The author of Hebrews warns against a “root of bitterness springing up” that “causes trouble, and by it many be defiled”. Is the root to which he refers just a bitter spirit as is often supposed, or is there something more to it? What is he talking about, and what exactly is such a root of bitterness? Notice first from the immediate context that it is at odds with being at peace with others, and the sanctification or holiness without which no one will see the Lord. It is also related to coming short of the grace of God by which we are saved, and to the godlessness of Esau who demonstrated by the lusts of his flesh that he loved the world more than his inheritance in God’s eternal kingdom.
(Hebrews 12:14-17 NAS) Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; 16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.
The Deuteronomy Context
The author of Hebrews, who throughout the book closely follows the Septuagint, also seems to clearly have in mind the following passage from Deuteronomy where his mention of such a root of bitterness appears to originate. Notice from the context here that this root of bitterness is contrary to the demands of the covenant relationship that the Lord was entering into with those whom He had delivered from their bondage in Egypt. They were to be a people for His own possession, separated from the other nations, and this root of bitterness is related to the temptation of idolatry from the surrounding culture that would turn them away from Him.
(Deuteronomy 29:14-21 NAS) Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, 15 but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here today 16 (for you know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. 17 Moreover, you have seen their abominations and their idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold, which they had with them); 18 lest there shall be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; lest there shall be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood [LXX = a root springing up with gall and bitterness]. 19 And it shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, “I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry.” [LXX = “Let good happen to me, for I will walk in the error of my heart, lest the sinner destroy the guiltless with him”. I.e., lest others be defiled by the root of bitterness that springs up.] 20 The LORD shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and His jealousy will burn against that man, and every curse which is written in this book will rest on him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. 21 Then the LORD will single him out for adversity from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant which are written in this book of the law.
Idolatry is calling something God that is not God. It is creating a god according to our own desires that is not based in truth, but more pleasing to our flesh. It is a form of godliness, but not true godliness. It is religion, but not true religion. It is seeking God’s good for ourselves according to our own understanding although in fact we are walking in the error of our heart, unwilling to follow the true God. All idolatry hearkens back to the original temptation to be like God with the ability to create our own reality by the exercise of our self-will, thereby rejecting the objective truth of God’s reality and depriving Him of His rightful reign and rule over His creation. Hence, Paul writes that covetousness, or a greedy desire for what we want instead of what God has provided, is idolatry (Col 3:5).
Although we tend to think of idolatry in terms of the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai or the carved figures that primitive tribes bow down to, idolatry in America today is better described in terms of a false Jesus that people create in their own minds and think of as the true Jesus. They call upon their false Jesus to save them, but on their own terms and without subjecting themselves to the requirements that the true God commands for true salvation. Jesus taught, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (Joh 14:15; cf. Joh 12:48, 14:21, 15:10, 1Jo 2:3, 5:2-3), and asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
Bitterness the Fruit of Idolatry
Hence, any false religion, or anything false in our religion, can be a root of bitterness, i.e., a source of trouble, the results of which are described as bitter, and which if allowed to spring up has the potential to defile many by deceiving them in regard to the truth by which they might otherwise have come to know the sweetness of God’s true salvation. Notice especially that although it is quite possible for bitterness itself to be a root that springs up and defiles many (subjective use of the Greek genitive), bitterness is more often the fruit or consequence (objective use of the genitive) of an idolatrous root that has been allowed to grow up through unrepentant sin. A good example is found in Simon the sorcerer, whom early church tradition says was the source of the gnostic heresy, which in spite of its Christian veneer misled large numbers of people in the second century to a bitter end away from the truth.
(Acts 8:9-24 NAS) Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” 11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 13 And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” 24 But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
Significantly, the hallmark of Gnosticism is that it denies the basic reality that the material world God created is good, as are the laws He has established to govern it. It therefore defines salvation in terms of an escape from the truth of what is actually real through gnosis or knowledge. As with any other idolatrous root, such mistaken beliefs must inevitably result in woe when they meet objective reality. A person may jump off a cliff supposing he can fly, but unless he has correctly submitted himself to the laws God has established that govern flight so as to be in a hang glider or have on a parachute, he must eventually meet the reality of the ground at the bottom of the cliff that is quickly approaching.
Gall and Bitterness
Notice the association in both Acts 8:23 and Deut 29:18 between gall and bitterness. Gall is technically bile, a bitter digestive juice (hence, the gall bladder).
(Job 16:13 NAS) His arrows surround me. Without mercy He splits my kidneys open; He pours out my gall on the ground.
By association, gall was often used when referring to other things that are bitter in themselves.
(Proverbs 5:3-4 LXX) Honey drops from the lips of a harlot, who for a season pleases thy palate: 4 but afterwards thou wilt find her more bitter than gall, and sharper than a two-edged sword.
(Lamentations 3:15-19 NIV) He has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink. 16 He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. 17 I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. 18 So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.” 19 I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
Gall and Poison
Because many things with a bitter taste were known to be toxic, gall also became synonymous with poison, as it is often translated by the NAS.
(Deuteronomy 29:18 NAS) …lest there shall be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; lest there shall be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit (KJV = gall) and wormwood.
(Deuteronomy 32:32 NAS) For their vine is from the vine of Sodom, And from the fields of Gomorrah; Their grapes are grapes of poison (KJV = gall), Their clusters, bitter.
(Job 20:14 NAS) Yet his food in his stomach is changed To the venom (KJV = gall) of cobras within him.
(Hosea 10:4 NAS) They speak mere words, With worthless oaths they make covenants; And judgment sprouts like poisonous weeds (KJV = Hemlock) in the furrows of the field.
The Poisonous Fruit of an Idolatrous Root
Hence, the root of bitterness referred to by the author of Hebrews may be better described as a root bearing not just bitterness, but any poisonous fruit, especially in contrast to the sweet fruit of righteousness that God expects from the garden of His delight.
(Isaiah 5:1-4,7 NAS) Let me sing now for my well-beloved A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. 2 And He dug it all around, removed its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it, And hewed out a wine vat in it; Then He expected it to produce good grapes, But it produced only worthless ones. 3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge between Me and My vineyard. 4 What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?” … 7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
(Amos 6:12 NAS) Do horses run on rocks? Or does one plow them with oxen? Yet you have turned justice into poison, And the fruit of righteousness into wormwood. (See also Deut 32:32 above.)
Thus Peter’s statement to Simon Magus in Act 8:23 that he was in the gall of bitterness may be understood to mean that he was in the poison of bitterness, i.e, that he had been poisoned either by bitterness itself (subjective genitive), or by some other root that would sprout up and bear a very bitter fruit (objective genitive)—in this case by the envy that wanted the same power possessed by the apostles in order to continue claiming to be someone great by astonishing the people with what he could make appear to be like the magic he was accustomed to practice. Hence the NET translation: “For I see that you are bitterly envious and in the bondage to sin.” For although Simon “believed” and was even baptized and gave an outward appearance of wanting to follow Christ, he had not sincerely repented of his sinful desires and was ultimately wanting to use the gospel to further his own worldly ambitions—not at all unlike so many throughout history down to our own day. In this way he had subtly fallen into the sin of idolatry and come to follow a false Jesus that was more pleasing to his flesh.
Bitterness, Contentions and Anger
Significantly, the Hebrew word for bitter (מַר or מָרָה) is closely related to the word for contentious or rebellious (מָרָה), and hence the contextual association of the root of bitterness in Hebrews 12 with not being at peace with others. To understand this connection, consider that the Hebrew verbal form (מָרַר) and its Greek counterpart (πικραίνω), in addition to being translated as to be bitter or embitter, can also mean to be irritated (Exo 16:20 LXE), to provoke (Jer 32:32 LXE), to be angry (Jer 37:15 LXE) or even enraged (Dan 8:7, 11:11 NAS). Even in our English language, we say something is galling if it is especially maddening or infuriates us. And thus to be bitter is often to be contentious or galling, and to be embittered is to be provoked to anger. Hence Paul admonishes husbands to not be embittered against their wives (Col 3:19) with whom they may become irritated, perhaps even as a result of being provoked by their contentions. The word also carries a nuance of deceit, the importance of which we shall see below.
We should therefore understand that as we seek to follow Christ, any uncrucified desire of our hearts that contentiously seeks our own will—rather than subjecting our will to the will of the Father as exemplified by the life of the true Jesus—is an idolatrous root. “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry” (1Sa 15:23). And because that root is planted in the deceptive nature of sin it can easily grow up even in the lives of those within the covenant community of God’s people to bear a bitter and poisonous fruit to defile many. In this light we can perhaps begin to understand why having no other gods before Him and making no idols are at the top of God’s list of commandments.
The Poisoned Water That Makes Bitter Roots Grow
The deceptive nature of sin that is fertile soil for idolatrous roots to sprout up and thrive is closely related to the bitterness of gall. Because of the association of bitter things with poison, substances with a narcotic effect like opiates that are known to be very bitter and that render people insensible were referred to as gall. Hence the prophets speak of the Lord giving “water of gall” (NAS = poisoned water) to a rebellious people who refuse to accept the truth so that they are no longer cognizant of the truth, but are given over to believe a lie.
(Jeremiah 8:14 NAS) Why are we sitting still? Assemble yourselves, and let us go into the fortified cities, And let us perish there, Because the LORD our God has doomed us And given us poisoned water to drink, For we have sinned against the LORD.
(Jeremiah 9:13-15 NAS) And the LORD said, “Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice nor walked according to it, 14 but have walked after the stubbornness of their heart and after the Baals, as their fathers taught them,” 15 therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood and give them poisoned water to drink.
(Jeremiah 23:14-15 NAS) “Also among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: The committing of adultery and walking in falsehood; And they strengthen the hands of evildoers, So that no one has turned back from his wickedness. All of them have become to Me like Sodom, And her inhabitants like Gomorrah.” 15 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts concerning the prophets, “Behold, I am going to feed them wormwood And make them drink poisonous water, For from the prophets of Jerusalem Pollution has gone forth into all the land.”
(Romans 1:18-28 NAS) For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator [which is idolatry], who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper…
(2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 NAS) [The coming of the lawless one] is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.
Understanding the deceitful nature of sin and the poisoned water of gall that God gives those to drink who refuse to believe the truth, we should not be surprised to see that the roots of feminism and immorality that in the last century rejected God’s truth for an alternate reality more pleasing to man’s sinful desires have now grown up and borne the bitter fruit of divorce, pornography, homosexuality, and transgender ideologies. Similarly, the root of Keynesian economics that rejected God’s truth about the dangers of debt for an alternate reality of immediate gratification has now grown up and borne the bitter fruit of monetary turmoil throughout the whole world.
Rejecting Altered Realities and Accepting Truth
Jesus told His disciples that in the world they would have tribulation (Joh 16:33), which is often a result of the idolatrous roots that grow up even among God’s people. What then should we do when those roots of bitterness threaten to defile us with their poisonous fruit? Jesus encourages us that He has overcome the world with its defilements, and by following His example of taking up our own cross so can we. In addition to the patient suffering Scripture calls us to endure as He did (see Psa 40:1-2, 2Co 1:6, 1Pe 2:20-23), it is especially important that we follow Christ’s example and reject any poisoned water by holding firmly to the truth. Recall that Jesus was offered wine mingled with gall before the crucifixion (Mat 27:34) to mercifully make Him more senseless to the pain of the cross He was about to endure. But He would not drink it, for He would not partake of any delusion of reality even though it lessened His sufferings; he would soberly face the full horrors of death from which He sought to redeem mankind.
(Matthew 27:33-34 NAS) And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, 34 they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink.
In a similar way, people are tempted to lessen their sufferings in this world through drugs and alcohol, and more recently even through various electronic and media addictions. We should not be surprised at the rise of such escapes from the reality of God’s creation in the physical realm as people have commensurately refused to accept the reality of His spiritual realm. For those who deny the truth of God’s spiritual laws and try to live as if they don’t exist must eventually also seek an escape from the reality of His creation governed by those laws, especially as they suffer the consequences for violating them. We should also understand why such means of escape are wrong. Instead of trying to escape the reality of our sin and its consequences by deceiving ourselves, we need to accept the truth and allow those sufferings to drive us to the Savior for a real deliverance and true salvation; cf. Jam 5:14-16.
(James 5:14-16 NAS) Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
In this regard we are reminded of the close relationship of Jesus’ teaching ministry to His healing ministry. For it is especially in the context of people coming to understand the reality of God’s truths in the spiritual realm and acting upon them through repentance that much healing is able to take place in the physical realm.
(Psalm 107:17-20 NAS) Fools, because of their rebellious way, And because of their iniquities, were afflicted. 18 Their soul abhorred all kinds of [spiritual] food; And they drew near to the gates of death. 19 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble; He saved them out of their distresses. 20 He sent His word and healed them, And delivered them from their destructions.
(Matthew 4:23 NAS) And Jesus was going about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.
(Matthew 9:35 NAS) 35 And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.
(Matthew 13:15 NAS) 15 For the heart of this people has become dull, And with their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes Lest they should see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I should heal them.
In summary, we have seen that although it is possible for bitterness itself to be a root that can grow up and defile many, in fact, the root of bitterness referred to by the author of Hebrews is not so singular in meaning. Rather, from the greater context of Scripture, the root in mind is any contentious resistance to the truth that results in the creation in our minds of a false god more pleasing to our flesh, which is idolatry. Such idolatrous roots thrive in the soil of sin’s deception and can easily spring up to defile many, like Esau and his spiritual progeny (cf. Mal 1:2-3). As a result of his root of worldliness he became so profane as to sell his greater spiritual birthright just to satisfy his temporal desires, which is a warning to Christians who are tempted by the world in the same way. Such fruit can only be described as very bitter, for in the end when he wanted to inherit the blessing that his birthright would have conferred, he was rejected. For even though he sought for it with tears, he found at that time no way to undo the consequences of the profane root that his life choices had allowed to grow up. Regardless of whatever false god and alternate reality our self-will would create to satisfy our own desires, the world of God’s creation is real, and there are real consequences for violating its laws, whether physical or spiritual, from which He wishes to spare us.
Such bitter consequences ought like the bitter herbs of the Passover (Exo 1:14, 12:8) to remind us of the bitter bondage of sin and point us to the blood of the Lamb for true deliverance. For if not, those bitter consequences are also like the poison of gall that will render us increasingly insensible to the truth; for that which is galling will make us mad, if we allow it. In this way we exchange the truth of God for a lie, and will eventually perish in our own delusion because we refused to believe the truth that God is God, that we are the creature and not the Creator, and that His commandments are for a reason, rooted in His great love for us. If through our own self-will we stubbornly reject that love and insist on creating our own reality rather than accepting the truth of God’s reality, then we must eventually come face to face with the consequences of denying the truth.
(John 12:48 NAS) He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.
In order to prevent such idolatrous roots from growing up in our lives and bearing their bitter and poisonous fruit we must be careful to believe that everything God has said is true and guard our hearts from being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For this is exactly what the same author of Hebrews who warned against a root of bitterness growing up had earlier also written to his readers.
(Hebrews 3:7-15 NAS) 7 Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice, 8 Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me [angered, even embittered Him, by their contentious rebellions; from the same root word for bitterness], As in the day of trial in the wilderness, 9 Where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, And saw My works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was angry with this generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; And they did not know My ways’; 11 As I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’” 12 Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart [in a nutshell, this is the root of bitterness], in falling away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end; 15 while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.”
 The same Hebrew word is used here for that used for gall in Psa 69:21, that speaks prophetically of the gall mixed with wine that was offered to Jesus at the crucifixion; see Mat 27:34.
 Compare Psa 10:7 in the Hebrew and LXX, as well as Rom 3:12-14 quoting from Psa 14 in the LXX.