An idiom is an expression that has a meaning other than what the words themselves communicate. For example, you can “have your hands full” even with empty hands. If an idea is “over one’s head,” you don’t look toward the ceiling to find it. If someone has “let the cat out of the bag,” you don’t have to call animal control. These idioms are understood by experienced users of the English language to mean “busy,” “beyond comprehension,” and “revealed a secret,” respectively.
All languages have idioms, including the languages in which the Bible was written. Using idiomatic expressions is a normal part of communicating, and, since the Bible was written in normal human language, it, too, contains idioms.
The English Bible has had a profound effect on the development of the English language. The phrasing, vocabulary, and cadences of the King James Version left a lasting impact on our culture. In fact, some of the Bible’s idioms have been adopted as idioms in English. Idioms that come straight from the Bible include the following:
Let me catch my breath. Meaning: “give me some time.” As Job is questioning the purposes of his suffering, he says of God, “He would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery” (Job 9:18).
A drop in the bucket. Meaning: “a very small, insignificant amount.” In lifting up God as sovereign, Isaiah writes, “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust” (Isaiah 40:15).
The apple of one’s eye. Meaning: “something very dear.” The psalmist asks for God’s protection against his enemies, saying, “Keep me as the apple of the eye” (Psalm 17:8).
Other English idioms that are sourced from the Bible include Adam’s apple (Genesis 3:6), cast the first stone (John 8:7), by the skin of one’s teeth (Job 19:20), taking someone under the wing (Psalm 17:8; 61:4; 91:4), the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5:5–6), set in stone (Exodus 31:18), Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–35), extending an olive branch (Genesis 8:11), and to miss the mark (from the meaning of the Greek word hamartia in Luke 1:77; John 1:29; 1 John 3:4).
The Bible also contains Hebrew and Greek idioms that are translated into English. Idioms are notoriously difficult to translate, since they are specific to the language of origin and may cause confusion when translated literally. Here are some examples of idiomatic phrases in the Bible:
Know. A literal translation of yada (Hebrew) and ginóskó (Greek) gives us the sense of “knowing.” Both words are used as an idiom for “sexual intercourse.” Adam “knew” his wife (Genesis 4:1, ESV). Joseph did not “know” Mary until after Jesus was born (Matthew 1:25, ESV).
Seed. Someone’s “seed” in the Bible can be an idiomatic reference to his “children” or “descendants” (Genesis 22:17, KJV).
The manner of women. The Hebrew idiom for a woman’s period can be translated literally as “the manner of women” (Genesis 31:35, NKJV).
Flowing with milk and honey. God used this idiom to communicate to the Israelites that the Promised Land was “fertile” (Exodus 3:8).
Melting heart. If a person’s heart “melts,” then he “loses courage,” and that’s how the idiom is used in Deuteronomy 20:8 (BSB).
One who urinates on a wall. In 1 Samuel 25:22 (WEB), this idiom makes reference to a “male.”
Cover one’s feet. It is thought that the Hebrew expression translated as “covered his feet” in Judges 3:24 and 1 Samuel 24:3 (NASB) was a euphemistic idiom for “relieving himself.”
From Dan to Beersheba. Dan was in the extreme northern part of Israel, and Beersheba was in the extreme south, so the idiom from Dan to Beersheba meant “all of Israel” (see 2 Samuel 3:10; 1 Kings 4:25).
Great before God. A literal translation of Jonah 3:3 says that Nineveh was “a great city before God” (YLT). Most translations simply say something akin to “Nineveh was an extremely large city” (HCSB), which is what the idiom great before God means in this context.
Gird up your loins. If someone tells you to “gird up your loins,” you are to “get yourself ready” (Jeremiah 1:17; Job 40:7, NASB).
Having in the belly. Matthew 1:18 contains an idiom describing Mary as en gastri exousa, literally, “having in the belly” or “possessing in the womb.” This was Matthew’s way of saying that Mary was pregnant.
Answered and said. A common idiom in Greek, answered and said or opened his mouth and said, was simply a way of saying that someone began speaking. In a language written without punctuation marks (including quotation marks), such an idiom was useful for alerting readers of the start of a direct quote (see Matthew 4:4 and Acts 10:34, NKJV).
What you hear in the ear. This idiom is used by Jesus to refer to a “whisper” (Matthew 10:27, BLB).
Eat their own bread. Paul rebukes idle people in the church, telling them to “eat their own bread,” that is, to work for a living and earn their own money (2 Thessalonians 3:12, NKJV).
Abraham’s bosom. Jesus spoke of a place called kolpos Abraam in Luke 16:22. This idiom is translated as “Abraham’s bosom” (NASB) or “Abraham’s side” (NIV). The NLT renders it as being “beside Abraham at the heavenly banquet.”
As you read through the Bible, you should “keep your eyes peeled” for idioms. Some of them you may not be able to “make heads or tails of” at first, but a good commentary or study Bible can “lend a hand.” With a little research and background information, understanding most passages containing idioms in the Bible can become “easy as pie.”