All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deservings. – Shakespeare, King Lear, 5.3
William Shakespeare wrote the tragedy King Lear sometime between 1603 and 1606, just as the Church of England was translating the King James Bible (published 1611) to replace earlier versions. The declaration above, by the fictitious Duke of Albany, is itself almost biblical, reminding us of that famous verse concerning the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). Literary theorists have established the influence of the Bible upon Shakespeare’s work, and with this fictive quote we can see as well how the Bard employed the motif of the cup previously established in Scripture.
The cup (also translated from Hebrew as bowl, goblet, basin, or chalice) makes its first appearance in the full-orbed story of Joseph, a young man sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. While in prison, Joseph correctly interpreted the dream of his cellmate, the disgraced royal cupbearer, who fulfilled the dream-prophecy by once again taking up his duties; two years later Joseph himself was released by Pharaoh (Gen. 40:1-4, Gen. 40: 21-23; Gen. 41:14). Joseph rose in stature as a powerful government official overseeing Egypt’s crop production and distribution in a time of widespread famine. When his family arrived from neighbouring Canaan pleading for aid, he ensured their return to Egypt by planting his own silver cup in their belongings (Gen. 44:1-17).
A cup design was integrated into sacred articles used for worship in the Tabernacle and in Solomon’s Temple, including the golden lampstand and the huge basin holding thousands of gallons of water for use in the courtyard (Exod. 37:17-20; 1 Kings 7:48-50; 2 Chron. 4:4-5). King Solomon’s world-renowned wisdom and wealth left the visiting Queen of Sheba breathless as she noted the excellence even of his cupbearers (2 Chron. 9:1-4). This esteemed position of “poison taster” for the king next comes up in the account of Nehemiah: Solomon (who began his reign so well) fell into pagan worship, which eventually resulted in God’s judgment of Israel and the seventy-year Babylonian captivity of the Jews. During this oppression, the slave Nehemiah (later the rebuilder of Jerusalem’s walls) served as the personal cupbearer of the king of Persia (Neh. 1:11). We can see an interesting progression of the cup’s use—from its sanctity as a vessel of worship to its chastisement as an instrument of humiliation.
The Psalmist further carried this juxtaposition between the cup of joy and the cup of judgment:
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot . . . You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows . . . Let [God] rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup . . . but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs. (Ps. 16:5; Ps. 23:5; Ps. 11:6; Ps. 75:7-8 ESV)
The remaining Old Testament references to the cup all speak of God’s judgment regarding Israel’s cycle of idolatry and repentance, the nation forced to drink God’s “cup of wrath and staggering” or delivered from drinking it by His grace (Isa. 65:11; Isa. 51:17-22). God used the metaphor of the cup through His prophet Jeremiah as an object lesson: His divine punishment was meted out to His people through military conquests by His enemy, who came to be typified as “Babylon”—a golden cup of drunken madness in the Lord’s hand from which the whole earth would someday be forced to drink (Jer. 25:15-17; Jer. 25:28; Jer. 51:7). After the siege of Jerusalem (588-586 B.C.), the author of Lamentations mourned the city’s fate and called for vindication against her enemy (Babylon)—God’s enemy, who will one day drink of the bitter cup of His judgment (Lam. 4:21). Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Zechariah all spoke of the horror, shame, and desolation of this judgment (Ezek. 23:31-33; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). Their language is echoed again in Revelation, a future time in which the “wine of God’s wrath” will be “poured into the cup of His anger” against Babylon—that is, against all false religion in the world (Rev. 14:10; Rev. 16:19; Rev. 17:4; Rev. 18:6).
But judgment is mitigated by grace, and in the New Testament Jesus used the image of the cup to teach about His mercy and substitutionary suffering on our behalf. He spoke of the reward due those who give just a cup of cold water to His children—that is, to the lowliest of His disciples (Matt. 10:42; Mark 9:41). He described the religious leaders of the day as hypocrites, cups clean on the outside but filthy within (Matt. 23:25-26). When James and John wanted spiritual favours in His kingdom, Jesus reminded them of the cup of suffering and death they would face, but only after He Himself faced a much greater, unique passion—the cup of God’s wrath He voluntarily drank on our behalf (Matt. 20:22-23; Matt. 26:39; John 18:11).
But before Jesus died, at the celebration of the Last Supper He gave deeper meaning to the cup by identifying it with the New Covenant, salvation through His blood:
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:17-20).
The Passover celebration being held at that same moment in homes throughout Jerusalem featured a meal full of symbolism, each element of food and drink representing a different aspect of God’s salvation of His people. Four cups of wine would be passed among family members at different junctures in the meal to commemorate God’s promises—the first cup of sanctification (He would deliver Israel from the burdens of Egypt), the second cup of plagues (deliverance from bondage), the third cup of redemption (by God’s outstretched arm), and the fourth cup of consummation (God’s promise to take a people for Himself; Exod. 6:6-7). With His disciples in the upper room, Jesus (according to some commentators) drank the third cup of redemption, followed by His promise that He would not drink again until He drank with them (and us!) in Heaven, likely referring to the fourth cup of consummation still awaiting fulfillment.
Meanwhile, as we await the return of the One who holds the eternal cup of salvation, we believers drink from the cup of blessing rather than of demons—we serve only one Master (1 Cor. 10:16; 1 Cor. 10:21). We celebrate our own “Passover”—the memory of Christ’s death and resurrection and future return—with the chalice of Communion (1 Cor. 11:25-28).
The biblical motif of the cup runs through Scripture and symbolizes both judgment and grace, both punishment and forgiveness. Shakespeare’s declaration is mitigated for us; in fact, we do not sip from the “cup of our deservings” but rather from the grace-filled cup of Christ’s propitiation.