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?The Bible refers to the use of “Holy” anointing oil for acts of worship, consecration and dedication, as well as for the laying on of hands in prayer for healing and deliverance.
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).
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.
The practice of anointing with oil transfers over to the New Testament.
Yeshua encourages his followers to anoint themselves with oil whenever they take up the practice of fasting (Matthew 6:17). And to pour oil on the sick as part of the healing process (Mark 6:13)
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?
Christians can still use this practice, but believers should keep in mind that not everyone holds this viewpoint. It’s important to read the Scriptures concerning this practice, and exercise discernment.
They would’ve used oil to light lamps (Matthew 25), as a lotion for skin and hair and they recognized that it had medicinal properties.
We should also note that oil symbolism was linked to the Ruah HaKodesh (Holy Spirit )presence. When a person is anointed in the Bible, the Holy Spirit descends upon that person (see the 1 Samuel passage above.)
Therefore, when Yeshua is called “anointed” the Bible means by the Ruah Ha Kodesh (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:
The practice of anointing with perfumed oil was common among the Hebrews. (1.) The act of anointing was significant of consecration to a holy or sacred use; hence the anointing of the high priest (Ex. 29:29; Lev. 4:3) and of the sacred vessels (Ex. 30:26). The high priest and the king are thus called “the anointed” (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:20; Ps. 132:10). Anointing a king was equivalent to crowning him (1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Sam. 2:4, etc.). Prophets were also anointed (1 Kings 19:16; 1 Chr. 16:22; Ps. 105:15). The expression, “anoint the shield” (Isa. 21:5), refers to the custom of rubbing oil on the leather of the shield so as to make it supple and fit for use in war. (2.) Anointing was also an act of hospitality (Luke 7:38, 46). It was the custom of the Jews in like manner to anoint themselves with oil, as a means of refreshing or invigorating their bodies (Deut. 28:40; Ruth 3:3; 2 Sam. 14:2; Ps. 104:15, etc.). This custom is continued among the Arabians to the present day. (3.) Oil was used also for medicinal purposes. It was applied to the sick, and also to wounds (Ps. 109:18; Isa. 1:6; Mark 6:13; James 5:14). (4.) The bodies of the dead were sometimes anointed (Mark 14:8; Luke 23:56). (5.) The promised Deliverer is twice called the “Anointed” or Messiah (Ps. 2:2; Dan. 9:25, 26), because he was anointed with the Holy Ghost (Isa. 61:1), figuratively styled the “oil of gladness” (Ps. 45:7; Heb. 1:9). Jesus of Nazareth is this anointed One (John 1:41; Acts 9:22; 17:2, 3; 18:5, 28), the Messiah of the Old Testament.
God used an important cultural symbol and practice to foreshadow the work of the Ruah Ha Kodesh (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 Yahweh´s provision at work through the multiple uses of oil. In the same way, we can picture how Yahweh 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 Yeshua. Anointing oil was used on priests and kings for important purposes. In the same way, Yeshua is our High Priest and our King.
This practice used in Israel and throughout the Ancient World foreshadowed YHWH work through his Son, Yeshua.