Christian History

Common Phrases Found in the Bible

The Holy Bible has been a guidebook for many people for many generations. For many of the children in the United States of America during pilgrim and settlement days, the Bible was their first early reader. It is not surprising, then, that many of the phrases we commonly use are taken, either verbatim or slightly altered, from this book. Most of them are must closer to those in the King James, or Authorized, Version of the Bible, as that was the version mostly in use during those years.

The Holy Bible

There are many concepts that are rephrased, as well, but here are 60 phrases that are found in the Bible, either very closely or exactly.

After one’s own heart

In 1 Samuel 13:14, the prophet Samuel told Saul, the king of Israel, that he was losing the kingdom because God had found a man after His own heart. A synonym phrase would be a kindred spirit.

Apple of the eye

Found five times in the Bible (Deuteronomy 32:10, Psalm 17:8, Proverbs 7:2, Lamentations 2:18, and Zechariah 2:8), the phrase “apple of his eye” refers to someone one cares about very much.

At wits’ end

In Psalm 107:27, the Psalmist is talking about sailors in a storm, who have reached the extent of their knowledge, so they pray for help. Likewise, in today’s world, when someone is at their wits’ end, they no longer know how to proceed.

Bite the dust

Though this phrase isn’t exact, it is very similar. In Psalm 72:9, the Psalmist states that the enemies of the king will “lick the dust.”

Blind leading the blind

Matthew 15:14 and Luke 6:39 both speak of the blind leading the blind, making note that in such a case, both will fall into a ditch.

By the skin of one’s teeth

Job used the phrase when speaking with his friends, expressing reasons for despair. In Job 19:20, he told them he was escaped “with the skin of my teeth.” Since teeth have no skin, this is a way of saying “just barely.”

Can a leopard change its spots?

Jeremiah 13:23 is the word God gave the prophet Jeremiah to tell His people, Israel. In asking if the leopard can change its spots, he is telling them that changing integral parts of a person does not happen, and their habit of evil is not likely to change.

Casting pearls before swine

Giving precious stones to animals who live in mud makes no sense, and in Matthew 7:6, this is compared with offering holy words to unholy people, because they will not listen and may become violent.

Cup runneth over

In verse five of one of the most popular Psalms, Psalm 23, this phrase appears. It refers to blessings more than can be contained.

Drop in the bucket

Isaiah described the nations as a “drop of a bucket” and small dust in chapter 40, verse 15. As a tiny bit of water in the bottom of a bucket, the nations are a tiny thing to God.

Eat, drink, and be merry

The man in the parable of Jesus who thought he had plenty of time to enjoy his gains, but after telling himself to “eat, drink, and be merry,” he ended up living less than 12 more hours. The phrase is often followed with “for tomorrow we shall die,” even though the verse doesn’t include that phrase.

Ends of the earth

There are 28 verses in which the phrase “ends of the earth” appear. This, of course, refers to reaching all parts of the earth.

Eye for an eye

The Jews were told that if a person purposely injures another, that their punishment should be to have the same done to them. This was referred to in Matthew 5:38-39 when Jesus told His followers not to follow that old adage, but to turn the other cheek.

Fall by the wayside

This phrase is used in Matthew 13:4, in the parable of the sower. Some of the seed fell by the way side, and was eaten by the birds – therefore, it was useless.

Fat of the land

In Genesis 45:19, the Israelites were told that they should live in Egypt during the famine, and while there, they would eat of the fat of the land. Egypt was the only place in that area of the world that had food at all, due to famine, but because Joseph was Pharaoh’s helper, his family was welcomed.

Feet of clay

King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a statue of himself that had a head of gold, a torso of silver and brass, legs of iron, and feet of clay. This symbolized vulnerability and a certain weakness, which is often attributed to humanity at large. One’s “feet of clay” tend to foster humility.

Fight the good fight

Paul exhorts his friend in his first letter to Timothy to fight the good fight, and in his second letter to Timothy, he declares that he has fought a good fight.

Flesh and blood

This notation of physical being, as opposed to one’s soul, is used five times in the New Testament. The first was Jesus speaking to Peter about his declaration that Jesus is God’s Son; the others were Paul in his letters to the churches.

Fly in the ointment

Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 10:1 that dead flies cause the ointment to stink. A small problem can cause a lot of nastiness.

Give up the ghost

This phrase is used often to refer to people who died. The ghost in this phrase is talking about the soul of a person leaving the body.

God save the king

Samuel presented Saul, the first king of Israel, to the people. They shouted, “God save the king.” Monarchs have been hailed with the phrase for thousands of years.

Go the extra mile

Matthew 5:41 is a part of Jesus’ exhortation to His disciples not to act like everyone else, but to be kind even to their enemies.

Good Samaritan

While the phrase itself does not appear in the story in Luke 10, the Samaritan was the only man willing to help the poor man who had been robbed and beaten, even though he was from a group of people who was usually looked down upon by the Jews, which the injured man was. Therefore, anyone who helps others with no regard for social norms is considered a good Samaritan.

Heart’s desire

The Psalmist spoke of heart’s desire a couple times, in Psalm 10:3 and Psalm 21:2, and Paul used the term in his letter to the Roman church (Romans 10:1).

Holier than thou

Isaiah 65:5 contains the phrase when speaking of people who break the law and still claim to be holier than others.

How the mighty have fallen

2 Samuel 1:19-27 contains the phrase “how are the mighty fallen” three times, as part of a lament over the late king of Israel, Saul, and his son Jonathan.

Labor of love

Paul, in both his first letter to the Thessalonians (1:3) and in the letter to the Hebrews (6:10), used the phrase “labor of love” when speaking of the good works they had done for God.

Lamb to the slaughter

Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both used this phrase (Isaiah 53:7; Jeremiah 51:40), and Luke used a slightly adjusted version in speaking about Christ in Acts 6:32.

Letter of the law

The phrase itself does not occur, but the concept does, in Romans 7:6. The believers are meant to follow the spirit of the law, rather than the letter.

Like mother, like daughter

This concept is found in Ezekiel 16:44, quoting a proverb that was apparently already often used. The wording is, actually, only slightly different – “As is the mother, so is her daughter.”

Little birdie told me

Again, the exact wording is different, but Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 10:20 that one ought not to curse the king or the rich, even in private, because “a bird of the air shall carry the voice.”

Little by little

The Biblical phrase is “by little and little” and appears in Exodus 23:30 and Deuteronomy 7:22.

Man does not live by bread alone

Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4 both quote Jesus stating that “man shall not live by bread alone.”

Move mountains

Jesus spoke of moving mountains as a matter of faith in Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21, and Mark 11:23. Paul used a nearly identical phrase in 1 Corinthians 13:2 when, in his discussion about charity (love), he said that enough faith to remove mountains was worth nothing without love.

My brother’s keeper

Genesis 4:9, in telling about the first murder, in which Abel was slain by his brother Cain, God asked Cain where Abel was, and he responded by asking God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Nothing new under the sun

It was Solomon who told us in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that there is no new thing under the sun.

Old as Methuselah

While the phrase does not appear in the Bible, the concept is based on the fact that Methuselah was the oldest man in recorded history, at 969 years old at the time of his death.

Out of the mouths of babes

The Psalmist in Psalm 8:2 was quoted in Matthew 21:16 by Jesus. While the original phrase referred to praise, the phrase is used now to speak also of simple truths.

Patience of Job

James referred to the patience of Job in James 5:11, in describing prophets and the Lord’s attributes.

Physician, heal thyself

A proverb from before New Testament times, Luke quoted Jesus when He used the phrase as a reference in Luke 4:23, speaking about how people were perceiving Him.

Powers that be

Paul, in Romans 13:1, told the church that the authorities – the powers that be – are put in place by God.

Pride goes before a fall

Another one of the not-quite phrases, Proverbs 16:18 says that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The popular adaptation of the phrase rolls more easily off the tongue.

Put your house in order

Ahithophel put his house in order before committing suicide, and Hezekiah was told to put his house in order when he was about to die (though he was given fifteen more years).

Rise and shine

Isaiah 60:1 exhorts the people to “Arise, shine.”

The root of the matter

Job, in Job 19:28, speaks to his friends about the root of the matter.

Salt of the earth

Jesus told His disciples that they were the salt of the earth, and encouraged them to be useful.

Set your teeth on edge

The prophet Jeremiah (chapter 31, verses 29-30) and the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 18, verse 2) both used the phrase “teeth are set on edge.”

Skin and bones

Psalm 102:5 and Lamentations 4:8 speak of skin cleaving to bones.

Skin of my teeth

Job 19:20 speaks of escape with the “skin of my teeth.”

Straight and narrow

Matthew 7:14 talks about a strait gate and narrow way leading to life.

The sweat of one’s brow

When God was sending Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, He told them they would have to work for their food, using the phrase “in the sweat of thy face.”

Time and place for everything

Popularized by a song in the 1960s, Ecclesiastes chapter 3 begins with eight verses of times and purposes.

Twinkling of an eye

Paul, when speaking about the end times in 1 Corinthians 15:52, he said that believers will be changed in the twinkling of an eye.

United we stand; divided we fall (House divided)
Matthew 12:25, Mark 3:25, Luke 11:17, and Luke 12:52 all make the point that a house is divided against itself, will not be able to stand.

Wash your hands of the matter

This is taken from the account of Jesus before Pilate. Pilate found nothing worthy of death in Jesus, so he literally washed his hands of the matter and sent Him to the soldiers. (Matthew 27:24)

White as snow

“What as snow” and “whiter than snow” are both used throughout the Bible. In early accounts of the Israelites, it is used in reference to leprosy, while later and in the New Testament, it is used in reference to garments. The most notable use is in Isaiah 1:18, where Isaiah tells the people that their sins can be cleansed “white as snow.”

Woe is me

Woe is mentioned often in the Bible, both as “woe is me” and “woe to them.” Probably the most famous of them is Isaiah’s declaration, “Woe is me! For I am undone,” which appears in Isaiah 6:5.

Wolf in sheep’s clothing

Matthew 7:15 talks about false prophets, which “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

Writing on the wall

When Belshazzar was king, he was giving a feast when God wrote on the wall that his time as ruler was short (Daniel 5:22-29). Since then, the phrase “handwriting on the wall” or “writing on the wall” has been used to refer to evidence that something was coming to an end.

Ye of little faith

Jesus used this phrase three recorded times in His time on earth. Once was to His disciples about God taking care of them (Matthew 6:30 and Luke 12:28); once to His disciples about the stormy sea, just before He calmed it (Matthew 8:26); and once to his disciples about feeding a crowd (Matthew 16:8).

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