With less Bible knowledge, English speakers often don’t realize the biblical genesis of their words and phrases (pun intended).
By Aaron Earls
While the decline of biblical literacy has been well documented (less than half of American Protestant churchgoers read the Bible more than once a week), the Bible still has extraordinary staying power in our everyday conversations.
Committed Christian or ardent atheist, we all use phrases or words from the Bible, particularly the King James Bible, often without realizing it. Because everyone had that book in common, the phraseology became part of the daily lexicon.
With less Bible knowledge as a whole, and additional translations, English speakers often don’t realize the genesis of their words (pun very much intended).
Here are 11 common phrases with a divine origin.
1. Escaping by the skin of your teeth
When a movie hero makes a narrow escape, just avoiding the imminent danger, we say they escaped by the thinnest of margins – the skin of their teeth.
Perhaps surprisingly, that phrase comes from someone who didn’t seem to escape at all. After all of the calamities Job endured, he says he escaped with his life by the skin of his teeth in Job 19:20.
2. A house divided against itself cannot stand
This quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, like most everything on the Internet. But while the 16th president of the United States did use the phrase in a famous speech, he didn’t invent it. Jesus did.
When rebuffing Pharisee charges that he was casting out demons because He was possessed Himself, Jesus uttered the phrase that would later be used by Lincoln, become an episode title of an 1980s primetime soap opera, and spoofed by a 90s sitcom.
3. A drop in the bucket
It’s an idiom that means something that is small or insignificant. One slice of pizza is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the amount of pizza a student ministry consumes in a year.
To demonstrate the enormity of God, the prophet coins the phrase in Isaiah 40:15: “the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are considered as a speck of dust in the scales.”
As football season gets underway, announcers will speak of offensive linemen being “behemoths.” It means someone or something really big and massive.
For God, it was the perfect example to show Job how tiny he was when compared to God. In Job 40:15-24, He told the suffering saint to look at this gigantic animal He had created.
When things go wrong, often times those in leadership look for a scapegoat—an innocent person to take the blame and the fall. That sticks pretty close to the original use in English translations of the Bible.
In the Old Testament, two goats were chosen for the Day of Atonement. One was sacrificed, but Leviticus 16:10 speaks of the scapegoat, which was released into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people.
6. Gird your loins
Another phrase used frequently with sports, when someone girds their loins, they are getting ready to do something strenuous or difficult. A modern equivalent would be to “roll up your sleeves.”
Used in Job 38:3 and Ephesians 6:1, it means to tie up loose or long hanging clothing, so you could set about the work that was in front of you—that or get ready for the arrival of the evil, but iconic editor of a fashion magazine.
7. Writing is on the wall
Certain events seem to lead inevitably to a specific outcome. When you see something that predicts an obvious conclusion, you might say the writing is on the wall.
However, the origin of the phrase ironically describes a situation that wasn’t so obvious. No one knew what the writing on the wall in Daniel 5 meant, until God gave Daniel the interpretation that the kingdom would be taken away from the king.
8. A leopard can’t change his spots
From Porter Wagoner and Elvis to the Roots and Blondie, the phrase has provided many musicians a lyrical turn of phrase. Supposedly, you are what you are. Just like a leopard cannot change its spots, a person cannot change their nature.
In the middle of God describing the sinful nature of His people in Jeremiah 13, He maintains they are stuck in their ways and cannot change just like a leopard and his spots.
9. Bite the dust
Is there a Western movie that doesn’t describe someone dying as their having “bit the dust”? We use it today to speak of almost anything that has broken down and is no longer of use.
While the exact words didn’t originate in the Bible (the earliest citation is from a Scottish author in 1750) the inspiration is biblical. Psalm 72:9 is a prayer that the enemies of the king will “lick the dust.” Neither licking or biting dust sounds enjoyable.
10. The letter of the law
A person supposedly can obey the letter of the law, a literal interpretation, and miss out on the spirit, the intention of it. Every parent knows how close a kid can get to hitting their sibling without actually hitting them.
In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul talks about how the letter of the Old Testament law brings death, but the Spirit gives life. They weren’t supposed to live by the letter, but receive life from the Spirit.
11. Salt of the earth
If someone is “salt of the earth,” they are a good person. You can count on them. They are dependable and honest. At least, that’s how the phrase is often used today.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus said His followers would be the salt of the earth. But like many other biblical descriptions of Christ’s followers, it became known less about who (a Christian) and more about what (the behaviors).
Did any on the list surprise you? Are there other popular phrases originated from the Bible that you appreciate?
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.