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Hyssop in the Bible: Its Significance in Scripture

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Hyssop in the Bible is found mostly in the Old Testament, in its symbolic use as part of the rituals that the Israelites had to go through under the law in order to be in the presence of the Lord. However, there is so much more meaning to it than just that. Through a look into hyssop in the Old Testament versus the New Testament, you can see its true meaning throughout scripture, as it is fulfilled by Jesus Christ. 

image of bunch of hyssop flowers with the text hyssop in the Bible its significance in scripture

Hyssop in the Bible

Hyssop, whose scientific name is Hyssopus officinalis, is defined by Britannica as an “evergreen garden herb of the mint family (Lamiaceae), grown for its aromatic leaves and flowers.” This aromatic herb is native to the east Mediterranean and Middle East, the primary location of the recorded biblical narratives. 

Obviously, the world during biblical, ancient times looked a bit different than the world today. There wasn’t a Walmart or Target on every corner, where you could just walk right in and grab the household items you need at any given time. In fact, they didn’t even have the household items altogether. Instead, they turned to nature for cleaning, cooking, healing, etc. 

The use of hyssop in the Bible came into play as an instrument of spiritual cleansing and purification, specifically for religious practices. This would be similar to the animal sacrifices that were performed as atonement for sins before Jesus Christ when believers were under God’s law. 

In order to cleanse or purify a person, a small bunch of hyssop would be dipped into clean, fresh water or blood and sprinkled onto them. The same goes for any structure, animal, etc., that needed to be cleansed.  

Most of the appearances of hyssop in the word of God are in the Old Testament. Let’s examine a few of them and their context. 

Hyssop in the Old Testament

Not necessarily the meaning or significance (yet), but the purpose and use of hyssop in the Bible is outlined in the Old Testament, especially throughout the introduction of the Mosaic law, a set of laws laid out by God for the Israelites to live by in the promised land in order to be righteous before God, as God uttered it to Moses and Aaron. 

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

Psalm 51:7 (ESV)

This is typically the first verse that comes to a person’s mind when talking about Hyssop in the Bible. Psalm 51 is a prayer of David’s taking place after he had gone to Bathsheba. He prays for God to have mercy on him and cleanse him from his sin (Psalm 51:1-2) that he is openly recognizing and repenting of. In verse 7, David asks God to “purge” him “with hyssop” so that he can be “whiter than snow.” This suggests that hyssop is an agent of spiritual cleansing, the cleansing of sin and evil. 

“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.”

Exodus 12:22 (ESV)

In this chapter of Exodus, God is establishing the Passover, which “commemorates the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt and their ultimate exodus to freedom“. This festival came with meticulous traditions, such as the killing of the Passover Lamb, as directed by God. This particular verse is Moses telling the Israelites the instructions given to him by God, one of which was to put blood on their doorposts using a small bunch of hyssop and then not to leave. 

The purpose of this was so that whenever God is striking the Egyptians in the land, He would “not allow the destroyer to enter” (Exodus 12:23) the home of the marked doorpost, as it marked the home of Jewish people.

It is unclear as to why this was the exact way the Israelites were to mark their households, however, knowing that hyssop dipped in blood or water was meant to cleanse a surface or person, and that it was God’s people (the Jews) being saved from Egyptian slavery, perhaps it was to signify the purity of the Israelite household as God’s ordained and protected people.

“The priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedar wood and scarlet yarn and hyssop… Thus he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird and with the fresh water and with the live bird and with the cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet yarn.”

Leviticus 14:4, 52 (ESV)

This whole chapter is instructions from the Lord to Moses on what is to be done to cleanse a leper. Now, it is not to heal a leper, as verse 3 states, “if the case of the leprous disease is healed in the leprous person” (Leviticus 14:3). Therefore, the use of a branch of hyssop in this is not for healing. Still, cleansing yet again, as Leprosy, a bacterial skin disease, was seen as a very dirty and nasty thing that no one wanted to be around in biblical times. 

This also adds insight to the scripture in Psalm, where David recognizes his sin. If hyssop was ritualistically used in the final cleansing of a person healed of leprosy, and David was asking God to purge him with hyssop, then it can be inferred that David was making a point about the true disgust he had in his sin, as he was making an indirect comparison between his sin and a person plagued with a very nasty skin disease. 

Fresh blooming hyssop twigs for the post on hyssop in the Bible

Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. And you shall give it to Eleazer the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him.

And Eleazer the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet yard, and throw them in to the fire burning the heifer.”

Numbers 19:1-6 (ESV)

This passage is another instruction from the Lord to Moses to establish purification rituals under the Mosaic law. Hyssop is again used as an instrument in ceremonial cleansing, meant to transform a person from dirty and unholy to clean and pure or holy before entering the presence of God. 

“He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.”

1 Kings 4:33 (ESV)

This passage is a telling of Solomons’s great (but pointless) wisdom granted to him by God. Part of his earthly wisdom included knowledge of nature, which included hyssop. But again, Solomon’s wisdom was simply earthly and, therefore, pointless in the eyes of eternity. This leads us to the significance of hyssop as a ritualistic cleansing instrument that we will discuss later on. 

First, we will move into the appearances of Hyssop in the New Testament.

Hyssop in the New Testament

Hyssop is mentioned much less in the New Testament but gives the most insight into its significance throughout the Old Testament. 

For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.”

Hebrews 9:19-20 (ESV)

The big difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is the law, specifically the law of Moses, versus freedom in Christ. In this chapter in Hebrews, the author – possibly Paul, but generally regarded as unknown – is proclaiming the freedom from the law that believers now have in Christ’s death and resurrection. Of course, hyssop was a large part of that law found in the purification rituals and the Passover. Still, this scripture points out that those things are no longer necessary and thus points to the symbolism of hyssop in the Bible altogether. 

“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.”

John 19:28-30 (ESV)

This incredibly powerful piece of scripture is the death of Christ on the cross. When the hyssop branch dipped in sour wine was raised to Jesus’ lips, and he drank from it, Jesus underwent his last action on this earth before uttering the three most powerful words, “It is finished,” and breathing his last breath, leaving the Holy Spirit behind. “While the hyssop stalk may have been used for purely practical purposes (i.e., it was long enough to reach to Jesus’ mouth as He hung on the cross), it is interesting that that particular plant was chosen. It is possible that God meant this as a picture of purification, as Jesus bought our forgiveness with His sacrifice”. 

What Does Hyssop Symbolize?

So why does any of this matter anyway? 

The true significance of hyssop in the Bible is not found in the Law of Moses itself as merely an herb used for cleansing, but rather in the fulfillment of the law, the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. 

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When Jesus died on the cross and left behind the Holy Spirit in his wake, the law and the scriptures were fulfilled. Because of his death, it is no longer necessary to go through these long and strenuous rituals of purification just to be allowed into God’s presence. Instead, we are cleansed and justified before the Lord by the blood of the Lamb and are, therefore, set to spend eternity in God’s presence.

The fulfillment of the law through the blood of Jesus Christ was not just a new testament idea, but the plan from the very beginning. The entirety of the word of God, both testaments, points to the Gospel message of redemption through Christ. There are many hints and foreshadowing’s of the coming of Jesus in the old testament, and hyssop is one of them!

When David begged God to purge him with hyssop in Psalm 51 so that he could have a clean heart, that act would be exactly what Jesus does for every one of us through his sacrifice on the cross. 

When hyssop was used in the final cleansing of lepers after they were healed, that same cleansing is what we receive upon the renewal of our hearts when we repent of our nasty sins and take up our cross and follow Jesus. Our story doesn’t end at healing when we are justified by the Lamb’s blood, but continues throughout the rest of our lives through the process of sanctification where we are repeatedly cleansed and made into the image of Christ. 

When the Israelite men marked the door of his house with a branch of hyssop dipped in blood during the first Passover in the book of Exodus, that marking as God’s chosen people is the same one we are marked with by the Holy Spirit today! Whenever God saw a household marked with blood, he knew to spare them from his wrath on the Egyptians as it was his chosen people inside. In the same way, when God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sin, he sees the righteousness of Jesus that we have been covered in, and therefore sees his adopted and beloved children. 

Every time hyssop was mentioned in the Old Testament, the coming Messiah was hinted at. How cool is that! The same symbol of cleansing that hyssop brought under the law is the cleansing from sin that we have received through Christ Jesus, and continue to grow in through the Holy Spirit. Our God had eternity with his children in mind from the start. 

You may enjoy this video on hyssop in the Bible:

Or one of these recommended resources:

Essential Oils of the Bible eBook

All of the Plants & Herbs in the Bible: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia & Commentary on All of the Plants & Herbs in the Bible by Leila AE Harris

God’s Healing Herbs by Dennis Ellingson

Get your own bottle of hyssop here.

ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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