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Why did people put on sackcloth and roll in ashes?


Put on sackcloth, my people,
    and roll in ashes;
mourn with bitter wailing
    as for an only son,
for suddenly the destroyer
    will come upon us. Jeremiah 6:26
            Repentance in ancient times was more than just saying sorry.  Their sorrow was not just a mental exercise, but an emotional and physical exercise.  When a person repented, their whole body responded.
            A person repented, back then, through self-inflicted punishment.  Wearing sackcloth (an itchy, scratchy wool) irritated the skin, reminding the person of their sin.  Rolling in ashes symbolized death as the person paid for their sin by reminding themselves they deserved death.
            Wearing sackcloth and being covered in ashes made your sin public, announcing to the world that you did something very wrong and you were paying for it.
            Could this exercise by purely for histrionics, a show with no heart?  Sure, but how many of us would wear a shirt that said, “I sinned and I’m sorry” and shave our head.  Few of us because we prefer to keep our guilt private.  You have to admire the public display of repentance.  To some extent, the person would have to mean it to go to such great lengths.