Does the Bible Prescribe Alcohol for Mental Health? (An Examination of Proverbs 31:6)

Proverbs 31:6 reads, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, And wine to those who are bitter of heart.” In seeking to build an argument from Scripture in favor of normalizing alcohol use among Christians, more than one person has turned to this text and said, “See? The Bible says that struggling people ought to be given alcohol!” Is that really how God intended for this verse to be used though?

Context is a key aspect of every act of communication. This is certainly true of God’s communication to us in the Bible. Those who see Proverbs 31:6 as a prescriptive treatment for those who are “perishing” and “bitter of heart” are unfortunately guilty of ignoring context. The text is not prescriptive but rather descriptive.

Let me explain. Proverbs 31:6 is part of a section that begins in 31:1. It contains the teaching of a mother to her son named Lemuel. Lemuel’s mother appears to have had pretty high hopes for her son. First, she tells her son what is “not for kings” (Proverbs 31:4). She follows this with words designed to prepare her son to rule well as a king by describing those whose causes he ought to champion (Proverbs 31:8-9). Clearly, she sees royalty in her son’s future.  

So where should alcohol fit into Lemuel’s kingly quest? Rather than being something he should turn to when life is difficult or when he is feeling down, Lemuel’s mother says categorically, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine, Nor for princes intoxicating drink” (Proverbs 31:4). Effectively, she says that wine is not for him when he wears the crown or at any time before then. Why should Lemuel avoid alcohol? Lemuel’s mother says that when kings drink it, they “forget the law” and “pervert justice” (Proverbs 31:5) which is the exact opposite of what she hopes her son will do in the future (Proverbs 31:8-9).

So, why does Lemuel’s mother say to “give strong drink… and wine” to “perishing” and “bitter” individuals (Proverbs 31:6)? If this is prescriptive, since she has just said that these drinks are not for kings or princes (Proverbs 31:4; ESV and NASB read “rulers” instead of “princes”), she’s effectively ordering her son to use alcohol to keep the downtrodden from rising to power. However, this interpretation would be in direct opposition with what she later says she wants her son to do for the downtrodden. If she is speaking descriptively though, the thought would be something like this: alcohol is not for kings or princes/rulers; it is for perishing, bitter, poor, and miserable souls. The advice to Lemuel then could be seen overall as this: don’t join the downtrodden in the vice of drinking alcohol (Proverbs 31:4-7) but rather rise above it so that you can help them (Proverbs 31:8-9).

The text itself provides some internal confirmation to this interpretation. Verse 6 says to “give strong drink” and “wine” to the “perishing” and “bitter.” The reason for this is found in the very next verse: “Let him drink and forget his poverty, And remember his misery no more” (Proverbs 31:7). If this is prescriptive, what kind of prescription is it? A person who is perishing or bitter because of poverty or misery can indeed drink enough to forget about these problems, but what happens when the alcohol wears off? The problems will still be there and in fact will be exacerbated by the time spent under the influence. If it’s a prescription then, it’s a terrible one, because it actually makes things worse! Seeing verse 6 as descriptive makes a lot more sense; the drunkard drinks to forget (Proverbs 31:7), but Lemuel avoids alcohol so he can remember (Proverbs 31:5, 8-9).

It’s interesting that we can find no Israelite king named Lemuel. The name itself means “belonging to God” or “dedicated to God.” Could there be a lesson in that? Perhaps Lemuel’s mother’s advice is worthy of consideration for all who would belong to God and dedicate themselves to Him. As those looking to “reign with” Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 2:12), perhaps we should behave more like kings than the bitter, perishing souls who don’t know Him.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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