Common Sayings We Use From the Bible: A–E
Did You Know It Came From the Bible?
When I first began reading the Bible in my early twenties I devoured it. I couldn't get enough. I had just come to faith in Jesus Christ and His word taught me who He is and who I am as His child and as a human being. I remember reading verses and saying to myself "I never knew that came from the Bible." Over the past forty years, I've learned what they mean to us and what they meant in the Bible. I thought it would be fun to begin a series identifying and explaining them. Here we will start with A and go through to E. Let's get started.
A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in a Bush
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush (Ecclesiastes 6:9).
I was surprised that this saying is only found in The Living Bible.
In the King James Version, it says "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit."
The New King James says "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind."
Its meaning in the Bible is in regards to the vanity of human desires. A bird in the hand is what we see with our eyes, what is before us, what we've already acquired. But as human beings, our minds wander into longings and lusts for things we should not have and that are not good for us. They are like trying to grasp the wind in your hands. The satisfaction is elusive and if we continue after those desires, we will find frustration and a lack of contentment.
A House Divided Shall Not Stand
And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand" (Matthew 12:25).
The religious leaders, after seeing Jesus cast out demons from someone said among themselves that Jesus cast out devils by Beelzebub. Jesus pointed out their flawed thinking. If a demon is cast out by the power of another demon, the demon's realm will not stand.
This applies everywhere in life. If you look at all the great kingdoms of the world over the centuries, you will see that many lost their world power status by implosion. There was division in many cases and the nation could not stand. We see it in our nation today and many others. We see what happens to families, friendships, churches, organizations, and businesses when there is division.
Am I My Brother's Keeper?
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).
This comes from the story of Cain and Abel, the first offspring of humanity. Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a tiller of the ground. One day they both brought their offering to God. Abel offered the firstborn of his flock, and Cain brought the fruit of the ground. God accepted Abel's offering but rejected Cain's. Cain became angry and one day he killed his brother. God asked him where his brother was. Cain replied, "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?"
Cain meant, "Am I responsible for looking after him? Am I responsible to know where he is and what he is doing?" It was meant to be a diversion from answering the question directly which would implicate him.
We use it today in a similar way. We are not responsible for the care, behavior, or whereabouts of a given person. It can be used in a positive or negative sense but usually, we hear it in the negative sense. Here's an example:
Person #1: "Where is Tom today. He should be here helping unload the freight."
Person #2: "How should I know? I am not my brother's keeper."
The term often means "I am not responsible for another person."
As Old As the Hills
“Are you the first man who was born? Or were you made before the hills?" (Job 15:7).
The idea of "old as the hills" began with the above verse from the book of Job. The obvious point is that hills were made and in existence before man. This question was posed by Job's supposed friend in the spirit of sarcasm. According to The Phrase Finder, the exact wording "as old as the hills" came into play later in the 18th century. In Francis Hutchinson's A Defence of the Antient Historians, it is written
"As vales are as old as the hills, so loughs and rivers must be as old as they."
No matter when and where you find the phrase or concept of the phrase it means "really old," or "ancient."
At Wit's End
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end (Psalm 107:27).
The psalmist is speaking of the redeemed people of God. Verses 23-32 is a passage about when God sends a storm and His people cry out to them. Verse 27 is a graphic picture of what it's like to be on a ship tossed to and fro by the wind and waves. The people have run out of ideas, they don't know what else they can do - they are at their wits ends. If you read through the whole passage you will see it is a prophetic picture of when Jesus stills the stormy seas in two stories in the gospels. The storms represent our trials.
When we use the term "at our wit's end" we also mean we are at a loss and frustrated because whatever the difficulty is, we've run out of ideas.
Be Fruitful and Multiply
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28).
We hear this phrase several times in the book of Genesis. God created the world and all that was in it. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply the earth. He also told them to subdue and have dominion over creation. He gave them roles to fulfill and wanted them to prosper in what he commanded them.
In the New Testament, we read about bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives - But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23). Bearing the fruit of good works, and of bringing souls to Christ.
In general today, we use the term in a much broader sense. It means to prosper in endeavors, to have good results, to produce or reproduce good things.
Bite the Dust
Psalm 72:9 "They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust."
This phrase comes from the biblical term "lick the dust." There are a few more verses that use this term.
Isaiah 49:23 "And kings shall be your nursing fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers: they shall bow down to you with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of your feet; and you shall know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me."
In these verses, many commentators believe "lick the dust" means to prostrate themselves in reverence, subjection; as if to kiss the king's feet.
Isaiah 65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, The lion shall eat straw like the ox, And dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,” Says the Lord.
In Genesis 3, God is confronting Adam and Eve about their sin of disobedience and is doling out consequences. He deals with Satan also, who manifested himself to Eve as a cunning, tempting serpent. To the serpent, he says, "On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life."
Then we read in Isaiah 65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, The lion shall eat straw like the ox, And dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,” Says the Lord.
In the latter verse, it seems to say that the curse of the serpent we first read about in Genesis 3:14 will be continuing - the serpent's curse of eating dust will be perpetual punishment.
In Werner's Bible Commentary it says "Snakes repeatedly stick out their tongues when slithering over the ground. This may be the basis for the expression that they will eat dust or earth, indicating that no harm would come to people or their domestic animals from poisonous serpents."
In our culture today "bite the dust" refers to someone or something dying or failing, literally and/or figuratively.
Broken Heart / Brokenhearted
"The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit "(Psalm 34:18).
"He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Psalm 147:3).
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:3-4).
Most of us know what a broken heart is. It's a heart that has suffered loss, sustained wounds, or has been crushed by a consciousness of guilt. God knows first hand what it's like to have a broken heart. Over and over in the Old Testament, we see God's broken heart for the people He loved and called, but who rejected Him. In Isaiah 53 we read the Messiah is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (vs. 3). It also says he has borne our sorrows and griefs (vs 4). God has a purpose for our brokenheartedness. It transforms and teaches us, and molds us into His image. He Himself is the remedy.
As we have just read, he binds up, carries, saves, and comforts our broken hearts. He forgives the repentant heart. There are hundreds of verses and stories that reveal God's love and care for the brokenhearted. Here are four to cling to:
Cast all your cares upon Him for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).
Come unto Me all you who are weary and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28).
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27).
By the Skin of My Teeth
My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth (Job 19:20).
These are words of lament by Job in the Old Testament. He was struck by a terrible illness manifesting in boils all over his body. It was so hideously disfiguring his friends barely recognized him. His wife was repulsed by him. In this verse, he is talking about his body which has wasted away to the point of his bones sticking out. Charles Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century British preacher had this to say about "skin of the teeth?"
"There is no skin upon the teeth, or scarcely any, and, therefore, Job means that there was next to nothing of him left, like the skin of his teeth.”
Others speculate he meant there was nothing left in his mouth but his gums.
In modern culture, this idiom means narrowly, barely, nearly, as in "He made a narrow escape." "He barely made it." "He nearly missed it."
Cast the First Stone or Casting Stones
This phrase comes from the story in John 8 where a woman was caught in the act of adultery and the religious leaders brought her before Jesus to test Him. He preached love but He also honored the Scriptures. The religious leaders were looking for an opportunity to accuse Him.
Jesus' response was not what they were expecting. He didn't say a word, but stooped over and wrote in the dirt with his finger as if He didn't hear them. It is common speculation that Jesus was writing down the various sins these people committed. Here's the rest of the story:
So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, go and sin no more" (vs. 7-11).
Don't you just love this story?
So we use the terms "cast the first stone," or "casting stones," in the same way. Don't condemn someone when you have your own pile of sins.
Cross to Bear
"And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple"(Luke 14:27).
Our culture has completely altered the meaning of this sacred text. To most people, this saying means we have to put up with someone or some problem, like that irritating, tyrant mother-in-law, a chronic disease, or some other adversity. People who use this term often say it to play the martyr, but not always.
Biblically speaking, in the first century, the words cross and bear brought to mind carrying a literal cross to your gruesome and humiliating execution such as the one Christ experienced on our behalf. Jesus told the disciples to take up their crosses and follow Him. They were to be willing to die for the cause of Christ. They must also die to their own self-serving plan of life. He was telling them to surrender their wills to Him and walk the path that He walks.
Jesus himself did this. In the garden of Gethsemane, He said: "Not My will by Thy will be done." And He did the Father's will by going to the cross for us.
Don't Cast Your Pearls Before Swines
Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces (Matthew 7:6).
This verse comes in the midst of the sermon on the mount. Jesus is talking to the crowd about not judging others (condemning) or we will be judged. He then goes on to tell them to first take the plank out of their own eye so they can see to remove the speck from another's eye. He is pointing out hypocrisy.
After that, he makes the comment about dogs and swine. His message has gone from judgment to discernment. Dogs and swine were despised and deemed unclean in Bible times. His meaning is to be careful who you share the gospel (what is sacred, precious pearls) with. There are people who will revile, mock, and trample on the good news of Jesus Christ.
In our day, it means don't give good things to people who will not appreciate them, or who will abuse them.
Drop in a Bucket
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. (Isaiah 40:15).
The text is about the glory and splendor of our God. The context is found in verses 1-14 where God is comforting His people. The people need not fear the surrounding nations because God is sovereign and sublime and He cares for His people like a Shepherd who cares for His flock, carrying the lambs in His bosom, guiding them along (vs. 11). I love verses 12-14 that lead up to the drop in the bucket verse:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
God is mighty and the earth is a drop in the bucket in comparison, but we are of great significance to His heart.
In our culture, this idiom is not in reference to God's greatness. "A drop in the bucket," according to the Free Dictionary by Farlex means an insignificant contribution; an insufficient or inconsequential amount in comparison to what is required; a small, inadequate quantity.
I have a collection of quotes and one of my favorites depicts another spiritual meaning that you could apply: "Lord I crawled across the barrenness to you with my empty cup uncertain in asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known you better I’d have come running with a bucket.” – Nancy Spiegelberg
Fly in the Ointment
Dead flies putrefy the perfumer's ointment, and cause it to give off a foul odor; So does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor (Ecclesiastes 10:1).
Ointments in Old Testament times were used for anointing the priests (Exodus 30:25). I've always loved the picture in Psalm 133 where the psalmist compares goodness and unity of the brethren like "the precious oil upon the head that ran down the beard, even Aaron's beard that went down to the skirts of his garment."
A little foolishness in the life of a respected person known for a wise and honorable character will end up with a tarnished reputation which is the stench caused by the dead fly.
Today "A fly in the ointment " is a small event, circumstance, or factor that spoils an entire endeavor, circumstance, reputation, etc. (Idioms Online).
What I know with absolute certainty is the dead flies are GROSS!
Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth
"You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away" (Matthew 5:38-42).
The statement "Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," can be found in Ex. 21:23-25, Lev. 24:19-20, and Deut. 19:15-21. The Pharisee's interpreted this to mean God is giving carte blanche for people to become vigilantes and get even with those who offended them in any way. This interpretation allowed the individual to decide in their own sinful minds what was a just punishment.
This law was part of the judicial system to be carried out by and/or under the authority of civic authorities. It was not permitted for private citizens to take the law into their own hands.
In the current culture, it means "Hey, you did this to me, so I can do it to you. It's my right. You deserve to suffer for what you did."
Eat Drink and be Merry
"And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry" (Luke 12:19). The person in this reference is looking at all the food and goods he's stored up into barns and decides he can now relax and enjoy the pleasures these things can give.
"What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Paul's meaning here if you read the verses before it is if there is no resurrection of the dead in the future, then you might as well follow the code to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we shall die. In other words, get as much carnal pleasure in this world because this is all there is.
"And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 8:15). In this verse, its meaning is that God has provided for us and we should enjoy it, be thankful for it, and be content with it.
"...and behold, joy and gladness, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine. 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'” (Isaiah 22:13). The previous verse calls God's people to weep and mourn over their sin, but instead, they choose to eat, drink and be merry because life is short.
Today we use it in a similar way - might as well live the good life because tomorrow we may not be here. Often times the verse is used to say "party hardy" because there is nothing ahead of us.
Hopefully, upon reading these interpretations we will better understand the terms in a more biblical way. Each generation in every tribe and tongue has its own idioms and sayings that reflect cultural practices, truths, and lies. Some are used as hyperbole to have a greater impact.
Let's take these to heart and implant them on our hearts. Stay tuned for the next part in this series.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Lori Colbo