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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 21

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-31



"He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man: He that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich."- Proverbs 21:17

THE Septuagint translation has an interesting addition to the proverb in Proverbs 12:2. After "He that tilleth his land shall have plenty of bread, but he that followeth after vain persons is void of understanding," it adds, "He who is sweet in pastimes of wine-drinking shall have dishonor in his strongholds." Drinking is the natural opposite of hard and honest work. When the love of it takes possession of a man he is sure to become a useless and unproductive member of society. A drunken people are in the end an incapable people; their wealth declines, their industries pass over to soberer rivals, their qualities of brain and muscle gradually disappear. This is partly owing to the deterioration of mind and body which results from the excessive use of stimulants; but it is still more due to a wider cause: drinking in all its branches is indulged in as a pleasure. Why do we not admit it? why do we always try to present it in another light, saying that it is for health’s sake, by a doctor’s orders; or for work’s sake, by a proved necessity? Is it not that we are secretly conscious of taking the drink because we like it? We know it is a self-indulgence, and we are a little ashamed of it; and as self-indulgence is always fatal in the long run to all the habits and activities which men very properly honor, we should dearly like to screen it under a decent pretext which might preserve our self-respect. We know quite well that "he that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man; he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich." {Proverbs 21:17} Drinking is after all only a pronounced symptom of a large vice -self-indulgence.

A great step is taken when we have learnt to quietly and candidly face this fact: we drink, as a society, as a nation, -each of us drinks in public or in private, -simply because it is pleasant. It is a habit governed by one supreme and absolute law-we like it. We know quite well that alcohol is not a food; that is proved by the most irrefragable scientific evidence; and if in alcoholic drinks there are certain nutritive elements, we could if we chose secure the benefit of them without any admixture of alcohol. We know that in many cases the alcohol is actually deleterious, that it produces specific and very terrible diseases, that it lowers the tone of the whole system and makes us liable to all kinds of secondary troubles. We may urge that alcohol is a medicine, and a useful medicine; but it is not as a medicine we use it. If a doctor prescribes castor-oil, or quinine, we throw aside the medicine on the first opportunity, often before it has done its work. Alcohol is the only medicine which we continue to take for a lifetime because the doctor prescribed it for a month. Would it not be better then to clear our minds of cant, and to set the whole matter on its right basis? Intoxicants are drunk as a form, as the most universal form, of self-indulgence. In some mysterious way, for some mysterious reasons which we cannot fathom, they gratify an instinctive appetite, they are naturally and generally attractive, they exercise a spell over the physical system. If the taste is, as some people say, acquired, it was acquired by mankind in prehistoric times, and is part of our inherited constitution as men. For instance, Mr. Gaule, a police-court missionary in Birmingham, relates a recent experience, one out of many in his fourteen years of labor. A young married woman, twenty-eight years of age, died a shocking death from drinking. Up to the age of twenty-six she had been a teetotaler, and did not know what the taste of drink was. She was a leading member of the Gospel Temperance Mission, and sang the solos at the meetings. Then she was taken ill, the doctor ordered brandy, and it proved like the first taste of blood to a tame tiger. She could never again be kept from it, and at last it killed her. The craving there must have been in the very blood.

We have a taste for these intoxicants, latent or realized. The stimulating influence is pleasant, the narcotic influence is pleasant. The immediate effect on the body is pleasant, the immediate effect on the mind is pleasant. Drink produces a sense of great self-satisfaction, promotes a flow of conversation and a feeling of good-fellowship; it quickens at first several of our mental faculties; it excites the imagination, and carries its devotee far away from the actual, which is painful and harassing, into a kind of ideal world, which is cheerful and agreeable. So powerful is its temporary influence that in the words of King Lemuel "there is positively a recommendation to give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul; let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more." {Proverbs 31:6-7} An injunction which must not of course be mistaken for a Divine precept, but only for a reminder of the fact-a fact which may be observed without any moral judgment being passed upon it-that while men who require all their mental and moral faculties to be in full activity {Proverbs 31:4-5} must eschew the use of intoxicating drinks, the dying, the despairing, the very poor and miserable, may find a certain relief in drinking. Men who are in the enjoyment of health, and wish to discharge effectively the day’s duties, have no excuse for the employment of an agent which only serves to lull the mind into forgetfulness and to reduce the pain of consciousness to the lowest possible point.

Strange to say, while men are thus naturally inclined to use intoxicants, nature has been most lavish in pandering to their tastes. There are trees in tropical climates which have but to be gashed, and an intoxicating juice flows out, ready at once for use. Almost every natural juice ferments if it is left alone. The palm-tree, the potato plant, the sugar cane, beet-root, the cereals, as well as the grape, yield readily these intoxicating drinks, at a surprisingly low cost. Very little human labor is needed, very simple apparatus will suffice, so that a very few enterprising firms can deluge a whole continent with fiery intoxicants.

We drink because we like it, -not for our good, as we pretend, but for our pleasure, as we are half ashamed to confess. The taste is natural to us, - natural to savages, natural to civilized men, natural, so far as we know, to men of all climates and all races. And nature has made it singularly easy to gratify the taste.

Now one might almost suppose that the conclusion to be drawn would be, "Let us drink, let us take this element as a good gift of God." And that was the feeling of more primitive times. In the Vedas, for instance, Indra is praised as reeling with the intoxicating Soma which his worshippers have offered to him; drunkenness is regarded as a kind of inspiration. But no; as Wisdom asserts herself, and demands a hearing, she more and more decisively classes this taste for intoxicants with certain other tastes which are natural to us, but none the less dangerous; and she treats the bountiful provision which nature has made for the gratification of the taste as one of those innumerable temptations with which men in this present life are surrounded, -in conflict with which they prove their manhood, -by victory over which they acquire strength of moral principle and consistency in virtue.

As the reason within gathers power and authority, and as her clear light is replenished by the revelation of Divine Wisdom, all the spurious attractions of drinking are weakened, the glamour is destroyed, and the truth is recognized that "wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whosoever erreth thereby is not wise"; {Proverbs 20:1} more and more it appears that the power of wine is the power of the animal within us, and that the widespread influence of it is a sign that the animal within us dies slowly; we learn to measure the growth of reason by the degree of mastery which has been obtained over the low appetite; and we understand that striking antithesis of the New Testament religion, "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit."

The way then in which we are brought to look at the drink question is this: here is a powerful natural temptation, a seduction which nature herself offers to the body, a foe which always has a traitor in collusion with it inside the assaulted citadel. This enemy is ingenious in its argumentation: it approaches usually under the guise of a friend; it says-and not without truth-that it comes to give pleasure to poor harassed and toil-worn mortals; it persuades them that it is a wholesome food, and when that contention is shattered it would have them believe that it is a medicine. When it has gained an entrance into the fortress, by fair means or foul, it at first proceeds very dociley, and seems to justify its presence by numberless obvious benefits. Sometimes it will successfully hide all the evil it is working, as if its purpose were to beguile new victims and to acquire a more unbounded sway over the old.

As religious men, as spiritual beings, whom God claims to become His children, we are called upon to face this subtle, powerful, and all-persuasive foe. We are to do our best to understand its ways-we look to science to help us and to teach us. We are then to take every weapon within our reach to resist its approach, argument, persuasion, entreaty; we are to lose no opportunity of unveiling the tactics of the foe, and rousing those who are imperiled to a sense of their danger; then as Christian citizens we are bound to use all the influence we possess to hold this terrible natural temptation within the straightest limits, and to fortify all the powers of resistance in our fellow-men to the highest possible degree.

In such a crusade against the enemy of our race, few things are more effectual than a vivid and accurate delineation of the effects which drink produces-such a delineation, for instance, as that which is given in Proverbs 23:29-35. Let us proceed to examine this remarkable passage.

"Whose is woe? Whose is woe?" asks the Teacher. Who is it whose constant and appropriate language is that of lamentation-the piteous cry of pain, the agonized exclamation of remorse? "Whose are contentions?" Who is it that lives in an atmosphere of perpetual strife and loud quarrellings? "Whose is groaning?"-that sustained sigh of desponding and irremediable misery. "Whose are causeless wounds?"-not only the bruise and the gash which result from furious sparrings or unforeseen falls, but also wounds of the spirit, self-loathing and shame, the thought of what might have Lees, the realization of a ruined home, and of suffering wife and little ones, and the conviction that the evil can now never be undone. "Whose is the darkling of the eyes?" Who is it whose eyes have that horrible inflamed, lack-luster look, which is the exact opposite of the light and clearness and sparkle proper to the human eye?

The answer to these questions is given in a sentence, "Theirs who tarry over the wine, theirs who go to try the mixture." It is not of course suggested that all who drink wine, nor even all who take it habitually, fall into the horrible condition which has just been described; this condition is the result of lingering over the drink, spending hours in tippling, devoting time and thought to tasting various brands and samples, becoming a connoisseur of strong beverages, allowing the subject to occupy an appreciable proportion of one’s time. It is not the use, but the abuse, of the thing which in this passage is reprobated. But now we are reminded of the great difficulty which occurs in distinguishing between the use and the abuse. There is no sharply-defined limit. There is no mechanical monitor which at once reminds us, "Here use ceases and abuse begins." Almost the only rule that can be given is, that whenever the cup seems in the least degree attractive, then danger is near and it is necessary to abstain. "Look not on wine when it reddens, when it gives its gleam in the cup; it goes down so smoothly!" It is the peculiarity of this substance that it can only be taken safely when it has comparatively no attractions, when it is taken under orders, and as it were against the grain. If it is really pleasant to us, we can never tell where the pleasantness melts into a dangerous fascination, where the color and the sparkle and the agreeable tingle which make it pass so easily down the throat have become the lure and the spell of a poisonous reptile. For this pleasant indulgence, which seems to be perfectly innocent, what is the issue of it? "Its end-like a serpent it bites, and like a basilisk it stings." One evil result of it is that it rouses into perilous activity the dormant passions; even pure men and women under this potent influence become impure. The eyes which are excited with wine will turn readily to loose and degraded women. The fall which might have been easily avoided in a state of sobriety will be inevitable when the reason is silenced, the will enfeebled, and the desire inflamed by this seductive poison.

Another evil effect is that the sense of truth entirely disappears. What a misleading maxim is that of the Romans, In vino veritas! While it is a fact that the intoxicated man will blab many things which were best kept concealed, there is nothing which deteriorates truthfulness so rapidly as the use of alcohol. The drinker becomes crafty and deceitful and untrustworthy. The miserable brain is haunted with chimaeras, the imperious appetite suggests all kinds of subterfuges and evasions, the very "heart speaks frauds." Yes, nothing could be more accurate than this: the effect of drink is not so much to make the lips lie, as to make the inner man essentially insincere and deceptive. No man admits that he is a drunkard, even to his own heart; long after all his friends know it, and are beginning to despair of him, even when he has had several attacks of delirium tremens and is a confirmed dipsomaniac, the most he will allow is that he has sometimes taken a little more than is good for him, but so very little seems to upset him. Ah, "thine heart shall utter froward things," i.e., frauds. Everyone who has had any dealings with the miserable victims of drink will sorrowfully confirm this statement.

The insecurity of the habit is incredible. It leads to the destruction of every faculty which God has mercifully given us to protect us from danger and guide us through life. The ready perception of things is marred, the quick rallying of the attention is delayed, the exercise of the understanding is prevented, the will is paralyzed, the conscience dies. "Thou shalt be as he who lieth down in the heart of the sea,"-as one in a calenture who strides into the merciless waves under the impression that he is walking on flowery meadows. Thou shalt be "as he that goeth to bed on the mast’s head,"-where the position is precarious even if the sea be perfectly calm, but becomes sure destruction if the winds awake and the ship begins to climb large billows and to plunge down into their unquiet troughs. And then, worst of all, when there is a temporary recovery from this abominable state of drunkenness, and the feeble wails of repentance begin to be heard, what can be more disconnected-more futile-more abject-more irrational than his words? "They have smitten me," he says; "I have not been sick,"-as if forsooth he were the victim of some violence offered to him by others, instead of being the author of his own stripes; as if he were quite right and well, and the disease were not deep in his own passion-haunted heart. "They have stricken me," he continues to whine, "I have not known it." Footpads have attacked him, he would have us believe, and that is the explanation of his begrimed and blood-smeared face, his torn clothes, and his empty pockets. "When shall I awake?" he mutters, as the swimming sensation in the head, and the unsteady stagger in his step, remind him that he is not quite himself. And then-is it possible? Yes, his next remark is, I will seek it again. I will go and get another drink. His miserable mind, the victim and the mint of lies, having persuaded him that all the mischief came from some cause other than himself, and had nothing to do with the one degrading habit which really produced it, he proposes at once to seek the very agent which is his undoing, to heal his intoxication by getting drunk again.

This vivid and forcible picture of the miserable sufferings, the contemptible vices, and the helpless bondage which result from intoxicating drink is all the more impressive because there is no attempt made to enforce total abstinence as a principle. If, however, it is duly considered and understood, it is very likely to produce total abstinence as a practice, just as the object lesson of the drunken helot led every Spartan youth to turn with unspeakable loathing from the imbruting vice. Modest minds, observing how the mighty are fallen, how this one cause has ruined the strongest, the best, and the most attractive of their fellow-creatures, insidiously leading them on, mocking them, and luring them into dangerous and poisonous marshes, will be inclined to say, as Daniel said, "I will abstain; I may be safe or I may not; if I am safe all I gain is a certain amount of animal pleasure; if I am not, what I lose is health, honor, wealth, even life itself, -not the body only, but the soul too." The gain from the use of these things is very measurable and insignificant; the loss from their abuse is immeasurable, and the passage from use to abuse escapes at once our Observation and control.

But, after all, wisdom urges temperance in drinking only as a part of a much larger principle. If temperance in drinking stands alone and unconnected with this larger principle, it is a blessing of a very doubtful kind, so doubtful indeed that the pharisaism, the intolerance, the dogmatism, which are able to subsist with "Temperance" in the limited sense, have often been the most serious hindrance to temperance in its larger and nobler meaning.

It is the desire of pleasure which is at the root of the mischief: "He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man." Men are "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God." The appetites which are natural to us hold undisputed sway, they are fleshly; the great spiritual appetites, which are supernatural, are quite feeble and inoperative. Men ask for that which is pleasant, and even when they become religious it is only to obtain pleasure, a greater and a more lasting pleasure; thus there is an intemperance, which we call fanaticism, even in religious beliefs and in religious practices. But what men need is that the desire of God, for His own sake, should be so inflamed in them as to burn up all other desires. And this desire can only be created by His Holy Spirit. The competing and manifold desires of pleasure can only be mastered and expelled when that great, absorbing, and embracing desire of God has been securely settled in the human heart by the Holy Spirit. True temperance is really one of the nine fold fruits of the Spirit, and is of little value, a mere spurious product, unless it is accompanied by love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and meekness. Such passages as we have been considering in the book of Proverbs may give us a wholesome horror and hatred of drunkenness, and may even lead us to a prudential temperance-they may even make us as sober as pious Mohammedans or Buddhists; but if we are to become really temperate a higher power must intervene, we must be "born of the Spirit." Is it not remarkable how nothing short of the highest remedy-the new birth-is effectual for curing even the slightest of human infirmities and sins?

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 21". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/proverbs-21.html.
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