One of the emotions Job mentions on several occasions during his speeches is his bitterness. Bitterness arises fundamentally because Job believes he is being punished by God for no good reason; he did nothing to merit the horrendous suffering that came his way. As this mini-essay will show, the farther Job is from hope, the more frequent are his references to bitterness.
What is Bitterness?
Bitterness is an emotion derived from a taste rather than from a feeling or state of mind. Wormwood, quinine and aloes are bitter. More familiar to most, the taste of beer or the rind of citrus fruits are bitter to the taste. Bitterness is a sharply penetrating sensation, an acute perception that lacks the tang of acid as well as the suffocating and repellent character of the acrid. When the Children of Israel left Egypt and arrived at Marah, they were unable to drink the water because of its bitterness (Ex. 15:23). The Hebrew term for bitterness is 'marah.' A bitter feeling, therefore, is one that is akin to resentment but possesses a sharply penetrating and persistent quality of acute or sad dissatisfaction or hurt.
Job uses 'marah' to describe his feelings in four passages. In 7:11, after stating that his "life is a breath" and that his "eye will never again see good (7:7)," Job lays aside restraint and says, "Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." This first outburst of bitterness comes on the heels of Job's conclusion that God is behind his torment and that his friends will not be helpful to him in his distress. His unexpected bereftness is at the root of his first expression of bitterness.
After it dawns on Job that "there is no umpire between us [God and Job], who might lay his hand on us both (9:33)," he sinks back into bitterness: "I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul (10:1)." When Job says, "There is no umpire," he is voicing, for the first time, his lack of hope. If the Proverbs are right that "hope deferred makes the heart sick (Prov. 13:12)," what does hope cut off do but make the heart bitter? Job's second reference to his bitterness thus emerges from a sense of hopelessness.
After Eliphaz changes his generally sympathetic tone towards Job in chapter 22, Job responds, "Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning (23:2)." Job's bitterness here derives not only from Eliphaz's words but from the fresh realization that as he makes his case before God in chapter 23, God is under no obligation to listen to him or vindicate him. "What he (God) desires, that he does (23:13)." Bitterness here arises from the realization that he is utterly at the mercy of an unpredictable, powerful and antagonistic force.
Job has just finished mocking the friends by speaking words that are appropriate in their mouths but not his (26:5-14). The caustic and biting tone of this speech, in my interpretation, matches his first words when he takes up his discourse again, "As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter.... (27:2)." Here Job not declares the bitterness that controls him; he names God as the agent of his embitterment. The energy that bitterness provides will enable Job both to declare his integrity in few (27:3-6) and many (29-31) words.
Job's strongest expressions of hope came in chapters 16 and 19. These passages are equidistant from Job's references to his own bitterness. Perhaps there is a message here; when hope recedes, bitterness emerges. The bitter person can only see the contours of the pit into which s/he has descendend. Job's defiance to the end is a function of his enduring bitterness.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long