Throughout Scripture, as in the ancient Near East, the cup functions as a metaphor for an individual's fate. In Psalm 16, the psalmist credits the Lord with assigning his "portion and cup" in life. Psalm 23 equates an abundant life with an overflowing cup, a potent image in a semiarid world. The culmination of the positive image of the cup is in Psalm 116. Here the psalmist raises the cup of salvation as a thank offering to God, in effect offering the sum of his life to his lord.
The metaphor of the cup, like life itself, can also be negative. In numerous prophetic works, the cup retains its role as a representative of fate, but on a national level. The cup can function as a cup of wrath, a vessel pouring out God's judgment on the nations. The nations drinking from the "cup of his wrath" are often depicted as lost in drunkenness. Isaiah 51:17 personifies Jerusalem as a woman who drained the cup of wrath to its dregs. God takes pity on his city and intervenes. "See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger … the goblet of my wrath" (v. 22). This cup is then given to the tormentors, indicating that they will suffer in their turn.
In a vision of destruction recorded by Jeremiah (25:15), God will force all the nations to drink from his cup and stagger to destruction. None are able to refuse it; all humanity will be judged and the wicked put to the sword. Ezekiel returns to the image of the cup of Jerusalem in a brutally explicit passage depicting Samaria and Jerusalem, representing the people of God, as two sisters who are prostitutes (chap. 23). The prophet calls the cup that Jerusalem drinks from the "cup of ruin and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria" (v. 33). For Ezekiel, the cup stands for the destruction of the two kingdoms.
Zechariah uses the image of the cup of wrath to depict the fate of the enemies of Jerusalem. He adds a twist to the metaphor by making Jerusalem itself the cup (12:2). The author of revelation returns to the dark image of the cup of wrath, threatening all who follow the beast with the wine of God's judgment (14:10).
For the church, the cup has come to represent the central events of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ returns to the fundamental meaning of the cup as a representative of fate. In his prayer, the cup symbolizes the pain, degradation, and death that will be required of him. He prays that the cup might pass undrunk, but it is Jesus' fate to drain it to its dregs. Christ becomes all the nations of the world, taking on their fate, and drains the cup of wrath. By drinking of the cup God placed before him, Christ transforms the cup of wrath into the cup of life. This transformation is foreshadowed at the last supper, where the cup of the new covenant, like the cup of wrath, is for all to partake of.
Thomas W. Davis
Bibliography. A. A. Anderson, Psalms; W. S. LaSor, D. A. Hubbard, and F. W. Bush, Old Testament Survey; C. S. Mann, Mark.