The Use of Wine in Ancient Times
The second wrong assumption we want to deal with is that modern readers often assume that wine was used by the ancients exactly as it is used today. The Bible indicates several various usages for wine that might seem a bit foreign to the modern reader.
First of all, wine was used as a disinfectant to clean wounds (Luke 10:34). In the account of the Good Samaritan, wine was poured into the wounds of the man found lying, bleeding, and dying on the side of the road. The wine was poured in as a disinfectant, and the oil was used to coat the wound and enhance the natural healing process. It is doubtful if anyone in America would use wine for such a purpose today and the reason is obvious: there is no NEED for such a practice. In our age we have better, more effective ointments and salves which can be used on cuts and wounds. Thus, this use of wine has been rendered obsolete in the modern world. Praise God that wine is no longer needed as a disinfectant. Modern ointments are by far superior.
Secondly, a form of wine was used as a pain reliever. In ancient times, a cheap wine (oxos; sharp wine or vinegar), some times called the soldiers’ wine, was mixed with myrrh or gall and was used as a pain reliever for those dying or in extreme pain. Such a wine was offered to Jesus on the cross. In Matthew 27:34, the term is translated “vinegar.” See also John 19:29,30.
Another example of this usage occurs in Proverbs 31:6: “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.” In this passage, the author uses a technique of Hebrew poetry (synonymous parallelism) commonly found in the book of Proverbs. In such a parallelism, the same thought is repeated and couched in different words for emphasis and to explain the thought in more detail. The parallel here is as follows:
⇒ “Strong drink” is equal to “wine”…
⇒ “Him that is ready to perish” is equal to “those that be of heavy hearts”…
Here the author speaks of the common practice of using wine (a strong drink) to alleviate the pain and suffering of one who is dying, and thus of a heavy heart. This man was suffering on the inside (heavy heart) and the outside (his body was perishing). Wine was virtually the only kind of pain reliever available and it was used to aid those who were suffering. Today, doctors may prescribe morphine or some other strong agent to alleviate pain for a cancer sufferer. Morphine, like alcohol, may be dangerous (they can be addicting), but they are necessary. There may come a day when another means of treating severe pain is discovered – a treatment with no dangerous side effects. Until then, we must use what is available.
Today, we have much better medical means of dealing with the pain of a patient who may be dying of some awful disease. Doctors prescribe other forms of medication because they are more efficient and more effective than wine. But in ancient times, they used whatever they had. We read horrific stories of civil war soldiers who had their arms and legs amputated (literally sawed off!) without any anesthesia other than a bottle of strong drink. If that’s all that is available, then by all means, use it! Drink a large bottle! However, it is fair to say that most folks today facing an amputation would choose modern anesthesia over a bottle of wine. Why? Because modern pain relievers and anesthesia have rendered that use of strong drink obsolete. Praise God that wine is no longer needed as a pain reliever.
Thirdly, wine was used to purify water (I Tim. 5:23). Often water would have a high alkaline content, and the pH could be neutralized somewhat by adding wine to the water. This was not the only method. Water could be made safe to drink by boiling, but that was time consuming and costly, since wood was scarce. The most common method of purifying water for drinking was to mix it with wine. Paul told Timothy to use no longer water, but to use wine for his stomach’s sake. (Note that Paul told Timothy to USE wine – not to drink it!) Timothy obviously had a stomach problem – due to poor water.
When Paul said, “Drink no longer water,” was he telling Timothy to never drink water again? Should we conclude that Christians are to no longer drink water? Hardly. Paul was telling Timothy to stop using water exclusively. Evidently, this young man was so concerned about his testimony (that he NOT be associated with the winebibbers) that he stopped drinking wine altogether. For the sake of testimony and association, he stopped mixing wine into his water – and as a result, he developed stomach problems. Paul had to urge him to use a little wine to purify his water – so as to prevent his stomach pain caused by the poor quality of the water.
In ancient times, water NEEDED this purification and sweetening. Hence, because wine was so widely used – and NEEDED – the Bible never said, “stop using wine altogether!” It was the ancient world’s medicine cabinet. It was their water purifier. It was their anesthesia for the dying. Obviously, God would not tell them never to touch wine! But God DID give some clear guidelines on HOW it was to be used. This answers the question, “If its wrong, why didn’t God just say, “Thou shalt not drink wine”?
There were legitimate usages for wine in Bible times. It was necessary. On the one hand, if used improperly, it was dangerous because one COULD get drunk on it and it was addicting. But on the other hand, it was necessary as a water purifier, medicine, and pain reliever.
Do those same needs exist today and is wine necessary today? No, they do not – at least not in America. We have safe water today, and 1001 other safe drinks. We have much more effective forms of painkillers and anesthesia. We have much better disinfectants for wounds. Today, wine, which for centuries was a dangerous but necessary beverage, is no longer necessary. However, it continues to be dangerous! (Even more so today.) The fact that the ancients used wine in Bible times is no reason to justify the Christian drinking it today.