Frequently, especially in the Old Testament, we see anointing of oil as an important practice in the Bible. In fact, one of the most quoted chapters of Scripture, Psalm 23, includes the phrase, “You anointed my head with oil.”
Often certain symbolic elements in the Bible have become lost in our culture today, because we no longer have the same customs or practices.
Why does pouring oil over someone’s head have a symbolic importance in the Old Testament? Do we see this practice in other ancient cultures? And why does this matter for us today?
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Oil Symbolism in the Old Testament
It seems, at first glance at the Old Testament, that olive oil (or anointing oil) had predominantly a religious purpose.
Not only would you pour oil on the head of a high priest, but also this “holy” oil would sprinkle on furnishings in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:6), a transportable temple for God’s people, until they created a permanent place of worship during the time of Solomon.
Over the span of several months, Esther, along with other eligible ladies, would cleanse themselves with myrrh and oil for six months (and another six months with perfume and cosmetics).
As stated in this Bible Study Tools article, oil often signified prosperity, blessings, and stability, opposed to other periods throughout Israel’s history where the harvest was not bountiful and famine had swept the land (Joel 1:10).
Oil had sanctifying (cleansing) properties. Whenever someone poured oil on someone or something, they had set apart that object as a blessed object of the Lord.
Therefore, this explains the reasons why those throughout the Old Testament would anoint both people and inanimate objects (Genesis 28:18).
Israel commonly practiced anointing the heads of kings. That is why when Samuel chooses to anoint the lowliest of Jesse’s sons, young David (1 Samuel 16), which would have surprised the family. They didn’t think, “Oh, I guess he’s giving David’s head a nice oil bath.” They would’ve understood the implications of Samuel’s actions. God had chosen the next king of Israel, Jesse’s youngest son.
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Oil Symbolism in the New Testament
The practice of anointing with oil transfers over to the New Testament.
The practice of anointing with oil doesn’t appear to stretch much beyond the Gospels, which makes some Christians wonder if believers should still use the practice today. Should we still anoint with oil?
This article gives compelling reasons for why a Christian can still use this practice, but believers should keep in mind that not everyone holds this viewpoint. It’s important to ask your pastors their particular position on this practice, read the Scriptures concerning this practice, and exercise discernment.
No matter what your position on the practice of anointing with oil is, be sure to listen to those with opposing viewpoints with gentleness and respect.
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Oil Symbolism Throughout the Bible
We should note that oil has symbolism beyond anointing in the Bible. The Israelites used oil for several purposes in the Old and New Testament.
We should also note, as mentioned in the Biola article above, that oil symbolism was linked to the Holy Spirit’s presence. When a person is anointed in the Bible, the Holy Spirit descends upon that person (see the 1 Samuel passage above.)
Therefore, when Jesus is called “anointed” the Bible means by the Holy Spirit.
In essence, when someone consecrates and sanctifies something with oil, they set it apart for God’s use.
Other uses of oil included anointing corpses and refreshing bodies, as explained here by Bible History.
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Anointing in Other Cultures
Typical of Dark Age Greek culture (and the culture of the Mycenaean civilization that preceded it), part of hospitality ensured giving guests a bath, anointing their heads with oil, providing them with fresh clothes, a meal, and a place to stay for the night.
The Greek Dark Ages spanned from 1200-800 BC, around the time of David and other kings of Israel. The information checks out with the practice of oil being used in the Old Testament and by other nations.
But what did anointing mean? Certainly it didn’t have as many religious connotations, did it?
As stated in this Christianity.com article, the Israelites seemed to use oil for commonplace purposes, like other nations (Ruth 3:3). We can assume surrounding nations during Old Testament times used oil for its cleansing and medicinal properties.
We see the use of oil for commonplace and religious purposes in Ancient Egypt, Australia, Arabia, Greece, and used throughout the Middle Ages, explained here more by The Daily Drop.
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Why Does Anointing Matter Today?
Whether we believe Christians should still practice the anointing of oil today, this subject matters for a number of reasons.
God used an important cultural symbol and practice to foreshadow the work of the Holy Spirit. Although the Israelites consecrated priests and holy objects, setting them apart for God’s work, that was only the beginning.
The Holy Spirit consecrates saints; He anoints them. He sets us apart to do the work of God.
We can also see God’s provision at work through the multiple uses of oil. In the same way, we can picture how God can use us in multiple ways. Sometimes He’ll ordain ordinary tasks such as our day-to-day tasks in the workplace.
In other instances, He’ll give us spiritual gifts to use to encourage other believers and present a light to unbelievers.
We see the importance of oil through the word “anointed” and its associations with Jesus. Anointing oil was used on priests and kings for important purposes. In the same way, Jesus is our High Priest and our King.
This practice used in Israel and throughout the Ancient World foreshadowed God’s work through his Son.
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Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, a multi-published novelist, and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,100 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy is out with IlluminateYA. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.