A Bitterness unto Death

“The heart knows its own bitterness…” – Proverbs 14:10

Social media, and American society itself, increasingly seems to be morphing into a platform and arena of projected bitterness. Our democratic republic is facing a high intensity of polarization. Bickering and violent protests are everywhere. So, the question we must ask is whether the bitterness on display is the direct result of social media and American culture or rather inherent to the nature of man. I am one to believe that bitterness stems from the heart of man. But, bitterness is reactionary in nature. One becomes bitter and angry when he experiences something distasteful. Envy of others, the betrayal of a friend, anger at someone’s beliefs, these experiences and more cause humans to become bitter. Humans resent that which causes them pain. Similar to Newton’s Third Law, experiencing bitterness often has an equal and opposite reaction of bitterness in the soul of the one affected. Experiencing bitterness causes bitterness; one could call this the dualism of bitterness. Therefore, if bitterness is reactionary, it then follows that social media acts as a conduit or conductor for bitterness.

Social media as a platform has infinite potentiality to grow bitterness in individuals. For, an individual involved with social media not only deals with local issues and interpersonal relationship, but also has their world opened to millions of issues and thousands of relationships, albeit shallow ones. The more one focuses their attention on the shallow world of mass media and less on the physical community they are a part of, it is often the result that these individuals naturally become more bitter. Why do you ask? Simply because there is more content to which one can react. With more content, comes the greater chance of encountering something that makes one envious, depressed, and annoyed. These experiences cause one’s heart to become bitter. And, this bitterness often leads to anger and anger to retaliation, sometimes violent. One only need watch the nightly news to see a protest that ended violently. Often the violence that erupts at these protests are fueled by rhetoric on social media. Sadly, we live in a day in age where internet trolls do not remain online in the world of perceived fantasy, but in their bitterness, allow their nature to be corrupted to the point where they physically act like brutish, ugly trolls themselves, illogical and violent.

But, we must remember that bitterness is a plight of the heart of man and not inherent to social media. Therefore, our solution must be focused on the care of the human soul. So then, from a theological and Christian perspective, how does one combat the plight of bitterness? The answer to this question must pierce to the root of the issue, which we have stated as the heart of man. When a man is sick and hot with a fever, it does him no lasting good to merely cool him down with cold ice compression. A good doctor will give an antidote to combat the root cause from which the fever stems. And, this is what our Lord does for us in the Scriptures. Let us look to them for guidance.

One of the major themes of the Sacred Scriptures is this idea of bitterness. One would expect this as bitterness is a common experience to all of humanity. Every created thing experiences some form of bitterness, whether physical suffering, spiritual agony, emotional distress, or the vices of sin because the world is broken. For, bitterness entered in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Though its flesh may have been sweet, it left only bitterness in the mouth of Adam, Eve, and their descendants thereafter. For, after that fateful act, the Triune God cursed man resulting in the multiplication of sin, pain, suffering, and eventually death. Suffering, sin, and pain are bitter by nature, and as we stated earlier they also produces bitterness in the heart of men. Let it be noted here, that experiencing the bitterness of pain and suffering is not itself evil; it is only evil when man allows those external evils to create bitterness toward God or fellow man in his very soul.

From Genesis to Revelation bitterness is painted over the pages of Scripture. Exodus, Leviticus, the Proverbs, Lamentations, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and even many New Testament passages expound on the theme of bitterness. In Exodus, God makes a central part of the Passover diner eating bitter herbs, so the Israelites remember the bitter bondage of slavery in Egypt. Job and the prophet Jeremiah are perhaps the primary example of the scriptural theme of bitterness. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul consistently writes to put away bitterness from the church body, and the apostle John records in Revelation that one of the plagues cast down on earth is bitter waters. Bitterness’ emphasis in the Sacred Scriptures thematically adds great depth to the redemptive salvation of man by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For, mankind does not need saving if there is no bitterness from which to save him. Let us specifically put before us the accounts of Moses and Naomi to better explain this concept.

On Moses and the Israelites:

It is recorded in the book of Exodus, that after the Israelites fled Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, God immediately began to provide for their daily needs. He provided them with mana, quail, and of course, water. For God not only saves, he daily provides the sustenance needed for life. Moses writes in the book of Exodus that, “Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”[1]

This passage, along with the entirety of the Israelite Exodus, teaches that tasting bitter things often result in inward bitterness. The bitter waters of Marah caused an inward bitterness in the hearts of the Israelites. The Israelites wanted water. That desire was good. But, when they could not have it, they responded with annoyance and bitterness toward Moses and, in essence, God. Experiencing bitterness resulted in inward bitterness and outward grumbling.

So, as the story continues, God guided Moses to throw a wooden log into the water. The wooden log transformed the water from that which was bitter and undrinkable to that which was sweet and refreshing. Thus, supplying water to quench the thirst and needs of the Israelites.

On Naomi and Ruth: 

The book of Ruth examines the life of two women who experience the pain of familial death and societal ostracization. While the book is named for Ruth, Naomi is integral to the redemptive telling of this story, for the book begins and ends with Naomi.

First, the book starts off with Naomi and her family leaving Israel to go to Moab because of a famine. In Moab Naomi and her husband have success and happiness, culminating with their two sons marry local women, Ruth being one of them. Tragedy strikes. Naomi’s husband and two sons die, leaving her with no possessions and no purpose, living in a strange land.

The story then continues that Naomi to find some consolation leaves for her home, Bethlehem, Israel. Naomi urges her daughter’s by law to leave and start their own lives with other men. It is then when Ruth famously tells Naomi, “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”[2]

After Naomi returns to Bethlehem, her old friends are talking to her and very simply call her by her name. Naomi, who is so bitter in her heart, responds, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Marah, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.”[3] Naomi’s name in Hebrew means “pleasant.” So, this illustration becomes even deeper, for as Naomi ate of the bitterness of this fallen world, she responds by becoming bitter herself even naming herself Marah.[4] That which was pleasant became bitter. Experiencing pain caused inward and outward bitterness in Naomi, so much so, that she formed her identity around bitterness.

The story continues that Ruth through her love and faithfulness to Naomi, brings redemption to her family by marrying Boaz and bearing Naomi a figurative grandson. As stated earlier, the book of Ruth starts with Naomi and ends with Naomi. Chapter four states, “Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer…He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”[5] God turns Naomi’s bitterness into joy with new life.

Moses and Naomi Explained:

Similarities between these two stories emerge as one puts their mind to study. Each story has an object or subject that is first pleasant. The Water of Marah and Naomi were once pleasant; they were not always bitter. But, outside circumstances entered and caused bitterness to overcome each, making them bitter to those who interacted with them. The Israelites wouldn’t drink the water, and Naomi was bitter toward God, her friends, and countrymen. Yet, both were not left to remain bitter. God in his infinite wisdom sent remedies to them both. The waters of Marah were healed with a tree, and Naomi was healed through her loving daughter-in-law, Ruth. Both the waters and Naomi became pleasant once again bringing refreshment and joy to those they interacted with. The waters quenched the thirst of the Israelites, and Naomi once again was pleasant toward her countrymen. Is this not a foreshadowing of our Savior, Jesus Christ?

It is clear to see that the waters of Marah and Naomi, who named herself Marah, represent fallen humanity. Humanity has become bitter toward God because of the suffering caused by sin, death, and the devil; suffering and bitterness which was self-inflicted in our case. Mankind in his selfishness became bitter toward God, unpleasant, and useless. Not only is mankind bitter toward God, we also are bitter toward our fellow man becoming envious, angry, and full of resentment. It is also clear that the tree Moses cast into the water and the godly Moabite, Ruth, are symbols of Jesus Christ. For, that which is unpleasant needs a mediator to make it pleasant once again. No man, woman, or created object has the inherent qualities or abilities to make that which is bitter sweet again, for in the fall all things became bitter. As Proverbs poetically puts it, “The heart knows its own bitterness.”[6] Every man, woman, and child has bitterness in their heart, and bitterness cannot cure bitterness. Mankind needed a mediator of divine sweetness, a mediator of God himself.

Jesus Christ, through his life, crucifixion, and resurrection, is our Ruth. Jesus, upon that beautiful tree of Calvary, dispenses of the bitterness of humanity like the tree that cured the waters of Marah. St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “But if the wood be thrown into the water, that is, if one receives the mystery of the resurrection which had its beginning with the wood (you of course understand the “cross” when you hear “wood”), then the virtuous life, being sweetened by the hope of things to come, becomes sweeter and more pleasant…” Our Lord saves us not only from physical affliction with the hope and promise of the resurrection, but he also heals our souls of all bitterness and hate which we harbor in our fallen nature. Oh, how beautiful is our Lord, Jesus! He allowed himself to be cut down, that he might make mankind pleasant and fruitful once again. For the death and resurrection of Jesus lead to the redemption and resurrection of mankind.

Jesus not only redeems us supernaturally from the bitterness of sin, death, and the devil, he also gives us a practical example to overcome bitterness in our own souls. Christ Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit in order that we may exemplify Him more perfectly in our sanctification. Our Savior was beaten, whipped, and crucified; his own countrymen, whom he healed of physical and spiritual sickness, were the ones who killed him. Not only did his countrymen kill him, his friends abandoned him. Lastly, our Savior, in his humanity, had the Triune God turn his face away from him. And, as David before him, Jesus Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Why are you so far from saving me…)”[7] But in this pain, in this bitterness, Jesus responded with only grace and humility. Toward his country men, who killed him, he stated “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[8] Toward his friends, who abandon him, he stated, ““Peace to you!”[9] To the God the Father, whom he felt had abandoned him, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”[10] Jesus responded to bitterness with love and joy. Instead of letting bitterness poison his own soul, our Savior conquered bitterness with love, valuing the other greater than himself. May we learn from his example.

Thus, let us seek to emulate Christ in our own lives. When your enemies taunt, troll, despise, and spit on you ask for their redemption. When your friends use you for personal gain and then abandon you, grant them forgiveness and peace. And, when you feel your God has abandoned you, commit your spirit into his hands; knowing that he loves and cares for you even when He feels distant. Experiencing bitterness need not result in becoming bitter. When, the church and its members responds to bitterness, anger, resentment, and suffering with grace, love, peace, and joy, they act like waters of Marah. They are like sweet fruit produced by the work of Holy Spirit. For, being healed by Christ is not merely for personal betterment, but for the improvement of the world. Christ as our Mediator makes us sweet, humble, and full of joy. The world, like the Israelites, is thirsty for sweet and refreshing water. May the church seek Christ in order that we may become sweet to our fellow man. Showing them the way of love and peace. Showing them the gospel of Jesus Christ. Showing them the way to the Triune God. Amen.


[1] Exodus 15:23-24. ESV.

[2] Ruth 1:16-17.

[3] Ruth 1:20.

[4] It is interesting to note, that this is the very same Hebrew word the people of Israel gave to the place that had bitter water. So, bitterness is often so deep and painful that we define ourselves as bitter. One could even say mankind identifies as the essence of bitterness itself. Bitterness makes us bitter in our being.

[5] Ruth 4:14-15.

[6] Proverbs 14:10.

[7] Psalm 22:1.

[8] Luke 23:34.

[9] Luke 24:36.

[10] Luke 23:46.

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