“Sackcloth and Ashes”: The True Meaning of Repentance


**I don’t know why I’m on such a “repentance craze” lately, but after my post yesterday I decided to record some thoughts from my mission journal about the topic of sackcloth and ashes and what it has to do with repentance. As with all the other material covered thus far, I don’t claim by any means to be an expert in Biblical history and its accompanying traditions. These are just thoughts a 19 year old young man gathered from the scriptures one evening in a country with not much more than 2 million people. I would love to hear whatever insights you have on this subject!**

From one of my mission journals, November 9th, 2011; Windhoek, Namibia

Throughout my mission, bishops and branch presidents often came up to us missionaries and voiced the same concern: “Our people do not know how to repent.” This was an interesting statement and has stuck with me even up till now. It has caused me to think if I even know how to repent. Missionaries are known for repeating the same old “ABC’s of repentance”, being:

  • A= Acknowledge your wrong doings
  • B= Be sorry, or feel bad
  • C= Confess your sins to the Lord (or priesthood authority if the sin warrants!)
  • D= Don’t do it again

This illustration, while doctrinally correct, can lead people to think about repentance as a casual thing. Yes, even as casual as the ABC’s.

The Old Testament and the Book of Mormon give a unique view of repentance that is less repeated or emphasized today due to changes in culture and time, that unique view being covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes. This custom is not a major recurring theme in the scriptures, but when it is mentioned it is always follows after major act of sin, transgression or mourning.

After Jonah preached repentance to wicked Nineveh, the king “arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 2:6) The king even went so far as to proclaim that every “man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto God” (verse 8). The Book of Mormon prophet Abinadi also approaches the wicked people of King Noah and said that “except they repent in sackcloth and ashes, and cry mightily unto the Lord their God, [he] will not hear their prayers, neither will [he] deliver them out of their afflictions.” (Mosiah 11:25)

And yet another example is found in the Book of Esther when king Ahaseurus, with the help of Haman his wicked servant, sent a decree to kill “all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day.” (Esther 3:13) The magnitude of this evil act caused Mordecai, Esther’s faithful guardian, and all the Jews to engage in “fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.” (Esther 4:3) Esther even sent  “raiment to clothe Mordecai, and to take away his sackcloth from him: but he received it not.” (verse 4)

So what is the real significance of “sackcloth” and “ashes”? It would be helpful to look at the two words separately:

SACKCLOTH

Sackcloth registers to most as more of a scratchy, burlap grain bag that one might cut holes through to use as clothing, but in Biblical times such cloth was made from coarse goat hair. Although it was customarily used for sacks, people wore such clothing as a sign of true repentance and/or humility.

John the revelator refers to sackcloth with intriguing imagery as the sixth seal is unfolded to his view in the Book of Revelation. He says, “And I beheld when he [the Lamb; Christ] had opened the sixth seal…the sun became black as sackcloth of hair…” (Revelation 6:12) Doctrine and Covenants 88:87 gives us an idea of what is meant when John referred to the sun becoming “black as sackcloth of hair” in the last days. The Lord revealed, “For not many days hence…the sun shall hide his face and shall refuse to give light.”

These two scriptures help us figure out what is meant by “sackcloth” in the context of repentance. If, in the last days, the sun will be clothed in it, which will in turn cause him to “hide his face and…refuse to give light,” that must mean the sackcloth is a sign of shame, regret, or disappointment. When we are entangled in sin, do we not want to crawl into a corner and cover ourselves from the public eye? Do we not want to “hide our faces” and “refuse to give light” because of all the shame and embarrassment that is often associated with sin? Or, like in the case of Mordecai and the mourning Jews, do we not at times feel like hiding or isolating ourselves from the wickedness and cruel nature of man and mourn the hardness of their hearts? This is where “ashes” adds more meaning to this predominately Old Testament custom.

ASHES

Ashes are, of course, the remnants of any burnt object. It is black and gray in color and levels itself with the earth. To help give meaning as to why it is important and symbolic in the repentance process alongside sackcloth, we can look at Genesis 18:26. As the prophet Abraham discusses the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with the Lord, he acknowledges his weakness as a mortal man by saying, “Behold, now I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes…” By admitting his own nothingness, even by referring to himself as “but dust and ashes”, Abraham displayed the celestial attribute of humility.

Conversely, the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah refused to humble themselves to the dust, so God compelled them to be humble by “turning the [city]…into ashes condemn[ing] them with an overthrow.” (2 Peter 2:6) Their prideful ways brought them from their lofty and prideful heights to the dust of the earth in the form of ashes.

From these scriptural accounts, it is clear ashes is a representation of humility and perhaps even sacrifice, as many Old Testament references to ashes alone deal primarily with burnt sacrifices. Sackcloth and ashes combines seem to send a message of shame, regret, and humility.

So to sum it all up, repentance is far more than a casual thing. As the Bible Dictionary states, repentance means “to turn” or, turn from something. Sincere repentance is hard, but brings forth so many rewards in the end that make the suffering worth it. How grateful we should all be that Jesus Christ suffered throughout His ministry so that we could repent. Truly repentant sinners not only feel deep sorrow for sin but also humble themselves before God so He can shape them into becoming and realizing their full potential.

Any thoughts or added insights on this subject? I’d love to hear it!
~Matt

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Posted on October 30, 2012, in Atonement, Repentance. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. At one time, I would have began by saying I wonder how many people have cried in brokenness when confronted by their own sinfulness. To say that makes it sound as though doing this is somehow a thing for which to be proud. It isn’t. As much as I like the idea of being broken at the realization of sinfulness in my life, I would much rather rejoice at an ongoing track record of purity and faithfulness. On this day, I cannot do that. Today is a day of reflection about last night when, after a day rejoicing in how incredible it is to know and follow Jesus with my whole heart, I withheld that same heart in selfishness and followed the path of my own lustful desires. There was a time when it didn’t even matter. I claimed the Name of Jesus, lived in secret sin and acted as if all was okay. Mourning over my sinfulness held no meaning. It was like a natural part of the Christian process of making a halfhearted decision to follow, knowing full well I would obey my own desires and do it all again. While I am somewhat comforted that I now know the difference between following God in faithful purity and living in a cycle of ungodliness that passes with many as a Christian life of growing up spiritually, I am still left with this incredible sorrow that I stood at a crossroads where God’s hand was their to grasp and I chose not to take hold. I awoke to the voice of the Spirit prompting me from Romans over and again, “…How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” And so this afternoon, after sleeping late, prolonging when I should face the day, I sit in my personal shame. Not disgusted over my choice last night, but devastated in sorrow that I did not chose God over sin. How can this be? I’m 49 years old. For the first time in my life a few months ago I had come to grips with the psuedo-christian world view, fully given up on knowing only scripture, finally knowing Jesus and laid aside the tolerance of impurity to follow the Spirit’s call. In all those years of trying to be good, I gave up all for Him. How have I finally understood what that means, only to come to the realization that there are moments when I’ll chose sin over God?! Never before have i known such mournful sorrow. I’m troubled with where to go from here because of all those years when I made resolve to begin anew, only to live in a cycle of impurity masquerading itself as the best I could do. How am I here again in the aftermath of obeying lust and rejecting God?

  2. Talk to the Lord as a child would cryout to his Father.He understands us perfectly and is more eager to forgive us than we desire His forgiveness. We read of His nature in the parable of the prodigal son that He runs (the only place in the Bible where God is pictured as running) towards the repenting son and celebrates his return.

    • this word has really humbled me before the Lord seeing how much He yearns/waits for us to return to Him. I believe He kept looking from His home that is why He was able to locate his son from quite far. I really thank God for His incomparable love, everlasting love and unselfish love for we called by His name.

  3. You are forgiven GOD says HE is a respecter of none ! (Acts 10:34) Sinner’s are forgiven period! Ask for it Brother in CHRIST don’t let the advasary robe your forgiveness , GOD is the only one who knows your thoughts , HE will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear (1Corithians 10:13) GODS grace is abundant without limit , I encourage you to pray , pray deligently , mediate the word and promises of GOD ! May Our Powerful and Mighty GOD bestow wisdom and grace upon you .. In JESUS CHRIST name we ask !

  4. Some intersting thoughts. Are you Morman Catholic are Protestant ?

  5. very serious subject. Certainly we can repent from our minds, acknowledging our sinfulness. However, unless it comes from the heart, it is probably just an exercise of religion. So the question is how do we truly see our sin from the heart and thereby truly repent in brokeness. I need His Spirit to open the eyes of my heart like the day I believed. It’s a “Wonderful” journey, seek and you will find.

  6. I think that the person in the first comment had repentance on his mind and that he expressed his desire to be pure. I think also that if we don’t hear their cry as God really does with compassion and not by trying to teach them but understanding their pain we will miss the point. We see in this person what we all have done at one time or another and we would do well to take heed to the words he has spoken concerning repentance and his sorrow of repetitive recycling of sin and the effects that it had on their life.

    You see we all know that God is a forgiving God but, we all also know the guilt of having a shallow life in Christ and not a wholehearted devotion when we need to repent of something. Personally I don’t think that the Devil can rob me of his goodness at all. Life, nor death things present or things to come shall be able to separate Me from the Love the God that has been shown in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Why must we all be teachers all the time and why cant we sometimes be comforters and a shoulder to lean on. Sometimes it doesn’t take a comment for teaching the truth’s of God words but an action of being just a good listener first because anyone in Christ who has studied the word of God already knows most often when they have sinned against God and what it will take to truly repent . Therefore, we can sometime beat against the wind to no avail because we are singing to the Choir.

    On the contrary I believe the best course of action is to look at ones-self and our own face against an Almighty and Sinless Jesus the Son of God and understand that there is always a ways to Go before we look at others. I say this not to shame anyone or to place a blame on anyone’s conscience but that we should all remember that its OK to Moan, and to feel sorrowful for what we have done in the presence of His Holiness.

    Yes, Sometimes it better for the individual to be remorseful until godly sorrow works repentance unto the saving of the soul and heart. There is a time to feel saddened by our transgression and not to mock God by making light of being repentant as much as it is necessary to understand His forgiveness as well. I still thank you all on my own behalf for the encouraging words you’ve given this person even though I too have given my own opinion also.

    In retrospect I think we’ve all missed the mark but we have a goal to reach and we must press onward for the prize we all know of in Christ is holiness and a pure unrivaled conscience. No one I say can Rob Me of this Joy I have in Christ. Finally as if I were an Apostle myself In Christ; know that He knows us all stay honest in the Lord forever, Amen

    I Love you all In Christ Name

    Phillip.

  7. I am definitely NOT A Mormon I am Christian I am not called to be Catholic, Baptist, COGIC, or any other thing other than a friend to those who want to be friends, a friend and servant of God and a witness for Christ. I am guilty by association of being affiliated with the Organization of my youth The Church of God In Christ which I and my Father in Heaven love. A Soldier for Christ forevermore. I believe that leaving the precepts and tenants of holy writ by anyone or any group or organization is absolutely heresy and must be challenged immediately like unto the appearing of evil. Its OK to form your own opinion but it is not OK if that opinion conflicts with the truth in Christ as The Bible says and not as some Bible posing as a truth of God. This is where I stand in the Lord. This however is my waiver if I were to waiver in Christ the Lord or if it is possible: I do not condemn anyone to a lake of fire nor do I throw them into Hell a place of eternal damnation but, I do Judge Sin and not without considering my on personal beam that could be in my own eye. God Does not endorse, Condone, support, having Multiple wives at once. I plead no contest by nature of your ability to search out the one true and living word of God confirmed and supported by the Church in Jerusalem. the KJV-Bible and some of its Revisions. I attest by reason of my faith In God and In Christ Jesus.

    Much Love
    Phillip

  8. Was looking for original reasons or traditions for sackcloth snd ashes. Thank you for comments

  9. Hey Matt and Everyone … Thank you all so much especially on the Christian encouragement I’m witnessing . I thank God for You , and for this post. Studying the historical context of ‘Sackcloth and Ash’ I literally stumbled upon this post and learnt quite a bit , thank you.

    I’m worried about some conclusions you drew though Matt and how they could impact someone else who might read this and not do so with a bible and most importantly prayerfully.

    I was uncomfortable with the conclusion you drew based on Rev 6:12 and Doctrine & Cov 88:87 , the similie John uses is merely describing how the Sun looked following the opening of the seal , which you pointed out well. Then later you say ” If, in the last days, the sun will be clothed in it, which will in turn cause him to “hide his face and…refuse to give light,” that must mean the sackcloth is a sign of shame, regret, or disappointment. ” you make this conclusion rightfully based on the wrong premise.

    The sun will not be “clothed ” , no brother , it will just be dark . imagine you saw this phenomenon and were to describe it in 21st centuary language, you’d probably have said the sun looked like the earth without electricity …but you then wouldn’t infer that the sun was without electricity when concluding … It’s a minor error but one that should be avoided lest we mislead other and ourselves.

    With the ashes text I had a similar concern. Father Abe was acknowledging God and reminding him in a humble and non arrogant way how fragile and small man is , for we were 1. Created and not self existent and 2. Using the most insignificant and lowly of materials (Eccl 12:7, Gen 2:7) . This statement itself is not tied to repentance , but to humility . and although repentance has elements of humility , it wasn’t “repentant humility” that Father Abe is showing here .

    The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah did lack repentance , however God didn’t “Compel them to be humble” , my bible says he Condemned them for their sins , and not acknowledging Him . The Ash present is as a result of the method he choose to destroy them , Fire. He couldve used a flood and the result would be Mud or a draught and heat resulting in some kind of desert . Ash was simply because of the fire and brimstone and had very little if anything to do with the process of repentance . if they had repented , there would be No ash from destruction .

    I’m sorry it lengthy but it had to be simple and clear , but I’m greatful regardless. If you hadn’t chosen to wrote this and post it i , I would’ve never learnt all this . So I thank you , please keep sharing and helping others as you have me . be Blessed and Be a Blessing

  10. This is interesting, God love man and need man to vote for him, but man love Stan and votes for Satan.let’s love him that loved us and vote for him who loved us and made us and care for us still promised us

  11. At first I had no problem repenting and still don’t and not ashamed to humble myself before God men on the other hand feels it’s there duty and calling to judge each other when we have not been granted authority as far as I’m concerned to sit ourselves in the judgement seat of God. It’s attacks those who really want to be free from a life of sin not to fit in but to be free within which it’s even written written to go in private close the door and pray to our father not to men our heavenly father who created and understands each and every one of us on a spiritual fatherly level that men will never be able to counterfeit not even by a micro chip implant. Now this fact and truth and fact was given to me in while I was dying from a overdose after having my cell phone hacked which was a spiritual attack when my soul/spirit came out my body I was made aware of this along with other random vision as if I was on a time machine being shown things I couldn’t understand until it was too late days later almost a week later. A angel did pick me up and heal me and blew a trumpet as well. Wondering what kinda attack I was about to have why and how did the devil get a computer and why would he want to hack my phone and why was so many people watching and approving this behavior. After my wide open weather attack and warning to be watchful You tube person called me a anti Christ well he was wrong thats for sure I don’t and never have nor will engage in any delusion anti Christ strike playing God ever I was a victim of a anti Christ attack and Jesus saved me. I’m still overcoming the trauma it’s getting better at times I am in sackcloth or mourning for those all over known and unknown who wants to be with Jesus and at peace here on earth amongst one another well I cry out for us all not ashamed to say I love all my brothers and sisters under the sky in a way that I have fallen more in love with Jesus daily and want everyone to know him I don’t feel alone. Anyhow I’m grateful that I no longer fear death for I know what the I was promised and told when he saved me from the grave. God is good and cares even when we jump off a cliff to get his attention he caught his beloved Daughter and Told me this loudly I bet they will listen to this so I’m pretty sure this good news for us all not just me and also we will be judged by God not by men that’s coming when well he didn’t tell me that but I was told to get our houses in order. Thanks for listening God bless us and may his will be done in all our lives.

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