In the Bible there are two distinct purposes associated with the practice of people being anointed or marked, usually on the head, with oil. Anointing either indicated a sign of being chosen by God for leadership or accompanied a prayer for blessing or healing.

Anointing for leadership: as a priest or king

Aaron the High Priest

Moses, who led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt to their Promised Land, (see Big ideas: Moses; Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism) anointed his brother Aaron as High Priest, as a sign that God had chosen him to lead and rule the people.

King Saul

Later, when the people asked to be ruled by kings, the prophet Samuel was shown that God had chosen Saul to be king, and so Samuel was sent to anoint Saul:

‘Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul's head and kissed him, saying, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance' (1 Samuel 10:1-2).

Anointing of David, Paris Psalter 10th centurySaul failed to live up to his calling, and David the shepherd boy was anointed to succeed him. Saul later outlawed and tried to kill David, but despite having a perfect opportunity to get rid of Saul, David refrained, saying:

‘I will not lift my hand against my master because he is the Lord's anointed' (1 Samuel 24:10)

Anointed Rulers

Such respect for an anointed ruler lies behind the words of Shakespeare's Richard II (III.ii.54):

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.

The use of the word deputy denotes the concept, arising from the process of anointing leaders chosen by God, of the divine right of kings to rule. This concept was invoked by British kings James I and Charles I, and was challenged by Parliament, leading to the regicide (killing of a king) of Charles I in the English Civil War.

English monarchs are still anointed with oil in the coronation ceremony, and the famous coronation anthem by the 18th century composer Handel uses words based on 1 Kings 1:38-40:

Jesus the anointed one

Jesus is described in the New Testament as the Messiah or the Christ, both terms which mean ‘Anointed One'. In Milton's Paradise Lost Book VI, God is shown anointing his Son:

Anointing or Unction for blessing or healing

Psalm 23

In Psalms 23 in the Bible, which begins, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want', the writer, or Psalmist, expresses his experience of God's care in the words, ‘You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.' (Psalms 23:5)

Healing in the New Testament

In a New Testament letter to the early Christian churches, James encourages anyone who is sick to ask for prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord, so that they will be healed. ·

Extreme Unction

In the Roman Catholic Church, the custom of anointing for healing developed into the sacrament of extreme unction, the anointing of a dying person, administered with confession and Holy communion to secure forgiveness and admission to heaven.

Anointing in literature

Shakespeare's Hamlet

The ghost of Hamlet's father, in calling on Hamlet to avenge him, stresses the horror of being:

Later in the play, when Hamlet confronts his mother with her wickedness, she tells him his words are the ravings of a madman, but he warns her not to use this excuse:

Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks …
Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come. (III.iv.144-50)

Dickens' David Copperfield

The word ‘unctuous' is derived from unction or anointing with oil. Consequently, Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield is described as unctuous because of the association of oiliness with flattery and insincerity.

Related topics and other cultural references

Big ideas: Moses; Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism

Shakespeare's Richard II, Hamlet

Charles Dickens' David Copperfield

Zadok the priest, Handel

Milton's Paradise Lost Book VI

Cut off even in the blossom of my sin,
Unhousel'd (ie without receiving communion), disappointed, unanel'd (ie without being anointed),
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head. (I.v.77-9)
Into thee such virtue and grace
Immense I have transfused …
To manifest thee worthiest to be Heir
Of all things … and to be King
By sacred unction, thy deserved right …
Pursue these sons of darkness, drive them out
From all Heaven's bounds into the utter deep:
There let them learn, as likes them, to despise God, and Messiah his anointed King.
Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.
And all the people rejoiced and said:
God save the King, long live the King, may the King live for ever.
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