It Bites Like a Serpent

Because it gives such a vivid picture of compulsive drinking, Proverbs 23:29-35 is a favorite passage of mine.

image credit: iStock

image credit: iStock

29 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.”

Not only does this passage truly capture the out-of-control drinking of an alcoholic, it also displays the rich imagery of biblical Hebrew in the process. The description of unmanageability and negative consequences would fit right in with the personal stories in the AA Big Book or on one of the modern recovery blogs.

The passage begins with a series of rhetorical questions that lays out the unmanageability suffered by alcoholics and problem drinkers throughout the ages: woe, sorrow, strife, complaining, wounds without cause and red eyes. Who has all things? “Those who tarry long over wine.” The litany of questions also suggests someone who is familiar with the negative consequences from “tarrying over wine.” It seems that the author knew of what he wrote from personal experience.

According to R. Laird Harris in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, wine was the most intoxicating drink known in ancient times. The reference to mixed wine suggests a process of first evaporating wine with a high sugar content; then mixing it with more wine to get a higher alcoholic content in the “mixed wine.” Even in Old Testament times problem drinkers knew how to maximize their high with the “hard stuff.”

The imagery of verse 31 is wonderfully seductive: red, red wine that sparkles in your cup and goes down smoothly. But watch out! It bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. The message then and the message today is the same for an alcoholic. The seductive appeal of sparkling wine is just as dangerous as a biting serpent.  And if you do not listen to the warning , you could end up dead.

Now we enter into the heart of a drunken stupor: your eyes see strange things; your heart utters perverse things. Watch this YouTube video of Robin Williams describing how alcoholics “see strange things and utter perverse things.” Nothing much had changed there.

The imagery in verse 34 is of being on a ship in the midst of a storm. Tossed about by the waves, one minute you are in the midst of the sea; the next at the top of the mast. In Psalm 107:27, sailors in a storm are said to be reeling like drunken men. Drunkenness is feeling like you are on a storm tossed ship. Can anyone relate? Like a storm, drunkenness must be “ridden out;” endured until the end. And you are powerless to calm the seas and end the storm.

The drinker says that he was struck, but not hurt (35a); beaten, but he did not feel it (35b). When you’re drunk, pain fails to register. Sometimes you don’t even remember what hit you. The terror of the strange things seen and perverse things uttered is like a dream: when will he awake? And if he does, more wine becomes the goal: “I must have another drink.”

Wine leads to negative consequences for those who pursue it; and the aftermath of a drunken storm leads right back to wine. A bleak, hopeless circle is depicted. The main point of the passage is then: Do not look at wine; it bites like a serpent and leads to an unending circle of sorrow.

So why do we do it? Why do humans turn to wine and other intoxicants? Ronald Siegel suggested in his book, Intoxication, that pursuing intoxicants is a “fourth drive,” following hunger, thirst and sex.

“History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of this planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances. . . . This ‘fourth drive’ is a natural part of biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs.”

I think Leo Tolstoy is closer to the truth. In his essay “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” he said:

“For man is a spiritual as well as an animal being. He may be moved by things that influence his spiritual nature, or by things that influence his animal nature. . . . People drink and smoke, not casually, not from dullness, not to cheer themselves up, not because it is pleasant, but in order to drown the voice of conscience in themselves.”

In the end, the apostle Paul had it spot on. In Romans 7:21-23 he said: “So I find it to be l law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Why do you think humans get high? Is there a universal drive for mind-altering substances?