Do You Know the Meanings of These Common Phrases from the Bible?

By: Zoe Samuel
Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

The Good Book is full of great stories about prophets, priests, kings, judges, of empires and kingdoms that rise and fall, of a God who is by turns vengeful and loving. Much of its 66 books are taken up with nonstop action, with wars, miracles, exiles, exoduses, and all sorts of family drama. Other parts are full of family trees in exhaustive detail.

However, that's not all there is. The Bible contains an awful lot of wisdom. Some of this comes in the form of psalms and proverbs, where you might expect to find a beautifully constructed bon mot. Other pearls of wisdom come from substantial parts of the book dedicated to simply laying down the law, from how you should treat your fellow man to what you should wear, eat, and do with your time. A few appear in parables told by prophets and others, seeking to educate. Then there some gems that are simply tossed into the middle of stories that might not always seem to be the most important in the book.

Do you really understand what it means to demand an eye for an eye? What about the concept of a scapegoat? Let's put your Biblical knowledge to the test!

What does "by the skin of your teeth" mean?

This saying is about getting away from a situation without harm - but only very, very narrowly.

What does "can a leopard change his spots" mean?

This saying means to say that people can't change: Jeremiah says a leopard can't change his spots and a bad person can't stop doing evil. Fortunately, people can change, it's just hard work.

What does "eat, drink, and be merry" mean?

This one literally means exactly what it says. You might say it to guests at a wedding after the speeches, to reassure them the potentially un-fun part is now over!

What does "cast the first stone" mean?

The full saying is "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," which Jesus said to point out to a crowd stoning an adulteress that they were being hypocrites. It has retained the same meaning.

What does "an eye for an eye" mean?

Most people believe the saying "you should repay an eye for an eye" to mean that "you, the victim, should "repay" your attacker by doing unto them exactly what they did to you. That said. rabbinical scholars generally take the "you" in this saying to mean the perp. That is, "you", the attacker, need to literally "repay" your victim in the amount of harm done: If you did them harm in the amount of an eye, then you owe them the value of an eye in compensation.

What does "drop in a bucket" mean?

This saying is about how something can be good or bad but ultimately inconsequential. Eg "Sarah gets all A grades, so that test result was just a drop in a bucket".

What does "fly in the ointment" mean?

Ointment is good, but flies are bad. This saying means that you can have something that is very nearly perfect and then it's ruined by a minor problem.

What does "for everything there is a season" mean?

This saying means that you can't rush things: they'll happen when they're good and ready. It doesn't mean you can't prepare ahead of time, though.

What does "bite the dust" mean?

Biting the dust means losing at something in so complete a manner as to guarantee you're not coming back.

What does "the blind leading the blind" mean?

The blind leading the blind means that a person who doesn't know anything about a subject is trying to impose their opinion. For example, "Jeff's proposal for the product release was terrible work, but the executives didn't even realize. It's the blind leading the blind."

What does "forbidden fruit" mean?

Forbidden fruit comes from Eden, where humanity was told not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life (people tend to forget there are in fact two trees; Adam and Eve eat from Knowledge, but are banished before they can enjoy Life too).

What does "let there be light" mean?

This is what God said to create the world. However, it is sometimes used in friendly jest, for example when a person has a really good idea their friends might jokingly approve of it with this phrase, as it to suggest (sarcastically or not) that it is godlike in quality.

What does "the love of money is the root of all evil" mean?

This saying is sometimes taken to mean that wealth or ambition are inherently bad, but generally it is taken to mean that loving money more than anything else was a good way to end up corrupt.

What does, "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword" mean?

Live by the sword, die by the sword means that if you accept that violence, cruelty, bullying etc. are acceptable ways for you to behave, then you can be sure other people will use them against you. It doesn't always literally mean dying, though it can do.

What does "good Samaritan" mean?

In a parable of Jesus, the good Samaritan stopped to help a man in need by the side of the road after a priest and various others ignored him.

What does "go the extra mile" mean?

People who go the extra mile are folks who do more than duty, decency, or good manners require of them. It's the cabbie who helps a frail old lady into the cab and doesn't start the meter until she's inside, the coworker who agrees to complete your task so you can make it to your kid's recital, etc.

What does "nothing but skin and bones" mean?

In its original Biblical use, Job said this to suggest that he was without love and friendship. These days it simply means being skinny to a degree that is not healthy.

What does "the powers that be" mean?

Powers that be mean all the people/angels/God etc. who are deemed to be in charge of things. You might send a prayer to the powers that be and refer to God, or you might lament the indifference of the powers that be and mean your senator.

What does "render unto Caesar" mean?

Render unto Caesar is a short way of saying that the earthly government has a right to expect a person of faith to be an upstanding citizen who keeps the law and pays taxes - but it goes on to specify that this is the limit of what the government can demand, for anything further than this is God's domain.

What does, "Pride goes before a fall" mean?

This saying means that if you are fortunate, but you become arrogant or smug about it, that's exactly when you're likely to lose your good fortune.

What does "rise and shine" mean?

Rise and shine used to be an exhortation to get up and do service to God through good deeds that would make His word shine. Nowadays it mostly means just get up and don't be grumpy!

What does "see eye to eye" mean?

When you see eye to eye with a person, it means you agree on things, often without even having to argue about it. You just get each other.

What does "put words in one's mouth" mean?

Putting words in someone's mouth used to mean telling someone what to say - that is, literally putting the words in their mouth. These days it means twisting what they've already said, for example, if they say "Blue is my favorite color," replying, "How dare you say that red and yellow are terrible colors!"

What does "how the mighty have fallen" mean?

This is a way of describing that an arrogant and unpleasant person has lost their power or fortune, and being just a little smug about it. In the Bible, it doesn't have the smug connotation.

What does "scapegoat" mean?

This comes from the Bible where the sins of the people were put onto a goat that was sent into the wilderness.

What does "sign of the times" mean?

This used to mean a sign of the end times, that is, Judgment Day, but now it's slightly more optimistic!

What does "straight and narrow" mean?

In the Bible, the straight and narrow path is where law-abiding, decent people walk - it's straight because it's correct but it's narrow because it's easy to stray from it.

What does "twinkling of an eye" mean?

This is in Corinthians describing how fast Judgment will come. A twinkle in an eye usually only appears briefly so it means a thing that happens very fast.

What does "wash your hands of the matter" mean?

This comes from Pilate trying to wash the blood from his hands but realizing he could not: it refers to a person who walks away from things they should not, leaving others to deal with it - and usually implies that they are guilty of something.

What does "weighed in the balance" mean?

To weigh something in the balance is to evaluate it. Usually this refers to people being both good and bad, meaning their deeds must be weighed. It comes from the idea of literal scales.

What does "there's nothing new under the sun" mean?

The important part of this saying, Biblically speaking, is "under the sun" - that is, there are new things in Heaven, thus we ought not to bother too much about the fact that everyone on Earth has already made every mistake we'll ever make, and we might very well never get where we want to be.

What does "at my wit's end" mean?

This is from the Psalms, and describes drunk people. These days it means someone who is simply out of ideas and cannot function.

What does "writing's on the wall" mean?

When the writing is on the wall, it means everyone can see that obviously, a situation is about to change. For example, "The police were gaining on the suspect and he could see the writing on the wall."

What does "wolf in sheep's clothing" mean?

A wolf in sheep's clothing is a bad person pretending to be good, for example a conman who promises you the world, when really they are scamming you.

What does it mean to "fall from grace"?

This comes from the idea of falling from "Grace", that is, being in good with God as we were when we were sinless in Eden. Nowadays it's more generic, as in, "The former golden boy of Wall Street has fallen from grace and now can't get work."

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