As twenty-first century Christians we often are limited in our perceptions and interpretations of the Bible. We look at the Word of God through our own clouded lenses reflecting our personal backgrounds, education, language, and cultural biases. Without meaning to, we may limit the importance, significance and impact of idioms used in Scripture. In this article we will strive to illustrate the value in having a basic understanding of the customs and manners of the Bible (See book review on The New Manners and Customs) . To fully understand and apply biblical truth it is often necessary to study the cultural and historical background of the reference or idea expressed. It is necessary to identify with the people of the Bible.
A good example of this is the use of the expression “gird up the loins of your mind” by Peter in I Peter 1:13. What was the historical basis and meaning of this statement to a person living in the New Testament era? How are we to understand Peter’s use of this expression? How do we apply it to our lives?
A discussion of Jewish clothing would be helpful to our understanding. The essential garment for the Jew was the tunic. Because the tunic was so basic, it was identical for men and women except that the man’s tunic was often shorter (knee length) and more colorful whereas the women’s was often longer (ankle length) and blue. The tunic was normally a long flowing and full cut robe.
An undergarment, when worn, was either a loincloth (girdle) or a small waist covering. Peter in John 21:7 was wearing only a loincloth when he was “naked” or “stripped for work” in the fishing boat of his family. Throughout most of their history, the Jews never considered a loincloth only to be normal and adequate covering for the body. It is also believed that Jesus was crucified only wearing a loincloth because the soldiers had already removed his tunic (John 19:23).
The girdle was often made of leather or cloth and was used to hold the tunic to the waist. It was often used to hold money, tools or weapons. When men needed freedom to work, run or fight, they would tuck the hem of the tunic into the girdle to gain greater freedom and movement. This action was called “girding up the loins” and the phrase became a metaphor for preparedness. Peter uses the expression to commend clear thinking in the midst of difficult times. The women would often lift the hem of their tunics to help carry heavier or numerous objects. At night the girdle was loosened as the person slept comfortably.
The biblical expression “to gird up the loins” meant to put on the girdle; it signified that the person was ready for service (I Peter 1:13). On the other hand, to loose the girdle meant the person was either lazy or resting (Isaiah 5:27).
When a man was ready to work, he put a loincloth around his waist; then he tucked up his robe so his legs would not be hindered. This is the meaning of [italics] girded up his loins [end italics] (I Kings 18:46). To gird up the loins of your mind (I Peter 1:13) means to prepare for strenuous mental activity, and warns of the necessity to guard your mind (Proverbs 4:23).
Just as people in biblical times would gather up their long robes and tie them around their waists so they could move quickly and freely, we need to do whatever it takes to focus our thoughts on those things that allow us to serve God without hindrance and completely (Hebrews 12:1).
A common expression in America has been the need “to roll up your sleeves” when hard and unhindered work is necessary to accomplish the task. This modern expression finds it counterpart in the biblical expression of “girding up the loins.”
Matthew Henry states “as the traveler, the racer, the warrior, and the laborer gathered in their long and loose garments, that they might be ready in the business, so let Christians do with their minds and affections. Be sober, be watchful against all spiritual dangers and enemies, and be temperate in all behavior. Be sober minded in opinion as well as in practice, and be humble in your judgment of yourself.”
The Christian life demands an accurate awareness of a spiritual battle against a strong enemy, Satan. His wiles, schemes and tricks are difficult to resist. The Christian soldier must be vigilant and always prepared and ready to do battle for the Lord.
Ephesians 6:14 says, “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth and having on the breastplate of righteousness.” Paul is challenging the warrior to be well prepared and equipped to fight the good fight. The girdle is truth. Truth is what brings all the other pieces of the armor together into usefulness and purpose.
In I Samuel 25:13 David tells his men “Gird ye on every man his sword.” He is telling his men to ready themselves for combat in reference to the man Nabal.
Proverbs 31:17 says, she “girdeth her loins with strength.” This is the biblical description of the virtuous woman. She was prepared to every good work and word.
II Kings 1:8 tells us that Elijah was girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. He was of course one of God’s mighty Old Testament prophets marked by ruggedness and a tenacious stand for the Truth.
Luke 12:35 says, “let your loins be girded about.” The Lord is challenging his disciples to be prepared, ready and looking for the return of the Lord.
Girding the loins means we are to be prepared in every way possible to follow Christ. We are to get rid of every weight and hindrance that would slow us down in our race. We are to take up the cross daily and follow close to Him.
Originally published Fall/Winter 2007