Ashes in the Bible often symbolize mourning, repentance or contrition. There are many instances in the bible of people wearing sackcloth and ashes as a form of penitence. It was common practice in ancient Israel.
In modern day Christianity, we encounter ashes during Ash Wednesday when Catholics, Lutherans and other denominations have an ash cross drawn on their forehead.
What You'll Learn Today
Ashes As A Symbol of Penitence & Repentance
In a majority of the instances in the Bible where ashes are mentioned, it is to symbolize repentance.
In the Bible, people often apply ashes on themselves, sometimes accompanied by sackcloths, after they’ve committed a sin and are seeking forgiveness.
A famous example is Job. After God speaks directly to him, Job finally acknowledges God’s immense wisdom and power. In Job 42:6 He sits in ashes in repentance.
I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.
Daniel also wore ashes and sackcloths as he prayed for forgiveness on behalf of his people.
Daniel 9:3 Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.
Even Jesus mentions ashes in Matthew 11:21 while talking about John the Baptist.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
Ashes are dirty and generally worthless. So they are the perfect symbol of when we are at our lowest. They represent the humility and brokenness we should show when we’ve sinned.
In the Old Testament, symbolisms and rituals were an important part of religion. It’s why sacrifices were a required part of life.
So spreading ashes on yourself and wearing sackcloth was the ultimate symbol of penance.
You may have noticed that the New Testament doesn’t have any instances of people putting ashes on themselves.
That’s because such rituals and symbolisms were no longer necessary after the New Covenant. Anyone could pray to God to seek forgiveness.
In fact, Jesus wasn’t a big fan of dramatic public shows of faith that Pharisees often practiced.
Ashes As A Symbol of Sorrow and Mourning
Another type of occasion where ashes show up several times in the Bible is when people are morning or are in deep sorrow or suffering.
Even before Job covered himself in ashes to repent towards the end of his trials, he was already sitting in ashes, which symbolized his suffering.
Job 2:8 And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.
Another great example is in the book of Esther. When Mordecai learnt that Haman planned to kill all the Jews in the land, he put on sackcloth and ashes and went crying in the city.
Esther 4:1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry.
It’s not just Mordecai who used ashes to display his deep anguish. Verse 3 continues.
And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
In 2 Samuel 13, Tamar puts ashes on her head after she is raped by her half-brother, Amnon.
2 Samuel 13:19 And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.
Again, we can see how ashes are a symbol of when people are at a low point in their lives. It represents the helplessness, grief and sorrow that they feel.
But it’s important to remember that after the ashes, good often came.
Once Job had repented in ashes, God healed him and blessed with even more wealth and children than before.
Mordecai’s protest of sackcloth and ashes worked in convincing Esther to help thwart the plot to kill Jews.
So while ashes often represent the lowest point in our lives, they also represent renewal, rebirth and forgiveness.
We can see this promise of better things to come in Isaiah 61:3.
To grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning…
What’s The Meaning of the Ash Used During Ash Wednesday?
These days, you are unlikely to find anyone putting ashes on themselves to repent.
We pray to God and go to confession to repent our sins. But there’s still one symbolism left that involves ashes.
On Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent, we acknowledge our sinful nature and our need for forgiveness.
To symbolize this repentance, a priest draws a cross on your forehead using ash.
This ash has the same meaning as the ash in the Old Testament. It symbolizes our grief over our sins as well as our repentance.
This is a fitting start to the 40 days of penitence called Lent.
What’s The Meaning of Dust In the Bible?
Dust and ashes have the same meaning in the Bible.
In the Old Testament people put both dust on themselves when mourning or seeking forgiveness. Like ash, dust is a dirty substance that represents our lowest and broken selves.
Here’s an example in Joshua 7:6:
Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.
Dust in the Bible also stands for our physical bodies and death. You can see this in verses like Ecclesiastes 3:20 (All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.) and Job 34:15 (All flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust).
Though not mentioned in the Bible, ashes also have the same symbolism of death. Hence the phrase ‘ashes to ashes’ in the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer.