English Idioms from the Bible

Improve your understanding and self-expression with this article and reading comprehension exercise about idiomatic English expressions from the Bible! If you’re interested in other idioms, check out this post about idioms from anatomy.

The Importance of The Bible In English

The History of the English Bible

The Bible, specifically the King James version, has had a significant impact on the development and standardization of the English language. The King James Bible, also known as the Authorized Version, was commissioned in 1604 by King James I of England and was completed in 1611. It was a translation of the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek texts and was intended to be a definitive version that could be used by the Church of England.

The King James Bible was written in a style of English known as Early Modern English, which was the standard form of the language at the time. It was written in a formal and elaborate style that was intended to be accessible to a wide audience and to convey the solemnity and importance of the text. The King James Bible had a profound influence on the development of the English language and was widely read and studied. It helped to establish many of the grammatical and syntactical conventions that are still in use today and contributed to the standardization of the English language.

Facilitating Literacy

The Bible has also played a significant role in facilitating literacy. The widespread distribution of the King James Bible contributed to the spread of literacy in England and other English-speaking countries. Schools often used the Bible as a textbook. Not just for Bible study but also to teach reading and writing skills to children.

The use of Idioms from the Bible in English

The Bible wasn’t just important in the development and standardization of the English language. It is also a rich source of idioms. An idiom is a phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning that is different from the literal meaning of the words. The Bible is full of idioms that have become a part of the English language and are commonly used in everyday speech. Learning what these expressions can will help you to understand native speakers and texts and can also help you to express ideas in a concise way.

25 Common Idioms from The Bible

Here are 30 examples of popular English idioms from the Bible. Each example provides a brief description of what the idiom means, the reference to the section of the King James Bible that the idiom comes from and an example to illustrate use.

“The writing is on the wall”

This idiom comes from the story of Belshazzar, a king of Babylon who was warned of his impending downfall by a message written on the wall. The idiom is used to refer to a warning or a sign of impending danger or trouble. For example, if a company has financial troubles, an employee might say that the writing is on the wall for their job, meaning that they think that they may soon be made unemployed!

“The apple of his eye”

This idiom refers to someone who is very dear or beloved. It comes from the passage in the Bible where God says that the Israelites are “the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10). Parents commonly use this expression when they are talking about their children.

“A drop in the bucket”

This idiom means a small or insignificant amount in comparison to something larger. It comes from the passage in the Bible where God says that the nations are “like a drop in a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15). An example of this idiom in context might be that people are always told that recycling will help the environment, but compared to other damaging things, the impact of recycling is a drop in the bucket.

“The salt of the earth”

This idiom refers to someone who is good, honest, and dependable. It comes from the passage in the Bible where Jesus says that his followers are “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). An example of this idiom in context might be “Although he was a celebrity and had a lot of money, he was a really humble and modest person, the salt of the earth.”

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing”

This idiom refers to someone who is deceitful or disguised as something they are not. It comes from the passage in the Bible where Jesus warns his followers about false prophets who are “like wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). An example in use might be: “When Maria’s new colleague joined the team she seemed really helpful, but in reality, she wanted Maria’s job. She was a wolf in sheep’s clothing!”

“Bite the dust”

This idiom means to be defeated or to fall to the ground. It comes from the passage in the Bible where it says that the wicked will “bite the dust” (Psalm 72:9). We quite often use this expression for things that don’t work anymore or people who die. For example someone whose computer has broken might say “My computer has been temperamental for a long time, but now it won’t even turn on. It has finally bit the dust, so iIl need to get a new one!”

“The skin of my teeth”

This idiom means barely or narrowly escaping something. It comes from the passage in the Bible where Job says that he has “escaped by the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20). An example of this idiom in context might be if a students requires a result of 60% to pass an exam and scores exactly 60%, the teacher might say that they passed by the skin of their teeth! That is to say that they passed by a very narrow margin.

“The root of the matter”

This idiom refers to the underlying cause or problem. It comes from the passage in the Bible where Job says that he has “not hidden the root of the matter” (Job 19:28).

“A labor of love”

A task that is done out of love or affection (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Perhaps someone writes a blog about something that they are really interested in, such a s a band that they really like. They don’t make any money from the blog, despite putting a lot of time and effort into it. In this case the blog could be described as a labour of love.

A leopard can’t change its spots

Someone’s character or behaviour is unlikely to change (Jeremiah 13:23). A leopard is a big cat that is distinguished by its patten of spots all over its body. This is a really common expression! For example, if someone has a history of lying, cheating and stealing, even when they say that they have changed and that you can trust them, you may be suspicious of them. In this case, you might think to yourself that a leopard can’t change its spots!

A man after my own heart

We often describe someone who shares our values, ideals or preferences as being “after our own heart”. (1 Samuel 13:14). For example, If a man meets his daughter’s new boyfriend and discovers that they support the same football team, he might say that he is “A man after my own heart!”

A penny saved is a penny earned

It is wise to save money and avoid unnecessary expenses (Matthew 25:27). People commonly use this idiom to justify being prudent and careful with your money. The idea is that money that you don’t spend is just as valuable as money that you earn and that wasting money just to work to earn it back is foolish.

Eye for an eye

A punishment that is equal to the harm inflicted (Exodus 21:24). Many cultures use this expression, often in the context of the legal system or in terms of personal revenge against someone. The idea is that if someone does something bad, then their punishment should be the same thing that they did to the other person This goes against a lot of contemporary thinking about crime, punishment and rehabilitation. However, many people consider this to be a kind of justice. In a recent case in Iran, a man attacked another man and blinded him . The courts punished the attacker by blinding him in one eye too! This is a particularly gruesome and literal example, fortunately most uses of this idiom are not so horrific!

Go the extra mile

To make an additional effort beyond what is required (Matthew 5:41). When I went to the United States of America I was really surprised at how attentive staff in shops, hotels and restaurants were. They really went the extra mile to make sure that the customer was satisfied, probably because they are so dependent on tips!

Good Samaritan

A good samaritan is someone who helps a stranger in need, regardless of their background (Luke 10:30-37). In the Biblical story, robbers attack a man and leave him on the ground injured. Members of the man’s own tribe walk past and don’t help him. However, a man from and enemy tribe, the Samaritans, sees the man in need and offers assistance.

The powers that be

People in positions of authority (Romans 13:1). We often use this expression to talk about bosses at work, the government or someone who is in charge. We often use this expression in a pejorative way, to ridicule or dismiss people. An example might be “We have a lot of problems in this company, but the powers that be have no idea what they are, so things are not likely to change.”

To cast the first stone

This idiom means to be the first to criticise or accuse someone (John 8:7). This idiom comes from execution by stoning, where people throw rocks at someone until they are dead. However, in one Bible story, Jesus meets a woman who has committed adultery. People want to punish her, but Jesus recommends that the first person to punish her should be the person who has never done anything wrong. The people realise that we are all imperfect and do not punish the woman. We often use this idiom in conversation when we are recommending not being too critical of someone who has done something wrong, especially something that we may have done ourselves at some time!

To fall from grace

To fall from grace means to lose favour or respect (Galatians 5:4). For example, a children’s television presented who is involved in a drug scandal would be likely to suffer a fall from grace as their reputation and employment prospects are badly damaged.

Turn the other cheek

To turn the other cheek means to respond to an offense with kindness or forgiveness (Matthew 5:39). The idea is that if someone slaps you in the face, rather than fight back, you should offer them the other cheek to slap too! In reality, this means to ignore offense or aggression rather than responding to it. An example might be that someone was really rude to a child at school, calling them names and ridiculing them. Their parents may say that instead of treating them in the same way the child should ignore this behaviour.

Out of the mouths of babes

This expression usually refers to a wise, insightful or honest comment from a child (Psalm 8:2). For example, over Christmas I put on quite a lot of weight from eating and drinking so much. My daughter, who is only four years old, told me that I “need to do some exercise to get rid of my big belly!”. Although I didn’t want to hear it, she was absolutely right!

To sow the seeds

This means to initiate something that will have long-term effects (Matthew 13:3-9). An example might be how our use of single use plastics has sowed the seeds of the problems that we now face with micro-plastic contamination and accumulation of plastic rubbish all over the world.

The blind leading the blind

A situation where uninformed people are trying to guide each other (Matthew 15:14). We often use this idiom to say that people who don’t know about something are teaching or directing other people! An example might be someone who is selling a “get rich quick” course, when they themselves are poor.

David and Goliath

A story of an underdog triumphing over a more powerful opponent (1 Samuel 17). In the Bible story, David, a young boy with a catapult fights against Goliath, a giant warrior. We often use this to describe unequal conflicts. For example, “This small family shop was defending itself from legal action from a huge multinational company. It was a real David and Goliath scenario!” In the story, David wins. In reality this may not necessarily be the case!

English Idioms from the Bible Gap Fill Exercise

Do you use any of these expressions in your native language? Do you have any doubts about how to use these idioms? Let us know in the comments section below or ask us on Whatsapp!

Test your ability to use these Biblical idioms with this exercise. The exercise will select 10 different questions about the 25 idioms from the article each time you do it. To master these expressions you can use the test again and again!

Fill in the blanks with the correct word. Each space requires only one word.

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