Updated: Dec 18, 2021
Our family was invited to a birthday celebration at a friend’s house. The wife had been cooking and baking all day for this special event. Our family arrived early to help set things up. As we arrived we were greeted by the husband who led us to the garage where tables were set up and the food was beautifully displayed. It was then he noticed and pointed to the birthday cake and said, “Mother is going to be mad as a hornet when she sees this!” Someone had taken a chunk out of the birthday cake with their bare hands. I knew exactly what he meant when he said she would be as mad as a hornet. She wasn’t going to be happy! He had spoken an idiom.
An idiom is a phrase that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase. For example if someone said, “She spilled the beans” that could be a literal statement that she actually spilt the beans on the floor. It could also be an idiom, and as such is not to be understood that she actually spilt the beans, but that she revealed a secret. Every language uses idioms.
Here are a few other English idioms - "We're on the same page”, “I’m riding shotgun”, "bite the bullet", "knuckle sandwich”. The thing about idioms are they are not to be taken literal.
Jesus, as many ancient Jewish people spoke in idioms. When we read the Bible and come across an idiom, if we don’t know we’re reading an idiom we can come to a conclusion the writer or speaker didn’t intend. One such example is the idiom phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Many Western’s interpret the idiom “weeping and gnashing of teeth” literal as if it means there will be a time or place where people will experience extreme punishment and pain often unleashed on them by a punitive God.
However, the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a Jewish idiom that suggest anger, and has nothing to do with punishment. An English idiom for anger may be, “mad as a hornet”, or “to blow a gasket”.
The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used thirteen times in the Bible as an idiom for anger. Here are a few:
Psalms 37:12 -“The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes at him with his teeth.” This isn’t to be understood that the wicked are going to be wildly biting the righteous. This statement means the wicked will move against the righteous out of their anger.
Acts 7:54 - Concerning the stoning of Stephen it says, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him.” Here the listeners of Stephen were convicted by his words and became angry toward him and stoned him.
Many today understand the idiom “weeping and gnashing of teeth” to mean people will be in tortured for all eternity in a place the Bible refers to as hell. But is this what the biblical writers, and most often what Jesus meant when using this phrase.
Matthew 8:11-12 - “I (Jesus) say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (There are four idioms in those two verses.). Jesus sin’t speaking of eternal punishment, or that God is angry. He is speaking about the anger religious people can have with someone else’s faith.
This is another example of how biblical interpretations following the reformation of Luther and western theology have often came to the wrong conclusion and created a Gospel of fear and intimidation. Creating a punitive God who as Jonathan Edwards wrote is dreadfully provoked. God is not dreadfully provoked by us, but is loving and came to earth to show us his love. You are loved by God. You are restored through Christ. God is your friend!
Contextual theology 101