I love words. I love language. I love the Bible. I especially love it when these 3 friends meet. This happens often because the Bible—the King James Bible—played such a pivotal role in the development of English. Over the next little while I’m going to take a few Sundays to discuss some common English idioms that have their origin in the Bible. (Do I need to define idiom first? An idiom is an expression that has a meaning unrelated to the actual words that comprise it.)
A drop in the bucket, sometimes alternately rendered as a drop in the ocean, is “an insufficient or inconsequential amount in comparison with what is required.” A bucket (or an ocean) contains so many drops that the addition of one more makes no meaningful difference. So if a charity is fundraising for a new building and that building is going to cost $2 million, we might say that a $2 donation is a drop in the bucket—it is inconsequential when compared to the need. So when Italy sued Volkswagen for malfeasance after they lied about their cars’ emissions, the media reported that the $5.5 million fine was merely a drop in the bucket as it represented just 0.037 percent of the American settlement.
This phrase originates in Isaiah 40:15 and follows soon after some of the best-known words in all of Isaiah’s long prophecy—words you will recognize from the ministry of John the Baptist and, of course, from Handel’s Messiah:
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.”
Isaiah goes on to bring further comfort to God’s people by assuring them that God has not forgotten them, but will come to their rescue and tend to them. And then he says this:
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
God’s people may have felt intimidated by the mighty nations around them, but in the eyes of God, those nations were like a drop from a bucket. Notice that the original expression is “drop from a bucket” where we tend to say “drop in a bucket.” Apparently God’s concern was the loss of a drop rather than the gain of a drop, though this makes no difference to the meaning. The ESV Study Bible interprets the verse succinctly: “The nations of mankind may seem insurmountable to Israel, but they are as nothing to God.” John Oswalt says the passage implies this question: “What are the nations—so impressive in their glory, and earthshaking in their power? They are the drop of water falling back into the cistern as the bucket is pulled up, the speck of dust on the pan of the balance scales that does not even cause the scales to flutter. Both are ephemeral and neither is cause for a moment’s notice.”
We tend to use the expression “drop in a bucket” when we feel that our contribution is too small to make a difference—or perhaps, worse, when we feel that another person’s contribution is too small to make a difference. In this way it is an expression of hopelessness or pessimism. But in the hands of an almighty God, no contribution is meaningless—none is too big, none is too small. He is not bound by the limits of what we can offer. God is far more concerned with the state of our hearts than the magnitude of our contributions. See Mark 12:41-44.
When we use the expression in a way consistent with its origin we see that it is not meant to make us consider ourselves but our God. God’s people were so significant in his eyes that he comforted them with this declaration of power: Those other nations are like a drop from a bucket. No matter how difficult or intimidating the circumstances we face, they are but a drop from a bucket in the eyes of a sovereign God. They are but that minuscule drop that falls from the bucket and trickles back to the bottom of the well.
Finally, there is great comfort to be found in the context of the verse, and perhaps especially in the verses that immediately precede it (12-14):
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Perhaps you would do well to sing these words:
(This is a very nice, moody, alternate version of the song.)