Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"The Proverbs 31 Drunk" (Huh??!!)

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Proverbs 31:4-7 (RSV)

[4] It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
[5] lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
[6] Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
[7] let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
My first thought in reaction to this is 1 Timothy 5:23:
No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.
So there is clearly a "medicinal motif" in Scripture; even in the New Covenant. The cross-reference works with regard to Prov 31:6, but not so well with 31:7: "let them drink and forget their poverty." That is the fascinating part. I guess I would suspect that it is saying to drink to some extent to forget miseries; though not to the extent of getting drunk and out of control, which is condemned in many places in Scripture.

It's also interesting that in 31:5 the "strong drink" when taken by kings is said to lead to oppression of his subjects, whereas the same thing for the poor person is almost a balm to help them forget their "misery": scarcely any different than the philosophy of a million down-and-outers (including non-alcoholics) at any given local pub. What would the temperance people and the teetotallers say about this??!! :) The same Paul writes in the same book:
1 Timothy 3:8 Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, . . . (cf. 3:3; Titus 1:7)
And elsewhere:
Romans 13:13 let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.

1 Corinthians 5:11 But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber -- not even to eat with such a one.

1 Corinthians 6:10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Galatians 5:21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Ephesians 5:18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit,
St. Peter agrees:
1 Peter 4:3 Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.
Proverbs itself condemns drunkenness:
Proverbs 20:1 Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.

Proverbs 23:20-21
Be not among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags.

Proverbs 26:10 Like an archer who wounds everybody is he who hires a passing fool or drunkard.
Yet it is by no means against wine per se:
Proverbs 3:10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.
Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding. Therefore, the Bible is in no way, shape, or form, against all alcoholic drinks whatsoever. That said, how do we interpret Proverbs 31:7?

A Catholic Commentary on Scripture, edited by Dom Bernard Orchard (London: Thomas Nelson: 1953) states this (p. 488):
Two proper occasions for the use of wine, bodily suffering and mental distress; cf. Ps 103 (104), 15.
Here is the cross-reference:
Psalm 104:14-15 Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man's heart.
Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary (1859) confirms what I suspected would be the case:

Ver. 6. Drink. Hebrew shecar, particularly palm-wine. --- Are sad. Hebrew, "perish," being sentenced to die; (Mark xv. 23., and Amos ii. 8.) or, who grieve and mourn for one deceased. On such occasions no food was prepared in the house, but the friends supplied what was necessary, and went to eat and drink with the afflicted, Ecclesiastes vii. 3.

Ver. 7. More. Not that intoxication is permitted even to them.

In effect, then, it seems that for the ancient Hebrews and early Christians, consuming wine had (among other things) a medicinal use (Paul's suggestion for stomach problems; Prov 31:6) and in severe situations, a function as an anti-depressant or stress reliever (Prov 31:7); though in both cases, it's not sanctioned to the extent of becoming drunk, which is condemned throughout Scripture. Today we have anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pills and candy and caffeine and so forth, that help us at various periods; back then it was wine. I see no essential difference, unless it is used excessively, leading to a drunken (therefore irresponsible) state.

Navarre Bible, an orthodox work, unfortunately offers no specific commentary on Proverbs 31:6-7.

Eerdmans Bible Commentary (1987 edition, p. 569) states:
Drink is the anodyne of the hopeless -- there is no excuse for it for those who are not in this condition (vv. 6, 7).
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary of 1864 opines:
The proper use of such drinks is to restore tone to feeble bodies and depressed minds (cf. Ps. 104:15).
John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, writes simply:
To perish -- To faint; for such need a cordial.
Famous Presbyterian commentator Matthew Henry chimes in:
v. 6, 7. "Thou hast wine or strong drink at command; instead of doing thyself hurt with it, do others good with it; let those have it that need it.’’ Those that have wherewithal must not only give bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty, but they must give strong drink to him that is ready to perish through sickness or pain and wine to those that are melancholy and of heavy heart; for it was appointed to cheer and revive the spirits, and make glad the heart (as it does where there is need of it), not to burden and oppress the spirits, as it does where there is no need of it. We must deny ourselves in the gratifications of sense, that we may have to spare for the relief of the miseries of others, and be glad to see our superfluities and dainties better bestowed upon those whom they will be a real kindness to than upon ourselves whom they will be a real injury to. Let those that are ready to perish drink soberly, and it will be a means so to revive their drooping spirits that they will forget their poverty for the time and remember their misery no more, and so they will be the better able to bear it. The Jews say that upon this was grounded the practice of giving a stupifying drink to condemned prisoners when they were going to execution, as they did to our Saviour. But the scope of the place is to show that wine is a cordial, and therefore to be used for want and not for wantonness, by those only that need cordials, as Timothy, who is advised to drink a little wine, only for his stomach’s sake and his often infirmities, 1 Tim. 5:23.
I think we get the general idea now. The passage poses no problem whatever for Christian ethics or biblical inspiration. For related reading, see:

Alcohol: Biblical and Catholic Teaching

Resources for the Biblical Teaching on Wine and Alcohol [Links Page]

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