Themes in Proverbs: Addiction

It would surprise many to know that the Bible speaks about addiction. Of course you have to know how it speaks about addiction in order to discern its message. After all, there are no references to the DSM approved terminology, and no word search will produce even one single result for “addict.” Yet, the Bible does speak about the subject, and the book of Proverbs offers some keen insight on the subject.

While the Scriptures may not use all the language of dependency and tolerance, it knows about the abuse of alcohol, for example, and the devastation that drunkenness causes. It knows too about the enslaving hold that substance abuse can have on us. Proverbs itself does not present a comprehensive look at the Bible’s teaching on addiction or drunkenness, but it does give us some snippets of important truths.

First Proverbs equates drunkenness with foolishness. The consumption of alcohol tempts a man towards foolish acts and foolish decisions. So, chapter 20 begins by stating:

Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
and whoever is led astray by it is not wise

This passage starts broadly and speaks generally of alcohol. It points to the dangers and temptations that can arise from indulging in them. Wine is a “mocker,” in that it humiliates a man. We’ve all heard stories or seen the reality of alcohol’s humiliating effect. Men and women have done tremendously stupid things under the influence of alcohol. They have embarrassed themselves, made fools of themselves, and brought shame on themselves because their inhibitions were suppressed. Likewise, “strong drink,” which probably refers to liquor of a sort, is said to be a “brawler.” Alcohol tempts men to fight, to stir up trouble. Alcohol can tempt many men and women to release their anger and it can often be involved in initial incidents of domestic violence.

This proverb does not speak at all about the appropriate enjoyment of alcohol, or even more specifically about the dangers of drunkenness. It speaks broadly about the temptation that lies within even the very substance itself. Whoever is “led astray” by alcohol is said to be unwise. One should never, then, take lightly the nature and danger of alcohol consumption. As a counselor who specializes in addictions I have seen with particular ugliness the danger inherent in substance abuse. Relational, physical, legal, and spiritual consequences abound because of drunkenness.

The theme continues to be developed in chapter 23. Here the author parallels drunkenness with gluttony, and he speaks of both as resulting in poverty. We read:

Be not among drunkards
or among gluttonous eaters of meat,
for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,
and slumber will clothe them with rags. (20-21)

The pursuit of addictive habits will eventually lead one to exhaust his resource. The counsel of this passage is not simply not to do such things, but don’t even associate with those who do. Don’t befriend those who are enslaved to such habits of drink and food that they recklessly spend. Proverbs 13:20 warns that those who are the “companion of fools will be destroyed.” Likewise, 1 Corinthians 15:33 states, “bad company ruins good character.” Wisdom warns us not only to keep our own bad habits in check, but not even to be “among” those who are so ruled by their idolatrous desires that they come to poverty.

This passage too gives us some further insight into the Bible’s understanding of addictive habits. Proverbs does not give us an exhaustive picture of addiction in the Scriptures, but it knows something about the nature of addictions to enslave. We often speak of an addiction as an enslaving habit that individuals will continue to pursue despite negative consequences. In Proverbs 23:20-21, poverty is warned, and yet those who are addicted will run headlong into it. Likewise, verses 29-35 echo the idea that addicted individuals are enslaved to sin despite the negative consequences they experience.

Proverbs 23:29-35 is one of the more memorable passages on addiction in the whole Bible. Here we read of a drunkard who suffers all kinds of consequences for his sin and yet still does not abandon his drinking, in fact he thinks only of when he will get his next drink. The passage epitomizes addictive behavior. We read:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
30 Those who tarry long over wine;
those who go to try mixed wine.
31 Do not look at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup
and goes down smoothly.
32 In the end it bites like a serpent
and stings like an adder.
33 Your eyes will see strange things,
and your heart utter perverse things.
34 You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
like one who lies on the top of a mast.
35 “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 a lengthier poem in this chapter, building a progressive picture of the pitiful state of the drunkard. It describes him as one who has strife, sorrow, complaining, and confusion. He is unclear of where his wounds come from, thought he has them. It’s unclear in the Hebrew whether the last phrase of verse 29 should be translated “bloodshot eyes” or “blackened eyes.” Perhaps he has the redness of eyes because of his alcohol consumption, or perhaps his black eyes are part of the “wounds without cause.” Either way his state is to be pitied.

The passage describes one who lingers over wine. This is someone who longs for it, craves it, and finds comfort in it. They are deceived by the drink, convinced it is just what they need that it will comfort them and meet their needs. They love it when the drink is “red” and “sparkles in the cup” and when it “goes down smoothly.” But there is always a bitter aftertaste, an end that is like the sting of serpents. The text is painting the picture of a man deceived by alcohol but who in the end encounters its destructiveness. And even after all the wounds and hurt and pain he suffers from his drunkenness, he wakes with one thought: I must have another drink.

The poem is surprisingly accurate and powerfully descriptive. Reading these Proverbs will not, of course, grant people the freedom to quit addictive habits, but the text should serve as a warning to all of us. We should take intoxicating substances very seriously. The dangers are very real and while they never arrive at the first drink they are progressively more realistic as one goes further and further into addiction. Of course, the Bible speaks too about the joy and beauty of drinking in certain passages. There is freedom in Christ for believers to imbibe, but we should never become blind or naive to the possibilities and dangers of alcohol. The New Testament warns us not to get drunk but instead to be controlled by God’s Spirit. Paul writes:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18)

Drunkenness leads to “debauchery” or recklessness. The Christian, however, is to be filled not with alcohol but with the Spirit of God. We are to be “drunk on the Spirit” so to speak. The fruit of being drunk on the Spirit is the exact opposite of being filled with alcohol: self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Drunkenness and addiction are not to be the characteristics of believers. While Proverbs does not give us all the details about the Bible’s depiction of addiction we get enough here to be warned. And while there is freedom for Christians to drink we should do so with a keen eye to what God says about the dangers of alcohol and all addictive substances. Be warned, alcohol can lead to addiction, and foolishness, and destruction.


    1. I’m 58 yrs old and began drinking and taking pills at age 10. I had no guidance as a child and grew up on the streets, my addictions were born. I continued drug use til age 50 and being sick and tired of being sick and tired I started taking a drug that has an opium blocker in it to help me quit drugs. Now I want to quit taking that too so I can be a better servant and witness for our Lord. I can’t take the wthdrawals and I am in constant pain from osteoarthritis in my knees 2 hands. I have prayed for God to break my addictions but I haven’t quit yet. I also smoke cigarettes and I really want to quit that too. Help.

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