The Holy Bible is made up of 66 books, and… a lot of words. (Though translation counts differ, the 17th-century King James Version clocks in at an impressive 783,137 words.) Though this enormous amount of text contains many phrases and proverbs that have made their way into American vernacular, there are a few oft-quoted “Bible verses” that don’t actually appear anywhere in the Bible.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
How often have you heard this phrase repeated after something unexpected or even miraculous happens? Would it surprise you to know it’s not actually a Bible verse?
Well, okay, it probably wouldn’t surprise you too much, since you’re reading this post and have a preconceived notion of what you’re about to learn, after all.
At any rate, the line was actually penned by the 18th-century poet William Cowper. It appears in his 1773 poem, “Light Shining Out Of Darkness.” The poem was later renamed after its first line, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” set to music, and is still sung in churches today. It draws on principles in Romans 11:33, Psalm 77, and Psalm 62, but the famous first line does not directly quote Scripture.
Though colloquial use has altered the words a little, the saying in the poem is as follows,
“God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”
“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Though a similar injunction to discipline children (deriving from the rod used by shepherds to create a boundary line for sheep) can be found in the book of Proverbs, the actual saying “spare the rod and spoil the child” is not found in the Bible. This line is originally found in a satirical 1663 poem called “Hudibras” by Samuel Butler.
If matrimony and hanging go
By dest’ny, why not whipping too?
What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets stil’d,
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child.
“God helps those who help themselves.”
Though this quip has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin, and does indeed appear in “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” the original source seems to be Aesop in ancient Greece. He refers not to the Christian God but to the Greek deity Hercules, in Hercules and the Wagoner.
When a man’s wagon sinks in the mud, he prays to Hercules for assistance, and Aesop writes that Hercules appeared and told the man to get up off his rear end and do his own lifting. “The gods help those who help themselves,” says the closing application.
“The ends justify the means.”
Here’s another phrase that has changed precise wording since its first incarnation. Sophocles seems to have been the first to write this one down, in 409 B.C., and was followed by Ovid in 10 B.C. Niccolo Machiavelli espoused principles similar to this sentiment, but did not quote it directly.
Sophocles’ original proverb ran, “The end excuses any evil,” which is a bit more harsh and uncomfortable than the benign “the means.” Perhaps a dissatisfaction with seeming to excuse outright evil led to the word shift?
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
We don’t hear this phrase nearly so often in the 21st century, but it pops up frequently in literature and nonfiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, it was born near the end of the eighteenth century. English preacher John Wesley wrote it in a book of sermons. It is certainly true that the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) have a great deal to say about rituals of cleanliness for the people of Israel as a prototype of being washed clean from sin, but Wesley’s affirmation regarding personal hygiene has no Scriptural basis.
Probably a good thing, too, considering John the Baptist’s itinerant wilderness evangelism, which he undertook in clothing made of camel’s hair, long before the days of dry cleaning.