10 Popular Phrases You Didn’t Know Came from the Bible

Oct 18, 2021  |  By Evelina G

If you’re an English speaker, you’ve probably heard or used these popular sayings and idioms. But did you know that they all originate from our most holy Jewish text?

Check out some of the most commonly used phrases from the Hebrew Bible, or Tanach, along with their original context. And take a moment to take pride in your Jewish heritage and the timeless wisdom of our tradition, still used in everyday language today!

1. A drop in the bucket

Meaning: something small and unimportant, one out of many

Source: Isaiah 40:15: “The nations are but a drop in a bucket, reckoned as dust on a balance.”

 

2. Man does not live on bread alone

Meaning: humans need spiritual nourishment just as much as physical

Source: Deuteronomy 8:3: “He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the LORD decrees.”

 

3. A leopard can’t change his spots

Meaning: people or things are unable to change their basic, innate characteristics

Source: God describes humanity’s sinful nature and maintains they are stuck in their ways and unable to change in Jeremiah 13:23 by making this comparison: 

“Can the Cushite change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Just as much can you do good, who are practiced in doing evil!”

 

4. Being at your wit’s end

Meaning: worried, confused, aggravated, exhausted by a difficult situation, or unsure what to do

Source: Psalm 107:27 referring to sailors thrown around by a storm: 

“They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.

 

5. Like a lamb (or sheep) to the slaughter

Meaning: to be naïve or blissfully unaware to the dangers ahead; to innocently walk into a dangerous situation

Source: This phrase is found in two different places in Tanach:

Jeremiah 11:19: “For I was like a docile lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that it was against me.

Isaiah 53:7

“He was maltreated, yet he was submissive,

He did not open his mouth;

Like a sheep being led to slaughter,

Like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her,

He did not open his mouth.”

 

6. Nothing new under the sun

Meaning: used to express a monotony of life or tiredness at a lack of new ideas; everything has already been done or seen before

Source: Ecclesiastes 1:9: “That which has been, it is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is nothing new under the sun.

 

7. How the mighty have fallen

Meaning: something or someone that was once great has been defeated or diminished in stature

Source: 2 Samuel 1:25 and repeated again in 1:27, as David laments Israel’s defeat and the loss of his friend Jonathan in battle: 

How have the mighty fallen

In the thick of battle—

Jonathan, slain on your heights!

[…]

How have the mighty fallen,

The weapons of war perished!”

 

8. Put words in one’s mouth

Meaning: to twist someone’s words, or suggest someone said or meant something they did not say or mean

Source: The original Biblical phrase just meant to tell someone what to say; Yo’av instructs a woman to lie to the king in 2 Samuel 14:3:

“‘And come to the king, and speak in this manner to him.’ So Yo᾽av put the words in her mouth.”

 

9. Eat, drink, and be merry

Meaning: to enjoy oneself and be in the moment

Source: Ecclesiastes 8:15: “I therefore praised enjoyment. For the only good a man can have under the sun is to eat and drink and enjoy himself.” 

(“Enjoy himself” has also been often translated as “be merry.”)

 

10. To the ends of the earth

Meaning: to the most remote places in the world; figuratively, making an extreme effort and overcoming difficulties

Source: Zechariah 9:10: “And I will cut off the chariot from Efrayim, and the horse from Yerushalayim, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace to the nations: and his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.”

 

BONUS: This too shall pass

Meaning: nothing is permanent, an unpleasant or difficult situation is bound to eventually end

Source: While not found in the Bible itself, Jewish folklore attributes this wise saying to King Solomon. It is said that when a sultan asked him to provide a statement that would always be true in good times or bad, Solomon responded, this too shall pass.

 

Ready to learn some more common Biblical phrases? Check out our guide to the most popular Biblical verses found on Jewish jewelry, as well as some of our favorite pieces if you’re looking for a beautiful, wearable Biblical quote for yourself or a loved one.

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