Gluttony is a real struggle for me sometimes. Proverbs 23:2 says to put a knife to your throat if you’re given to gluttony. What is meant by “put a knife to your throat”? — J.S.

Gluttony, defined as "habitual greed or excess in eating," is a struggle for many of us—especially with the temptations of rich fare so easily available in the Western world. Most of us seldom wonder where our next meal is coming from, although for hundreds of millions worldwide (and even within some wealthy nations), this is not the case. Further, wining and dining are common tools in the business world—inducements that are not always appropriate for God's people.

Yet gluttony isn't the primary topic of Proverbs 23:2. Self-control and the wisdom to see through superficial hospitality seem to be the issue. Since this conclusion may not be obvious for someone reading Proverbs in isolation (without context), let's take a look at the entire passage. Once we step back and look at the whole, it becomes clear.

1 When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
observe carefully what is before you,
2 and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to appetite.
3 Do not desire his delicacies,
for they are deceptive food.
4 Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
5 When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
for suddenly it sprouts wings,
flying like an eagle toward heaven.
6 Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy;
do not desire his delicacies,
7 for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.
“Eat and drink!” he says to you,
but his heart is not with you.
8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
and waste your pleasant words. NEB

Certainly this is a serious passage, even allowing for the hyperbole involving the knife. (Probably it wouldn't be wise to pull out a knife while you’re dining with a powerful person!) The issue isn’t gluttony, but lack of self-control. Better stated, the issue isn’t so much lack of self-control as lack of discernment in certain social situations—especially when what’s on offer happens to be something we deeply desire. Furthermore, there's a connection between an insatiable appetite for food (vs.1-3, 6-8) and an insatiable appetite for wealth / money (vs.4-5).

The Bible does, however, address gluttony. For example, “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat” (Prov 23:20)—only a few verses after the passage you asked about. Here, I think, are some of the clearest passages on gluttony: Deut 21:20; Prov 23:20-21; 28:7; Ezek 16:49; Rom 13:14; 1 Cor 6:12, 19-20; Ti 1:12. Although Jesus never identified it as a "big sin," the medieval church included gluttony in the "seven deadly sins" (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride).

If you feel you are excessively controlled by food, do more than just read the passages. Get help. There are many counsellors who can help you overcome an eating disorder.

By the way, Phil 3:19 ("their god is their stomach," NIV) is probably not a “gluttony” passage. Respecting context is a crucial principle for sound biblical interpretation. Paul is referring to Jewish-background Christians who insist that all believers need to keep kosher. “… Look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh… their god is their stomach, and they glory in their shame [genitals]” (Phil 3:2-3, 19). For such persons godliness comes down to what you eat and whether you’re circumcised—two major identity markers of Judaism. Paul objected strenuously.

Actually, the question was addressed in the series Proverbs—The Disciplined Life, but since many readers may not have access (website membership required), I thought it would be good to respond in some detail. (For unlimited access to all 10,000 pages at the website, for just $0.70/week, please click here.)