Isaiah 51:17-22 (New International Version)
The Cup of the LORD’s Wrath
17 Awake, awake!
Rise up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath,
you who have drained to its dregs
the goblet that makes men stagger.
18 Of all the sons she bore
there was none to guide her;
of all the sons she reared
there was none to take her by the hand.
19 These double calamities have come upon you—
who can comfort you?—
ruin and destruction, famine and sword—
who can [a] console you?
20 Your sons have fainted;
they lie at the head of every street,
like antelope caught in a net.
They are filled with the wrath of the LORD
and the rebuke of your God.
21 Therefore hear this, you afflicted one,
made drunk, but not with wine.
22 This is what your Sovereign LORD says,
your God, who defends his people:
“See, I have taken out of your hand
the cup that made you stagger;
from that cup, the goblet of my wrath,
you will never drink again.
23 I will put it into the hands of your tormentors,
who said to you,
‘Fall prostrate that we may walk over you.’
And you made your back like the ground,
like a street to be walked over.”
Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues” is rife with Biblical imagery. Told in the first person, as if God was speaking, Sonny’s brother has all the information at his fingertips, if he only knows how to use it. Often stories written from no-name points of view are set up that way because the audience does not really need to know any more about the narrator than that he is the person in the best position to tell the story. Baldwin finds Sonny to be the main character in the story and the one who learns how to survive the hard way. The older (nameless) brother is along for the ride while picking up essential life skills he did not know he needed.
Based on Baldwin’s tough life in Harlem’s mean streets, the narrator could be Baldwin himself, although it is an unacknowledged assumption. He is supposed to take care of his younger brother, Sonny, after his mother dies. Accomplishing this by moving Sonny in with his wife Isabel’s family while he goes off with the military gives us the foregrounding for the older brother’s sense of responsibility. The plot continues along describing Sonny’s Bebop haunts and the narrator’s school where he is a teacher, until Sonny’s arrest for heroin possession and distribution.
Ending the pleasure and beginning the difficulty, we begin to see why we have arrived here: why isn’t the older brother taking care of Sonny? What are Sonny’s vulnerabilities? How did the older brother become so strong or was he always invincible? Finally we want to know how redemption will be included in this history of misery. Sonny is certainly miserable in jail, but what of his brother, never seeing his own misery or understanding how others can be helped out of their torment?
We can hypothesize that like Isaiah and Ishmael (and blindly assume) the brothers come to an understanding. This would make sense as Baldwin often has Biblical themes about favored sons in his work; Sonny is repeatedly held out as the favored son, while the narrator is left to deal with a far more ominous father, even though Sonny wants to follow in his uncle’s musical footsteps. The story alludes to Biblical passage of the man lying in the street which refers to the uncle’s tragic death after being run over while walking with his guitar.
Appropriately during this Harlem Renaissance scene, Sonny redeems himself through his music when he finally plays with meaning and spirit all that has been pent up inside him. Prior to this the narrator distains the new Bebop sound Sonny loves, for the higher plane of Jazz. As his older brother has a glass of milk and scotch (“a cup of trembling”) placed on top of the piano where Sonny is playing, the narrator show he understands that music is lifting his brother up, regardless of what kind of music it is; and, it will save him.
I. THE SIEGE OF ISRAEL (vv. 1-3)
“The burden of the word of the Lord for Israel, saith the Lord, who stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him. Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the peoples round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and against Jerusalem. And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all peoples; all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the nations of the earth be gathered together against it.” (biblebb)