#14 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be clean…”
As we work our way through the Psalm, there has been a decided shift in tone – from the darkness of sorrow in sin to a new brightness of hope and anticipation. These are the fruits of repentance beginning to ripen – bearing fruit as a new repentant mindset that is joyful, anticipatory and trusting. This is the essence of true repentance (Gr. metanoia) – the change of the entirety of our orientation in life and thinking. As I write this, we recently celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord in the presence of his disciples Peter, James and John, called “Metamorphosis” in Greek. I think our understanding of metamorphosis, as manifest, for example, in the complete change of the caterpillar into a butterfly – the same creature was both – perhaps best illustrates just how radical this life shift is.
For most contemporary readers, the phrase “sprinkle me with hyssop.” is probably obscure. But it is a profound statement rooted in the Hebraic Covenant and middle-Eastern culture.
What is Hyssop?
Hyssop, called ‘za-aatar’ in Hebrew, is a low shrub found in the Middle East which has upright branches and blue flowers, closely related to oregano. It is used as a flavoring throughout the Middle East and is valued for having healing properties.
Our use of hyssop comes from the Lord’s directive to the Israelites at a crucial moment on the eve of their Exodus from Egypt.
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. 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. (fromExodus 12)
In order to leave Egypt in righteousness, the Israelites must be identified, and purified. The Passover supper and its rituals, including the anointing of the wood of the doorposts and lintel (uprights and cross-piece) accomplishes this and their obedience to this spiritual ritual was essential to their deliverance from their bondage. This religious, liturgical ritual had a real, dynamic effect in their lives.
The Lord would send the Angel of Death to pass through the entirety of Egypt to kill the first-born of man and animal, but pass-over those homes which adhered to the Lord’s commandments to observe this first Passover, with the eating of the Passover meal and the anointing of the doorposts. This anointing of the wooden doorposts with the ‘blood of the Lamb” would be the means of their salvation from Death. The Passover ritual[i], using the hyssop to sprinkle the Blood, would identify those aligned with God’s will and saving plan in their lives, as juxtaposed to those who had not accepted God’s will and direction, imitating Pharoah’s relentless opposition to God. The Judgment of God would not be released upon them, because they had faithfully adhered to their Hebrew identity as God’s chosen people through obedience. Failing that – the judgment of Death would come and destroy them as well.
Sprinkling with hyssop purifies. This is where the uncleanness is washed and the people are restored in God’s sight. Living in Egypt had been a polluting experience for the Hebrew people. They had left their land and become slaves, not only a physical sense but also a spiritual one. Egypt had become a symbol of subservience not to the Lord, but to worldliness and its power (Pharaoh). This theme is echoed in the New Testament and the need to flee the pagan world and its lusts.
The Passover out of Egypt and their Exodus through the desert would be a process of restoration to their God-given identity, illumination through the Law, and purification through struggle (asceticism). The Passover ritual first carried out in obedience, and renewed annually, led to a spiritual purification and rededication of the people, including future generations. The sacrifice of the Lamb, would be the source of the Blood that would purify the people of the stains of Egyptian life and Egyptian way of life. An innocent lamb’s life blood would be sprinkled upon the doorposts with hyssop. The hyssop would convey the saving blood to the place where it would be used for the deliverance of the people.
Now it’s interesting that David asks for the sprinkling, not upon the doorposts, but upon himself. He longs for this ‘sprinkling’ with hyssop upon himself. He realizes the power of God’s deliverance from sin through this sprinkling imagery, and he longs for it with the deepest desire in his heart. For David, the ritual is inwardly efficacious. He literally ‘can’t wait’ for Passover, he needs the sprinkling now. For him, his new awareness through penance has created a spiritual urgency that can only be realized in God’s mercy actualized in his heart making him clean.
This leads us to other mentions of hyssop in several other Old Testament passages. In Leviticus 14 we hear of command of the Lord for the ritual sprinkling of a leper (by the priest) for cleansing of his impurity. Even though the healing already took place, the restoration to the full participation in the Hebrew community life was incomplete – the uncleanness had to be removed, through the ritual. This was not a sprinkling for healing per se, for the priest is instructed to go ‘outside the camp’ to visit the leper to determine if he is healed or not[ii]. The apostolic Church realized the biblical fulfillment of this passage in the sacrifice of the High Priest, the Lord Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem, as ‘outside the camp’, hence among the forgotten and those sick with the leprosy of sin. The ritual is very detailed, but involves a sprinkling of the leper with hyssop and the priest’s offerings on his behalf for spiritual cleansing and thanksgiving. David’s prayer hearkens this use of hyssop for the cleansing for his own spiritual impurity. His words of repentance and actions of sorrow would still need a ritual of cleansing by the Lord, through the use of hyssop.
The Book of Numbers (Chapter 19) describes another ritual which uses hyssop – the cleansing of a home where a person had died. In Hebraic thought, death brought ritual impurity for those in its presence and touching the dead person. The sprinkling with hyssop by the priest of the tent[iii] and people with water brought cleansing from death. Again, we can see a connection to the hyssop’s use with restoring purity – in the case of David the impurity of the death caused by sin.
The Hyssop of the New Covenant
The Passover ritual is at the heart of the Christian experience as well, but transformed or perhaps better, Transfigured, by the saving work of Jesus Christ. The sacrificial Lamb is “the Lamb of God, the Son of God, Who takes away the sins of the world. (Jn.1;29)[iv] The wooden upright and the lintel crosspiece is a prefigurement of its fulfillment in the wood of the Cross upon which the Blood of Jesus, the Lamb, was shed. The hyssop would be present at the Crucifixion as well, as St. John also describes,
“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“
Here the action of the Lord’s reception of the sour wine on the sponge symbolizes the sourness and bitterness of the His sacrificial suffering. This he accepted willfully – and He gave up His spirit. Note that when offered the ‘gall’ (see Matthew’s account) He refused – gall being the analgesic that might have alleviated His suffering. St. Cyril of Jerusalem offers to the catechumens preparing to be baptized these words,
“Rejoice, ye heavens, and let the earth be glad, for those who are to be sprinkled with hyssop, and cleansed with the spiritual hyssop, the power of Him to whom at His Passion drink was offered on hyssop and a reed.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem – Catechetical Lecture 3)
The Christian receives the drink of Christ, the blood of His Death, that cleanses of sin throughout one’s person. For while the ritual uses of hyssop mentioned in the Old Testament above brought deliverance from a ritual impurity, God had much more to offer humankind in the sacrifice of Christ, a Death and a New Life in Baptism into the Death of the Blood of the Lamb that brings a complete deliverance, not just from ritual impurity, but from the sin itself.
In the Orthodox Church we have implements which represent the hyssop of the Old Testament, notably, the spoon with which we commune Christians with the Blood of Christ. Fulfilling this typology we also use a sponge, not on the spoon, but used in conjunction with the preparation of the Gifts of Holy Communion by the priest. We also use a sprinkler for holy water, in many forms – sometimes a horsehair brush, a metal sprinkler, or perhaps closest to the biblical model, a bound assemblage of plant stems (even hyssop). In each of these, the blessing of God comes to us for salvation and spiritual cleansing. For us, our deliverance from our bondage to sin requires the adherence to that spiritual means afforded to us in the Gospel and the Way presented to us in apostolic Church. There is no other Way.
The effect of repentance is to become clean. This becomes awareness that our sin = putrid filth, which is internal, as discussed above. It is a miracle that our inner uncleanness can be made clean! This is God’s great mercy at work, always within but manifest exteriorly in righteousness and love.
It’s worthwhile noting that this verse reveals the inner deep desire of David the penitent that he might ‘have it all.’ It is written in the imperative but in humble hope and trust that God truly does forgive. He says effectively, “If you sprinkle me so, I shall be clean.” He who committed the most horrible of murder-adultery still believed in the possibility of his total forgiveness and restoration by God.
This is an important point for every one of us who has ever been tempted to believe that our sin was so heinous that God would not forgive it. In fact, the Unforgiveable Sin, is the sin against the Holy Spirit, essentially believing the lie that God does not so love me that He would (or could) forgive me. In effect, this lie of the Devil says, ‘I am unsavable’ – beyond the reach of His mercy and salvation. It speaks to the need for that self-understanding that emerges only from repentance, for in that restoration of humility we can again see God as the merciful and forgiving Lord who is the Lover of Mankind. This Unforgivable Sin is nothing less than extreme pride – placing ourself outside of God’s world of grace and mercy and isolating ourselves utterly in our own misery.
Finally, if nothing else, humankind is deeply indebted to David who so completely reveals to us what it means to be human in this way not only through repentance, but through his profoundly deep trust and awareness of God’s mercy and forgiveness, for which he is the Lord’s evangelist without compare. Ω
[i] Sadly, the forces that work to delegitimize ritual (and in the Church, liturgy) have done a great disservice in Protestantism and contemporary Catholicism, and to a lesser degree, Orthodoxy. Like the ritual of Passover itself, commanded by the Lord to be celebrated annually by the Hebrews, the meaning of His work is remembered, but more, in a sense, re-lived through the liturgical movements that root people and their experience in the revelation of God’s truth and mercy as revealed in His Covenants, Old and New.
[ii] This is an interesting aspect of the healing of the ten lepers by Jesus, in Luke 17:12ff and consistent with the Lord’s fulfillment of the Old Testament through His divine personhood and ministry. That is transformed when the one leper, realizes his participation in the mystery of healing by Jesus, and returns to give thanks to Him.
[iii] This also hearkens to the Orthodox practice of blessing homes at special times and moments of life, (such as a death or the shedding of blood) but also annually during the Theophany.
[iv] I find it fascinating that this verse begins immediately after St. John’s introductory Prologue – identifying Jesus clearly as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant through the central ritual of the Hebraic faith. While St. Mark makes every effort to hide the identity of the Messiah, St. John is utterly revelatory in these words spoken by St. John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God…”