"Wine is a mocker, intoxicating drink arouses brawling, and whomever is led astray by it is not wise."
On the subject of wine, poet John Keats writes in his "Ode to a Nightingale":
O for a draught of vintage that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delv?d earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Proven?al song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of warm South,
Full of the true, the blissful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stain?d mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim: . . .
Many famous personalities, both ancient and modern, have waxed eloquent on the subject of the drinking of alcoholic beverages—some for and some against. A few quotes illustrate the diversity of viewpoints on this topic. First some humorous ones:
» Actor W. C. Fields: "I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food."
» Author Robert A. Heinlein: "Be wary of strong drink. It can make you shoot at tax collectors—and miss."
» Author Herman Melville: "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."
» British statesman Sir Winston Churchill: "I have taken more good from alcohol than alcohol has taken from me."
With our apologies to any readers who might be tax collectors or cannibals, we will move on to two quotes in a more serious vein:
» Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: "Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life."
» Confederate General Robert E. Lee: "My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spirituous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health."
General Lee's viewpoint on this topic follows the same line as that of some professing Christian denominations that claim the Bible teaches that any consumption of alcoholic beverages is a sin.
Winebibbers and Drunkards
It is true that there are some scriptures that might, at first reading, seem to teach total abstinence from wine and other strong drink. Here is one example:
Hear, my son, and be wise; and guide your heart in the way. Do not mix with winebibbers, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags. . . . Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaints? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long at the wine, those who go in search of mixed wine. Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will utter perverse things. Yes, you will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, or like one who lies at the top of the mast, saying: "They have struck me, but I was not hurt; they have beaten me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake, that I may seek another drink?" (Proverbs 23:19-21, 29-35)
These verses are among those often quoted by those who believe that it is wrong to drink alcoholic beverages. They claim that this passage proves it is sin to drink wine, and by extension, any drink containing alcohol. However, this scripture does not say these things. What then does it say?
It warns that:
» The excessive drinking of alcohol is a sin. The winebibber drinks too much and too often.
» Improper use of alcohol is as poisonous as a snake's venom (verse 32).
» Poverty is just one potential negative result of drunkenness (verse 21).
» Other potential—even probable—negative consequences of chronic drunkenness include woe, sorrow, contentions, complaints, bloodshot eyes, hallucinations, nightmares, addiction, lack of self-control in speech and other matters, and bodily injuries without apparent cause—the cause being forgotten because of drunken stupor (verses 29, 33-34).
» We should not tarry long at wine (verse 30).
On this last warning, we know that a person who lingers where alcohol is consumed can so easily become a winebibber, or in plain, modern English, a drunkard. God, through Paul, lists drunkenness as one of the works of the flesh, warning that no drunkard will inherit God's Kingdom:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, . . . envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19, 21; emphasis ours throughout)
Look Not Upon Red Wine?
Let us more closely examine Proverbs 23:31, which offers some seemingly unusual advice: "Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly." This is from the New King James version. The "old" King James version puts it this way: "Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright." What does this mean?
The terms "red" and "moveth itself" refer to wine when it is in the process of fermentation. This is the period before the wine is fully fermented. If during this time a person "looks on it," so as to finally drink it, he may become sick and possibly even die. In fact, instances are recorded of winery workers becoming asphyxiated by merely leaning over the wine vats to "look on" the fermenting wine, and being overcome by the poisonous gases, falling into the vats and drowning.
"What a great way to die!" we might joke, but not so long ago, just such an accident happened at a winery in Canada. Here is an excerpt from a recent fatal accident alert in the Workmen's Compensation Board of British Columbia's Health and Safety Centre:
The owner of a winery collapsed while taking a sample from a wine fermentation tank. A second person entered the tank in an attempt to rescue him, and he also collapsed. They could not be revived.
Both men died because they looked upon the wine when it was red! So we see, once again, that God's advice was not just for the people of previous millennia. It is, in fact, right up to date.
Old Testament Approval
God's Word shows that it is perfectly fine to drink wine in moderation. It is replete with accounts of the proper uses of wine—accounts of people considered righteous according to God's standards. Here are some examples:
Melchizedek, whom we believe to have been Jesus Christ Himself, brought some wine to His meeting with Abram: "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18).
When giving his blessing to his son Jacob (who he thought was Esau), Isaac drank wine and asked for plenty of wine as a blessing from God:
He said, "Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son's game, so that my soul may bless you." So he brought it near to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. . . . "Therefore may God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine." (Genesis 27:25, 28)
Is it likely that Isaac would have asked God to bless his son with an abundance of wine if he knew that He forbade it? Wine was included in other blessings too. Through His servant Moses, God told the Israelites that wine would be included in the many blessings He would pour out upon them if they would obey Him:
And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain and your new wine and your oil, . . . in the land of which He swore to your fathers to give you. (Deuteronomy 7:13)
Then Israel shall dwell in safety, the fountain of Jacob alone, in a land of grain and new wine; His heavens shall also drop dew. (Deuteronomy 33:28)
Here we read of wine promised by God for the Israelites as a blessing for obedience. Conversely, if they were to disobey Him, He solemnly warned them that He would take their wine and vineyards away from them as a curse:
You shall plant vineyards and tend them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. . . . And they [fierce foreign invaders] shall eat the increase of your livestock and the produce of your land, until you are destroyed; they shall not leave you grain or new wine or oil, . . . until they have destroyed you. (Deuteronomy 28:39, 51)
In many scriptures in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—too many to list here—God commands that wine be used in Israel's drink offerings to Him. In addition, God's people are commanded to pay to Him His tithe of all the wine they produced: "The firstfruits of your grain and your new wine and your oil, . . . you shall give him" (Deuteronomy 18:4).
In His instructions on the proper use of the festival tithe (or "second tithe," as we often refer to it today) for the celebration of His feasts, God authorizes the purchase and use of wine and similar beverages (Hebrew shekar: "strong drink" or intensely alcoholic liquor):
And you shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, . . . that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. . . . And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy 14:23, 26)
New Testament Approval
The instruction and example continues throughout the Old Testament. However, in turning to the New Testament, let us begin with a question. In the transition between these two eras of time covered by the volumes we call the Old and New Testaments, did God change His mind regarding the use of alcohol?
It is certainly true that drunkenness and excess of alcohol are as clearly condemned in many New Testament scriptures as they are in the Old (see Matthew 24:49; Luke 12:45; 21:34; Romans 13:13; I Corinthians 5:11; 6:10; 11:21; Ephesians 5:18; Galatians 5:21; I Timothy 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7; 2:3; I Peter 4:3).
Jesus and His apostles mention wine and other strong drink numerous times in the New Testament, but nowhere do any of them say that moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages is wrong. A few verses strongly indicate that Jesus Himself liked the occasional glass of wine:
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, "He has a demon." The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, "Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Luke 7:33-34)
Why would anyone call Him a winebibber if it were anything other than wine that He had been seen drinking? Jesus drank wine with His disciples at His last Passover service, promising that He would again join them in a glass of wine after their resurrection: "But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom" (Matthew 26:29).
The very first miracle Jesus performed was to turn water into wine:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it." Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast." And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, "Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then that which is inferior; but you have kept the good wine until now." (John 2:1-10)
Not only did Jesus condone the proper use of wine, but He knew what the qualities of a good wine were, a fact confirmed in Luke 5:39: "And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, 'The old is better.'"
Some have argued that, at the Cana wedding, Jesus changed the water into unfermented grape juice, not wine. However, the Greek word translated "wine" throughout John 2:1-10 is oinos, which means "fermented wine."
The apostle Paul follows His Master's lead on this subject. In the same letter to Timothy in which he soundly condemned excessive alcohol consumption (I Timothy 3:3, 8), Paul advises him to drink some wine to help ease his chronic stomach problems: "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities" (I Timothy 5:23).
God gave us wine and other alcoholic beverages for our enjoyment and so that we may learn to use them properly. We can develop character by properly exercising wisdom and self-control in consuming them. However, if one has a low tolerance for alcohol or one is an alcoholic, the wisest course is to abstain from them altogether (with the exception of the small amount required to be taken during the Passover service).
The proper use of alcohol is a great responsibility, but it is only the wrong use of it that is sin.
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