Today’s question is about depression, and it comes to us from an anonymous listener: “Pastor John, about a year ago, I was going through one of the lowest times of depression in my entire life. During this time, as I was reading Scripture, I came across Proverbs 31:6–7, which says: ‘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.’ That seems like exactly what I didn’t need. Does this passage teach us to use alcohol in numbing the pain of depression?”
Let’s read these verses, Proverbs 31:6–7, in context. Here’s verses 4–9, and they’re very short. “It is not for kings, O Lemuel” — so this is Lemuel’s mother. You know that early in the context in verse 2. This is Lemuel’s mother teaching him about how to be a king.
“Consuming alcohol will not relieve your sorrow. Clearly knowing the truth of God in Christ will.”
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
So, there’s the context. On both sides of the verse about giving drink to the one who is perishing, the stress is, Don’t pervert the rights of the afflicted. Judge righteously. Defend the poor. And, as a means to that end, watch out for strong drink. It unfits the mind for the kind of thinking that leaders have to do in order to do justice. So, Lemuel’s mother is picking up on a theme that runs through the Old Testament about alcohol and how it distorts reality and unfits the mind for responsible action and therefore should be used with the greatest caution.
Let me just give you a taste of that theme that she’s picking up on. Ecclesiastes 10:17, “Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!” Now, there’s happiness when you have princes that don’t abuse their alcohol. What happens when leaders give themselves to strong drink? Consider 1 Kings 16:9–10, when Asa, the king, “was at Tirzah, drinking himself drunk in the house of Arza, who was over at the household of Tirzah, Zimri came in and struck him down and killed him.” Or 1 Kings 20:16 when Ben-hadad, the foreign king, “was drinking himself drunk in the booths,” they attacked him and defeated him. Or Isaiah 28:7, “the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgement.”
“Don’t damage your ability to see the truth that can heal you deeply by turning to alcohol for comfort.”
That’s what Lemuel’s mother is so concerned about. Or Hosea 4:10–11, where “whoredom, wine, and new wine . . . take away the understanding.” That’s what she’s so concerned about. Or Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Or Proverbs 23:31–33, “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things.”
This is not what kings should do, Lemuel’s mother is saying. Your heart must stay clear, your eyes must be open, your mind must be sharp so that you can utter just and wise things. The greatest concern of this passage is Proverbs 31:5, “Lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” Now, that leaves two possible meanings for these words inserted here. Let me read them. “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more” (Proverbs 31:6–7). Now, here are two possible meanings for that in that particular context.
1. Use strong drink like we use morphine. If someone is perishing and in great pain, use the means at your disposal to relieve the pain. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing. I don’t think — this is a specific answer to his question — I don’t think that justifies us in using alcohol to escape our sorrows or our mental miseries. That would not relieve the symptoms of sorrow, but would cut us off from the real remedy; namely, knowing clearly the truth of God in Christ. That’s the first possible meaning. Use it like morphine. That’s the way it’s been used in history. Every TV western I’ve ever seen, when they’re going to cut off the guy’s finger, they give him whiskey, right? Well, so would I! I’m so thankful today for pain medication.
2. This is what most of the commenters I’ve looked at believe is the case; namely, that this is irony. This is Lemuel’s mother, who has just told her son that the king should beware of strong drink, and then she says, Give it to the miserable. Tremper Longman in his commentary suggests that she would be saying this: “Don’t act like those derelicts who drink to forget their hardships. Be like the king you are.” It’s irony. It’s saying, Go ahead and give it to them to do with it what they do, but you’re the king and you don’t use alcohol that way.
“Your heart must stay clear, your eyes open, and your mind sharp so that you can utter what is just and wise.”
Now, frankly, I’m just not sure which of those is right, but both of them I think would be legitimate interpretations of these verses. In either case, she’s not teaching her son, or us, in our very low and discouraging moments to damage our ability to see the truth that can heal us deeply. Don’t open your mouth to obscure reality. Open your mouth to make right judgments. In other words, don’t open your mouth to take in the very thing that would make you blind to the truth that could heal you. Open your mouth as a king to speak right things and open your ears to hear right things that would deliver you from misjudgment.
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