This post is Part Three of a larger series on the Biblical concept of bitterness. Parts One and Two were published earlier this month, covering the “root of bitterness” in Hebrews and the “gall of bitterness” in Acts.
Update October 2016: The topic of bitterness is addressed at length in the new book Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind, which you can read more about here.
Far and away the most common use for the Biblical words translated “bitterness” is related to agony and grief. Depending on the context, it can mean “causing agony and grief” or “experiencing/expressing agony and grief.”
Three primary meanings for the English term
Throughout history the taste of bitterness has been identified with the quality of poisonousness. The Cornhill Magazine, published in 1884, says, “Bitter things in nature . . . are almost invariably poisonous.” Because of this, a word originally used to describe bad taste came to describe intense feelings of grief and misery. The bitter thing often contained a poison that led to suffering.
The Oxford English Dictionary, which has long been considered the standard of the English language, of course gives the first definition for the word “bitter” as having to do with taste: Obnoxious, irritating, or unfavorably stimulating to the gustatory nerve; disagreeable to the palate; having the characteristic taste of wormwood. . . . After that, there are basically three primary metaphorical uses of the word that apply to a person’s experiences, responses, and actions. These more or less match with the way the Hebrew and Greek words are used in the Bible.
Which kind of bitterness?
A distinctive name
|#1 A bitter realization, experience, or condition||grievous; causing severe pain and great suffering (having similar effects to poison)||This is the cause of #2.||#1 Experiential Bitterness
(“It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”)
|#2 Bitter feelings that would naturally result in mourning, tears, and laments||full of intense grief and misery||Words and feelings that are a natural, God-given, non-sinful response to #1. (This can sometimes include righteous anger.*)||#2 Grieving Bitterness|
|#3 Bitter feelings,
|full of active hatred,
stinging, cutting, harsh, virulent,
full of intense overt hostility
|The Hebrew and Greek don’t necessarily involve hatred and anger—only some sort of acting out that causes agony and grief to others. This then becomes the Experience of Bitterness (#1 above) for someone else.||#3 Destructive Bitterness|
*Righteous anger is an emotion that energizes a person to take action to fight against evil.
Notice that Experiential Bitterness (#1) and Grieving Bitterness (#2) are definitely causally related. Destructive Bitterness (#3), as we shall see is not necessarily a result of #1 (although it can be), but it will naturally become a source of #1.
#1 Experiential bitterness in the Bible
For the people of the Bible, gall (poison—the Hebrew word is in some cases translated “venom”) and wormwood (a terrible tasting plant), were physical expressions of the experience of bitterness of soul. Combining them in the description of bitterness intensified the expression of the emotion.