He was surely too young to have died from heart failure? Besides, he ate muesli for breakfast and took regular exercise. He avoided undue stress. He maintained healthy eating habits, with plenty of fruit and veg. He avoided sugar and salt. He took cholesterol-reducing tablets.

So what struck him down? Congenital heart disease—a weakness that ran in the family.

Other things run in families, too. Sins, for instance.[1] We’ve all seen, say, a violent temper or a proneness to sexual immorality mark succeeding generations. Attitudes, too, run in families. Children grow up to vote for the same political party as their parents without thinking through the issues for themselves. In fact one exasperated local remarked to me, as an election approached, ‘If a chimpanzee stood as the Labour candidate in this area, it would get in.’ Again, a teenage boy once told me he couldn’t stand the Germans. When I asked why he replied, ‘Because they killed my great-grandad in the war.’

This transfer of attitudes from one generation to another is the scenario behind the prophecy of Obadiah—the shortest book in the Old Testament. The prophecy addresses the nation of Edom, located south-east of Israel and her inveterate enemy.

A bit of background is essential here. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, while the Israelites were the descendants of his twin brother Jacob. There had been enmity between the brothers from their very birth: Jacob had been born grasping Esau’s heel, as if figuratively trying to trip him up. Later, Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. He had regretted it and had lived with simmering resentment ever afterwards. Then Jacob had tricked Esau out of their aged father Isaac’s blessing and had been forced to flee for his life as Esau’s resentment boiled over in murderous intent.[2]

Tragically, Esau’s grudge had been passed on to succeeding generations of Edomites. By the time Obadiah was prophesying, even though at least a thousand years had passed, the hatred between Israel and Edom remained as strong as ever. That’s why, as Israel now came under attack from other enemies, the Edomites stood by watching and gloating over Israel’s distress. But God had had enough of this trans-generational enmity and sent Obadiah to prophesy Edom’s downfall.

Take a break now and read the book—it’s only twenty-one verses. As you do so, note that ‘Esau’ means ‘Edom’. You will also notice many references to ‘mountains’ and ‘heights’—Edom was a mountain kingdom, dominated by Mount Seir (2,000 feet; 610 metres). And in verse three you will see a reference to ‘the clefts of the rocks’. Many Edomite buildings were carved from solid rock. Typical was the town of Sela, later renamed Petra and today a popular tourist destination in the Kingdom of Jordan (see picture above).

Now let’s observe the sins of the Edomites that Obadiah pinpoints. You will notice straight away that we ourselves are prone to the same sins.

The most prominent was the bitterness that one Edomite generation after another had allowed to continue. No-one, it seems, had had the guts to say, ‘Come on! This has been dragging on for over a thousand years. Isn’t it time we put an end to it and reached out to the Israelites in their current distress?’ Social pressure to embrace the enmity was strong. Anyone who challenged it would be liable to get the equivalent of a brick through their front window. But it still needed saying.

Bitterness is fearfully destructive. Do you harbour any in your own heart? If so, try to find the guts to call a halt to it. If you don’t it will consume you from the inside.

Linked to the Edomites’ bitterness was their delight in the misfortunes of others. They were glad to see Israel being invaded and having a hard time. They gloated over the slaughter, the rape and the pain they saw her suffering.[3] In fact they even joined forces with her enemies to speed her destruction.[4]

We, of course, would never entertain such attitudes, would we? Yes, we would, sometimes personally and sometimes vicariously through the public media. We can get a sinister satisfaction when the tabloids carry out a character assassination on a politician who has committed some minor indiscretion, or when the news-hounds drop hints that a pop star may have been sexually abusing children. We want it to be true—maybe because when somebody else is painted black we look whiter by comparison.

That, of course, is a form of pride—we delight to put others down because it makes us feel superior. Certainly the Edomites were a proud people. Obadiah was blunt about it: ‘The pride of your heart has deceived you.’ Their mountain home made them literally look down on others, and the literal became an entrenched attitude towards their Israelite neighbours.[5]

Pride is the ultimate sin, the one that brought Satan down. It is the act of pushing God off the throne and climbing up there oneself. God cannot let it go unpunished: ‘“I will bring you down,” declares the LORD.’[6] Incredibly, so twisted is today’s thinking that society has turned pride into a virtue:

‘It’s good to be proud. It’s an asset, isn’t it? A virtue, not a vice. Pride is society’s antidote to insecurity. It is a mass-marketed drug, a sugar-coated pill swallowed to cure our low self-esteem. Pride is our culture’s treatment for an endless list of psychological and social problems. We chant the mantra of self-confidence, focusing on our strengths, intellect and wisdom, and dwelling on our achievements and track records. We visit counsellors, psychologists, hypnotists and “lifestyle gurus” in a desperate attempt to reprogramme our minds with pride—to believe that we are complete, self-sufficient human beings.’[7]

Some, at least, of our pride is a compensating mechanism to help us deal with our deep insecurities. But while that may help explain it, it certainly doesn’t excuse it. Indeed, if you are a Christian you will refuse such an attitude, acknowledging that God remains on the throne and that ‘by the grace of God I am what I am.’[8]

Having flagged up Edom’s sins, Obadiah goes on to show us how God deals with people who sin that way. He begins with the ‘sowing and reaping’ principle later enunciated by Paul: ‘People reap what they sow’.[9] If you sow petunias you won’t get chrysanthemums. It’s the boomerang principle that God has built into life itself, and Obadiah reminds the Edomites of it.[10] That principle remains active today. Check out your own attitudes and actions, because the same ones will in time come back to you. Be a giver, not a taker. Treat your aging parents with love and respect; your children are watching you and learning how to treat you when it’s your turn to be the aging parent. What are you sowing?

Obadiah also reminds us that, mercifully, God is patient. It took time for God to fulfil Obadiah’s prophecies against Edom, because ‘the LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.’[11] But in due course the promised judgment fell and the Edomites in fact disappeared as a people. At first they were displaced by the Arabs, who forced them across the Rift Valley into the Negev, where they lived as Bedouins. Later, they were forcibly Judaised, though they did keep some racial characteristics. But eventually they petered out completely, and there are no Edomites today.

From Obadiah’s time this process took about 600 years; yes, God is patient indeed.[12] But you should never presume upon his patience. Whatever he is urging you to do, do it, and do it quickly. Delayed his judgment might be, but it remains certain. There’s no avoiding it, unless you repent. Obadiah was clear on that point. ‘The day of the LORD is coming,’ he declared, using stock language for the day of divine judgment. And it was coming not just for the Edomites but ‘for all nations’[13]—so non-Edomites like us need to be careful. Eternal justice will in the end be done. Ultimately, no-one on earth will be able to say, ‘I got away with it’, because no-one will in the end get away with anything.[14] Mass murderer Harold Shipman thought for years that he had got away with lethally injecting his elderly patients, but eventually his crimes caught up with him. One day will bring catch-up time for every one of us.

Let’s conclude by looking again at the bitterness that prompted Obadiah’s prophecy. What is the nature of bitterness? A key statement in Hebrews gives us some pointers:

‘See to it that no-one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.’[15]

Interestingly, the next few verses go on to talk about Esau, the father of the Edomites, so this statement is highly relevant.

It tells us, for a start, that bitterness has deep roots: ‘See to it…that no bitter root grows up.’ You must therefore pull bitterness out by the roots, or it will simply grow again. If you are a gardener you will understand this. Certainly when I’m looking for weed-killer to use on my patio I look on the packet for some indication that it will destroy the roots, not just the leaves. Root out of your heart every last vestige of bitterness.

That’s because bitterness causes trouble: ‘See to it…that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble…’ And that trouble is always serious. It proliferates in families, in communities, in churches, in the workplace and in one’s own life. Avoid it at all costs.

And bitterness defiles many: ‘See to it…that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.’ Notice how this sentence starts with the singular (‘See to it that no-one…’) and ends with the plural (‘…to cause trouble and defile many’). The trouble multiplies. Bitterness doesn’t stay in one heart for long; it is infectious. And the ‘many’ is often the next generation, as both the Israelites and the Edomites knew to their cost.

What is the best way to deal with bitterness? The good news is that grace is available to help you root it out: ‘See to it that no-one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up.’ The ‘see to it’ indicates that it’s your own responsibility to draw upon the available grace.[16] God gives you a regular opportunity to take delivery of it, so be sure you don’t ‘miss’ it. If you do miss it you will never be able to blame anyone but yourself.

I’ve learnt over the years that the best way to root bitterness out is to confess it. Confess it, for a start, to God, who detests bitterness and against whom you have sinned by harbouring it. Then, as far as humans are concerned, don’t talk about it to any third party, because that spreads the disease instead of curing it. Instead, let the circle of dealing with it be limited to the circle of offence. In other words, once you have confessed to God and received his forgiveness, confess only to the person who has been the object of your bitterness.

Here’s how I suggest you go about it. Contact the person in the most appropriate way. If possible do it face to face; if that’s impracticable, do it by telephone. Avoid writing or emailing, because you want to clear the matter up, not document it. Once you’re in touch, ask the person to forgive you. Yes, I realise there are probably faults on both sides, but you are not responsible for the other party’s sins, only for your own, so don’t mention where the other person has gone wrong; simply confess to your own bitterness and ask them to forgive you.

And please don’t say, ‘If I’ve offended you…’ That little word ‘if’, in this kind of context, carries more clout than its size suggests. The person you are talking to will take you to be saying, ‘I don’t really think I’ve done anything to offend you, but being the ridiculously over-sensitive person that you are, you may have stupidly read into something I said a sinister element that I never intended, so if that’s the case, please forgive me—though if you were a person of any real substance I wouldn’t need to be asking forgiveness this way.’

Be sure to bring God into your request: ‘The Lord has shown me that my attitude has been wrong…’ And don’t just say, ‘I’m sorry’. That far too weak and vague for the seriousness of the sin of bitterness. Instead, having admitted your fault, say, ‘Would you please forgive me?’ That’s a question, so when you have asked it, shut your mouth and wait for a reply.

Then put the issue behind you. Whether they reply yes or no to your request, by making the request you have done all you can in the situation and, in so doing, you have cleared yourself. So make up your mind now to draw a line under it and not to entertain bitter thoughts towards that person again. This is an act of the will, and you will need to keep reaffirming it because the bitter thoughts will pop unbidden into your mind time and time again. When they do, take it as a prompt to pray for the person, then deliberately choose to think of good and wholesome things instead of the bitterness issue.[17] With time, the matter will dominate your mind less and less as God’s grace heals the wound.

Our title was ‘Bitterness Bites Back’. It did for the Edomites, as Obadiah prophesied, and it will for you unless you deal with it. But God’s grace is there to help. Use that grace to cut from your ankles the ball and chain of bitterness so that you can press on unhindered in the service of God.

Copyright © David Matthew 2010



Bitterness Bites Back


This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.



The gist of this article

Bitterness is always a destroyer, but never more so than when it gets passed on from one generation to another. There comes a point when God says, ‘Enough is enough!’ and acts to punish it. Find out how to deal with bitterness in your life.


1. See, for example, Jeremiah 11:10; 1 Peter 1:18.

2. See Genesis chapters 25-27.

3. Obadiah 1:11-12

4. Obadiah 1:14

5. Obadiah 1:3. One commentator observes: ‘The seemingly impenetrable mountain heights of Edom served as an emblem of the nation’s pride.’ (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, p601)

6. Obadiah 1:4

7. Shearman, D., Twelve Dead Men Speak, Sovereign World, 2003, p55

8. 1 Corinthians 15:10

10. Obadiah 1:15

9. Galatians 6:7

11. Psalm 103:8

12. 2 Peter 3:9

13. Obadiah 1:15

14. Hebrews 9:27

15. Hebrews 12:15

16. See also Hebrews 4:16

17. See Philippians 4:8. I have addressed this issue in detail in my book, A Sound Mind, available here.