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Sackcloth and ashes, along with fasting, were external signs of repentance, humility, remorse, or grief in Biblical times. Sackcloth is a coarsely woven cloth made of black goat’s hair or of camel hair. This thick and rough fabric was uncomfortable to wear. It would remind the person who wears it to be humble before God, and to express repentance for sins. People used it also to mourn the death of certain persons. Prophets used sackcloth during their public appearance (Isa 20:2). Because it was cheap garb, it was also a poor person’s attire.

Examples of the usage of sackcloth in the Old Testament: When Jacob believed that a wild beast killed his son Joseph, “Jacob tore his garments, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned his son many days” (Gen 37:34). At the death of Abner, “David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, ‘Tear your garments, put on sackcloth, and mourn over Abner’” (2 Sam 3:31). When Solomon’s first child from Bathsheba became seriously sick, “David pleaded with God on behalf of the child. He kept a total fast, and spent the night lying on the ground clothed in sackcloth” (2 Sam 12:16). The Psalmist thanks God: “You changed my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness” (Ps 30:12). King Hezekiah and his representatives wore sackcloth as a sign of repentance (2 Kgs 19:1-2).

A combined use of sackcloth and ashes intensifies the sign of repentance or seeking God’s favour. When Daniel found the sin of his people, he “turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan 9:3). While at the face of a war, Jeremiah pleaded with his people, “Daughter of my people, dress in sackcloth, roll in the ashes. Mourn as for an only child with bitter wailing” (Jer 6:26). In the Book of Esther, when the Persian King Ahasuerus decreed the killing of the Jews, Mordecai “tore his garments, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city crying out loudly and bitterly” (Esth 4:1). “Likewise in each of the provinces, wherever the king’s decree and law reached, the Jews went into deep mourning, with fasting, weeping, and lament; most of them lay on sackcloth and ashes” (Esth 4:3).

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