Chapter 23: Commentary

Chapter 23 is a continuation of the second collection of Proverbs (10:1-24:34), consisting of mainly one-verse wise sayings of typical Hebrew poetry attributed to Solomon. But this chapter is also a continuation of the special section of typically two-verse wise sayings which began in 22:17. This chapter seems to have an overall focus in living in self-control. It includes some longer wise sayings, many of which tend to address food, drink and over indulgence (1-3, 6-8, 19-21, 29-35).


23:1 When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you,

23:2 and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.

23:3 Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.

     Thus begins a discussion about an invitation to dine with a ruler. Here are two commands and some basic advice – think very carefully about what is happening and what you might do! The first command is to "note well what is before you" and then the advice – put a knife to your own throat now, if you are planning to indulge yourself!
      The second command is "do not crave" all the good stuff he offers you, because all is not as it might appear at that moment. While not stated explicitly, the reason is simple. As the modern wise saying goes – "there's no such thing as a free lunch!"
      When a bigshot invites us to eat with him, it is a good possibility he wants something from us. While the meal is free and I can eat all I want now, I better understand he might well expect something from me later. And there is a very good chance he will want me to do things I would not normally do on my own.

      This is how life works and, whether the "ruler" is a player on the streets, a politician or even a religious leader, we are supposed to think carefully about what is happening and what might be coming. If I find myself so willing to satisfy my appetite for food, drink, drugs, sex, rock-n-roll or whatever - I might as well just go ahead and hurt myself now! Because this is certainly going to cost me big-time later.

23:4 Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.

     God advises us that we should not invest all our thinking, time and energy in getting rich. First, because all our efforts may just not produce much at all – that it was not a good investment of any of them. Second, we may be able to get riches, but not be able to keep it.
      Third, wealth is not all it is cracked up to be and it may not provide us the things that really matter to us. Fourth, if God wants us to have it, we don't need to wear ourselves out to try and make it happen. He can handle that all for us.
      The second half of the verse, "have the wisdom to show restraint" is more of an explanation than a translation. Actually it consists of two words in Hebrew: "from-your-own-understanding cease." It reminds me of one of my favorite verses in Proverbs (the second part of 3:5) – "and lean not on your own understanding."
      This verse tells us to curb both our actions and attitudes. We are not to succumb to focusing on wealth and going after it. In the end, wisdom is much better than riches, because wisdom brings sufficient riches along with it, helps us appreciate what we have, pass it around and share it with others.

23:5 Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.

     This verse continues the theme of the preceding verse -- riches. They can be gone in a glance, gone so high and far away that we can't touch or maybe even see them again. Most of us have experienced this on some level and understand that it's just a truth about life.
      But the bigger issue for us is really this: that we continue to believe riches are so important and that, somehow, we can hold on to them. Neither are true.

      The best way to deal with riches would be to trust God, work hard and appreciate everything we have – one day at a time. Job understood how it worked and, in the end, was able to accept the process: "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21 ESV).

23:6 Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies;

23:7 for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. "Eat and drink," he says to you, but his heart is not with you.

23:8 You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments.

     Similar to the warning about sitting down to a meal with a ruler (:1-3) these 3 verses offer insights about eating the food of a stingy man. In short, it suggests that we just don't do it (:6)! There seems to be no good reason, no advantage, to sitting down to a meal he offers, no matter how tempting it looks.
      The reason it is not good to join him is because of his heart attitude – he says one thing, but means something else (:7). While he suggests that the meal is free, it will absolutely cost us if we chose to sit and dine with him. Whatever we ate will not do us any good and any other kind of benefit we might think could come from such a meal will not materialize (:8). It is the ancient version of the modern day wise saying "there is no such thing as a free lunch!"
      Admittedly we might not know he is this kind of guy before we sit to dine with him. But once we realize it, understand nothing good is going to come out of it and we should extricate ourselves as soon as possible. If we realize who we are dealing with ("a stingy man") in advance, it will be a really dumb thing to go ahead and eat with him. At that point we will simply have to accept the consequences of our bad choices. As another wise saying offers, we can expect to "reap what we sow."

23:7 for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost (NIV). Or the NIV variant: for as he thinks within himself, so he is.

     Out of this verse comes a rather familiar phrase, "as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" (a slight adjustment from the KJV translation of this verse). It is part of a story about someone choosing to sit with an influential person who offers many things, but also expect many things (:1-8). There's no such thing as a "free lunch" from this guy.
      So this verse says to anyone considering a sit down with such a person – don't focus on the stuff they offer and don't be deceived by their words. The bottom line about him is not what you see or hear, but what he's thinking! Be smart enough to not get caught up in the moment with a bunch of stuff or lots of promises. But the verse can also apply to our own thoughts. The key to how I live is not what I do or how I feel – but how I think. And key to that are the everyday decisions to exercise my mind with positive helpful thoughts (like memorizing Bible verses or spiritual songs). They will affect how I think, which will guide how I feel, which will impact how I act.
      Doing right things by feeling the right way – feeling the right way by thinking right thoughts. It's not rocket science and I can do it -- one day at a time!

23:9 Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words.

     The message of this proverb is straightforward and clear – "do not speak to fools." Then, the reason for this command, "they will scorn your prudent words."
      At issue here is the situation of trying to talk rationally ("prudent words") with a fool - by Biblical definition, one who does not include God in his worldview (Psa 14:1). It's sort of like trying to talk sense with a drunk – we speak to each other, but on two different levels.
      The result of such an exchange with a fool will be his lack of appreciation ("scorn") for your words. The proverb suggests this will be a wasted effort.
      Jesus actually discussed a similar situation when he said, "do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces" (Mt 7:6). Pearls laying in the slop around a pig may well get trampled down into the mire, never to be seen again. Even worse, the pig might also turn around and go after me, too!

23:10 Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless,

23:11 for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you.

     Here we are told of interlinking things not to do – "move an ancient boundary stone" and "encroach on the fields of the fatherless." Boundary stones (see Dt 19:14; Pr 15:25; 22:28 [note Beneath the Surface]) were informal stone monuments regularly used to mark the corners of family fields. They are called "ancient" here, at the time of the proverb was written.
      The first command is a general principle to not move any "boundary stone." The implication being to adjust the size of anyone's field, making it larger or smaller.
      The second command is more specific – particularly don't mess with "the fields of the fatherless" (orphans). Whatever the precise status of this orphaned person, the implication is they lack this mature adult guidance and support in their lives.
      In the Bible world, correct identification of the full extent of a family's all-important grain fields was critical for their survival from one year to another. These ancient stones ensured that.
      Presumably, both these acts would be perpetrated for one's own benefit, at the expense of others. These commands should have been sufficient guidance for civilized people. But the next verse (:11) offers additional incentive!
      Those who own these fields and do not see what is going on - especially orphans - have a "Defender" who is "strong" and is going to make the perpetrator pay. He sees and He knows and He will adequately address the wrong.
      While the Hebrew text does not specifically indicate that the Defender is God, the translator suggests it is, by capitalizing the word. That makes this an even more serious matter. I better not rip off my neighbors because God is watching over them and He will get me for it!

23:12 Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.

     This verse is just a simple command from God to us. It doesn't sound very exciting, but we all probably know we should follow it.
      "Apply your heart" has to do with my attitude, my thinking. I'm going to have to make a conscious decision here.
      The choice is to "apply your heart to instruction." Often translated as "discipline," "training" or "education," the idea is that I would actually think I need some and then go for it!
      Also there is "apply...your ears to words of knowledge." This suggests an action - listening - something I can and should do. "Knowledge" suggests additional information that would be helpful to me.
      I think the very order of this verse is significant. It starts with my thinking ("apply your heart"). If I am going to make any permanent life changes and really get better, I am going to have to change on the inside first.
      But there are some actions ("apply...your ears") I'll need to work on, too. I used to think that spirituality centered on behaviors - I just needed to do better! But I just couldn't make myself consistently do all these things.
      My only hope was to initially change on the inside, like this verse suggests. The more we practice right thinking - which produces appropriate behaviors - the quicker and more supernaturally we can live differently and enjoy life to the full!

23:15 My son, if your heart is wise, then my heart will be glad indeed;

23:16 my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak what is right.

     These two verses are part of a special section of Proverbs and they go together. The subject is one of the most common among the wise sayings in the book - the parent-child relationship.
      The first time since chapter 7, this is one of three "my son" phrases in this chapter (see also :19, 26). It's about father's emotions in relation to his son's attitudes and words.
      An age-old story, dad says to his boy, "if your heart is wise" and "when your lips speak what is right." As our children make right choices, parents feel good - "my heart will be glad...my inmost being will rejoice."
      It should be noted that dad isn't talking about having these emotions because his son is rich or famous. What makes this father happy is that his son's "heart is wise" and his "lips speak what is right."
      These are the most important things we can instill in our children and what we should hope for their lives. Of course, we must also understand it will be their choice whether they want to be this person or not.
      So, we give it our best shot with them. But, even more important, we should commit ourselves to being that person, as well.
      Modeling these qualities in front of my children is the best thing I can do to help them become that person! It's the right thing to do -- it will also make my day!

23:17 Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.

23:18 There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.

     These two verses talk about focus. We either focus on people, places or thing (in this case "sinners") or we focus on "the LORD."
      Life really is all about focus. It's either physical or spiritual; temporal or eternal; earthly or heavenly. And it's my choice - every day!
      Here, a focus on "sinners" may well lead to "envy." Sometimes, watching those guys and gals, we think we would like to get in on what they're having or doing. The problem is that we only see a "snapshot" of their lives.
      We don't see what it's like when they go home at night or what's going on in their heads. We definitely don't see what their future looks like.
      Instead, this verse suggests a different focus - be "always zealous for the fear of the LORD." This offers a completely different perspective for life - now and eternally.
      "Fear of the LORD" is about seeing God as He really is - all His greatness, power and love. That will definitely help us put everything else in perspective!
      And such focus brings an impressive promise of "future hope" that "will not be cut off." Certainly referring to eternity, Proverbs is clear it also applies to this life.
      These words are reminiscent of God's promised plan in Jeremiah 29:11. Commitment to the "fear of the LORD" and His plan for us leads to the same place - a "future hope!"
      So this focus-thing is pretty important. And it's a one day at a time decision.
      So, what do you say? Let's go for the good stuff!

23:19 Listen, my son, and be wise, and set your heart on the right path:

     This is the introductory verse to a 3-verse wise saying. Here father speaks to "my son" and tells him to "listen...and be wise and set your heart on the right path."
      A familiar theme throughout the book, here dad gives 3 directives. "Listen...be wise...set your heart on the right path."
      "Listen" is the critical starting point, without which not much else will happen. "Be wise" is a regular, even natural, result of listening to good counsel.
      The end result of both is to "set your heart on the right path." It's is the ultimate reason for a father to say "listen" and "be wise."
      This was probably a regular refrain in antiquity. Yet, sadly, the message of this verse may not be quite so common in our world today. For a variety of reasons, many sons grow up without a father present to offer such instruction for life.
      Of course there might be a father who is present but doesn't say or model the message in his own life. It reminds me a bit of a modern wise saying: "Don't do as I do, do as I say!"
      But, in so many homes today, a young man is being instructed - by a woman in his life. And frequently she not only says it, but practices it, too! God bless all these wonderful ladies!

23:23 Buy the truth and do not sell it— wisdom, instruction and insight as well.

     Verses 22-25 are frequently understood as a united listen-to-your-father-and-mother wise saying. As part of this message, verse 23 is a specific directive about "truth...wisdom, instruction and insight."
      It says to "buy...and do not sell" these four qualities. Of course, the ancients knew these were not actual commodities available in the local market and understood the message.
      These are four principles and character qualities regularly discussed in Proverbs. Like here, they are mentioned as being available to us all and we are actually commanded to practice them.
      We can also appreciate this message, today. To daily have a conscious commitment to practice these four qualities would certainly have an impact on my life and ministry.
      In light of this verse, I would like to offer a suggestion of something that has been so empowering and liberating to me.
      I have learned a discipline that enables me to imperfectly practice these qualities and so many others that we believe are important for our daily lives. It's the concept of living before God Honest, Open and Willing one day at a time.
      As usual, it works if we work it!

23:29 Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?

23:30 Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.

     The Spiritual Recovery Program at Helping Up Mission is for men struggling with drugs and alcohol. Averaging almost 18 years of addiction, these are guys who know something about getting high!
      Consequently, many are amazed at this extended poetic saying about getting drunk (:29-35). They are surprised that it's in the Bible and can't believe how accurately it describes something with which they are experts.
      Still part of the special "sayings of the wise" section (22:17-24:22), it isn't clear if these verses originated specifically with Solomon or he was referencing another source. What is clear is that the writer really seems to know something about alcohol consumption. As our modern proverb goes - "it takes one to know one!"
      The passage starts with a series of rhetorical questions (:29), describing how it goes when we've had too much to drink. It mentions "woe...sorrow...strife...complaints...needless bruises...and bloodshot eyes."
     They will all be traced back to getting drunk on "wine" (:30). A similar statement was also made about beer in 20:1 – that it was a brawler.
      Once we make the choice to allow something else (or, sometimes, someone else!) control our thoughts, feelings and actions, we are in trouble. But there is one exception.
     The Apostle Paul told us to be wise and understand God's will. Don't be drunk with wine but be filled with the Holy Spirit of God (Ephesians 5:16-18).
     Just as chemicals can control us, we can also allow the Holy Spirit to control us. It's an everyday decision and it's our call!

23:31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!

23:32 In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.

23:33 Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things.

23:34 You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging.

23:35 "They hit me," you will say, "but I'm not hurt! They beat me, but I don't feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?"

     Guys in my classes at Helping Up Mission are so often surprised to find a passage like this in the Bible. For the record, we are still in the special "sayings of the wise" section (22:17-24:22) of Proverbs. Whether these verses originated specifically with Solomon or he was referencing another source, is not clear. What is clear is that the writer really seems to know something about alcohol consumption. This passage suggests the modern proverb "it takes one to know one!"
      The passage starts with a series of rhetorical questions (:29), describing the end of the process. It mentions woe, sorrow, strife, complaints, needless bruises and bloodshot eyes. They will all be traced back to getting drunk on wine, similar to what was suggested about beer – that it was a brawler (20:1).
      Verse 30 indicates that these situations result from a lifestyle that includes lingering over wine and continuing to hang out sampling bowl after bowl of mixed wine. Mixed wine would include other ingredients that may or not increase the "buzz-effect," but they did make the wine more desirable to drink.
      Verse 31 may include an oblique reference to the fermentation process. It does indicate hanging out where the alcoholic beverage is available and there is a clear focus on the allure the intoxicant has on some.

      Verse 32-35 notes the ultimate end for all who spend too much time around and imbibing in alcoholic drinks. It will be as painful as a snake bite, even as deadly as a one from a poison viper (:32).
      Too much wine will cause one to begin to see strange things (:33). The Hebrew word "strange" is feminine, and as a father speaking to his son, the KJV translated this as "strange women." How often too much alcohol has led to a man's involvement with a strange woman in his life! This verse also notes that alcohol has a confusing effect on our mind (literally "heart'), and that confusion won't be good.
      The next verse offers a nautical connection, unusual for the Proverbs. It describes the experience of sailing in the midst of the sea (literally "the heart of the sea" – thus "the high sea"). Such sailing – maybe on the Mediterranean or the Gulf of Aqaba – was a known phenomenon in Solomon's day. But it was not well-known to the average Israelite, though it might have been a popular proverbial saying of the time. This verse describes lying down to sleep in the midst of the sea, presumably on a ship's deck pitching in the sea. It also suggests the impossibility of trying to lying down and sleep on the top of a ship's mast. Ridiculous, but not much more ridiculous than many of the things some of us have tried after we have had too much to drink!
      The final verse of this passage (:35) notes the drunk man's words. He recounts that "they" hit and beat him – apparently not sure who – but he feels no pain. And this section ends with his statement about waking up and getting another drink – and, thus, starting the whole process all over again!
      These verses describe the insanity of alcohol abuse. No one who is thinking right would ever consider this is a good way to live. Yet, once under the influence, we don't think right and have a hard time making any better decisions.