guidance notwithstanding, Proverbs 13:24 says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (emphasis mine). The latter half could also be translated as “he who loves him disciplines him early.” Indeed, a necessary component.
Additionally, Proverbs 22:15 says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”
Sometimes people may be tempted to think that all of these verses pertaining to disciplining with the rod are simply ways of expressing how parents, like shepherds, used the rod of correction only to guide their children verbally, but not to correct, physically. While the guiding aspect is a necessary part of parenting, it is not to the exclusion of the actual “strike” that we call a spanking:
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol” (Prov 23:13–14). The statement is clear. Even in 26:3 we see that there is “a whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.”
Isaiah 28:27 also refers to the use of a rod for a blow which is quite revealing: “Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin, but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cumin with a rod.” We can clearly see what the use and intent of the rod was here.
That Hebrew word for “strike” is hkn, which means to be stricken, or smitten; to give a blow, or to beat. It is even used for clapping and applause. The sense is clear—it is a physical action that involves a type of hit. The biblical parenting context demands the backside, which rules out uncalled-for abuse, or sporadic "hitting" as is so misconstrued today.
Thus, spanking is not a recent invention of unloving disciplinarians, rather it is a specific tool meant to chasten our kids out of love so as to preserve them from death—something that has been the case for thousands and thousands of years.
Keep in mind that the entire book of Proverbs is essentially predicated on passing true wisdom from one generation to the next. It is written to ensure that the reader does not become a fool, but becomes wise, which will only happen where there is a fear of the LORD: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). Parenting is all about raising little fools to be wise men and women of God. Folly is bound up in their hearts, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away (22:15). Will we become the fools and despise Proverb’s wisdom by calling spanking an option that we choose not to exercise?
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered” (28:26). Being that this wisdom is found in the fear of the Lord, what does it reveal about us if we refuse to believe the wisdom that God has delivered here?
Let’s end in Proverbs 29 as we address some final aspects of biblical discipline. It is important to know that spanking in itself is not a magic pill. If you improperly spank, i.e. act inconsistent with discipline, act angry and seek revenge, etc., then you will probably be guilty of provoking your kids to anger and you will not have taught them a thing.
In 29:15, we see a critical dually-operating system of discipline that cannot be ignored. In fact, this corrects many false notions of effective parenting all at the same time. Notice my emphasis:
“The rod and reproof give wisdom . . .”
“The rod” refers to the spanking and “reproof” is a verbal reprimand, correction, or admonition. You see, it is both of these things that, when used in a loving way, seeks the positive edification of the child and will reap the fruit of righteousness later in life.
The second part of this verse cannot be overlooked either:
“. . . but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”
Where the rod and the reproof are overlooked, rebellious behavior—fueled by the internal sin-nature that we inherit from Adam—will have its way in the child. We cannot simply laugh our way through temper tantrums and defiant behavior as we play the victim that has the tougher lot in life with our kids. God gave us our specific kids to love, instruct, and discipline, and we would be downplaying our responsibilities, indeed the very reason for our existence, if we thought otherwise.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, sums up parenting in a single verse: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4). To the Colossians he wrote: “Do not provoke your children lest they become discouraged.”
Brow-beating, abusive behavior, belittling, humiliation, annoyed anger, and the like are not characteristics of godly people in general, let alone parents. It is significant to remember that even in a culture that had family-owned slaves, the Apostle reminded them that Christians were to be fair and just to them as well (Col 4:1). Everyone was to be treated graciously. There was never an allowance for abuse. Any type of correction that is done to our children is to always be controlled, temporary, and above all—loving.
In His Sovereign Grip,