(Proverbs 23:1-3)

New American Standard Bible 1995

1 When you sit down to dine with a ruler, Consider carefully [a]what is before you, 2 And put a knife to your throat If you are a man of great appetite. 3 Do not desire his delicacies, For it is deceptive food.

(Proverbs 23:1-3)

New King James Version

1 When you sit down to eat with a ruler, Consider carefully what is before you; 2 And put a knife to your throat If you are a man given to appetite. 3 Do not desire his delicacies, For they are deceptive food.

Most of proverbs scripture verses stand by themselves. However, occasionally, the bible reader will come across verses like  Proverbs 23:3 that need to be taken in the context of the surrounding verses. Proverbs 23:1-3 is about how we should behave and how our etiquette should be when we are in the presence of important people like leaders, rulers, etc. Based on personal experience, Proverbs 23:2 make sense because we do Not want to look like a glutton when we dine with important people. However, Proverbs 23:3 use of the word deceptive to describe the food while dining with important people does Not make much sense.

(Proverbs 23:1-3) what does Not desiring deceptive food have anything to do with behaving while dining with important leaders?

3 Answers 3


Start with Psalms 141.

Verse 4 is (NIV):

Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil, to take part in wicked deeds with men who are evildoers; let me not eat of their delicacies.


אַל תַּט לִבִּי לְדָבָר רָע לְהִתְעוֹלֵל עֲלִלוֹת בְּרֶשַׁע אֶת אִישִׁים פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן וּבַל אֶלְחַם בְּמַנְעַמֵּיהֶם

Verse 6:

their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs, and the wicked will learn that my words were well spoken.

נִשְׁמְטוּ בִידֵי סֶלַע שֹׁפְטֵיהֶם וְשָׁמְעוּ אֲמָרַי כִּי נָעֵמוּ

This psalm is a prayer not to be dependent for sustenance on strongmen, gangsters. The key phrase in verse 4 is וּבַל אֶלְחַם. In this phrase the word לחם, usually a noun meaning sustenance or bread is used as a verb - I shouldn't have to bread with them, i.e. be dependent on them for sustenance.

In verse 6 the key word is שופטיהם, usually translated as judges, as in the book of Judges, but meaning a strongman who rules by force.

Returning to Proverbs 23:1,

When you sit down to dine with a ruler, Consider carefully [a]what is before you


כִּי תֵשֵׁב לִלְחוֹם אֶת מוֹשֵׁל בִּין תָּבִין אֶת אֲשֶׁר לְפָנֶיךָ וְשַׂמְתָּ שַׂכִּין בְּלֹעֶךָ אִם בַּעַל נֶפֶשׁ אָתָּה

The initial word כי has a wide range of meanings, of which one of the most common is "if". That is, many conditional verses in the MT start with כי.

So verse 1 also means, "If you [choose] to sit to eat with person of authority, then...

The word שב means "sit", but it also means "to dwell with".

Note that the same verb form of "bread" used in Psalms 141 is used in this verse also, לִלְחוֹם, here in the infinitive, suggesting continued or habitual action.

The word מושל means someone who rules, which was, in the Iron Age, usually a person who had no compunction about using force and was not usually bound by liberal sensibilities or any ideas about the rule of law.

So the sense of this verse to the Hebrew reader rendered into modern English is,

If you choose to take your place at the table of a lord, if you are a sensitive person, you had better consider carefully what you are doing - putting a knife in your throat.

The phrase אִם בַּעַל נֶפֶשׁ אָתָּה, "if you are a person with a soul" (נפש is "soul") is placed at the end of the verse as a literary device and is not a semantic continuation of the previous phrase "put a knife to your throat". This conditional אם, "if", of the final phrase is a counterbalance to the conditional כי at the start of the verse.

The translation "If you are a man of great appetite" is probably a carryover from the medieval commentators and is not based on a good understanding of how phrase order is used as a literary device in the MT. The use of "appetite" to translate נפש is post-MT usage.

In both Psalms 141 and Proverbs 23 we see examples of the great antagonism and suspicion of the writers of the MT wisdom literature towards the behavior of common rulers who ruled with arbitrary and unrestrained power and towards whom the common people must be exhorted to take great caution despite the enticements of power.

  • 1
    If nefesh has no sense of craving in MT? how would you translate Is 56.11? Psalm 105.22? Pr 6.30? etc. "craving" is one of the defining characteristics of what a soul is, which is why "soul" is the abstract sense of "throat". All souls do is crave, and then briefly they are satisfied (filled), and then they crave again.
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 18:19
  • But also +1 for an interesting interpretation :)
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 18:25
  • +1 interesting that you mention "suspicion of the writers of the MT wisdom literature towards the behavior of common rulers" which suggests that the (Proverbs 23:1-3) verses are about being cautious when dealing with powerful people because said people might misuse their power to do evil (said verses are Not about respecting powerful people) Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 23:41
  • @Robert נפש indeed has no sense of craving. In Psalms 56:11 נפש is the the direct object of קיוו, "they hoped to take my soul". But the soul isn't doing the hoping. In Psalm 105:22 לנפשו is "according to his opinions/belief" (referring to Joseph), no indication of desire or even wishes. In Proverbs 6:30 the sense if למלא נפשו is "to save his soul" (his life), as in the the following verse משחית נפשו, to destroy his sould nothing to do with craving. My post isn't an interpretation, it is a translation. This is the way the verse is understood when taught for the matriculation exams in Israel. Commented Aug 2, 2022 at 5:55
  • 1
    @user1338998 Verse 6. See also "The Political Thought of the Biblical History" by Yoram Hazony, section 2, "...the Hebrew Bible is fundamentally suspicious of worldly power...", published in "Judaic Sources & Western Thought: Jerusalem's Enduring Presence", Oxford University Press, 2011. Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 20:59

When you are dealing with powerful people, don't make it obvious how much you need what they are offering you.

If you do, you might as well kill yourself now.

Those gifts are the price of buying you as a slave.


The delicious food could be a disguised bribe that would make you feel indebted to them and make it more difficult for you to refuse any future requests from them.

They may also be attempting to corrupt you by giving you a glimpse of what you could be enjoying regularly if you choose to "roll" with them. They are craftily exposing you to a lifestyle that is out of your reach in order to increase your desire for it, and break down your resistance to bribes.

It's a classic strategy rich, corrupt men use when trying to seduce someone who has a reputation for refusing bribes. It's a way of showing the person they are trying to seduce what they are missing.

It could come in other forms (apart from delicious meals) like all expense paid vacations to exotic locations and other non-food treats.

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