Filled to Overflowing
What is the cup of the Lord?
The cup of the Lord is a metaphor for literal cups used in ancient times from which to drink or to poison one’s enemies. In most cases drinking together from a cup was an expression of fellowship and kindness. These images are used in the Bible to express different ideas.
1. Cup of God’s Blessings:
The Lord prepared for the psalmist a fellowship meal during which he exclaims, “My cup runs over” (Ps. 23:5). The reference is probably to the abundance of God’s blessings he received. In fact, there is such a thing as a “cup of salvation” that contains the divine provision of salvation for the righteous (Ps. 116:13). The Israelites probably proclaimed God’s salvation during a fellowship meal in the Temple by drinking from the cup of the Lord in His presence. The connection between the cup and God’s blessing leads the psalmist to equate the cup with the One from whom all blessings flow (Ps. 16:5). A utensil used daily to imbibe water and juice, manifestations of God’s blessings, is transformed into a reminder of the constant provision of blessings and salvation for God’s people. In that sense every cup in Israel became a “cup of the Lord.”
2. The Cup of God’s Wrath:
The opposite of the cup of salvation is “the cup of His [God’s] fury” (Isa. 51:17). In some cases only the term cup is used, followed by the negative consequences of drinking from it (Jer. 49:12; Lam. 4:21; Eze. 23:31-33). This cup is in God’s hand (Jer. 25:17, 18) or in His right hand (Hab. 2:16). The effects of drinking from the cup are illustrated by using the behavior of a drunkard, but they go way beyond it: “They will . . . stagger and go mad” (Jer. 25:16); they will remove their clothes (a symbol of shamefulness [Lam. 4:21]); and they will vomit and fall to rise no more (Jer. 25:27). The cup of the Lord’s wrath becomes a symbol of His final executive judgment against the wicked. It is a cup “of horror and desolation” (Eze. 23:33) and brings “scorn” and “derision” (verse 32). For the wicked, “the portion of their cup” will be “a burning wind” accompanied by “fire and brimstone” (Ps. 11:6). Sinners in Samaria and Judah (Eze. 23:31-33) will have to drink from it as will all the nations of the earth (Jer. 25:17-26). Drinking from the cup of God’s wrath is a symbol of universal judgment.
3. Origin and Significance of the Metaphor:
Why did the Lord use the image of a cup to refer to His judgment against sin? Perhaps we find it in the development of the ritual or ordeal of a woman suspected of adultery by her husband (Num. 5:11-31). In the absence of evidence to support the suspicion, she was taken to the Temple, where the priest prepared a potion, placed it in a cup, and gave it to her to drink. By her drinking from it the Lord would reveal her innocence or guilt. Only the Lord knew the facts, and He made them known through the results of drinking from the cup. In the case of the cup of God’s wrath, those who drink from it are already guilty, and by drinking they receive God’s judgment against them. The cup is not an instrument to determine who is guilty or innocent; it is a symbol of God’s universal, executive judgment against the guilty. The cup contains the divine verdict against sinners. It is in God’s hands, and He gives it to sinners and commands them to drink from it (Jer. 25:15). Drinking is compulsory, but at the same time people are to drink voluntarily from it. If they refuse to drink, the prophet tells them, “You shall certainly drink!” (verse 28). Somehow they are persuaded to drink from it!
Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath when He took upon Himself the divine judgment against sin (Matt. 26:39). Consequently, He made it possible for us to drink from the cup of salvation of the new covenant (verses 27, 28). He took the condemnation that was ours in order for us to enjoy what was His: the cup of salvation. This is specifically memorialized in the service of the Lord’s Supper.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez was director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference before retiring to Texas, United States.