“Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them.” (Colossians 3:19)

Having addressed “wives” (v.18), Paul now turns to the “Husbands.” He lays two requirements upon them.

The first is to “love your wives.” The present imperative demands action that is habitual and regular.  The word group connected with the verb “love” has been infused by the writers of the New Testament with significant Christian meaning.  It should not pass without notice that the only other place the verb is used here in Colossians is in a description of God’s love toward us (3:12).  In light of this divine love set upon us we are to “put on love” (v.14) toward one another.[1] That this “love” has uniquely Christian content is seen in the parallel passage where Christ’s love for the church is the standard of measure for this command for the husband to love his wife (Eph. 5:25).  This “love” now is made specific to the relationship of husbands toward “your wives.”  Paul just used the same verb in a participial form in verse 12 to insist that every believer is “beloved” of God through His electing (“chosen of God”) grace.  Paul went on to demonstrate that in this grace God not only loves the sinner, but sets him apart to Himself as “holy.”  From the secure base of God’s enduring, covenant love, Paul issued moral imperatives (vv.12-13).  That same foundation of God’s love to the husband is what frees him to selflessly love his wife in a singular, unique relationship.

The second command is “do not be embittered against them.” The verb is used only here by Paul and elsewhere in the New Testament only in Revelation (8:11; 10:9, 10).  In Revelation it is used literally of something that goes into the stomach and brings bitterness and a violent response.  It speaks of that which is “sharp, harsh, and bitter.”[2] Here it is used metaphorically and points toward anger, resentment and bitterness of spirit.[3] The present imperative with the negation (“not”) “forbids a habitual action.”[4] In the passive, as here, it means to “become bitter” or to have become “embittered.”[5] This must not happen “against them.”  The preposition (“against”) speaks “of the goal or limit toward which a movement is directed.”[6]

What exactly is forbidden here?  Is the husband forbidden to become bitter toward his wife (KJV, NASB, NET)?  Or is he forbidden to treat her harshly or bitterly (ESV, NIV, NRSV)?  The answer is probably, “yes.”  Paul forbids the husband to develop an inward bitterness toward the wife which will give vent to harsh and bitter words and actions toward her.

What would cause a man to be thus “embittered against” his wife and thus “be harsh with” her (NIV)?  The emotional void left in the absence a secure, singular, covenant love will incite the wife to feel insecure and uncertain.  This insecurity and uncertainty regarding their relationship tends to create in the wife that which produces bitterness in the husband—qualities such as possessiveness, clinginess, complaining and nagging.  The husband, resting in the security and grace of God’s love to him, is to take the lead in covenant love with his wife, creating—by God’s grace—an environment of love, tenderness, understanding and security from which his wife is likely to respond to him with the same.

[1] Moo, 303.

[2] Rienecker, 582.

[3] Friberg, 312

[4] Ibid.

[5] BAGD, 657.

[6] Thayer, 541.