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Hidden Meaning of Dust and Ashes

While studying Genesis, Job, and Revelation, I came across, what I think, is a very interesting prophetic parallel. To repent in “dust and ashes” is now an iconic Biblical symbol. Spoken of by the prophets like Abraham, Job, and Ezekiel, we see them repent or liken themselves to nothing more than dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27; Job 30:19, 42:6; Ezekiel 27:30). While it’s often chalked up as a cultural mourning ritual of expressing remorse, sorrow, lowliness, and humility, in this entry I want to focus on the prophetic significance of each symbol, given the eschatological undercurrent of repentance that abounds Scripture.

Dust

God draws the first prophetic relationship between ground and dust in Genesis 2:7 when he forms man from “the dust of the ground” and then strengthens this relationship in Genesis 3:19, “for dust you are and to dust you will return”. When we take into account the Biblical history of mankind as one people coming from Adam (āḏām), translatable as “ground” or “soil of the earth” (ăḏāmâ in Hebrew, אדמה), God paints an intriguing word picture. He uses the earthly elements, specifically dust, to express mankind as a vast whole across the ages. In Genesis 28:14, He broadens this relationship by likening Abraham’s promised descendants to the “dust of the earth” and the “sand of the seashore” (Genesis 22:17, 32:12, 41:49; 2 Chronicles 1:9).

It’s a no brainer that dust is from the ground, but the etymological choice here is intentional: Dust (as well as sand) is a vast collection of small, granular particles with no value or usefulness, whereas ground like soil, mud, and clay is clumpier, less discrete, and can be useful for planting crops and trees, making bricks and pottery, and so on. The functional difference between these kinds of earth is no secret, of course, and it carries over into prophetic etymology. Besides dust representing humanity across time, it also refers to futility, worthlessness, mortality, and death (Ecclesiastes 3:20, 12:7; Job 17:16, 21:26; Jeremiah 17:13; Daniel 12:2). For instance, when we see ancient pagan cultures like Nineveh repent, they do so in “dust” and sackcloth (Jonah 3:6), acknowledging that they will be reduced to dust, binding back the consequence of Genesis 3:19. We also see the Gentile prophet Job and his friends as well as kings, judges, prophets and commoners of Israel sit, sprinkle, roll, or cover themselves in dust (Joshua 7:6; 1 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 15:32; Nehemiah 9:1; Job 2:12, 42:6).

“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

Job 42:6

Covering dust over oneself is a public declaration that they are a dead man walking, so to speak, acknowledging their inability, mortality, shame, or worthlessness in the world as well as repenting and turning from their evil ways: sins, trespasses, iniquity, and all sorts of wrongdoing–––the old self is dead, nothing but dust. Once the dust is washed off by water, a new man is restored out of the dust into a way of life, an outward expression of repentance reflecting an inward reality. This dust-to-dust understanding is both practical and prophetic (Job 34:15) and seems to also be why the apostles could use it as a sign of looming judgment (Luke 9:5, 10:11; Acts 13:51, 22:22-23; Revelation 18:19; see also Deuteronomy 28:24).

This adds further insight into the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, when Jesus likens a person’s belief and behaviour to a man “who built his house on the sand”, He binds back the prophetic usage of sand or dust as mankind, meaning to build your life, belief, attitude, and behaviour on the “tradition of men [dust, sand]” is not only foolish but foundationless, so that during times of trouble or judgment, the house will fall. The house is not built to last because it is not built on the everlasting (Matthew 7:24-27; Mark 7:8).

While the word dust carries significant prophetic symbolism throughout Scripture, what I often overlooked was the meaning of ashes. If dust covers the meaningful spirit behind repentance, why repent in ashes, too?

Ashes

In Hebrew, the words “dust” (ʿāp̄ār) and “ashes” (ēp̄er) form of synophone, two words that have different spellings and meanings, but sound and look similar. The fact that they are used together is no coincidence. Apart from this kind of wordplay binding the two words together conceptually, sharing the same meanings of futility, worthlessness, mortality, and death, the primary difference between dust and ashes is often found in its immediate context as a cultural symbol and response concerning imminent destruction, or as the aftermath of having just been destroyed (Esther 4:1-3; Job 2:8; Isaiah 33:12, 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26, 31:40; Ezekiel 28:18; Malachi 4:3; Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13; 2 Peter 2:6). Consider when a city was destroyed by siege or a body burned in war or because of decay, it would turn to ash (Amos 2:1-3; 1 Samuel 31:8-13). Isaiah even parallels idolatry, false worship, and a deluded heart to one who “feeds on ashes”, as if they live on self-destructiveness, and that “he cannot save himself” from destruction (Isaiah 44:20). As a symbol, then, being covered in ashes makes a lot of sense as an outward expression of repentance in the face of imminent doom, calamity, or destruction, either to acknowledge God’s intending judgment[1], or even as a way of expressing destruction that has been thrown upon you in some sense. Consider Tamar who poured ashes over her head after she was raped by her half-brother Amnon, effectively destroying her life and reputation, so she expressed her deep anguish by heaping destruction all over her face (2 Samuel 13:11-14, 19)[2]. Or Job who lost everything – family, livestock, home, prosperity, reputation – and reduces his life to ashes and repents in ashes (Job 30:19, 42:6). Or when Jesus says that if the miracles performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, “they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (Luke 10:13) Ashes show the acknowledgement of destruction.

Therefore, to repent in ashes is a visual marker for a change of heart, as much as it about acknowledging God’s authority as Judge and what we deserve given our sin nature: destruction (cf. Daniel 9:3). But why would one repent in their destruction, then? Isn’t destruction something that happens to you? And isn’t repenting in dust the same thing, acknowledging our inevitable death, ‘for dust we are and to dust we will return’. It boils down to eschatological imagery.

To Repent in Dust and Ashes

If dust is what we are, ashes are what we become. God created us from “the dust of the ground” and will judge and destroy the heavens and earth by fire on the Day of judgment (2 Peter 3:7, 10-12, 1 Corinthians 3:13; Luke 12:49; Hebrews 10:27). In Revelation 20:7-15, the final war takes place before that Day. Satan gathers an army so vast in number “like the sand on the seashore” (v.8) and God devours everything with fire (v.9). After this, the earth and heavens are gone, and “the dead, great and small” are judged (v.12). Everything—all things that have been made—turn to ash, so that what cannot be shaken may remain, “for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29)[3]. Even so far as to compare faulty and futile platitudes to ash, as well (Job 13:12).

When we overlay Christ’s parable of the foolish builder who built his house on the sand over the apostle Paul’s imagery about God’s final judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, we see a cohesive picture come to light: Jesus Christ is the foundation, and if anyone builds on this foundation with ‘materials’ not of God – whether in life, belief, values, attitude, behaviour – it “will be revealed with fire,” and “the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” In other words, God will burn everything not of Him to ash.

Altogether then, to “repent in dust and ashes” means to fully humble yourself and surrender everything you are before God, to completely turn away from all evil–––from beginning to end, from creation to destruction, from ancestors to descendants, from birth to death, from dust to ashes–––I repent!

And as for us descendants who repent and participate into the promise, we are washed clean of the dust and will rise from the ashes on that Day to come (1 Samuel 2:6-9).

 

Matlock Bobechko | August 23, 2019 – 9:00 AM EST.


[1] The sole exception is Nineveh who repented in sackcloth and dust, not ashes. Interestingly, the prophet Zephaniah prophesies that Nineveh will be “utterly desolate and dry as the desert.”
[2] Tamar pouring ashes on her head should not be confused with repentance. Tamar is expressing anguish and shame because of what happened.
[3] Ashes are also used as a symbol for purification of sin in Levitical worship practice: Ashes would be sprinkled on those who were ceremonially unclean to sanctify them so that they were outwardly clean (cf. Hebrews 9:13-15; Numbers 19:9-10, 17; Leviticus 4:12, 6:10-11). This appears eschatologically relatable to God’s final judgment process by fire (1 Corinthians 3).