The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews — it isn’t unforgiveness – by Rebecca Davis

The following excellent article was written by our friend Rebecca Davis. She originally published it on her blog at Here’s the Joy but it was then moved to BJUGrace.

To maximize the exposure of the article with Rebecca’s permission we are also posting it here for you. Here is a perfect example of how Scripture is horribly mishandled to the harm of the oppressed and to the enablement of the wicked. Many, many thanks to Rebecca for cutting the Word of God straight and showing its wonderful, powerful truth here.



Hebrews 12:15 is one of the most often preached-on passages of Scripture to tell victims and survivors of abuse that their primary—and perhaps only—problem is unforgiveness. Here it is:

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;

that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble,

and by it many become defiled;

People are told that their continuing to be troubled by their abuse is evidence of a “root of bitterness” in their lives, which will defile others.

So . . . how can we avoid being like the sermonizers and writers who simply assume that the “root of bitterness” there is unforgiveness? How can we figure out what it really is?

We can do this by looking at the Old Testament passage it’s referring to, by looking at the grammar, and by looking at the context.

The Old Testament allusion

Throughout church history, commentators have pretty much universally acknowledged that the Hebrews’ author was here alluding to a passage from the Old Testament. After all, Hebrews is full of quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. It was written to the Hebrew Christians — those people who had been converted from the faith of their fathers to faith in Christ. The book was written in part to show them more clearly how the New Covenant fulfilled the Old and far surpassed the Old. It was written to show them that Jesus is Better, so don’t give up when things are hard.

Throughout the New Testament, when a writer quotes or alludes to a passage from the Old Testament, studying that passage can often shed more light on what he’s saying. In this case, Deuteronomy 29:18-19 also refers to metaphorical roots and bitterness:

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations; lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit [in the KJV it’s “gall and wormwood,” which suggest not only bad taste, but poison], one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness [twisted obstinance] of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.[1]

In this passage the root bearing “poisonous and bitter” fruit is not the feeling of bitterness. Rather, it is an individual, an actual person (or persons), in the midst of the congregation who produces something bitter. This person is one who

  1. turns away from the Lord God to other gods,
  2. blesses [exalts] himself in his heart (essentially treating himself like a god), and
  3. thinks he will be safe, even though he walks in the twisted obstinance of his heart.

This description has nothing to do with unforgiveness. The poison Moses warned against (the literal meaning of the term), the poison that could potentially infect the people of God was a person who would turn to his own way, following a false god, exalting his own self, and thinking himself untouchable.

Unless this person was rooted out, it would result in the people being “swept away,” causing them agony and grief (the “bitterness” that is found throughout the Old Testament).

The grammar

This passage has invariably been presented as if it is addressed to individuals: “You” (individually) should check for that root of bitterness in your (individual) heart.

But that’s not the way it is. It’s addressed to the group, which is important, because the root of bitterness is a person within the group. (By the way, it’s easy for the non-Greek-scholar to see if a “you” in a passage is addressed to an individual or a group by looking at the King James Version. One of the brilliant things those translators did was to use “you” when the Greek pronoun was plural and “thee” or “thou” when the Greek pronoun was singular. That makes it a no-brainer to discern which the writer was talking about.)

There is no hint here of a directive to an individual. Anyway, the entire book of Hebrews was written to a group — the Hebrew Christians. That is who the writer is still addressing in this brief passage.

The context in the book

First, the immediate context.

Hebrews 12:15-17

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;

that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble,

and by it many become defiled;[2]

that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.

For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing,

he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

The immediate context of the “root of bitterness” is a description of Esau: as the writer of Hebrews describes, he was a fornicator and profane person. Not only did he marry women from idolatrous nations (a source of bitterness — agony and grief —for Isaac and Rebekah, as Genesis 26:34-35 says), but also he despised his inheritance and instead wanted to fulfill his own fleshly desires.

Here in the Hebrews reference to Esau, you can see echoes of the Deuteronomy passage:

  1. turning away from the Lord God to other gods,
  2. exalting himself in his heart (essentially treating himself like a god), and
  3. thinking he would be safe, even though he walked in the twisted obstinance of his heart.

So this passage is saying . . .

If fornicators and profane people who despise the inheritance of Christ are allowed to have ascendency among the people of God, this will poison the congregation, and many will be defiled.

(You think that doesn’t happen? Perhaps you’d be surprised.)

The larger context of this entire passage in Hebrews 12 is that of our being surrounded by great heroes of the faith (ch 11) as we run the race looking to Jesus as our Pioneer and Completer (ch 12:1-4), allowing for the disciplinary correction of the Lord (ch 12:5-14), and understanding that Mt. Zion is greater than Mt. Sinai (i.e., the New Covenant is better than the Old, ch 12:18-29).

In other words, the New Covenant people of God are being encouraged to persevere, with the foundation of their confidence in their standing in Christ. The allusion to the Old Covenant people of God reminds them that even as they seek to persevere, even then, in their very midst can arise a person who will be a “root of bitterness.”

With Esau, as with the passage in Deuteronomy, this root of bitterness is extremely important  . . . but it has nothing to do with unforgiveness.

So what exactly is the bitterness in the “root of bitterness”?

In the larger study I’m doing, I’m working on showing how there are three ways the concept of bitterness is presented in the Bible. Only one of the three is a destructive force coming from within a person, or caused by a person. It’s certainly legitimate to say that this one falls into that category.

But not because of unforgiveness.

This kind of bitterness is not a “secret root” within the hearts of individual Christians that individual Christians should constantly be searching their hearts for, or asking others to point out to them, the way so many preach.

It is a person causing destruction within a congregation by exalting himself and leading them astray.

This “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12 causes bitterness the way poison causes bitterness — it makes the people who are subject to it feel agony and grief. If the people of the congregation follow the destructive path of this person, they will experience the agony and grief of going astray, and will find the hand of the Lord against them for allowing this ungodly person to stay in their midst.


[1] Jesus may have been hinting at this Scripture when on the way to the cross. He turned to the people who were mourning and lamenting to warn them that the utter and complete destruction of their nation was coming. Then, alluding to the work of the Pharisees who had had Him assigned to death—those who thought, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart”—He said in Luke 23:31 (KJV), “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?”

[2] This clause in Hebrews, “and by it many become defiled” corresponds to the end of that passage in Deuteronomy: “This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.”


Rebecca Davis expanded on the topic of bitterness in her upcoming book Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind [Affiliate link]. She was the collaborating author with Jeff Crippen of Unholy Charade [Affiliate link].

Rebecca Davis’s second post in her series on bitterness:
The “gall of bitterness” in Acts — it isn’t resentment 


At the Awaken Conference 2019, Rebecca Davis presented Rethinking Bitterness.

The link to Rebecca Davis’ presentation, Rethinking Bitterness, can also be found on our Video & Audio resource page, one of our many Resources pages.


26 thoughts on “The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews — it isn’t unforgiveness – by Rebecca Davis”

  1. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on get better not bitter… they use this all the time…. If you don’t forgive you will get bitter. It’s a mantra and heaps tons of guilt on victims.

    1. Yes, Sarah … I’ve heard sermons and have had many a so-called Biblical counselors warn me to guard against becoming bitter. Meanwhile, ‘he’ is sitting there and actually told the counselor(s) that I was not that kind of person.
      What distressed me over the years is how ‘he’ refused to confront church leadership about sexual nuances within the church. This is the bitter poison that has infiltrated the churches and innocent victims are being used as scapegoats to distract from it.

  2. This is so amazing for me to read today. I can’t thank you enough. I’ve been up at 3 and 4 in the morning praying and crying out to the Lord for some huge and pressing situations that impact my entire family. I really needed this.

    I couldn’t put it into words how much this helped me sift through what is happening. What an answer to prayer. You are truly assisting with that Great Helper and Comforter to remove grave clothes and enemy accusations. Truth is such a might sword.

    1. ditto here! I remember falling on my knees to ask the Lord to rip out the ‘root’ of bitterness that I felt was welling up in me!!

  3. This was wonderful!

    It often seems to me as if the church only reads a couple verses in the Bible which they twist to support their own opinions–and they ignore any verse that clearly doesn’t support their opinions. For example, they quote / twist the verses they talk about forgiveness and not being bitter, but they totally ignore the verses tell us to forgive IF a person REPENTS and to avoid, shun, walk away from the wicked.

    Having been called “unloving…unforgiving…bitter…UnChristlike” when I finally walked away from toxic / abusive people, this post was like a breath of fresh air. Thanks!

    1. I hear you! Daring to open your heart about the abuse suffered only caused more pain and accusations of ‘being bitter’ – in reality, the one with the problem of bitterness ..
      I have been called ‘bitter’ more than I can remember, it is convenient route..

    2. Yes, Un-Tangled!
      Recently someone from a church belittled me saying that because I found comfort in God’s ultimate justice against the abuser that it was sick that I take joy in that. This person was yelling at me and accusing me of was twisting scripture to fit “my philophy”. They mocked me. This person kept saying that I doubted God’s strength and His ability to save people. They also said that the church exists to reach out to everyone so that includes evil, wicked, unrepentant people. Reach out as in forgive, love, join with, help, never shut out the wicked, etc. This is a John Piper loving CMA church.

      Excuse me? ??? What an attack and judgement on me! It was like being abused all over again. So wicked. I had to physically run from this person when they started mocking me personally. And what a SERIOUS amount of garbage!!! This person heads up a few “ministries” in that church.

    1. Yes, It is the ABUSER who thinks of himself as a god, and yet he along with the church like to mirror this verse to reflect to the victim.. (so wrongfully applied)
      What a perfect exposure of twisting the scriptures this is!

      1. It’s actually part of a book I’m working on called “Untwisting Scriptures that have been used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind.”

  4. Thank you! I heard a sermon at my new church on Naomi and Ruth that was refreshing. Naomi called herself ‘bitter’ and the book explains how God worked Naomi through that bitterness to bring her greater blessing. It was not the typical bitter sermon where someone who is bitter is suddenly untouchable.

    It was very transformative – that God wanted to interact with who we are, bitter or not, and not some holy image of us that we like to project towards him (i.e. how we would be expected to approach the king of the universe).

      1. Yes, Naomi is a great case study. In another part of my ongoing study on bitterness, I plan to work out case studies on Naomi and Job. Their bitterness didn’t have anything to do with unforgiveness or resentment either. Just agony and grief.

  5. Should I send Jeff Crippen’s YouTube Video Sermon on Evil in the Church to [a] church leader that is an ally to [an] evil bully?

    I was discouraged from doing this by a Christian whom I confided in.
    She basically told me to “Let it Go”.

    What do you think?

    Is it a waste of time or inspired and cathartic to confront evil in the church?

    I personally believe if God directs my steps I should open up the discussion with [the] evil ally church leader.

    Then I think…… But why wait for God to direct my steps? Isn’t God always on the side of standing up for righteousness?

    Or does wisdom tell me to hold my tongue as it will simply be an exercise in futility that will leave me more frustrated with evil in the house of God?

    Confront or remain silent? Get angry in the face of evil or let it slide? Is it that simple?

    Please advice…. Any advice is appreciated.

  6. If you continue the analogy with plants, some roots are deeply entrenched or have long, snaking root systems.

    There are plants removed with the flick of a trowel, there are plants requiring the force of a sharp edged spade.

    Some plants will sucker, some remain contained.

    One must know the nature of the plant…..

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