102 Idioms and Symbols of the Bible Part Two
Updated: Mar 26
We conclude our series on Idioms and Symbols of the Bible. Reimagine what you understood John the Baptist meant when he introduced Jesus as the Lamb of God. This idiom has far reaching implications. The Bible is an ancient document that was written in another language and needs careful thought to understand what is really being communicated. We hope you will be blessed and enabled to see a better picture of our amazing God.
Idioms, Figures of Speech and Symbols the Bible
Idioms or figures of speech are combinations of words whose meaning cannot be determined by examination of the meanings of the words that make it up. Or, to put it another way, an idiom uses a number of words to represent a single object, person, or concept. Unless you recognize when an idiom is being used you can easily misunderstand the meaning of a text. Modern translations, such as the NIV, use an equivalent figure of speech in English to translate many biblical idioms. More literal versions, particularly the King James Version, translate idioms word for word. It is the reader of the literal versions who needs to be most aware of the meanings of biblical idioms. Robert Bradshaw
A metaphor is a comparison idiom without using “like” or “as” which are used in a simile.
Here some everyday idioms we use. John went to pick blackberries but found they were red so he knew they were green.
“This will blow your mind.” “I love you so much I could eat you up.” “I had Butterflies in my stomach.” “He/she is to die for” “The penny dropped.” “I am as hungry as a horse.” They seem to never stop eating.
Jesus use of Figures of Speech John 16:29-30 Then Jesus’ disciples said, “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. 30 Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions (To tell you anything NLT). This makes us believe that you came from God.”
I am the good shepherd, the gate, the vine, the Son of Man, the truth, the life, the way.
1. Let the dead bury the dead:
Matthew 8:21 NIV Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
A real body will never fit into the one-meter-long graves or ossuaries on the Mount of Olives. In Jesus day there were two parts to the burial of a person. The body was first placed in a cave or burial chamber where the flesh rotten off. When this was completed, the bones were collected and placed in the visible grave. This was the second burial. Jesus was no doubt saying to a prospective disciple, “Don’t make waiting for the second burial an excuse for not following me!” This passage does not mean that ministry is more important than family.
Let the spiritually dead bury their family and friends. You have better goals in life.
2. The Camel and the eye of a needle:
Matthew 19:24 NIV Again I tell you; it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
This is a contrast between the largest animal in Palestine and the smallest aperture. It is the contrast that makes the point. The idea that there was a small gate into Jerusalem that a camel had to kneel to get through is fiction. This is hyperbolic statement by Jesus.
3. Faith like a Mustard Seed.
Matthew 17:20 NIV He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
Mustard is the most tenacious of plants. It grows everywhere in Palestine. Mountain refers to kingdom (of darkness) or people of darkness or unfaith or doubt in Jesus. This “mountain” must be “moved” away by our tenacious clinging to Jesus.
4. The Gates of Hades:
Matthew 16:13 NIV When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
At the foot of Mt Hermon lies Caesarea Philippi (Banias). This was the Greek religious centre around 300 BC. Here they carved a temple front for Pan and offered human sacrifices. Pan was half human half goat. He would play his flute (Pan flute) in the forest and “Pan-ic” stricken humans would run. There were other sculptured fronts in the rock to Zeus and other gods and so the area was called the “gates of hades.” The Greek religions were the more popular religion at the time and this was a promise that the kingdom of God would triumph. This is why Jesus asked who do people say I am? Were they seeing Jesus as another god in the Greek pantheon? Here is an example of such an event.
Acts 14:8 NIV In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. 11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
Peter’s statement the Jesus was the Christ while they were near Banias is thus an amazing leap of faith given to him by God. It is prophetic that Christianity would triumph over the Greek religions or the “gates of Hades.”
5. “Forever and ever.”
Isaiah 34:10 NLT The streams of Edom will be filled with burning pitch, and the ground will be covered with fire.
10 This judgment on Edom will never end; the smoke of its burning will rise forever. The land will lie deserted from generation to generation. No one will live there anymore.
Revelation 14:11 NLT “must drink the wine of God’s anger. It has been poured full strength into God’s cup of wrath. And they will be tormented with fire and burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb. 11 The smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever, and they will have no relief day or night, for they have worshiped the beast and his statue and have accepted the mark of his name.”
Revelation makes it sound as though those who are aligned with the beast will be tormented for eternity. One can only interpret this passage this way if one does not know about the idiom as used in Isaiah 34:10. Edom or Jordan is not burning and has not burned for millennia. The idiom means you cannot stop the fire burning whatever it is burning. Its like saying, “ I have told you a thousand times, stop sniffling.”
6. The Wrath of God
Here is a traditional Christian response. Wrath is defined as “the emotional response to perceived wrong and injustice,” often translated as “anger,” “indignation,” “vexation,” or “irritation.” Both humans and God express wrath. But there is vast difference between the wrath of God and the wrath of man. God’s wrath is holy and always justified; man’s is never holy and rarely justified. In the Old Testament, the wrath of God is a divine response to human sin and disobedience. Idolatry was most often the occasion for divine wrath. Psalm 78:56-66 describes Israel’s idolatry.
The wrath of God is consistently directed towards those who do not follow His will (Deuteronomy 1:26-46; Joshua 7:1; Psalm 2:1-6). The Old Testament prophets often wrote of a day in the future, the "day of wrath" (Zephaniah 1:14-15). ...
The New Testament also supports the concept of God as a God of wrath who judges sin.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus speaks of the judgment of God and serious consequences for the unrepentant sinner (Luke 16:19–31). John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on Him.” The one who believes in the Son will not suffer God’s wrath for his sin, because the Son took God’s wrath upon Himself when He died in our place on the cross (Romans 5:6–11). Those who do not believe in the Son, who do not receive Him as Savior, will be judged on the day of wrath (Romans 2:5–6).
Conversely, human wrath is warned against in Romans 12:19, Ephesians 4:26, and Colossians 3:8-10. God alone is able to avenge because His vengeance is perfect and holy, whereas man’s wrath is sinful, opening him up to demonic influence. For the Christian, anger and wrath are inconsistent with our new nature, which is the nature of Christ Himself (2 Corinthians 5:17). To realize freedom from the domination of wrath, the believer needs the Holy Spirit to sanctify and cleanse his heart of feelings of wrath and anger. Romans 8 shows victory over sin in the life of one who is living in the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8). Philippians 4:4-7 tells us that the mind controlled by the Spirit is filled with peace.
The wrath of God is a fearsome and terrifying thing. Only those who have been covered by the blood of Christ, shed for us on the cross, can be assured that God’s wrath will never fall on them.
“Since we have now been justified by His blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through Him!” (Romans 5:9). https://www.gotquestions.org/wrath-of-God.html
Here is an alternative understanding.
Romans 1:18 NLT But God shows his anger (wrath) from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
How God shows his wrath is described in verses 24, 26, and 28. Notice the one phrase that is repeated in all three verses.
24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired.
26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. 28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. God’s wrath is abandoning sinners to their choices because he believes in freedom for even his enemies (Matthew 5:43). He is forced away by their choices because love does not force itself on another. This is his “strange act” because he loves and wants an intimate relationship with each person he created to love and serve. God is forced aside and has to watch his precious creation destroy itself.
7. The Fear of the Lord
Proverbs 1:7 NLT Fear of the LORD is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. Proverbs 9:10 NLT Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. Hebrew literature often uses parallelism to make the point obvious. This means that the fear of the Lord means wisdom and discipline and knowledge of the Holy One.
8. The Lamb of God
John 1:29, 36 NLT The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 36 As Jesus walked by, John looked at him and declared, “Look! There is the Lamb of God!”
If I have a lamb then it is Ian’s lamb or the lamb of Ian. The lamb of God is also God’s lamb. It is symbolic of Jesus who God brought to us to make peace with us because we were angry with him (Romans 5:10; 8:7). Our anger against God was such that it led to the death of the only eyewitness of God who has ever been on earth.
In our rage and revolt against God, we literally tore Jesus to pieces with the Roman lash and then crucified him (Acts 2:23). It is a revelation of what sin does to God’s gentle creation. It was Adam and Eve who hid from God and it was God who came looking for them. God sent the good shepherd, Jesus, who came looking for us to bring us back to God (John 10:11-14). In Revelation 5:6 there is a slaughtered lamb which solves the problem of suffering in the universe. No one else could end suffering, not even God on the throne. It was God’s Lamb that did so by uncomplainingly absorbing the pain of the universe into himself during his passion.
9. Third and Fourth Generation
Exodus 20:4-6 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Reading verse 5 alone portrays God as vindictive and vengeful. This is a Hebrew idiom and the contrast is between “the third and fourth generation” and “thousands of generations.” Unfortunately, the KJV left out “of generations” in verse 6. However, Deuteronomy 5:10, a parallel passage has “of generations” in the KJV. The newer translations of Exodus 20:6 have corrected this omission.
The sins of the fathers impact children for few generations but God’s mercy continues for a thousand generations which is more than we have from Adam to the present day. The idiom means that God’s mercy never ends and that he counter works the effect of evil in families.
10. Jacob I have loved and Esau I have hated.
Romans 9:13 NLT In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”
This is a direct quote from Malachi 1:2-3 and is clearly an idiomatic statement from Jesus’ usage in Luke 14:26 KJV
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
Contemporary English Version: You cannot be my disciple, unless you love me more than you love your father and mother, your wife and children, and your brothers and sisters. You cannot come with me unless you love me more than you love your own life.
Using the lead of the CEV we may understand “Jacob I have loved and Esau I have hated” to mean that the relationship between Jacob and God is stronger than that between Esau and God. This is a consequence of Esau’s negative response to God who loves unconditionally (John 3:16-17) and wishes all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
A symbol is a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship.
The biblical prohibition against eating blood was tied to its association with life and the recognition that it represented the essence (nephesh) of a living being (Gen 9:4; Lev 3:17; 7:26; 17:10-11; Deut 12:23).
Blood is symbolic in the Bible. It is symbolic of life given in death for animal sacrifices and the death of Jesus. It was painted on the doorframes when the Israelites left Egypt. It was smeared on the horns of the altar and sprinkled on the interior veil of the sanctuary and temple. When we sing “there is power in the blood,” we mean that the death of Jesus empowers us to believe that God loves us. This means that he has forgiven our sins (Colossians 2:12-13), ransomed us from evil, and desires our company as friends (John 15:15).
1 Peter 1:18-20 NLT For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. 19 It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. 20 God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake.
The ransom is paid in “blood” TO US is to move us from the empty life we inherited. Now we have the fruit of the Spirit. Now we are “blood brothers” with Jesus Christ. We have his “blood” in our veins and he has our “blood” in his veins. In this language blood represents life. The context determines if blood means death or life.
2. A Woman
Rev. 12:1 A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
Some commentators try and make this scene literal. The woman is literally Mary, the mother of Jesus. Clothed with the sun means, as in the Renaissance pictures of Mary, there is a halo around her head. The rest of the chapter is highly symbolic and to make this part of the account literal is to miss the symbolism. A pure woman represents God’s faithful followers. An impure woman represents God’s apostate people (Revelation 17:1-6)
Revelation 14:4 ESV It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb,
Virgins because they do not have a relationship with Babylon and her daughters (Revelation 17:2-5). If they had a relationship with Babylon it is not remembered by God (1 Corinthians 13:5) in his grace.
Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd. A good shepherd takes the initiative at all times in caring for his sheep. Jesus can thus say, “You did not chose me, I chose you” (John 15:16). The shepherd leaves the 99 to search for the one missing sheep (Matthew 18:12–14; Luke 15:3–7).
Decoding or understanding idioms and symbols takes some energy and time but pays great dividends. It is an ongoing task because the Bible was written thousands of years ago in another language and out of different cultures. If you want to understand Shakespeare you need to do the same and yet he only lived 400 years ago. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Middle English) requires more discipline and energy to understand since they were written 600 years ago.