Spikenard was an expensive perfume mentioned in the Song of Solomon (1:12; 4:13–14) and in the gospels’ accounts of women anointing Jesus (Mark 14:3; John 12:3). The word spikenard is found in the King James Version; other translations simply say “pure nard.”
Spikenard had a strong, distinctive aroma, similar to an essential oil, that clings to skin and hair and continues to give off its heady perfume. It was also thought to have medicinal properties. According to Eastman’s Bible Dictionary, spikenard “is the root of an Indian plant, the Nardostachys jatamansi, of the family of Valeriance, growing on the Himalaya mountains. It is distinguished by its having many hairy spikes shooting out from one root.” The ointment prepared from the root was highly valued. Spikenard symbolized the very best in ancient cultures the way that “Tiffany diamond” or the “gold standard” does to us.
Spikenard had a unique fragrance, and the presence of its aroma was an indication that the very best had been offered. In the Song of Solomon, spikenard is mentioned in reference to the love between bride and groom. In Song of Solomon 1:12, the bride says, “While the king was at his table, my perfume spread its fragrance.” Those words imply that, despite all other fragrances in the room, only his bride’s would matter to the groom. The presence of spikenard represented their passion for each other and their desire to have only the best define their love.
When Mary of Bethany broke her alabaster jar of spikenard (John 12:3) and bathed the feet of Jesus with the oil, she, too, wanted only the best to define her love for Him. It has been speculated that this jar may have been Mary’s dowry or her inheritance. In other words, this jar of spikenard ointment may have been all she had of value, and she poured it out on Him. Her extravagant gift is a picture of the kind of offering expected of each of us. Only the best was worthy of her Lord, and she was willing to give everything as an act of worship. The same should be true of us (see Numbers 18:29).
When Judas rebuked Mary for wasting such a precious ointment (John 12:4–5), Jesus silenced him: “Leave her alone. . . . It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). Only Jesus truly understood what He was saying. He knew that in a few days He would be arrested, tried, and crucified. It may well have been that, as He felt the whip lacerate His flesh, as He felt the nails pierce His hands and feet, He could also inhale the fragrance of that gift of spikenard and remember why He was doing this. Mary’s gift may have strengthened and encouraged Him, even throughout His horrific ordeal, as its strong scent still clung to His skin. Mary had not known it at the time she offered her valuable gift, but she was the first to anoint the Son of God as He became no longer simply their teacher but the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:12).