A friend of mine likes to use the old idiom, “Let’s sharpen our pencils.” Like many idioms, it doesn’t really mean what it’s saying. Literally, it might mean that your pencil is okay for drawing a rough sketch, but it will need to be sharpened when you’re getting into the finer work. This isn’t what my friend is suggesting.
When she uses this phrase, she’s referring to getting down into the details of a business deal to haggle over the figures, benefits, and offers that can sweeten the deal. When the general principle is agreed upon, then it’s time to sharpen our pencils and sort out the nitty-gritty.
I love it when she says this. In fact, I love idioms in general. I often wonder what they would sound like to a visitor from another planet (or another country for that matter). For example, what would someone picture in their mind if I told them I “hot-footed it over to their house?” It paints a graphic picture that has no basis in reality.
“None of these things mean what they say.”
Think about some of the idioms we use every day. “Turn a blind eye.” “It’s raining cats and dogs.” “Hit the nail on the head.” “This is a piece of cake.” “It costs an arm and a leg.” “He thinks you hung the moon.” The list is endless.
None of these things mean what they say. Still, we all know what the speaker intends when he or she utters them. It’s an amazing phenomenon (at least, in my mind it is).
Every language has idioms. Every culture has them. Most of them are peculiar to the language or culture from which they come. The Bible is no exception. Indeed, one of the barriers to understanding Scripture is the use of the idioms of Biblical times.
A more famous one (which many people have come to understand) is the term from Genesis where it says that Adam “knew” Eve. It sounds quite innocuous. However, it was an idiom referring to the fact that they had sexual relations. Now that’s getting to know someone.
Another one in Genesis 5:24 is “God took him away.” Sounds a bit like he’s going on vacation, doesn’t it? It really means that he died. Some vacation…
“Biting the Dust”
Genesis is rife with these babies. Here’s one. “He will wash his garments in wine” (Genesis 49:11). This simply means he’s going to own lots of vineyards.
Sometimes we take these ancient idioms and adopt them for our own. For example, “biting the dust” comes from Psalm 72:9. There, it uses the verb to “lick,” but it’s a short distance from licking to biting. One of the more famous (and oft used) of these is, “like a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15). A few more include, “I am nothing but skin and bones” (Job 19:20), “put word’s in one’s mouth” (2 Samuel 14:3), and “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
All I can say is, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]