Psalm 30 – Praise for God’s Help & Sackcloth and Ashes: Rituals of Lamentation

A Psalm and Song at the dedication of the house of David.

1 I will extol thee, O LORD; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.

2 O LORD my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast healed me.

3 O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.

4 Sing unto the LORD, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.

5 For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

6 And in my prosperity I said, I shall never be moved.

7 LORD, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.

8 I cried to thee, O LORD; and unto the LORD I made supplication.

9 What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?

10 Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me: LORD, be thou my helper.

11 Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;

12 To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks unto thee forever.

A prayer of a just man under affliction.  Learning to come through experiences of death into resurrection for the purpose of testimony in God’s house.

Sackcloth and Ashes: Rituals of Lamentation

The ritual bath, an underground Mikveh, is located in the central quarter, north to the synagogue.

It is based on a set of long stones that are placed over a cavity.

Abject grief was poignantly expressed in the ancient world through rituals of lamentation.  Upon news of a calamity the afflicted tore their clothes and donned the garments of mourning (Gen 37:34). 

These coarse, sack-like coverings, woven from goat hair and typically black (Is 50:3; Rev 6:12), could be as small as a loincloth or large enough to cover the entire body.

The mourner (assuming him in this case to be a man) would prostrate himself on the ground (Jer 6:26), heap ashes upon his head (Lam 2:10) and sit in the dust (Job 2:8).

The violent gesture of tearing one’s clothes communicated deep distress, as well as the personal loss and/or ruin the grieving individual had suffered (Job 1:20-21).

The custom of languishing in the dust and ashes pointed to the fragility of human life and to the inexorable end of all life – a return to dust (Gen 3:19; Ps 103:14). 

The structure next to the ritual bath, which includes arches.

Acts that otherwise would have been considered undignified, such as shaving one’s head and tearing out one’s beard (cf. 2 Sam 10:4-5), became appropriate expressions of grief (Ez 9:3; Is 22:12).

Mourners removed their shoes and fineries and refrained from anointing or perfuming themselves (2 Sam 14:2; Mic 1:8).

Laments were composed and chanted at a funeral (2 Sam 1:17-27), and professional wailing women joined family members in expressing their grief (Jer 9:17-20).  The period of mourning typically lasted seven days (Gen 50:10; 1 Sam 31:13).

Rituals could be celebratory.
Here lion-cloaked performers and soldiers dance with the decapitated heads of their defeated enemies.

Detail from the stone decoration of Assurnasirpal’s Northwest Palace at Nimrud, c. 865-860 B.C.

Rituals of mourning were also enacted in Israel in times of national crises and/or repentance (2 Kgs 19:1; Nem 19:1-21).  At such times kings and their subjects alike would humble themselves before the Lord in a posture of humility with fasting, sackcloth and ashes to repent and seek the visitation of his favor (Dan 9:3; Jon 3:5-9). 

The book of Lamentations is a ritual text of mourning over the fall of Jerusalem.  As anguish and despair were given vivid expression through the donning of sackcloth and ashes, so also the reversal of mourning is vividly portrayed as a joyful celebration in which the redeemed donned festal garments of salvation and robes of righteousness (Is 61:10).

Such would be the ministry of the Messiah: “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Is 16:2-3; cf. Lk 4:18-19).