He anoints my head with oil
The Lord Is My Shepherd • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 25:32
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Today we wrap up this series through the seven scenes of Psalm 23. The shepherd imagery which is so abundant in the Bible is described with descriptive detail in these seven actions that the Psalmist, David, uses. These seven actions provide a picture for us of what the activity of the good shepherd looks like. We have seen the description of places like green pastures, quiet waters, and paths of righteousness. We have seen the hand of the shepherd at work with his shepherd’s rod and staff. We have received the invitation to the table of the Lord which is prepared for his precious flock. And now there is one more activity we see in this final scene. He anoints my head with oil.
This may seem like an odd custom since it is something that never occurs anymore in our own time and culture. Maybe this custom of pouring oil over the head needs a little explanation. First of all, we are not talking about the kind of oil that comes from petroleum. The people in the Bible did not drill oil out of the ground, they did not even know what petroleum oil was, nor would they have a use for it. So do not think at all about oil in the Bible as anything like we use today. We are not talking about motor oil; it’s not the 5W-30 synthetic blend you find at the Valvoline shop down the road. The region around the Mediterranean is perfect climate for growing olive trees. The most common oil in Israel was olive oil used for cooking. There were also other plant-based oils used mostly as perfumes and medicines from such sources as myrrh and nard. It is probably the closest equivalent to what we use today as Essential Oils (if you are familiar with that craze).
Let’s also remember that the people back in Bible times did not all have showers in their homes, and there was no such thing as shampoo in that time. The use of fragrant oils in their hair was a common way of what people in that day would have considered basic hygiene. Not that people would do this every day as we might consider hygiene to be part of our regular habits; it was more the mark of a special occasion in their time. Putting fragrant perfume in your hair was considered part of the expectation to be presentable before coming to a party or other type of important social gathering.
That’s the launching point we are taking today in order to consider how this last scene of Psalm 23 applies into our world today. Jump with me, then, to Ecclesiastes for another brief glimpse at how this cultural custom of ointment poured in a person’s hair shows up.
7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
anointing with oil had several other uses and meanings in the Bible | medicine, burial, declaration of royalty, social hygiene
Perhaps it is helpful to explain that anointing with oil had several other uses and meanings in the Bible. This may help clear up any confusion for people who may be familiar with many of the other places in scripture that anointing with oil occurs. It shows up as a medicinal practice for healing since they thought that fragrant oils had medical benefits. It also shows up as a symbolic declaration of royalty; kings would be anointed as part of the inauguration sequence. It also would take place as bart of the burial ritual whenever somebodies in that time passed away. I do not think that the anointing with oil mentioned in Psalm 23 has anything to do with these functions of ointment. The context of Psalm 23:5 makes it clear that the anointing with oil is understood as basic hygiene people would do as part of their preparation for joining a special social occasion. And this is certainly the same function of anointing we see in Ecclesiastes 9:8.
For today, then, let’s dig into what is happening in these few verses in Ecclesiastes as a way of helping us understand what David means by this scene in which the shepherd is anointing his flock with oil.
Ecclesiastes can be a difficult book of the Bible to understand. I can see where this passage from chapter 9 might be easily misunderstood. At surface level the way it comes at us translated into English, it might seem like a kind of depressing outlook. You might as well just go eat your dinner because your meaningless life isn’t going anywhere else. Of course, there is something much different going on in this passage; it is not a depressing outlook. The key here is that we cannot get hung up on a few English words which don’t do the best job of conveying all the richness of the Hebrew language.
Let me pull at two examples of difficult Hebrew words in Ecclesiastes, and one Hebrew word from Psalm 23.
Hebrew hebel (meaningless, vanity) = insignificant, momentary, “breath”
In the book of Ecclesiastes, our NIV Bibles repeat the theme of “meaningless” over and over again throughout the entire book. Other English translations use the word “vanity” as the repeated theme. The Hebrew word is hebel. It literally comes from the same Hebrew root as “a breath.” Hebel carries the nuance of being incredibly insignificant or extremely momentary. I would say that in the context of Ecclesiastes, the word “momentary” would be a much better English word to use in order to capture what the wisdom writer is really trying to say about the experience of human life when compared to God. It is not that life is meaningless in the sense that human life has no purpose. It is more the point of Ecclesiastes to show that human life is so very momentary when placed next to the eternity of God.
Hang onto that one. we’ll pull it back in a minute to consider how the brief and limited experience of human life plays into understanding this passage.
Hebrew heleq (lot) = portion, distribution, allocation, share
not “lot” in the sense of fate, predicament, plight, doom
The other Hebrew word in Ecclesiastes I want us to consider here is heleq. The NIV translates this into English as “lot.” Verse 10 says that our lot in life and in all our toilsome work is simply to enjoy our family and a meal. I think the word “lot” makes it sound like a random fate over which we have no control. An English dictionary defines lot as fate, predicament, plight, or doom. It is generally considered a negative thing. But this is not the meaning of the Hebrew word heleq. It refers instead to something that can better be defined as portion, distribution, allocation, or share.
even in this human life which is so very momentary and brief next to the eternity of God, in grace God still gives out a portion/share of goodness
The wisdom writer in Ecclesiastes is pointing out that even in this human life which is so very momentary and brief next to the eternity of God, in grace God still gives out a portion/share of goodness. The writer of Ecclesiastes identifies this portion/share of goodness from God coming in the simple little things of life. Enjoying the blessing of good food and drink in the company of family and friends is the example of goodness to which the writer refers in this chapter.
And about these simple enjoyments, the wisdom writer says in verse 8.
8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.
vs 8 - Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil
always treat each and every new day as a remarkably special gift from God
Here again, the wearing of bright clothing and pouring of fragrant ointment in the hair is an expression of a special social occasion. This kind of celebration didn’t happen every day. But the point of Ecclesiastes here is to say treat every single day like that. Life is so very momentary, take each new day as a precious gift from God. And each new day which we receive from God contains the portion/share of his blessing for us to enjoy. Treat every day as a special example of God’s grace, because these examples of God’s grace show up most often every single day in the simple ordinary little things of life. Look at how Eugene Peterson translates these verses from Ecclesiastes in his Message version of the Bible.
7 Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, Drink wine with a robust heart. Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure! 8 Dress festively every morning. Don’t skimp on colors and scarves. 9 Relish life with the spouse you love Each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange For the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one!
vs 10 - whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might
do not underestimate how much God is right there with you even in the small ordinary things of life
This is why verse 10 can go on to say, “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Do not underestimate how much God is right there with you even in the small ordinary things of life. How often we fail to realize the ways in which all of the tiny simple blessings of each and every day stack up to be a never ending stream of God’s faithful and abiding provision. But we miss it because so often we see these things as so tiny and ordinary and insignificant and momentary. Yet this is exactly the place in our everyday lives where God chooses to meet us.
Even though Ecclesiastes points to this daily provision of blessing as our “lot in life” (our portion/share), it stacks up day after day, week after week, year after year to be an extraordinary gift beyond measure. Our proper place then is to see each new day as an extension of that gift from God. “Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.” Always treat each and every new day as a remarkably special gift from God.
Bring it back to Psalm 23 now. The seventh and final scene is one of embracing the LORD as our shepherd each and every day. It is a recognition of just how incredibly remarkable it is that the eternal creator of the universe who have existed forever and ever beyond our brief momentary lives, that this God chooses to make himself our shepherd. That he redeems us in his love which portions itself our to us each and every day.
Hebrew mashach = anointing (not used in Psalm 23)
Hebrew dashen (anoint) = fatten, make fat
carries the idea of making something bigger or more abundant
Here’s a secret. The word anointing never actually shows up in Psalm 23. Yes, I know we have been focusing this entire last scene on a line from Psalm 23 which says he anoints my head with oil. The Hebrew word for anointing is mashach. But that’s not the word which David uses here in Psalm 23. It is a much more obscure Hebrew word, dashen, which only shows up eleven times in the entire Bible. Most of those times it is translated into English as “fatten” or “make fat.” It carries the idea of making something bigger or more abundant.
the LORD is my shepherd who dashen [abundantly pours out an excessively lavish amount] of oil upon my head
Do you see what David is actually saying here in Psalm 23? The LORD is my shepherd who dashen [anoints?] my head with oil. No; it’s more than that. The LORD is my shepherd who dashen [abundantly pours out an excessively lavish amount] of oil upon my head. Perhaps this is why David can finish the line the Psalm 23 with “my cup overflows.”
Let’s find an application by connecting these two passages from Psalm 23 and Ecclesiastes 9. Perhaps we all find ourselves from time to time stuck waiting for something better. Like so many of you, I’m waiting right now for a time when we can all have access to a Covid vaccine and get ourselves to a place where these restrictions of masks and distancing and group gatherings can responsibly be eased back to normal. Maybe it’s waiting for a job promotion; maybe it’s waiting to be done with school; maybe it’s waiting for retirement. We can always make a million excuses why we might think the ‘real’ anointing of God’s blessing in our lives has not yet arrived. We get trapped into thinking the anointing of God’s blessing is some kind of heavenly lottery which at some point is going to just dump upon us because scripture tells us that the blessing of God is extravagantly abundant. So that’s what we expect: extravagant abundance. And then our lives are stuck waiting for it.
God constantly weaves his blessing into all the tiny ordinary pieces of my everyday life
Scripture is not wrong. God’s blessing is extravagantly abundant. But what we also see from scripture today is that the blessing of God is portioned out to be exactly what we need for each and every day. The extravagant abundance of God’s blessing is not something for which you have to wait. You’ve got it already. You are receiving it right now. And God constantly weaves his blessing into all the tiny ordinary pieces of everyday life.
do not miss the opportunity to treat each and every new day as a gift from God filled with exactly what it is you need from God to live in his will and thrive as a disciple of Jesus
The poet of Ecclesiastes says, “whatever your hand find to do, do it with all your might.” Do not miss the opportunity to treat each and every new day as a gift from God filled with exactly what it is you need from God to live in his will and thrive as a disciple of Jesus. It may look small and ordinary and insignificant and momentary. But day after day, month after month, year after year it piles up into a lifelong testimony which declares
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.