Maybe if we still tore our clothes, maybe if we still wore sackcloth and ashes, people would understand the grief we’re still experiencing, I thought as ended another meeting with my children’s teachers. Maybe then they would understand we are still mending the fabric of our family into a new normal after the unexpected passing of our father-in-law during a pandemic. Though we don’t wear sackcloth and ashes today, it carries significant meaning in the Judeo-Christian faith!
Why Did People Wear Sackcloth and Ashes in the Bible?
Sackcloth and ashes were an outward sign of mourning, repentance, or abasement. It was a type of cloth made of black goat’s hair that was thick, rough, and coarse material. It was uncomfortable to wear, and later it was used as a sack. It was also used as an outward sign of mourning and submission (Genesis 37:34; 42:25; 2 Sam. 3:31; Esther 4:1 Esther 4:2; Psalms 30:11). The ashes were an outward sign that signaled to everyone absolute grief, desolation, and ruin. Ashes served as a reminder of where we came from beginning in Genesis when God formed Adam from the dust (Genesis 2:7). Later, God tells Adam, God tells Adam, “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). We understand deeply our humanity was formed from the dust and to dust, we will return when we shed our earthly bodies.
Because of the significant symbolism of dust, ashes became a sign of humility before God. Like dust, the ashes were an outward sign that signaled to everyone absolute grief, desolation, and ruin. When someone was deeply grieved by their actions against and in a state of repentance, they often would wear sackcloth and ashes.
What Does the Bible Say About Sackcloth and Ashes?
The first mention of sackcloth and ashes is found in the book of Genesis in a story about sibling rivalry and jealousy. Jacob mourned the loss of his favorite son Joseph after Joseph’s siblings sold him into slavery and then lied to Jacob that his beloved son was killed by a wild animal. Jacob fell to the ground and wept bitterly as he tore his clothes. He later put on sackcloth and dumped ashes on his head. Genesis 37:33-35 says, “And he recognized it and said, "It is my son's tunic. A wild beast has devoured him. Without doubt Joseph is torn to pieces." Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, "For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning." Thus his father wept for him.”
Another example when sackcloth and ashes were used during periods of extreme mourning and grief is found in the book of Esther. Mordecai mourns for his people, the Jews when the king decreed that all Jews would be killed (Esther 4:1-2).
When the people of Nineveh heeded Jonah’s warnings they realized in their sin they had grieved God’s heart so deeply that everyone from the King to the poor put on sackcloth and ashes—they even dressed their livestock in sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:5-8). All the people of the city had hoped that if they showed God an outward sign of their humility and repentance God would have mercy on them.
The story of Job is one of the most significant stories in the Bible about sackcloth and ashes in terms of mourning, repentance, and humility. Job was a wealthy man who was richly blessed with an abundance of wealth and children. He was a man who deeply respected God. But when he lost everything, he ripped his clothes, put on sackcloth, and dumped ashes on his body. Job “took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes” (Job 2:8).
Later, his friends join him, they wept, tore their robes, and sprinkled dust on their heads (Job 2:12). This moment was marked with mourning. But later his friends assume Job must have sinned for God to smite him but Job denies any wrongdoing (Jon 13:4). Later in the story, Job’s friend Elihu reasons that God is God—He is all-powerful and we are at God’s mercy saying, “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all humanity would perish together and mankind would return to the dust,” (Job 34:14-15). Job’s story is ultimately about mourning, suffering, and trusting God.
Other examples of mourning in the Bible include King Ezra as he mourned over the sins of his people (Ezra 10:6) after they had married foreigners who served pagan gods. God had set apart the Israelites to be holy people.
In the book of Daniel, the prophet’s heart ached for his people because they had turned away from God and sinned. In mourning for their sins, he turned to fasting, prayer, and put on sackcloth and ashes. Daniel 9:3-5, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.”
Other mentions wearing sackcloth in the Bible include King Hezekiah (Isaiah 37:1), King Ahab (1 Kings 21:27), Eliakim (2 Kings 19:2), the priests in Joel 1:13, the elders of Jerusalem, (Lamentations 2:10), and the two witnesses in Revelation 11:3.
Why Should Christians Know about This Today?
As God’s people today, it’s vital to keep our hearts tender toward God’s instructions, leading, and direction. This includes when doing something that grieves his heart. Proverbs 14:12 says plainly, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death."
You and I will no doubt mess up. We will make mistakes because we are human and fall prey to our circumstances, trials, and feelings. It is in our weakest moments when the enemy will do his best to sabotage our best efforts or find a way to deceive us. But we have assurance from Jesus Himself, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
As we submit all our ways to Him, let us put on our spiritual sackcloth and remember that Jesus for both for us and in us. When we fall short, we need to seek Him and repent. We need to ask God to break our hearts for what breaks His and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading when we do mess up. Nothing we say or do is hidden from God—He sees into the very depths of our hearts (Hebrews 4:13). God understands that we will fail at times, but He expects us to rend our hearts before Him, trusting that He is working out all things for our good (Romans 8:28).
Even though we don’t wear sackcloth and ashes today, it is a simple reminder of one’s inward condition. It’s a visible reflection of the landscape of our hearts as we demonstrate the sincerity of our grief and/or repentance. It is the actions of putting on sackcloth and ashes that moves God to comfort us and bring us joy—it’s the state of our hearts toward Him; “You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,” (Psalm 30:11).
Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Austin Ban
Heather Riggleman is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor for Crosswalk. She calls Nebraska home with her three kids and a husband of 22 years. She believes Jazzercise, Jesus, and tacos can fix anything and not necessarily in that order! She is author of I Call Him By Name Bible Study, the Bold Truths Prayer Journal, Mama Needs a Time Out, and a contributor to several books. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com or on Facebook.