Myrrh, Gall, and Sour Wine

“They gave him wine mixed with gall to drink and tasting it, he would not drink.”

(Matthew 27:34)

“And they gave him wine mixed with myrrh, but he would not take it.”

(Mark 15:23)

“So the soldiers mocked him, coming up and offered him sour wine. And they said to him, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

(Luke 23:36-37)

It seems that the fulfillment of prophesy is the theme of this section of the Gospels. God is making it clear in bold statements as to who this man, the King of the Jews, really is. And, as David again wrote, more than a thousand years before this event:

“They gave me gall for food and for my thirst, they gave me bitter wine to drink.”

(Psalm 69:21)

On a surface reading of the text, one might think that Matthew and Mark were differing in their details, but when one harmonizes them and compares them with historical practices around crucifixions, one realizes that they are simply pointing to different aspects of the event, for it was common for both gall and myrrh to be added to soured wine to give to the dying. The mixture of myrrh and wine creates a concoction that is something like an opiate. It deadens pain somewhat and dulls the senses. It was not uncommon for widows in Jerusalem to make up this concoction as a form of mercy for the dying.

The gall is a bitter additive, not a mark of mercy, but meant to add insult to injury as it is a kind of bitter-tasting poison. There is some debate as to the source of this additive. Some suggest that it is a kind of wormwood plant and others suggest that it might have been derived from the bile of a hyena. While, given its Jewish context, the plant makes more sense, we will leave the speculation to others on that matter, simply recognizing that this added misery to the experience. This concoction was offered to Jesus and he refused to drink.

Why did Jesus refuse to drink? His purpose on that day was to face the full wrath of God for the sins of his people — head on, with a sober mind, and nothing to deaden the experience lest it be said that Jesus’ sacrifice alone was not enough. And so, the Lord receives the mocking yet…but in this case, the mocking comes in the form of a tainted drink…something that he will not receive.

One of the things that we must clearly see about this event is the sufficiency of Christ’s work for us…for we who are His people. There is nothing that can be added to it or taken away from it. He stood where we could never have hoped to stand and he did so without aids or intoxicants. Justice for sin is meted out on that day and Jesus took it full force. And how often we show him so little gratitude for what he did. If we are truly redeemed in this way, ought not we live like men and women utterly indebted to Him for his grace? How few do.

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