Digging Deeper: Root of Bitterness

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education

Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know Paul warned Christians that if they fell short of God’s grace, they may develop a root of bitterness that defiles them?

God is merciful and forgiving. However, His grace must not be trifled with. Those who fail in God’s grace are in danger of developing bitterness like a deep-seated root of a tree or plant. Paul illustrated it by the patriarch Esau. This Digging Deeper examines Paul’s statement from one of his epistles considering its context and cross-reference to an Old Testament illustration of failure.

Our focus verse is: “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Heb 12:15 KJV throughout). It should be noted that this verse contains words used for the last time in the KJV: fail, bitterness, springing, trouble. This verse warns of apostasy’s consequences.

In danger of bitterness

Paul wrote his epistle to the Hebrews to dissuade Jewish Christians from backsliding to first-century Judaism because of persecution from unbelievers.  Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire; Christianity was not yet. Some brethren were even in danger of becoming bitter against God because of their suffering. Paul warns them that becoming bitter could cause them to repeat the mistake of Esau.

Some expositors suggest Paul wrote this epistle to the Churches of God located in the city of Rome. If that was the case, R.C.H. Lenski in his Commentary on the New Testament paints a scenario: “We may say that the danger was the greater because the readers were a compact body, all of them Jewish Christians, all worshiping in their old synagogues in Rome, which had now become Christian churches. By returning to Judaism some influential former rabbi among them might draw a large number with him. In fact, as these synagogues had become Christian, so they might again become Jewish” (Bible Analyzer

In Hebrews 12:15, Paul likely restated an Old Testament verse: “Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood” (Deu 29:18). The ESV Study Bible explains the meaning of Paul’s statement: “The author warns against ‘bitterness’ by alluding to Deu 29:18, which describes one who turns away from God and pursues other gods. A bitter and resentful person is like a contagious poison, spreading his resentment to others” (Tecarta Bible App).

Joseph S. Exell in his Biblical Illustrator explains the difficulty of removing such a root of bitterness: “Though you may be able to destroy the fruit, and cut down the branches, the root may be beyond your reach. Though the branches be lopped off, and the stem cut down close by the ground, yet the root left in the soil will keep its hold, and send up another stem, and spread out other branches. So with this sin” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

This verse from Deuteronomy was noted for another New Testament illustration, as explained by Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: “In Acts 8:23 St. Peter makes reference to the same chapter of Deuteronomy as he speaks to Simon Magus, who, above all other men, proved a root of bitter poison in the early Church” (e-Sword 13.0.0). One of my previous Digging Deeper articles, entitled “The Gall of Bitterness,” explained this confrontation between Peter and Simon Magus.

The sin of Esau

In Hebrews 12:16-17, Paul illustrated his case with an Old Testament personage: the bitter end of the Old Testament patriarch Esau. The NKJ Study Bible explains: “Under the Law, the eldest son would receive a double inheritance (see Deu 21:17). Esau lost his inheritance, which included God’s gracious promises, by despising it and valuing the pleasure of food over it (Gen 25:34)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Paul Kretzmann extends this further in his Popular Commentary of the Bible: “That was the sin of Esau, who considered the right of the first-born, though it included the fact that the first-born was also the bearer of the Messianic blessing, so lightly that he sold his birthright for a single meal, for a mess of pottage, Gen 25:29-34. His case illustrates the danger of missed or rejected opportunities. For when Esau afterwards made an attempt to get the blessing of the first-born for himself, he did not succeed, 27:30-40” (Bible Analyzer

Lessons for Christian living

With this context, now we may extract valuable lessons from this passage for Christian living. Daniel Whedon’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments derives significant meaning from the words looking diligently: “The Greek might be rendered episcopizing; the word from which bishop [overseer] is derived. Every Christian should be bishop in this respect, watching for the purity of the Church” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Not only should Christians be concerned with the state of their spiritual health, but also that of their congregation since their lives impact it.

Daniel Whedon’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments then explains root of bitterness: “Not a principle or an event, but a person, who springs up like a poisonous plant in a garden, and whose noxious quality is contagious. So Christ is beautifully called the ‘root of David;’ and, in the Apocrypha, Antiochus Epiphanes is called ‘a sinful root.’ But the allusion here is to Deu 29:18: ‘Lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood'” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Based on this, the root of bitterness can be an individual, who like Esau, negatively impacts a congregation because he now had to live with the consequences of “despising his birthright.” Sins can be forgiven upon deep repentance, but consequences may remain. 

We may wonder how this could happen today. William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible explains how some Christians consider it too restrictive to obey Christian principles: “There are always those who think the Christian standards unnecessarily strict and punctitious; there are always those who do not see why they should not accept the world’s standards of life and conduct. This was specially so in the early Church. It was a little island of Christianity surrounded by a sea of paganism; its members were, at the most, only one generation away from heathenism. It was easy to relapse into the old standards. This is a warning against the infection of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously, spread within the Christian society” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

David Guzik in his Enduring Word Commentary illustrates one way that bitterness can take root in a Christian: “Many are corrupted because of bitterness towards someone they feel has wronged them, and they hold on to the bitterness with amazing stubbornness! What they must do is remember the grace of God extended to them, and start extending that grace towards others – loving the undeserving” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Esau believed his brother, Jacob, had wronged him by stealing his birthright. Esau actually despised it for a mere bowl of pottage. 

Put away bitterness

Bitterness is a characteristic of the ungodly so a Christian must never rationalize it as “righteous indignation”: “Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom 3:13-14 KJB). James warns against it as well: “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish” (Jas 3:14-15). Paul provides the antidote: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph 4:31-32).

Hebrews 12:15 insists that Christians must look diligently into their spiritual state, as Albert Barnes explains in his Notes on the Bible: “This phrase implies close attention. It is implied that there are reasons why we should take special care. Those reasons are found in the propensities of our hearts to evil; in the temptations of the world; in the allurements to apostasy presented by the great adversary of our souls” (e-Sword 13.0.0).  Christians have much to avoid while living in this world of sin.

William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible offers a final warning about the root of bitterness: “We do well to remember that there is a certain finality in life. If, like Esau, we take the way of this world and make bodily things our final good, if we choose the pleasures of time in preference to the joys of eternity, God can and will still forgive but something has happened that can never be undone. There are certain things in which a man cannot change his mind but must abide for ever by the choice that he has made” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA, and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.