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Did you ever wear a starchy feedsack shirt? (I mean a real one, not the store-bought kind you see now-a-days.) Scratchy, ain’t they? Can’t you just imagine one made out of towsack? (Grass-sack, for some of us.) Well, wearing sackcloth had a special meaning at one time. 

King Ahab, stirred by Jezebel, was an evil man. But when Elijah told him the dogs would eat Jezebel, he “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.” And God said, “because he humbleth himself before me” judgment upon his house will be postponed. (1 Kings 21:27-29) 

When Mordicai wished to mourn the plight of the Jews, he “put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a bitter cry.” (Esther 4:1-f.) 

Then, in Nineveh, when the people heard the prophet foretell their doom they “proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth;” and Jesus said “they repented at the preaching of Jonas.” (Mt. 12:41) 

Humility (of self-censure), mourning, submissiveness, and the like are graphically represented in this early wearing of “sackcloth and ashes.” It said clearly, “I am nothing–my former robes of purple (Isa. 37:1) were but tents of pride– I need help.” Little wonder such conduct was associated with repentance– and Christ could say of Tyre and Sidon, “they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Mt. 11:21) Abject humility, while not “repentance,” is certainly an essential ingredient. We wonder if the whole of “sackcloth and ashes” should not also be included? 

It is not the symbol itself to which we refer. We suspect many would wear the sack, who had not yet put on the things for which it stood. But when we see the casual way in which repentance is treated– a sort of academic pause between faith and baptism– there is little resemblance to the spirit of “sackcloth and ashes.” The substance should far surpass the shadow– must do so if it is real. Do you see such “fruits meet for repentance” today? (Note Mt. 4:8) 

Years ago a young lady came forward, wanting to be baptized. I said something about the joy she must feel in knowing that her sins could be washed away; and she looked at me in astonishment. “Sins??” She seemed shocked that I would suggest such a thing. That is “sackcloth and ashes”? A backsliding saint is encouraged to “make correction.” His situation is an embarrassing one, and makes for a “sticky situation” among friends, so he “comes back to the church,” or he “makes acknowledgment” to the church. This is “sackcloth and ashes” before the Lord? Are we kidding ourselves? 

Our inability to see and judge the heart of man should provoke charity; and I am aware that external signs and symbols may be most hypocritical. This article is completely misunderstood if you think I am calling for “demonstrations” of repentance. But I challenge you to consider the lesson contained in the ancient “sackcloth and ashes” and apply it to your life. 

Robert Turner
via University church of Christ
Auburn, AL 

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