The link on an answer on this website (Going through a hard ordeal) states the first record of the hyperbolic expression 'move heaven and earth' to be 1792 but the link gives no precise details of that occurrence.

In reading the Book of Isaiah I wondered if the record of the sundial of Ahaz going back ten degrees (as requested by King Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:8) was the origin of the saying. This is also recorded in II Kings 20: 9 and 10.

There is a similar account of the sun 'standing still' for a whole day in Joshua 10 : 12 and 13 but there the heavens and earth would not be in motion, whereas in the matter of the sundial of Ahaz, the heavens and the earth would, indeed, be "moved" (presumably, but not necessarily, 'backwards').

I fully realise that light could be distorted (gravitationally) to give the appearance of a sundial going backwards, in which case it is still a supernatural event. But the technical details are not my question.

I am only asking if the written record in the bible is the origin of the hyperbolic expression 'move heaven and earth'.

Thus I would expect a record previous to 1792.

The only origin reference I can find is the same as the linked answer states which is the Free Dictionary. This also gives :

To exert oneself to the utmost to accomplish something. This hyperbole dates from the eighteenth century and is heard somewhat less often today. It was a cliché by the time F. Anstey wrote (Tinted Venus, 1885), “There’s the police moving heaven and earth to get you back again.”

So, first recorded in 1792 (unknown) and then a cliche by 1885.

But where does it come from ?

The book of Isaiah ? Or elsewhere ?

  • Possibly related to moving mountains? Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 9:40
  • 1
    It could also be related to the quote from Archimedes who is supposed to have said "give me a fulcrum and a long enough lever and I will move the earth". He was indulging in hyperbole but was expounding on the priciple of levers in general.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 10:09
  • Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases by Bartlett Jere Whiting has: To move Heaven and earth 1777 ( Lee Letters 1.320) - “They have taken infinite pains, according to custom, to move heaven and earth in their favor.” books.google.it/…
    – user 66974
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 13:05

1 Answer 1


Your question set me thinking because in French we have the exact same expression meaning the same thing, remuer (le) ciel et (la) terre. A quick research led me to Montaigne's Essais. It's the earliest example of the phrase I managed to find. He uses it in a context that is consistent with your intuition, namely that of a change in calendar, more specifically the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar that occurred back in 1564 in France.

Here's the quote in French:

  • Il y a deux ou trois ans, qu'on accoursit l'an de dix jours en France. Combien de changemens devoint suyvre ceste reformation ! Ce fut proprement remuer le ciel et la terre à la fois. Ce neantmoins, il n'est rien qui bouge de sa place : Mes voisins trouvent l'heure de leurs semences, de leur recolte, l'opportunité de leurs negoces, les jours nuisibles et propices, au mesme poinct justement, où ils les avoyent assignez de tout temps

Montaigne's Essays were first translated into English by John Florio and published in 1603. Here's the interesting bit (I've modernized Florio's spelling):

  • Two or three years are now past since the year hath been shortened ten days in France. Oh how many changes are like to ensue this reformation! It was a right removing of Heaven and Earth together, yet nothing removeth from its own place: My Neighbours find the season of their seed and Harvest time, the opportunity of their affairs, their lucky and unlucky days, to answer just those seasons to which they had from all ages assigned them.

Here's a later translation by Charles Cotton (1685):

  • ‘Tis now two or three years ago that they made the year ten days shorter in France. How many changes may we expect should follow this reformation! it was really moving heaven and earth at once. Yet nothing for all that stirs from its place, my neighbours still find their seasons of sowing and reaping, the opportunities of doing their business, the hurtful and propitious days, just at the same time where they had, time out of mind, assigned them.

I don't know if to move heaven and earth goes back to the French through Montaigne. Heaven and earth was a set phrase in English before that but in any event the image was certainly easily and readily understood through the Christian culture and mindset that the French and the English were both sharing.

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