In Gordon MacDonald’s book, ‘Ordering Your Private World,’ he shares the struggles of a businessman before surrendering his life to Christ and reordering his priorities to reflect what the bible would call wisdom. As this business writes:
Several years ago I was at a point of great frustration in my life. Although I had a wonderful wife and three beautiful sons, my career was going badly. I had few friends, my oldest son began getting into trouble-he started failing in school-I was suffering from depression, there was great tension and unhappiness in my family. At that time I had an opportunity to travel overseas where I stayed to work in a foreign company. This new opportunity was such an excellent one, financially and career-wise, that I made it number one in my life, forsaking all other values. I did many wrong (i.e. sinful) things to advance my position and success. I justified them as being of good consequence to my family (more money, etc.)- resulted in my lying to myself and my family and behaving wrongly in many ways.
Of course this was intolerable to my wife and she and my family returned to the U.S. I was still blind, however, to the problems that were within me. My success, my salary, my career-all moved upward. I was caught in a golden cage…
Although many wonderful things were happening outside me, inside I was losing everything. My capacity to reason and my capacity to decide were both weakened. I would evaluate alternatives constantly going over various options, always trying to pick the one that would maximize success and career. I knew in my heart that something was terribly wrong. I went to church, but the words there couldn’t reach me. I was too caught up in my own world.
After a terrible episode with my family several weeks ago, I completely gave up my course of thinking and went to a hotel room for nine days to figure out what to do. The more I thought the more troubled I became. I began to realize how dead I really was, how so much of my life was dark. And worse than that, I could see no way out. My only solution was to run and hide, to start in a different place, to sever all connections.
This brutal description of the man on the bottom fortunately has a happy ending. For not long after his nine-day experience in a hotel room, he discovered the love of God and its capacity to engender dramatic change in his life.[i]
He moved from being driven by the wrong things to experiencing God’s agenda and priorities for his life and was released from his golden cage. What are we giving our energies to? What is it that we really desire in this life? Here in the wisdom literature we are reminded of those things that either build us and others up or tear our lives apart. We need discernment to make wise choices with the investment of our lives. Here in Proverbs 23 we find a group of Proverbs entitled 30 wise sayings. We are going to see that in living wisely there are some things we ought to discipline our lives in order to walk in freedom. There are things we need to restrain ourselves from while others we need to embrace. Whatever we give our life to, will determine the kind of life we will live. There are two aspects of wisdom living that we need to develop.
WE NEED TO DEVELOP IS SELF RESTRAINT IN CRITICAL AREAS.
There are areas in our lives that we must discipline ourselves in order to live wisely. One of the great lies in life is that freedom means doing whatever we want. If you follow that to its logical conclusion the result is bondage. Freedom is the ability to not be controlled by our own appetites. What we are about to see are the things that try and control us: money, sex, alcohol [drugs] and food to name a few.
A. The Wisdom literature teaches us that we shouldn’t crave that which ultimately perishes.
Here in the first few proverbs we are warned against desiring the momentary at the expense of wisdom, which is eternal. We need to understand the importance of restraint and deferred gratification. We need to displace wrong desires and priorities with right ones. The sages of Proverbs insist that the pursuit of good but transitory things like food and money makes a poor goal for life. We must constantly remind ourselves that the wisdom of Proverbs is primarily about managing our desires.
When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.[ii]
What is being communicated here? Obviously, these verses tie into the previous verse about someone who is skilled in their work will be serving before rulers or those in authority. This means that we will engage with them in many ways, one of them will be socially. So, what has table manners to do with being in the presence of influential people? People make assessments about our character based on how we handle social situations. One of the more significant expressions of social engagement is dining together.
It may seem a banal thing, but dining is actually an opportunity for people to manifest the type of self-control that demonstrates wisdom. Just as the wise are to control their emotional expressions and the frequency and content of their speech, so also they must not let their appetites get control of them.[iii]
Self-restraint is an important component of wisdom.
The expression of ‘putting a knife to our throat,’ means that we restrain ourselves with what is being offered to us. Here the wisdom writers are saying that if one gorges themselves [in our vernacular: ‘pigging out’] on what is being offered before us it speaks to the fact that we will also be unrestrained in other areas of our lives. The wise person learns how to restrain himself.
Our actions are always being evaluated by people, especially people in leadership roles. Why? Leaders are always looking for people that will serve with them. Every contact is a potential team member. I remember, many years ago, one of my mentors explained to me: You are interviewing every person you meet as a potential person to be a part of your team. Often, years later, God brings to mind people who you have met and were favorably impressed by their character and competencies, to the degree you would consider having them join you, and it may also be God’s plan to enrich their lives as well.
Another aspect that is also being expressed here is the dangers in this social situation. Often the rich and powerful make offers, but there are always strings attached to them. Duane Garrett rightly warns:
The rich do not give away their favors for free. They want something in return, and it is generally much more than what they have invested. One can lose one’s own soul in the exchange. [iv]
B. Another area where restraint is needed is in the realm of acquiring wealth.
Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness. 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.[v]
Here we see the warning against giving our heart and energy to that which can so easily mislead and leave us. We can give our lives for something that in the end promises much and delivers so little. Paul Koptak points out that the “craving after the deceits of luxurious food and riches is still with us, though in different forms. For us the riches do not always fly away, but the satisfaction that they are supposed to bring does.” [vi]
David Meyers calls this “soaring wealth and shrinking spirit ‘the American paradox.’ More than ever we have big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale. In an age of plenty, we feel spiritual hunger.” [vii]
It is interesting that we are warned against wearing ourselves out or giving our life away for something that has no enduring value. Notice that the introduction of the eyes is mentioned in verse five, ‘cast but a glance.’ This speaks of the gateway to desire. We need to watch what we desire for it because it leads to a destination.
Again, in Proverbs 23:6-8 we have comments about restraint when dining with a stingy person as they are focused on the cost of the meal before you.
Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. ‘Eat and drink,’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments.
Here we have the third vignette in which the character of the host is described as ‘stingy’ in the NIV, but in the King James they translated the word literally, as the person with the evil eye. The evil eye or the stingy person here is the person with a poor vision, who is thinking of the cost. Their motivation is greed. “The stingy are eager to get rich and are unaware that poverty awaits them (Proverbs 28:22). This is in contrast to a person with a good eye, or a generous person. “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor (Proverbs 22:9.” When we think of the nature of God, we think of the most generous person of all. Here in these texts we are being instructed to emulate our Father in heaven and be generous toward others.
C. If we are going to be sparing, it must be in the area of our speech.
In the next proverb we see that we must consider who we are speaking to. “Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words (Proverbs 23:9).”
In the previous verse we have seen wasted words upon the stingy host, here the area of speaking words is expanded to include all those who do not value wisdom’s words. Jesus also expresses this same sentiment in the Sermon on the Mount when speaking to the issue of correcting another. He is talking about making sure you self-evaluate before correcting others, by taking the plank out of your own eye, in order to address the speck in your brother’s eye. He also cautions in the very next verse, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces (Matthew 7:6).” This proverb of not speaking to a fool or answering a fool according to his folly implies a tension. Bruce Waltke explains: “The proverb implies that the son must take the spiritual measure of a person before responding to him in order to estimate beforehand the effect of his words on him.” [viii]
The eleventh saying is a call for a restrain of enriching ourselves at the expense of others, and the warning that if we do so we may discover God as our adversary. “Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless, for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you (Proverbs 23:10-11).”
D. Another area we need to learn restraint is in being to indulgent toward our children.
We are living in a culture that is confused regarding the nature of discipline. We think that discipline is an unloving action. Yet, the Scriptures teach the very opposite. Discipline is an act of love that has the ultimate good in mind for their lives. This is one of the great problems of our current times. We are overindulgent parents and are spoiling our children causing them to develop an entitlement mentality. We have help fashioned self-centered children. “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with a rod and save them from death (Proverbs 23:13-14).” The idea of death here is not physical death but separation from God. The KJV translates this word as Sheol. Harry Ironside gives great insight into the meaning of this often abused or neglected texts:
Discipline administered seasonably (not in harshness, or undue severity), is for the profit of the child. In this way, by means of present suffering, he will be preserved from the ruin and wretchedness which are bound to follow a life of self-seeking and unsubdued, perverse will. Sheol is not exactly hell. It is the world of spirits; here used as that to which a vicious life will soon lead. Chastisement will correct these evil tendencies.[ix]
We know that these two texts don’t advocate abuse as we see in the next two verses, where the parents rejoice in the godly and wise behavior of their children. “My son, if your heart is wise, then my heart will be glad; my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak what is right (Proverbs 23:15-16).”
The goal is to see wisdom expressed in the lives of our children, but our physical and spiritual children. C. S. Lewis points out something that we need to understand as it pertains to love and discipline:
On the other hand, it is also necessary to keep a very sharp look-out for fear our liking for some one person makes us uncharitable [unloving], or even unfair, to someone else. There are even cases where our liking conflicts with our charity towards the person we like. For example, a doting mother may be tempted by natural affection to ‘spoil’ her child; that is, to gratify her own affectionate impulses at the expenses of the child’s real happiness later on.[x]
In other words, by not disciplining wrong behavior we don’t curb sinful behavior that will cost that child in their relationship with others in the future. If we don’t correct those we love it will produce a self-centeredness that will destroy their ability to get along with others and cause misery to themselves and others. No wonder God disciplines each of us as His children. “My son, do not despise the LORD’S discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in (Proverbs 3:11-12.”
Let’s move to a couple of other areas that we need to exercise restraint. We have seen that we are to restrain our desires to enrich ourselves particularly at the expense of what is best for us and others. We cannot let our hearts become envious of those who are sinning against the Lord.
E. Here we see the power of wrong associations.
Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. (Proverbs 23:17). A zeal for the fear of the LORD is the motivating principle for living wisely. We need to have the right desires and aspirations in our lives. What is it that we desire? What is motivating the decisions in our lives? Envy of sinners or a desire to please and serve God? When we live to serve God we can anticipate a great future. “There is surely a future hope for you and your hope will not be cut off (Proverbs 23:18).” Consider back to the person who placed their hope in uncertain riches and they ultimately flew away, at the very least their real satisfaction did. How many people achieved what they set out to do and found out often too late that the very thing that they thought would make them happy and satisfy their soul left them empty and filled with loss and dissatisfaction. The final warning that this chapter concludes on are those who pursue the wrong path.
Listen, my son, and be wise, and keep your heart on the right path.
Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat,
for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.[xi]
Who we choose to associate with will affect our values. Paul Koptak relates how Proverbs teaches this so powerfully:
Thus, the very first instruction of Proverbs insisted that one chooses one’s life by choosing one’s associations, for there the father warned his son not to go with ‘sinners’ or to accept their invitation (1:10). …the principle here is not avoiding all those we might call sinners (after all, we are sinners too) but rather refusing to join with them in their goals or the paths they walk on them to reach them. The point is not to reject people but the ways they represent. We today need godly wisdom to figure out the subtle stray paths we must reject.[xii]
Then the chapter concludes with a poetic device to describe the follies of alcohol addiction.
Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complains? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights, and your mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging.
‘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?’[xiii]
What a tragic life. What a wasted life! A life that leads both the person who is addicted as well as all that are related to them into a life of pain.
We have looked at the necessity of restrain of certain desires, but the wisdom writers realize how critical it is to have the right desires and passions. These desires and passions help us stay on the right path.
II. THE SECOND ASPECT THAT WE NEED TO DEVELOP IS CERTAIN ATTITUDES AND ACTIONS DIRECTED TOWARD GOD.
So what is it that we need to foster in our lives? What desires and passions need to be pursued? Here we see the father/mother explaining to the son/daughter what really brings value and joy into people’s lives: both ours and others.
A. It all begins with a teachable heart toward godly instruction.
Here we see that we are to apply our hearts to the right instruction.
“Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge (Proverbs 23:12).”
Where are we investing our time and energy? Do we have the right goals for our lives that will produce the right results? Who are we listening to? Mockers? Scorners? Sinners? Psalm 1 is a wisdom Psalm, listen to its words of warning and instruction:
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person will be like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither-whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinner in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.[xiv]
We see that our culture is in rebellion against God. There are two paths being presented to us throughout Proverbs. The words that are designed to seduce our souls, or the words of wisdom. What is God trying to convey to us? Throughout the book of Proverbs, we see Wisdom as both the words of a godly father or mother, as well as a Woman (Hokma); which is the Hebrew word for Wisdom and therefore is personified as a woman. “Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old (Proverbs 23:22.” Often when we become the age of majority, we walk away from the wisdom of our godly parents and do our ‘own thing.’ We become ‘wise in our own eyes,’ which we are warned against over and over. Rather, we should make every effort to embrace Divine wisdom and put it into practice in our lives.
Buy the truth and do not sell it – wisdom, instruction and insight as well. The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him. May your father and mother rejoice; may she who gave you birth be joyful![xv]
Obviously, there are some assumptions being made here. First of all, these are godly parents, and they are rejoicing because they child is walking on the right path.
B. We need to commit ourselves to the right path.
We do that by giving ourselves to God’s path and thereby avoiding terrible pitfalls.
My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways, for an adulterous woman is a deep pit, and a wayward wife is a narrow well. Like a bandit she lies in wait and multiplies the unfaithful among men.[xvi]
Not only is their avoidance of sexual sin, but other forms of addictions, one of which was already mentioned in alcohol abuse and all the ensuing problems that come as a result of being under the influence. The problem with life is not desire and passion, but what kind of desires that we are giving ourselves to. To be disciplined by God means He will move us from the selfish and unhealthy desires that lead to bondage to the passions and desires that bring joy and freedom. How does that come about? “My son and daughter, God our Father is calling us to give our hearts to him. Notice it states that our eyes delight in his ways (Proverbs 23:26).”
Unfortunately, temptation comes to deceive us into believing that pursing the things that ultimately perish will satisfy our deepest longings. Only God, Himself can fill the yearning for that which is eternal; that which our soul longs for. We often ‘wear ourselves out for the things that don’t have eternal value: earthly riches and pleasures and find ourselves ‘trapped in the golden cage.’ God wants to set us free and bring us to Himself.
[i] Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World, Expanded Edition, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), 37-38.
[ii] Proverbs 23:1-3
[iii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 422-423.
[iv] Duane Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of songs, Vol. 14, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 195.
[v] Proverbs 23:4-5.
[vi] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 551.
[vii] D. C. Meyers, ‘Wealth, Well-Being, and the New American Dream, ‘Enough: A quarterly report on Consumption, the Quality of life and the Environment 12 (Summer 2000): 5 quoted in C. Sine and T. Sine, Living on Purpose: Finding God’s Best for Your Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 36.
[viii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 244.
[ix] Harry A. Ironside, Proverbs and Song and Solomon, An Ironside Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 199.
[x] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters: Complete in one Volume, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001), 130.
[xi] Proverbs 23:19-21.
[xii] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, 553.
[xiii] Proverbs 23:29-35.
[xiv] Psalm 1:1-6.
[xv] Proverbs 23:23-25.
[xvi] Proverbs 23:26-28.