“Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:22-23)
The battle-lines have been dug in the conflict about Christians and alcohol, with entrenched positions generating pamphlets, sermons and even denominations. But those trenches are now largely empty. Most of the fighting has already taken place; and the fortifications are largely abandoned with only a small cadre of hold-outs remaining, fighting for abstinence. And while I am not one of those who argues practically for this position, I do see their wisdom. The cost of new generations moving on from this discussion, is that unexamined worldliness seems to be winning. In interest of deeper healing, let’s reopen the wound.
My contribution to this discussion will not be so much a word study on alcohol, but will be about the words “hero” and “valiant”, and its focus will be unashamedly on men, with secondary application for women. The Bible does not overlook women. Christian older women are taught “to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine”. (Tit. 2:3) But men are lined up in the target sights in Isaiah 5. What is on view is an intoxicated masculinity. In its place we need one that is sober, strong and just.
Isaiah speaks into the Eighth Century world of the rich and powerful, safe and secure in themselves, and yet full of arrogance and abandonment of duty. Their religion is completely bankrupt, justice perverted, and widows and orphans ignored (Isa. 1:10-23). God’s future for Jerusalem will be a baptism of fire and judgment. Her filth and bloodstains will be washed clean and a new city will emerge holy to the Lord (Isa. 4:2-4). The old Jerusalem is likened to a vineyard that the Lord tenderly planted, but which produced terrible grapes (Isa. 5:1-7) “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isa. 5:7). What follows is the most appalling list of charges. These are the reasons God would bring a fury against his own possession and call for nations to take them in exile (Isa. 5:13-30). Six lamentable woes are sung over the people against: greed in property investment, chasing after alcohol early in the morning and late at night; presumptive lies, calling what is evil good, and being arrogant. It all sounds very contemporary. The crescendo of these indictments is their intoxicated masculinity.
“Woe to those who are heroes (gibbor) at drinking wine, and valiant (chayil) men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:22-23)
A distortion of male virtue
God expects heroism and valour. These are particularly masculine virtues. We must not deny that women can be heroic and valiant, but it is especially horrific when absent in men.
The word “hero” (gibbor) is elsewhere translated in the ESV as “mighty man”, “champion”, “warrior” and “chief”. Gibbor is most often linked with our other focus word, “valiant” (chayil). When put together these two words are translated “mighty man of valour” or even “worthy man”. The words are not themselves morally loaded. Mighty men include the enemies of God—Nephilim, Nimrod and Goliath—as well as God’s own people—Gideon, Boaz and David’s elite soldiers (Gen. 6:4; 10:8; 1 Sam. 17:51; Judg. 6:2; Ruth 2:1; 2 Sam. 23:8). Violence is not at its core. Boaz, among many others, never takes up a weapon. These are the best of men, the ablest and most courageous. Gibbor is used exclusively of men, with one exception. God himself is called mighty multiple times.
The problem in Isaiah’s day is that this heroism was being distorted, and valour misdirected. They were wasting their manliness in “drinking wine” and “mixing strong drink”. Rather than defending their families, or standing up for what is right or even fighting for their country, they becomes experts in sculling, swigging and sampling the best or the perhaps the most alcohol. This is the problem of wealth and ease. Professional sportsmen are the strongest on the field, but often weakest off. The sporting community seems obsessed with drinking. Former heroes on the tee become legends of the nineteenth hole. Powerful bankers, lawyers and politicians instead of using their strength and intelligence for helping others, live for Friday night drinks, or even a quiet one mid-morning to get them through the day.
This heroism has a terrible price tag on those whom the men could serve and protect: their families and the community at large. For many, fathers, who are meant to provide and be a rock and pillar for the family, would rather drink and escape his family and responsibilities. For others intoxicated men become predators, inflicting violence and sexual abuse on women. You’re not a hero and you are not valiant when you do this.
It was a deep part of the Australian culture that you are not a real man if you don’t drink. That is still true in some subcultures. That was the problem for Judah too.
God hates this. Do you?
In contrast to the justice we should seek
The main problem is that this obsession with alcohol takes people away from what they should give their best manliness toward: justice on earth. In embracing the wine-glass and a beer-keg they “acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:23). For judges and household leaders, right treatment of the vulnerable matters. Proverbs warns about alcohol’s affect on those who make decisions. “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (Prov. 31:4-5). The rich and powerful have more money to spend on drink, but they also have a lot more opportunity to use their blessings for the sake of others. Being sober-minded is a repeated call for all Christians, and particularly for leaders.
The first time in the Bible that God is described as gibbor (mighty) is surprisingly on-topic. “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty (gibbor), and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” (Deut. 10:17) True greatness pursues justice and integrity, the same issues dealt with in Isaiah 5. If we want to be great like God, and not like the little ‘h’ heroes of the clubhouse, then seek fairness.
All the greatest commands are affected by valorising alcohol. Love of God is diluted and the neighbour’s need is ignored. You can’t act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God, and be consumed by drink. It was because of this sin that God sent his people into exile. Remember what Jesus taught. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, rather than inebriating ourselves to a spiritual death (Matt. 6:33). The second of the six woes in Isaiah 5 is also about alcohol. It says that those who chase after strong drink and entertainment “do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands” (Isa. 5:11). False heroism, failure to be just and numbness-to-God walk together very comfortably.
For those who are starting to feel pretty good about themselves—those, who don’t drink much, and perhaps never have—let me apply the acid, by extending the principle. I wonder if the same can be true of the greatest modern expression of false-masculinity: the obsession with computer games. These are an addictive escapism that makes us feel like heroes, but when we stop we are reminded that we have not mowed the lawn, taken out the rubbish, read with our children, helped a neighbour, or prayed to our God. And it is not just computer games: Netflix, novels, and endless YouTube videos can also be just as intoxicating. Woe to those who are online level 65 Barbarians who ignore the poor and those of your own family.
True heroism and valour
We need to see examples—flesh and blood encapsulations of godly principles. One candidate is Isaiah, whose call in chapter 6 comes straight after the woe on alcoholic heroism, and God’s ensuing judgment on the people. Isaiah has a transforming vision of the glory of the Lord. He confesses his own sinful lips, adding his own woe in echo to God’s. From his altar the Lord atones his guilt, and then unfurls his plan (Isa. 6:1-13). Yet unlike the priests and prophets who might be content in gazing at “wine when its red”, and unlike the rich who chase after drinks and entertainment, Isaiah says “Here I am! Send me.” (Prov. 23:31; Isa. 5:11; 6:8) Here is a true mighty man, in brokenness, and in courage, willing to face down his own people with an unpopular message of God’s truth. What makes him different? Surely it is the work of God in revelation, forgiveness and transformation.
However, the greatest mighty man is Christ, who shares with his Father the most sober, just and impartial valour ever seen on this earth. His life becomes a radical break in the cycle for those of us who have only had heroes of wine and beer. We may follow Isaiah’s example, but we worship Jesus Christ. And that vision of Christ must rebuke our tendency to value the small and insignificant rather than stand amazed at true greatness.
Let me point to a picture of Christ’s courage, involving alcohol, but pointing far beyond the symbol. At the Passover, we see him using his own position to serve others. He serves wine to point to a greater non-toxic and non-intoxicated masculinity that champions self-sacrifice and self-denial. Jesus took the cup and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 14:24-25).
We have a true leader, priest, prophet and king. He did not indulge in self-centred pleasure seeking to “acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa. 5:23). Instead the innocent one allowed himself to suffer as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).
Do you need to change your definition of hero?