Proverbs 23

This chapter continues the theme of the previous, in which an aging ruler seeks to warn his heir from folly. We continue with the longer statements in small paragraphs.

1-3. When you sit down to eat with a ruler, look carefully at what is before you; and put a knife to your throat, if you are a man given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceitful food. Cynicism is not your soul, but your friend. All the more so should you keep cynicism close when in the presence of human authorities. Don’t just swallow whatever they give you; pay close attention and consider everything carefully. With rulers, manipulation is the norm. It’s not the same as calling every ruler evil, but that it is simply a part of their position. Note that if you don’t suck up to them, they are more likely to treat you with respect.

4-5. Do not labor to be rich; cease from your own understanding. Will your eyes fly on it? And it is gone! For surely it makes wings for itself; it flies into the heavens like an eagle. Ancient figures of speech don’t translate easily here. This continues the theme of cynicism by applying it to yourself. Don’t be a sucker to your own apparent success. Always assume you are missing something critical; not in the sense of paranoid obsessions, but you should always seek counsel from those who see things differently. That warm glow of satisfaction can fly away suddenly when your accomplishment turns out to be worthless against the reality of unanticipated difficulties.

6-8. Do not eat the bread of him who has an evil eye, nor desire his dainty foods; for as he thinks in his heart, so is he. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you. Your bit which you have eaten, you shall vomit up, and spoil your pleasant words. More of the noble cynicism should teach you it’s better to go hungry than accept support from someone who operates from spite. The English confuses things by translating two different words as “heart.” A spiteful man does not think with his heart; the first occurrence of the word is nephesh, more often translated as “soul” and implies a lower level of awareness, of mere intellect and reason. Since such a man ignores the moral understanding of his heart, then surely his heart is not with you. You may well suffer his spite yourself for rejecting his enticements, but it’s better than weakening your position by the taint of his fellowship.

9. Do not speak in the ears of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words. This is a companion to the previous paragraph. The word for “speak” means to explain something. This reflects the broader wisdom of keeping your mouth shut until you have people’s attention. A fool pays attention only to his personal fantasies and is angered when someone deflates them and makes him feel like the fool he is.

10-11. Do not remove the old landmarks, and do not enter into the fields of the fatherless; for their Redeemer is mighty; He shall plead their cause with you. The image of “the fatherless” is the ultimate symbol of those who are the easiest targets for abuse; no one seems to care if they are treated unjustly. Perhaps the best cultural equivalent for this proverb today is shattering the illusion of entitlement. There’s nothing wrong with reassessing traditions if you seek to understand what they protect in moral terms. But too often people are seeking only an excuse to fulfill their own lusts, and such an examination turns into a legalistic exercise in moral perversion. Change archaic customs, but don’t attack the divine moral justice behind them. There is a Creator who stands behind His own moral character woven into Creation.

12. Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to the words of knowledge. This is a customary closing that marks the end of Solomon’s quotation from the Egyptian source. This is the standard recognition that the heart-mind is the proper center of our existence in this fallen realm of existence. When the focus of your awareness is in that higher level of eternal moral convictions, your ears will be attuned to ideas in the mind that support God’s moral character. Solomon continues in the same style, echoing a wider wisdom established well before his time.

13-16. Do not withhold correction from a boy, for if you beat him with the rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from hell. My son, if your heart is wise, my heart shall rejoice, even mine. Yea, my heart shall rejoice when your lips speak right things. This follows directly on the previous admonition. Again, the Ancient Near Eastern concept of human nature is something not necessarily evil as it is fallen and in need of moral boundaries. The term for “rod” is contextually more like a switch. Once a human develops to the point they can grasp the notion of a heart-led existence, they don’t need much correction of that sort, but it takes considerable years of experience to develop that moral wisdom that would make a father rejoice.

17-18. Do not let your heart envy sinners; but be in the fear of the LORD all the day long. For surely there is a hereafter, and your hope shall not be cut off. Continuing along the same line of thought, it’s entirely possible for your heart to take the wrong path, too. While we don’t have any sort of clinical terminology for it, the Hebrews surely understood it, referring to a darkened heart. Thus, the warning here is to avoid such darkness by choosing your models carefully. Be conscious of who your heroes are, in terms of how well they represent the revelation of God. While the Hebrew term translated “hereafter” is ambiguous, only with a Western bias would anyone imagine the Hebrew people didn’t believe in a Spirit Realm wholly separate from this level of existence, a place where your standing with God made all the difference, a difference we tend not to see so clearly here below.

19-28. My son, hear and be wise, and guide your heart in the way. Do not be among those who drink much wine, among gluttons for flesh for themselves, for the drunkard and the glutton lose all, and sleepiness shall clothe a man with rags. Listen to your father who sired you, and do not despise your mother when she is old. Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding. The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice; and he who fathers a wise child shall have joy from him. Your father and your mother shall be glad, and she who bore you shall rejoice. My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes watch my ways. For a harlot is a deep ditch, and a strange woman is a narrow pit. She also lies in wait as for prey, and increases the treacherous among men. Solomon lays it on thick here because the danger is so very great. One of the quickest ways to destroy everything that matters on this earth is through dissipation, and it’s much worse for rulers because they bear the guilt of destroying everyone they rule at the same time. Thus, the appeal here is first personal: “Don’t crap on your mother and I, son.” The two primary concerns are drunkenness and skirt-chasing.

29-35. Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has fighting? Who has babbling? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who stay long at the wine, those who go to seek mixed wine. Do not look upon the wine when it is red, when it gives its color in the cup, when it goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like an asp and stings like an adder. Your eyes shall look upon strange women and your heart shall speak perverse things. Yes, you shall be as one who lies down in the middle of the sea, or as one who lies upon the top of a mast, saying, “They struck me; I was not sick; they beat me, but I did not know it. When I awaken, I will add more. I will seek it again.” The same warning as the previous paragraph continues under the appeal to self interest. Here Solomon shows how the two greatest threats are intertwined. Drunkenness leads to adultery, and the stress from that can lead to more drunkenness. Nobody in the Old Testament condemned sex or wine in themselves, but like every other good thing from God, it’s too easy to make lesser things your god. Lust can pervert the message you hear from your heart.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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