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Staying Sober: Proverbs about Drinking, from Proverbs 23

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Proverbs 23

If you drink too much, you don't have a chance to be wise.

In the end it bites like a snake and stings like a viper. Proverbs 23:32

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

This week's passage focuses on the dangers of drunkenness. You probably have stories about drunk people that you think are funny. But I'll be honest -- based on the condition of our world, I don't think any of those stories will come across as funny. Any stories that you want to tell, just use them as illustrations demonstrating how right these proverbs are. (I'll tell one such story below; it's the reason why I stopped drinking even before becoming a Christian).

And let's start with what I hope will be a truly sobering cultural tie-in.

COVID-19 and Alcoholism

Social Isolation Has Not Been Good for People Trying to Quit Drinking

"Quarantini" is a thing. It's a popular thing (even if it has mostly played out by now). More than 100,000 appear on Instagram, and articles on sites from Fox News to the LA Times serve up their "favorite recipes". A "quarantini" is not a beverage recipe; it's whatever you can make from what you have at home. As early as the first month of quarantine, the pro-drinking website wrote a slightly-concerned article about how the "quarantini" was getting out of control. They also captured the real nature of the phenomenon:

In other words, the Quarantini is whatever you want it to be. So long as it demonstrates a creative effort to get drunk with whatever ingredients you still have on hand.

Just a fun, innocent distraction from a terrible worldwide tragedy? Not if you describe it that way. And as the quarantine went on for month after month, health experts recognized some very troublesome trends and consequences. Note this cycle:

  • The condition of the world has led to dramatic increases in levels of anxiety and feelings of loneliness.

  • Anxiety and loneliness are two common reasons people self-medicate. Alcohol is an easy such "medication", and the stories related to quarantinis are clear that people are seeking relief from boredom and stress.

  • Over-drinking compromises your immune system, making people more susceptible to serious COVID symptoms.

  • Quarantine has restricted people's access to support systems, like AA meetings and therapist sessions, as well as peer groups who might be able to help someone see how problematic their behavior has become.

  • The link between alcohol abuse and domestic violence is well established, and the quarantine has put families in tight conditions they cannot escape.

For anyone who has recently quit drinking, these circumstances are disastrous. One physician said, “Addicts and alcoholics in the later stages of their disease tend to isolate and are acutely aware of how separated and different they are compared to the crowd. An interesting thing I’ve noticed during the COVID emergency is that now everyone is forced to isolate, an addict may not understand how severe their use is because isolation has become the new normal.”

This is terrible!

Let's add on top of that just how big a problem alcohol "use" was becoming before the epidemic made things worse. In 2018 (per National Department of Health and Human Services):

  • 140 million Americans drank alcohol;

  • 67 million Americans binged (5 drinks in a day);

  • 16.6 million Americans were "heavy users" (5 binges in a month).

[Aside on definitions. "Alcoholism/alcoholic" refers to an addiction to alcohol. Not all heavy drinkers are alcoholics. Addictions can take months or years to develop and are extremely difficult to quit and dangerous to live with. The conditions that many people are living in with the quarantine are very conducive to developing addictions -- no alternatives, no distractions, no barriers, no support networks. According to the American Addiction Centers, 19.7 million Americans battled some kind of substance abuse disorder/addiction in 2017.

I cannot repeat enough that addictions are very serious matters and nothing to be joked about -- ever. Especially in Sunday School. We also need to make sure we don't tolerate judgmentalism against alcoholics or people struggling with other substance abuse addictions. Yes, that abuse is a sin, but that person is already paying a heavy price for it. As Christians we need to support every person trying to escape an addiction.

All of the articles I read on the subject mentioned the importance during this time of

  • if you know somebody who is struggling with an addiction, making the effort to contact them regularly, even every day, showing your support, giving them something to think about other than their loneliness, and even offering suggestions of things they can do that bring happiness in a way that isn't destructive.

This Bible study got real serious real quick!]

[Aside on ridiculous myths. One story has been circulating that drinking alcohol helps kill the coronavirus in your system. Only if you inhale the alcohol. And then you would be dead. People!]

The most recent study I saw was from Australia, showing that people were drinking 20% more alcohol than before COVID-19 and that women had increased their alcohol intake more than men.

What Do We Do with This Information? The main thing I want to establish with this topic is that alcohol use is on the rise due to the coronavirus. You should do some of your own research about subtopics that are applicable to your demographic.

There is a difference between alcohol use and alcohol abuse -- and we will get into that in the lesson. My point now is just that people are drinking a lot of alcohol today. The words of Proverbs are extremely timely!


Where We Are in Proverbs

Proverbs 22:17 mentions "the sayings of the wise". Scholars have identified 30 such sayings in 22:17-24:22, and so this section is often called "Thirty Sayings of the Wise". There are heavy similarities with an Egyptian document, "Sayings of Amenemope", which makes scholars believe that these were common proverbs throughout the ancient near east, and that's why Solomon isolated them. There are lots of similarities with other proverbs, indicating to me that this was common folk wisdom. For example, Proverbs 22:28 says, "Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors." Very sound advice, applicable the world over.


Part 1: The Promise (Proverbs 23:17-18)

17 Don’t let your heart envy sinners; instead, always fear the Lord. 18 For then you will have a future, and your hope will not be dashed.

Importantly, this passage is not simply about drinking. It's about all sins. We should desire to be more like Jesus, not more like a sinner -- no matter how glamorous or exciting they make their life out to be (see verse 18!!).

Now, specifically about drinking. I remember as a high school student and as a college student watching movies that glamorized heavy drinking (and much worse). Basically, the 80s produced a bunch of incredibly raunchy films directed at teenagers. It didn't stop there, of course. For example, The Hangover made a full series (and a lot of money) out of being stupid drunk. Do you have any peer-pressure movies from your young adult years that you remember tempting you toward heavy drinking or drug use or something like that?

This proverb makes things as simple as possible: don't envy the people who do those things. They don't have a future.

Now, really, doesn't that sound like something your parent would say when trying to keep you away from "bad influences"? Probably. But is it right? Definitely. How many cautionary tales do you have from high school and college about acquaintances who could never escape the pit of the lifestyle they fell into? What are they doing now? (As a personal aside, I'm thrilled to know that almost all of my friends from high school and college "matured" out of that phase and are raising families responsibly.)

Who has a future?

This actually gets into a great socioeconomic discussion. For the purposes of this question, take Christianity out of the mix. Think of some random people you know -- what kind of person do you think they would want their daughter to marry? Well, obviously, someone with a future. What does that mean? I surveyed the internet and found qualities like

  • strong

  • good skills

  • intelligent

  • social acumen

which really means, "able to get a good job and provide for her" and also "able to treat her and my grandkids well". And those traits are good!

But now let's bring Christianity back into the mix. On Christian websites, the answer to this question includes things like

  • respects her

  • someone she wants to spend the rest of her life with

  • kind

  • good Christian leader

  • wants what's best for her

which is very different from the previous list! So, what is the difference between those two perspectives? Essentially, that difference is what this proverb labels "have a future".

The word "future" is amazing. Go and look up Psalm 16:5, Jeremiah 29:11, and Matthew 26:64. Then ask yourself, in this context, what "future" means. One key is that from the Christian perspective, we cannot only look at our life on Earth; we must also look at our eternal destination. Over and over again in Proverbs, the eternal destination of the fool has been cast into extreme doubt.

Summary: don't be fooled into thinking that a sinful lifestyle is better than a life following Jesus. It isn't.


Part 2: The Petition (Proverbs 23:19-21)

19 Listen, my son, and be wise; keep your mind on the right course. 20 Don’t associate with those who drink too much wine or with those who gorge themselves on meat. 21 For the drunkard and the glutton will become poor, and grogginess will clothe them in rags.

The rest of this lesson focuses on verses related to alcohol, but do note that these three verses also condemn other kinds of overindulgence. The idea of "self-control" in the fruit of the Spirit is the primary background.

About wine. Wine was a common drink in ancient Israel. Grapevines were extremely well-suited for the region, being grown on hillsides and surviving on morning dew. In fact, "grapevine" was a symbol of the fertility of the region (Deut 6:11, Josh 24:13, etc). The grapes were harvested in late summer and stomped in a winepress. The juices were collected in jars and placed in cisterns to ferment. Fermentation would not last for more than a few months at most (apparently reducing the alcohol content?).

[Fun History. The Romans perfected the process of wine making (their viticulture). They were the ones who introduced trellises (Jews let their grapevines grow on the ground). They were the ones who experimented with years-long fermentation. Romans and Greeks considered anyone who drank undiluted wine to be barbarian; they diluted their wine with water as much as 1 part to 4. (They also considered people who didn't drink wine at all to be barbarians, so this might not actually mean anything.)]

[About beer. Barley beer was very popular in Egypt during the days of Israelite slavery, and it was also popular in ancient Assyria, so it shouldn't be surprising that Israelites had picked up on its use. God forbid the drinking of wine or beer in the Tent of Meeting (Lev 10:9); Nazirites had to abstain from wine and beer (Num 6:3); but beer was accepted as a drink offering (!) (Num 28:7); beer was mentioned on a list of things God approved for the Jews to buy (Deut 14:26). Key point: the drinking of wine and beer was not forbidden for all Jews. But let me point out the three Proverbs about beer:

  • Proverbs 20:1: Wine is a mocker, beer is a brawler; whoever goes astray because of them is not wise.

  • Proverbs 31:4: It is not for kings, Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine or for rulers to desire beer.

  • Proverbs 31:6: Give beer to one who is dying and wine to one whose life is bitter.

I think that gives us a great overview of the Jewish understanding of beer and wine.]

People didn't drink wine because the water was unsafe; they drank wine because they liked it (same with beer). One Christian historian estimated alcohol content at 10-15% (his writing on the subject seems very reasonable to me), which is not terribly different from today, but that depends utterly on how much said wine would be watered down before drinking. Regardless, it could still be abused. People could (and did) still get quite drunk. One of the many reasons Romans considered Gauls barbarians is how drunk they were all the time.

So let's get this out of the way: Solomon is not saying "don't drink wine" any more than he is saying "don't eat meat". But he is saying that drinking too much wine, or eating too much meat (gorging) is the behavior of a fool and a sinner.


Well, that's a great question to ask yourself, isn't it? What are the negative consequences of being a drunkard or a glutton? Here, Proverbs focuses on the negative impact on mind and body. It slows your thinking. It dulls your senses. It injures your body. Every doctor today would agree. MD Anderson specifically uses the word "groggy" on its page about this topic. Here is the graphic they included:

[Fun fact: I was just considering whether to get another can of Dr. Pepper. That graphic made me decide to get water.]

Do I need to go into the health effects of overdrinking alcohol?

Summary: if this person cannot get their habits under control, they can quite literally eat and/or drink themselves out of job, home, and health. That's not wise.


Part 3: The Portrait (Proverbs 23:29-32)

29 Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has conflicts? Who has complaints? Who has wounds for no reason? Who has red eyes? 30 Those who linger over wine; those who go looking for mixed wine. 31 Don’t gaze at wine because it is red, because it gleams in the cup and goes down smoothly. 32 In the end it bites like a snake and stings like a viper.

This is salt in the wound. We all know (including those who abuse alcohol) that this is an accurate portrait of a person who is getting drunk. What is appealing about getting drunk?

Note the structure of these questions by working backward through them. Proverbs is not saying that only heavy drinkers have woe or that all people who have woe are heavy drinkers. It is saying that heavy drinkers will have woe as a result of their drinking.

The person who lingers over wine is the person deliberately trying to get drunk. The reference to "mixed wine" is kind of like a cocktail -- adding flavors to wine to get what you want. "Quarantini" would apply here. Nothing about this scenario is good or defensible. So why do people do it?

Note that addiction is its own reason. A person who is addicted to alcohol may not have another reason for overdrinking. describes seven other common reasons why people reach for alcohol:

  • to numb stress (alcohol is a depressant);

  • peer pressure;

  • it helps them "have fun";

  • it reduces their inhibitions;

  • curiosity;

  • they like the taste;

  • it's readily available.

Are any of those "good" reasons? No. But how many of us make poor decisions based on bad reasons? All of us. It's called sin.

So it's time to bring up the key question many of you are thinking: is it possible to drink alcohol without drinking too much alcohol? Well, of course! Otherwise, God would not have tolerated it in any of His people! But the previous section included the key phrase: "too much wine". How much is too much?

I think the Proverbs' point here is that "too much" is always less than you think. It looks good in the cup. It goes down smooth. No problems here, right? Well, about that...

If we want to use the Proverbs as a guide for "how much is too much", it would be this: you have had too much alcohol when it affects your mind. But you don't know that until it's too late. That's the trap of alcohol. Unless you know your limit and are disciplined to stick below it without fail, you're going to violate the principle of this proverb every time.

That is the reason why I personally choose not to drink. I simply don't know what my "limit" is, and I don't want to break through it.

Now -- let me point the finger at myself (and maybe you!). Yes, this passage and lesson focuses on drinking alcohol, but it is not limited to alcohol. I mentioned above my last-second decision to forego a Dr. Pepper. I love Dr. Pepper. I love stories of 104-yr-old women who drink it every day. It's also not good for me. While it may not impair my judgment (except about drinking more Dr. Pepper), it has other harmful effects on my body (via the processed chemicals and sugar). Ironically, I can tell when I have had "too much" because I feel groggy. I believe that puts it in the same category as Proverbs talks about here. I may not drink alcohol, but I believe this passage still has a lot to say to me. We need to watch what we eat and drink in order to take the best care of our bodies possible. What eating/drinking habits do you need to keep under control?

To further that point, my daughter Sarah made really good spaghetti for us the other night. I ate too much. I kinda thought that my second helping was too big, but my body confirmed it later on that evening when I went out for some exercise (!). I felt awful. Let's just say that I took a flyer on the burpees that evening.

Summary: it takes less alcohol than you think to harm you.

[As you might guess, Peanuts doesn't have any cartoons about drinking. (Thank the Lord.) But another comic strip I remember reading as a kid, Hagar the Horrible, did:


Part 4: The Problem (Proverbs 23:33-35)

33 Your eyes will see strange things, and you will say absurd things. 34 You’ll be like someone sleeping out at sea or lying down on the top of a ship’s mast. 35 “They struck me, but I feel no pain! They beat me, but I didn’t know it! When will I wake up? I’ll look for another drink.”

If you thought Proverbs was done with ridiculing drunkenness, you would be wrong. These verses are pretty disturbing, when you think about them. I'm still a little incredulous when I remember that Disney made an entire song about this phenomenon: (!)

Based on the way drunk people are often portrayed in movies, the verse comparing being drunk to trying to sleep on the mast of a small fishing boat (remember what you know of the Sea of Galilee!) is as derogatory as you can get.

Except for the next verse.

A person eventually gets so drunk that they pass out. And they are completely at the mercy of the people around them. I have one particularly terrifying memory from college. Texas A&M played at LSU, and a large group of us traveled to watch the game. A&M won. (Incidentally, that was the last time we won at Death Valley.) So in celebration, we all went to New Orleans. I. Do. Not. Remember. That. Night. I woke up in the hotel room of some friends who were not the people I traveled with. They found me and took care of me. It's an awful memory. Anything could have happened to me. That experience profoundly affected my understanding of alcohol. It would be several years before I became a Christian, but I didn't have to be a Christian to realize how stupid and dangerous overdrinking was. One drink too many easily leads to many drinks too many. By the grace of God, that night didn't ruin my life. But it could have. (Frankly, I'd rather stop thinking about it.)

Finally, imagine what Proverbs would say if you could get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle in that day...

As you can see, this passage can take you to some very dark stories quickly. You need to go into your Sunday School discussion with a good idea of when you want to cut off storytelling. I don't know how helpful stories will be. My guess is that everyone in your group realizes that drunkenness is dangerous and sinful.

I focus on four applications of this passage. Note that I do not think any of our Sunday School classes will have a debate about if it's okay to get drunk! Rather, I focus on:

  • if I choose to drink recreationally, am I truly able to stop before I get at all intoxicated? if not, am I willing to stop drinking altogether?

  • do I have any substance in my life that I eat/drink more of than is healthy for me? if so, do I have a plan for curtailing that use?

  • is there someone in my life who struggles with alcohol who may be having a very difficult time right now during the quarantine? if so, what am I doing to support and help that person?

  • is there a food or drink I turn to in times of stress rather than turning to God in prayer? what am I going to do to put God's resources first in my life, rather than comfort food?

What a powerful passage! Sure, it may be preaching to the choir, but if it reminds us of the wisdom of self-control, then it's a lesson well-learned.

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