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Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 3 September 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 392 published on 19 July 1969.
Mordecai wearing sack-cloth with ashes cries out bitterly among his threatened people, the Jews
We aren’t happy when we have made a mistake, and if we dislike admitting it to ourselves, we dislike admitting it to others even more.
Sometimes, however, we may be able to make things easier by a phrase which may bring a faint smile to the face of the person we have to confess to. “I really am sorry,” we may say. “It was a stupid thing to do. Here I am in sack-cloth and ashes.”
This is an odd thing to say, and it would be an even odder sight if it were literally true! What we mean, of course, is that we are pretending to have dressed ourselves in the clothing which represented a penitent person in Biblical times.
There are several references to this custom in the Bible. Sometimes sackcloth was used to mark a great misfortune, as when a decree was issued by a certain Persian King ordering a great persecution of the Jews. One of their leaders, Mordecai, “rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther, Chapter 4 verse 1).
But the custom was usually a way of expressing deep sorrow for something that had displeased God. When Jonah preached to the people in the wicked city of Nineveh, we are told that the people there “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” and that even the King removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6).
A famous instance of a King wearing sackcloth as a mark of his own repentance is that of the wicked King Ahab. With the help of his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab had arranged for an innocent man named Naboth to be stoned to death on a false charge. This had been contrived so that the King could seize a little vineyard which Naboth had owned, next door to the palace grounds. Ahab badly wanted this vineyard for himself, to turn into a herb garden.
The prophet Elijah learned of the cruel plot by which Naboth had been got out of the way, and, confronting the King boldly, warned him that a terrible fate would overtake not only Ahab and Jezebel but their whole household, in punishment for their crime. Frightened by the prophet’s words, Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth,” and went about dejectedly (1 Kings 21, verse 27).
In their writings, the prophets often advised their hearers to “gird themselves with sackcloth” as a mark of sorrow for their sins. And Jesus himself used the words. Rebuking the people of certain villages, he said, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
In view of the widespread use of this phrase, it is not surprising that it has passed into our everyday speech as an expression of regret and a desire to make amends.
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Monday, 2 September 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 391 published on 12 July 1969.
“You need the patience of Job to sort out a mess like this!”
This is a remark which is sometimes heard when a complicated problem has to be faced. It may be the sorting out of a firm’s orders, the tidying of a cupboard, or it could be only untangling a badly-knotted fishing line. All these are situations demanding “the patience of Job.”
Many of us know that the Book of Job is one of the books in the Bible. It comes just before the Psalms in the Old Testament. But in addition to being the chief character in the Hebrew Book which bears his name, Job figures in the proverbs of all the Arab nations, to whom he is always known as “Job the patient one.”
Why was Job noted for his patience? It is because, as the Book of Job reveals, he suffered a great many misfortunes without ever losing his sense of God’s goodness and care.
In actual fact, Job was not always very patient, and had to be calmed down by various people who tried to reassure him that he had not been abandoned by God.
Job, once a prosperous and happy man, suffered the loss of just about everything he possessed. His flocks and herds, even the members of his family, all perished in a series of terrible disasters. He himself became ill, and sat brooding over his sufferings.
This is what the word “patience” really means here; in the language of Shakespeare’s day, when our best-known version of the Bible was translated (the Authorised Version of 1611), “to be patient” meant “to suffer,” rather than “to wait without complaining,” as it does today. So the phrase “the patience of Job” originally meant “the sufferings of Job,” but has altered its meaning in the course of four centuries.
Job, then, was patient in the sense that he suffered greatly, but he cried out bitterly against his misfortunes. Much of the Book of Job consists of his conversations with “Job’s Comforters,” as to why a good person such as he was should have to suffer so grievously. The book is written in the form of a drama, in which Job himself remains at the centre of the stage, while others come and go.
Curiously enough, another common phrase comes from one of Job’s speeches in this drama, but probably not one person in a thousand who uses the words realises that they are of Biblical origin. Look up Chapter 19, verse 20 of the Book of Job and you will find these words, with their surprisingly modern ring: “I am escaped with the skin of my teeth”!
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Friday, 30 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.
Samson carrying the gates of Gaza
In a garage, while my car was being repaired, I watched a young but sturdy mechanic lift a heavy machine and carry it across the workshop floor.
“That must be some weight,” I said. “You’re a regular Samson!” And then, when he looked blankly at me, I added, “You know who Samson was?”
Obviously puzzled, he replied, “Was he a great boxer?”
Samson was not, of course, a great boxer, although he was a notable fighter, and his name has become a byword for someone of great physical strength.
Samson lived at the time when the Hebrew nation had just settled in Palestine, and his exploits are recorded in the Bible, mainly in the Book of Judges (Chapters 13 to 16).
Samson was early noted for his strength. As a young man he was attacked by a lion, and is said to have killed it with his bare hands.
But it was against a rival tribe, the Philistines, that his most daring feats were carried out. He actually ventured into one of their cities, where a band of men planned to trap him. The great wooden gates of the city were bolted, and Samson seemed to be at the mercy of his enemies. In the night, however, Samson left his hiding place, made his way unseen to the city walls, lifted the great gates from off their hinges and carried them away – before his enemies even knew of his escape!
In another encounter with the Philistines, Samson, surrounded by his attackers, picked up the jaw bone of a dead donkey and, using it as a club, felled many of his enemies to the ground.
It was Samson’s misfortune to fall in love with Delilah, a woman of the Philistine tribe. He used to visit her secretly, not realising that, far from loving him, she was plotting to betray him to his enemies.
One day Delilah asked him, in what seemed to be a casual manner, where the secret of his great strength lay.
Three times Samson gave her untrue answers, and at last she reproached him for teasing her, and for not being honest with someone he claimed to love. As a result, Samson revealed to her the secret that his strength lay in his hair. Cut that off, he said, and he would only have the strength of a child.
Delilah lulled Samson off to sleep, then had his head swiftly shaved by a skilled barber, and handed him over to his enemies.
The story did not end there. Blinded and made to work as a slave, Samson was one day dragged out to entertain his enemies. By then, his hair had grown again, and with that his strength had returned.
Samson used his new-found strength to wreak a terrible revenge. He forced apart the pillars of the great hall in which his enemies had assembled. The roof crashed in, and Samson died in the ruins, together with those who had come to make fun of him.
No wonder he is remembered as the strong man of the Bible!
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.
If you look at the list of people who have contributed money to almost any good cause, you will find that not all of them have given their names. Beside some of the amounts you may read “anon” (short for “anonymous,” from a Greek word meaning “without a name”). Other people may have used what we call pseudonyms (from another Greek word meaning “false names”) such as “A Well-Wisher.” Among these latter you may very probably see “A Widow’s Mite.”
The sum of money contributed by such a donor will always be small – perhaps not more than half-a-crown, whereas others may have given tens or hundreds of pounds. Even so, the small amount may represent a bigger sacrifice on the part of the giver than the much larger sums donated by others.
This was appreciated by Jesus, who long ago drew attention to the happening which gave rise to this familiar phrase.
He and his friends were sitting together one day in the outer court of the great Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Crowds of visitors were constantly on the move through these courts, rather as they are in English cathedrals at holiday time. Some were worshippers, while others were only sightseers, but all of them were encouraged to contribute something to the upkeep of the temple and its services.
For this purpose, large collecting boxes were placed along the wall of one of the courts. They had funnel-shaped openings down which coins could be dropped.
These coins were not ordinary money, however. This was not allowed because it had the image of the Roman Emperor stamped on it, and this, in the eyes of the priests, would defile the temple. Visitors had to change their ordinary money at the entrance of the temple for special coins issued by the temple authorities.
In the special temple coinage, there was one coin of very low value indeed. It was made of copper, and the Authorised Version of the English Bible says that two of these coins were worth only a farthing (Mark 12, verse 42).
In a more recent translation, the Revised Standard Version published in 1952, the coins are stated to be worth a penny each. Either way, it is clear that they were worth very little indeed, even in their own day.
Jesus watched intently as various people placed gifts in the collecting boxes. Some put in a handful of coins, and were careful to be noticed as they did so. But Jesus saw one poor widow woman quietly drop in two of the little copper coins, or “mites.” (A “mite” was originally the name of a Flemish copper coin of low value.)
Turning to his friends, Jesus said, “I assure you that she has put in more than all these rich people, because what they gave they will never miss, but what she gave was the only money she had to live on.”
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Law, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.
Traffic wardens have become stereotypes of rigid inflexibility where the law is concerned
A motorist has pulled up on the side of the road marked with a yellow band. A Traffic Warden asks him politely but firmly to move on, and points to a vacant meter space nearby. The motorist tries to stay where he is. He only wants to stop a few minutes. The Warden insists that he can’t stay there, because if he does, he will be breaking the law.
“All right, all right!” mutters the driver. “But surely it’s not the law of the Medes and Persians, is it?”
Some laws are not always rigidly enforced. This strange phrase about the “Medes and Persians” refers to ones which are, and which allow no latitude at all.
The Bible, where the phrase is found, refers to “the law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not.” Once the king’s seal had been set upon any law in the ancient Persian kingdom, no one had the right to vary it in any way, nor to make exceptions to it.
The Jewish people had good reason to remember the rigidly severe laws of the Persian Empire, because for many years they were exiles from their homeland, forming what today we call a “minority” in the land of Babylon, which the Persians conquered. (The Medes, incidentally, were a people closely associated with the Persians.)
Under Persian rule, the Jews suffered many trials, particularly when one king tried to set himself above the invisible God to whom all the Jews were accustomed to pray. It was for continuing to pray to God instead of asking favours from the Persian king that the Jewish hero Daniel was imprisoned in a den of lions (from which he, nevertheless, emerged unharmed). The phrase in fact comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 6, verses 8 and 15).
It occurs again in the strange and little-known Book of Esther (chapter 1, verses 19). This is another story of the time of the Jewish exiles in the Persian kingdom of the 6th century B.C.
Esther, a Jewish orphan, became the Persian king’s favourite. In order to save her people from a savage law which the king had been deceived into signing, and which permitted the massacre of all the Jews in his kingdom, she had to show great courage.
Risking the king’s displeasure, and her own punishment, she caught his attention and talked him into a plan by which she hoped to convince him of the evil intentions of his advisers.
By charm, tact – and a splendid dinner-party – Esther succeeded in persuading the king that the law against her people was unjust. The man responsible for advising him was punished, and the Jews were given the right to defend themselves against anyone who dared to attack them.
This was as far as even the king could go in altering a “law of the Medes and Persians” to which he had already put his official seal!
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 387 published on 14 June 1969.
Jesus's teaching rejected by his own townsfolk in Nazareth by William Hole
If you are ever given this title, it simply means that you are considered to be too well-known to the people you are dealing with for them to take much notice of you. Let us imagine you are a candidate for your local Council. If people remember you as a little boy with a scooter, or a little girl with a doll, it will be hard for them to think of you as a person of importance.
But why “a prophet without honour”?
Like many other picturesque phrases, this comes from the Bible. The expression was used by Jesus himself, but from the way he spoke, it seems it must have been familiar to his hearers already.
Jesus had just done the very thing we have been talking about. He came back to the town of Nazareth, where he had spent his childhood, and began to preach in the local synagogue. What he said made quite a stir, for he claimed that the promises made by one of the ancient prophets had come true that very day. He even seemed to be suggesting that he himself was the long-awaited “messiah”, or saviour, sent by God to be the leader of the Jewish nation.
This was more than his hearers could stand. Elsewhere, the words of this earnest and persuasive speaker made a great impression. People crowded to hear him, and even followed him out into the country, hoping to hear more. They brought sick people to him and, by laying his hands on them, Jesus healed a great many. But none of these things happened in his home town of Nazareth.
As the people in the synagogue there listened to the extraordinary claims Jesus was making, they began to whisper to one another, like this:
“Who is this man anyway? Where does he get it all?”
“Don’t you know? This is Jesus, the son of Joseph.”
The whispering grew to an angry buzz, and Jesus realised that the people of Nazareth were showing none of the faith in him that he had found in other villages of Galilee. So he challenged them with words that they had probably heard before.
“A prophet,” he said, “is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own relations, and in his own home.”
He went on to tell them of other prophets who had been neglected or despised by those who knew them best. This made his hearers very angry. They stood up in the synagogue, grabbed hold of him, and hustled him outside. Some even wanted to kill him. They dragged him up to the brow of a hill and prepared to throw him headlong down a cliff. But he made them let him go, and went into hiding until the danger was over.
It is from this incident, recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter four (verses 16 to 30) that we have gained the phrase, “a prophet without honour.”
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Wednesday, 28 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 386 published on 7 June 1969.
The Pharisee is proud and boastful in prayer while the Publican, or tax collector, is humble and self-deprecating
Perhaps there is a story in the morning paper about someone who has boasted of some success. This boasting has led to enquiries which show that the person in question has achieved that by dishonest means. He is convicted and sent to prison, and on reading his story we may remark, “Pride goes before a fall.”
However apt the words may seem for such a situation, they are not an actual quotation. Look up the Book of Proverbs in the Bible (chapter 16, verse 18) and you will find these words:
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
You may say that the meaning is just the same, and you will be right. The way of emphasising anything in the Hebrew language, in which these proverbs were originally written, was to say it twice, the second sentence repeating the sense of the first in a slightly different way. This gave stronger force to the original sentence, even though it did not say anything new, and was one of the ways in which Hebrew poetry was composed. You will find many examples in the Bible, notably in the Psalms, such as the opening verse of Psalm 19:
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” The same pattern of repetition is found in the Book of Proverbs from which this saying is taken, but which for convenience has been shortened by popular English usage to “Pride goes before a fall.”
In the Middle Ages, Pride was listed as the first of the “seven deadly sins” and it has always been looked on as the worst of human failings.
One of the most famous stories told by Jesus was about a man whose pride blinded him to his own shortcomings.
According to this story, two men went into the temple one day to pray. One was wealthy, influential and educated; the other was a tax-gatherer, which in those days was a despised occupation, followed only by the least reputable members of the community.
The wealthy man, who was very pleased with himself, began his prayers by saying how generous he was, and how carefully he was keeping all the rules and regulations of his religion. He even thanked God for having made him so different from other people, and especially for making him different from men like the tax-gatherer.
The tax-gatherer prayed quite differently. Feeling very humble in the house of God, he stood there with his head bowed, and simply said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said that, of the two men, it was the tax-gatherer’s prayer which pleased God, thus bearing out the truth of the old proverb about pride and a haughty spirit.
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Wednesday, 28 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 385 published on 31 May 1969.
Lazarus at the Rich Man's gate
In France, people talk about “gaining their beef-steak” when they mean “earning their living,” but in Britain we talk less readily of beef-steaks than of bread. “To earn our daily bread” is a familiar way of saying that we work for a living.
Commonplace as the phrase may sound, it is an echo of the Bible. According to St. Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 6, verse 11), Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” or – in the words of a modern translation – “Give us each day the bread we need.”
There are other phrases in common use which refer to bread, and which arise from incidents or sayings in the Bible. You might hear people at a conference or reception say of another guest, “He is only here for the loaves and fishes,” meaning that he has come only for the food. This is a reminder of the way in which, according to all four writers of the Gospels, Jesus fed a crowd of several thousand people, who had come a long way to hear him speak, by miraculously dividing five loaves and two fishes, the offering of a boy in the crowd, among them all.
Again, when we receive some small gift or token sum of money from a person who could easily afford to be more generous to us, we sometimes call such gifts “the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.” This too, is a phrase from the Bible (Luke, Chapter 16, verse 21). It occurs in a story which Jesus told about a rich man who “fared sumptuously everyday” or, to quote again from a modern version by J. B. Phillips, “who used to lead a life of daily luxury.”
At the door of this man’s house, a beggar named Lazarus used to wait, longing “to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” The story went on to tell how, after this life, the beggar was consoled for his sufferings, while the rich man was punished for his selfishness. We still use the words today.
A more curious phrase still is “cast your bread upon the waters,” which continues, in the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes, “for you will find it after many days” (Chapter II, verse 1). Here the meaning is “take a chance,” or more exactly, “risk things now, in the hope of a rich return from them later.”
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 27 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 383 published on 17 May 1969.
St Paul and the Roman centurion, Julius, after their ship is famously wrecked, by Clive Uptton
Occasionally, you may hear someone refer to another person as “a thorn in the flesh.” There is no doubt as to what the speaker means by this unusual expression, for the comparison between an irritating person and a sharp thorn or splinter is an obvious one. But few of the people who use this saying realise how old it is, and that behind it there lies something of a mystery.
The phrase comes from the Bible, and you will find it in St. Paul’s second Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 7, which reads: “. . . there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.”
Whatever St. Paul meant by the words, he did not mean that he had a splinter in his finger or anything like that. He used the words as a means of illustrating the continual pain and irritation which he suffered as a result of some distressing complaint.
In his writings, St. Paul mentions the suffering which this complaint caused him, but he gives no clue as to the nature of it. Perhaps his readers already knew. Or perhaps St. Paul did not want to remind himself of the details of his handicap or infirmity, which seems to have been as embarrassing and humiliating to him as it was undoubtedly painful.
Read the rest of this article »
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 22 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible.originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 382 published on 10 May 1969.
Rabshakeh denounces the Egyptians as he demands Hezekiah's surrender by Don Lawrence
Sometimes, when people are talking about an unreliable person they know, you may hear them say: “Don’t rely on him – he’s a broken reed.”
In saying this, they are using a word-picture many centuries old. It was first recorded (so far as we know) in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, in connection with an incident which took place in about 700 B.C.
Evidently the speaker knew the injury that could be inflicted by the sharp stems of a plant which grows by the waterside in most countries in the Near East. He probably had in mind the tall bullrushes which stand up like spears and look strong enough to support anyone who may stumble and cling to them for support. Being hollow, however, these rushes become brittle in the heat of the sun and can be snapped off under light pressure. Anyone who grasps one in falling may easily have a hand badly gashed and possibly infected by the jagged edge of the broken lower part of the stem. Perhaps the speaker was recalling a personal experience of this kind when he mentioned “a broken reed.”
The “broken reed” of which he spoke in this instance was not a person but the Egyptian nation. The speaker was a soldier, sent to King Hezekiah, who was besieged in Jerusalem, the capital of his little kingdom, by the dreaded Assyrian invaders, under their own king, Sennacherib. Believing that he had Hezekiah at his mercy, Sennacherib sent an officer named Rabshakeh to demand his surrender. This officer met two envoys from Hezekiah and gave them a boastful message to take back to their master inside the besieged city.
Rabshakeh knew that Hezekiah was counting on an army of Egyptian soldiers to march up from the south and relieve Jerusalem. His message was a scornful warning that Hezekiah should not count on any such help. “Do not depend on the Egyptians for horses and chariots,” he said to the ambassadors who came out to meet him:
“Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand and pierce it: so is Pharoah, king of Egypt, to all that trust in him.” (Isaiah, chapter 36, verse 6.)
In the end, the Assyrians failed to capture Jerusalem, but not because of any help the defenders received from the Egyptians, who, many Scripture passages suggest, had a reputation for being unreliable in Bible times.
This became plain to me when I had charge of a bookshop in Egypt a few years ago. Thinking that it might encourage local people to buy the Bible, I arranged a window display, showing how often Egypt and the Egyptians were mentioned in its pages. But when I made a list of the many references to that country and its people, I found that for the most part they were so unfavourable – like the one about the broken reed – that I had to give up the idea!
“A broken reed” is, then, often quoted by people who have no idea that they are using the words so scornfully uttered by Sennacherib’s messenger nearly twenty-seven centuries ago!