As a new parent, I slowly opened the small children’s book — the first I would read to my baby girl — wanting to make the moment special. The book was entitled Children’s Stories written by one of my favorite pastors, J.C. Ryle. I opened to the first story entitled “The Two Bears.” How wonderful, I thought, a Christian spin of Goldilocks and the three bears.
A Scripture text was mounted at the top, and the chosen verses revealed quickly that this would not be a Christian fairy tale.
He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23–24)
The first line below the text read, “Dear children, have you ever seen a bear?” The story began, “Once on a time, many hundred years ago, there lived a godly man whose name was Elisha. . . .” I was stunned.
This is how you choose to start your children’s book? I considered skipping to the next story, in hopes of finding one more suitable for the occasion. More suitable. She would never remember this moment, but I would. Would I shield my child from the Bible?
Five Parenting Lessons from Two Bears
It is often the unrehearsed moments that show us what we really believe. Is all Scripture breathed out by God and profitable — or only some (2 Timothy 3:16–17)? Did I believe that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4)? Should I begin a legacy of her watching me skip past some of Scripture’s content?
“It is often the unrehearsed moments that show us what we really believe.”
Hesitantly, I went on to instruct my baby girl about the children and the she-bears. And I am so thankful I did. Through God’s word, and Ryle’s wise exhortations that followed, my Lord taught me from the story of Elisha, the forty-two boys, and the two bears. He imprinted unforgettable lessons upon my mind about parenting, that, with God’s help, will shape how my wife and I raise our daughter.
First, mind the company they keep.
He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. (2 Kings 2:23)
Was every one of the forty-two who died mocking the prophet? Did each, to a boy, lift up his adolescent voice against the man of God? Not likely. But they were found with the wicked children who were, and the bears did not discriminate. Ryle depicts the devastation,
Forty-two little boys and girls that night never came home to Bethel alive! Forty-two little suppers were not eaten! Forty-two little beds were not slept in! Forty-two little funerals took place next day! Some of the other children, I hope, got home safe, and were not hurt. But I am sure they would never forget what they had seen. They would remember the two bears as long as they lived.
We can be tempted to let our children alone with other foolish children because “kids will be kids.” But was not the proverb most painfully brought home to each parent that night when their child was not? “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20).
I aim to watch over her companions and to teach my daughter, as Ryle instructs, “Love those most who love God most, and choose for friends those who are God’s friends.”
Second, remind them of sin’s reward.
Two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:24)
I initially chafed at reading this passage of Scripture to my baby girl, wondering, Will it someday turn her away from the love of God? Beyond this, some of us struggle with it ourselves. We can feel that God and his prophet seriously overreacted. Why couldn’t Elisha take a joke? All of us have said things we weren’t proud of as children, right?
“More is at stake in our holiness and consecration to our Lord than we might think.”
I desire to never forget that my baby girl’s sin is not foremost an inconvenience or affront to me as the parent, but an affront to God as her Creator. All sins are arrows shot at him, whether or not they graze others as they fly by. We must not assume that just because we do not meet floods and fires from heaven that sin is somehow less offensive to God now. The wages of sin is always death (Genesis 2:17), from the beginning, to Elisha’s day, to Paul’s day, to ours. Apart from Christ, we all deserve no less than she-bears pouncing from the woods.
This is necessary preparation (and a useful illustration) for instruction in the gospel. Small views of family “mistakes, whoopsies, and slipups” present wrong understandings of sin — and prepares children for small views of Christ. Sinful children need a supreme Savior like the rest of us. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Third, watch over your own walk with Christ.
Perhaps some of the parents of these boys did what God required of them. Perhaps they did teach them to love God with their all as they walked along the way, when they sat in their homes, when they tucked them into their beds (Deuteronomy 6:4–5). Perhaps they did not hate their child by sparing the rod (Proverbs 13:24). Perhaps they did “train up their child in the way that he should go” and they did, in fact, depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). But most did not.
Bethel stood as the epicenter for Israel’s apostacy in that day (1 Kings 12:25–13:34). Did the children merely repeat the mockery that they heard their moms and dads mouthing in the home? Did the sins of the parents, who broke covenant with their God, finally catch up with them as he promised long ago?
I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted. (Leviticus 26:22)
More is at stake in our holiness and consecration to our Lord than we might think.
Fourth, tell them early and often of Christ.
If these boys were old enough to be judged with such swift and severe retribution, then they were old enough to be saved. These young ones should have been trusting their God and looking ahead to his coming Messiah, not shaming his prophet and crying out for his passing from this world. They should have waited eagerly for fresh revelation to fall from the prophet’s lips. Instead, they made fun of his baldhead.
“It’s not ours to give our children a half-Bible.”
My fallen sense of justice originally cringed because they were just children. But we see in Scripture that children can draw near to Jesus even as the adults try to shoo them away. If my baby girl is old enough to be eaten by bears because of sin, she is old enough to kneel in loving submission to the Lion of Judah and find eternal life.
Fifth, teach from all of Scripture.
A friend recently visited a public-school reading with a second-grade class. They read books such as Heather Has Two Mommies, Prince and Knight, and Daddy, Papa, and Me. The world is not embarrassed of its stories of debasing passions that lead to wrath — should we be ashamed of those stories of warning and promise that lead towards the God of life?
Let’s fight the urge to skip to the “more suitable” stories. As parents, we must exercise discernment on when to offer the details, of course, but not that “discernment” which slouches away from the whole counsel of God. It’s not ours to give them a half-Bible.
Jesus’s words are clear:
Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:38)
Will we teach our kids from all the Bible?