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What Do Sackcloth and Ashes Signify in the Bible?

What Do Sackcloth and Ashes Signify in the Bible?

God designed humans as holistic beings. This means that we are a unified and interactive whole encompassing our emotions, thoughts, relationships, bodies, and spiritual lives. How we experience our body and its process of aging, sickness, hunger, and health influences how we think about ourselves, how we feel, our interaction in social relationships, and our perception and connection to God. Each part of the self interacts and influences the other parts of the self, forming a cohesive and responsive whole.

This means that when we are tired and lonely, we snuggle comfortably on the couch in our sweatpants with a cup of tea and watch sad movies to provide an outlet for our emotional experience. When we dress up in a suit and tie, we feel more professional and attentive. How we look influences how we feel and represents our emotional state, thoughts, and identity to the world. We wear bright, vibrant colors in the spring to represent life and energy, earth tones in the autumn to demonstrate the changing colors of Fall.

Our mood and experience are reciprocally interactive with our dress, demonstrating our emotional state and perspective and influencing our emotional state and experience. Wearing a sports jersey on the day of a big game signifies our excitement with the event and alignment of our identity with that larger group. Clothing, both now and throughout history, provides a means of public expression of self, communicating who we are, how we feel, and what we represent.

What Are Sackcloth and Ashes?

We use our clothing and accessories as signals of identity, mood, and expression. Some outfits demonstrate a light and positive mood, bold colors proclaiming light and life. Generally, black and other dark colors are worn during periods of grief and mourning. Sackcloth and ashes are the ancient world’s apparel for expressing grief in times of mourning. Mourning, the expression of grief, is uncomfortable. Mourning is a necessary process by which a person honors the loss of relationship and, though difficult and uncomfortable, cannot be avoided if healing and recovery are to occur.

Mourning is the process by which you express the feelings of grief and loss you experience. Sackcloth is a coarse, loose burlap-like cloth, often made of black goat’s hair that was worn by mourners to signify their period of mourning or as an expression of remorse or repentance. The discomfort of the clothing served as a physical manifestation of the discomfort of loss or repentance. Ash would accompany this garment in times of national disaster or repentance, illustrating ruin and destruction as from fire and war. Sackcloth and ashes provided an external symbol of an inward state, demonstrating repentance, grief, or humility.

Where Does the Bible Talk about Sackcloth and Ashes?

The use of sackcloth for mourning and loss, or sackcloth and ashes together in periods of repentance or disaster, is mentioned throughout both testaments of Scripture, exhibited by Jacob when he thought he lost his son, Joseph (Gen. 37:34); David mourning the death of Abner in 2 Samuel 3:31; or Mordecai in sackcloth and ashes to express public fear, concern, and mourning for Haman’s edict to destroy the people of Israel (Esther 4:1) and the people of Nineveh in repentant response to the message of Jonah (Jonah 3:5-7). Sackcloth and ashes demonstrated a place of humility and debasement, conditions necessary for repentance or imposed in times of grief and loss. When the Bible addresses sackcloth and ashes together, this external presentation demonstrates an internal condition of prostration, contrition, and repentance, approaching God and others in humility.

What Do Sackcloth and Ashes Signify in the Bible?

As noted earlier, sackcloth is worn by people throughout the Bible to signify their expression of grief in periods of mourning. The black goat hair garment was worn for a period of time following a loss to signify the lost relationship and emotional turmoil of the wearer to those around them as a public declaration. The pairing of ash with the sackcloth garment was used to demonstrate grief over sin, repentance, a national emergency or disaster, or solidarity and compassion in the mourning and disaster of others (Job 2:12).

Ash, which could be literal ash from burned material or dust from the ground, demonstrated our finiteness, as creatures created from dust and returning to dust (Gen 3:19), and humility. There is a consistent behavioral pattern of repentance signified by sackcloth and ashes throughout Scripture. When a person is confronted with their sin or sin of the people, contrition is expressed by tearing of your clothes and then exchanging these clothes for sackcloth and the sprinkling of ash or dust on the head, often accompanied by fasting and prayer (Esther 4:1-3; Neh. 9:1; Daniel 9:3; Isa. 58:5; Luke 10:13). Sackcloth and ashes signify a position of repentance and debasement, symbolically or literally sitting in the brokenness of our lives and situation (Lam. 2:10).

The glory and pride of position demonstrated through fine, clean, rich clothing are reversed in the tearing and transition to sackcloth and ashes, modeling through one’s apparel and position the humility and repentance of the heart, seeking forgiveness and redemption through God’s provision of grace and mercy (Matt. 11:21).

Is There an Equivalent Today?

There are some cultures and contexts in our world today in which one can observe the rituals and behaviors of mourning as described throughout Scripture with professional lamenters leading in wailing and crying, mirrors covered in dark cloth, and bodies and faces covered in black to signify grief in mourning. Black clothes exist as the modern equivalent of sackcloth in mourning, but there does not seem to be a modern equivalent for the combined expression of repentance and humility expressed with sackcloth and ashes.

When disasters strike our modern contexts, our responses are based in problem-solving action and guilt-absolving distraction, assigning blame or directing response without the space or solidarity of lament. There does not seem to be a modern equivalent of sackcloth and ashes as an external expression of an inward heart response, but that may not be because of the absence of an external modern alternative but instead, because the internal repose of humility, contrition, and repentance is also absent and so not externalized. When a public figure dies, we fly the flag at half-mast to honor the loss and mourn, but when disaster strikes a community, we tend to blame God, nature, or evil people and externalize our perceived self-righteousness to expect others to repent in place of the common posture of Scripture toward expressing our own humility and destruction and seeking God’s forgiveness, mercy, protection, and grace.

The gospel is not, “Jesus loves you.” While this is true, the good news of the gospel is incomplete without the truth of the bad news of our actual state. The gospel is instead, “God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God created us in His image as embodied, holistic beings with emotions, thoughts, relationships, and spirits. Our culture likes to separate these component parts, assuming sin exists in our spirit, mind, and emotions and is then addressed and expressed through our thoughts to God, but as embodied beings, the external expression of our inward state is necessary to fully express ourselves as God has designed us. Scripture does not distinguish between internal states and external states but instead recognizes that sin impacts all our relationships, with God, self, and others, and repentance occurring internally is expressed externally to support the process of recovery and change.

Sackcloth and ashes provide the means for signaling to others what we are experiencing. The culture in the church today requires perfect and fashionable presentations of self, creating a disconnect between our internal state and our external state and preventing the capacity to live in true relationship with one another. We need the opportunity to lament with one another, to share real life, to repent and humbly seek forgiveness of each other and of God. While sackcloth and ashes are not necessary for repentance, as God looks at the heart of the person and not just the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7), maybe having apparel to demonstrate humility and repentance would provide the first steps toward normalizing this necessary internal condition for our church and the world in the twenty-first century.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/czarny_bez

Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.

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