In Job 42:6, Job says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Obviously, Job was at a low point in his personal history. But what does it mean that he repented “in dust and ashes”?
Dust and ashes were used as signs of mourning in the ancient world. In fact, Job’s three friends offered an example of this early in the book of Job. When they saw Job’s suffering, “they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads” (Job 2:12). They were “weeping with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), and they showed their sorrow according to the custom of their day, by sprinkling dust on their heads. This action was accompanied, as it often is in Scripture, with the tearing of clothes.
Another example of this use of dust and ashes can be found in Ezekiel 27:30. In describing a future time of mourning over Tyre, the prophet writes, “They will raise their voice and cry bitterly over you; / they will sprinkle dust on their heads / and roll in ashes.” Clearly, the idea of applying dust and ashes is associated with the bitter crying that takes place in this scene.
Esther 4:1 offers another example. Mordecai had learned that the Jews were going to all be killed on a certain day according to a new Persian law. In response, Mordecai “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.” As news spread, other Jews responded similarly: “There was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3).
The term dust is used 16 times in the book of Job. The idea associated with dust is that it is “nothing.” Dust is associated with lowliness or humility. When Job repented in dust and ashes, he was repenting in humility.
The term ashes also has an interesting usage throughout the book of Job. Job sits in ashes following the start of his painful sores (Job 2:8). He later declares the words of his friends are like ashes (13:12). Later still, Job says, “[God] throws me into the mud, / and I am reduced to dust and ashes” (Job 30:19). Finally, in Job 42:6, he repents in dust and ashes.
While repenting and even mourning with dust and ashes was a common practice in ancient culture, it is not a biblical command. Instead, we can learn humility from Job’s example of repenting before the Lord and His greatness. Even in Job’s case, when he had suffered without doing anything wrong, it was important for him to continue to live faithfully and humbly in God’s sight. Job lived out the command found in 1 Peter 5:6 (and received the accompanying promise): “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”