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Idioms and proverbs are a curious part of any language, and one of the hardest parts of a new language to learn. For example, English speakers don’t look puzzled if someone tells them not to “beat around the bush.” They all know that they should stop avoiding what they want to say and get to the point.
Just imagine you hear this phrase as a new English speaker. Would you expect your friend to head outside, grab a shovel, and swing at the nearest shrub? Clearly these phrases aren’t meant to be interpreted literally. Have you ever wondered how these idioms got their meaning in the first place?
In the case of English, many of these phrases come from literature that influenced the people of England while the language was still young. Two of the most influential pieces of literature at the time were the plays of Shakespeare and the 1611 King James Bible. Victor Hugo, beloved author of Les Miserables, once said about these two works,
“England made Shakespeare, but the Bible made England.”
The Church of England was deeply intertwined with the political sphere. As a result, the Bible did not merely influence England’s religious landscape, but also its culture and politics. This era was also the time of the development of the English language as we know it. Therefore, many of our English idioms come from the Bible, specifically the King James translation of 1611. In fact, many of them come from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, a passage which contains a wealth of moral teaching.
Here are 5 well-known English idioms from the King James Bible. As you will discover, only some of these idioms have kept their biblical meaning.
1. “An eye for an eye”
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you…whosoever shall smite thee on thy right check, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38-39).
Today, “an eye for an eye” means to give retribution proportional to the crime. For example, if a person were to gouge out his enemy’s eye, he would in turn have his own eye gouged out as punishment.
As we see in these verses, the Pharisees had this same tendency – their law and tradition encouraged personal retribution. As humans, we want to make other people feel the same pain that they caused us or our loved ones to feel. We want to exact justice here, now, in the middle of our boiling anger. But is this the kind of justice that Jesus commands us to have.
As we continue reading, we learn that Jesus’ view of justice is far different from our own. Jesus specifically instructs his audience to turn away from the idea of “an eye for an eye." Instead, we should leave judgment in the hands of God. He instructs us not to personally avenge injustices committed against us. To use another English saying, we are to “turn to him the other [cheek],” demonstrating the same meekness and patience that Jesus demonstrated when he was unjustly crucified.
This temptation to take “an eye for an eye” was real for the Pharisees and is still real for us today. Showing grace in all situations is not easy, but is evidence of the Holy Spirit's transformation of our hearts.
2. “A house divided against itself”
“But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.
And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:
And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?” (Matt. 12:22-28)
“A house divided against itself” in contemporary English means that a community can’t thrive while divided. We can see this idea easily illustrated in the two-party political system in the United States. If one of the two parties is divided into many factions within itself, it will not be able to choose one candidate with enough party support to defeat the opposing party’s candidate. Similarly, if each department of a large corporation has a different vision of the direction in which the corporation should go, they will have difficulty growing together.
In this passage, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of performing miracles, specifically exorcisms, in the name of Satan (Beelzebub). However, Jesus explains that this accusation is absurd. Why would Satan form an alliance with Christ, his enemy, to defeat his own minions?
Jesus was not trying to create a new proverb when he said, ”A house divided against itself shall not stand, “ he was merely trying to point out the absurdity of the Pharisees’ claim that he was working with Satan to destroy Satan’s own army! Clearly, the Pharisees were oblivious to Jesus’ ultimate mission to destroy Satan and his army of demons once and for all.
The principle behind the proverb, in the way it is used in our contemporary world, still holds true. A community at war within itself is doomed to failure.
3. “My brother’s keeper”
“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?
And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.
And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’ blood from thy hand.” (Gen. 4:8-11)
When we speak of being “my brother’s keeper” in our contemporary world, we refer to our responsibility as humans to care for the needs of our neighbors. In some ways, this mindset is a healthy acknowledgement of our God-given need for community and serving in that community. When one of us loses a loved one, our friends will lovingly take the responsibility of caring for us.
However, Cain was not talking about the importance of encouragement in community when he spoke these words in Genesis 4. In fact, he intended quite the opposite. Cain had just murdered his brother Abel out of envy. Instead of admitting his guilt, he used “Am I my brother’s keeper?” as a sarcastic reply to God when God confronted him about Abel’s death. We might even say Cain was blaming God for Abel’s absence, implying that God should have been Abel’s “keeper.”
The fact that this phrase has now come to be used in terms of social justice and community values is intriguing, considering that it originally came from the lips of a lying murderer. These words came from Cain’s mouth, not God’s. God never instructed his people to be “keepers” of each other. The word keeper creates an inherently unequal relationship, such as in the words zookeeper, housekeeper, and gatekeeper. The “keeper” is understood to be in charge of the “kept.”
In a way, Cain was right in assigning the “keeper” role to God and not to himself, though his reason was deceptive and selfish. In God’s eyes, we are of equal value; God is our “keeper” and we , in turn, are the “keepers” of the rest of creation. In God’s household, God cares for us as our Father, we care for each other as brothers and sisters, and we watch over the rest of creation as stewards.
4. “If the blind lead the blind”
Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?”
But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.
Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch (Matt. 15:12-14).
You have probably heard “when the blind lead the blind” used to describe the danger of incompetent leadership. A leader who lacks the skills or character needed for his or her position of influence is a liability to the entire community. For instance, if a pastor is retiring and appoints an untrained friend to be the next leader of the church, he is setting up a situation where his theologically "blind" friend could lead the church away from truth.
This phrase “when the blind leads the blind,” has roughly maintained its original meaning. When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders, why his disciples did not participate in ritual cleansings, Jesus responded by exposing the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and their sacrifice of the spirit of the Old Testament Law in favor of the letter of the law.
While we use this phrase to describe an ignorant victim led astray by an incompetent leader, Jesus holds both the “leader” and the “follower” responsible for their blindness. Both the Pharisees and their followers were willingly choosing to be blind to the true meaning of the Law.
5. “Salt of the earth”
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:13-16)
“Salt of the earth” is a phrase we use to refer to a respectable person – someone with integrity and a winsome personality. This common saying makes little sense without knowing where it comes from in the Bible. Salty would probably not be the first word we would use to describe our planet, and salt is not a typical symbol we use to represent virtue.
So where does this enigmatic phrase get its meaning? We find its origin in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, speaking to His followers, calls them the “salt of the earth” and, later, the “light of the world.” Jesus uses both salt and light to represent the grace of God. Both metaphors use a sensory experience to describe the impact of this grace on all who encounter it – where there was once emptiness, there is now substance. Where there was once darkness, there now is light. Where there once was no flavor, there is now a pleasant saltiness. Fulfillment has been brought to the world.
Furthermore, Jesus uses this metaphor to refer to the global focus of the church. To provide a pleasant flavor, salt must be scattered, not piled in one place. As Matthew Henry’s commentary describes, salt should not all be dumped in one place on a piece of meat, but should be scattered evenly throughout the food. In the same way, Christ’s followers are not meant to remain as an isolated community, but are meant to go into all the world and spread the flavor of God’s love and grace. The disciples of Christ are a globally focused family.
Therefore, the true “salt of the earth” are Christians who spread the Gospel around the world. People of integrity, yes, but specifically those who have been transformed by God’s grace and leave a wake of grace everywhere they go, that others may come to taste the light of Christ themselves.
These five English sayings reside at the top of a long list of biblical phrases that have found their way into everyday English. However, as Victor Hugo emphasized, the King James Bible did not just make English, but also England. The KJV’s value to England, most obviously seen through its impact on the English language, shaped both England’s culture and the cultures of the nations it colonized. As a result, our current use of English still contains many of these beloved KJV sayings.
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