What Proverbs 31 Says About Alcohol

The Bible is in not against all alcoholic drinks whatsoever. So how do we interpret Proverbs 31:7?

Eduard von Grützner (1846–1925)
Eduard von Grützner (1846–1925) (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

Clearly we see 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 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.

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, p. 488) refers to “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.

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).”

Famous Presbyterian commentator Matthew Henry chimes in:

v. 6, 7. . . . 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 . . . 

I think we get the general idea by now.