candle burning

Loins Girded, Lamps Burning

[By Paul Caffrey – Paul is a retired School Inspector currently living in Ballinteer, Dublin].

Loins Girded, Lamps Burning 

It’s not something I do always, but at the beginning of this year, I decided to take as my watchword for 2019 a verse from the Scriptures. It’s from a parable in Luke’s Gospel, part of the Master’s instructions to his apprentices. I like to quote it in the old version: “Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning.” [1]

The expression “loins girded” sounds strange to modern ears. Nobody nowadays talks about loins, Paul Caffreyunless perhaps in the butcher’s shop or the doctor’s surgery. What, you may ask, does “girded loins” mean? As it happens, the phrase is one that I sometimes use to illustrate different approaches to Bible translation.

Keep Your Shirts On

At one end of the scale, a word-for-word translation (like the AV) gives us “loins girded”, sticking close to the literal meaning of the original Greek. The reader unfamiliar with Elizabethan English is left to figure out what exactly the phrase might mean. A less literal, thought-for-thought translation (like the NIV) gives us something like “be dressed, ready for service.” The translators have decided to omit any equivalence for “loins” and the result is more intelligible to the modern reader. At the far end of the translation spectrum,  a paraphrase (like The Message) goes even further from the word-for-word to give us “keep your shirts on”, which certainly makes sense but is not intended to be taken literally!

It’s a metaphor, of course, and Kenneth Wuest’s “expanded translation” is helpful in bridging the gap between the world of Bible times and the world we live in. Wuest renders the phrase, “See to it that your garments are fastened about yourself with a belt.” In the days when people wore long, flowing garments they couldn’t be very active unless they first tucked the long robes up into their belts to allow for unencumbered movement.

Health and Safety Would Have Forbidden It

When we trace the metaphor of girded loins through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, we find that there were three occasions when it was particularly necessary to fasten long garments into a belt. The first was work. Nobody would go out chopping down trees or drawing water from the well without first tucking their robes into their belt. Health and safety would have forbidden it! The servants in Jesus’s parable, waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, were to be always on duty, dressed for work, with their lamps burning brightly.

The second occasion was for travel. The children of Israel in Egypt were to eat the Passover lamb with their belts fastened, sandals on their feet and staffs in their hands, ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice. And we read that Elijah “gathered up his garments and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”  [2] After his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah had good reason to move fast!

The third occasion for girding up the loins was in warfare. For fast movement and close combat in battle, the soldier needed nothing to hinder his movement. For the apostle Paul, resisting in the evil day required having the belt of truth securely fastened about the waist.

Be Prepared

The metaphor appeals to me. As apprentices of Jesus, following his example and instructions, we need to be ready for whatever life demands of us. The scouts’ motto, “Be prepared” should be ours too. We are never off duty. Dressed for action, we are always ready to respond to need, always ready to reach out. Even at short notice, we are willing and ready to change our plans and go wherever he sends us.  And because there is an enemy, we are always ready to resist, “and having done all, to stand.” [3]

Of course, it was no use being dressed for work if the servant was in the dark! In the days before electric lighting, lamps well-supplied with oil and burning brightly were essential for work and for travel. In another parable, the foolish virgins were caught unawares. There was no reason for them not to have oil in their lamps, and yet when the bridegroom came they were unprepared and found themselves locked out of the feast. There is no reason for our lamps not to be burning brightly. The oil of the Holy Spirit’s anointing is always available and is free of charge. We used to sing, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning.” But whose responsibility is it to keep oil in my lamp? Mine, surely.

Ready and Radiant

If girded loins represent the outer aspects of life, the burning lamps represent the radiance resulting from a hidden, inner life. It takes daily discipline to be mentally and physically unencumbered by the cares of the world and to maintain a vibrant inner life that sheds light on our own paths and on those around us. Dressed for action, with lamps burning brightly, God wants us to be both ready and radiant.


Paul Caffrey, August 2019.

[1] Luke 12:35  [2] 1 Kings 18:46  [3] Ephesians 6:13