Does Alcohol Still Sober You?
Five Warnings About Abuse
God planted the first vineyard, and God engineered the first grape. He knew precisely what would happen when that little unassuming ball was harvested, crushed, fermented, stirred, and pressed. He knew how it would make man feel — glad (Psalm 104:14–15). He knew he would serve it — not water, not milk, not just juice — in the church’s most important meals together (Matthew 26:27).
Before sounding the warnings, it’s good to remember that God loves good wine and still pours it for his children to enjoy, but his love is not young and naïve. His prophet warns, “Wine is a traitor” — notice, not excessive wine, but wine, the everyday alcohol of the day — “Wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples” (Habakkuk 2:5). As arrogant and ruthless as Hitler and as greedy as death, have we reckoned with the tyrant many of us thoughtlessly sip between bites?
Who Suffers Without Cause?
While it’s harder than we might expect to find encouragement toward alcohol in Scripture, it’s not at all hard to find warnings about its abuses.
Moses once describes it as “the poison of serpents and the cruel venom of asps” (Deuteronomy 32:33). In Psalm 75, it’s a picture of God’s wrath (Psalm 75:8). Those who bow to their next drink will never see the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Galatians 5:21). And if anyone claims to be a brother while abusing alcohol without repentance, he’s to be cut off from the church — for the sake of his soul. “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is [a] drunkard . . . not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). The warnings are as serious as they are numerous.
One passage in particular, Proverbs 23:29–35, not only warns about the judgment that will fall on drunkenness, but about the spiritual dangers of this kind of drinking.
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
Those who tarry long over wine;
those who go to try mixed wine. (Proverbs 23:29–30)
The wise man goes on to explain his woes and sorrows, his wounds and miseries. A healthy, godly use of alcohol remains vigilant against at least these five great dangers of alcohol (all results of excessive drinking): confusion, perversion, instability, paralysis, and futility.
Your eyes will see strange things. . . . (Proverbs 23:33)
The first hazard of drunkenness is confusion. Abusing alcohol will make you see strange things, robbing you of the ability to perceive reality. You will see things that are not there, or you’ll see things that are there but not as they are. Like the man on the side of the road, you won’t be able to walk straight, much less in a manner worthy of God (Colossians 1:10).
“Drunkenness blurs life-and-death distinctions and muddies the precious promises and commands of God.”
We see this danger when God says to Aaron and the priests, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Leviticus 10:8–9). Why would God forbid the priests from drinking alcohol? Because they, more than anyone else, needed to see reality clearly enough to guard the people against danger, especially spiritual danger, and lead them to what’s true, beautiful, and holy. “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:10–11).
Drunkenness, then and now, blurs life-and-death distinctions and muddies the precious promises and commands of God.
Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. (Proverbs 23:33)
Scripture repeatedly ties drunkenness to immorality, especially sexual immorality (see Hosea 4:10–11; Joel 3:2–3). In the verses immediately before ours, the wise father says,
My son, give me your heart,
and let your eyes observe my ways.
For a prostitute is a deep pit;
an adulteress is a narrow well.
She lies in wait like a robber
and increases the traitors among mankind.
Who has woe? Who has sorrow? . . . (Proverbs 23:26–29)
Why move so quickly, and without any transition, from prostitutes to wine glasses? Because the latter so often leads to the former. Excessive alcohol exaggerates the pleasures of sin and obscures its costs and consequences. Drunkenness makes a deadly pit look like a well, a bloodthirsty thief like a trustworthy friend, a forbidden woman like a secret stream of delight.
So what’s the warning? Alcohol draws perversity out of a man. He says things he never would have said sober. He does things he never would have done otherwise. Drunkenness undid righteous Noah after God delivered him through the flood: “He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:21). Alcohol fooled Lot into incest (Genesis 19:32). When Nabal rejected David and left his men hungry, what fueled his foolishness? “Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk” (1 Samuel 25:36). Alcohol does not spark perversion where it is not (Matthew 15:11), but it can stoke secret sin into a raging, devastating flame.
You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. (Proverbs 23:34)
The image here comes close to the confusion of verse 33, but carries a unique warning. If the former was the inability to discern holy from unholy, real from unreal, this picture emphasizes incapacitation. Alcohol leaves a man asleep while he lies in grave peril, in situations where his alertness really matters. He even falls asleep in the crow’s nest, where the winds and waves would be felt most. He’s utterly, dreadfully unaware of danger.
In this way, alcohol is not only a danger to a man, but to everyone who depends on him. While he sleeps in the storms at sea, he imperils everyone else in the boat — and he leaves anything he might have done to someone else. When he’s needed most, he’s unavailable. Bottle after bottle, he makes himself a burden to those for whom he’s called to protect and provide.
Worse than that, alcohol often makes a man a terror to those he loves. Another proverb says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). This is the very antithesis of Jesus, who calmed the seas for those he loved. When the storm comes, this man creates even more chaos. He creates storms where there was none. Instead of a stable refuge, he becomes volatile, unpredictable.
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it.” (Proverbs 23:35)
Of the five, this may be the most frightening. Drunkenness numbs a man to reality, and specifically to all that threatens him. His senses have been so dulled that he cannot even feel when someone beats him. He’s hurt but cannot feel hurt, which means he cannot detect danger anymore.
That’s what pain does — it alerts us to some threat and calls us to act. If we’re drunk, we sleep through the alarm. “Watch yourselves,” Jesus warns, “lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). He teaches the lesson with far more horrifying pictures. He says that when the wicked servant drinks with drunkards,
the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:50–51)
The horror is in how quickly they’ll fall from the comforts of drunkenness into the agony of judgment. If proverbs will not sober them, the weeping will.
“When shall I awake? I must have another drink.” (Proverbs 23:35)
Does any single picture better portray the futility and insanity of drunkenness? The drunk person looks for satisfaction in his glass, but searches and searches and never finds the bottom. No matter how much he drinks, his thirst is never quenched. Consumption consumes him.
“The drunk person looks for satisfaction in his glass, but searches and searches and never finds the bottom.”
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes was well-acquainted with strong drink. “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine. . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:3–11). No amount of alcohol could quench the craving inside of him. And yet millions keep pouring, keep binging, keep striving after wind.
The prophet Isaiah had seen alcohol ruin souls. He says of Israel’s leaders, “They are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. ‘Come,’ they say, ‘let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure’” (Isaiah 56:11–12). They ask life of wine because they’re fools, because they stubbornly drink at dry wells. And their parched souls burned any who followed them. Drunkenness is a well without water, a marathon without a finish line, a curse that will not lift.
Drinking on Empty
None of this, of course, negates the profound and spiritual goodness of wine. Again, the Lord’s Supper teaches us that this is not a drink for the shadows, but for the rooftops. Like so many of the best gifts of God, though, wine is all the more dangerous for having been infused with so much potential for good.
And, as is also true about the best gifts, wisdom over the glass will mean more than heeding warnings. It will mean being so satisfied at another, deeper well that we can enjoy wine without becoming its slaves. “Do not get drunk with wine,” the apostle Paul warns, “for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). In other words, if you do decide to drink, don’t drink on an empty soul. The best way to guard against the serious dangers of alcohol is to fill ourselves with God — to drink daily and deeply from his words, to entrust him with our fears and burdens through prayer, to thank him for the new and unique expressions of his kindness, to bury our lives and gifts and joys among his people, to sing together of our love for him. In hearts like these, drunkenness can’t get in the front door, much less find a seat at the bar.
Ironically, people who live like this, whose lives are gladly and regularly soaked in God, not only avoid the awful and destructive curses of drunkenness, but they also might get to actually and more fully enjoy some good wine.