Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Hyssop Purge

You are the man!” The words still echoed in David's ears. He lay on the cold winter ground, crying out in the night, organizing his shattered thoughts. He'd thought he'd gained everything. Nine months ago, he'd had the most delightful evening after he'd peered down from the edge of his palace rooftop and seen her bathing in her courtyard down below. After their time together, he'd sent her away, expecting that to be it. But when word came she was pregnant, the king was terrified of scandal (2 Samuel 11:1-5). He tried summoning her husband back from the battlefield, tried getting them together so as to pawn the baby off as Uriah's. But Uriah's commitment to the mission – commitment like David used to have – got in the way (2 Samuel 11:6-13). There was only one way, David reckoned, to cut off scandal at its source, and that was to make sure Uriah – David's long-time friend and brother-in-arms – became one more casualty of war. David hated to do it, but it followed an inexorable, desperate, lethal logic (2 Samuel 11:14-25). And so David graduated from adultery to manipulation to murder. And it paid off! Bathsheba was sad, but scarcely the wiser. Once socially appropriate, David added her to his harem as one more wife, and the pregnancy bore fruit in a little prince who, if no one crunched the numbers too attentively, could've just barely been conceived on their wedding night. All those months looking over his shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and now the dust cleared and David had profited from it all. He got the girl, kept his reputation, and cradled a beautiful baby boy (2 Samuel 11:26-27).

Scarcely had David breathed his sigh of relief when God's prophet darkened his door. Speaking in rich parables, Nathan placed David before a spiritual mirror, and David found his finger of condemnation abruptly pointed at his own reflection. It all came crashing apart. David heard verdict and sentence, glimpsed the dread cost, and felt as though his heart were being split open like a pomegranate in his chest (2 Samuel 12:1-12). That was yesterday. David hadn't eaten since Nathan about-faced and marched away. He knew starvation was less a threat now than the judgment of God ready to shake palace and nation, with David at its epicenter, unless he urgently sought for salvation. And so, tears running down to his ruddy beard, David began line by line to sing.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions!” (Psalm 51:1). David couldn't appeal to God's justice – that'd be death. Not to his own reserve of extra credit – that'd been shown a sham. He appealed to the promise of a God of love, a God committed to his creation, committed to Israel, committed even personally to David as his anointed king, his christ. That's what David was supposed to be: Israel's christ with a lowercase 'c.' Yet he'd transgressed. He'd violated God's trust, betrayed God's covenants. He'd written himself into a corner, into a nightmare, and only the mercy of God could upend his inkwell and leave a splotch of grace big enough to coat and cloak the handwritten shame scrawled all over David's page.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:2). David felt dirty, defiled, haunted by the gunk and grime he could feel clinging to him: Bathsheba's perfume, Uriah's blood. He needed a bath. But scrub and scrub he might, the spot wouldn't come out. He could still smell it, still feel it. He needed a bath. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). In times past, David could tell himself he was righteous, the man after God's own heart. It was easy to point the finger at bigger sinners – at Goliath, at Saul, at the Ammonites with whom David's armies went to war while David grew bored in safety. But now all his deflections were no defense. Now all his excuses rotted on his tongue, and his guilt was as if tattooed inside his eyelids. Waking, sleeping, his conscience had been awakened with a relentless fury.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). David knew he'd hurt Uriah, assaulting his marriage and arranging his murder. He'd hurt Bathsheba, intruding into her world and seducing her with royal splendor to please his own pleasures. He'd hurt himself, too, and he'd laid the seeds for depravity and death toward his other wives, his other children, and for this newborn son, getting sicker by the day. All them had he offended and hurt. Yet that was nothing next to his offense against God. To stare at his sin was to be horrified at a high-handed rebellion, at a sacrilege, at David's callous disregard of the LORD. In each sinful step, David had been polluting his holy station; and this perversion carried the risk of outraging God's promises, corrupting the elect nation, maybe even damning the world. No judgment of God, no intervention to rescue the hope of salvation from David's tarnished grasp, could be blamed or questioned.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). David realized that his rot, his shame, went to the root and origin. What he'd done was no mere surface scum on the lake of his life, easy to skim off. It pulsed out from the wellspring. His whole history was suffused with sin, from the time David was nought but a single cell on a journey to the uterine wall. For even then, when he was being fearfully and wonderfully made, he'd nonetheless been the inheritor of a building weight handed down from exiled Adam – and by the time of David's first steps, he'd already been carrying a landfill on his shoulders.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). Everything God wanted to see in David was exactly everything David didn't have. How could an adulterer, a schemer, a murderer ever reclaim his role as Israel's christ? How could he be a vision of the promise again? How could he even justify living? How could he take God's lessons to heart, and live them? The questions beat relentlessly inside his skull. He paused to reflect on the Law, driven to resolve the irresoluble tension.

David remembered how, a couple centuries ago, his forebears had been slaves in Egypt. How could David ever forget, when they revisited the saga every year at the Passover? And when they were slaves, Moses had told them – had told David's great-great-great-grandfather – to slaughter a lamb, and to pool its blood in a bowl, and into that bowl, they'd dip a whole bunch of hyssop branches. Only with hyssop for a paintbrush could they paint the lamb's lifeblood onto the doorframes of their homes. Only with the hyssop could they apply a layer of protection, the laid-down life of the lamb, to keep the plague-angel at bay. And it had worked like a charm! The wrath of the final plague had steered clear of every marked house. Every man of Israel who'd taken hyssop in hand that day had saved himself and his family by the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12:21-23).

And David had to think, doesn't he find himself being drawn back into slavery to his passions – his lust for a beautiful woman, his fear of being snared in scandal, his frustration at being unable to manipulate a righteous man, his self-loathing at being reminded how much kingship had changed him? Is David any less scared than his forefathers in the foreign land, though he be a king and they poor workers? Isn't David just as desperate for protection from a wrathful judgment now? And isn't the angel of death stalking Bathsheba's firstborn?

David thought, too, how in the Law, God had spoken through Moses a list of rules for quarantining the wretched leper, and yet had handed down also a ruling of immense hope for lepers everywhere – those lowest of the low, outcast from the outcast. Contaminated, feared, reviled – and yet even lepers had hope, as slaves had hope. For once an anointed priest ruled that a leper was no longer infectious, the priest had gathered two birds and scarlet yarn and cedarwood and hyssop. And among the other motions of the ritual, the priest would give an order for others to break one bird over a vessel of spring water, that it be mingled with blood; and into the bloody water the priest would dip the hyssop with the wood and yarn and living bird. With the hyssop dipped into water and blood, the priest would shake that famed medicinal herb over the leper (Leviticus 14:1-6). “And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean” (Leviticus 14:7), and the leper, in transition back to normality, would shave, bathe, and repeat a week later, and so be fully pure (Leviticus 14:8). None of it was possible without hyssop. Hyssop wasn't just good for painting – it was a natural aspergillum, great for sprinkling. Not to mention, it lend its fragrant smell to counter the bitter odor of the blood. No hyssop, and a leper's a leper for good. But thanks to that hyssop in the priest's holy hand, every leper in Israel had a pathway back to wholeness, to purity, to life.

And isn't David's heart as leprous as any skin had ever been, infected with sin and its rot? Isn't David cast as far away from the Holy Presence as any leper was from the camp (cf. Psalm 51:11). And then doesn't David need cleansing, doesn't David need healing, every bit as much as the farthest and feeblest cast out in medicinal exile?

As David pondered it, he had a third thought. David remembered how, later in the Law, God had spoken not to Moses alone but Aaron also, and told them that others needed cleansing: those defiled by the presence of death. They'd walked through a graveyard, or come across a corpse, or even handled human bones. They'd plunged into the realm of the dead, and now death was on them, staining them with its ghastly uncleanness (Numbers 19:16). But God had seen in advance, and so had made provision. Every so often, the priests were to find a red heifer – a rare creature – and not only sacrifice it, but burn its body entirely to ash, along with cedarwood and scarlet yarn and, of course, hyssop (Numbers 19:2-6). And the ashes of the heifer, mingled with the ash of these other things, were gathered up and kept in storage for the occasions God had foreseen (Numbers 19:9). So if someone caught a case of death-impurity, the priests would sprinkle a bit of the ash into spring water and make it holy. And then just anybody clean could dip hyssop in that holy water and sprinkle it onto the defiled person and defiled things. After a couple treatments of holy water, the person defiled was fully restored to the realm of life and communion (Numbers 19:17-19). So simple! But only with hyssop's purging sprinkle, followed by a nice bath, could everything be brought to completion. No hyssop, no help.

And David had to wonder, isn't he equally defiled as they, if not more? For David hadn't merely touched death. He'd caused it. He'd cheered for it. He'd unleashed it. He'd surely been through the ritual spoken to Moses and Aaron – surely he'd handled corpses on the field of battle – but now he needed something stronger. For the very crimes of which David was guilty were capital offenses under the same Law by which David reigned as king. “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). “You shall accept no ransom for the murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death” (Numbers 35:31). By all rights, David should order the execution of David. How can he be a legitimate king under God's Law if he doesn't? But how can he reign if he lives no more? The sentence hangs over David's head. He needs a solution, and fast.

So many others had a solution for their plights. The Law outlined a remedy for slaves languishing in Egypt: to paint a protective coating of blood with a bunch of hyssop. The Law outlined a remedy for lepers yearning for wholeness: a priestly sprinkling of blood and water from a branch of hyssop. The Law outlined a remedy even for those swept up in fellowship with death: a sprinkling by anybody clean with holy water from a branch of hyssop. Sacrifice applied with hyssop would make a way for them. But no clean man in Israel, no robed son of Aaron, no grand patriarch could take up the hyssop branch and run to David's rescue. Not one had the strength. Not one had the right. The Law of Moses outlined no remedy, made no provision, for the horror he'd become.'

And so David prays directly to the LORD, the Giver of that Law: You purge me with hyssop, and so I shall be clean! You wash me, and so I shall be whiter than snow!” (Psalm 51:7). Let David's case be filed with the rest. Let David be regarded as a slave stuck behind in Egyptian ignorance, as the king of all lepers, even as someone trapped in a tomb, overwhelmed by a wave of ash and bone, with no way out but the grace of God. All he prays and all he hopes is that God will construct him a tailor-made solution on the analogy of the other three – that the LORD look so kindly on his stain as the LORD did on slavery and leprosy and death. That mercy, David awaits.

What David needs – what this disgraced lowercase christ craves – is the capital-C Christ who's Lord even of David. He needs someone beyond a clean man, beyond a Hebrew, beyond a priest, beyond a patriarch. He needs God to grasp the hyssop branch and wield it for his salvation. Nothing will ultimately redeem David except for the coming of a greater Christ than he, a Supreme Priest-King whose New Law will enact remedies that never came by Moses and never came by Aaron. And that Anointed Priest King with a New Law and new remedies is just who Jesus, Son of David, was born to be. He was born to be God with a hyssop branch.

You see, it's not for nothing that, when Jesus hung from the cross, laying down his life for his people, John fills in the details by having a hyssop branch lifted up to Jesus' lips (John 19:29). John was using a pun and a figure to underscore a theological point about what the crucifixion really was. It was the source from which hyssop would be pulled away with everything needed to paint and sprinkle salvation on the world. And as the gospel spread, Hebrews shows the realization that Jesus was the Priest-King who had given himself as that sacrifice. “Under the Law,” it says, “almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). But Jesus' “ministry is... more excellent than the old one” (Hebrews 8:6), “for if the blood of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13). And so we have come to receive Jesus' “sprinkled blood” (Hebrews 12:24).

After Hebrews and John, the next few generations of believers kept meditating on the theme, and realized that just as Jesus fulfilled the Passover lamb, so he also fulfilled the red heifer that was burned with the cedarwood much as Christ blazed with love on his wooden cross,1 while the hyssop showed that “the warmth of life melted the frigidity of death.”2 They came to see that the blood and water mingled to cleanse the leper pointed forward to the blood and water flowing together from Christ's pierced side, and that the hyssop only underscores that Jesus will “wash and purify” all things.3 And when the Church welcomed new Christians in baptism, that's just what happened. They came in touch with the cleansing David begged. They were purged by the blood that's better than any lamb or bird, and dove into a holy water no heifer's ash could make. They were washed and purified completely by Jesus, losing all their guilty stains of a million generations' weight. And so, in those days, after being baptized, the custom was that a new Christian was given a clean white robe to wear, to show visually how “he who is baptized is seen to have been cleansed both according to the Law and according to the Gospel.... He whose sin is forgiven is made whiter than snow.”4

You or I may not have symbolized it with such a change of literal clothes, but when we were born again, when Jesus plunged us beneath his flood, we each got the cleansing David begged. The blood of Jesus availed for you and for me. The landfill dissolved off your shoulders. The ledger of all your wrongs was erased as blank as a pristine snowfall. Everything unheavenly about you was blotted out that very hour. Under the Law, a leper or a person defiled by death was warned to get nowhere near the sanctuary while still impure, or else they would be killed (Leviticus 13:46; Numbers 19:20). But now “we” – you and I – “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19), “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” in baptism (Hebrews 10:22).

That leaves just one spot of trouble – and it's that we still sin. “Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). Ananias and Sapphira were born again, yet they died under God's judgment over their sin. So do we dive back into uncleanness and sin and death. We turn our backs on our baptism, we grow deaf to the Spirit, we stray into the mud, and we hear the warning that even God's children can “make a shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19) and “fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). We still sin. And even if our sins never look outwardly like David's sin, they may be no less grave, no less serious, no less deadly to the tender life of grace born in us. But still our need can never outrun or outflank the provision of God. We can still find Jesus with hyssop in hand, for by his sacrifice, he still has ways of sprinkling our hearts clean again, still paints over the slaveries and leprosies and deaths we caress, when we but return to him our broken, contrite hearts.

Every purification of sin like this, which is sought through repentance, is in need of assistance from the One from whose side water and blood came forth.”5 And Jesus never withholds that assistance, never turns the hyssop away, from one who comes as he ordained and begs to be purged clean. “You will be sprinkled with hyssop, because the humility of Christ will cleanse you.”6 And once he sprinkles us anew, we can again hear joy and gladness (Psalm 51:8). Christ ministers to us, and suddenly we discover a clean heart and an upright spirit (Psalm 51:10). We can be restored to the abundant joy of God's saving love (Psalm 51:12). And we can go out and tell others, calling them to come to Jesus for the hyssop purge (Psalm 51:13). Because no stain, no stench, no weakness, no slavery or leprosy or death, needs to be forever. Just bring it all “to Jesus / to wash your crimson stains / white in his blood most precious, / 'til not a spot remains.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

1  Epistle of Barnabas 8.1-2 (early second century)

2  Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Questions on Numbers 35 (late fourth or early fifth century)

3  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Leviticus 8.10.11-12 (early third century)

4  Ambrose of Milan, On the Mysteries 7 §34 (late fourth century)

5  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Leviticus 8.10.12 (early third century)

6  Augustine of Hippo, Expositions on the Psalms 50.12 (early fifth century)

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