(All Bible quotes from the NASB, unless otherwise noted)
(Copyright © 2009 by K. Scott Schaeffer)
From 1920 to 1933, the sale of alcohol was a violation of the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For over 100 years prior to the passage of this amendment, Christians led the crusade to abolish alcohol in America. During this crusade, their political objectives became one with their religious beliefs, and opposition to alcohol consumption became a staple of the Christian faith.
Christians haven’t always opposed alcohol, however. The Puritans, who in the minds of most Americans represent religious rigidity more than anyone, actually loaded more beer and wine onto the Mayflower than they did water. They also served beer, brandy, gin, and wine at the first Thanksgiving celebration (1). So, even though they were strict in many other ways, the Puritans were far more lenient regarding alcohol consumption than most Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches are today.
Who’s right? Whose beliefs better align with the messages that resonate throughout the Bible? The Puritans or the Evangelicals?
To gain biblical clarity on this issue, we must analyze it with the Every-Verse Method. In doing so, we will exclude verses that give no indication of God’s feelings on alcohol consumption, such as Genesis (9:20-27), where Noah gets drunk and embarrasses himself. Neither will we cover ceremonial instructions, such as those applying to priests in the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 10:9) or to Nazirite vows (Numbers 6). These ceremonial laws were wiped out by Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins on the cross. We will only examine verses that help us determine God’s will regarding alcohol consumption today.
Deuteronomy 14:26, “And you may spend the money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”
Context: God instructs the Israelites to set aside a tenth of their harvest for a celebration. This is often referred to as the Festival Tithe.
Analysis: God’s first mention of alcoholic drink is a positive one. He created it for our enjoyment.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21, “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey us; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all of the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.”
Context: Various laws of God are presented in these chapters of Deuteronomy.
Analysis: This is the Bible’s first mention of alcohol in conjunction with sin. Alcohol is absent from the laws of Exodus and Leviticus, which precede Deuteronomy. The focus of this passage is not alcohol itself, but rather, the sin of being disobedient to parents—a sin that breaks one of the Ten Commandments. No sound-minded parent would recommend that their child ruin himself with a hedonistic, self-destructive lifestyle abusing both food and alcohol. Here in this verse, drinking alcoholic beverages is no more of a sin than eating food (gluttony), but the abuse of either can be the ruin of any person.
Judges 13:3-5, “Then the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman, and said to her, ‘Behold, you are barren and have born no children, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. Now therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing. For behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines.’”
Context: The angel of the Lord gives instructions to the mother of Samson regarding the son she would soon deliver. The Nazirite designation set Samson apart from other people. Samson would go on to become one of the Old Testament’s great heroes. He is best known today for his long hair that gave him strength, and for his encounter with Delilah.
Analysis: At this point in time, Samson’s mother was the only person in all of Israel who was prohibited from drinking wine, and that was only during her pregnancy. Since we now know how alcohol can hurt a developing fetus, it’s quite possible that God forbade alcohol consumption here so that Samson would be born physically superior to other babies. However, we cannot be certain of God’s reasoning, since the Bible gives no explanation. What we do know is that this was an isolated case of alcohol abstinence.
Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise.”
Context: No real context here, as Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings which apply to all people at all times.
Analysis: To be intoxicated by alcohol is not considered a sin here, but it is considered unwise. When drunk, some people do foolish things they ordinarily would not.
Proverbs 21:17, “He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; He who loves wine and oil will not become rich.”
Analysis: Pleasure, wine, and oil are associated with feasting. Those who indulge in pleasure too frequently tend to be unproductive.
Proverbs 23:20, “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 cloth a man with rags.”
Analysis: This verse’s focus is not alcohol, but the unproductiveness of pleasure-seeking. Drunkenness is often associated with gluttony in the Bible. It’s not a sin to drink alcohol or to eat food. It may not even be a sin to experience an isolated episode of drunkenness any more than it is a sin to overeat at a holiday dinner. It is a sin, however, to lead a lifestyle of pleasure-seeking. We cannot seek pleasure and be productive at the same time. We need not look far in today’s world to find people whose party lifestyles get in the way of something as basic as holding a job.
Proverbs 23:29-35, “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine; those who go to taste mixed wine. Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things, and you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea, or like one who lies down on the top of a mast. ‘They struck me, but I did not become ill; they beat me, but I did not know it. When shall I awake so I can find another drink?’”
Analysis: The line, “Do not look on wine when it is red” does not mean that it’s a sin to look at wine, as some have suggested. These verses use exaggerations to make a point and are not to be taken literally. Their examples of hallucinations, confusion, and foolish acts never result from moderate alcohol consumption.
This quote opposes alcohol abuse and proves that it was every bit as much of a problem 3,000 years ago as it is today.
Proverbs 31:4-7, “It is not for Kings, O Lemuel: It is not for kings to drink wine or for rulers to desire strong drink, lest they drink and forget what is decreed, and pervert the rights of the afflicted. Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more.”
Context: This proverb is not from Solomon, but from the mother of King
Analysis: The point here is that kings should not abuse alcohol, because it will lead them to become evil and oppressive. Again, this verse does not oppose moderate consumption, because moderate consumption does not cause memory loss and poor judgment.
It’s surprising to see a Bible verse recommend that the poor drink to forget their misery. We should not apply this message to the American poor who have an opportunity to better themselves and positively impact the lives of others. The poor in this passage were likely to have been suffering slaves who had no hope for their future on earth.
Song of Solomon 8:2, “I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, who used to instruct me; I would give you spiced wine to drink from the juice of my pomegranates.”
Context: Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is an eight-chapter love poem that is ignored by most Christians due to its erotic nature. The words in this verse are spoken by the woman in the poem.
Analysis: The fact that alcohol is mentioned in passing is proof that drinking wine (at least in moderation) was acceptable and undisputed in Solomon’s time.
Isaiah 5:11-12, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink; who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them! And their banquets are accompanied by lyre and harp, by tambourine and flute, and by wine; but they do not pay attention to the deeds of the Lord, nor do they consider the work of His hands.”
Context: Chapter five lists various woes to those who indulge in sin.
Analysis: This text addresses the full time partier. Drinking wine is no more of a sin here than playing a tambourine, harp, flute, or lyre. God’s displeasure was in people partying their lives away and taking no time to think about God and what He had done for them. Clearly, people haven’t changed since the days of Isaiah.
Isaiah 5:22-23, “Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink; who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!”
Analysis: Even in the days of Isaiah, the biggest alcohol abusers were cheered on by other drinkers for their drinking accomplishments (again, nothing has changed). Also, God associates alcohol abuse among those in power with the injustices that they commit.
Isaiah 28:1, “Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, and to the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is at the head of the fertile valley of those who are overcome with wine.”
Context: Samaria, the capital of Ephraim, was a luxurious city where the wealthy and the powerful enjoyed the high life.
Analysis: Here, the Bible associates drunkenness with those who have prospered and revel in the resulting luxury. Prosperity is the result of hard work, but those who prosper often indulge themselves in pleasure until they lose what had been gained.
Isaiah 28:7-8, “And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink. The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink. They are confused by wine; they stagger from strong drink. They reel while having visions. They totter when rendering judgment; for all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.”
Context: The prophecy against Ephraim continues.
Analysis: The Lord paints a vivid picture of the debauchery of Ephraim’s religious leaders, who apparently had little concern for the ways of the Lord, but had lots of interest in their own pleasure.
Jeremiah 35:1-2, “The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, saying, ‘Go to the house of the Rechabites, and speak to them, and bring them into the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers, and give them wine to drink.”
Jeremiah 35:6-7, “But they said, ‘We will not drink wine, for Jonadab, the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, saying, “You shall not drink wine, you or your sons forever; and you shall not build a house, and you shall not sow seed, and you shall not plant a vineyard or own one; but in tents you shall dwell all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn.”’”
Jeremiah 35:14, “The words of Jonadab, the son of Rechab, which he commanded his sons not to drink wine, are observed. So they do not drink wine to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. But I have spoken to you again and again; yet you have not listened to Me.”
Context: As a form of prophecy, God instructs Jeremiah to put this family to the test by offering them wine, since they had been obedient to their father’s command not to drink it. They remain steadfast by refusing to drink, and God uses their obedience as an example of how the people of Judah should obey their heavenly Father.
Analysis: From this story we know that, even in the 7th century B.C., people practiced abstinence from alcohol, even though it was not required by the law of God.
Joel 1:5, “Awake drunkards and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth.”
Context: Chapter 1 of Joel prophesies a severe locust plague which would, among other things, destroy the grape crop from which the wine was made.
Analysis: There’s no alcohol message here, but there’s an anti-drunkard undertone.
Joel 3:3, “They have also cast lots for My people, traded a boy for a harlot, and sold a girl for wine that they may drink.”
Context: Most of this chapter prophesies judgment against the nation that conquered Judah (the southern half of the kingdom of Israel). This nation, Babylon, sold Jewish children into slavery in return for wine and prostitutes.
Analysis: Once again, alcohol is not the focus. God is angry at Babylon for having such little regard for His children’s lives that they would throw them away in exchange for pleasure.
Amos 6:6-7, “…who drink wine from sacrificial bowls while they anoint themselves with the finest of oils, yet they have not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”
Context: Chapter 6 rebukes the complacency of the people of Israel during a time of prosperity.
Analysis: In addition to the drinking of wine, this chapter also lists lounging on couches, eating lambs, and playing the harp as elements of a hedonistic lifestyle that distracted the Israelites from paying proper attention to God.
Micah 2:11, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher for this people!” (NRSV)
Context: Micah prophecies against Israel prior to the northern Kingdom’s fall to Assyria. This was a period in which the entire nation paid little attention to God.
Analysis: Hmmm. Do you think a prophet promoting wine and beer would be popular today? Maybe not among Christians, but I’m sure everyone else would like him. The point of this verse is that the people only wanted to hear prophecies of prosperity and God’s favor, not the realities of His anger over their godless ways.
Habakkuk 2:15-16, “Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, who mix in your venom even to make them drunk, so as to look on their nakedness! You will be filled with disgrace rather than honor. Now you yourself drink and expose your own nakedness. The cup of the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter disgrace will come upon your glory.”
Context: This prophecy is directed toward the nation of Babylon, which would soon conquer Judah.
Analysis: The drunkenness and nakedness is an analogy of how Babylon abused its neighbors.
Zechariah 9:17, “For what comeliness and beauty will be theirs! Grain will make the young men flourish, and new wine the virgins.”
Context: Zechariah prophecies to the Jews after their return from the Babylonian captivity. In this chapter, God’s prophecy is one of a bright future for Judah.
Analysis: Wine is mentioned in a positive light, and it is associated with prosperity.