Most English speakers don’t realize how many everyday expressions come from the Bible. A drop in the bucket is one such idiom introduced into the English language through John Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Bible in 1382. The phrase also appeared in the 1611 King James Version of Isaiah 40:15, and it’s kept in modern translations: “For all the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket. They are nothing more than dust on the scales. He [The Lord] picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand” (Isaiah 40:15, NLT).
The main idea Isaiah meant to convey through the idiom a drop in the bucket was smallness and insignificance. A drop is a minuscule, indefinite, insignificant measure of liquid, especially when compared to a whole bucket of water. Even the world’s mightiest nations are inconsequential blips on the radar compared to the greatness of the almighty Creator of the universe. Before God, “all the nations are as nothing, . . . they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness,” confirmed the prophet (Isaiah 40:17, ESV).
Isaiah was speaking to a future remnant of Israel who would be held in captivity, and he was bringing them God’s message of comfort (see Isaiah 40:1). The Lord would show His power over the kingdoms of this world. But, given the might of their captors, Israel might have a hard time believing that God could deliver them. Isaiah 40:9–31 is the prophet’s answer to the people’s doubts. Beginning in verse 12, Isaiah speaks like an attorney in court, presenting legal arguments to Israel. He establishes the matchless power of Yahweh over all earthly powers, including the empires of Babylon, Assyria, and Persia.
When translated literally from one language to another, most idiomatic expressions lose their significance or deliver an incorrect meaning, but a drop in the bucket seems to be universally understood. A drop of water is so slight that it becomes indiscernible amid the entire bucketful. A speck of dust or grain of sand does nothing to influence the weights on a scale. When compared with earth’s greatness, the Lord is so superior that “all the wood in Lebanon’s forests and all Lebanon’s animals would not be enough to make a burnt offering worthy of our God” (Isaiah 40:16, NLT).
Isaiah’s comparisons illustrate the finite, limited nature of the created world compared to the infinite and unlimited power of the God who spoke it all into existence. What a comfort to know that the combined might of earthly nations is next to nothing—a drop in the bucket or a speck of dust—matched up to our great God’s magnitude and dominion. When we perceive the incomparable excellence of the Sovereign Lord and King of all Creation, everything else in life, including every menacing enemy, falls into proper perspective.
The next time Satan tries to defeat you, making you think that your problems are bigger than God, remember this: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Your enemies are puny—a drop in the bucket—when matched against your God. Your giant problems are mere “grasshoppers” from His vantage point (Isaiah 40:22). Like Israel, we can trust our God to deliver us from every foe and every hostile circumstance, for our God is greater than them all (Exodus 18:11; 2 Chronicles 2:5; John 10:29; 1 John 3:20).