Sackcloth and ashes: Rituals of lamentation (Psalm 30)

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Abject grief was poignantly expressed in the ancient world through rituals of lamentation. Upon news of a calamity the afflicted tore their clothes and donned the garments of mourning (Genesis 37:34). These coarse, sack-like coverings, woven from goat hair and typically black (Isaiah 50:3, Revelation 6:12), could be as small as a loincloth or large enough to cover the entire body. The mourner (assuming him in this case to be a man) would prostate himself on the ground (Jeremiah 6:26), heap ashes upon his head (Lamentations 2:10) and sit in the dust (Job 2:8).

The violent gesture of tearing one’s clothes communicated deep distress, as well as the personal loss and/or ruin the grieving individual had suffered (Job 1:20-21). The custom of languishing in the dust and ashes pointed to the fragility of human life and to the inexorable end of all life – a return to dust (Genesis 3:19, Psalm 103:14). Acts that otherwise would have been considered undignified, such as shaving one’s head and tearing out one’s beard (cf. 2 Samuel 10:4-5), became appropriate expressions of grief (Ezra 9:3, Isaiah 22:12). Mourners removed their shoes and fineries and refrained from anointing or perfuming themselves (2 Samuel 14:2, Micah 1:8). Laments were composed and chanted at a funeral (2 Samuel 1:17-27), and professional wailing women joined family members in expressing their grief (Jeremiah 9:17-20). The period of mourning typically lasted seven days (Genesis 50:10, 1 Samuel 31:13).

Rituals of mourning were also enacted in Israel in the times of national crisis and/or repentance (2 Kings 19:1, Nehemiah 9:1-2). At such times kings and their subjects would humble themselves before the Lord in a posture of humility with fasting, sackcloth and ashes to repent and seek the visitation of His favour (Daniel 9:3, John 3:5-9). The book of Lamentations is a ritual text of mourning over the fall of Jerusalem.

As anguish and despair were given vivid expression through the donning of sackcloth and ashes, as also the reversal of mourning is vividly portrayed as a joyful celebration in which the redeemed donned festal garments of salvation and robes of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). Such would be the ministry of the Messiah: “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:2b-3, cf. Luke 4:18-19).


 

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