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 3.3.4 Aloes: The Fragrance of Love

Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.4

Aloes: The Fragrance of Love

Perhaps the reason romance is dead (or at least very quiet) in our world is that we no longer talk to our lovers as Solomon spoke to his beloved: “Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow.” Of course, you’d better know your beloved really well if you’re going to tell her things like this. Use this as a pick-up line in a singles bar, and you’ll probably get yourself arrested. Solomon’s beloved Shulamite maiden, however, knew just how to respond, saying “Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.” (Song of Solomon 4:13-16) Since the Song of Solomon is a prophetic allegory revealing Christ’s intense love for His church (and vice versa), the interchange is actually between Yahshua and His bride—us. We’re on the same wave-length; we speak the same language—even if it’s one the world finds maudlin and sappy. It’s their loss: we’re the ones who’ll be sleeping in the King’s bed tonight.

I was a bit surprised to discover that “aloes” in scriptural parlance have nothing to do with the healing balm (e.g., aloe vera) so familiar to most of us, derived from the flowering succulent plants of the genus Aloe. The Hebrew word translated “aloes” is ’ahalowt, (or ’ahalim) meaning (according to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains), “an aromatic wood, a tree that can grow 120 feet high, and native to northern India, the decaying wood used for perfumes, fragrances, incense, and fumigation Aquilaria agallocha commonly called eaglewood…. Other suggest Aloexyllon agallochum (aloewood), and Santalum album (white sandalwood).” Indeed, every scripture reference to “aloes” (and there aren’t many) relates to fragrance, not to healing.

The “prophet for hire” Balaam referred to Israel as fragrant aloes that Yahweh had planted in the earth, revealing His love for His chosen people—a sentiment that didn’t exactly sit well with his pagan employer. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that Yahweh has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters.” (Numbers 24:5-6) We’ve seen many of these symbolic images already: the palm groves speak of righteousness, but this time en masse, as a nation—something that won’t be reality until the definitive Day of Atonement, when Israel at last recognizes and receives her Messiah, Yahshua. A river, if you’ll recall, is a picture of truth flowing from God to man, its waters bringing restoration and cleansing first to all along the river’s path—identified here as Israel—and eventually flowing into the sea, the whole gentile world. The cedar trees denote the strength that the river’s truth fosters and enables.

And what about the “aloes that Yahweh has planted,” the fragrant wood so pleasing to the senses? What is it about Israel’s fragrance that the prophet found so wonderful? It may help to remember that the Hebrew words for spirit (ruach) and aroma (reyach) are closely related: they’re both tied to the concept of “air in motion,” and what might be borne on the breath of the wind. We can “perceive” a breeze only by the evidence it creates—the movement of the leaves—just as we can recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit only by the witness of a changed life (see John 3:8). In the same way (sort of) we can identify aloes-wood, the evidence of God’s love, by its fragrance, its distinctive aroma. In our world, that “fragrance” is borne by Israel, a people chosen and set apart by Yahweh to alert the olfactory senses of the rest of mankind (so to speak) to the concept that there is a God—revealed through Israel—a people who “smell” like Yahweh, even if the rest of us have head colds.

You may protest, “Are you insane? Israel ‘smells’ very little like Yahweh, since they rejected His Messiah and got themselves thrown out of her ‘encampments’ two thousand years ago.” True enough, but still, it is only through Israel’s pitifully anemic efforts to keep the Torah alive that we perceive God’s plan at all. I for one am thankful for Israel, even though they admittedly could have done a better job of it.

But in the end, only the fragrance of one Jew really counts. He is spoken of in this Psalm: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.” He sits on the throne of David, but in reality, the King is God Himself. “The scepter of Your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” The idea of “God anointing God” must have been confusing, at least until Yahshua taught us how it works. “Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make You glad. Daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at Your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.” (Psalm 45:6-9) Who is Yahweh talking about? Who has been “anointed with the oil of gladness?” It’s the Messiah—Christ—a title that literally means “anointed.” And His queen, standing at His right hand, is His called-out assembly—the church.

And these other symbols? Myrrh (bitterness) and cassia (the fragrant oil used to prepare corpse for burial), you’ll recall, were two key ingredients in the making of the exclusive anointing oil for Levitical worship (see Exodus 30:23-33). The addition of aloes in this description informs us that the Messiah fairly reeks of Yahweh’s love. The “daughters of kings,” it seems to me, are the same people described as the “daughters of Jerusalem” (i.e., Israel) seen in the Song of Solomon rejoicing at the love between the King and His bride. And that would define “the queen” adorned in gold (read: immutable purity) as the bride of Christ, the ekklesia, Yahshua’s called-out assembly, the church. The “ivory palaces,” I believe, are the color of ivory—which, not coincidentally, is the color of Jerusalem limestone. And as a lifelong guitarist, you can’t imagine how big a smile the line “stringed instruments make You glad” puts on my face. How utterly cool it would be to play in the heavenly “praise band.”

The inclusion of the scents of myrrh and cassia in the description of the Messiah reminds us that it wasn’t all “glory, honor, and praise” for Him. The path to the throne ran straight through Golgotha. In order to be qualified to reign, the Messiah had to demonstrate His love by dying to atone for our sins. “After these things [i.e., the trials and crucifixion of Yahshua] Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 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 doesn’t mention the “cassia” (the “fragrant oil” of Psalm 45 and Exodus 30) but both Matthew (in 26:12) and Luke (23:56) do. “So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews….”

The “custom” was to anoint the corpse with spices and oils to mask the stench of decomposition, place the corpse in a sealed above-ground tomb, and wait for the flesh to rot off the bones. When the process was complete, the bones would be retrieved and buried permanently in an ossuary—a small box, just wide enough to accommodate the skull and long enough for the femurs. But Yahweh had promised that He wouldn’t “allow His holy one to see corruption” (see Psalm 16:10). “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” As the old joke goes, the wife of Joseph of Arimathea was upset that their new family tomb was being used by Yahshua, until Joseph told her, “Not to worry, my love. He’s only going to need it for the weekend.” “So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.” (John 19:38-42) The “day of Preparation” is a euphemism for Passover, the day the lambs were to be sacrificed and prepared for the paschal meal, which would take place the next day (that is, sometime after sunset—which defined it as “the next day”), on the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  

The thing to keep in mind (in our present context) is that the aromatic aloes with which the body of Christ had been anointed were still fresh, still exuding the pungent fragrance of God’s love, on the third day (the Feast of Firstfruits), when Yahshua rose from the dead. Yahweh did not allow His Holy One to see corruption. Yahshua’s sacrifice proved that He loved us; His resurrection proved that His love was not an empty gesture, not merely a noble but futile stand against the tyranny of our sinful nature. It was, rather, the only thing that a God who had manifested Himself in mortal flesh could do to prove His deity. The self-sacrifice of a man might be inspirational; it might arouse within us renewed determination to “do better.” But only the self-sacrifice of God Himself could fundamentally transform our core natures from rebels into allies—nay, into His blessed and beloved children. To avail ourselves of this transformation, we need only believe in the efficacy of this resurrection—to rely upon its potential. But the choice to do so—or not—is entirely up to us. This transformation has absolutely nothing to do with religion—which is, in a way, the converse or antithesis of what I’m talking about. Religions are man’s attempts to reach God (whatever they define him to be). But spiritual transformation is our acceptance of God’s effort to reach out to us. Granted, the two things can look quite similar, since one is a purposeful counterfeit of the other.

Solomon used sex (of all things) to illustrate the difference. Sex with one’s spouse is right and good—it’s even commanded by God (“Go forth and multiply…”). But adultery is forbidden, because sex with someone not your spouse is a picture of religion, not relationship, the attempt to enjoy the benefit without the commitment, the pleasure without the promise. But a relationship with God—reverence for Him exclusively—is the beginning of wisdom. So Solomon says, “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call insight your intimate friend, to keep you from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words….” The forbidden woman, the adulteress, is analogous to following religion instead of embracing Yahweh.

“And behold, the woman meets [the young man lacking sense], dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart. She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home. Now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait….” It’s not that religion can’t be attractive, in its own way. After all, the whole idea is to seduce you, to draw you in. So she says, “I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you. I have spread my couch with coverings, colored linens from Egyptian linen. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love till morning. Let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home. He has gone on a long journey.” (Proverbs 7:4-5, 10-12, 15-19) There’s the counterfeit—myrrh, aloes and all—concluding with an invitation to “take our fill of love.” But note something important here: the husband, the one being betrayed, is Christ—which makes the purveyors of religion (as opposed to those they try to seduce) the ones guilty of adultery. She is elsewhere characterized as “the whore of Babylon.” But the “aloe-wood” of our lives—the fragrance of love—is to be enjoyed with Yahweh alone. Any religious institution that carries on an affair with the world is courting disaster.  

(First published 2014)