We’ve taken far more than simple nouns and noun phrases from the Bible. A host of well-known expressions originated there.
An example is the blind leading the blind. This common saying suggests that inexperienced or ignorant people often find leadership roles.
The original is in Matthew 15:14 where, referring to the Pharisees, Jesus says: “They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” We find a version of this expression in Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
When something unexpected occurs, it’s often said, “That came out of nowhere — like a thief in the night.”
The phrase is from Thessalonians 5:2-3 where it refers to the second coming of Jesus: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.”
We’ve all heard of handwriting on the wall, usually mentioned in reference to signs or undercurrents warning of disaster or failure. The above wording is not found in that exact form in the Bible. Still, handwriting on the wall refers to an inscription in some unknown language which mysteriously appeared on a wall in King Belshazaar’s palace. “In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace” (Daniel 5:5).
When Daniel translated this message, he found it to mean, “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Thou are weighed in the balance and found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Pharisees” (Daniel 5:25-28).
Note yet another common English idiom within the message on the wall: to be weighed and found wanting.
Handwriting (or writing) on the wall occurs again and again in literature. For example, Jonathon Swift uses it in 1736: “They have his Soul who have his bonds. ‘Tis like the Writing on the Wall” (Poetic Works).
Those weighed in the balance and found wanting are people who do not or cannot measure up to some given standard. “Balance” in this usage, refers to a scale.
The four corners of the earth has its genesis in the Old Testament: “(And he) shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12).
To be a law unto oneself is a way of accusing someone of disregarding the rules. This expression evolved from the Bible’s depiction of Gentiles who ignored the Law of Moses. In Romans 2:14, we read: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.”
Many many more everyday sayings originated in the Bible, for example: fall by the wayside, raise Cain, the straight and narrow, voice crying in the wilderness, bottomless pit, feet of clay, thorn in the flesh, to cast pearls before swine, and to hide one’s light under a bushel.
* All biblical quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.