PictureSamuel anoints David to be King

TEXT: Psalms 23:5

"Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over."

Augustine commented that the Psalm 23  could be aptly called the "Hymn of the Martyrs"  because it so perfectly described their trials, suffering and the comfort that they longed for. One such comfort mentioned in this allegorical passage is the very ancient custom of anointing.

Anointing is a very old custom. Most ancient people practiced it in some form or another and for many different reasons.  

1. According to scripture (Exodus 28:41), priest of Israel were ordained by having oil poured over their heads.

2. A carving on an interior wall of Seti  1's temple shows his him at his coronation being anointed with holy water by Horus.

3. Many early cultures, including the Greeks, Romans and Jews, anointed their dead before burial.  

4. The most common type of anointing occurred when welcoming a guest into one's home. Servants applied oil to the brow and feet of weary visitors to sooth their dusty and possibly sunburned skin. A visitors who was considered special, beloved or a guest of honor was greeted at the door with a bowl of sweet scented oil that was poured lavishly upon their head.

Captain Wilson, a nineteenth century Oriental traveler reported:
"I once had this (anointing) ceremony performed on myself in the house of a great and rich Indian, in the presence of a large company. The gentleman of the house poured upon my hands and arms a delightful odoriferous perfume; (then he) put a golden cup in my hands and poured wine into it until it ran over, assuring me at the same time that it was a great pleasure to him to receive me and that I would find a rich supply in his house." (An account found in "Oriental Customs" by Rev. Samuel Burder, 1822. No. 539.)

There are several thoughts as to how the custom of anointing house guests came about:

1. Fragrant oils were often used to cover body odors. A traveler or guest may have lost his pleasant scent during travel, Anointing not only refreshed but covered any odor acquired on the journey. Anointing made the guest more acceptable to himself and others. A host seeing to this nicety was held in high esteem.

2. The ancient world could be a smelly place. By placing fragrance on or about the head, the one wearing the oil enjoyed a pleasant fragrance as he moved about.

3.  Oil was more soothing than water when it came to removing dirt and dust from parched skin.

From earliest times, anointing oil was made from olives. The oil might be left pure, but oftentimes it was mixed with spices to produce an exotic fragrance. Some ingredients for the fragrant oils needed to be imported, such as myrrh from Arabia or Africa, which made the finished mixture expensive. 

Besides being poured over the head or feet, anointing oils were applied to other  parts of the body as well.  Reasons included personal hygiene, for medicinal purposes, affection or pleasure, religious ritual and symbolic meaning.

1.  Neglecting to anoint one's self was a sign of mourning.

2. Neglecting to anoint a friend or guest was a sign of disrespect.   (In Luke 7:46, Jesus accuses Simon of poor hospitality when he fails to anoint the head of the "one whom he has invited to eat with him ".

3. Anointing the feet of a master or parent demonstrated respect or love. (This ancient custom was commented on by Aristophanes and described how daughters were to anoint the feet of their parents after they had first washed them. Vespes, p. 473, 516, 517.)   

4.  Anointing the feet was an act of humility or supplication. (In John 12:3, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with costly perfume.)

5. Anointing one's own face or hand was viewed as a sign of joy or happiness.

From the diary of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier:  "Among the Arabs, I found that they were always ready to accept a present of olive oil. As soon as someone received it, he lifted his turban and anointed his head, face and his beard, (while)at the same time lifting his eyes to heaven and saying: 'God be thanked'." (Les Six Voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier - A New Relation of the Grand Seignor's Seraglio, Ch 8, p.47.  Published 1675.)

In this passage, the psalmist is representing himself as a house guest of God. And God, who is the most generous host of all , has prepared a great feast and a royal welcome, which is poetically described as "anointing the head with an overfull cup".

Copyright by Ancient Bible History - Eden Games Inc.



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