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7 Phrases You May Not Know Originated from the Bible

  • Dolores Smyth Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jul 14, 2021
7 Phrases You May Not Know Originated from the Bible

It should come as no surprise that the Bible is the most widely read book in the world. It should also come as no surprise then that many of the phrases we use on a daily basis actually have Biblical origins.

Before the printing press made mass production of the printed word possible, most families only owned one book: the Bible. Because of this, it was common for people to memorize Scriptural verses. Eventually, many of those verses became part of our everyday manner of speaking.

Below are several popular phrases that originated in the Bible. While you may recognize some as coming from the Word, others may surprise you as having Scriptural beginnings. No matter the case, you’re invited to open your Bible and learn the deeper context of these common expressions.

Here are 7 phrases that originated as part of the inspired Word of God, and where in the Bible you can find each.

1. At the Eleventh Hour (Matthew 20:1-16)

When you do something at the eleventh hour, you do it just in the nick of time. This phrase comes from a parable in the Gospel of Matthew.

There, we read the story of a landowner who hired laborers to work in his vineyard for the daily rate of a silver coin. The workers are hired at different times so that the last workers hired come onto the job eleven hours after the work has begun and ended up working for only one hour. Despite this, the owner of the vineyard paid those who were hired last a silver coin just as he paid those who had worked the entire day a silver coin. When questioned by the workers who had worked all day, the vineyard owner replies that each of the workers had agreed to work for the same reward.

In a Biblical context, this parable signifies that people who come to Christianity in the last moments of their life will still receive the same reward as those who have been lifelong practicing Christians—namely, entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Just as the vineyard owner was free to pay his workers as he saw fit, God is not beholden to anyone in how He dispenses His grace and salvation.

2. By the Skin of Your Teeth (Job 19:20)

This colorful saying comes from the Book of Job. In this Old Testament book examining the meaning of human suffering, we’re introduced to the tormented protagonist Job. Job is a “blameless” man who undergoes profound suffering after Satan’s accusation that Job’s piety hinges solely on Job’s wealth and well-being (Job 1:1-12).

After losing his family, property, and health, Job laments that he is so afflicted that he has escaped death “only by the skin of [his] teeth” (Job 19:20). The meaning here is that Job has escaped death by the slightest of margins, so minuscule that he likens them to the non-existent skin on his teeth.

Like its Biblical origin, when you get out of a predicament by the skin of your teeth, you’ve made it through by the narrowest of margins. Whether it’s getting somewhere just in time or leveling up despite numerous setbacks, you’ve escaped defeat against all odds.

3. Rise and Shine (Isaiah 60:1)

The earliest known reference to this traditional morning greeting is found in the Book of Isaiah. There, the prophet Isaiah tells believers to, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you” (Isaiah 60:1).

In this verse, Isaiah doesn’t merely ask believers to wake up from their slumber. Rather, the prophet calls the faithful to action. Isaiah instructs believers to stand in their faith and allow the light of God to shine through in their words and actions. By doing so, Isaiah promises that entire nations will be drawn to the brightness of a believer’s light and, thereby, be drawn closer to God.

In more modern times, “rise and shine” became a wake-up call to soldiers. The word “rise” refers to preparing yourself for the day, and “shine” is believed to refer to the fact that soldiers were expected to shine their boots daily. As in its Biblical context, “rise and shine” means to get up, get ready, and be the best version of yourself possible.

4. Wash Your Hands of a Matter (Matthew 27:24)

When you wash your hands of a matter, you remove yourself from a problematic situation with which you disagree and proclaim that you won’t be held accountable for any bad outcome that ensues. This vivid expression is based on Pontius Pilate’s literal hand washing before Jesus was sentenced to death by the mob before him.

More specifically, Scripture tells us that Pilate saw no reason for Jesus to be killed. When the crowd threatened an uproar in disagreement, Pilate gave in to public pressure and washed his hands in front of them, proclaiming himself innocent of Jesus’s blood before handing Him over to be crucified (Matthew 27:22-26).

This expression has expanded over time to include people and situations with whom we want nothing to do with regardless of whether we believe the person to be innocent or guilty of wrongdoing.

5. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Matthew 7:15)

When we speak of someone as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, we mean that the person seems benevolent but actually has underhanded intentions. People who manipulate others for their own self-serving ends fall into this category.

This expression is part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In that sage collection of teachings, our Savior warns us to watch out for false prophets who arrive dressed in “sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

Aside from this warning, Jesus tells us how to recognize such wolves, instructing us that we will know them by their fruit. This means that we will know how to separate the false prophets from the true followers of Christ by looking at how they live their lives and assessing whether their actions line up with their words (Matthew 7:16-20).

6. Flowing with Milk and Honey (Exodus 3:8)

This idiom comes from the Book of Exodus. In Exodus, we read about Israelites’ escape from over 400 years of slavery in Egypt and, thereafter, how they wandered the Sinai desert for 40 years. During their time in the wilderness, God sustained the Israelites with manna, quail, and water.

God promised the Israelites that there would be an end to their wandering and that, as descendants of Abraham, they’d possess the land of Canaan as their own. Canaan was described as a Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).

In Biblical times, milk was used figuratively to signify abundance, and honey signified luxury and splendid things. Similarly, today the phrase “flowing with milk and honey” means an abundance of things that are good and that make life sweeter. Much like its Biblical context, the term is commonly used to mean that you are leaving one place or situation and entering a better place or situation.

7. To Cast Pearls before Swine (Matthew 7:6)

This saying refers to giving something valuable to someone who isn’t able to appreciate its value. This phrase comes from Jesus’s command on how believers are and are not to spread the Good News.

As part of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to share the Gospel with those who are open to receiving it. We are to avoid profaning the Gospel by not giving to dogs what is sacred and by not throwing pearls to pigs (Matthew 7:6). The “dogs” and “pigs” are those who persist in ridiculing Scripture or twisting its words to lead others astray.

It’s important to note here that Jesus is not discouraging us from sharing the Word with everyone we meet. What He’s telling us is that, after we’ve made sincere efforts to bring someone to Christ, we are to stop evangelizing that person if he or she persistently disrespects Scripture. In that case, we’re to move on and focus on people who are ready and willing to receive God’s message of salvation.

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Dolores Smyth is a nationally published faith and parenting writer. She draws inspiration for her writing from everyday life. Connect with her over Twitter @byDoloresSmyth.