Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The String of the Hyssop Plant by Mike DeCamp

The Hyssop Plant
Courtesy of Wikipedia

The String of the Hyssop Plant

Have you ever seen a little string hanging off of the front of your shirt and when you tugged on it, you felt a pull under your arm or on your back?  When that happens, you know that the one little string you see is connected in your shirt in ways you can’t easily fathom, and you better not pull too hard or you’ll end up ruining the thing.  I liken that phenomenon to certain strings of cool connections that I sometimes find in the Bible.  I love it when I come across something like that!  It just does wonders for my faith.

That happened to me again when I was thinking about what to write for this article.  Maybe you’ve seen this before, but I came across another little string that is strung across the web of time, connecting one of the most ancient of Bible stories with a cherished New Testament event, and it is connected in the middle by a classic Psalm.  I hope you find it as inspiring as I did.

We’ll start tugging on the string in Psalm 51.  For background, this is the Psalm where King David pours out his heart in repentance and remorse for the sins he committed in connection with Bathsheba.  He started out by being idle.  That led to lustfulness…which led to adultery…which led to lies and deceit…which led to murder.  This stands as one of the vilest periods in the life of one of the pillars of Old Testament faith, but as we read the following passage he has been confronted the prophet Nathan and his heart is broken:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.  Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.  Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.  Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.  Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.  Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.  Psalm 51:1-12

I am struck by how low his heart has fallen.  “…my sin is always before me.”  The temptation toward hopelessness.  “Surely I was sinful at birth,…”  He knew he had no argument.  “…you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”  He had lost all joy and desperately wanted it back.  “Restore to me the joy of your salvation…”

One line has perplexed me over the years.  I just didn’t understand it, but I never took the time to dig into it until now.  It just was one of those odd little things in scripture that didn’t seem to have that much significance.  Boy was I wrong.  It is incredibly significant!

“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”

“Cleanse me with hyssop.”

What in the world is hyssop?  That is the question I asked myself as I started to trace this crazy little string.  I thought maybe it was a plant that the ancient world used as a cleaning agent.  Seemed reasonable.  Then I did a quick internet search and found that it was just an aromatic plant common to the Mediterranean area.  It was sometimes used as an herb, but can have some toxic qualities.  Apparently it does have some detergent qualities also, but that doesn’t seem to be all that significant of a feature.

What could David have meant when he said he wanted to be cleaned with hyssop?

To find that meaning, let’s go back in time to Exodus, to the plague of the firstborn, to the very first Passover:

Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb.  Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe.  None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning.  When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.  Exodus 12:21-23

Hyssop was used to spread the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the doorframes to keep the destroyer from killing the Israelites, a key moment in history for the Jewish faith and particularly for King David.  Just as the Israelites were saved from the wrath of God by the use of hyssop as a tool, perhaps David is calling on that imagery to ask for God to keep the wrath from overwhelming him.  Could that be it?  Could that be all?

Still though, there is no mention of a cleansing with hyssop.  It still doesn’t fully fit.

We’ve looked back.  Now, let’s look forward from David’s time:

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”  A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.”  With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  John 19:28-30

“…so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

How does Jesus saying that fulfill scripture?  Perhaps Psalm 22:15.  But…however… maybe it isn’t just what he said that fulfills the scripture.  Maybe it is what was done as a result of what he said that fulfills it also. 

“…so they…put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.”

Just as hyssop was used as the tool to spread the blood on the doorframes….so was it used as a tool when Jesus blood was spread on our spiritual doorframes, cleansing us from the stain of our sinfulness.

“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”

David is the bridge and hyssop is the string.  It ties the sacrificial lamb of Exodus to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God in John, crossing the bridge of David’s sin, guilt, and repentance.  David could feel the depth of his sin, he could recognize the potential wrath of God, and he could prophetically look forward to the cleansing of the blood of the Lamb.

Isn’t God simply amazing?  The layers of meaning in the scripture are astounding.  Across centuries…through varied authors…He ties key points of history together with a simple plant!  Our salvation is made clear in ordinary foliage.

One of my all-time favorite passages of scripture is Psalm 51:10-12.

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.

I am a sinful man.  I feel it every day.  I think the older a person gets, the more aware he is of how short he falls from God’s standard.  It can weigh on you.  It can strip you of your joy.  It can cause you to lose your willingness to go on.  Sometimes, I am tempted to allow the discouragement from falling short to get me to throw in the towel…hang up my spiritual cleats….quit.

But, then there is the hyssop plant.  And, it reminds me of the way that Jesus has cleansed me…he has washed that blood all over the doorframe of my spirit, and I am now whiter than snow.  Then, that snowy salvation blows up into a blizzard of joy that wells up in my heart and bursts forth on the lips of praise.
By all means, cleanse me with hyssop!

1 comment:

  1. Mike. Thanks for the link to this encouraging piece. I caught the thread of where you were headed from the beginning, but didn't have verse locations memorized. As always, Jesus gives us hope even in His Death.