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Israel was commanded at the Feast of Passover to eat bitter herbs with the roast lamb and unleavened bread. The observance was meant to symbolize the bitterness and agony of their Egyp. servitude (Exod 1:14; 12:8). The rabbis of this day have prescribed the eating of horseradish as the fulfillment of this commandment.

A technical use of the word is found in the ceremony of the bitter water. This was a ceremonial test (or ordeal?) for infidelity in a woman in the case of a jealous husband (Num 5:18-27). The Scriptures record no instance when this test was carried out.

In speaking of the moral corruption of the nations in Canaan, Moses refers to bitter clusters of grapes (Deut 32:32), a fig. use to express their ethical nature. The sacred writer records the mental attitude and stern disposition of dethroned David and his followers as “bitter of soul” (2 Sam 17:8 ASVmg). Jeremiah describes Judah’s wickedness as bitter, so much so that it overwhelms the heart (Jer 4:18). In Amos’ denunciations of Israel’s sins he predicts the loss of their feasts and music with the replacement by sackcloth and mourning, all of it constituting a bitter day (Amos 8:10).

Habakkuk foretells the visitation upon his people of the Babylonians, “that bitter and hasty nation” (Hab 1:6). The reference is to their inconsiderate and cruel treatment of subject peoples, whom they considered much as the fisherman does his catch.

At Samaria the Apostle Peter was constrained to rebuke Simon the sorcerer sternly when he attempted to buy the gift of the Spirit. He accused Simon of being in the “gall of bitterness,” an expression intended to awaken the offender to the depth of his depravity and ungodliness. Throughout the epistle to the Hebrews the sacred penman writes against the background of possible apostasy on the part of professing Jewish believers. They are warned against “any root of bitterness,” which may refer to any sin which could develop into apostasy. The waters made bitter (Rev 8:11) may describe fig. any disasters yet to befall sinful men.


T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, 293; G. Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VI 122-127; IDB (1962), Vol. I, 443, 444; W. G. Williams; KB, 562, 565, 569; New Bible Dictionary (1962), 158; R. K. Harrison, “Bitter Herbs,” PBD (1963), 127.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(1) the physical sense of taste;

(2) a figurative meaning in the objective sense of cruel, biting words; intense misery resulting from forsaking God, from a life of sin and impurity; the misery of servitude; the misfortunes of bereavement;

(3) more subjectively, bitter and bitterness describe emotions of sympathy;’ the sorrow of childlessness and of penitence, of disappointment; the feeling of misery and wretchedness, giving rise to the expression "bitter tears";

(4) the ethical sense, characterizing untruth and immorality as the bitter thing in opposition to the sweetness of truth and the gospel;

(5) Nu 5:18 the Revised Version (British and American) speaks of "the water of bitterness that causeth the curse." Here it is employed as a technical term.

Frank E. Hirsch

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