Sackcloth and Ashes: A Sign of Repentance for Sin
How sin used to provoke humility and shame in full display
In the Bible, sackcloth and ashes were worn as a sign of repentance for sin. Simply put, sackcloth and ashes was an external demonstration of an internal condition. It was a visible mark of someone’s deep sorrow and mourning. The action itself required a most sincere humility that only the repentant one can possess and God’s forgiveness in response is praised by David’s Psalms.
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; to the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever. Psalms 30:11-12
I can’t believe how much God’s love abounds. I am full. I can’t believe he’s loved me despite all I’ve done and all I am, the wretched sinner that I am. This alone motivates me to change my life, to continuously express it through repentance. And there is a joy like David describes when I come to the Father and beg for His forgiveness, when I decide to turn away from selfish desires and seek His face instead. It is a daily feat. At times defeating. I desire to do better in my walk, and as I pursue admitting my wrongs to Him who forgives, I can only encourage others to do so also. I am speaking to myself when I say this.
We can’t take for granted that we are rich by virtue of where we live but rather rich by the grace and mercy of a Saviour that was the atonement for our sins. I am encouraged by those in the scriptures who put on the sackcloth and ashes as a sign of repentance, an example we ought to learn from ourselves:
Ahab refused to admit his sin against God, but rather accused Elijah of being his enemy. When envy and hatred blind us, we find it almost impossible to see our sin. Although Ahab was more wicked than any other king of Israel, he humbled himself deeply and repented in sackcloth and ashes. God took notice of Ahab’s humility and thus reduced his punishment. The same God who was merciful to Ahab wants to be merciful us. No matter how evil we have been, it is never too late to humble ourselves, turn to God, and repent.
But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up. And he did very abominably in following idols, according to all things as did the Amorites, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel. And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly. And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house. 1 Kings 21:25-29
By the Israelites
Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. Nehemiah 9:1
Fasting, wearing sackcloths (made of material like burlap) and sprinkling earth (dust) on the head were public signs of sorrow and repentance. The Hebrews practiced open confession, admitting their sins to one another. Reading and studying God’s word takes precedence over confession because it is the Word of God that we are shown where we are sinning. The honest confession comes before worship because we cannot have a right relationship with God if we keep certain sins from him.
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: and I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments; we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee. Daniel 9:3-7
Daniel knew how to pray. He had read God’s words and believed them. As he prayed, he fasted, confessed his sins, and pleaded that God would reveal his will. He prayed with complete surrender to God and with complete openness to what God was saying to him. We need to speak openly to God and examine our attitude. We should always be honest and vulnerable.
In the gospels, we also see reference to sackcloth. The gospel of Matthew (ch 11:21) says:
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom were ancient cities with very wicked reputations, long-standing. Each was destroyed by God due to its evil. Jesus said that if some of the most wicked cities in the world had seen Him, they would have repented. Because such cities as Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida saw Jesus and didn’t repent, their punishment would be even greater.
Now, we have churches in most cities across our nation and Bibles within reach, so we have absolutely no excuse on judgment day if we do not repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.