This chapter begins, “These also are the proverbs of Solomon, which the men Hezekiah king of Judah copied out” (1:1). Earlier, a lengthy section (10:1 – 22:16) was introduced, “The proverbs of Solomon” (10:1). It would appear, then, that the earlier section was considered as written and assembled into final form by Solomon, while this latter section was made up of proverbs attributed to Solomon and copied for dissemination by Hezekiah’s scribes.
Solomon, of course, reigned much earlier than Hezekiah. The third king of Israel (after Saul and David) he reigned forty years (1 Kings 11:42). Albright estimates the date of his death as 922 B.C., and Thiele estimates it as 931 B.C. (Payne, 568). Hezekiah reigned two centuries later—from 715-687 B.C.—and was known as a good king because of his religious reforms, which reversed the disastrous policies of his father, King Ahaz (2 Kings 18:4, 16, 22; 2 Chronicles 29-32).
These verses (25:6-7) are included in the lectionary readings because they serve as the background for the Gospel Reading, Luke 14:1, 7-14. In that text, Jesus, having seen people competing for places of honor, advised them “don’t sit in the best seat”—warning that they might find themselves publicly humiliated by being asked to move to a lower place. Instead, he advised them to seek a low place so that their host might give them public honor by moving them to a higher place. He concluded, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”(Luke 14:11). It appears that Jesus had these verses from Proverbs in mind when he gave that advice.
While Jesus’ comments could be construed as advice to the ambitious for self-promotion, his real concern (as reflected in 14:11) was true humility. That is not the case for these verses in Proverbs, which are simply advice to young and upcoming people at court on how to avoid embarrassment in high places.
PROVERBS 25:6-7. DON’T EXALT YOURSELF IN THE PRESENCE OF THE KING
6 Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king,
or claim a place among great men;
7 for it is better that it be said to you, “Come up here,”
than that you should be put lower in the presence of the prince,
whom your eyes have seen.
“Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king, or claim a place among great men” (v. 6). The best seats are those nearest the host. It is so even today. The boss sits at the head of the table, flanked by top lieutenants. Key staff members sit at the table, and others sit at the back of the room. A savvy person can walk into the room and determine rank simply by observing where people sit.
We see the same phenomenon at sporting events where the best seats are closest to the action—or, better yet, in comfortable boxes elevated above and separated from the crowd. A person with the right connections can always get a good ticket. A person without connections might not be able to purchase a ticket at any price.
We like the best seats. The view is better, of course, but the appeal goes beyond the view. Sitting in the best seats makes us feel superior, and our fine seats trumpet our superior status to ordinary folk.
But this verse warns the ambitious young courtier not to insert himself presumptuously before the king or “among great men”—places where ranking people congregate. The word presumptuous is key here—although not used in the text itself. A young person often has more ambition than experience or wisdom, and will always be tempted to push him/herself forward in the presence of superiors. This verse is intended to provide wisdom to help the ambitious young person to avoid embarrassment by pushing too far too fast.
“for it is better that it be said to you, “Come up here,” than that you should be put lower in the presence of the prince” (v. 7ab). In a setting where rigid protocol assigns seats according to rank, people will tend to correct those who are not in compliance with protocol. Those who have taken low seats are likely to hear someone say, “Come up here!”—thus receiving public acknowledgement that they enjoy a higher status than they have assumed on their own. A person who sits in a high seat is likely to have the opposite experience—a call to sit in a lower seat—thus receiving public humiliation as the price of their presumptuousness.
I have personally experienced this in a mild way. While serving as an Army chaplain, I was running late and parked my car in a space reserved for a particular Colonel. I doubted that he would know whose car was in his parking space, and doubted further that he would care enough to track me down and embarrass me. I was wrong. I don’t know whether he recognized my car or made an official inquiry to determine that it was mine, but I do know that he did track me down and he did embarrass me. It would have been far more embarrassing if I had taken his seat at a big staff meeting. Then my humiliation would have been witnessed by many rather than a few.
“whom your eyes have seen” (v. 7c). Keep in mind that the original text did not have verse numbers. These numbers were assigned later—sometimes incorrectly. When verse numbers were assigned to Proverbs, they linked “Whom your eyes have seen” with verse 7, which suggests that the person who is asked to sit in a lower seat will be publicly humiliated as other people witness his/her demotion.
Some scholars (Kidner, 157; Murphy & Hulwiler, 125) think that verse 7c should be the first words of verse 8 rather than the last words of verse 7—and that is the way that the NRSV treats it. In that event, the intent is that the young courtier should not bring hastily to court everything that he/she sees. To do so would be to risk embarrassment, because another person, better informed or more experienced at bureaucratic infighting, might counter their observation and embarrass them.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Deane, W.J., The Pulpit Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Vol. IX (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, no date)
Garrett , Duane A., New American Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Vol. 14 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Horne, Milton P., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Proverbs-Ecclesiastes (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2003)
Hubbard, David A., The Preacher’s Commentary: Proverbs (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Proverbs, Vol. 15 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964)
Murphy, R., and Huwiler, E., New International Biblical Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999)
Murphy, Roland E., Word Biblical Commentary: Proverbs, Vol. 22 (Dallas: Word Publishing, Inc., 1998)
Payne, David F., “Solomon,” in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Perdue, Leo G., The Old Testament Library: Proverbs, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2000)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Van Leeuwen, Raymond C., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, the book of Wisdom, and Sirach, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997)
Waltke, Bruce K., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005).
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan