“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 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 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!