Thursday, June 23, 2016

Proverbs 23:1-8 and Warnings about the Social Heights

When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
    observe carefully what is before you,
2 and put a knife to your throat
    if you are given to appetite.
3 Do not desire his delicacies,
    for they are deceptive food.
4 Do not toil to acquire wealth;
    be discerning enough to desist.
5 When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
    for suddenly it sprouts wings,
    flying like an eagle toward heaven.
6 Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy;
    do not desire his delicacies,
7 for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.
    “Eat and drink!” he says to you,
    but his heart is not with you.
8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
    and waste your pleasant words. (Proverbs 23:1-8)

The first three verses of Proverbs 23 form a kind of thematic whole. The picture is that of a dinner party (‘When you sit down to dine’) in the setting of high society (‘with a ruler’). Should you find yourself elevated to the invitation list, be careful how you think about your good fortune and how you conduct yourself. The point seems to be that there is often more going on at such functions than immediately meets the eye (boy, isn't that the truth!). We are tipped off to this by the fact that the delicacies are called ‘deceptive food’ (v. 3).

Verse 2 warns us to ‘observe carefully what is before you.’ Some marginal readings suggest that this may be translated ‘Consider carefully who is before you’ (the Hebrew text appears to favor the translation ‘what’ and is supported by the LXX). In the end, the difference is probably small. The point is that one must not be lured by the draw of riches and its luxuries, for, in its spell, he may be blinded to more important realities that are at play. One things of Daniel in Babylon. Daniel is a classic example of one who carefully discerned the eternal as he was invited to ‘dine with a ruler’ (Dan. 1:8ff). Jesus also warned of the undisclosed motives of those who flaunt their wealth and resources at dinner parties (Luke 14:7–14).

In verse 2 we learn of the answer to the deceptive charm of luxuries dangled before us if we have a great appetite for such things—‘put a knife to your throat.’ The shocking expression points to a ruthless self-control. The call is not to suicide, but to moderation. Undiscerning feeding of simple appetites can lead to an unseen snare of untold miseries. Is it intentional irony that the call is to put the knife to ‘your throat’ rather than to your meal? Jesus called His followers to just such a fierce temperance (Matt. 18:8, 9) and Paul reiterated that command (1 Cor. 9:24–27). This is all predicated upon a condition—‘If you are a man of great appetite.’ The person whose appetites are routinely unrestrained makes himself vulnerable to the intrigues of unscrupulous persons who possess the means to draw him in. Gluttony is routinely condemned in Proverbs, sometimes because of its encouragement toward laziness (Prov. 23:20, 21), and other times because of its effect upon relationships (Prov. 28:7).

A third exhortation in verse 3 is added to those of verses 1–2, and then they are justified. The first line exhorts one to ‘not desire his [the ruler’s] delicacies.’ Such people possess the resources to awaken our previously untapped appetites. We may not perceive our vulnerabilities here, because such temptations are so rare. How often does one dine with a person of such means? It is easy to reason, ‘When will I ever get an opportunity like this again?’ The same exhortation is found in a different context in verse 6. Note the prayer of David in Psalm 141:4!

The second line provides the reason for all these extreme exhortations—‘it is deceptive food.’ The expression is, literally in Hebrew, ‘bread of lies.’ This could, of course, simply mean that, while such food tastes good, it cannot ultimately satisfy. This may be because you’ll never be able to afford such delicacies again or that such frivolous pleasures are empty in the end. Or, it could mean that the ruler himself is using the food for some ulterior motive in dealing with you. This latter option seems the most likely. Again, Daniel provides the best example of one who saw past the sumptuously spread table before him and chose God’s better way (Dan. 1:5, 8, 13–16).

In verse 4 there is a warning against pursuing wealth which in form is somewhat new in Proverbs. Proverbs promises wealth as a reward for wisdom (Prov. 8:21; 14:24), righteousness (Prov. 15:6), generosity (Prov. 11:25) and diligence (Prov. 10:4; 12:27). It roundly condemns ill-gotten gains (Prov. 10:2; 15:27). True, Proverbs tells us that God promises to redistribute the wealth of those who are greedy after gain (Prov. 21:6; 28:8), that clamoring after riches is a trap whose jaws are seldom seen in time to do anything about it (Prov. 11:4; 28:22), and that it is better to be poor and possess integrity than it is to possess things but lack honesty (Prov. 16:8). But, Proverbs does not, generally, cast a negative light upon wealth itself.

Here, the warning is against exhausting oneself and all one’s resources in an effort to gain a life of luxury. This does not denounce hard work to provide well for one’s family, to meet one’s obligations and to keep from being a burden to others. Here, the concern is the person who sacrifices everything (family, health, time, God, etc.) in an effort to gain a life of untouchable wealth.

The second line adds the warning ‘Cease from your consideration of it.’ The NIV renders it ‘have the wisdom to show restraint.’ Both translations are an effort to translate the more literal Hebrew: ‘from your understanding cease.’ This could mean either that, because you possess understanding, give up this senseless pursuit of wealth. Or, it could mean that you are to stop trying to understand just what you have to do to get rich.

The next verse will provide the justification for such warnings. This is a theme, however, that is sounded throughout the Scriptures (Prov. 28:20, 22; Matt. 6:19; 1 Tim. 6:9–11, 17; Heb. 13:5). Note especially Ecclesiastes 5:10–16.

Verse 5 follows upon the previous one, providing here the justification for the warnings sounded there. The first line is literally, ‘Will your eyes fly on it?’ The idea is that of letting your eyes fly away from what they should be fixed upon and, in a fancied flight of imagination, letting them become transfixed upon the luxuries of wealth. The trouble with such a make-believe world is that, soon, the bubble pops and ‘it is gone.’

Indeed, ‘wealth certainly makes itself wings, Like an eagle that flies toward the heavens.’ Ironically, when you have let ‘your eyes fly’ to the covetous world of wealth, that wealth ‘makes itself wings’ and ‘flies toward the heavens’ (cf. Isa. 11:14). In other words, pursuing riches is like grasping wind, nearly impossible and certainly frustrating. When given as a gift from God, wealth can be a great blessing (Prov. 15:6). But, when pursued for its own sake, it is unattainable or, at least, unretainable (Prov. 27:24). The nest-egg you have laid with such trouble hatches out, sprouts wings and disappears into the sky like an eagle, never to be seen again, gone where you can’t recover it’ (emphasis his).

In verses 6-8, we meet a social situation not dissimilar to that of verses 1–3. The major difference is the nature and character of the host of the dinner party. There, it was a ruler; here it is ‘a selfish man.’ The phrase is, literally, ‘an evil eye.’ We are warned not to share a meal with such a one. The reasons will be provided in verses 7, 8. The word ‘delicacies’ refers to food that is especially tasty. It describes something that might be saved for special guests, but, here, it is offered begrudgingly, for ‘his heart is not with you’ (v. 7b). The Mosaic Law warned about performing outward forms of generosity without an inward heart of sincerity (Deut. 15:9).

In verse 7, we are now given justification for the commands in verse 6. The greatest challenge of this verse comes in its first line. The Hebrew is, most literally, ‘as he calculates within his soul, so [is] he.’ This means simply that it is not what he says or how he behaves outwardly that determines who he truly is. Rather, it is what he is thinking within himself as you eat of his food and partake of his drink that defines the reality of his character.

The word translated ‘he thinks’ means to calculate or measure. This form is found only here in the Old Testament. For this reason, no doubt, the LXX has read it as the word for ‘hair’ and translates as ‘Eating and drinking [with him] is as if one should swallow a hair.’ This provides some reason for the regurgitation mentioned in verse 8. It is the disgusting selfishness of the calculating host that makes one sick, not the ill-prepared food. Outwardly, this host is the picture of generosity, saying to you, ‘Eat and drink!’ But, this is not reality. Don’t be fooled, for ‘his heart is not with you.’ ‘He who hates disguises it with his lips, But he lays up deceit in his heart. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him, For there are seven abominations in his heart’ (Prov. 26:24, 25).

In verse 8 we learn the truth. The character of the host has been discovered (‘a selfish man,’ v. 6). His attitude toward you, and what he has offered you, has been laid bare (‘his heart is not with you,’ v. 7). Suddenly, his sweet ‘delicacies’ (v. 6) turn sour in your stomach. As the realization of the situation’s reality washes over you, it makes you sick (‘will vomit up’). The vomiting is, no doubt, intended metaphorically, pointing to the social embarrassment you feel. You may not have eaten much in volume (‘the little you have eaten,’), but it is unsettling nevertheless.

Suddenly, you replay every moment since the invitation was given. You process all the hypocritical words of invitation extended to you. You realize now how untrue all your kind ‘compliments’ have been and wish they had never left your mouth.

Note the irony of the vile, sour vomit that proceeds from the mouth in the end (line one), in contrast to the ‘compliments’ (lit., ‘pleasant words’) that first passed over the lips (line two).

Beware the potential insincerity of the social heights! One must not be lured by the draw of riches and its luxuries, for, in its spell, he may be blinded to more important realities that are at play