No doubt you are familiar with the phrase “a drop in the bucket.” In the news recently you may have heard that the European Union has demanded $14.5 billion from Apple in repayment of taxes. USA Today reported that this is a “blow that… could sink many companies, but it’s a drop in the bucket for Apple… little more than a financial annoyance.”
The State Press, Arizonia State University’s independent student-run news publication, recently carried an article about how the world really isn’t as scary as we sometimes think it is. This piece noted that “In July 2016, Britain held a somber celebration remembering the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a battle that took place 100 years ago in World War I. On that day alone, 19,240 British men died. Of course, this was a proverbial bloody drop in the bucket in comparison to the 17 million total deaths that occurred by war’s end.”
A few months ago a Florida man was killed when his self-driving Tesla Model S failed to brake at a critical moment. The man who was “letting the car drive for him” (i.e. the driver) died when the $75,000 car crashed into a tractor-trailer. In response to the concerns expressed about the possible start of self-driving Uber vehicles, The American Genius, pointed out that “Statistically speaking, one death in the hundreds of thousands of miles that self-driving cars have covered is a drop in the bucket.”
I never really thought much about the origin of that phrase – it seems rather straight-forward – until earlier this week when Tim Challies pointed out in his blog that the phrase comes to us from the 40th chapter of Isaiah. This chapter which contains some of the best known words of Isaiah’s prophecy begins with God’s call to comfort his people:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (40:1-2)
This is then followed by several verses which Matthew later uses in his gospel to describe John the Baptist and his ministry:
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (40:3-5)
Isaiah then seeks to reassure God’s people – do not despair:
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever… (40:8)
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him…
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. (40:10-11)
And though it may seem that the strength of the nations of the world, the ones opposed to God and His people, is beyond compare, be assured, though God’s people may feel overwhelmed by the might of the nations, the truth is:
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales; (40:15)
It is important to see the difference between the original words in Isaiah 40:15 and the common phrase which has been derived from it. The original expression is not meant to focus on us (i.e. our contribution is too small to make a difference for it is just a drop in a bucket), but instead it is meant to focus our eyes on the greatness of our God before whom even the most impressive of the nations are nothing more than a drop of water from a bucket that falls back into the well as the bucket is filled – they are like dust on the scales of time that don’t even carry enough import to make the scales quiver in the least – God’s word stands and God’s people are safe like lambs in his arms.
To quote Paul (in the J.B. Phillips translation) In face of all this, what is there left to say? If God is for us, who can be against us? He that did not hesitate to spare his own Son but gave him up for us all—can we not trust such a God to give us, with him, everything else that we can need? (Romans 8:31-32).
SDG – Sola Deo Gloria – To God alone be the glory.