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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.
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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!
Posted in Animals, 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 381 published on 3 May 1969.
The return of the prodigal son
It is Michael’s twenty-first birthday. He has been away from home for the past few months, working overseas to gain experience in his job. But he has come back for this great day. A splendid party is being held, and in the course of it someone says: “This is a great party, Michael! They’ve certainly killed the fatted calf for you!”
He means, of course, that Michael’s parents have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such splendid things to eat and drink. But why, you may wonder, should he say so in this way?
For the answer, we must turn to St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter fifteen, verses 11 to 32, and read there the story of another boy who left home, many centuries ago.
This boy was restless and not very considerate. He asked if he could have right away the inheritance to which he would be entitled on his father’s death.
This request rather upset the boy’s father, but he agreed, hoping no doubt that this would make his son more content and help him to settle down. Instead of doing this, however, the boy packed his belongings, took his inheritance, and set off.
Soon he had spent every penny he had, and, to make matters worse, a great famine made food very scarce, so that it was impossible to get any even by begging. The boy did manage to find a job of sorts, minding pigs, but as he worked at that very humble task, he felt so hungry that he would gladly have eaten the food on which the pigs were fed. He began to realise how foolish he had been, and how much better off the humblest servant in his father’s house was. In the end, he set off home, ready to tell his father how sorry he was, and to ask if he could be taken back, not as a son, but as a servant.
All this time, the father had been waiting anxiously for news of his son, and when he saw the boy coming, he could not wait for him to reach the house. Instead, he ran along the road to meet him, flung his arms around him, and, before more than a few faltering words had escaped the boy’s lips, called to the servants – “Quick! A new coat for him! And some shoes! Make a feast! Kill the fatted calf! My son, whom I thought was dead, is alive again; he was lost, and is found!”
This story, or “parable,” is often called the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Wednesday, 21 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 380 published on 26 April 1969.
Everyone in the firm knew that John Barker was about to get the sack. There had been so many complaints about his work, and the manager had made it plain that, unless things improved, John would have to go. Instead of waiting for this to happen, John resigned, and so avoided the disgrace of being dismissed. When he heard the news, one of John’s mates said to another, “He must have seen the writing on the wall!”
We all know what the speaker meant, but how many of us know the story in which “the writing on the wall” first appeared?
It is a very old story, dating from the time (about the 6th century B.C.) when the Kingdom of Babylon was ruled by a man named Belshazzar. Among the inhabitants of his country were many Jewish exiles, brought there from Jerusalem when their homeland was conquered by the armies of Babylon.
One day, Belshazzar gave a great feast for the members of his court. In order to surprise them with something new, he ordered the sacred gold vessels which had been seized from the temple at Jerusalem to be used for serving the food and wine at his feast. This was a terrible crime in the eyes of the Jews, and it gave Belshazzar satisfaction to torment his old enemies in this way. No doubt, his guests thought his idea very clever and amusing.
Then, in the middle of the feast, silence suddenly fell upon the assembled guests. They found themselves peering into the shadows at the palace wall opposite where Belshazzar was sitting. A mysterious hand was slowly writing a message on the wall in letters large enough for all to read, but in words which no one there could understand.
The hand vanished, but the writing on the wall remained. The King sent for the cleverest of his wise men, but none of them could tell him what the message said.
Then someone remembered one of the Jewish exiles, called Daniel, who had won a great reputation for interpreting dreams. Daniel was sent for, and to everyone’s amazement he was able to tell Belshazzar what the mysterious writing meant.
The guests were first shocked, then terrified, by the message which Daniel slowly translated: GOD HATH NUMBERED THY KINGDOM AND FINISHED IT. THOU ART WEIGHED IN THE BALANCES AND ART FOUND WANTING. THY KINGDOM IS DIVIDED AND GIVEN TO THE MEDES AND PERSIANS (Daniel, Chapter 5, verses 26-28).
That very night, the armies of the Medes and Persians stormed the city of Babylon. Belshazzar himself was killed, and the dreadful prophecy written by the mysterious hand came true.
Those who have some disaster or misfortune revealed to them before it happens are therefore said, like Belshazzar and his guests, to have seen “the writing on the wall”.
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Wednesday, 21 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 379 published on 19 April 1969.
The good Samaritan helps out as the Levite passes on the other side
Earlier this year, there was a nasty accident in the snow. A small boy, unable to control the rather large sledge he was riding on, cut his face badly when it crashed into a fence. His big brother was uncertain what to do, for they were a long way from home. But then a woman came up and said, “Put him into my car, and we will run him straight to hospital.” The woman waited for the boys at the hospital, and then drove them home.
“Thank you so much!” the boys’ mother said. “You really have been a good Samaritan!”
Most of us have heard these words in similar situations, but some of us may not know why it has become proverbial to call a person who is ready to help another in trouble “a good Samaritan.”
The Samaritans are a small tribe, akin to the Jews, who still live in a little district called Samaria, a few miles north of Jerusalem. Today, they number only a few hundred people, but they have their own language and customs, of which they are very proud. In the time of Jesus Christ, they were more numerous, but they were despised by their Jewish fellow-countrymen because of their separate history and strange beliefs. Jesus, however, seems to have had a particular regard for them, because he spoke favourably about them on more than one occasion.
It was a story told by Jesus which made the word “Samaritan” world-famous. You will find this story in Chapter Ten of St. Luke’s Gospel. Jesus described how a man was travelling from Jerusalem down the steep mountain track to Jericho, when he was attacked by bandits. Having robbed him of everything he had, even his clothes, the bandits beat him senseless.
A little while afterwards, two other people came along. One was a priest and the second was a Levite (an assistant from the Temple). Being supposedly religious men, either of these might have been expected to come to the aid of the wounded traveller, but neither of them did so. Perhaps they were afraid of being attacked themselves, or perhaps (as people sometimes say today) they “just did not want to get involved.” Whatever the reason, they passed on quickly.
Then a third man arrived. He was not a Jew, but a Samaritan, and as such might not have been expected to show much sympathy for the man who had been attacked. But, in his pity for this wounded traveller, he forgot all differences of race, and went to his side. Not only did he give him “first aid”, but he put him on his own donkey and, after taking him to the next inn on the road, paid for him to be looked after there till he recovered.
When Jesus asked which of the three had been a true neighbour to the man who was robbed, everyone naturally replied, “The one who took care of him.” And because he was a Samaritan, this man became known as “the good Samaritan.”
This name has since been given to countless people who have followed the good Samaritan’s example of helping those in trouble.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Wednesday, 21 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 378 published on 12 April 1969.
The goat was driven out into the wilderness to perish from hunger and thirs
To be made a “Scapegoat” is both unpleasant and unfair. It can sometimes happen when people are involved in making a disturbance. Driven to desperation, the authorities may pick on one person who is then punished very severely for what others have also been doing. We say that the one so punished has been made “the scapegoat” for all the rest.
The word itself, a very old one, is really short for “escape goat,” but the idea it expresses is much older than the English language, into which it came when a Hebrew word from the Old Testament was first translated in this way.
The story of “the scapegoat” is found in the third Book of the Bible, Leviticus, which means “the Law of the Levites.” The Levites were a tribe especially appointed to carry out certain religious duties for the ancient Hebrews.
In Chapter 6 of this Book we read that Aaron, the brother of Moses, devised a ceremony by which he could, in the name of God Himself, show to the Hebrew tribes that they had been set free from all their sins. After offering various prayers and sacrifices which were intended to lift the burden of their sins from all the Hebrew tribes, Aaron laid his hands solemnly upon the head of a goat which had been chosen for this purpose. The idea behind this was that all the Hebrews’ wickedness and guilt was thus transferred to the goat. The goat was then driven out into the wilderness, to perish alone there from hunger and thirst.
To us, this seems a very cruel thing to do to a harmless animal, but the Hebrews believed that the sufferings of the unfortunate “scapegoat” were fully justified by the fact that it carried all their sins away, and “lost” them in the wilderness.
When we use the word “scapegoat” for someone who is made to take the blame, we are recalling a nation’s need to get rid of its sense of failure before God, and the strange way devised for doing this nearly thirty centuries ago.
Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Tuesday, 20 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 377 published on 5 April 1969.
In the First Station of the Cross Christ is sentenced to death by Pilate, who washes his hands after the judgement
“When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person . . .”
(St. Matthew, Chapter 27, verse 24)
When we hear someone say that they “wash their hands of the whole affair,” we know exactly what they mean. They disapprove of something which has been decided, and they cannot agree with those who want to go ahead with it. They will have nothing to do with it, and, to make their disapproval as emphatic as possible, they use a phrase which suggests that, however dirty other people’s hands may get in the matter, their own will be clean. They have “washed their hands of it.”
We may be familiar with this expression, but few people know that when they use these words, they are in fact copying someone who did not content himself with saying them, but who actually did wash his hands in front of the people with whom he disagreed. A good reason for his doing this was the fact that his voice could scarcely be heard in the uproar created by an angry crowd. It was useless to tell them what he thought, so he decided to show them, in this dramatic way.
The incident took place on the first Good Friday, in Jerusalem. At the time hundreds of people had come into the city for the Feast of the Passover. This Feast filled the Jews with such fervour for their faith that there was always the danger of rebellion breaking out against the Romans, who occupied and governed the country at that time.
To understand what happened on that first Good Friday, it is important to remember that the Roman Governor and his army were both feared and resented by the Jews. The Romans, for their part, never understood this proud and independent people, with their devotion to the God of Israel and the Law of Moses. The two powers helped each other only when it seemed really necessary, and the events of the first Good Friday were a tragic example of this.
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Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Minerals, Trade on Monday, 19 August 2013
This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 376 published on 29 March 1969.
Prehistoric salt trading colony, Hallstadt, Upper Austria
If there is too much salt in our food, it will make us thirsty. And many sailors believe that if they were shipwrecked they should not drink sea-water for fear of it driving them mad with thirst.
So to refer to someone whom we greatly admire as “the salt of the earth” may not seem much of a compliment. Yet the words are often heard. Supposing you were watching a lifeboat putting out to sea in rough weather to help a ship in distress; you might hear someone in the admiring but anxious crowd of onlookers say: “Wonderful men, those! They are the salt of the earth!”
Salt is, in fact, much more valuable than most of us realise. Without sufficient salt in our diet we become ill, so vital is it to the health of human beings. Salt is also an essential part of most animals’ diets, and many country cow-sheds have a “salt lick” by each stall.
We learn about common salt in chemistry lessons. This substance is indeed so cheap and so widely available as to deserve the description “common”.
But in some countries even today, and formerly in many others, salt is anything but common. On the contrary, it is rare and expensive. I remember seeing large blocks of salt being carefully weighed at a market in a remote part of Africa. They were being used in payment for other goods instead of money.
If that seems strange, think of our saying that a person who works really hard is “worth his salt”. This is a saying that goes back a very long way, to the days of the Romans, who received part of their wages in salt (“salary” means “salt-money”); and to the days of sailing ships, when, especially on long voyages, a ration of salt was an essential part of a sailor’s wages! Many old sea stories also remind us of the days when food could not be sealed in cans or kept in refrigerators and had to be preserved in salt, either dry, or in a solution of “brine”. Today, in many parts of the country, people still pack beans and other vegetables between layers of salt, as a way of storing them for winter use. So perhaps we should think of salt more gratefully than we sometimes do, especially when we realise how essential it is yet how scarce it can sometimes be.
In the time of Jesus Christ, salt was highly prized because it was the only known means of preserving food. Jesus spoke of his chosen followers, the disciples, as “the salt of the earth” (Matthew, chapter 5, verse 13), meaning that they could do among their fellows many of the useful and necessary things that salt did in their homes. But he added a warning that salt which had lost its flavour and strength was only fit to be thrown away. This was a warning to all who follow him to maintain the true worth and flavour of their faith.