We all use familiar phrases and sayings in our everyday conversation, but have you ever wondered about their origins? Many are to be found in the Bible, a large number from the King James Version, introduced in 1611 and still in regular use.
The following is a list of just some of these sayings, in no particular order within the Old and New Testaments – but at least the first entry is in its rightful place chronologically – The Book of Genesis.
FORBIDDEN FRUIT Something you want very much but are not allowed to have; any sinful or forbidden pleasure.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 and 3.
‘And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, of every tree in the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil thou shalt not eat of it.’
The serpent tempted Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit, and she gave some to Adam, making them as God, knowing Good and Evil. God banished them from the Garden.
A LAND FLOWING WITH MILK AND HONEY Exodus 3
The Lord appears to Moses from a burning bush and commands Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt ‘to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
APPLE OF MY EYE Deuteronomy 32:10 Cherished above all else
‘He found him in a desert land and in the wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.’
BY THE SKIN OF YOUR TEETH and NOTHING BUT SKIN AND BONES Job 19 & 20
Job undergoes harsh trials set by Satan, from which he is finally set free by God.
‘All my intimate friends desert me, those I love have turned against me. I am nothing but skin and bones. I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.’
SCAPEGOAT Leviticus 16 A person made to take the blame for others.
Two goats were used in the ritual of yom kippur, one safe in the care of the Lord, the other, the scapegoat, symbolically laden with the sins of the Israelites and sent to its death in the wilderness.
AT YOUR WITS END Psalms 107:27 Very upset, not knowing what to do
‘They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.’
The quote refers to people who go back and forth in their devotion to God.
BITE THE DUST Psalms 72:9
‘They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before Him, and His enemies shall lick the dust.’
PRIDE COMES BEFORE A FALL Proverbs 16:18
‘Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.’
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN Ecclesiastes 1:9
‘That which has been will be. That which is done will be done. And there is nothing new under the sun.’ See also Shakespeare Sonnet 59.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY Ecclesiastes 8:15, also Luke 12:17 and 1 Corinthians 15:32
‘Because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink and to be merry for that shall abide with him of his toil the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.’
A FLY IN THE OINTMENT Ecclesiastes 10:1 A source of annoyance; one little thing can spoil everything.
‘Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.’
A DROP IN A BUCKET Isaiah 40:15 Of no significance. We now say ‘A drop in the ocean.’
‘Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket and are counted as the small dust of the balance.’ Said of God’s sovereignty over the nations.
SEE EYE TO EYE Isaiah 52:8 To be in complete agreement.
‘Thy watchmen shall lift up their voice; with the voice together they shall sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.’
LIKE A LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER Isaiah 53:7 Being unaware of impending disaster.
‘He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. And as sheep silent before the shearer, so he opened not his mouth.”
A LEOPARD CANNOT CHANGE ITS SPOTS Jeremiah 13:23
You are what you are meant to be, and that doesn’t change. ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
SOUR GRAPES Acting meanly after a disappointment Ezekiel 18:2
‘The father has eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
This reads more like ‘the sins of the fathers are visited on the children’. The story of the Fox & the Grapes in Aesop’s Fables is nearer the way we use the phrase today:
‘The Fox after many attempts failed to reach the grapes. He (unconvincingly) hid his disappointment by saying that they were sour anyway.’
THE WRITING’S ON THE WALL Daniel 5:1-31 Something very bad is about to happen, and nothing can be done to stop it.
The scene is a feast held by Belshazzar, King of Babylon. While was drinking from a vessel looted in the destruction of the first temple by Belshazzar’s blaspheming father Nebuchadnezzar, a hand appears and writes something on the wall. The King’s wise men cannot interpret the words, but Daniel reminds the King that his father learned the hard way that God rules over men. God has found Belshazzar wanting and he will be overturned. That very night the Babylonian King was killed and his kingdom taken by the Persian Darius.
The composer Sir William Walton told this story in his wonderful oratorio Belshazzar’sFeast.
HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN 2 Samuel 1:25 David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan
CASTING PEARLS BEFORE SWINE Matthew 7:6 Giving something to someone who doesn’t know its worth
‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast up pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turn again and rend you.’
A WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING Matthew 7:15
‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.’
FALL BY THE WAYSIDE Matthew 13:4 To drop out, give up, fail to finish
In the Parable of the Sower ‘Behold a sower went forth to sow and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside, and the fowls came and devoured them up.’
THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND Matthew 15:14 incompetent people leading other incompetent people. Ring a bell? Said of the Pharisees
‘Let them alone, they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.’
A famous painting (1568) by Peter Bruegel depicts a line of blind people following each other into a ditch.
AN EYE FOR AN EYE and A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH Matthew 5 38-42
An eye for an eye is mentioned several times in the Old Testament, which is referenced here in the Sermon on the Mount.
‘You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’
TO MOVE MOUNTAINS Matthew 17:20 (By faith) to achieve something that is apparently impossible.
‘And He said to them.Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.’
TO WASH YOUR HANDS OF THE MATTER Matthew 27:24 Th have nothing more to do with something, have no more responsibility for it.
‘When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but rather a tumult was made, he too water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this innocent person: see ye to it.’
THE GOOD SAMARITAN Luke 4 30-37 One of the best known of all the Bible stories.
THE POWERS THAT BE Romans 13:1
‘There is no power, but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’
IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE 1 Corinthians 15:52 in an instant, as quick as a wink.
‘In the twinkling if an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.’
MONEY IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL 1 Timothy 6:10 Frequently misquoted, famously in the 1940s song sung by the Andrews Sisters.
‘For the LOVE OF MONEY is a root of all kinds of evil.’