Is the Bible encouraging drunkenness here? When I read this - at first glance I come away with the thought that the Bible is encouraging us, if we know someone who is struggling with poverty and bitterness, to encourage them to knock back a few - and they will forget all their troubles. Is that what the Bible is saying here? If it is - then this contradicts badly the passages that warn us against the harm that over indulgence in alcohol can do in our lives.
To understand this Proverb we once again need to understand it based upon what it says in context. God just moved on Bathsheba to instruct her son NOT to drink wine or strong drink. Her reasoning is that such an action would lead her son to forget the Law. With his thinking and reasoning impaired - he might pervert the rights of those who are afflicted. So, two things we know here are that drunkenness is out of the question in what is being said - and - that Bathsheba is interested in how her son, as king, deals with the afflicted within his kingdom.
Her admonition to her son, next, is to give wine and strong drink to the one who is perishing. This word means to perish, to be lost, or destroyed. It was understood by the Jewish rabbis as dealing with two primary situations. The first is when someone is suffering greatly with sickness - especially when that sickness is terminal. It was a custom due to this admonition to medicate the dying with strong drink so that they would drink and forget the pain of their dying. We do this today with terminal patients through morphine. It is not evil to do so - it is merciful. It is giving them something to help with the throes of dying. The second instance where this was used was with those given to a death sentence - especially crucifixion. We know this because Jesus was offered wine mixed with gall when He was on the cross. This was a pain killing mixture that was given by godly women to those who faced the death penalty. Jesus refused this because He needed to embrace all that the cross meant for sin. But to offer some merciful pain killing substance to someone in the midst of horrific pain is something God counsels us to do.
These admonitions are given for those "perishing" and also for those who are "bitter of soul." Here is where things get a little bit more dicey. For the one who is perishing - it is easy to see that we are easing their suffering as they draw near to death. But what about the bitter of soul? What is going on here? Again, context is so important to remember. We are in a section of Scripture where a mother has just warned her son against alcohol abuse - and how it clouds judgment and could lead to her son disregarding the Law in a moment of drunkenness. Therefore, we can be assured that when it comes to those who are "bitter of soul" she is not advocating drunkenness to alleviate their problems. This passage cannot be used therefore to justify men or women drowning their sorrows in whiskey or beer.
What we do see though is that there is a benefit for the bitter of soul in having a drink. The Bible itself says that "wine makes man's heart glad," in Psalm 104:15. That verse is in the midst of a list of things that God Himself provides, including oil for the skin and the food that sustains a man with strength. Wine was used in the feasts of Israel as well - and even offered up to God as a sacrifice. Our problems with alcohol come from living in a society where drinking is too often done for the sake of partying - and with a view to getting drunk. But God knows that drinking in moderation (let me stress here that this means NEVER getting drunk - and it also means drinking apart from the party scene, which in itself has more sins than just the drinking) can lift someone's spirits. Wine does make a man's heart glad - and can lift someone's spirits. Thus, Solomon was advised to give it to those who are bitter in soul to help them be lifted temporarily and cheered.
I'm going to venture into an area where there is much disagreement and where I can be heavily criticized. But in light of this passage, I feel the need to go there regardless of the dangers. There are believers who struggle with periods of depression. You could call these periods of time being bitter in soul. Often a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a doctor encourages them to take something for a while to help them with their depression. When this happens there is a cry from some that this is wicked, sinful - and it is only because the person does not trust God. Yet here we have counsel given to the king that he should give wine or strong drink to someone who is too struggling with being bitter in soul. Verse 7 in this section speaks of having him forget his poverty and trouble no more. Poverty speaks of a lack - something is missing here - and it is further described as a man's "trouble." This second word means a troublesome time - a time of labor and toil - and was used of the difficulties and hardships of life that lead to sorrow in a man's heart. These times can be very difficult to handle - and I've actually watched brothers and sisters helped for a period of time by a medicine - something that lifts their spirits as they walk through a very difficult time. Needless to say - or maybe it is better to say, Needful to say - God is not advocating drunkenness and the proverbial drowning of our sorrows in beer or hard liquor - but I do think what is advocated is something that would temporarily lift ones spirit and soul through a very difficult time.
Here is where I offer what I hope to be the other side of wisdom on this issue. Although I do see a situation and a period of time where this might be profitable - I do not see it as "the answer" for depression and for times when we are bitter of soul. Psalm 4:7 tells me that God puts, "gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine abound." A period of time may require this verse to be applied (if it does not refer solely to the perishing - and the bitter of soul is just another way of saying someone who is perishing) but we need to see God ultimately as our source of joy and as the ultimate One who can lift us out of any funk in which we find ourselves in life. The one who turns to wine, strong drink, or even modern medicines as a permanent solution to their difficulties - and who does not turn to the Lord with them - is placing themselves in danger of looking to something rather than looking to Somone - as the answer to their problems.
Remember this - as we close today's look at Proverbs. There is a mountain of Scripture dealing with the abuse of alcohol - of wine, new wine, and strong drink. The Bible is overflowing with examples of how people lost their reason and their discernment with these things and wound up in grevious sin. So as we see the wisdom of using wine and strong drink in the ways specified here - we need to do so with extreme caution and with God's wisdom guiding our every move in this area. Too many, thinking they were just needing a little lift - have turned to alcohol and found it to be worse than their original problem in the end. Wisdom, dear saints, should always color our use of such things. May God give us grace and wisdom to do just as His counsel suggests here - and not find ourselves falling into sin by abusing something meant for a temporary benefit. In the end, He is and always will be our source of comfort and of encouragment in difficult times - even in death.