“Root of Bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15

My wife and I are using Rand Hummel’s Five Smooth Stones Scripture Memory Plan in our family devotions. The plan proceeds alphabetically through common sin problems and includes five verses for each topic. The first verse on the subject of bitterness was Hebrews 12:15.

“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” (Hebrews 12:15 KJV)

This verse is a very popular text for sermons about bitterness, and I’m not surprised to see it topping Hummel’s memorization list on this issue. Unfortunately, this verse is not talking about an emotional state of bitterness at all. The “root of bitterness” here is an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18.

“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 29:18 ESV)

Hebrews 12:15 is a warning passage to professing Christians that one’s salvation is not a product of the company one keeps. In any Christian assembly, it is possible for there to be some present who have not genuinely believed the gospel. Professing Christians should examine themselves and exhort one another lest anyone fail to benefit from grace of God. While Christians should not be bitter, the “bitter root” in Hebrews 12:15 is an OT allusion supporting the warning against falling away, not a warning about emotional bitterness.

To Rand Hummel’s credit, his second verse on bitterness is dead on. Ephesians 4:31 says, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.” The inclusion of Hebrews 12:15 exposes a slight problem in Hummel’s approach. The Bible simply doesn’t give us 5+ commands on every important issue for us to obey. Hummel seems a bit stretched on the issue of bitterness. The other three verses are Eph 4:32, Eph 4:26 (which was included in the previous topic of anger), and 1 Peter 2:1-2. When “bitterness” appears as an emotional state in the Bible, the term is usually employed in descriptions of unbelievers. However, the verses Hummel selects are all worthy of memorization (including Hebrews 12:15), and we will continue using this helpful resource despite this minor hiccup.

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