“Avoid Alcohol and Drug Abuse”
Lesson Passages: Proverbs 20:1; 23:19-21,29-35; 31:4-7

 

Tom J. Nettles

 

As has been the case on many issues in the book of Proverbs, this lesson gives strong counsel on a particular issue of conduct in this world that is open to the abuse of our fallen propensities. The Proverbs deal with the abuse of sleep in the sluggard but do not teach that sleep is an evil in itself when properly conceived. They deal with the alluring affect of money and the servile response that many give to those that are rich, but do not teach that prosperity in itself is an evil. The Proverbs warn strongly against the abuse of power but do not advocate a world of anarchy in which no one is invested with authority to make decisions for the good of the whole. As we will indicate more fully further down, an abuse occurs where the thing itself is legitimate but can be used wrongly; absolute prohibitions come in areas where the thing itself is wrong or destructive. We deal thus with the issue of the abuse of alcohol and drugs.

 

I.  Proverbs 20:1 - The effect of drunkenness has so many devastating effects, both immediate and long term, that the Proverbialist personifies its medium as a sinister and destructive character, setting forth those things that it produces in unwise men

A. Wine is personified as one that mocks those that desire it. One commentator wrote, “The sense is: it is not prudent or sensible to indulge to excess in intoxicating drinks, or: one thus overtaken (that is drunk) does not in this condition behave or act wisely.” Wine is the fermented juice of the grape; it tends to diminish one’s judgment and thus turn its undisciplined partaker into one that profanes the sacred and makes light or little of the most sacred relationships and profound truths. “Scoffing at all things good and true” (Toy in ICC).  When uncompromised sobriety should control the mind and the tongue, wine makes one take on a persona of a mocker.

 

B. Strong drink is a brawler, loud and boisterous, a nuisance and annoyance even to the point of physical confrontation. It makes one contentious and uncontrolled. This could have been the fermented juice of fruits other than grapes, like pomegranates or dates.

 

C. The one who looks upon these drinks as a recreational diversion, resulting in intemperance puts himself into the position of a destructive force in his social circle and cannot be trusted for wise counsel. A person willing to diminish the sharpness of his perceptions makes himself and those dependent on his leadership susceptible to foolish and dangerous consequences.

 

II. Proverbs 23:19-21 – This speaks to the unbridled appetites of certain persons and issues a warning against being in their company.

 

A. As one would expect the case to be, the Father asks for attention to his advice (Hear”) and indicates that wisdom is found in a serious consideration of such words. It must not be with cynicism or reluctance that these words are accepted but as profound and right and excellent, for the reception of them comes from the heart. “Direct your heart in the way. This point is important for understanding what James is teaching when he wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” We must approach the word of God with a heart-felt submission to its truthfulness and excellence and with a determination that we will abide by its precepts, hate what it says is evil, and embrace and approve of what it says is good. This is the wisdom from above. Note Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:10, “that you may approve what is excellent.”

 

B. Verses 19, 20 - One should not make his company of drunkards or gluttons. Such persons indicate no concern about the implications of their conduct and thus give little to no thought about the reality of judgment. It is striking that Paul said that the implication of a rejection of the resurrection is a lifestyle in which eating and drinking become the most recognizable location of pleasure: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” He then follows that short observation with a warning not to be deceived, supported by a quote from a play, but that could very well also be a paraphrase of this Proverb, “Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:32, 33).

 

C. Scriptural warnings are not based on use but on abuse.  Practices that are moral, ethically acceptable, in themselves, may be abused in such a way that a person acts sinfully by his abuse of a good thing. This text warns “Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe one with rags.” [20, 21] Just as this is not a prohibition against eating meat, so it is not an absolute prohibition of wine. If one who eats meat can become a glutton, do we, therefore forbid all eating of meat? Because drowsiness, or slumber, will clothe one in rags, do we forbid all sleep, or rest. Because sometimes it is induced by heavy and sinful eating and drinking, must legitimate and needed rest be forbidden? Meat can be abused, and sleep can be abused, and wine can be abused. The God-fearer should avoid keeping up social relations with such abusers. There is a threshold between use and abuse, but on some issues it is very thin and takes extraordinary, mature, and thoughtful perceptions to maintain proper discipline and so avoid sin.

1. Paul places the drunkard who claims to be a Christian in the company of those with whom a Christian should not associate. “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother is he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)

2.  Again, Paul contrasts drunkenness with edifying spiritual conduct and praise of God: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another etc” (Ephesians 5:18f)

3. Peter places drunkenness in a list of activities that he generalizes as a “flood of debauchery” to be avoided by those that embrace the suffering of Christ as the source of their redemption and the model for their lives (1 Peter 4:1-4).

 

III. Proverbs 29-35 – After the King points toward the necessity of getting wisdom and, in doing so, getting righteousness, he again asks for the heart of his son (23:26) and gives two examples of foolish, sinful behavior that destroys righteousness. The first is sexual immorality and the second is the abuse of wine.

A. Verses 29, 30 – All sorts of calamities occur to the one who “lingers long over wine” and likes to spice it up with enhancers, that is, “mixed wine.” The descriptive words actually are interjections, depicting the lamenting cry of the drunkard. Who has (that is, cries out the word) “Woe!?” Who has “Alas!?” He cries out in this way because he has strife, and wretched things about which to complain, and wounds that he cannot remember getting, and redness of eyes. How utterly absurd it is to give oneself to such a destructive use of God’s creation intended to display his glory.

 

B. Verses 31, 32 – When the wine has been so enhanced, therefore, so that its intent is to create the quickest way to inebriation, and it is set in a social  occasion designed to encourage such participation, the wise warning is, “Do not look at wine when . . .” Though it appears so enticing, and is given such flavor that it goes straight down pleasing the lips, tongue, palate, and seems to say, “Have more,” know then the end of that venture is poisonous and any benefit or legitimate pleasure has been spoiled. That narrow threshold between use and abuse has been crossed.

 

C. Verse 33-35 – “This paragraph . . . gives the fullest and liveliest description of drunkenness in OT” (Toy, ICC). At one level we should have anger enforced by a resolute resistance to the corruption of humanity by such conduct, a conduct that is not only an instance of an undiscerning and undisciplined life, but is glorified in much popular media, prompted by the desire for profit by the producers and sellers of such beverages. At the same time pity and compassion should prompt intervention in a variety of ways to reduce, if not completely eliminate, the phenomenon described.

1. The fancies and incoherent talk of a drunk man utterly abuses the dignity of the image of God in us. Perhaps this is the effect of delirium tremens, so long and incessantly has the person pictured here been in this state – cf. 35b “When shall I awake, I must have another drink.”

2. Verse 34 could refer to the restlessness, confused state of sleep when in such a stupor; but it could also refer to the degree of insensibility that overwhelms one in the state of drunkenness so that he is utterly unaware of the unsuitable and dangerous environment of his slumber.

3. Verse 35, Such a person not only cares nothing for the environment of drunken slumber, but is so anesthetized by the flood of the sparkling, spicy, red wine that he can not even feel the beating that he receives from the fight that he probably provoked by his brawling spirit. Remember, wine is a brawler. Tread very lightly, and if you can’t tread lightly, don’t tread at all.

 

IV. Proverbs 31:4-7

A. People in positions of authority, teaching, and judgment must avoid taking wine. This text warns those that have responsibility for administering justice about the immediate effects of wine in decreasing the sharpness of the capacities for clear discernment and mental acuteness.

 

!. They might lose their clarity with which they understand and apply intricate and complex statutes upon which justice depends.

2. In thus debilitating themselves for their calling, they could well cause the rights of those afflicted to be ignored.

3. In modern society the responsibility on everyone that drives a vehicle falls under this warning. How many lives are lost each year because of reduced powers of response reflex when driving?

 

B. Leviticus 10: 9-11 forbad the Priest from drinking “wine or strong drink” when he went into the tent of meeting, for he was responsible for giving instruction in all kinds of distinctions between clean and unclean and for instruction in all the statutes of the Lord. The disobedience to this requirement brought about a curse on the entire nation of Israel. Isaiah 28:7-13 pictures priests and prophets who have taken wine and strong drink and have become completely unfit for teaching. They can hardly give even the most elementary instruction to the simplest of learners. “To whom will he teach knowledge and to whom will he explain the message?” Only to babes just weaned because he has made himself incapable of any insightful profundity in his exposition of the word of the Lord.

 

C. Verses 6a – to those that are on the verge of death and in need of some anesthetic arrangement to handle the pain, wine may be given

 

D. 6b and 7 – Perhaps by way of a cynical concession, the writer points to strong drink as the only thing that can relieve the bitter distress, poverty, and misery of fools. For such, conformity to the folly of abuse is consistent with the overall folly of their lives that has plunged them into the state of having to drown their sorrows.

 

V. The fine Threshold - Rules that establish absolutes where the Bible has not established them cut short the biblical process of sanctification. One might conclude that certain activities too easily lead into wrong thoughts or foolish actions and will thus avoid the path that leads to sin. This is a part of the kind of discernment that the Bible invokes on each Christian. “Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their sense trained to discern good and evil.” [Hebrews 5:14] Another man’s freedom, however, in the same activities should not be judged as intrinsically immoral by my conscience [1 Cor 10:28]. This is a delicate issue. Paul insists, however, that such decisions must be made on a case by case basis [1 Cor 10:23-30] in the strong light of Christian charity, our concern that we not bruise another’s conscience, and that we not fall into sin ourselves. Even with all the delicacy and thinness of threshold, nevertheless, no universal rule declaring what is not immoral to be immoral is in any sense appropriate. Jesus spoke to this principle in Matthew 15:1-14 and 24:1-4 prohibiting the introduction of a rule for action that God has not required.

 

Rules are certainly legitimate and Christian truth contains a number of them, both ethical and doctrinal. Any rule, every prohibition, and every requirement of God should be approached as a moral absolute. It is never right to be an idolator and any degree of it is sinful. It is impossible to abuse idolatry, because any degree of it is wrong. Thievery is wrong in any degree. Little thefts and big thefts all break the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”  It is impossible to abuse stealing, because any degree of it is sinful. Adultery is wrong any time any place with any person and in any company. It is impossible to abuse adultery because any degree of it is wrong, even thinking about it. Pornography is not just a path to sexual sin but is sexual sin. Pornography cannot be abused because all degrees of it are wrong. Coveting is wrong concerning any object or circumstance; it is the foundational motivation of self-seeking for all other violations of the commandments. It is impossible to abuse coveting because any degree of it is wrong.

 

Each of these aspects of the ethics of prohibition in the commandments implies an ethic of positive action. Worship is not wrong, but is necessary and must be focused solely on the Triune God as he is revealed most fully in the redemptive work of Christ. Possession is not wrong, but must be obtained and enjoyed in light of God’s command to subdue the earth, to labor in order that we might have something to give. Sex is not wrong, but we are commanded to enjoy its pleasures within marriage as a gift of God and mysterious type of Christ’s self-giving to the church. A desire for advancement in property and position and influence is not wrong because we should desire everything for the glory of Christ and should God allow us any of these graces they can be subdued to honor Christ as means for the advance of gospel truth.

 

At the same time, each of these has a different size threshold between proper expression and improper expression. As our texts have indicated, some types of beverage alcohol should be considered as forbidden. Other types have a proper use but can give way easily to abuse. The threshold between use and abuse is narrow and must be observed with care and discernment. The threshold is so small in fact, that many might decide that the risk of mishandling is too great and thus opt for abstinence.