Why did it have to be Myrrh?

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

– Isaiah 53:5

Pictured above are Myrrh trees, and behind them are some pivotal elements surrounding the answer to the question in this blog post. During Christmas, we often recite the story of Christ’s birth, including the gifts that the Magi gave: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But why these gifts? The reason for each of these gifts are often purely speculative, such as drawing parallels with gold and the Magi’s acknowledgement that Jesus is King, or frankincense and Exodus 30’s specific requirements for the altar of God. But what about myrrh? John says the following after Jesus’ death:

Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.

– John 19:39

We know that culturally, myrrh was used to prepare bodies for burial. We also know that myrrh, like frankincense, was included in Exodus 30 as a main ingredient in anointing oil to prepare priests. Is that why the Magi brought myrrh? If that was the only reason, you might think they would also have brought aloes. But this is all speculation. Is there something more concrete? Is there possibly more to this than tradition? We’re going to go through several points in order to build up a hypothesis as to why the Magi used specifically myrrh as a gift to Jesus. I believe myrrh can serve as a great reminder of truth, and as a great warning.

What we know

Daniel, a prophet from Babylon, east of Israel, is given the exact date Jesus would be born in Daniel 9, by Gabriel (see this post for more information)

The Magi also came from the east, and had to have known about Daniel’s prophecy in order to have shown up on Herod’s doorstep at the right time:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

– Matthew 2:1-2

Isaiah prophesizes the detailed events surrounding Jesus’ life and death in Isaiah 53 (and many other chapters as well)

The Magi are clearly well versed in Old Testament scripture, having known about Daniel, and even quoting Micah as their justification for looking in Bethlehem:

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:”

– Matthew 2:5

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.

Micah 5:2

Therefore, I believe we can assume that they also knew about one of the most prevalent prophets of the Old Testament: Isaiah. And more specifically, one of Isaiah’s prophecies:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

– Isaiah 53:5

This assumption is further backed by the fact that people from all over the world knew about the book of Isaiah during this time:

So Philip started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.

– Acts 8:27-28

Even more interestingly, the eunuch was also reading a passage from Isaiah 53. The next point helps to show why this prophecy about Jesus’ crucifixion, which I’m asserting that the Magi understood, is so important for understanding the use of myrrh.

Myrrh was culturally significant to the region, and the process to harvest it is incredibly symbolic

Water that flowed from Roman aqueducts was not potable. It was full of bacteria, and would make anyone sick. So what was the solution? Vinegar or wine was added frequently, but also myrrh. Myrrh served as an excellent antiseptic. So can the symbolism come from the fact that myrrh turns bad water into drinkable water? If that was all of it, you’d think the Magi would have given Jesus vinegar and wine, which was significantly cheaper, but they gave him myrrh. Why?

Another good speculative reason is that this was a way that God helped finance Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt immediately after the Magi’s visit, via them selling the gifts. Could it be anything else? Anything more convicting? In our previous point, Isaiah said that Jesus would be pierced for our transgressions.

Myrrh being harvested

In order to harvest myrrh, the tree’s bark must be cut, and the myrrh resin is then collected. The very act of piercing a myrrh tree causes it to release a substance that gives life to dangerous water.

Putting it all together

Jesus, pierced for our transgressions, brings life giving water to us through his sacrifice. When his body was stabbed, after he had died on the cross, he let out blood and water:

One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.

– John 19:34

On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.

– Zechariah 13:1

Myrrh treated water and made it potable in Jesus’ time. Myrrh was expensive and could help pay for many needs for a new family. Myrrh trees must be pierced to let out this incredibly interesting, life-giving substance. Any yet, myrrh is not enough:

Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.

– Mark 15:23

They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.

– Psalm 69:21

(Gall is a bitter substance created with myrrh)

So were the Magi consciously giving myrrh as a gift to Jesus in reference to Isaiah’s prophecy? Did they only give it because they knew Christ would be pierced like the myrrh tree? We’ll never know the true answer, but I believe it’s no coincidence that myrrh is harvested in this specific way. I believe it’s no coincidence that myrrh transforms water physically, as Jesus transforms water spiritually. At the very least, the Magi’s gift of myrrh can serve as a great reminder of what is necessary to turn our broken, dead lives, into eternal life.

I am the real fruit tree. My Father is the One who takes care of the tree. He takes away from me every branch that does not bear fruit. And he cleans every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit. What I said to you has made you clean already.

– John 15:1-3

A warning

I believe this message about myrrh also serves another purpose: a warning. There’s a reason Jesus didn’t accept the wine mixed with myrrh on the cross. It would have dulled the pain, and made everything easy. Jesus needed to suffer and to take on our punishments. He needed to die in this way to fulfill our ransom, and to buy our freedom from sin. In life, we face the easy way out constantly. We’re given a choice every day to dull our pain, whether it’s with alcohol, work, or other addictions that try to fill the void in our life.

At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice.
I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense

Out came a woman to meet him, dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent…

She took hold of him and kissed him and with a brazen face she said…

“Today I fulfilled my vows, and I have food from my fellowship offering at home. So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you! I have covered my bed with colored linens from Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let’s drink deeply of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love!

All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter.

– Proverbs 7:6-22

There are people and things that will look ok, they’ll have all the right religious boxes checked off, like this Proverbs’ woman’s fellowship offering. But it is a wide road that many follow, and it leads to death. Myrrh, like all other things in life, cannot save us. But it is a great reminder of the truth: nothing can transform our souls except for Christ’s life-giving water. Only Jesus can save us. Myrrh is a reminder of the cost of Christ’s life-giving sacrifice, and a warning that there is no substitute for Jesus’ gift.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

– Matthew 7:13-14

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