Breakfast with Solomon - Proverbs 12:9
"Better is he who is lightly esteemed and has a servant than he who honors himself and lacks bread."
This is one of the classic comparisons that Solomon sprinkles into the Proverbs for us to ponder. Every time he does this, it is to cause us to say "Really? I would not have thought that!"
The issue here is should you go around telling people all of the good things that you have accomplished or should you do good things, letting people find out about them on their own.
There is something inside us that wants to trumpet our good stuff; but when we do, it makes us come off like a pompous carnival barker. Most of us have found ourselves telling others about something we did that we thought would make us look good, and it just came out making us look like a fool. Solomon is telling us that there is an appropriate time for people to hear about the good things you did.
He is also making a contrast between someone who actually accomplishes something and one who just says that he does. Notice the has a servant and lacks bread contrast. In our cultural mindset, the person who has a servant is someone who has enough business taking place to have an employee. This is a measure of the person's business success. In that day it was common for the whole family to be engaged in the family business to keep food on the table. When a person was doing well enough with their family business that they needed and were able to sustain a servant to help them, it was a subtle measure of how well the family business was doing.
Notice that the person who is actually growing his business enough to need a servant to help, but doesn't brag about how well things are going, is the more valuable person than the person who keeps proclaiming how well he is doing or how valuable he is but they do not have enough food to eat.
In our day, there are people who buy cars they cannot afford, houses they can't afford, and clothing they can't afford in order to look more successful than they really are – all the while putting themselves in debt to the point where they can't pay their bills and in some cases put food on the table.
Bread is, here, both a reference to what you eat but also the basic necessities. So Solomon is pointing out a phenomenon that we see in our day where people make themselves look valuable and successful through debt but really cannot meet their basic obligations.
In the fascinating book, The Millionaire Next Door, the authors explore this idea. The person who really has a million dollars in the bank rarely shows it off and lives frugally in a house far below what they could afford. They drive cars that are "lightly esteemed" even when they could buy status cars.
Solomon is accurately pointing out to us which path is the clearly better one. It is the one where you are actually successful but do not trumpet your success through clothes, cars, homes, speech, lifestyle but instead live a life of quiet humility, all the while continuing to do good and be successful.