Improving Your English

Biblical idioms and sayings with origins explained

Do you know how many idioms from the Bible we use in everyday English? The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is actually one of the most common sources of phrases and idioms in the English language, after Shakespeare’s works.

English is full of idioms and expressions, but we don’t always think about the origins of those phrases. So take a look at these Bible idioms and see how many you use regularly without realizing where they come from.

This list of Biblical idioms is by no means complete, but we have chosen some of the most commonly used phrases, along with examples so you can see how to use them, as well as the Bible verses from which they originate.

Idioms from the Bible: Old Testament

Let’s begin with some Bible idioms found in the Old Testament.

Bite the dust

To bite the dust means to fail or to stop existing.

“I think my washing machine has finally bitten the dust.”

Origin: Psalms 72:9 “They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.” (KJV)  

Broken heart

Having a broken heart doesn’t mean that your heart is physically broken; it means that you are in great sorrow and despair.

“The death of Meg’s dog has left her with a broken heart.”

Origin: Psalms 34:18 “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” (KJV)  

By the skin of your teeth

If you do something by the skin of your teeth, you only just succeed.

“I got through to the next round of auditions by the skin of my teeth.”

Origin: Job 19:20 “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” (KJV)  

Can a leopard change his spots?

We might ask “Can a leopard change his spots?” as a rhetorical question, or simply comment “A leopard cannot change its spots”. This means a person can’t change their essential nature – especially when they have an inherently negative quality.

“I know that she is trying to be more caring, but a leopard cannot change its spots.”

Origin: Jeremiah 13:23 “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” (KJV)

Find more idioms to describe change (or lack of it).

A drop in the bucket

A drop in the bucket is a small, inadequate quantity, or an insignificant contribution towards a larger problem. You may also hear a drop in the ocean.

“Although we are grateful for all the donations received, the total raised so far is still just a drop in the bucket.”

Origin: Isaiah 40:15 “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he takes up the isles as fine dust” (ESV)

Fly in the ointment

A fly in the ointment is a drawback or a detrimental factor.

“Before we go ahead with the proposal, we need to check carefully for any flies in the ointment.”

Origin: Ecclesiastes 10:1 “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” (ESV)

Lamb to the slaughter

This animal idiom from the Bible comes from the days when people would sacrifice animals. A lamb would obediently follow, unaware of its impending fate.

So, when someone does something innocently, without realizing the danger or catastrophe that lies ahead, we might say they do it like a lamb to the slaughter.

Origin: Jeremiah 11:19 “I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.”” (NIV)

Some translations say “like a lamb or an ox” – but ‘an ox to the slaughter’ doesn’t seem such a powerful simile, does it?

A similar phrase appears in Isaiah 53:7 in a prophecy about Jesus: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (NIV)

Nothing but skin and bones

If you are nothing but skin and bones, you are painfully thin and emaciated.

“After surviving a year at university on instant ramen and baked beans, she came home nothing but skin and bones.”

Origin: Job 19:19-20 “All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me. I am nothing but skin and bones;” (NIV)

No rest for the wicked

The Biblical saying “No rest for the wicked” is usually said as a joke, suggesting that because you’re wicked (or have done bad things), you have to work hard.

Origin: Isaiah 57:20-21 “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”” (NIV)

Pride comes before a fall

Pride comes/goes before a fall” is a saying meaning that if you are too confident in yourself, something will happen to humble you and put you back in your place.

Origin: Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (NIV)

Put words in someone’s mouth

To put words in someone’s mouth is to say what you think someone else means, or what they should say.

“I tried to explain what had happened but my mother kept putting words in my mouth.”

Origin: 2 Samuel 14:3 “And come to the king, and speak on this manner unto him. So Joab put the words in her mouth.” (KJV)

The root of the matter

The root of the matter is a Biblical idiom that refers to the focal point or most important element of a problem or topic.

“I feel like we haven’t yet reached the root of the matter in our discussions.”

Origin: Job 19:28 “But ye should say, Why persecute we him, seeing the Root of the matter is found in me?” (KJV)


At your wit’s end

Someone who is at their wit’s (or wits’) end is in a state where they have no patience left.

“My baby has been crying for hours and won’t go to sleep; I’m completely at my wit’s end.”

Origin: Psalm 107:27 “They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.” (KJV)

This is just one of many idioms about stress and about bad things happening.

A scapegoat is someone who is made to bear the blame for others.

“Even though Brian was responsible for the mistake, he used Victor as a scapegoat.”

Origin: Leviticus 16: 9-10 “But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.” (NIV)

See eye to eye

If two people or parties see eye to eye, they are in agreement or have the same view on a matter.

“I’m glad that our two companies see eye to eye on this; it will make negotiations much easier.”

Origin: Isaiah 52:8 “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.” (KJV)

There’s nothing new under the sun

There’s nothing new under the sun is a way of saying that everything has been seen before; there is nothing new or original these days.

Origin: Ecclesiastes 1:9 “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (ESV)

The writing is on the wall

The Biblical idiom “the writing is on the wall” means that something bad is about to happen, or there is no way for something to succeed.

“I know the team is trying hard but I fear the writing is on the wall for this season.”

Origin: Daniel 5 – in this passage, handwriting appears on a wall during the King’s feast, and Daniel’s interpretation of the writing (correctly) predicts the King’s demise.

Discover more writing idioms here.

Biblical idioms from the New Testament

Blind leading the blind

The blind leading the blind refers to a situation where people lacking in skill or knowledge are being led or guided by others who are equally inept.

“James is trying to give me dating advice but it’s like the blind leading the blind.”

Origin: Matthew 15:13-14 “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” (KJV)  

Cast the first stone

The person to cast the first stone is the first to make a criticism or the first to attack.

“Although everybody has a strong opinion on this matter, nobody wants to cast the first stone.”

Origin: John 8:7 “And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”” (ESV)

An eye for an eye

This is one of the better-known idioms from the Bible. We may recite the saying “An eye for an eye (and a tooth for a tooth)” to assert that if someone does something wrong, they should have the same thing done back to them as a punishment.

Origin: Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (ESV)

Want to know more idioms involving body parts?

Fall from grace

To fall from grace is to lose your reputation, status or rank (it can also be used as a noun phrase).

“He experienced a fall from grace in the 1980’s from which he never truly recovered.”

Origin: Galatians 5:4 “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (KJV)

Go the extra mile

To go the extra mile is to do more or make a greater effort than is expected of you.

“Dewi always goes the extra mile when serving customers.”

Origin: Matthew 5:41 “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (NIV)

Gird your loins

When you gird (up) your loins, you prepare yourself mentally to do something.

“You’d better gird your loins; this could be a difficult meeting.”

Origin: 1 Peter 1:13 “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (KJV)

In Biblical times, people wore long tunics. Before doing any significant physical activity they would need to gather up the loose fabric and secure it in their girdle or belt, around their loin area. Although this is the original meaning of ‘gird your loins’, Peter uses it in a figurative sense relating to mental alertness – and this is how we still use this idiom from the Bible today.

Good Samaritan

A good Samaritan is someone who unselfishly and compassionately helps others in need, particularly strangers. This comes from one of the better-known parables in the Bible.

“I thought I was stranded when my car broke down but fortunately a good Samaritan came along and helped me.”

Origin: Luke 10:30-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Did you know that this kind of charitable person could also be called a ‘good egg’? Check out some idioms about good to learn more.

Live by the sword, die by the sword

Live by the sword, die by the sword” is a saying which means that if you use violence against others, you can expect to have it used against you; you should expect to have the same means used against you that you use against others.

Origin: Matthew 26:52 “Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (NIV)

Money is the root of all evil

Money is the root of all evil” is a common saying which is derived from, but significantly different to, the passage below.

Origin: 1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (NIV)

You can find lots more idioms about money in our separate article.

The powers that be

The powers that be are unknown people who control things.

“This company could be much better if the powers that be actually listened to what their staff think.”

Origin: Romans 13:11 “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (KJV)

Sign of the times

A sign of the times is something that is typical of the way that things are now, generally in a negative way.

“People spend more time looking at their phones than at each other over dinner these days, but I suppose it’s just a sign of the times.”

Origin: Matthew 16:3 “and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (NIV)

Discover more idioms about time here.

Straight and narrow

The straight and narrow is the path of proper, honest, and moral behavior.

“I’m pleased that Lucas has a new girlfriend; she should keep him on the straight and narrow.”

Origin: Matthew 7:14 “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (KJV)

Thorn in your side

A thorn in your side or thorn in your flesh is something that is a constant source of irritation.

“Leila has been a thorn in my side ever since she joined our team.”

Origin: 2 Corinthians 12:7 “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (ESV)

In the twinkling of an eye

If something happens in the twinkling of an eye, it happens very quickly.

“Their eyes met across a crowded room but in the twinkling of an eye, she was gone.”

Origin: 1 Corinthians 15:52 “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (NIV)

Wash your hands of something

If you wash your hands of a matter, you refuse to accept responsibility for it, or abandon it.

“If Laura refuses to accept my advice then I’m washing my hands of the matter.”

Origin: Matthew 27:24 “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”” (NIV)

Wolf in sheep’s clothing

A wolf in sheep’s clothing is an enemy disguised as a friend, or a dangerous person pretending to be harmless. Although originally a Biblical idiom, This term was popularised in the fable where a wolf disguises himself as a sheep so that he can sneak up on the flock.

“In this competitive industry we must be vigilant against wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Origin: Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (KJV)

So there you go; 33 Biblical idioms that we use in everyday English. Were you surprised to see that any of these sayings and expressions have their roots in the Bible? You can leave a comment below to share your thoughts. And why not check out some Christmas idioms next?

Do you want to be more confident using English? Why not try Grammarly's free proofreading tool. It checks as you write and helps you correct and improve your spelling and grammar.

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