What Does it Mean That the 'Nations Are Like a Drop in the Bucket'?

Hope isn’t a little eyedropper trying to fill a bucket. Hope is like taking a bucket into the ocean of God’s greatness. When it comes to God’s unmatchable, bottomless, inexhaustible love and grace, and goodness…you’ll fill that bucket in no time.

Borrowed Light
Updated Feb 06, 2023
What Does it Mean That the 'Nations Are Like a Drop in the Bucket'?

I’m a fan of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. They are historically awful. Occasionally, they will have a winning season or two and then about eight consecutive losing seasons.

A couple of years back, they made a big trade. When I was discussing this trade with a fellow cynical Royals fan, he said, “It’s like a drop in the bucket.”

I thought I understood the phrase, I had heard it before, but I decided to look it up. I’m kind of a nerd who loves to study etymology (how words get their origins). I was kind of surprised to discover that this phrase actually comes from the Bible.

Isaiah 40:15 says this: “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.”

But what does that phrase mean? What is Isaiah 40:15 teaching us about God?

What Does ‘A Drop in the Bucket’ Mean?

You have a large five-gallon bucket. And you are tasked with filling the bucket. But you have to do it with a water dropper.

How discouraged are you going to be once that first drop hits the bottom of the bucket, and you can barely discern its impact? It’s such an inconsequential amount compared to what is required.

A drop in the bucket, then, means that something is insufficient or insignificant when compared to the task at hand.

What Is the Context of Isaiah 40:15?

Isaiah 40 is such an interesting chapter of the Bible. It’s a jarring hope. Isaiah 39 ends with doom and gloom for the nation that is to be judged — but Isaiah here in chapter 40 leaves some breadcrumbs that will be sweet morsels for the exilic generation.

We can start the story in Deuteronomy 28. It’s not a rosy passage of Scripture. It’s a section of the Bible that is filled with curses. This is a little sample:

And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known (Deuteronomy 28:64).

If you want to know what it would feel like to be living in the midst of those curses, give Psalm 88 a quick read. But this is about more than feelings.

They aren’t just feeling cursed, and they are cursed. This is what their foolish and disobedient hearts requested, and now they are living in the reality of a painful exile.

But Isaiah is writing to those who are on the precipice of hope. The years of a curse are over, and they are transitioning into a season of blessing. But when you’ve been sitting in dust all these years, how can you have hope? What happens when you feel too broken for redemption?

Ever feel that way? Ever think that is your reality? Maybe it’s because of your own sin. Maybe it’s because of all the stuff that’s happened to you. Is it even possible to get back up? It’s in that dark climate that Isaiah 40 enters into our story.

It is written to a cursed people who had turned their backs on God. This isn’t a message to a people who have changed, who’ve pulled themselves up from the muck and mire and now only need a little help from God.

No, this is a message to a people who have abandoned God, who are paying the consequences of their rebellion, and who are still covered in yuck.

But now, in Isaiah 40, God says, “Comfort, comfort…”

It’s a jarring hope. And when you are trying to proclaim hope to such a people there are a few big questions that hang over such a declaration. First, has sin become so great that even God cannot forgive and restore and rebuild and redeem?

And secondly, has the plan of God been defeated by the powerful Babylonians? Are these broken people so far gone, so far in the grasp of Babylon, that they can never again be reclaimed as God’s people?

Isaiah 40:15 is part of God’s answer to those pressing questions to a people who are trying to find hope.

How Does Isaiah 40:15 Encourage Us?

Do you see yet how this picture of a drop in the bucket is an answer to their problem? They believe that Babylon is incredibly powerful. There is no way that little Israel can be free from their clutches. Nobody can stop Babylon. They are too powerful, and we’re too broken.

You’ve been there, haven’t you? Sin has seemed too enticing. Addictions are too powerful. The brokenness around you too pressing. The pain is too thick. Hope seems too far away, like a distant dream. You’re too jaded to even start walking toward the beautiful things.

What Isaiah 40:15 is telling us is that Babylon is like a drop in the bucket compared to the greatness of God. Go back to our eyedropper attempting to fill a five-gallon bucket.

It doesn’t even make a dent. It’s insignificant in comparison. This is what God is saying about the nations that have control over Israel. They are as nothing to Him.

Isaiah reminds the broken-down Israelites of the greatness of God. And he invites them into hope. Comfort, comfort.

In Isaiah 40, there are two ways to respond to this message of hope. The first is in Isaiah 40:27, “My way is hidden from the Lord.” The tense of this is a settled disposition. It’s like saying, “My prayers never get answered. God never hears me. He has closed His ears to me!”

Also, part of this response is to say, “My right is disregard by my God.” What does that mean? It means that you have a case that you really need a judge to hear, you need justice, but it keeps getting thrown out of court. In other words, it is saying that God doesn’t care about your plight. This is in the ongoing tense. It is a belief that God is settled in his lack of hearing but is actively refusing to hear their case.

That’s a horrible place to be. But it’s often what happens when we’ve lived through the cursed years. There are days we might hear the promises of God and respond with a pitiful “meh.” It’s because our hope is crushed.

The second response is to have the audacity to hope. That is what Isaiah 40:28 invites, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” It’s a cry to remember.

To once again be reminded of the greatness and the character of God. To believe the truth of Isaiah 40:15 about the vastness of God and the inconsequential size of our problems.

It’s capped off in Isaiah 40:31, “…they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength.” That is the second response, wait and hope. Believe that God is going to respond. And there is something about hope. It tends to grow when we hope into the right things.

Hope isn’t a little eyedropper trying to fill a bucket. Hope is like taking a bucket into the ocean of God’s greatness. When it comes to God’s unmatchable, bottomless, inexhaustible love and grace, and goodness…you’ll fill that bucket in no time.

For further reading:

‌5 Prayers for Our Country to Heal the Nation

Why Was Abraham Chosen to be the Father of All Nations?

Why Is Isaiah the Most Quoted Prophet in the Bible?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Wirestock

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.


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