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Bible Plants. 4 – Hyssop

Rather than giving in to that sinking feeling when we look out of the window in the morning and see the garden or the street covered in puddles, why not take a moment to praise God for His blessing, which the Bible often expresses in terms of rainfall. Admittedly, Israel’s climate is rather different than ours, and we might be forgiven for thinking that you can have too much of a good thing, but our land is beautiful and green because of it. If you have ever returned from a foreign holiday in most destinations, this strikes you immediately on your return. Perhaps our prayer can be that God might pour out His Holy Spirit on our land in the same way He pours the April showers on our gardens.

There are several candidates for the identity of today’s plant, as no-one is quite sure what the modern equivalent is. One of the possibilities is Origanum syriacum, a relative of the herbs oregano and marjoram, and known in Arabic as Za’atar (now appearing in chefs’ dishes on TV), and the other is Capparis spinosa, the caper. Regardless, you will know the plant from the Bible as hyssop. The picture here is of the former; its common name is Syrian hyssop.

Hyssop’s first Biblical appearance is on the night of Passover, when God instructed the Israelites to paint the blood of a lamb on their doorposts (Exodus 12:22). He told them to use the hyssop plant as a paintbrush. It reappears soon afterwards in a number of places in the law of Moses where it is used in cleansing ceremonies of various sorts. Is there something about the structure of the plant that holds liquids, or is it just symbolic? Each of these occasions sees hyssop involved in the cleansing of sin, either as a cleanser or as a means of ‘transferring’ sin from one object or person to another.

King David certainly picked up on this theme. Confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and adultery with his wife Bathsheba, he pleads with God to remove the stain of his sin in Psalm 51, and v7 says, ‘Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.’ He didn’t believe that hyssop had magical properties, but he recognised that God had ordained this little plant to be a symbol of the removal of sin, and he wished to be identified with it.

Hyssop crops up again in the New Testament, in John 19:29, where Jesus was offered wine vinegar to drink on the cross after He said He was thirsty. The wine was soaked in a sponge (possibly standard issue to a Roman soldier who used it as a form of ancient Andrex), and the sponge was attached to a stalk of hyssop in order to lift it to Jesus’ lips. In contrast to the wine and myrrh mixture that we looked at yesterday, Jesus accepted this offering. Jewish readers would see huge symbolism in this simple act. Wine was not only a sign of blessing, but also of the wrath of God (see Isaiah 51:17 as an example), and Jesus has become sin on the cross so that we might partake in His righteousness. This ‘cup’ is transferred to him using hyssop as a further reminder of Jewish Law and the practice of cleansing by sacrifice and sprinkling. What an amazing role for a simple garden plant!

It is a wonderful reminder of the fullness and completeness of God’s plan of salvation and cleansing in our lives. If He watches over us with such incredible care and minute detail, why should we be afraid?


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