Maybe you’ve heard the expression “you are what you eat.” In a nutritional sense, this statement may be accurate. In the King James Version, Proverbs 23:7 seems to suggest a different but related truth—that we are what we think: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Unfortunately, this translation fails to give contemporary readers a precise understanding of what “as a man thinketh, so is he” really means.
The statement is part of a collection of thirty wise sayings of Solomon, often called “the sayings of the wise” or “the words of the wise.” Solomon compiled these instructions to encourage faith in God, admonish, and teach young people who were seeking wisdom.
Proverbs 23:7 is contained in saying number nine. The context of “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” provides insight into the meaning of the clause, so let’s look at the whole saying:
“Do not eat the bread of a miser,
Nor desire his delicacies;
For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.
‘Eat and drink!’ he says to you,
But his heart is not with you.
The morsel you have eaten, you will vomit up,
And waste your pleasant words”
(Proverbs 23:6–8, NKJV).
Note that the context has to do with understanding the heart of a miser or a stingy person. The ESV translates the same passage this way:
“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.
You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
and waste your pleasant words.”
The Hebrew verb translated “thinketh” in the Authorized Version of Proverbs 23:7 means “estimate” or “calculate.” The clause might more accurately be rendered “as one who calculates with himself, so is he,” or “he is like one who is inwardly calculating.” The “he” is the stingy miser mentioned in verse 6; the NIV translates it “a begrudging host” who is “always thinking about the cost” of the meal he shares.
According to most modern translations, the ninth saying of Solomon instructs seekers of wisdom to avoid greedily eating food served by a stingy man. Craving such a man’s delicacies is dangerous because his generosity is false. With a warm welcome, he says, “Eat and drink,” but his heart is not in it. He’s not glad to see you enjoying his fare; rather, he is watching every bite you take and calculating the cost the whole time. Once you realize what your host is thinking, you’ll want to spit out your food because what seemed to be offered so freely was begrudgingly served. And all of your kind compliments and table talk was wasted. The penny-pinching host was not genuinely interested in sharing his bounty with you or listening to the conversation you shared as his guest. Everything you said fell on deaf ears, because he is the kind of man who is always “thinking/calculating in his heart.”
Willmington’s Bible Handbook aptly sums up the saying like so: “A dinner invitation from a miser is just as well turned down; your efforts at friendship will be wasted on him or her” (Willmington, H. L., Tyndale House Publishers, 1997, p. 339).
In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translators applied a different meaning to this ninth saying: “Sup not with an envious man, neither desire thou his meats: so he eats and drinks as if any one should swallow a hair, and do not bring him in to thyself, nor eat thy morsel with him: for he will vomit it up, and spoil thy fair words” (Proverbs 23:6–8, Brenton LXX).
Greek translators took Solomon’s instruction as a warning against inviting an envious or gluttonous man to dine at your table. The Hebrew word translated “in his heart” in Proverbs 23:7 can also mean “throat,” and the verb calculates or thinketh can be read as “hair,” producing a phrasing such as “for like a hair in the throat, so are they” (NRSV) or, more understandably rendered, “for they will stick in your throat like a hair” (REB). Just like getting a hair caught in your throat might cause a gag reflex or vomiting, so might the experience of dining with an envious man, leaving you feeling disgusted.
Translators are divided on exactly what “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” means. It may be part of a warning against eating with an inwardly calculating, stingy person or a caution against dining with an envious person who will likely leave one feeling sick. Either way, the general instruction for the wise is to be cautious about whom they choose to fellowship with, since their efforts at friendship may be wasted.