Is the “rod” in Proverbs 13:24 a literal rod (i.e., like a cane) or should it be taken metaphorically as referring to “discipline” which can take any form?

Proverbs 13:24 reads: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” I am aware that there are godly ministers who have held to the view that the rod here is to be taken metaphorically, and that the use of the rod or cane on children is unloving. I think there is something we must learn from that view, in that discipline need not always be enacted with the use of the rod or cane; and that love must be our primary motive for chastisement of our children. However, I am personally convinced that the use of the rod or cane is a biblical method of chastening.

First of all, the most basic meaning of the Hebrew word for “rod” (shebet), as given in the Lexicon is: “rod, staff (evidently common article), for smiting” (BAGD). It is true that shebet can also be translated as “sceptre” (e.g., Gen 49:10), and “sceptre” is often used as a figure of speech for authority. But I believe our translators are correct to render the word as “rod” in Proverb 13:24, because the context speaks of chastisement. The original readers of Solomon, reading shebet in the context of chastisement would no doubt have understood that corporal infliction of pain is involved, for it is impossible in the context to translate shebet as “sceptre,” and if “rod” is meant, how else would one use a rod in chastisement? “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back” (Prov 26:3), says Solomon.

Secondly, if we should interpret “rod” as being a general metaphor for discipline, then it will be quite impossible to interpret verses where the use of the rod is given as one means of discipline, such as: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Prov 29:15).

Thirdly, Solomon, writing under inspiration, also says: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell” (Prov 23:13–14). The word rendered “beat” (nakah) occurs 500 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Apart from its occasional use to describe the affliction of disease upon plants, animals or men, it always implies the use of physical force. So we can be quite sure that Solomon has in mind literal beating or spanking. Indeed, if he does not have that in mind, why does he assure the parents: “if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die” (italics mine)?

We conclude therefore that the literal use of the rod is biblical and right, even though it may go against our sense of civility. Indeed, the literal use of the rod may be said to be mandatory where childish rebellion is evident. We must be careful not to read our culture and personal sentiments into the Scriptures.

Now, having said all these, I think we must be extremely careful not to misuse the text to justify any abuse of children. All chastisement must be loving and with the aim of inculcating good in our children. It must never be carried out in anger or irritation, for sin makes it difficult for us to control ourselves when we are reacting emotionally. Also chastisement must be fitted according to the age of the child. To use a rod on a baby who is not cognisant of right or wrong (cf. Deut 1:39; Jon 4:11) could indeed be barbaric. Indeed, I believe the rod should be used only when the child have some idea of the difference between “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” or “yes” and “no.” (See “ Biblical Principles for Training Children” in PCC Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 30, dated 21 January 2001.)