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What Is Sweeter Than Honey?

A Little Theology of Sugar

His eyes became bright. Jonathan put his sugar-coated hand to his mouth and displayed the power of one of God’s good gifts in his created world. It’s a power we all have known, indeed tasted, and yet many of us have grown so accustomed to it as to hardly recognize it anymore.

At that moment, what the weary, hungry army of Israel needed was fast energy. They “had been hard pressed that day” as they pursued the fleeing enemy, but their king, Saul, Jonathan’s father, made a rash vow: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Samuel 14:24). In hot pursuit of their foe, the men entered a forest and found themselves surrounded by God’s provision: “behold, there was honey on the ground” (1 Samuel 14:25). Golden, viscous, liquid sugar — like the manna, which tasted of honey, that covered the ground for God’s people each morning in the wilderness (Exodus 16:14). God had provided. But Saul had made his foolish oath.

Jonathan, however, had not heard his father’s words. So he walked into the forest, received the divine gift, and “his eyes became bright” (1 Samuel 14:27). Just the quick energy he needed to finish off the foe. Just what the whole army needed.

Saul’s army did catch the enemy, and overcome them, but because of Saul’s rash vow not to eat, “the people were very faint.” In victory, they lost self-control, and “pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood” (1 Samuel 14:31–32). What pain and misery they would have been spared if only, like Jonathan, they had “tasted a little honey” (1 Samuel 14:29, 43) to brighten their eyes and revive their strength.

In the end, their victory is not without grave and unnecessary difficulties. The people do redeem Jonathan from falling victim to the vow, and he declares his father’s folly:

My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great. (1 Samuel 14:29–30)

“Honey is good — so good that it’s not good to eat much of it.”

Twice Jonathan says “a little honey.” Just a little did the trick. Too much would have made him all the worse for war. Yet, here, in this seemingly minor episode in the history of Israel, we have what might be an unnerving peek into our modern world, where we are surrounded by honey and have great difficulty limiting ourselves to just a little.

Spoonfuls of Sugar

From a historical perspective, it is stunning how much sugar we consume today. What came in a golden, sticky ooze in biblical times comes to us today as refined, white, granulated table sugar, already baked and boiled in excessive proportions into many of the foods and drinks we commonly consume. According to Jay Richards, “In 1700, Westerners ate very little sugar — say, four pounds per year. Even in 1850, we averaged only a few pounds per person per year. Now, each of us, on average, eats well over one hundred pounds of sugar per year . . . much of it in processed foods that don’t even taste sweet to us” (Eat, Fast, Feast, 42–43).

Estimates do vary. “Americans consume as much as 77.1 pounds of sugar and related sweeteners per person per year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture data” — but still — “That’s nearly twice the limit the department recommends, based on a 2,000-calorie diet” (“The Barbaric History of Sugar in America”). But what no one questions is that objectively, demonstrably, and almost without exception, we consume far more sugar today than humans have throughout history, barring only the last century.

Obesity among Americans has grown nearly 30 percent in just the last three decades, while the rate of diabetes has almost tripled. It would be naïve to consider sugar the only cause. And perhaps just as naïve to not consider the overconsumption of sugar to have played a significant, if not the major, part. And of course, none of us wants to hear that, because it just tastes so good.

Heavier, Slower, More Unhealthy

For many readers, this is not news. For more than a generation, a growing chorus of voices has been suspecting that “we are consuming way more sugar than our bodies are equipped to handle” (“What’s Wrong with the Modern Diet?”). “Equipped” — don’t miss that. By whom?

When dealing with the human body, it’s difficult for even the most ardent of evolutionists to avoid words like “equipped,” “built,” and “designed.” The human body and brain, with its abilities to move and adapt, is the most impressive masterpiece in all of physical creation, the crowning jewel, and culminating creation, of those first six days (Genesis 1:26–31).

God’s good design comes equipped to handle sugar — both the slow-release of glucose as digestion breaks down complex carbohydrates and its fast release from simple carbohydrates (none faster, and more difficult to handle, than when we drink sugar-water — soft drinks and juices).

Glucose, from sugar, can be a source of needed energy to the muscles, but it is toxic in the bloodstream. Our brains summon insulin to the rescue to remove it from our blood, and when muscles, which have little storage, are already well supplied, the sugar is converted to fat and stored in a nice central location — the waist and hips. Despite the popular myth that eating fat makes our bodies fat, it is the overconsumption of sugar, for most of us on the modern diet, that contributes far more to our undesired fat stores.

Tragically, generation by generation, those commissioned to image God in his created world are becoming heavier, slower, lazier, and more unhealthy, while a growing train of maladies like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cancer shorten and encumber this vapor’s breath of our lives even more than they already are.

Little Theology of Honey

Many today might be surprised to find that the Scriptures have timeless truths to speak into our modern malaise about sugar.

Sugarcane was rare in the Middle East in biblical times, and may receive an obscure reference in one or two texts (“sweet cane” in Isaiah 43:24; Jeremiah 6:20). But what was not obscure, and is one of the great concentrated sources of glucose still, with the same essential sweetness as table sugar, is honey. There is “a little theology of honey” in the pages of Scripture — and those of us confused today about what to do, and not do, for ourselves and for our children, might get some fresh help and orientation from the biblical principles.

Good: Eat Honey

The Proverbs give us two key orienting words. The first is Proverbs 24:13:

My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.

Sugar, and its being “sweet to your taste,” is God’s idea and good design. Not only do we have the story of Jonathan’s eyes becoming bright — characterized as a good thing — but again and again, beginning at the burning bush (Exodus 3:8), God promises to give his people a land, he says, “flowing with milk and honey” — which is emphatically and manifestly a good gift.

Honey is identified with sweetness, pleasantness to the taste (Ezekiel 3:3; Revelation 10:9, 10), as a lion with strength (Judges 14:18). God provided not only nourishment for his people in the wilderness, but manna tasted good — “like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31).

God’s first-covenant people treated honey as a valuable product and resource: among the “choice fruits of the land” (Genesis 43:11), fit to give a king (2 Samuel 17:29) or prophet (1 Kings 14:3), or God himself as firstfruits in worship (2 Chronicles 31:5). Honey could be a mark of prosperity and abundance (Isaiah 7:15, 22), even royalty (Ezekiel 16:13). “Honey” even became an endearing name a husband and wife might co-opt for each other, as did the lovers in the Song of Songs (4:11; 5:1), and still today.

Not Good: Much Honey

However, honey is powerful enough to come with user warnings. This should be no surprise to Christians who have learned elsewhere — with marital intimacy, for instance — that God’s most precious, and sweetest, of gifts can be prime targets of our sinful world and flesh and the devil. Again, Proverbs sounds the orienting word:

It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory. A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Proverbs 25:27–28)

Not good to eat much honey. The pronounced good of honey calls for the virtue of self-control, the absence of which will soon destroy the benefit. So also, another warning proceeds it, earlier in the same chapter: “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it” (Proverbs 25:16).

Professor Slughorn’s warning to his Hogwarts students about “Liquid Luck” potion might just as well be applied to sugar: “Too much of a good thing, you know . . . highly toxic in large quantities. But when taken sparingly, and very occasionally . . .”

Sugar-Coated, Growing Fat

Just as Jonathan did well in the forest to have “a little honey,” and not much, so do we today, surrounded as we are by the forest of sugar that is modern life. As with sex and alcohol, we learn to take some of the greatest care with God’s greatest of gifts because they are so potent. Honey is good — so good that it’s not good to eat much of it.

“Unlike honey and sugar, you cannot have too much of the sweetness of God.”

Consider what that momentary sweetness in the mouth, whether honey or sugar, has come to represent in common speech. “Sugar-coated” is no compliment; sugar has become symbolic for “empty calories,” for a momentary pleasure with a “crash” soon to follow. Proverbs 5:3 even warns that “the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey.” There is a paradigm here: feeling good in the moment, with great regret and disgust to follow (Proverbs 9:17; 20:17; Job 20:12).

Even before God brought his people into that “land flowing with milk and honey,” he warned of what such luxuries would produce in them because of their sin — warnings we too should take seriously today. Over time, they would forget to handle his gifts with care:

When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. (Deuteronomy 31:20)

In sin, God’s people came to presume his gifts and eventually forsake him. Even the “honey out of the rock” he provided to keep them alive in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 32:13; Psalm 81:16) they came to take lightly: “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation” (Deuteronomy 32:15).

What We Learn from Sugar

Honey is indeed a divine creation and gift. Sugar is a good to handle with care. A gift from God to delight our tastes — and teach us of himself. Taste honey, he says. See how good it is, and ponder how the one who made it is every bit that good, and far better.

Not only is our God one who provides honey for his people in the wilderness, sweetness in the midst of our grueling times, but his words are “sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). “How sweet are your words to my taste,” celebrates Psalm 119:103, “sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

And unlike honey and sugar, you cannot have too much of the sweetness of God. And our desire for more of him just might help with our penchant today to swing from overconsumption to overreaction and back.

A biblical theology of honey speaks a chastening word to both sides of today’s sugar divide. Apart from the guidance from God’s word, we are prone to gravitate to extremes: misusing God’s good gift through presumption and overconsumption, or misguided avoidance and overreaction, treating as evil, or simply toxic, what he has given as good.

Enjoy “a little honey” — it is good — so good that it’s not good to eat too much.