While recently reflecting on George Herbert’s poem, The Agony, I was reminded of an excellent sermon my former pastor, Ryan Fullerton, preached from the book of Proverbs on a Biblical perspective on alcohol. In the sermon, Ryan looked at how the Bible describes alcohol both as a good and dangerous gift from God.
Here, I want to briefly summarize some of his arguments as well as expand on them. In this article I will look at the blessing of alcohol. In further articles I will look at the danger of alcohol, and how Christians can wisely enjoy this gift without being given over to drunkenness themselves or encouraging it in others.
The main text pastor Ryan interacted with in regards to the blessing of alcohol was Proverbs 3:9-10: “Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”
Ryan’s main point was that if wine was an unqualified evil then God would not offer it as a reward and blessing for generosity. This may be surprising to some Christian traditions (like Southern Baptists) who have viewed the consumption of alcohol as an inherently bad thing, something that will likely lead to drunkenness. But, when we look at the Bible we find that there is actually a remarkable picture of the goodness of wine, beer, and strong drink.
Wine Brings Gladness
God gives, “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart,” (Ps 104:15). Ecclesiastes simply tells us, “wine gladdens life,” (Eccl 10:19). In Jotham’s fable of the trees and brambles, the trees ask the vines to come rule over them, but the vine responds, “Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?” (Judges 9:13). In the story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers, we are told of the great feast Joseph holds for them:, “And they drank and were merry with him,” (Gen 43:34). The word for “merry” in Hebrew is shakar, (שׁכר) which is often used elsewhere to refer to drunkenness, such as Noah’s drunkenness in 9:21, though not always (e.g. Song of Sol 5:1). John Calvin comments, “Here, however, no intemperance is implied, (so that drunkards may not plead the example of the holy fathers as a pretext for their crime), but an honorable and moderate liberality,” (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis). There is a way to feast, drink, and make merry that leads to Spirit-empowered joy, not drunkenness.
These passages prove a serious problem for those who argue that it may be permissible for someone to drink alcohol, but not let it have any affect on the mood/demeanor of the person whatsoever. The Bible is very clear: wine brings gladness. There is a kind of emotional levity and relaxation that alcohol–used responsibly–can bring about that the Bible seems to sanction.
Most explicit of all is Proverbs 31:6-7, “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” This isn’t an admonition to let the poor become blackout drunk to try to forget their problems–it is simply an encouragement not to withhold from the poor one of the good gifts God has given, a gift explicitly given to bring cheer.
The Church Father, John Chrysostom, commented on this: “Let people in distress have wine and those in pain strong drink,” which shows that nothing can prove such a good remedy for depression as recourse to this, aside from the fact that in some cases intemperance undermines the benefit coming from it,” (Homilies on Genesis 29.6). Notice: Chrysostom thought a moderate use of alcohol was a fitting remedy for those who are in a season of depression, yet drunkenness itself undermined the salutary benefits of it. He did not understand Proverbs 31:6-7 to be a license for drunkenness because drunkenness blocks you off from the benefits of what Proverbs is leading you towards.
Thus, the Bible seems to assume that one of the blessings of alcohol used under the fear of the Lord is to bring joy, levity, laughter, and relief. None of this implies drunkenness and, if Chrysostom is correct, drunkenness actually prohibits these good gifts entirely.
Wine is Used in Worship
In Deuteronomy 14, here is what we are told: “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always,” (Deut 14:22-23). Notice that part of Israel’s worship is bound up in the consumption of wine; God’s people were conscience-bound to obey this. But, more importantly, notice that it is this revelry and feasting that leads to reverence and fear of God.
Even more surprising, Moses allows a stipulation that if the distance to the worship location is too far to travel, the Israelite is to sell their tithe, “and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household,” (Deut 14:26). God seems to care a good deal about us feasting and drinking together in His presence, to His glory and our joy.
Of course, in the New Testament the most obvious example of wine being used in formal worship is in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There, Jesus commemorated wine as the symbol of his lifeblood poured out for the forgiveness of sins, the emblem of the New Covenant. Jesus establishes wine as something to be regularly partaken of by Christians, not in the secret of their houses, but in the worship service.
In the sermon, Pastor Ryan advocated for the use of wine today when taking communion. He anticipates that this will tempt some with a history of drunkenness, but he argued that Jesus must have been aware of this temptation, yet still sanctioned wine as the covenant symbol to be used in perpetuity. Note: the example of the Corinthian church getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper is an important picture of the abuse of wine during the worship service (1 Cor 11:17-34). Surprisingly, Paul doesn’t encourage non-alcoholic wine (which existed then) as a remedy, but encourages discernment and waiting for one another.
Wine is a Symbol of Heavenly Joy
The first miracle that Jesus works is the transformation of water into wine. He is attending a wedding and miraculously creates excellent wine that makes the master of ceremonies compliment the bride and groom. John informs us that this is the “first of his signs” which “manifested his glory” (John 2:1-11). Don Carson explain that in John’s gospel “signs” are, “significant displays of power that point beyond themselves to the deeper realities that could be perceived with the eyes of faith,” (PNTC). What does this point beyond to? To the great wedding supper of the Lamb that John will later write of in his Apocalypse (Rev 19:6-9). It is this great wedding feast that Jesus speaks of during the Last Supper when, after passing around the cup of wine, He tells His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God,” (Mark 14:25; cf. Matt 26:29; Luke 22:18).
Isaiah looks forward to that day when, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined,” (Isa 25:6). In light of this, Ryan commented in his sermon, “You may not drink wine now, but you will one day.” At the dawn of the New Creation, we will sit down at the truer and better Lord’s Table, and enjoy the feast our God has been preparing us, complete with exquisite, luxurious wine.
The prophets repeatedly use wine as a picture of God’s final gift when heaven and earth are restored: “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it,” (Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18). Jeremiah promises that God’s people shall be “radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more,” (Jer 31:12) when God restores His people–they will be like a new Eden; a watered garden complete with overflowing vats of wine. All the myths of a Dionysian fantasy where rivers run red with wine are closer to prophecy than we realize.
We look forward to the day when we can partake of that heavenly banquet, even as we partake of the good bounty of the earth now as a foretaste of what we will one day enjoy.
Drunkenness is a sin, full stop (Eph 5:18). The Bible, for all the good things it has to say about the blessing of alcohol, has much more negative things to say about it. Christians should never participate in drunkenness whatsoever, and if we do we should confess and repent. If we have a history of drunkenness, then we may not be able to enjoy this gift at all without slipping into sin. But in the same way that gluttony doesn’t forbid us from eating food, neither does drunkenness lead us to abstain entirely from enjoying the good gift of alcohol. God has given wine, beer, and strong drink as a gift and–like all of God’s gifts–that gift can be abused. But the abuse doesn’t mean that responsible enjoyment is impermissible.
In my next article I will look at what the Bible explains the deadly dangers of drunkenness to be.