18th Century Drinking Party in England by Hogarth
Proverbs 23:29-35 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. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.”
This is the longest of the thirty wise sayings. It starts with questions. Each is something we’re trying to avoid. If you can identify a source of woe, strife, complaining, wounds, and sickness, then it would wise to avoid it. This is precisely what Solomon aims to do in this section.
Each of the seven verses instructs the simple regarding the potential dangers of alcohol, and by extension, any substance that has the potential to intoxicate. Solomon’s son must realize that living the low life starts with a drive to unwind.
You can’t “tarry long” over something if it’s just part of a meal. It has to become the meal. The word in the original language (aw-khar’) is translated elsewhere – delay. It carries with it the idea that leaving earlier was an option, but the subject chose to linger. In this case he says yes to the invitation for a second round, which often becomes a third.
Consuming enough wine, or seeking out the mixed wine (wine mixed with spices or honey to enhance the flavor) will only bring disaster. To clarify, there is a difference between wine and mixed wine. The first is the common drink, where indulgence can lead to dissipation. The second is different, and linked to a specific purpose. The only other use of the word is in Isaiah 65:11 “But you who forsake the LORD, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny”. Its primary use was in connection to demonic fortune telling and divination.
So both excess and ecstasy are in view here. In one case an otherwise good thing is abused, in the other an inherently bad thing is indulged. In both cases the results are not what the person was hoping for when the party started.
The sparkling smoothness that makes the heart glad (Psalm 104:15) can also warp the mind if taken in excess. Interestingly enough, Solomon does not appear to have struggled with this particular vice. Even at the height of his experimentation he was able to remain sober, or at least sober minded (Ecclesiastes 2:3), likely because as a king he had been warned that intoxication leads to foolish decisions (Proverbs 31:4).
Despite having the best that money can buy, wine receives mixed reviews from Solomon. In general the wisdom literature attaches warnings (20:1). Wine was common, and served as both a metaphor and a staple of everyday life. It was a safe alternative to water (1 Timothy 5:23), an essential at every celebration (John 2:1-11), an element of sacrificial worship (Numbers 28:7), and even a painkiller administered at the end of life (Proverbs 31:6).
The ubiquity of wine and its mention in Scripture requires commentary. So to answer the questions that might arise, Solomon concludes that wise men perceive danger. You don’t handle deadly snakes, so why flirt with intoxication? Both can strike. Both can poison. Both can kill.
Wine has the power to distort reality and allow all manner of nonsense to escape your mouth. You’ll find yourself in a stupor that leaves you incapable of assessing your true condition. You’ll stumble from one disaster to another. You’ll double down on the very thing that put you in the spiral to begin with.
Caution is key.
Reckless behavior with respect to alcohol puts a fool on the rocks.