Because there are so many important examples of verses misinterpreted because the immediate context is ignored, it is a challenge to decide where to cut off with the examples and move on the next type of context. For the time being, I’ll stay on this section and explore a few more. The next passage is one whose misinterpretation has even made its way to a book title. Here, the misinterpretation stems not only from ignoring the surrounding verses, but also because over time the verse has been misquoted so often, many people will fail to notice that the familiar wording is not to be found in the text. When I teach on this subject, I will sometimes deliberately misquote Proverbs 23:7 and ask the audience how many have heard this verse. Almost everyone indicates that they have. Then I ask how many know how I just misquoted the verse. Almost none can tell me. Most of the time, when I encounter this verse it is quoted “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” James Allen’s little booklet is titled As a Man Thinketh (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revel, n.d.). The teaching of the book shows why a proper interpretation of this verse within its context is so important. The “asamanthinketh” web site offers a free download of Allen’s book. There is even a Wikipedia article on the book (where the verse is also misquoted).
What’s at stake is how New Age heresies regarding the nature of human beings are promulgated by this misinterpretation as if to say that these heresies are corroborated by the Bible. They are not. The New Age movement teaches that so much (if not everything) about ourselves as human beings is determined by our minds; by our thinking. The teaching says that any limitations we have are self-imposed by the way we chose to think about ourselves and our world. To the New Agers, the answer to mankind’s problems is a matter of the consciousness. They claim that if only we will “expand our awareness” of “who we really are” we can experience the limitlessness of our being. In its more extreme versions, the idea is that we can use mind powers to manipulate reality in much the same way Witchcraft teaches. According to this heresy, nothing shall be impossible for us. Such “mind dynamic” philosophy is echoed by other “self-help” and “success motivation” teachers like Napoleon Hill in his Think and Grow Rich. Even aside from the issue of whether this is true about us and whether this is a biblical view of human nature, there can be no doubt that Proverbs. 23:7 is saying nothing of the sort when considered in its context. (For more on the errors of such “positive thinking” see my article “Some Concerns about Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking” here.
What can we know about the meaning of this verse when we consider the context? First, we have to make sure that the verse is quoted correctly. Instead of saying “As a man…” the verse says “As he …” (emphasis added). Second, as with the last passage we examined (Isaiah. 55:8-9) it is essential that we pay close attention to the antecedents of the pronouns that verses contain. Sometimes the antecedent is clear within a given verse. Other times we have to look to the surrounding verses to know the antecedent. With Proverbs 23:7 we have to ask ourselves “Who is the ‘he’ to whom the verse is referring?” Consider the entire passage that captures the complete thought in vv. 6-8. “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.” From the context we can see that the writer is warning the reader to be aware of those who might feign hospitality and friendliness toward you. Don’t be fooled by their insincere kindness. Their flattering actions actually hide how they really are disposed toward you. Here the miser resents the fact that you are eating his food despite the fact that he offered the food to you in the first place. It is how the miser is thinking in his heart that reveals the truth about his disposition of animosity toward you. Don’t be so naïve as to think that every kind word issues from a trustworthy friend.