Honey. Smooth, golden, viscous and, of course, sweet. Biblically, it represents rich, indulgent, high-calorie food. A careful study of honey in the Bible yields great insights about how we should eat. The purpose of this article is to articulate those insights. Let us begin.
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.Proverbs 25:16
This proverb has to do with gluttony. Gluttony is eating too much. But how much is too much? According to this verse, we can define “too much” as 1) more than you need, or 2) so much that it makes you sick. Let us consider each.
What does it mean to eat more than you need? The simplest answer is eating at a caloric excess. Eating at a caloric excess means consuming more calories than you burn. If eating at a caloric excess is eating more than you need, and if eating more than you need is gluttony, then eating at a caloric excess is technically gluttony.
An exception to this rule would be feasting. Feasting is not only allowed, but commanded by God (Numbers 28, 29; Deuteronomy 16). Times of celebration rightfully involve feasting, and that is probably going to involve eating at a caloric excess. God also expects us to fast (Matthew 6:16-17). Fasting obviously produces a caloric deficit (burning more calories than you consume). If you feast at the proper time and fast at the proper time, you will likely break even with your calories.
If you are overweight, you have probably eaten at a caloric excess for an extended period of time. In this case, you need to eat at a caloric deficit. With less energy coming from food, your body will burn fat for energy, and you will eventually return to a healthy weight. Simply breaking even could be considered gluttonous if you have eaten at a caloric excess for a long time.
Many will find that harsh, but that is only because we think of food differently than other things. Think of it in terms of money. If you overspend long enough, you will accrue debt. You can stop accruing debt by only spending as much as you earn. But you can only get out of debt by spending less than you earn and using the rest to pay off the debt. If you are overweight, you have accrued a debt to your body. A period of restriction will restore balance.
Of course, some people can eat a whole lot of calories and never gain weight. Such people are at the highest risk of being gluttonous, just as a rich man is at the highest risk of overspending. Gluttony, like greed, is not ultimately a question of numbers, but of the heart. But more on that later.
What does it mean to eat until you are sick? You can eat so much at once that your body rejects the food by vomiting. That is certainly gluttonous. But what if you extend the time frame past a single meal? What if you eat so much that it makes you sick over the span of a week, a month, a year, or ten years, or fifty years? Could we consider that gluttonous as well?
In the United States, the most common and fatal chronic diseases are made more likely or actually caused by poor metabolic health. Poor metabolic health is largely attributable to eating at a caloric excess. Though few of us eat so much at once as to vomit it up then and there, many of us are eating enough to make ourselves sick.
About two thirds of Americans are overweight, and about one third are obese. If eating at a caloric excess makes us overweight, and if eating at caloric excess is gluttonous, then we are a very gluttonous country indeed. Insofar as gluttony is defined as eating ourselves sick, it is clear once again that we are a deeply gluttonous country. Given the biblical teaching on gluttony, these statistics should not hold true among Christians. And yet, several studies show that obesity is even worse in churches.
It is long past time that pastors and churches began taking the sin of gluttony seriously. It’s not only killing our testimony, it’s killing us.
“One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.”Proverbs 27:7
Tilly Dillehay, in her book Broken Bread, defines gluttony as eating “beyond satiation and true enjoyment.” We have dealt with the issue of satiation, but what about enjoyment?
When we are eating, there is a point of diminishing returns in regard to enjoyment. The first bite is delicious; the second bite may be even better. But by the fifteenth bite, you’re hardly aware of the food. Next thing you know, you have eaten so much that even something as delicious as honey is loathesome to you. Why do we do this?
The Hebrew word for gluttony is “zalal.” Gluttony is the figurative use of the word. Literally, zalal means “to shake or quake.” What does that have to do with eating too much? Think of it in the context of shaking a bag of seed over the soil so that you spill an excessive amount of it. It is an undervaluing of something that leads to excessive use. There is an insight about gluttony in that.
It is not that gluttons value food too much. It is that they value it too little. You may think quite the contrary that, far from undervaluing food, the glutton idolizes it. But the two are not mutually exclusive.
To idolize something is to put it in the place of God. If you do that, the fact that whatever it is that you’re idolizing is not God is going to become apparent very quickly. If you put something unworthy in God’s place, all it can ever do is disappoint you. The only way to fully value something like food is to see it as it really is–not a god, but a gift from God.
If you look for fulfillment in a slice of cheesecake, you’re not going to get it. So what do you do? Get another slice, of course! And again and again and again, hoping that this next serving will bring satisfaction. You eat until you are miserable, further away from fulfillment than you were before you sat down. You’ve been gluttonous. If you supplant God with food, you will always leave with stomach bulging and heart empty.
But if you approach food with priorities straight, you regard it as a precious gift. You give thanks. You taste and enjoy it deliberately, out of respect for the Giver. You savor it, stopping when you’ve had enough and while you still enjoy it.
My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.Proverbs 24:13
Asceticism is the belief that spiritual well-being is found in the denial of pleasure. It has worked its way into many religions and spiritualities, including Christianity. Paul criticizes asceticism in his letter to the Colossians:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind. . . These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.Colossians 2:18, 23
Paul rebuked asceticism explicitly. But long before, the book of Proverbs did so implicitly.
My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.Proverbs 24:13
What does this mean? The sweetness of honey is itself a good enough reason to eat it. Put another way, it is okay to eat something just because it tastes good.
This may be hard to accept, for fear that it leads to the gratification of the flesh. But pleasure itself is not the same as the gratification of the flesh. God intends that we experience pleasure, even the so-called “lower” pleasure of food.
The deliciousness of food is not a mistake, but it is the gift of God. As a loving Father gives to His children, God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). We abuse the gift when we love it more than the Giver, but we insult the Giver when we refuse to enjoy the gift.
Feast on the Word
How do we stop being gluttonous? How do we not devolve into asceticism? My answer is this: Feast on the Word.
We often use “The Word” to mean the Bible. The Bible is the Word, but the Word is much more than the Bible. The Word is Christ Himself.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.John 1:1
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.John 1:14
To feast on the Word is to feast on Christ. Jesus called Himself the bread of life (John 6:51), and our consumption of that living bread is symbolized in the Eucharist (Matthew 26:26). He is our spiritual sustenance. But food is more than just sustenance. It is an object of delight. This is where honey reenters the conversation.
When Jesus likened Himself to bread, He referred specifically to manna (John 6:32-33). As God sent Christ from Heaven to be broken like bread for us, God sent manna from Heaven to the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. The Bible says the taste of this manna was “like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31).
So Christ, the Word made flesh, strengthens us like bread and delights us like honey! There are other iterations of the Word which are described as being sweet as honey.
And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.’Ezekiel 3:3
The same image appears in Revelation:
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, ‘Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.’Revelation 10:9
Hear how the Psalmist describes his experience of the law (another iteration of the Word):
[T]he rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.Psalm 19:9b-10
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!Psalm 119:103
God has laid a feast before us, and that feast is His very Self. If we are not on a steady diet of the Word, then we will come to crave lesser things. One of those lesser things is food. The only path out of the various sins of consumption is through the consumption of the Word. Not the reluctant consumption of bland, yet nutritious vegetables, but the joyful consumption of sweet Honey.
What have we learned on our journey through the Bible with honey?
Eat only what you need, not so much that you make yourself sick. Do not be afraid to enjoy sweets. Seek first that Bread that came from Heaven, and you will know what to do with the bread on your plate.
These lessons not only inform how we ought to eat, but how we ought to live in a world that is passing away. “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Corinthians 6:13). But what is done to the glory of God will last for eternity. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).