We read the Bible for study and we read the Bible for familiarity. The former is good and necessary and brings us together with others. The latter is also necessary because it increases our theological muscle memory. And why is that important? Apart from keeping us close to God and anchoring us in His way, it helps us see things we never saw before.
You know how it works. You’re reading the Bible one day and something pulls you up short. I don’t remember reading that before, you think. What is that? What does that mean? Sometimes just reading the Bible for familiarity reveals little things that take us closer to Him. And it drives you deeper.
I was reading Psalm 51. This is David’s psalm confessing his guilt after his association (coughs awkwardly) with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. He begs God for mercy and says “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (v3). Then he says in verse 7:
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.“
Cleanse me with what? I must have glossed over that before – there’s a whole bunch of things you read without really thinking about it that are random ancient near east bits and bobs – ephods, seahs, ephahs…..whatever.
Hyssop is a plant that looks a bit like lavender.
It is mentioned only 12 times in the whole Bible:
- 5 times in Leviticus and 2 times in Numbers in relation to rites for cleansing
- 1 time in 1 Kings 4 in a list of things Solomon spoke of in his wisdom
- 1 time in Hebrews 9:19 in a description of Moses in a rite of cleansing the people
- 1 time in Psalms 51 as we saw above
- 1 time in Exodus 12
- 1 time in John 19.
Its these last two mentions that are absolutely startling.
In Exodus 12:22 God tells Moses to instruct the people to “Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.“
This is the first mention of hyssop in the Bible and it is tied to one of the most momentous occasions in the whole narrative. The Passover was the night of the last plague of Egypt. It was the night that God would take the first born from every family, unless the sign of blood was made across the doorposts. In this case, God’s angel would pass over that house and the inhabitants would be safe. As part of this night, each family was to prepare their Passover lamb – slaughtered, cooked and consumed in a manner set out by God in a sign of obedience. And with the sign painted across the door with hyssop, the Israelites would be safe, before God leads them out of Egypt to the promised land.
The only other place that that hyssop is mentioned in the Bible is in John 19:28-30 – “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.“
The mention of this little plant at this scene is striking. It’s out of place. It jars. Hyssop of course was used by the Romans as an antiseptic and as a plant it grew all over the place out of walls. It’s not that that makes it’s presence odd. It’s use is odd because it’s quite a stumpy plant without much of a stalk to hold a sponge on, let alone one weighed down with wine. The other reason it’s odd is that in a relatively short narrative of the crucifixion, the details recalled are those that have a real point to make. For example, John recalls the soldiers casting lots for his clothes (which was foretold in Psalm 22) and declaring his thirst (which takes us to Psalm 69) among others. So the mention of hyssop is profound. What is it saying? What is it pointing us to look at?
Its previous use had been forgiveness (Psalm 51) and cleansing (Psalm 1 as well as Leviticus and Numbers) and salvation (Exodus).
Forgiveness, cleansing from sin and salvation. Three things which are encapsulated in the cross.
Furthermore, it links the cross directly with the Passover. He is our Passover lamb whose blood averts the death that we deserve before God leads us to His promised land.
This is not allegory and its not code. Its a deliberate and specific reference recalled by John to allow us to see the deeper meaning in the surface events occurring at a point in time. But instead of a single occurrence of a man executed on the cross, we see the single point in time where the whole universe is joined together. Everything leads to, and leads from, the cross. That little plant draws us from the cross, to the Passover and the Exodus and back to the cross and to what God’s ultimate plans are.
We have been forgiven. We have been cleansed, and we have been saved.
That little plant reminds us of so much. And it points to so much depth in that terrible torturous but glorious event.
As you read your Bible, look out for these little mentions. Read and read your Bible and read it again. Only proximity to God’s word will highlight these moments – but it’s in these moments that the depth of God’s work is seen in all its intricate, beautiful and wondrous detail.