Idioms in American that are derived from the Bible

A Little Bird Told Me

Background

The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible contains many wise sayings. One saying urges the reader to not talk about someone behind their back: “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.” (Chapter 10)

Meaning

The saying does not suggest that birds actually can communicate what you say in secret. Rather that someone may secretly overhear what you said and tell the person. It can also apply to things you do that others are not supposed to know you did but are reported to them.

Example

Suppose Susan steals something from work without her boss seeing it. But when the boss confronts her about it she might ask who told the boss. If the boss does not want to tell her, the boss could say, “A little bird told me.”

Suppose Phil asks Harry why he said unkind words about him. Harry may be surprised that Phil knows and ask how he knew. Phil could avoid revealing his source of information by answering, “A little bird told me.”

Apple of One’s Eye

Background

This expression is used in several places in the Bible. Deuteronomy 32:10 says God guarded his people “as the apple of His eye”. In Psalm 17:8 the writer asks God to “Keep me as the apple of your eye”. In Proverbs 7:2 Solomon instructs his son to “guard my teachings as the apple of your eye.” In a prophecy in Zechariah 2:8, God says that any nation that harms his people harms “the apple of his eye”. (All from the NIV.)

Meaning

Anything that is the apple of one’s eye is something he values very much, his most prized possession.

Example

“Henry’s car is the apple of his eye. He is always washing it.”

Babel

Background

After the worldwide flood, Noah and his descendents were told to populate the entire world. Instead they stayed together and build a city called Babel. There they built a tower to unite them and keep them from spreading out over the earth. Until then, they had spoken a single language, but now God caused them to speak different languages. Then they spread out over the world and the various nations were formed. The tower is called the tower of Babel. (Genesis 11)

Meaning

Today, babel refers to any scene of confusion, especially a confusion of multiple voices or languages.

Example

Zhang:    Did you understand the professor today in class?

Zhao:   No it was all babel to me.

What did Zhao mean by babbeling?

“The politician walked through the crowd, unaware of the babel of voices around him.”

Blind Leading the Blind

Background

Jesus said the Pharisees (a religious group) were blind guides since they were spiritually blind.  He also said, “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39, NIV)

Meaning

Jesus meant that we need to be careful whom we follow, choosing people who are spiritually wise. In general it means that we should not follow incompetent people.

Example

“I would not want to be on Henry’s project. He knows nothing about the subject! It would be a case of the blind leading the blind.”

Born Again

Background

Jesus told Nicodemus, a religious leader, that, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Nicodemus thought he was referring to a physical birth but Jesus meant a spiritual birth. Jesus went on to say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [himself, Jesus] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” So, Jesus uses the term born again to refer to the time when a person decides to become a follower of his and the Holy Spirit puts new spiritual life into that person. (John 3:15 NIV)

Meaning

Today the term born again suggests not only that a person is a follower of Jesus but also that he gives priority to traditional values, beliefs and practices.

Example

“Phyllis is in a difficult situation because her fellow employees cheat. She thinks if she is to succeed she may need to cheat, too. But, she doesn’t want to cheat since she is a born-again Christian.”

Chapter and Verse

Background   

The Bible consists of sixty-six books, each of which is divided into chapters. The chapters, in turn, are divided into verses. Passages in the Bible are identified by the book, chapter and verse where they are found.

Meaning

Today, to quote “chapter and verse” is to give the specific source of any quotation.

Example

“You say evolution has been proven? Give me chapter and verse to support that.”

How do we say actual Chapter and Verse references?

Book  {chapter}  number  {verse}  number

The acutal words chapter and verse can be said or not said.  Numbers in books, are First , Second, and Third not 1 , 2, and 3.

For example:

First   John  Chapter one verse nine

First John one nine

Charity

Background

The KJV sometimes uses the word charity which means self-giving, other-centered love. 1 Corinthians 13 describes this kind of love and ends with “And now abideth [abides] faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Currently, this word is translated as “love”.

Meaning

Today charity is used in several ways. It can refer to a gift of money, food, clothing, etc., to someone in need. .It can also refer to an organization that is devoted to meeting the needs of poor people.

Examples

“When we give charity to the poor, we show the love of Jesus. The Sisters of Mercy Charity helps hundreds of people each year in this way.”

David and Goliath

Background

When Saul was king of Israel (about 1050 BC), the Philistine nation was at war with them. The two armies faced each other and a giant named Goliath(over nine feet tall), challenged the Israelites to send a champion who would fight him. If Goliath won, the Israelites would serve the Philistines. If Goliath lost, the Philistines would serve the Israelites. Goliath said that the gods of Philistia were greater than the God of Israel. Not one of the Israelites was willing to fight Goliath. Then, a young man named David agreed to fight Goliath. He wanted to show that the God of Israel was greater than the gods of the Philistines. David threw a stone with his sling and hit Goliath in the head. This stunned Goliath so that David could then cut off the giant’s head with Goliath’s own sword. Then the Israelites defeated the Philistine army. (1 Samuel 17)

Meaning

David and Goliath contest is one where the weaker opponent defeats a vastly superior opponent.

Example

It’s the NBA Finals ,   Zhang and Zhao are talking about their favorite team the Atlanta Hawks!

Zhang:   Did you see the NBA finals?

Zhao:  No , Los Angeles Lakers always win.  Why bother.

Zhang:  Brother, you should have seen it the Atlanta Hawks won the finals. Four games to zero.

It was amazing it was like a David vs Goliath.

What is Zhang trying to say about the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks finals!

“Hank was the favorite boxer in the contest. He was bigger, stronger and more experienced than Daniel. He, in fact, was the champion the last three years. But this kid, Daniel, surprised everyone by beating Hank in only three rounds. It was a real David and Goliath contest.”

Doubting Thomas

Background

Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, is sometimes called Doubting Thomas because of an incident that occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas had not been present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, and he refused to believe that Jesus was actually alive. He said he would not believe unless he could put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and put his hand in the hole in Jesus’ side where a spear had pierced him. A week later, Jesus again appeared to the disciples and Thomas was present. He told Thomas, ““Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” “Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God” (John 20)

Meaning

doubting Thomas is a person who must see something to believe it.

Example

“John said that Pete bought a new Lexus but Larry won’t believe him. He is such a doubting Thomas.”

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Background

In Ecclesiastes 8:15, King Solomon urged his readers to find and enjoy the good things of life. Also, Jesus used this phrase in his story of the unwise, rich farmer who said, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you.” (Luke 12:19-20, NKJV)

Meaning

This is often used as “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.” The meaning here is that we should pay less attention to the responsibilities and difficulties of life. Instead, we should enjoy life since it is so brief. But, note that Jesus said that this is the behavior of fools!

example

“Sally, it is ok to have another drink. Remember, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die! Let’s drink, be merry and forget our troubles.”

Eden, Garden of

Background

After God created Adam and Eve, he put them into a beautiful garden where all their needs were met and there was no sin, suffering or death. God told them they could eat from the fruit of any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When they disobeyed God and ate some of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, sin and death came into the world. Then they were driven out of the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 2, 3)

Meaning

Eden refers to any perfect place which is excellent and delightful in all respects.

Example

Zhang and Zhou are at work talking about vacation!

Zhang:   Where did you go for vacation last week?

Zhou:  I went to Er Mei Shang we saw so many monkeys!  

It was like a garden of Eden.  When will you go on vacation?

Zhang:  I will go South to beautiful Hainan in a couple of months!

Should be a real garden of Eden!

“I had the most wonderful vacation. I went to Hawaii and it is truly a Garden of Eden.”

Fat of the Land

Background

God’s special people, the Hebrews, consisted of Jacob and his wives and children. They lived in Palestine and worked as shepherds. One son, Joseph, was sold by his brothers as a slave and was taken to Egypt where he eventually became second in command after Pharaoh. Because of a dream Pharaoh had, Joseph knew that a great famine was coming and, for seven years, he stored grain. When the famine came, people from neighboring nations came to Joseph for grain. Joseph’s brothers came and, in a very touching reunion, Joseph forgave his brothers for their sin against him. Then he invited them to get his father and their families and move to Egypt. He said they could live off the fat of the land, i.e., the fruits of the very best place in Egypt. (Genesis 37 – 45, especially see Genesis 45)

Genesis 創 世 記 45:16-18

When the news reached Pharaoh’s palace that Joseph’s brothers had come, Pharaoh and all his officials were pleased. Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Tell your brothers, ‘Do this: Load your animals and return to the land of Canaan, and bring your father and your families back to me. I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you can enjoy the fat of the land.’

这 风 声 传 到 法 老 的 宫 里 , 说 : 约 瑟 的 弟 兄 们 来 了 。 法 老 和 他 的 臣 仆 都 很 喜 欢 。法 老 对 约 瑟 说 : 你 吩 咐 你 的 弟 兄 们 说 : 你 们 要 这 样 行 : 把 驮 子 抬 在 牲 口 上 , 起 身 往 迦 南 地 去 。将 你 们 的 父 亲 和 你 们 的 眷 属 都 搬 到 我 这 里 来 , 我 要 把 埃 及 地 的 美 物 赐 给 你 们 , 你 们 也 要 吃 这 地 肥 美 的 出 产 。

Meaning

To live comfortably on a surplus of resources, without working very hard.

Example 

Zhang and Zhou are talking about retirement!

Zhang   : What are you going to do when you retire?

Zhou :  I am going to visit all my Christian friends in America!  How about you?

Zhang:  I am just going to stay at home and live on the fat of the land!

Feet of Clay

Background

Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon from 605 – 562 BC, had a dream. He saw a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron and feet of an iron/clay mixture. He was sure there was a meaning to the dream but did not know what it was. His wise men could not explain the dream so he sent for Daniel. After praying, Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that God has shown him in his dream what will happen in the future!

Daniel said that the head of Gold refers to Nebuchadnezzar and the kingdom of Babylon. The chest and arms of silver referrs to the Medes and Persians who conquered the Babylonians in 539 BC. The Belly and thighs of Brass referred to the Greeks who conquered the Medes and Persians in 334 BC. The legs of Iron and feet of Iron/Clay mixture refered to the Roman Empire which replaced the Greek Empire in 168 BC. Then a rock sent by God hit the statue. Although the statue looked very great, since it had feet of clay it could not stand but broke into pieces and fell. (Daniel 2)

Meaning

The expression feet of clay refers to hidden faults or weaknesses in a person which are later discovered or revealed.

Example

No one is perfect; we all have feet of clay.”

Zhao and Zhang are talking about their test result.

Zhao :    How did you do on the test?

Zhang :  I got an 85 %.

Zhao:     I got a 75 %.  Your score is probably the best in the class.

Zhang:    No one is perfect,  we all have feet of clay i guess.

Fire and Brimstone

Background

Sodom and Gomorra were wicked cities in Palestine. God judged them by sending “brimstone and fire” to destroy the cities. (Genesis 18 – 19, KJV) The NIV translates “brimstone and fire” as “burning sulphur.

Meaning

fire and brimstone message is one which vividly warns people that God will judge unbelievers by sending them to Hell. It can more generally refer to threats of punishment to disobedient people.

Examples

After the pastor’s fire and brimstone talk, twenty-five people became followers of Jesus.

The principle talked of fire and brimstone with the rebellious students.

Fleece, Put out a

Background

From about 1400 BC until about 1050 BC there was no king ruling the people of Israel. Instead, they were led by a series of people called Judges (see book of Judges in the Bible). One Judge was Gideon. When God told him to lead the people to fight an invading peoples (the Midianites), Gideon was unsure that he heard God correctly. First he put a fleece (sheepskin) on the ground and asked that overnight the fleece would be wet with dew but the ground around it would be dry. When this happened, he wanted further confirmation, so he asked that the next night the fleece would be dry but the ground was wet. Again, God did as he asked, so he led the people of Israel to defeat the Midianites. (Judges 6-7).

Meaning

When a person puts out a fleece he is looking for confirmation from God that his plans are good. (Note: this is a risky thing to do since Gideon’s experience was unusual; God does not usually respond to “fleece” requests. A better approach is to ask God for wisdom [James 1:5] and then make the best decision one is capable of making.)

Example

“I didn’t know if I should take this job offer or not, so I put out a fleece to God. I prayed that they would offer the job in three days after the interview but the offer came four days after the interview. Now I am confused – did I put out the wrong fleece?” (This illustrates why putting out a fleece is not a good thing to do.)

Gospel

Background

Because of disobedience, our relationship to God has been broken. The word gospel means good news about Jesus Christ – that he is the Son of God and that his life, death and resurrection were so we could enjoy a restored relationship with God.

Meaning

The word gospel has come to mean anything that is accepted as absolutely true.

Example

“Peter loves Julia and that’s the gospel truth!

Handwriting on the Wall

Background

The Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar defeated Judah (Southern Kingdom). Several years after Nebuchadnezzar died, Belshazzar became king. During a banquet in the palace, a hand appeared and wrote words on the plaster wall. Belshazzar was terrified and called for his wise men, but none of them could read the words or tell their meaning. Then Daniel was called and he interpreted the words for the king. The message was that God had numbered the days of the king’s reign, that God had weighed the king in the balances of justice and found him guilty. Daniel said that his kingdom would be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. That very night Belshazzar was killed and the Persians took control of the kingdom. (Daniel 5)

Meaning

Handwriting on the wall refers to a sign that something bad will happen.

Example

“John has made the boss angry too many times. The handwriting is on the wall: he will soon be fired.”

Holier than thou

Background

The Bible says that “We are to be holy as God is holy”. This means to be without sin, to be perfect. (When I become a follower of Jesus the Bible says I am “justified” which means “God treats me ‘just as if I’d’ never sinned.)

The idea of holiness is sometimes improperly used when someone thinks he is better than another person. We say this kind of person has a Holier than thou [Holier than you are] attitude. This is usually said with disdain ( Leviticus 20, Romans 5).

Meaning

When a person has a holier than thou attitude” he acts as if his is better than others in goodness, character or reverence for God. He thinks he is morally better than others.

Example

“I can’t stand Sally’s holier than thou attitude.”

Patience of Job

Background

Job, a godly man, faced great tragedy, losing his family, flocks and herds and becoming painfully ill. He patiently suffered over a long period of time. He remained true to God and was eventually rewarded with ten more children and twice as much wealth as he had before his tragedies occurred. (Book of Job)

Meaning

Patience of Job is used to describe someone who patiently bears difficulties through great tragedies in his life. .”

Example

“He has suffered so much and never complains. He has the patience of Job.

Raise Cain

Background

Adam and Eve had two sons named Cain and Abel (plus other sons and daughters). Cain was a gardener and Abel was a herdsman. To worship God, Cain offered a sacrifice of farm produce but Abel offered some of his best lambs. God rejected Cain’s offering since a blood sacrifice is necessary to have forgiveness of sins. When God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s, Cain became angry and violent and killed Cain. (Genesis 4, Hebrews 9:22)

Meaning

To raise cain is to make a disturbance or generally cause trouble. Also, sometimes it means to be noisy.

Example

“The sailors went to town and raised cain. Two were wounded in fights and three were thrown in jail for drunkenness and fighting.”

Salt of the Earth

Background:

Jesus said his followers are the salt of the earth. He used salt as a metaphor to mean that his followers are to influence the world around them, just as salt adds flavor and preserves foods. (Matthew 5)

Meaning

The expression salt of the earth is now used to refer to a good, decent hardworking person, the sort of person one would want as a neighbor.

Example

“I’m glad Bill and Mary moved in next door. They are really salt of the earth kind of people.”

Scapegoat

Background

Moses gave instructions to the Hebrew people to symbolically transfer their sins to a goat which is then sent into the wilderness. The sins would go with the goat and the people would be free from sin. This goat is called a scapegoat. (Leviticus 16)

Meaning

The word scapegoat refers to someone who is blamed for misfortunes or wrongdoing, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.

Example

“The mayor charged Henry with the crime but it was the mayor’s own son who committed it. Henry was only a scapegoat.”

Skin of my teeth

Background

Job was very sick. He said he was so close to dying that he escaped death by the skin of my teeth. (Job 19)

Meaning

Skin of my teeth now means one has just barely escaped death or some other calamity; also winning with  a narrow margin.

Examples

“I had a terrible auto accident and my car was totally destroyed. I escaped death by the skin of my teeth.”

“The senator won by the skin of his teeth. He had only 225 more votes than his opponent.”

Sodomy

Background

Sodom and Gomorrah were cities during the time of Abraham and Lot (about 2000 BC) and were well known for their wickedness. Two angels appearing in human form warned Abraham that God was about to destroy the cities because of their wickedness. The angels then went to Sodom and were guests in Lot’s home. During the night, men of the city wanted to homosexually rape the men but the angels helped Lot and his family to escape from the city. Then the two cities were destroyed by fire and brimstone from heaven. (Genesis 18-19)

Meaning

Sodomy refers to any of various forms of sexual intercourse held to be unnatural or abnormal as was practiced in Sodom. Though word provides an apt description, it is generally considered to be politically incorrect to use it today.

Example

“There are too many places where sodomy is considered to be natural.”

Straight and Narrow [path]

Background

Jesus tells those who follow him that, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7, KJV) “Strait is an old English word meaning “narrow”. The use of two words, both meaning narrow, emphasize how difficult it is to be a follower of Jesus. In fact, comparatively few will follow him and be saved.

 The word “strait” is now changed to “straight” and we have the expression straight and narrow”.

Meaning

This expression means to do what is right, particularly in the face of temptation to do wrong.

Example

“Since he decided to give up drugs, Harry has been walking the straight and narrow” (i.e., he has not been taking drugs).

Tables Were/Are Turned

Background

King Xerxes was a king of Persia who reigned from 485 BC to 465 BC. He was convinced to destroy all the Jewish people in his kingdom. He sent a letter to all the provinces instructing the people to kill the Jews but Esther, his Jewish Queen, urged him to spare them. He then sent instructions to the provinces giving the Jews the right to defend themselves. Since the “tables were turned” the Jewish people were able to successfully defend themselves, destroying their enemies.

Meaning

We say the tables were turned when the person is a weaker position becomes the person in the stronger position.

Example

When they were younger, John was stronger than Pete and John would beat Pete. But now the tables are turned. Pete is stronger than John so Pete beats John.

Tip of My Tongue

Background

When Job was still suffering from his loss of property, family and health, four friends came to “comfort” him – three were older and one was younger. The three older ones spoke first and the younger respectfully kept quiet. When the older ones finished speaking and Job finished his replies, the younger friend said he would speak. He said the words were “on the tip of my tongue”. In Job the meaning is that the words were on his tongue and were ready to be spoken. (Job 11)

Meaning

Today when we say something is “on the tip of my tongue”, it means we know something but cannot immediately retrieve the words to speak them. We feel that the words are “on the tip of the tongue” but cannot speak them

Example

“I was so embarrassed. I was going to introduce Sally to Phil. Sally’s name was on the tip of my tongue but I could not remember it.”

Walk on Water

Background

One time Jesus’ disciples were rowing across the Sea of Galilee in a storm and were afraid they would capsize. Jesus was on the land but knew their situation, so he went to them walking on the water. They were afraid, thinking they saw a ghost, but Jesus assured them it was he. Peter asked if he could come to Jesus, so Jesus told him to come. Peter also walked on the water until he took his eyes off Jesus, became afraid and began to sink. Jesus caught his hand and kept him from sinking. When they got in the boat, Jesus calmed the storm. (Matthew 14)

Meaning

We say a person can walk on water if he can do something that is not humanly possible.

Examples

“It seems that Mary does everything well. I expect she could even walk on water.”

“The boss asked me to finish the project in two weeks. Who does he think I am? Does he think I can walk on water?”

Wash hands (of a situation)

Background

The Jews brought Jesus to the governor, Pilate, accusing him of crimes. Pilate knew they were merely jealous and that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death, so he wanted to release Jesus. But, the Jewish leaders insisted that Jesus be crucified. So, to keep the peace, Pilate ordered Jesus to be beaten and crucified. But, before doing it, he washed his hands before the leaders declaring his innocence and putting on the Jews the responsibility for Jesus’ death. (Matthew 27)

Meaning

When a person washes his hands of a situation, he is saying he is not responsible for it or its consequences.

Example

“Jill tried to stop this project but the team members would not listen. So, she washed her hands of the situation. Things have now gone from bad to worse but no one is blaming Jill.”

Wolf in sheep’s clothing

Background

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is Jesus’ most famous sermon. In one teaching he warns his listeners to beware of false teachers who pretend to be sheep but are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. They will lead you astray and devour you if they have the opportunity. (Matthew 7)

Meaning

wolf in sheep’s clothing is anyone who appears innocent but has wicked or harmful motives.

Example

“Watch out for that guy. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He pretends to be generous but he’ll steal anything he can get his hands on.”