"Not for kings to drink wine"? (Proverbs 31:4)

Salvete, omnes!

For some time, I have been of the position that drinking wine (or any alcohol, for that matter) is fine if done in moderation, and I believed there were plenty of verses to support that.

Also, as I understand it, much of the Church has held this position down through the centuries.

My first question is: Is there any authoritative (infallible) decree on this matter?

Secondly, does the Catechism address the issue in any way?

As I understand it, even the Angelic Doctor is fine with drinking in moderation (as I recall once reading?).

However, it is the following particular verse of Scripture that troubles me most on this matter and may even speak against Christians drinking wine at all:

“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink.” (Proverbs 31:4)

The passage goes on to to give the reason for this: that, in drinking, the may “forget what has been decreed”. Then, our author states that, rather, these things should be given to those who are “perishing” and are in distress so that they may forget their poverty.

This passage raises so many questions!

Does this passage, for Christian or Catholic kings (rulers of any kind? people in high positions of any kind? in any culture? at any time?) completely forbid them in partaking in alcoholic drink? Indeed, was such a rule followed by Christian/Catholic rulers (whether “kings” proper or not) in any age? Somehow, I don’t recall this being an issue for them. If not, why not?

Furthermore, the reasons given in this passage would seem to suggest (I believe it’s called) a “near occasion of sin”. If a king drinks, he may possibly, as it were, pervert justice.

However, are kings alone so liable to get this drunk? Aren’t many other people in many other ranks in society besides? So, on the principle of avoiding nearness to sin, should we not all avoid this? If not, why not? After all, even the ordinary person can get himself into trouble after having had too much to drink. Indeed, as I understand it, even priests are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages. If secular rulers cannot drink wine, why are priests responsible for souls permitted to do so? After all, someone in their care might theoretically come to them in need of some spiritual guidance and (one would hope, but remember fleshly weakness) he might be so drunk that he ill-advises that person.

As to those who are “perishing”, the questions arises as to whether we are to take these as men literally in dire straights or whether we are to take them as being spiritually so. In the first case, the passage seems to suggest that only the most miserable among us are permitted to have alcoholic drink. In the latter case, it either seems to be suggesting that those who are “unsaved” are permitted to drink but not us, or, the passage may be speaking somewhat ironically in this statement: “Let them go ahead and drink; for they are in such a miserable spiritual state anyway!”

Looking at other posts on the subject of alcohol and the Bible/the Church, I see little to no good answers to this passage when it is set before us by those who hold a position of total abstinence. Is there any way, from even this verse alone, to salvage the “moderate drinking” position? Could someone please provide me with some insight into this passage? Are there any good Catholic commentaries on it? Are there even any good Jewish commentaries, since I understand that many Jews find it just fine to drink wine? Any Talmudic references or other interpretative Jewish sources? Do any of the “moderate” folks have any insight into this? Has anyone around you explained this passage to you in the light of this position?

Indeed, there are far too many other verses that would seem to suggest that moderate drinking, even among those who were basically well-off, was fine (many of which have been elucidated in other posts on similar subjects).

It might be interesting to note that, when Christ’s detractors see him coming “eating and drinking” and accuse Him of being a “drunkard” (as it is often translated), the original literal meaning of the term used is “wine-drinker”. In the literal sense, there is no word meaning “drunk” used. I wonder if this itself could help us in our understanding. Might the phrase “wine-drinker” be alluding, even if indirectly, to our passage in question? Did the Jews perhaps have some idiomatic usage of “to drink wine” meaning “to get drink on wine”? If that were the case, this would make more sense. After all, simply “drinking” wine (as this passage says) does not automatically lead to the forgetting of justice.

Further evidence of something more than just “drinking wine” here understood may be the next phrase, speaking of those who “desire strong drink”. (Some translations here render “crave”.) The tendency toward parallelism in Jewish poetry, particular proverbial speech, might suggest that the first and the second phrase are to be interpreted together and, thus, to have a similar meaning.

(Now, perhaps this is a bit of a side-note, but, what, also, are we to make of the repetition of the “not for kings” line? This would seem, for whatever reason, to be repeated for emphasis? Does this at all bear on our present topic of discussion?)

I am thoroughly confused here and would very much appreciate any help you might be able to offer.


I think its just saying kings should have even more care with regard to moderation

Alcohol was the multi-purpose painkiller of the ancient world. Even in the 19th century (or 20th century, if supplies were low) alcohol was the go-to drug to help dull the pain of a patient. As contemporary readers, we tend to look at wine strictly for its recreational use, and the potential to abuse it.

In the above mentioned, wine serves a helpful purpose for the dying person. In the other, for a ruler, it was a common cause of debauchery.

You can spend your entire life struggling over the verse, because it’s just a single free-floating verse in a large anthropology of scripture. The ancient writer does not provide several pages of footnotes elaborating on what it is that was written.

My first question is: Is there any authoritative (infallible) decree on this matter?

Christ drank wine. He turned water into wine for the crowd at Cana. How much more authoritative and infallible can we get?

People now days are always coming up for reasons why we should ban drinking wine or beer or stronger drinks. And now days that we have safe supplies of potable water and carbonated beverages or fruit juices preserved, either by cold or suitable chemicals, perhaps you can afford yourself to stop drinking wine or beer.
HOWEVER this was NOT always the case.
A few centuries ago drinking water would probable either a) killed you or b) given you a bad case of runnies that would severely incapacitate you.

Beer and wine were the SAFE items to drink as the small amount of alcohol effectively sterilize the drink in question.

In some South American countries I would discourage any tourist from drinking the water. For example in the Intercontinental Hotel in Quito Ecuador they had faucets that stated if the water was drinkable or NOT a few years back.
I remember one instance, a friend of mine caught the runnies only by adding ice to his soft drink, bummer almost killed him.

But I digress, in Europe mainly Italy and Spain it costs less pint per pint to drink wine than a bottle of water, in Germany the same holds true for beer.
Also in these countries it is customary to give beer or wine to toddlers in small quantities of course, and as the old axiom holds true anything in moderation is good, it is when we abuse that we run into problems.


So, you’re saying that, in the case of the “perishing”, the question is their medicinal use of it but in the case of the king, it is his actual drinking of it?

This really doesn’t make sense to me. First, there’s the fact that not just the “perishing” (or dying?) are spoken of here, but those in “poverty”. Sure, in this case, there would be mental pain, but, even then, giving them wine would help to dull it. Thus, we are back at the drinking and its effects. Someone might suggest that it was a kind of “poor man’s medicine”, but would this have any support?

Even if that were the case, the here is “drink”, applying to both situations. There would still be the chance of getting drunk either way.

Perhaps in ancient Israel, the lack of safety would have been an issue(?). However, in the Roman world during the time of Christ and of the early Church, water would likely have been much safer. The Romans were very conscious of cleanliness and were known for bringing in fresh water to their cities. Indeed, we see from one of Paul’s letters that Timothy was apparently in the habit of abstaining entirely from wine and drinking water instead. If he was already a sickly person, would it not be unlikely that he would partake in water that wasn’t safe for him to drink?

Yet, you still seem to be in the “moderation” camp(?). So, I’m not sure what your previous point was meant to contribute to this particular thread. (Not trying to be mean, just legitimately curious why you brought it up.)

People drink wine to loosen up, among a multitude of other reasons. Usually, this is okay.

Likewise, there are a fair number of Bible verses praising wine for bringing joy to the heart; and it was regarded as a basic staple of life, like bread. Wine was also a useful medicine for stomach trouble (alcohol kills stomach bugs), and would strengthen people who were badly nourished.

OTOH, kings have historically ordered a lot of unjust actions while tiddly. Also, a lot of kings just loosen up enough to say something emotional or snarky about someone, and their followers will decide that means they should kill that person.

You also see in the Bible a fair number of kings who get a jones for a specific piece of land or a vineyard or an animal, and then decide to take it away from a poor person who doesn’t want to sell. Or they don’t even ask, just take. Or they decide they want some poor girl.

Or their followers decide to do it for them.

So in the ancient world, kings being too loosened up leads to injustice, because they say and do what they shouldn’t, or they inadvertently encourage their followers to wreak injustice.

Allegorically, wine drinking in the Bible is usually associated with luxury. This is not because the poor never drank wine or fruit/grain beer (aka “strong drink”), but because only the rich would be able to afford to have a wine and dinner party with all the trimmings of music, dancing girls, entertainers, ivory couches, silk outfits, etc. (a la the Book of Amos). The closest the poor got to that was a wedding, and everybody in the family chipped in to help with weddings.

Allegorically, as the Venerable Bede says in his book on Proverbs, wine drinking is the state of luxury that makes the rich forget to help the poor. Therefore, allegorically, “kings” (Christians) should avoid having so much luxury that they forget just judgments and giving help to the poor. As it says in the preceding verses, too much riches can destroy “kings.”

OTOH, the poor and the sick and dying can use a little luxury and riches! It’s good for them!

So both literally and allegorically, this verse is about maintaining prudence, and the general idea of the whole section is that you must stay balanced and sensible in your life, especially as far as you are powerful or rich. The sensible king and the valiant woman both have people who depend on them, and whom they need to take care of. (And therefore, the sensible king should be looking for a valiant woman to be his wife.)

If you’re interested in reading an English translation of just Bede’s work on Proverbs 31, here’s On the Valiant Woman, which you can get on Kindle or in print.

They would actually be drinking it in both cases. It’s not like they’re suggesting you should just give a spoonful of wine or strong drink (like a spoonful of medicine) to someone that was dying, but that you should offer them as much as they wanted to drink, to relieve their pain. Doctors do the same thing now, except through the use of pills or injections that are made for that same purpose.

In the case of the king, it’s extremely ill advised that he should ever drink excessively, because it can lead to his making poor choices in governing his people. Can you imagine what might happen if the president of the US, or any other world leader was always sloshed? What might happen if he slips and tells someone government secrets that could be dangerous to the country? Do you think they would be capable of making sound decisions if a crisis happened? What if they got falling down drunk and decided to push the button that sent nukes to another country? It’s not such a good idea for any ‘king’ to get drunk, is it? That’s what this passage in the Bible means. A ‘king’ should always be sober, so he can lead his country, responsibly.

In those days, the poor were in a very sad state. This passage is suggesting that it might not be such a bad thing for them to get a little drunk, to forget about their own misery. Again, this is a case where the ‘drink’ is being suggested as a kind of medicine, like antidepressants.

The Bible is meant to teach us lessons, but we have to remember that the situations in those days were sometimes much different than they are now, but we can still relate them to modern day equivalents. It’s not a good idea to get too carried away by trying to read them in a strictly literal sense. Times have changed a lot since they were written.

Even though the Romans built aqueducts and other means of bringing water into a city, that water was not really meant for drinking, because it was still not pure enough to drink. It was for bathing and other uses, possibly even for cooking (which would kill the bacteria). Even the Romans still drank wine, for the same reasons the Jews did. Alcohol kills bacteria. We know now that boiling water will kill the bacteria in it, but they didn’t know that.

As far as Timothy is concerned, he was probably drinking water as a means of avoiding ‘drunkenness’, particularly while he was preaching the Gospel. This certainly might have caused him some symptoms of dysentery, which is most likely why Paul suggested he should, “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and thy frequent infirmities.” Paul seems to be well aware that drinking water was most likely making Timothy sick.

The bottom line is that drinking in moderation is not a sin. Jesus never said we shouldn’t drink alcohol. However, drunkenness is a serious sin that should be avoided, because it can also lead to even more serious sins. So, in our daily life, we should be careful to avoid sinful behavior that might be caused by drinking to excess.

So, are you saying that you interpret this passage as calling for kings (and leaders generally?) not to drink wine at all? Or, are you saying it means that they should not drink so much as to get drunk and pervert justice?

As far as kings jonesing for lands (heh), are these passages connected with excessive drinking? Or, is this an entirely separate issue? Not sure how this connects with the statements above.

As far as Christians and luxury (briefly, as this might be a tad OT), I guess the question becomes “how much is too much”? Also, how do you know when you have too much except you find yourself sinning in response to it? If this happens, are you automatically required to give up what you have or can you take time to work on your state of mind? Ifthe latter is the case, how much time is too much time (when does this continual work with no positive result become an exercise in insanity?)?

If our author is suggesting that it might be OK for the poor to get a little drunk, as you seem to suggest, what if they themselves sin on account of this? Again, this seems a bit inconsistent.

Well yes the Romans were remarkable engineers and were able to construct aqueducts that are still in use today, however they did NOT have the means to make the water safe for drinking.

My point is that in countries like Italy, Spain historically people sitting at lunch or dinner would rather drink a glass of wine or two over water while in Germany they would drink a glass of beer instead.

Therefore wine and beer are or were used primarily as the means of hydration for the population.

With today’s wider availability of safe drinkable water there is a trend to move the wine and beer sipping to the social gathering.
It is in this settings that we must guard ourselves to be prudent.

I’ve been thinking on this topic again…

I look back on most of your responses and most of you seem to suggest that what is being spoken of in our passage in question is that kings should not drink to excess.

However, the passage actually says that it is not for kings to “drunk” (not to “get drunk on”) wine, etc. On its surface, then, it would seem that merely drinking wine at all is what is being meant. Can those who take the position of moderate drinking give an answer to this dilemma?

I previously proposed that the phrase “drink wine” here might have somehow been understand as meaning “to get drunk” based on Jesus being called a “wine-drinker” (often translated as “drunkard”). I also cited an apparent parallel in the next half of the proverb, saying that rulers should not “crave” strong drink. I noted that often Hebrew parallelism is meant to suggest that there is the same or similar meaning in both parts of the parallel and that, therefore, “drink wine” may have had a stronger sense here than just “drinking” wine at all and in and of itself.

What do you guys think of this? Any biblical scholars on this list, is there any support at all for my proposals? Is there anything that might go against these?

Further, are there any good Catholic commentaries on this verse that either I can read or that you can quote to me/us here? Are there even any good Jewish commentaries on this verse?

Why do those who interpret this passage as referring only to “excessive” drinking rather than just drinking alone interpret the passage in such a way? Is it only because of other Scriptural evidence? Or, is there some reason within the passage itself to suggest such an interpretation? Have you heard this interpretation from a commentary? From a priest or other religious figure in authority? From someone you know? What have been the arguments in support of this position?

Not only that. It was wine, not water or grape juice, that Jesus handed to the Twelve at the Last Supper:

Matt 26:27-28. “Drink it, all of you. This is my blood, which seals God’s covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Appreciate the response, but…

I would still like very direct point-by-point responses to the particular problems that seem to exist in this passage and my responses to them.

I say moderation is the key. Everyone drank wine in that time period except for the Essenes. Getting** drunk **on wine is very different than drinking wine. One notable drunk was Noah when he lay naked in his tent was shamed by his son and another is Lot who was raped by his daughters when he was drunk.

Drunkenness is always reviled in the Bible. But drinking wine is not, in fact it was sanctified by Jesus.

But, why, then, does this particular verse only say “drink” instead of “get drunk”? “It is not for kings…to drink wine…”

The consensus here appears, indeed, to be that of most Protestant commentators I’ve seen as well, but, I’m still not sure how they get that from what is presented in this verse alone. (Not that that’s generally a good idea anyway. I guess, again, I’m not sure how they interpret “drink” as “get drunk”.)

Is there any official Church teaching on the subject of alcohol (even that which could be considered “infallible”)?

Nope. And why would this one verse be the rule? Clearly it is wrong to get drunk, but fine to drink. (Just like today!)

I’ve read, though I don’t remember where, that overindulgence in alcohol is regarded as a form of the sin of gluttony, by analogy with overeating. However, you have raised an interesting question. I just took a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but the only reference I found in a quick search is this one, #1866 (link below), listing the seven capital sins without elaborating on them. If you find anything more detailed, I hope you’ll post it here.


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