BALANCE. The English word is from the Latin bilanx and means “having two scales.” It is used to translate three Hebrew words: mo’znayim, kaneh, and peles. The balances of the Hebrews consisted of a horizontal bar, either suspended from a cord that was held in the hand, or pivoted on a perpendicular rod. Scales were suspended from the ends of the bar, one for the object to be weighed, the other for the weight. At first the weights were of stone. Weighing with such balances could be accurately done, but the system was liable to fraud, so that in the OT there is much denunciation of “dishonest scales” (Mic.6.11).

The term is used only in Revelation 6:5 (KJV) in the NT where the rider of the black horse has “a pair of scales (ζυγόν, yoke, fig. for a cross bar of a scale) in his hand.” The picture of the black horse, its rider and scales represents a prophecy of famine, when food staples would become cruelly expensive and money would be inflated and buy very little; as, for example, a day’s wages (denarion) would purchase only a small measure of wheat for bread. It would be a time for closely checking and watching all scales, balances, and measuring devices. People would weigh carefully even the cheaper barley (three measures for a denarion).

The word, generally in the Heb. pl. (מֹאזְנַ֫יִם, H4404), occurs more frequently in the OT. At Belshazzar’s feast, Daniel interpreted part of the handwriting on the wall as “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan 5:27). The scales or balances used by the Hebrews were not the delicate devices of our scientific age, but consisted of a horizontal yoke or bar which was suspended on a chain or cord fastened in the exact middle as a fulcrum, or in some instances, balanced on a stick or bar serving as fulcrum at the center. From each end of the bar a scale or pan was suspended, one to hold the exact known weight and the other the object to be weighed. Careful weighing meant that the fulcrum was located exactly at the center of the crossbar, and that the crossbar was truly horizontal (a matter of judgment!) for correct weight. For their reason the words “line” or “level” came to be used for balances or scales. Although most of our scales are of the spring or mechanical kind, the same type of balance device is used today, particularly in the exact weighing of valuable metals, chemicals, or other materials. In ancient times satisfactory weights could be had from a common pair of balances described above for such things as grain or crude metals. The common people sometimes used a field-stone or an odd scrap of iron or bronze for weights (cf. Prov 11:1). How quickly and deftly people use similar scales and weights today may be observed in the open markets of the Middle E even today.

Most of the references in the OT indicate that, human nature being what it is, the weight system was often abused and the seller would take advantage of the unsuspecting buyer. Archeologists have found inscribed weights which were both over and under the average standard. The inference must be drawn that men often had one set of weights by which to buy and another by which to sell. Even when items were weighed in full view of the buyer or trader, the balances could be slyly manipulated. The ancients often spoke of unbalanced or “crooked” scales.

As the Lord’s special people, Israel was expected to have “just balances” and “just weights” (Lev 19:36). The wise man wrote, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight” (Prov 11:1), and “a just balance and scales are the Lord’s” (16:11). Social prophets like Amos and Hosea denounce “fale balances” and balances of deceit with scathing heat (Amos 8:5; Hos 12:7).

On the other hand, in the OT proper scales become the symbol of human integrity, honesty and righteousness. Prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel use the picture of weights and balances to call Israel to repentance and righteous living. Job (31:6) asks that he “be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity.” Isaiah speaks of the righteousness of God in grandiose terms when he says God “weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance” (Isa 40:12).

Therefore, balances and scales were common on the Biblical scene, just as they are in stores and shops today. Weights and scales became more refined and standardized as history progressed; so much so, that weights of precious metals developed into a coin system, first in terms of weight and then in terms of value. Scales were no longer necessary in the majority of purchases under a money-value system. The Eng. word “balance” comes from the Lat. bilanx (bi plus lanx, “two scales”).

See Weights and Measures.


G. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (1944), 199-207; Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon (1952), 340; F. Wright, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (1953), 225-227; M. Johnston, Roman Life (1957), 35-41; S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1960), 150-154; W. Williams, Archeology In Biblical Research (1965), 174, 175.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The English word "balance" is from the Latin bilanx = "having two scales" (bi = "two" and lanx = "plate," or "scale"). It is used to render three Hebrew words:

(1) mo’znayim (Le 19:36; Job 6:2; Ps 62:9; Pr 11:1; Isa 40:12,15; Jer 32:10, etc.);

(2) qaneh (Isa 46:6), and

(3) pelec (Pr 16:11).

It is found in the sing., e.g. "a just balance" (Pr 16:11); "a pair of balances" (Re 6:5, etc.), as well as in the plur., e.g. "just balances" (Le 19:36), "weighed in the balances" (Da 5:27, etc.).

1. Balances among the Ancient Hebrews; the Parts, etc.:

(1) The "balances" of the ancient Hebrews differed little, if at all, from those used by the Egyptians (Wilkinson, Anc. Egypt (1878), II, 246 f). They consisted, probably, of a horizontal bar, either pivoted on a perpendicular rod (see Erman, Aegypten, I, 615 for similar Egyptian balances), or suspended from a cord and held in the hand, the more primitive form. At the ends of the bar were pans, or hooks, from which the things to be weighed were suspended, sometimes in bags.

A good description of the more developed and final form is this: A beam with its fulcrum in the middle and its arms precisely equal. From the ends of the arms were suspended two scales, the one to receive the object to be weighed, the other the counterpoise, or weight.

(2) The weights were of stone at first and are so named in De 25:13 King James Version, margin. A pair of scales (the King James Version "a pair of balances") is used in Re 6:5 by a figure of speech for the balance as a whole; only once is the beam so used, in Isa 46:6, literally, "weigh silver in the beam." Abraham, we are told (Ge 23:16), "weighed the silver."

2. Probably of Babylonian Origin:

The basis and fountain-head of all systems of weights and measurements is to be traced, it is now thought, to Babylonia; but the primitive instruments and systems were subject to many modifications as they entered other regions and passed into the derivative systems. The Roman "balance" is the same as our steelyard (vulgarly called "stillyards"). Compare the Chinese, Danish, etc.

3. The System of Weighing Liable to Fraud:

Though the "balances" in ancient times were rudely constructed, the weighing could be done quite accurately, as may be seen in the use of equally primitive balances in the East today. But the system was liable to fraud. A "false balance" might be literally one so constructed that the arms were of unequal length, when the longer arm would be intended, of course, for the article to be weighed. The system was liable, however, to various other subtle abuses then as now; hence the importance in God’s sight of "true weights" and a "just balance" is enforced again and again (see Le 19:36; Pr 11:1; 16:11; 20:23; Am 8:5; Mic 6:11, etc.).

4. "Wicked Balances" Condemned:

"A false balance is an abomination to Yahweh" (Pr 11:1; compare Pr 20:23), and "a just balance and scales are Yahweh’s" (Pr 16:11). Ho 12:7 condemns "the balances of deceit" in the hand of the wicked; Am 8:5 (the King James Version) cries out upon "falsifying the balances by deceit," and Mic 6:11 denounces "wicked balances." Indeed, the righteousness of a just balance and true weights, and the iniquity of false ones are everywhere emphasized by the lawmakers, prophets and moral teachers of Israel, and the preacher or teacher who would expose and denounce such things in God’s name today need be at no loss for texts and precedents.

See nodetitle.


Wilkinson, Ancient Egypt; Erman, Egypt; Lepsius, Denkmaler; and articles on "Balance." etc., in Smith, DB, EB, Jewish Encyclopedia, HDB, etc.

George B. Eager