Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Cup of Wrath: A Recurring Biblical Theme of Divine Judgment and Atonement

There is in the Bible an interesting theme that comes up again and again. It's all about a cup. The cup is filled with the wrath of God, and for the most part the ones we're told to drink it will be "the nations."

"For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs." (Psalm 75:8)*

"Rouse yourself, rouse yourself! Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the cup of staggering. There is no one to guide her among all the children she has borne; there is no one to take her by the hand among all the children she has brought up. These two things have befallen you — who will grieve with you? — devastation and destruction, famine and sword. Who will comfort you? Your children have fainted; they lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net; they are full of the wrath of the Lord, the rebuke of your God. Therefore hear this, you who are wounded, who are drunk but not with wine: Thus says your Sovereign, the Lord, your God who pleads the cause of his people: See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; you shall drink no more from the cup of my wrath." (Isaiah 51:17-22)

"For thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it." (Jeremiah 25:15)

"...and they shall deal with you in hatred and take away all the fruit of your labor and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your prostitutions shall be exposed. Your lewdness and your prostitutions have brought this upon you, because you prostituted yourself with the nations and polluted yourself with their idols. You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. Thus says the Lord God: You shall drink your sister’s cup, deep and wide; it will bring scorn and derision; it holds so much. You shall be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. A cup of horror and desolation is the cup of your sister Samaria; you shall drink it and drain it out and gnaw its sherds and tear out your breasts, for I have spoken, says the Lord God. Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, therefore bear the consequences of your lewdness and prostitutions." (Ezekiel 23:29-35)

"You will be sated with contempt instead of glory. Drink, you yourself, and stagger! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory!" (Habakkuk 2:16)

The Book of Revelation in the New Testament carries on with this theme:

"...they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb." 
(Revelation 14:10)

"The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine cup of the fury of his wrath." (Revelation 16:19)

And yet, that's not all the Bible has to say about the cup. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark we find Jesus praying and talking about the cup that he will have to drink, referring to his suffering and death.

"And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want but what you want.'" (Matthew 26:39)

"But Jesus said to them, 'You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?'" (Mark 10:38)

"They went to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, 'Sit here while I pray.' He took with him Peter and James and John and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, 'My soul is deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.' And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, 'Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet not what I want but what you want.'" (Mark 14:32-36)

This has atonement theology baked right into it. While there's no one universally acceptable theory of atonement, with options ranging from substitutionary to ransom to representation and beyond, this certainly has to be one of the options. Jesus drinking the cup of God's wrath that was meant for the wicked nations. I don't think this is necessarily a variation on substitutionary atonement or one of the others, though it bears a similarity. The thought is that Jesus, in his torture and execution, will embody the wrath of God on the evil in the world. The weakness of authoritarian power is made manifest in his cross, as it demonstrates that only through bloodshed and violence that the Pax Romana is preserved. But it also displays God's own judgement on the nations in a very visible form. There is a Way of Peace, and there is the Pax Romana, and the two are not at all the same. 

*All Scripture quoted from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition.