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The Politics of Scripture

Wisdom Over Folly—Ephesians 5:15-20

Sometimes politics is less about the leaders and more about whether communities choose to live together in wisdom or folly.

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This passage is constructed as a series of imperatives, a series of commands. Do this. Don’t do that. Be like X, not like Y. Two ways of life are portrayed within the commands; understanding the implications of those ways of life can give us a way to understand how the commands are reasonable and not simply an arbitrary divine fiat.

Starting with verse 15, we are given a contrast which will frame all the subsequent pairings of commands and images: live as the wise and not as the unwise. Wisdom and folly provide the operating framework here, as they do for the book of Proverbs. Note especially here that the wisdom in question is related to one’s manner of living. The command is not simply to “be wise” in some static fashion, but to live as the wise.

Verse 16 begins to expand the vision, revealing the implications of what it means to live as the wise: we should “make the most of the time.” Some translations render this as “redeem the time,” which offers a host of interpretive possibilities; without getting caught up too much in this verse, it is important to note that there is one clear implication: we should not waste time. This is important as it relates to the image of drunkenness which we shall see in verse 18.

In verse 17, Paul presents an additional perspective on the contrast between wisdom and folly. The command is “do not be foolish”; in contrast, we are supposed to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” At this point, halfway through the passage, we know two things about what it is to live wisely: make the most of the time, and understand God’s will.

In a marvelous rhetorical flourish, we only know one thing about the opposite. Verse 15 urges “live…not as unwise;” verse 17 says “so do not be foolish…” All we know about folly is that it is not wise. To be unwise is to be foolish; the tautology is itself a foolish definition, one which embodies the circular and inarticulate vain repetition of the foolish life.

In verse 18, we have another contrast: do not get drunk, but rather be filled with the spirit. Where the description of drunkenness is dispatched quite quickly (drunkenness is debauchery), the meaning of being filled with the Spirit is magnificently expanded: It means “sing[ing]…among yourselves,” “singing…to the Lord,” and giving thanks—both “at all times” and “for everything.”

Reading this final parallel as the key to the passage reveals both the rationale for all the commands and offers insight into the project of how a community should live together. In short, drunkenness and the folly it embodies is the sort of thing which dissolves a community; music and thanksgiving can unite a people and cultivate the common good.

Since Proverbs is the most obvious place in Scripture where wisdom and folly are repeatedly contrasted, it is worth looking for instructive parallels there. One such passage is Proverbs 31:4-7:

4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
 it is not for kings to drink wine,
 or for rulers to desire[a] strong drink;
5 or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
 and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
6 Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
 and wine to those in bitter distress;
7 let them drink and forget their poverty,
 and remember their misery no more.

The first two verses indicate that kings, rulers, those who are in charge of justice, should not drink. On the other hand, it seems like strong drink might appropriate for the afflicted one; it certainly makes him forget his misery. A clear consequence of wine, and presumably in quantity, is forgetfulness; although this might be good if the thing forgotten is bitter distress and misery, it is clearly bad if law and justice are lost from mind.

Paul also describes being drunk with wine as a kind of “debauchery;” the Greek word is used by Plato in his Republic and Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, and in both cases it is used to describe someone who is characterized by wastefulness and who is out of control. Aristotle says that such a one is good at spending but not at taking (1107b.10), and Plato links it with unleashing unnecessary and harmful desires as well as with anarchy (560e). In this sense, drunkenness is a species of ingratitude. The debauched attitude of a drunk treats the world with an entitled attitude rather than with care and responsible stewardship.

Drunkenness is also connected in biblical imagery with stumbling (Psalm 107:27, Job 12:25) and with laziness (Proverbs 23:21). Drunkenness separates the mind from the body so that the two do not work in concert anymore. A drunk person’s mind does not receive information from his senses as readily as a sober person’s would, and his body does not react to the promptings of his will or reason as promptly as the limbs of a sober person react.

Drunkenness is also isolating. Even when drinking takes place in a communal setting, the more one drinks the less one is able to accurately perceive one’s self or others. Drunk people are notoriously bad at recognizing personal space, for example; a drunk person has a hard time reading social cues provided by the people nearby, and the drunk person’s world is increasingly reduced to an environment in which his are the only desires of which he is aware.

Drunkenness is a forgetful, uncontrolled, dissociated state. Instead of being drunk, Paul says, we should sing and give thanks. The first specific injunction he gives in contrast to drunkenness is to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves…” While singing can at times be a solitary activity, Paul encourages us to sing together and to each other.

In many ways, singing really is the opposite of drunkenness. Singing requires heightened awareness, and the practice of singing cultivates that awareness between singers. An individual chorister who chooses to sing faster or slower than the choir as a whole can ruin the music not just for himself but for everybody.

Singing unites the mind and body. There are too many modern scientific studies to count (see how many are cited, for example, in this meta-study) detailing the way that singing uses both halves of the brain together. To sing even reasonably well requires good posture, good breath control, and the full use of your senses as you attend to the voices of those with whom you are making melody.

Singing also enables memory. Any person who has had to alphabetize anything has probably found themselves humming the ABC song at some point. The portions of the Bible which are familiar from Handel’s Messiah are more easily recalled in full than those which have never been set to music. It is much easier to remember the differences between the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed (which one says “at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” again?) when the words are sung than when they are said.

Over and over again, scripture links memory also to gratitude for the saving work of God. The children of Israel were supposed to remember the Exodus in the Passover feast, for example. The singing which Paul encourages also inculcates gratitude. He says that we should “sing…giving thanks…” in all times and for all things.

Returning again to the verses from Proverbs 31, it was especially important in those verses that rulers and judges remain sober lest they forget the law. This makes especially clear the correspondence between sobriety and justice, which is a species of responsibility for the common good. When Paul writes in Ephesians that we are not to be drunk, one implication is that we have important responsibilities which we should not forget, responsibilities for the good of our community.

We can live ungratefully, foolishly, and drunkenly even if we never touch a drop of alcohol—but make no mistake, the image of drunkenness is not in vain. We can choose to live in gratitude even if we cannot carry a tune in a bucket—but make no mistake, the image of singing is not in vain.

The intersection of politics with theology is not always about the way scripture speaks to those who are in high positions of power. Politics is about the life of a community of people dwelling together for the common good. This passage highlights the ways in which the conduct of our everyday life can build up or tear down the polis in which we find ourselves.

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