Myrrh was one of the gifts of the Magi or wise men (Mt 2:11). Legend says Caspar brought the gift of myrrh from Europe or Tarsus and placed it before the Christ Child. Because of myrrh's various medicinal uses this gift represents Christ's human nature, the Suffering Savior, the Great Physician, and the Passion.
Myrrh is an aromatic gum resin which oozes from gashes cut in the bark of a small desert tree known as Commifera Myrrha or the dindin tree. (The gashes are reminders of the wounds Christ received while being flogged by the Roman soldiers.) The myrrh hardens into tear-dropped shaped chunks and is then powdered or made into ointments or perfumes. This tree is 5-15 feet tall and 1 foot in diameter. Myrrh was an extremely valuable commodity during biblical times and was imported from India and Arabia. The Ishmaelite caravan which carried Joseph to slavery in Egypt also bore myrrh (Gen 37:25). When Israel sent his sons into Egypt for food he told them to take along some myrrh as a gift for the man in charge (Gen 43:11).
Because myrrh was used in the embalming or anointing of the dead, it came to represent mortality, suffering, and sorrow. The Israelites used perfumed ointments of myrrh in their funeral preparations to postpone the decay and alleviate the odors of the deceased. Although less than one pound was normally used in Israelite funerary preparations, Nicodemus brought "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds" to prepare Jesus's body for burial (John 19:39). This was to show his respect for Christ. Other people burned myrrh as an incense during cremations. The Phoenix bird was said to build its funeral pyre out of myrrh, frankincense, and other spices.
Myrrh has many medicinal uses. In ancient times it was used for cleaning wounds and sores. As late as the 19th century it was given as a treatment for worms, coughs, colds, sore throats, asthma, indigestion, bad breath, gum disease, and gonorrhea. Today it is still a common ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash. In Pilgrim's Progress, a bundle of myrrh was used to keep Mercy from fainting. Too much myrrh can make one violently sick.
Until the invention of morphine and other modern painkillers, myrrh was a common analgesic. In ancient times it was often mixed with wine to make the drink more potent (Clarke's Commentary - Prov 9:4-5). As was the custom among the Jews, Christ was offered "wine mingled with myrrh" to ease the pains of the cross. However, He refused to drink it (Mk 15:23).
Myrrh is named for its bitter taste which, along with its funerary uses, has caused it to be associated with the bitter things of life. St. Cyril applied the bittersweetness of the Passion to Solomon's verse, "I have come to my garden, my sister, my spouse; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk...." (Song 5:1; The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem). Myrrh has been associated with bitter repentance, mortification of the flesh, and penance. According to Aquinas, myrrh and aloes, by their bitterness, their pleasant perfume, and their preserving qualities, represent the penance by which we preserve our souls from the corruption of sin and the pleasing odor of a good report rising before God (Aquinas - Summa Theologica v. 5 p. 694). Fingers dripping with myrrh on the handles of a lock are an image of the ability of bitter repentance to unlock the doors of the hardened heart to Christ (Jamieson, Faucett, Brown; Song 5:5).
During biblical times myrrh was used in expensive perfumes. It was used in powdered form to perfume garments and beds and to make sachets which were worn between the breasts (Psa 45:8; Prov 7:17; Song 1:13, 3:6; Psa 45:8). In liquid form it was used as an anointing oil or to perfume men's beards. Myrrh was associated with lovemaking and was sometimes used to anoint the door-posts of the bridegroom's house when his bride was delivered to him (Song 5:5). Esther received a six month long beauty treatment with oil of myrrh before she was brought in to King Ahasuerus (Est 2:12). A woman who had been a great sinner showed her repentance and love of Christ by anointing his feet with a fragrant oil of myrrh and drying them with her hair. Jesus took this opportunity to point out that those who are forgiven much, love their redeemer more than those who are forgiven little (Luke 7:36-50).
The psalmist portrays Christ as a king upon His wedding day being clothed in garments "scented with myrrh and aloes and cassia" (Psa 45:8). John Wesley believed that these perfumed garments represented the "sweet smelling virtues" of Christ as He walked upon this earth (Wesley's Notes on the Bible). Augustine wrote that "by His garments are meant His Saints, His elect, His whole Church" which are attracted to Christ by this same sweet savor of peace and virtue (Expositions on the Book of Psalms).
Song 3:6 asks, "Who is this coming out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the merchant's fragrant powders?" Matthew Henry answers that this is the bride of the king who was formerly thought ugly and of little account by the daughters of Jerusalem. She comes forth now "perfumed with myrrh and frankincense" representative of the sweet fruits of the Holy Spirit. The bride thus accompanied by pillars of sweet incense is a symbol of the Israelites as they approached the Promised land guided by a pillar of smoke. She is also an image of the Church as Christ's Bride sweetly scented with the odors of Christian virtue, righteousness, prayer, and praise approaching her eternal Bridegroom and of "Jesus returning from the wilderness full of the Holy Ghost" (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown; Lk 4:1, 14).
Insects and vultures are said to be repelled by the burning of myrrh. So also the sweet odor of the Gospel of Christ, which dripped from His lips like liquid myrrh, is an aroma which is pleasing to those willing to be saved but repulsive to those who refuse His offer of peace (Song 5:13). So also are the preachers of the Gospel compared to the myrrh-like fragrance of Christ which is to the repentant the "aroma of life to life" and to the wicked the "aroma of death to death" (2 Cor 2:14-16). Wisdom also is said to have a "pleasant odour like the best myrrh" (Sirach 24:15).
When burned as incense, myrrh is a symbol of prayers rising to heaven. Liquid myrrh was used in the making of the holy Anointing oil for the Anointing of the priests and the articles of the Tabernacle. It was forbidden to use this recipe which God gave to Moses for any secular purpose (Ex 30:23-32). Because myrrh (which is bitter) and frankincense (which is sweet) were used in the Temple, Mount Moriah (the Temple mount) was poetically referred to as the "mountain of myrrh" and the "hill of frankincense" (Song 4:6). The Church has also been referred to as a mountain of myrrh and frankincense (Wesley's Notes on the Bible - Song of Solomon 4:6, 8). St. Jerome wrote that "those who have mortified their bodies" are mountains of myrrh. "Historically, the hill of frankincense is Calvary; the mountain of myrrh is His embalmment til the Resurrection" (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown).
Today myrrh may be used in toothpastes, mouthwashes, cosmetics, and food flavorings.
Except where otherwise indicated all scripture quotes are from the NKJV.
More information about myrrh is available at:
© 1999 by Suzetta Tucker
To cite this page:
Tucker, Suzetta. "ChristStory Christmas Symbols - Myrrh." ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1999. http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/myrrh.htm ().