There are two cups: the Cup of Salvation (Ps. 116:13) and the Cup of Wrath (Is. 51:17). And if you will not drink from the first, you will drink from the second.
The Cup of Salvation brims with wine of the lees, well-refined. Engraved on its golden face are the words: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.” The wine of this cup is sweet to the taste, aged from eternity. It is the wine that we buy without money and without price; not thereby free, but purchased by another. The Lord held out this chalice to his people Israel and said, “Drink of it, all of you. Here is forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, and I give it to you freely according to my steadfast love.”
But not all drank from that cup. Indeed, we see two things worthy of lamentation: most of the people refused it, and those who refused it had once tasted it. The people forsook the Lord en masse, not necessarily because they hated the Lord and his Word; they simply loved other things more. In particular, they loved Other gods. They passed on the first cup, or rather ceased to drink from it. The taste of the Lord’s Word had become stale in their mouths, which says much more about their tastes than it does about his Word.
The sons of Israel saw the beverages that the nations around them drank: red wine that sparkled in the cup and went down smoothly. And they said, “I’ll have what he’s having.” They slid the overflowing chalice of the Lord down to Baal the Barkeep for disposal and ordered up a draught of idolatry. But the wine list is not as extensive as the devil and the world would have mankind believe. There are but two cups. Israel turned from the first, and there remained only the second.
The Cup of Wrath is filled with fire and sulfur and a scorching wind. It is a cup of horror and desolation, a cup of staggering and drunkenness and sorrow. Etched on its rocky bowl are the words: “Have it your way.” The wine of this goblet burns the throat and turns the stomach. It delivers its drunkard into the hands of idols. This cup is discipline from the Lord. It is meant to impress the harm and folly of idolatry into the heart of man, that tasting in sips we would learn that Other gods will only dehumanize us and then kill us. And if man in his perversity develops a taste for this second cup, then he will drink it world without end and learn too late that he fell in love with death.
Judges 2:11 And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh, and they served the Baals. 12 And they forsook Yahweh, the God of their fathers, who brought them out from the land of Egypt. And they went after other gods from the gods of the peoples around them, and they bowed down to them, and they provoked Yahweh to anger. 13 And they forsook Yahweh, and they served Baal and Ashtaroth.
With these words, the cycle of the book of Judges introduces itself. This cycle happens six times, and it follows these four stages: 1) The sons of Israel do what is evil in the eyes of the Lord, 2) The Lord sells them into the hand of plunderers, 3) The people cry out to the Lord, 4) The Lord raises up a judge, who saves the people from their enemies.
You can see the six cycles on the graphic. The vertical dark gray line represents the entire length of the book of Judges. The six colored blocks are the six cycles, with the name of the corresponding judge next to each. There’s a Prologue, which I’ve called “Israel’s Unfaithfulness.” This is the section in which we now find ourselves. In the middle there’s something of an aside, flowing from the account of Gideon. Finally, there’s a Conclusion; I’ve called it “The Bottom.” But the majority of the book is composed of the six cycles of the judges.
The first and fourth accounts begin with the words, “The sons of Israel did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The second, third, fifth, and sixth cycles begin, “The sons of Israel again did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” And we’ve just heard what this “evil” is. What is evil in the eyes of the Lord is to forsake him who saved us, and serve gods who enslave and harm us. What is evil in the eyes of the Lord is to refuse the Cup of Salvation and prefer instead the Cup of Wrath.
14 And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he gave them into the hand of plunderers, and they plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their enemies round about, and they were no longer able to stand before their enemies. 15 Whenever they went out the hand of Yahweh was against them for harm, just as Yahweh had spoken and just as Yahweh had sworn to them.
In the second stage of the cycle, the Lord gives Israel to drink from that Cup of Wrath. He gives them a measured dose of “have it your way.” And this is merciful on his part. He doesn’t destroy his people outright, but lets them see the consequences of their sins before it’s too late to turn back to him. It is the steadfast love of the Lord that says, “If you don’t want me, then here’s what it’s like having an Other god. Your Other god will hurt you, and bring you ruin. It will whip you, and steal from you, and corrupt you in its image, and demand homage and tribute from you, and you will bow down to the dust. And in that moment, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember that I formed you from the dust in my image, that I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
And they were sorely distressed.
In the third stage, Israel remembers and cries out to the Lord in their distress. This verse in the overview of the cycle’s stages does not mention the fervent plea, though the “groaning” comes up in verse 18, and it’s clear from the six cycles themselves that the cry for help should be understood in this verse.
Here the people come to their senses. It is like the young son in Luke 15 who demanded his inheritance and went off to drink the fine wines of the world. His Other gods failed him. Famine came. He hired himself out to feed pigs. So great was his distress that he longed to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. Other gods never give; they only take.
But then he came to himself. “What am I doing? Even my father’s slaves have it better than this.” The famine had served well: Mammon failed, and the son fled back to his father. And this was the father’s purpose in handing his son over to Mammon for a time: to make him shun and despise the idol, and to make him see how great his father is in comparison.
16 But Yahweh raised up judges, and they saved them from the hand of their plunderers.
This fourth stage is the answer to prayer. The Lord has mercy on his people, he is grieved by their groaning, and he raises up a judge. The word “judge” here will naturally make us think of a courtroom. Deborah was a judge in this sense (Judg. 4:5), and we might assume that all the judges were. But the title of “Judge” in the book of Judges has more the sense of carrying out the judgment that the Lord has decreed (at least this is the aspect of the office that receives the attention). The judges are not so much clothed in black robes and carrying gavels, as they are clothed in black hoods and carrying axes. They are the executioners of the Lord’s judgment, doing their main work in battle.
The six cycles of the judges progress along two lines. In each consecutive cycle, we get a clearer and clearer shadow of Christ. And in each cycle, the same people who are those shadows progressively become worse and worse sinners (at least according to the details we’re given). Or in other words, as we get more details about the Ultimate Judge, we see less worthiness in the persons of the human judges.
17 And yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods, and they bowed down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way that their fathers walked, who listened to the commandments of Yahweh; they did not do so. 18 But when Yahweh raised up judges for them, Yahweh was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for Yahweh was grieved by their groaning because of their invaders and oppressors. 19 But it happened when the judge died that they turned aside and dealt more ruinously than their fathers: going after other gods, serving them, and bowing down to them. They did not drop their deeds, nor their obstinate way.
The judges and saviors could not force the sons of Israel to prefer the Cup of Salvation over the Cup of Wrath. The judges did what they were given to do. They saved the people, they gave them to drink from the right cup. But it seems the people only liked the Cup of Salvation insofar as they liked the person of the judge, or felt indebted to him. When the judge died, back the people went to their other cup. The dog returns to its own vomit; the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire; the fool repeats his folly.
The Lord holds out the Cup of Salvation to his people: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Here is eternal life in liquid form, the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death. Christ paid for it dearly. He drained the Cup of Wrath, and like a cluster of grapes in a winepress, his lifeblood was squeezed out of him. And now he lives and freely gives his blood to pardon sin. And what can we say but the words of the psalmist, “I will lift up the Cup of Salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:13)?
But Christ’s people continue to have a sick craving for the poison of idols. Our covetous flesh leers at our neighbor and says, “I’ll have what he’s having.” We look with jealousy at those who worship Other gods: “I want stuff, I want pleasure, I want happiness, I want free course for my passions, I want worldly success, power, prestige.”
Do we envy our neighbor’s death, that we so fervently desire his gods? Do we begrudge him his slavery? Do we enjoy the taste of misery and gall? Because the Lord will give it to us. In his compassion, he will give us what we desire. He will tip the Cup of Wrath and offer a swig of liquid perdition. He will pour it burning down our throats, not with the aim of destruction, but with the aim of repentance.
It is a great mercy that the Lord not only makes the Cup of Salvation taste so good, but that he also makes the Cup of Wrath taste so bad, and does not refuse it to us when we insist on having some. We have a loving Father who disciplines us, who does not hate us by withholding his rod.
Sometimes God’s people go after Other gods. He tries to call them back by his Word. He holds forth the Cup of Salvation and says, “This is the Cup for you.” And there are times his people will have none of it. They depart ruinously.
And is it not a great consolation that God has not exhausted his means at this point? Certainly, if people won’t have the Means of Grace – namely, the Word and Sacraments – they aren’t going to find grace elsewhere. But beyond the Means of Grace, the Lord has what we might call the Means of Wrath, that is, affliction at the hands of an Other god.
This Means of Wrath does not save. It simply shows idols for what they are. The Means of Wrath rips the masks from the ugly faces of the things we so perversely love and lets us experience their true nature.
For example, a man stops coming to church. Phone calls and visits from the pastor accomplish nothing. He says he knows he needs to get back, but it’s clear he’s consumed by Other gods. He has many diverse tastes that are ultimately only one taste: a taste for the wrong cup.
Months pass. There’s no contact. Then one morning he shows up to Divine Service.
He staggers in with clear and wild eyes that have seen something they wish they could un-see. He looks weary, haggard. He seeks out the pastor and briefly relates the horror of the Other gods. He has suffered greatly.
But he takes his place, and the service begins, and with moist eyes and broken voice he confesses his sins. The Absolution has never sounded sweeter. The Gospel brings with it joy that he had forgotten. He hangs on every word of the readings and the sermon. And he drinks deeply from the Cup of Salvation.
There are two cups: the Cup of Salvation and the Cup of Wrath. And if you will not drink from the first, you will drink from the second. But both cups are the Lord’s cups. He uses them for your good, and with his Means of Wrath he intends to return you to his Means of Grace.
Sometimes, as in the book of Judges, people develop a taste for idols and their deadly trappings. This is an unfortunate consequence of giving man to drink from the Cup of Wrath: occasionally man ends up craving it and loving idols all the more. But what’s the alternative? Never let man see that idols are worthless and fraught with damnation? Lord, have mercy! And so the Lord makes the nature and end of idols clear to us by giving us over to them if we should forsake him. If we never wish to return from the “care” of those idols, that’s a result of our sin, not a consequence of his mercy.
But how do we avoid becoming like Israel? How do we avoid falling in love with the pallid faces of idols? By receiving the Cup of Salvation, even when it seems stale to us. We go to Divine Service, we read the Word in our homes. If it seems monotonous, the problem is with us; and knowing that is more than half the battle, I daresay. But the Cup of Salvation has a way of impressing itself on us. The Gospel is sweet; that’s simply its nature. So we take and drink the Cup of Salvation and gladly receive the Means of Grace. And we pray, both that we would never suffer the Means of Wrath, and that our Lord would not withhold it from us if (God forbid!) we forsake him.
Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn out her seven columns.
She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine,
Yea, she has spread her table.
She has sent her maidens. She cries out
Upon the elevated heights of the town,
“Who is simple? Let him turn hither!”
To him who lacks sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread,
And drink of the wine I have mixed!
“Forsake the simple and live,
And tread in the way of understanding!”