What is the purpose of hyssop mentioned in numerous places in both the Old and the New Testament?
The usage of hyssop and its references in the Bible are mostly in the Old Testament, but it is also used a few times in the New Testament. Its symbolism is of interest as to how God commanded it to be used and its later involvement at the time of Christ’s death. The Old and the New Testament are woven together. People who claim that the Old Testament is no longer valid are mistaken and refuse to see how both Testaments are needed.
In 1 Kings 4:33, we find that King Solomon mentioned that hyssop liked to grow out of walls, indicating hearty plants which were able to grow in rough spots. Many people feel that the plant being referenced is Origanum syriacum. This plant has longish stems that are woody at the base with white flowers. It is widely used today to make teas, and also to make a spice called za’ater, which can be added to breads, cheese and salads.
But it is the purpose for which God commanded its use that is most interesting.
In Leviticus, God commanded the Israelites to use hyssop in the ceremonial cleansing of people and houses. In one example, God tells the priests to use hyssop together with cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and the blood of a clean bird to sprinkle a person recently healed from a skin disease. This would ceremonially cleanse the formerly diseased person and allow him to reenter the camp (Leviticus 14:1–7). The same method was used to purify a house that had previously contained mold (Leviticus 14:33–53). It is of note that in both cases, the same purification procedures were to be enacted, both signifying defilement and then purification.
When, during the Old Testament Passover time, the Israelites marked their doorposts with the blood of lambs in order for the angel of death to pass over them, God instructed them to use a bunch of hyssop as a “paintbrush” (Exodus 12:22). This was probably because hyssop was sturdy and could withstand the brushing, but it is also likely that it was to signify that God was marking His people “pure” and not targets of the judgment God was about to deal out to the Egyptians. Just to note, another type of God’s protection happening in the near future is found in Ezekiel 9:4 where God is saying that those who are sighing and crying—those who are different from the rest of the world—will be spared from the coming great atrocities that are going to happen to this world.
As mentioned, hyssop was much used by the Israelites in their sacred purifications and sprinklings. In Numbers 19, in connection with the sacrifice of a red heifer, we find another example for the use of the hyssop plant (verse 6), again having to do with purification and sanctification. This constant need for cleansing starts to become apparent.
David also mentions hyssop in Psalm 51:7: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” David does not refer to physical cleansing—rather, he is asking God to cleanse him spiritually as he confesses his sin. He was seeking an “internal” change—and not that he was depending on any mere outward ordinance or rite. The word rendered “purge” is from the word chata (Strong’s Analytical Concordance, Number 2398)—which means literally, “to miss”, “go wrong” or “to sin.” Here it conveys the notion of being purified or “cleansed from error” (Young’s Analytical Concordance) or sin “by” a sacred rite, or by that which was signified as a sacred rite. The idea was that the sin was to be removed or taken away, so that he might be free from it, which was represented by the sprinkling with hyssop, so that he might be made pure.
Sin is represented as “defiling,” and the idea of “washing” it away is often used in Scripture. Isaiah 1:16, 18 states: “‘Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings form before My eyes. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good… Come now, and let us reason together,’ Says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be white as wool…’” In regard to the “white wool,” we might note an indirect reference to Jesus Christ here (compare John 1:29; Isaiah 53:7) Who, as the Lamb of God, is the ONLY One able to take away our sin.
God is the only Source of true purification. The biblical use of hyssop in the Passover, the sacrifices, and the ceremonial cleansing rituals were a constant reminder, painting a detailed picture of the washing, cleansing, saving, purification, and salvation from death that can come only from God. This is the kind of cleansing that David requested of God when he asked to be purged with hyssop.
The last use of hyssop mentioned is, interestingly, found in John 19:28-30, where Christ is dying on a stake. “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst!’ Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.”
In the final moments of His life, when He died as our New Testament Passover Lamb, He uttered the words “I thirst”, which alone can have a whole meaning. But for this Q&A, focusing on the hyssop, while the hyssop stalk may have been used for purely practical purposes, as it was long enough to reach to Jesus’ mouth as He hung on the stake, it is interesting that this particular plant was chosen. It is possible that God meant this as a picture of purification, as Jesus bought our forgiveness with His Sacrifice. Just as in the Old Testament blood and hyssop purified a defiled person, so Jesus’ shed blood purifies us from the defilement of our sin. The hyssop was an identifying element that connected Christ to the Passover lamb, the sacrificial and cleansing ceremonies and even David’s request to be purified.
In Hebrews 9:6-28; 10:1-18; 12:24, we find that Christ’s Sacrifice was necessary for our salvation, and it did away with the priestly duties of continual cleansing for people’s sins or other issues with the blood of animals and hyssop. In Matthew 5:17 Christ stated that He came to fulfill the law. All of this points to the fact that we can overcome and have our sins forgiven. Not only that, but we should realize that we can become purified and clean through the great Sacrifice that Christ gave. Notice in Titus 2:11-14 and in 2 Timothy 2:20-21 that it is now our duty to find greater obedience to God in our lives so that we can accomplish that which God has for each of us to do. The many references to and uses of hyssop foreshadow and remind us of the great plan that God is accomplishing in us.
Lead Writer: Kalon Mitchell