A&tCL VI – Ezra through Song of Solomon

This post is part of a series on Alcohol & the Christian Life.  It is a continuation of this post.  I am systematically examining every verse in the Bible that deals with wine (and by extension strong drink or alcoholic beverages) to better understand the Biblical stance on alcohol as part of the life of God’s people.  

Ezra mentions wine in chapters 6 and 7.  Ezra 6:9 is part of King Darius’ reiteration of King Cyrus’ decree regarding the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Wine is mentioned here (chamar) as one of several essential items that are to be provided to the Jewish priests as necessary for their duties and services.  Ezra 7:22 is part of King Artaxerxes directives to his treasurers in the provices in and around Jerusalem to provide whatever Ezra needs for his efforts.  Wine (again chamar) is referenced as part of a larger list of necessities they are to provide Ezra.  There is no condemnation or commendation of wine in these passages – it is treated as a normal commodity and necessity.

Nehemiah has multiple mentions of wine using several terms (yayin, tirosh, and mamtak).  The uses of yayin occur in chapters 2, 5 and 13.  The uses of tirosh occur in chapters 5, 10, and 13, and mamtak occurs in only chapter 8 – the only usage of this word in the whole Old Testament.

Nehemiah 2:1 describes Nehemiah bring King Artaxerxes his wine (yayin), and makes no comment on it positively or negatively but simply as the context in which a conversation is about to unfold.  Nehemiah 5:18 describes how Nehemiah provided for rich banquets at his own expense, and a wine (yayin) is mentioned as something in abundance and variety.  Nehemiah 13:15 describes how Nehemiah attempted to remind God’s people to observe the Sabbath and not engage in work  or commerce, some of which included the loading and transport and even making of wine (yayin).  Wine is used by way of example, so Nehemiah’s warning is not against wine but against violating the Sabbath.

As for tirosh, Nehemiah 5:11 is a decree from Nehemiah to return to the poor what has been taken from them, including wine and other commodities.  In relatively close context to the use of yayin in 5:18, the variation in word choice for wine seems to be more poetic or aesthetic than attempting to convey any substantive difference implicit in the two Hebrew words.  Nehemiah 10:37 and 39 are both references to how God’s people will continue to care for God’s house and the priests who work there.  Wine is listed as one of several specified commodities that will be provided.  This is a similar use of the word wine (tirosh) in 13:5 and 13:12, and there appears no substantive difference of meaning from yayin in 13:15.

Mamtak means something sweet, and different translations interpret this word differently.  Some (like the KJV) leave it at this very general meaning, while others (such as the ESV) translate it as sweet wine.  Perhaps the context helps us understand why some might not want to translate it as sweet wine, since it is an order by Nehemiah to the people of God to celebrate the fact that the Law has been rediscovered and read to the people as dictated for the first time in a very, very long time.  Is Nehemiah encouraging God’s people to celebrate with wine?  Possibly, but not necessarily.

All references to wine in the book of Esther utilize yayin.  Chapter 1:7 & 10 reference wine in terms of what was served to King Ahasuerus (Xerxes).  Verse 10 references the king’s likely excessive use of wine, so that his heart is merry.  The passage is not specifically critical of Ahasuerus here, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to read into the passage that it is the king’s merry heart that both prompts him to summon his wife to show off her beauty, and perhaps provides the reason for her refusal, and certainly may contribute to the king’s anger at her refusal.  In Esther 5:6 wine is mentioned as being part of a feast given by the king.  And again in Esther 7:2, 7-8, wine is mentioned as present at a feast, and that the king is partaking in drinking wine.  Once again the king is roused to anger – this time not at his queen, Esther, but rather at his right-hand man Haman.  Throughout Esther it can be gleaned that excessive wine can inflame the emotions and lead people to act more spuriously, something I think is very true!

The book of Job has few references to wine, and the few there are come right away (1:13, 18) and then close to the end (32:19).  All of them utilize yayin.  In chapter 1 the two references are simply to the feasting that Job’s children were enjoying together.  In chapter 32 Job mentions wine as a metaphor for his condition of needing to talk or else he’ll burst from the words pent up inside of him.  None of these references provide any clue as to an opinion about wine.

For as many psalms as there are, only a few of them reference wine, mostly with the use of yayin and tirosh, but also with one occurence (69:21) of chomets, which as we saw in Ruth is possibly better interpreted as vinegar of some sort – something unsuitable for drinking.  Tirosh only occurs in 4:7 as a means of comparing great joy.  God’s joy is far greater than even the joy of those who have an abundance of food and wine.  There are four references to wine that utilize yayin.  Psalm 60:3 uses wine as a metaphor for the way that God has caused his people to stagger under the rejection and anger of God.  Certainly his is an inference that wine can be a cause of drunkenness, and drunkenness in turn can lead to physical coordination problems.  It’s a metaphor that lends itself easily to creating an image in the hearer/reader’s mind.  Psalm 75:8 uses wine in a similar sense as a means of describing how God has and will bring judgment against the wicked.  The wine here is a symbol of God’s righteous anger and judgment against those who oppose him and his people.  Similarly 78:65, which pictures God’s activity as someone who wakes from a drunken sleep.  The idea is not that God has been sleeping or drunk, but rather as a means of conveying to people the urgency of God’s actions when He chooses to act.

Psalm 104:15 is interesting.  Here wine is not a metaphor but described as a gift from God.  Not just a gift, but a gift that gladdens the heart of man.   It is as important a gift as oil and bread, two other commodities that I don’t think any Christian or Jew has debated or disputed as truly good things.  Here all three are referenced specifically for their benefits to humanity (gladdening the heart, making our faces to shine, and strengthening the heart) as well as their common source in God.  For those who might argue that wine (and by extension, alcohol of any kind) is not ultimately part of God’s good creation, this verse will be particularly challenging.  Note that I don’t believe that this verse is justifying drunkenness.  However I think it does point to the reality that there is a blessed and healthy result of drinking alcohol in that it can gladden the heart.  That can of course be pushed too far into drunkenness and the difficulties which drunkenness can bring when the heart is overly gladdened or overly directed by other emotions.  This would seem to be in contrast with other, non-alcoholic beverages.  All of them are good and delicious gifts from God, useful for health and vitality but not necessarily intended to gladden the heart of a man.  This seems like an important verse to say that alcoholic drinks are not just an inevitable necessity of human life, but are intended to be enjoyed.

Proverbs is a confusing book to many people.  It is classified as an example of wisdom literature, something that is still highly prized today and was also highly prized in the ancient near east.  We have examples of it also from the Egyptians.  Wisdom literature is concerned with how to live wisely, in a way most likely to lead both to temporary happiness and communal well-being as well as ultimate good standing before God.  Proverbs consists of many maxims, short, easily memorized statements.  What gets confusing is that because Proverbs deals with all of human experience across a lifetime, sometimes one maxim works best and sometimes not just a different maxim but a completely opposite maxim works best!  Sometimes it’s best to correct a fool so that he becomes less foolish (26:5).  But at other times it’s not worth the effort to try and correct them because they aren’t going to listen (26:4). It isn’t that these maxims are canceling each other out, but rather at different times, different wisdom is needed.

I would expect that a book on wisdom will have a few things to say about wine and strong drink, and certainly Proverbs does address this issue repeatedly,  mostly utilizing yayin but including one instance of mamsak, defined as a wine and spice mixture,  and one use of tirosh.  The tirosh reference comes first in Proverbs 3:10 – where wine is once again included with other commodities and classified as a gift from God, this time a gift given in response to our generosity and wise use of what God gives to us.

The mamsak usage comes in 23:30, which also has a yayin usage as well.  In response to the questions raised in verse 29, we are told that the ones who have woe, sorrow, strife, complaining, inexplicable wounds and red eyes?   Those that linger over wine and mixed wine.  There seems to be little difference between the words here – both seem to indicate alcoholic beverages created from grapes.  The context of chapter 23 is one of wisdom – clinging wisely to the teachings of mom and dad and avoiding the temptations of other sources of wisdom – the adulteress/prostitute and alcohol.  Certainly this advice is wise.  Anyone who obsesses too much over something dangerous is bound to regret it.  The question becomes how do we deal with this verse in light of other verses (in Proverbs as well as elsewhere) where wine is seen as a gift from God to be enjoyed properly?  One way would be to ignore those other verses, which is problematic.  Another equally valid method along those lines would be to ignore this verse.  Can both things be true?  Can wine be both a gift from God as well as a danger to some?  Of course!  Here I think the pairing with fornication (sex with someone you aren’t married to) is helpful.  Sex is a good gift from God, but sex when not contained properly as God intended it to be in marriage becomes very dangerous.  Likewise, when one is abusive of the good gift of God in wine and alcohol, the situation is very dangerous.  If you’re sitting around all the time wondering about when you can have your next drink (v.35), or if you spend all your time dreaming about alcohol, chances are good that it’s not what you should be going after!  So in certain circumstances this advice is dead-on accurate – for the person with addictive tendencies, they should avoid wine and alcohol because it is only going to get them into ever-deepening trouble.

Proverbs 4:17 utilizes wine (yayin) again as picture language for something else, a means of describing the ways of the wicked metaphorically as a warning against falling in with them.  Proverbs 9:2, 5 also uses wine in a metaphorical sense.  Here Wisdom offers her good gifts to those who seek them, as a good hostess offers good food and drink to her guests.  Again the issue is not wine but wisdom.  Proverbs 20:1 uses picture language to describe some of the possible effects of alcoholic drinks – violence, surliness, eagerness to a fight.  The warning is not to avoid it completely but not to be led astray by it.  This would definitely suggest not drinking to excess, but could also again be a warning to abstinence for those who have proven over and over again an inability to mediate their enjoyment, resulting ultimately in bad situations.  Proverbs 21:17 deals with a different aspect of wine and alcohol – an economic impact.  As a means to pleasure, the person who seeks after short-term pleasures will never attain long-term wealth since they spend their money on fleeting things as quickly as they acquire it.  Again wine is not the issue per se but it’s one example of a temporary pleasure which has the capacity to rob us of long-term financial security.  Finally, in the last chapter of Proverbs we have admonitions about when alcohol should or should not be enjoyed.  Proverbs 31:4 cautions rulers about wine and alcohol.  Esther provided some contextual examples of why this might be a good rule of thumb!  However to those who are suffering, wine and alcohol can be a source of temporary relief.  This could be a medicinal reference, but likely is just recognizing that for someone in need of relief from their misery or those close to death, wine and alcohol can be an appropriate distraction.

Ecclesiastes  has three references to wine, all utilizing yayin.  Ecclesiastes 2:3 references wine as one of the means the author employed to experience pleasure and search for wisdom.  Chapter 9:7 is his conclusion – enjoy the simple pleasures of life, here pictured as bread and wine both in the literal as well as more metaphorical sense.  Ecclesiastes 10:19 describes wine as something that makes our lives glad.  None of these condemn wine or alcohol in any sense, but treat it as a normal part of human life.  Not in the prescriptive, you must do this sense, but in the more descriptive this is what many/most people do.

Song of Solomon is the last book I’ll deal with today.  Like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, tradition fingers King Solomon – son of King David – as the author, although not without quite a bit of scholarly debate in some areas.  It is said that Solomon wrote Song of Solomon as a young man, preoccupied and fascinated with love and passion.   Proverbs is said to come when he was older, perhaps after becoming king, when his mind was more obsessed with how to help his people.  And finally Ecclesiastes is traditionally seen as his final work, the work of an old man with a good (though also unnerving to some) perspective of life and what matters.

Song of Solomon mentions wine a few times – predominantly using yayin but also throwing a curve ball in the form of mezeg – a word that only occurs here in the Old Testament and is presumed to refer to wine or other liquor mixed with water.  It occurs in 7:2 as a metaphorical description of the beauty and allure of his beloved’s navel.  Yowza!

In chapter 1:2, 4 wine is used in comparison to the affections of her love.  And if you aren’t sure which is better, you should probably go and take a look.  But it’s not the wine!  He utilizes the same comparison (with the same result!) in 4:10.  In 5:1 wine is referred to as synonymous with richness and good things.  He continues in 7:9 comparing her mouth to wine (favorably, I presume!), and she responds with an longing in 8:2 to allow her to give her love good gifts.

Throughout Song of Solomon wine is uniformly a good, sweet thing and therefore appropriate to be held up in comparison (even a paling comparison) with the worth and beauty of the young lovers.  As a whole, the books in this post refer to wine either casually, as a commodity of everyday life, or favorably, and also occasionally in warning.  It is appropriate with wine as well as with love that we be careful not to misuse  the good gifts of God to his creation!



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