Sackcloth

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SACKCLOTH (שַׂק, H8566; LXX σάκκος, G4884, sackcloth). Strong, rough cloth woven from the long, dark hair of the Oriental goat or the camel.

Made into a large bag, it was used at times as a container for grain (Gen 42:25). On some occasions it was utilized for saddlebags (Josh 9:4) and provided a common bedding material (2 Sam 21:10). Its main use, however, was as an article of clothing and as such it was somewhat similar to the eilicium of the Romans.

It appears that since it was made of cheap and durable material, it served the purpose of an ordinary item of garb. Palestinian shepherds wore it in the exercise of their pastoral task. At times it seems to have served as the distinctive garb of the prophets (Isa 20:2ff.; Zech 13:4), but gradually it came to bear a primarily symbolical meaning.

On some occasions it was abbreviated in character, and, taking the form of a loincloth, it served as an undergarment. In the siege of Samaria, when the plight of the defenders became desperate, the king stripped off his clothes and the people discerned the sackcloth under his regular garments (2 Kings 6:30).

In most cases, however, it was the chief article of clothing. Women as well as men wore it (e.g. Judith in the inter-testamental period, Judg 9:1), and in exceptional instances it was even placed on animals. The king of Nineveh commanded that that procedure be followed when destruction threatened his domain (Jonah 3:8).

The wearing of sackcloth was regarded as proper garb for serious and sober occasions. Since it was dark in texture, it was deemed fitting in times of grief and sadness. Jacob clothed himself in it at the report of the death of his favorite son Joseph (Gen 37:34), and David commanded Joab and the other mourners to wear it upon the death of Abner (2 Sam 3:31).


There was reference to sackcloth in times of national calamity and danger, such as the receipt by King Hezekiah of the challenge of Rabshakeh of Assyria (Isa 37:1). Similarly, when the servants of Ben-hadad asked for mercy from the king of Israel after the Syrians had been disastrously defeated, they made their plea with sackcloth on their loins (1 Kings 20:32). In summary, it was deemed the most suitable garb for times of distress, danger, grief, crisis, and national emergency.

Bibliography

J. B. Paton, “Sackcloth,” IBD, VI (1885), 53; H. F. Lutz, Textiles and Costumes Among the People of the Ancient Near East (1933), 25, 26, 176, 177; J. D. Davis, “Sackcloth,” DDB (1954), 665.

See also

  • Burial