What is a Bittern in the Bible?

The bittern is a type of wading bird that is mentioned several times in the Bible. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the symbolic and spiritual significance of the bittern from a Biblical perspective for Evangelical and Charismatic Christian audiences.


The bittern belongs to the heron family of birds and gets its name from the booming call it makes during breeding season. There are several species of bittern found across Europe, Asia, and North America that are identified in the Bible.

Key Takeaways:

  • The bittern is referenced 5 times in the Bible as a symbol of desolation and loneliness.
  • It inhabited ruins and desolate places, reflecting judgement and exile.
  • The bittern’s cry was considered an ill omen, a warning of danger or calamity.
  • God’s restoration of Israel is pictured by the bittern’s departure from ruined cities.
  • The bittern illustrates how sin and rebellion against God bring His discipline.
  • Trusting in God’s faithfulness leads to restoration and spiritual fruitfulness.

In this comprehensive exploration, we will look at each mention of the bittern in scripture and analyze its symbolism and connections to core Biblical themes. We will also overview the natural history and characteristics of bitterns to aid our understanding.

What is a Bittern in the Bible?

Natural History of Bitterns

Bitterns belong to the Ardeidae family of wading birds, which includes herons and egrets. They are medium-sized birds with compact bodies, short necks, and long sharp bills used for spearing fish and frogs. Their plumage is intricately patterned in brown, black, and buff, providing excellent camouflage among reeds and grasses.

Most bitterns inhabit marshes and wetlands and are solitary birds, hiding among vegetation during the day and feeding at dawn and dusk. They have deep booming calls used during the breeding season to attract mates and defend territories. Several Biblical passages emphasize this iconic call.

There are around 12 species of bittern worldwide, with the most widespread being the Eurasian Bittern, Great Bittern, and American Bittern. The Great Bittern was likely the most common species known in Biblical lands. The birds referenced in scripture were likely Great Bitterns or Little Bitterns.

Understanding the natural history of bitterns provides insight into their symbolic meaning in the Bible. Their preference for solitary life in desolate wetlands reflects the Biblical use of bitterns to represent ruin, isolation, and judgement. Their distinctive booming call gives the impression of mourning, matching Biblical passages where the cry foretells danger.

Bittern Mentions in the Bible

The bittern is referenced 5 times across 4 books of the Bible – Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Micah. In each mention, the bittern inhabits a locale undergoing judgement and desolation as a result of the people’s sin. The bittern represents and foretells this desolation.

Isaiah 14:23

“I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: and I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the LORD of hosts.” (KJV)

This prophetic passage from Isaiah pronounces God’s impending judgment on Babylon and the downfall of its king. Because of their pride and arrogance, the kingdom will become desolate like a wilderness inhabited only by bitterns. The bird’s presence reflects the ruins, emphasizing how thorough God’s discipline will be.

Isaiah 34:11

“But the cormorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl also and the raven shall dwell in it: and he shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones of emptiness.” (KJV)

Isaiah 34 foretells the judgement coming upon the nations who come against God’s people. They will become formless ruins where only wild animals live. The bittern inhabiting the land indicates its desolation and abandonment. God’s discipline brings fruitless chaos to those who oppose His people.

Zephaniah 2:14

“And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds; for he shall uncover the cedar work.” (KJV)

Zephaniah warns of God’s wrath on the wicked nation of Assyria including its capital Nineveh. The proud city will be reduced to ruin where bitterns perch in the broken windows and cry from the doorframes. The bird’s presence signals desolation as judgement comes.

Jeremiah 50:39

“Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wild beasts of the islands shall dwell there, and the owls shall dwell therein: and it shall be no more inhabited for ever; neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation.” (KJV)

This passage in Jeremiah parallels Isaiah 13 in prophesying the destruction coming to Babylon. It will become an uninhabited wasteland. The presence of wild creatures like the bittern represent the desolation and emptiness of the land after God’s discipline falls.

Micah 1:8

“Therefore I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked: I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls.” (KJV)

Micah prophesies Jerusalem and Judah’s coming destruction because of their rebellion against God. He wails bitterly, comparing his lament to the cries of owls and bitterns – symbols of mourning and warning. The bittern’s call signals coming judgment.

Symbolic Meaning of Bitterns in the Bible

By examining each mention of bitterns in scripture, we gain insight into their symbolic significance. Several key meanings emerge:

Desolation and Abandonment – In every passage, bitterns inhabit ruins, reflecting desolation and abandonment after judgment falls. Their preference for solitary life amidst wastelands represents the aftermath of God’s discipline on sin.

Forewarning of Judgement – The prophets describe the bittern’s distinctive cry as a call of mourning and warning. They heed the bird’s call to repent before judgement arrives. Their cries signal coming calamity.

Rejection and Isolation – A solitary bird calling from abandoned ruins depicts acute isolation. This mirrors the spiritual isolation of those estranged from God. The bittern poignantly reflects the exile and loneliness resulting from persistent sin.

Restoration through Repentance – The departure of bitterns from ruins in restored Zion represents how repentance leads to restoration. Forsaking wickedness removes God’s discipline and the bitter fruits of sin.

Lessons from the Biblical Bittern

The passages on bitterns teach important spiritual lessons for believers:

  • God hates sin – His righteousness requires Him to judge wickedness, just as with Babylon, Assyria, and Jerusalem. He disciplines firmly those who continually rebel against Him.
  • Disobedience brings bitter fruits – Persisting in sin leads to isolation, fruitlessness, and spiritual desolation, as pictured by the bittern’s habitat. Straying from God’s laws brings bitter fruits in our lives.
  • Repentance prepares the way for restoration – When God’s people turned from sin and returned to Him, He brought redemption. Where bitterns once dwelled, fruitfulness and blessing took root.
  • Wait patiently for God’s promises – God’s discipline has an appointed end. Those who trust Him will find restoration and provision, just as Zion was rebuilt. Our trials too have expiration dates.
  • God is perfectly faithful – Despite people’s failings, God kept His promises to redeem and restore Israel. He remains faithful even when we are unfaithful. His promises endure forever.

Bitterns in Biblical Literature

Beyond prophetic passages, the bittern’s calls feature in several poetic verses evoking themes of desolation:

Job 39:13-18 – God challenges Job, asking if he gives the bittern its wisdom or hears its cries from the marsh. This illustrates how little we understand God’s ways.

Psalm 102:6-7 – The psalmist is in distress, alone like a desert bird crying out mournfully. This simile draws on the bittern’s lonely image.

Isaiah 38:14 – King Hezekiah in illness describes his mourning as madly crying like a dove or bittern. The bird’s call conveys his anguish and isolation.

The Bittern’s Place in God’s Creation

While bitterns may seem like obscure marsh birds, their special place in God’s creation offers valuable spiritual insights. Their distinctive preference for ruins where other birds don’t dwell reminds us of sin’s consequences. Yet when spiritual restoration comes, the bittern departs – replaced by the beautiful doves, sparrows, and storks which inhabit fruitful Zion.

Ultimately, we must not resent the bittern, but learn from it. In both its barren dwellings and mournful booming, it carries a message for us. Our merciful God has purposed each part of His creation, even this solitary bird, to reflect His glory and truth to those with willing hearts.


By exploring every mention of the bittern in scripture, we’ve uncovered key symbolic meanings tied to judgement, desolation, and restoration. Though a seemingly obscure marsh bird, the lessons gleaned from Biblical bitterns are profound. Their distinctive cries call us to walk faithfully with God, repent of sin, and trust in His redemption promises. Regardless of our trials, we must wait patiently for the joyous fruitful state which the Lord’s restoration brings.

The bittern’s cry from wastelands reminds us – walk righteously with your Creator so bitterness and isolation do not overtake you. When discipline comes, respond in repentance and faith. God remains perfectly loving and faithful to restore all who earnestly seek Him.

About The Author

Scroll to Top