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God’s Word for You

Proverbs 23:1-3 when you sit down to eat

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, December 15, 2018

We will return to Jonah and finish the book in the first weeks of the New Year.


23  When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
    look carefully at what is in front of you.
2 Put a knife to your throat
  if you are a man given to appetite.
3 Do not desire the ruler’s delicacies,
  for they are the bread of lies.

This proverb (all three verses should be taken as one thought) is somewhat connected with “he will sit before kings,” part of the final verse of chapter 22. The first and third verses are fairly clear. This is a warning to remember your place when you are with your betters, and like the Fourth Commandment, there is a reverse. Just as a father is no father at all if he abuses his children and makes them despair, so also a ruler who intentionally throws temptations at guests does not love them.

Verse 2 needs to be taken with special care. Some translations impose a comment such as, “It is said, ‘Put a knife to your throat.’” While there is no evidence for this in the text, it would not be a bad addition in certain circumstances. This cannot be used as a defense of self-harm, which would violate the Fifth Commandment, but is an example of hyperbole along the same lines as Jesus’ words: “It would be better for that man to have a millstone hung around his neck and be thrown into the sea” (Matthew18:6).

The most difficult part of the passage is also the key that opens up the real theology of the text. This is the second line of verse 2, which is literally, “If – the baal (master, husband, man) of – nephesh – you.”

Nephesh in modern Arabic is “breath” or “soul.” In Biblical Hebrew it also means soul, or life, but sometimes even emotion, passion or appetite. Here in the context of a ruler’s banquet table, “appetite” seems to be the best translation, but is this the subject or direct object of the sentence? The difficulty is that “master of” (construct noun) and “you” (pronoun) are separated by “appetite.” If baal is to be read simply as “man,” the difficulties are fewer. There is no longer any question of subject and object, and the phrase is translated “If a man-of appetite (are) you.”

In this context, “Put a knife to your throat” does not mean to slit one’s own throat, but to threaten oneself. You must master your desires, just as Cain was warned to master his sin (Genesis 4:7). Luther says, “This is a great stumbling block. The substance of life is one thing; pride of life is something else. A Christian is permitted to seek the former, as 1 John 3:17 says, but he should abhor the latter, for it is a misuse of sustenance and property, as we see in the case of the glutton in Luke 16:1ff. Therefore a Christian does not want to exalt himself but should be content with what he has” (LW 30:250).

The “bread of lies” is any kind of deception, but it compares well with “the bread of truth” in 1 Corinthians 5:8. Faith seeks out God’s word, which is his divine truth. Human passions and temptations are the bread of lies and should be avoided.

This proverb might pair well as a lesson to be read alongside the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Luke 14:8-11, but only if the different contexts—the very different banquets—were described thoroughly.

The ruler we are eternally subject to is God himself. He invites us to his banquet and to eat everything at that banquet, and he is utterly unlike the rulers in these proverbs. Our Heavenly King says to us: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Be content with what the Lord gives you today as he supplies all your needs. Tomorrow and forever after, he will keep on giving, and will never stop. His is the bread of eternal life. Put your faith in your Savior King.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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