This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 392 published on 19 July 1969.
Mordecai wearing sack-cloth with ashes cries out bitterly among his threatened people, the Jews
We aren’t happy when we have made a mistake, and if we dislike admitting it to ourselves, we dislike admitting it to others even more.
Sometimes, however, we may be able to make things easier by a phrase which may bring a faint smile to the face of the person we have to confess to. “I really am sorry,” we may say. “It was a stupid thing to do. Here I am in sack-cloth and ashes.”
This is an odd thing to say, and it would be an even odder sight if it were literally true! What we mean, of course, is that we are pretending to have dressed ourselves in the clothing which represented a penitent person in Biblical times.
There are several references to this custom in the Bible. Sometimes sackcloth was used to mark a great misfortune, as when a decree was issued by a certain Persian King ordering a great persecution of the Jews. One of their leaders, Mordecai, “rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther, Chapter 4 verse 1).
But the custom was usually a way of expressing deep sorrow for something that had displeased God. When Jonah preached to the people in the wicked city of Nineveh, we are told that the people there “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” and that even the King removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6).
A famous instance of a King wearing sackcloth as a mark of his own repentance is that of the wicked King Ahab. With the help of his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab had arranged for an innocent man named Naboth to be stoned to death on a false charge. This had been contrived so that the King could seize a little vineyard which Naboth had owned, next door to the palace grounds. Ahab badly wanted this vineyard for himself, to turn into a herb garden.
The prophet Elijah learned of the cruel plot by which Naboth had been got out of the way, and, confronting the King boldly, warned him that a terrible fate would overtake not only Ahab and Jezebel but their whole household, in punishment for their crime. Frightened by the prophet’s words, Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth,” and went about dejectedly (1 Kings 21, verse 27).
In their writings, the prophets often advised their hearers to “gird themselves with sackcloth” as a mark of sorrow for their sins. And Jesus himself used the words. Rebuking the people of certain villages, he said, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
In view of the widespread use of this phrase, it is not surprising that it has passed into our everyday speech as an expression of regret and a desire to make amends.