Through the Bible: Proverbs 22-24
“When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food.”
Proverbs 23:1-3 ESV
“Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.”
Proverbs 23:6-7 ESV
Proverbs 23 has a lot to say about how to behave when you are eating and drinking. Verses 1-3 are about not making a pig of yourself if you are eating with a ruler (or at least, that’s what it seems to be about on the first reading. More on that in a minute).
Then, verses 6-8 are about why we shouldn’t even accept a dinner invitation from a stingy person. Verse 7 is a spot-on word picture of the host who, with his mouth is telling you to enjoy yourself, but in his heart he’s keeping track of your bar tab and thinking about how much you are costing him.
In both cases, the writer of Proverbs says, “Do not desire his delicacies” (verses 3,6). In the case of the stingy person, it’s pretty obvious why: No one wants to be at a dinner party where the host is counting your calories.
But what about the ruler? Why shouldn’t you make the most of a rare invitation to a palace feast? What’s wrong with his delicacies?
I think maybe it’s because it’s not really about the food. In verse 1, the relative pronoun asher is typically translated “what,” so that the phrase reads “observe carefully what is before you.” But the ESV notes that it could also be translated “observe carefully who is before you.” Which makes the emphasis on the ruler and not on the food.
Proverbs says the ruler’s delicacies are deceptive. What’s deceptive about them? Is it like biting into what you think is a chocolate chip cookie, only to discover it’s actually oatmeal raisin (Ugh. Been there)? Or is Solomon saying they are poisonous?
Notice that the writer of Proverbs immediately shifts to the dangers of trying to acquire wealth:
“Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
Proverbs 23:4-5 ESV
Solomon seems to be warning his son not to get too enamored with all the trappings of wealth and power. Note carefully who is before you, and know yourself well enough to know that if you are “given to appetite,” you might as well put a knife to your own throat. The “dainties” on the ruler’s table (to use the KJV language) are as deceptive as the fine strands of a spider’s web, and just as ensnaring.
Maybe it’s like that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Mr Potter invites George Bailey to his office and offers him a cigar and a job. George is one of the only people in town Potter doesn’t control, so he tries to ensnare him with visions of a better life. And it almost works.
We need to ask why the ruler would be inviting me to dinner in the first place? What does he want from me? A wise, discerning person would be aware that there’s likely to be an agenda in play whenever someone sits down to eat with a politically powerful person.
Proverbs 23 is a warning, then, against transactional relationships. Whether it’s a stingy man who is worried about what you are taking from him, or a powerful man who is assessing what he can get from you, Solomon’s advice is that you don’t desire delicacies from either one. Invest in people without agendas, and appreciate people for who they are, not for how they can benefit you.