Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7
A preacher following the lectionary rarely encounters the book of Proverbs, but it might be even more unusual to choose this text as a homiletical focus. It is brief—only two verses!—and as is typical for the genre of a proverb, is fairly straightforward; my translation is, “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence; do not stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told ‘Step up here,’ than to be degraded in the presence of a noble.” This is not a text where God acts in strange and puzzling ways, or where God’s people do something bold and courageous. Because I have a personal predilection for more dramatic and narrative texts, this pericope may not be my first choice.
And yet, this text reiterates the gospel message for the day, as Jesus concludes his parable by saying, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). A similar message is found in the alternate text for this week from Sirach 10:12-18, which speaks specifically against pride and illustrates it with a series of reversals similar to those proclaimed by Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 and Mary in Luke 2. So, even those preachers who do not choose to exclusively focus on the reading of Proverbs 25:6-7 as their main text for preaching will find content in it that underscores the other texts for the day.
Additionally, the brevity of this text can be a benefit instead of a detriment. In her discussion of Proverbs, Ellen Davis draws on an analogy from medieval monks who said that each word of the Bible is like a grain of spice, meant to be held in one’s mouth until it yields its full flavor. Davis writes that the brevity of these proverbs are what enables us to carry a single one around with us all day long; focusing on a single one allows us to savor it completely.1
Kathleen O’Connor uses a different analogy; for her, the book of Proverbs is like a collection of photographs from a family that has been placed in a drawer year after year. These “word pictures or verbal snapshots” are not organized by time or by theme, but each one gives an image of someone wise or foolish in action.2
In Proverbs 25:6-7, we are invited to consider the picture of a person who wisely does not exalt oneself in the presence of someone who is greater. These two verses contain a phrase echoed numerous times in the book of Proverbs that a particular action is “better…than” (see also Proverbs 12:9; 15:16-17; 16:8, 16, 19, 32; 17:1, 12: 19:1, 22; 21:9, 19; 22:1; 25:25; 27:5, 10; 28:6). Standing in one place and then needing to be told to move to another is not always the very best thing to do; rather, it is better than being degraded. Maybe in another situation (a job interview? when leading people?) it is better to be bold and confident about one’s abilities. In other words, the wisdom contained within any proverb is situational, a snapshot of the best thing to do at that particular time and in that particular context.
According to the first verse in this chapter (not included in the lectionary selection), this is one of the proverbs of Solomon (himself not exactly a model of humble restraint!) compiled by men of Hezekiah of Judah (Proverbs 25:1). Hezekiah was one of the good kings in Judah because of his willingness to listen to God (see also 2 Kings 18:5, 2 Chronicles 31:20-21). However, Hezekiah also was not without his foibles, especially when he showed the envoys from Babylon everything in his kingdom and responded with callous disregard upon hearing Isaiah’s harsh prophecy about what would happen to his descendants after him (2 Kings 20:12-19). Both Solomon and Hezekiah, apparently responsible for the speaking and gathering of this particular piece of wisdom, were wise at times and foolish in other situations. We can take encouragement that advice for how to live wisely comes from people who were flawed humans and were also willing to listen to God.
Perhaps this particular message of not overly exalting oneself, is one that gets repeated throughout the lectionary texts for this week because it is a message that needs to be repeated in different times and in different contexts for God’s people. In addition to this message appearing in the lectionary texts today, Jesus elsewhere says that the last will be first and the first will be last (Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 10:31); James encourages people to “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10); and in numerous other places God’s reversals of status are prophesied or described. Though our current world may have new temptations and even new technology by which we can exalt ourselves (such as social media), it seems that God’s people have always needed a reminder to be humble.
In particular, the problem seems to be the attempts to exalt ourselves, when our egos and our insecurities are driving our actions, when we desperately try to grab on to power and prestige, when we jostle to the front and elbow others out of the way so we can be first. Proverbs 25:6 sets such an attempt “in the king’s presence.” Christians who confess Jesus as the Christ, the anointed King, ought to remember that Jesus’ own exaltation happened after his self-kenosis on the cross. It is not our own strivings and accomplishments that will exalt us, but rather following a king who followed the cruciform path.
- Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001, p. 92.
- Kathleen O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, INC., 1988, p. 36.