So I was challenged the other day to write blog post with the title “Two Shakes and a Whistle.” My first thought was, “I don’t even know what that means!”
It turns out, I’m not alone. Even Google doesn’t know. I considered writing a blog post that simply said: “Does anyone know what this means?” but then I thought this may make my challenger angry. And the last thing you ever want to do is make your challenger angry. You never know what she might challenge you with next! But take heart, because you are about to benefit from my extensive research.
I quickly realized that my initial impression of two giant milkshakes and an emergency first responder whistle was not entirely accurate. Instead, it appears that this phrase is actually the conjoining of two idioms into one more brobdingnagian maxim. (Yes, my research took me by dictionary.com). The two phrases are “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail” and “Clean as a whistle.”
Two shakes of a lamb’s tail I get. It means “quickly.” If you’ve never seen a lamb’s tail shake, trust me, it’s quick. What I did learn, however, is that a shake is actually an informal unit of time equal to 10 nanoseconds, or .000000001 seconds. It is used in nuclear physics to time the steps of a nuclear explosion. Apparently, the entire chain reaction of a nuclear explosion takes about 50 to 100 shakes. This means that two shakes of a lamb’s tail is faster than a nuclear explosion. (Wow, that’s a powerful little tail!)
As for “clean as a whistle,” there is a bit of scholarly debate about this one. (I love a good scholarly debate!) My favorite argument goes something like this: The phrase may have initially been “clear as a whistle” because a whistle cuts distinctively through a noisy environment and is a very clear signal. The term “clean” was sometimes used to mean the same as “clear.” If something is clear, it is also clean. (Hence that facial scrub, Clean & Clear, but I digress…)
Taken together, then, “Two shakes and a whistle” means quickly and clearly. (I suppose one could simply say “quickly and clearly,” but really, “two shakes and a whistle” has much more pizazz. Don’t you agree?)
Now stick with me, because I am about ready to do a two shakes transition. Because while I was reading through my volumes of research, I kept having this thought: We are getting ready to enter into the season of advent, the time of year when we remember the first coming of Jesus Christ even as we are still anticipating His second coming. I was thinking about what that first coming was like. Do you remember? There was a giant star for the Magi to follow (Matthew 2:1-12), and a host of angels talking to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20). Seems to me these were pretty clean signals – clean as a whistle, even. And when the Magi saw it, and when the shepherds heard it, they went quickly to “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Luke 2:15).
The Bible tells us that when Jesus comes again, it will be even more unmistakable. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God (1 Thessalonians 4:16). For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:27).
This is the great shepherd, and He knows all about whistles, shakes, and lamb tails. More importantly, he knows all about us. He came once to save us, and he will come again to gather us to Him forever. He will call, clean as a whistle, and we will go to meet him, quicker than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
It all will happen, you might say, in two shakes and a whistle.
He lifts up a banner for the distant nations, he whistles for those at the ends of the earth. Here they come, swiftly and speedily! Isaiah 5:25-27