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    Bible - OT - Proverbs: Proverbs 23:4-12

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    Chapter 23 departs from the normal style of the book of Proverbs, not only in the fact that the Proverbs in this chapter are lengthier but also in the sense that several of them are more riddling than other portions of Proverbs. At least, so it seems. The first section (vv. 1-3) appears to commend suicide as a solution to being tempted by intimacy with a ruler. Better to cut your own throat than to be seduced by the delicacies of a king’s table. A healthy warning for activist Christians trying to shoulder their way to the king’s table. But the message is not entirely obvious.

    The section we’re looking at is a series of prohibitions, a series of commandments and explanations. That actually starts in 22:22, and continues through chapter 24. This section of Proverbs reads less like “wisdom” than like “law,” but that’s not surprising. The word “Torah” means “instruction” more than law, and the Torah is also a kind of wisdom literature. Many of these prohibitions have direct analogues in the law (22:22 with Exodus 23:6; 22:28 and 23:10 with Deuteronomy 19:14).

    Waltke describes part of this section as a “Decalogue.” Between 22:22 and 23:12, there are 10 prohibitions, and they are framed by warnings against mistreating the poor and vulnerable and an assurance that Yahweh will take their case (22:22-23; 23:10). The prohibitions do not obviously match the original Decalogue, but there are some intriguing analogies. Especially at the beginning of chapter 23, the Proverbs seem to match some of the 10 Words. The instruction to cut your own gluttonous throat is in the slot for the sixth commandment; the warning against pursuing fleeting wealth is analogous to adultery; eating the bread of the evil eye is a form of stealing; speaking to the fool is a form of false testimony; and going into the field of the fatherless is in the 10th Word slot, the prohibition of covetousness. These are clear enough to suggest that the first 5 instructions also match the Decalogue. The links here are definitely more obscure, if not non-existent: Robbing the poor is a form of idolatry; associating with an angry man is like bowing down to images; giving surety bears the name lightly; moving the boundary stone is Sabbath-breaking. Interestingly, the Proverb in the “fifth commandment” slot (22:29) is not a prohibition but simply an observation, stated positively.

    One theme running through this entire section is that of appropriate court behavior. The assumed audience is the audience of Solomon’s palace, those who might be dining with a king, who have power to oppress or deliver the poor, who might be able to move boundary markers with impunity.

    PROVERBS 23:4-5

    The second section of the chapter also contains a riddle, though one that’s not always obvious in English translation. Proverbs begins, of course, with commendation of wisdom, prudence, and intelligence. Proverbs are designed to give “understanding” (1:2), and we are told to cry after knowledge (2:3), to gain instruction and understanding from our father (4:1, 5), and to get understanding with all our getting (4:7). Proverbs also regularly mocks the sluggard who refuses to work. Proverbs promises rewards for those who follow the precepts of wisdom.

    But 23:4 subverts these regular themes: It begins with a negative command: “Do not labor [do not be weary],” and then adds “cease from your intelligence.” Gaining wealth, it turns out, is wearisome. In a pithy chiasm, Solomon tells us to give it up: “Labor not to-enrich, from-understanding cease.”

    Proverbs 23 is, of course, not contradicting the earlier wisdom. The sluggard is still a fool, and understanding is still a good. But Solomon is also warning, as he does over and over in Ecclesiastes, against “wearisome” pursuit of gain, whether material or intellectual. Put it aside, he said. Don’t work so hard. Cease from your pursuit of understanding.

    The reason has to do with the nature of wealth, which is the nature of life. Life flies away (Psalm 90:10). The antecedent of “it” in verse 5 is unclear: Is the “it” the wealth at the beginning of verse 4, or the understanding at the end of the verse? Verse 5 is silent, never using the nouns again. The nearest antecedent would be “understanding,” but I suspect Solomon intended the ambiguity to work to encompass both wealth and understanding. Whether the wealth we “set eyes on” is material or intellectual, it’s quickly gone.

    Verse 5 provides an intriguing image. The NASB begins with “When you set your eyes on it,” but the verb is ‘uph, “fly,” the same word for what happens to the eagle at the end of the verse. It might be translated: “Will you fly your eyes on it and it is not, for making it will make for itself wings like an eagle and will fly toward heaven.” The structure is roughly chiastic:

    Your eyes fly

    It is not

    It will make wings like an eagle

    And fly toward heaven.

    The combination of “eyes” with “fly” is unique to this passage, so far as I can determine. In the immediate context, the link with the flying eagle is most important. The eagle flies away up to the sky as soon as your eyes fly toward it, and the implication is that our eyes are a skittish as the eagle himself. Our eyes flit from here to there, looking for a place to land. Eyes are organs of judgment in Scripture, and here seem to be particularly organs of value. Our eyes light on things that we think valuable, but if it’s riches or understanding, it flits away as quickly as our eyes settle down on it.

    The first significant reference to eagles in the Bible is in Deuteronomy 32:11, where the Lord says He hovered over Israel like an eagle over its young. The language is suggestive of the Spirit hovering over the waters of creation, and the link here with Proverbs 23 perhaps indicates that wealth is like the Spirit, which blows where it lists.

    We gain life by losing it; things come into our hands when we let go; understanding comes when we cease to weary ourselves with it; the Father feeds birds and clothes the grass, and so we need not weary ourselves for wealth.

    PROVERBS 23:6-8

    Eyes are again part of the theme of verses 6-8. We are warned against eating the bread of a man with an “evil eye.” Again, the eye has to do with judgment and valuation. The man with an evil eye is one who judges and evaluates wrongly. The NASB has “selfish,” and though that translation is not as open as the Hebrew it captures one part of the evil eye. A selfish man overvalues wealth; he wearies himself with wealth; his eyes judge the value of wealth wrongly, and so it is dangerous to receive his gifts.

    The initial prohibition of verse 6 is strangely phrased. The verb is lacham, from the same root as the object, “bread.” The verb can mean “fight,” but here is best translated as “eat.” To bring out the verbal play one might translate, woodenly, “Do not bread the bread of the evil eye.” Interestingly, the phrase “delicacy” is used only in Proverbs 23 and in Genesis 27 in the entire Old Testament. In Genesis 27, it refers to the savory food that Rebekah instructs Jacob to take to his father Isaac in order to receive a blessing. This might suggest that Jacob is a man of “evil eye” who brings delicacies to Isaac, which Isaac should resist. But I think the story moves in the opposite direction. Isaac is the one with bad eyesight; he’s so blind he can’t tell a faithful son like Jacob from the belly-ruled Esau. Esau is the one who desires savories, and gives up his birthright for it. Or, Esau is the man with an evil eye, who judges and values wrongly, and Isaac desires his delicacies.

    There is an implicit table of Yahweh/table of demons contrast. The man of evil eye presides over a dangerous table, but there is bread and savory food at the Lord’s table, the table of wisdom.

    In Proverbs 23, the reason for refusing the bread and savories of the man of evil eye is because his words do not match his heart. The verb “think” in verse 7 means “divide,” or “cleave,” or “set a price on.” What he calculates or assesses in his heart is the true man, whatever his words. He invites you to eat and drink, offers his food generously, it seems, yet his heart is not with you. His hospitality is a sham hospitality. But the warning is also against the greed of the guest, who is warned not to eat the bread of the evil eye.

    Because the hospitality is not genuine, whoever eats at the table of the evil eye is going to give up when they receive. “Vomit” is used of the land vomiting out the inhabitants who commit abominations, and in Job 20:15, the word refers to a man who swallows down wealth and then is forced to vomit it back up. The sweet or pleasant words spoken in the setting will go to waste. You will lose them.

    PROVERBS 23:9

    Jesus says not to cast pearls before swine, and Solomon tells us something similar here. Speaking in the ears of the fool is useless. He won’t listen to wisdom and will despise your words. At times, of course, words can turn the simple into a wise man, and can even restrain a fool. For both Jesus and Solomon, however, there are fools who are not worth wasting breath over.

    PROVERBS 23:10-12

    This Proverb seems at first blush to encourage conservatism: Do not remove the ancient (or even eternal) boundary. Keep the property lines in place; keep the old laws and old ways. As the Proverb continues, however, it becomes clear that the interest is elsewhere. Instead of being primarily about preserving ancient ways and rules, it is about maintaining the protections of the orphan and helpless. Moving the ancient boundary in context seems to mean setting aside the protections of the poor and preying on their fields. The fields of the wealthy are open for gleaners, but the fields of the poor are to be protected. In this section, the Proverb envisions moving a boundary to incorporate the field of the fatherless into the fields of a wealthier and more powerful man (like Ahab and Naboth). Jubilee and Sabbath legislation was designed to protect the legacy of the poor; even if their land was taken into the land of another, it was a temporary sale and would revert to the family of the original owner in the year of release. Yahweh does take up the cause of the vulnerable when He sends Israel into exile; part of the reason for the exile is to discipline Israel for her failure to practice the Jubilee laws.

    Verse 11 warns that the redeemer of the fatherless is strong and will plead his case. The NASB capitalized “Redeemer,” and that seems plausible, considering the way the law and prophets speak of Yahweh as the kinsman of the widow and orphan. Yahweh will take up the cause against those who move the boundary that protects the poor, and he won’t lose his case. The verb and object in verse 11 are from the same root: He will rib His rib against you. This Yahweh’s “case” against His people – He brings the charges and will be victorious in His suit. Human justice is bound to fail at points. There may be no near relative to take up the case on behalf of an oppressed orphan. But the Lord fills the gaps; He is the final guarantor of justice.

    Verse 12 is a fairly generic Proverb, but in the context it takes on a specific force. Verse 12 links back to verse 9: Solomon commands us not to speak to a fool, and also positively instructs us to apply our hearts to discipline and knowledge. Specifically, we are to apply ourselves to wisdom concerning the fatherless and their Redeemer and protector. By “discipline,” Solomon means the disciplinary instruction that comes from watching what happens to those who oppress the fatherless. Watch, and beware.

    Possibly, verse 12 is the beginning of a new section, hearkening back to 22:17, which seems to begin the section of prohibitions with an exhortation to hear the words of the wise.

    posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 5:53 am