A friend recently asked me about why people used to cover themselves in ashes and as I considered how best to answer her I figured the process God led me through would make a good post as well.
She had been directed to Isaiah 61:3 which as most of you probably know has become a very popular verse within Evangelical Christianity. Verse 3 by itself is nice, but to truly gather what it means you need to have some context. Isaiah 61:1-3 says:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengence of our God; to comfort all those who mourn; to grant to those in Zion- to give them a beautiful headdress (some translations will say garland or beauty) instead of ashes, the oil of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (ESV)
This is an amazing passage. It’s a prophecy of the things the Messiah (aka the Christ) will accomplish. It was written approximately 700 years before the birth of Jesus, but it describes much of what Jesus did/does for those who love him. Jesus actually quoted this verse during his sermon in his hometown of Nazareth at the start of his earthly ministry to reveal himself to the people who knew him not as the Son of God, but the son of Mary and Joseph.
In the Old Testament ashes are both symbolic and literal. People would cover themselves in ashes or sit in ashes, often times while wearing sackcloth (a material that is like a burlap sack). It was meant to be uncomfortable and demeaning. I’m not sure when or where the practice started, but if I had to venture a guess based on scripture for why the Jews would have done this I would look to Genesis 3:19 when God is dealing with the sin of Satan, Eve, and finally Adam. I believe this could be supported by the fact that Job, who’s story predates Abraham chronologically, sat in a pile of ashes lamenting his own existence. It’s part of the curse of humanity, that because we sin we die. “…till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Dust and ashes are symbolic of what we were created from. They are what we were before we were made into the image and likeness of God. So, if I had to venture a guess as to why those people covered themselves in ashes it was to be an outward showing to the world around them of their shame or their mourning and pain.
So going back to the verse above:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all those who mourn;
This is what Jesus did which also gives us an understanding of the character of God since Jesus is God.
The anointing of a person (typically a king or priest) involved being covered with oil or water, or something of the sort. It was meant to be designate those called out by God to fill a particular office or position. Jesus baptism was a two-fold anointing. The first was by water and the second with by the Holy Spirit. After his baptism the heavens opened and the Spirit of the Lord (the Holy Spirit) descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and God spoke from heaven of his love for Jesus and Jesus goes straight into his ministry(Luke 3:21-22; chapter 4).
Good News and Binding Up
In those days the poor didn’t generally get good news. It’s still like this today, but most Americans have a distorted view of poverty. Jesus went through the region giving hope to those who had none, he fed those who were hungry, he blessed those whom society had cursed, and he loved those who society had labelled as unlovable. He brought them into the fold of God where the Book of Acts tells us that they all looked out for one another and took care of the poor among them so that no one was in need.
Liberty to the Captives
Symbolically this is a direct reference to the work of salvation. The bible often uses terms like captivity, bondage, and slavery when referring to sinners. Jesus did not come to break lawbreakers out of prison, but to liberate people like us who as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin have been born into a sinful nature (theologically referred to as Federal Headship).
The Year of Favor and Vengeance
Jesus came preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, that God is a King who rules over all creation, and that he came as Jesus (theologically referred to as the Hypostatic Union) to bring about the Kingdom of God/Heaven. God will judge all of humanity in the end along with the angels and those who are in Christ will find favor (synonymous with grace or mercy) and those who deny Christ will find vengeance.
Read any part of the Gospels and you will see Jesus comforting people who are suffering. He physically healed people, he forgave those who needed to be forgiven, he rose three people from death, he saved the sick and dying, and cleansed those who were ostracized by society because of diseases and lifestyle choices. In doing these things he comforted the people around him physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.
With all of that said it brings context to the verse 3:
to grant to those in Zion- to give them a beautiful headdress (some translations will say garland or beauty) instead of ashes, the oil of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
To Those In Zion
Zion is Jerusalem. It’s the name of the mountain that the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple were built on. Before Jesus, God’s chosen people were the Jews, and when Jesus came he brought liberty to the Jews and the Gentiles (like us). Anyone who is in Christ is considered a saint and is included in prophetic references to Zion.
A Beautiful Headdress Instead of Ashes
As stated before, ashes were a symbol of shame and suffering. Jesus suffered and died in a VERY shameful way on the Cross to take away the shame and suffering of his people (the Church).
Oaks of Righteousness
Oak trees are solid and strong. He saves us so that we can be more like Him and be steadily righteous (theologically referred to as Sanctification).
This is the rundown of this passage. God intervened in human history as the man Jesus Christ to liberate the people he created from the sin nature that was inherited from our first parents. He was anointed to usher in the Kingdom of God which brings us into community with God through the process of salvation. Jesus took away the shame of those who love and serve him and brings us into the family of God. He is working to sanctify, or perfect, us to be righteous as he is.