What is the meaning of tearing one’s cloths in the Bible? 

Author: BibleAsk Team


The Significance of Tearing One’s Cloths

The tearing of one’s clothing was an old custom to show grief and sorrow (2 Kings 18:37; Job 1:20). With the Jews, this was an expression of extreme horror. While all people were permitted to rend their garments to express sorrow, the high priest was forbidden by God to do that because he was anointed to perform a most holy duty.  

Moses instructed, “He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes” (Leviticus 21:10). But this mandate was violated by Caiaphas the high priest, who accused Jesus of blasphemy and sentenced Him to death (Matthew 26:65).  

The practice of tearing the garments was usually accompanied by getting dressed in sackcloth, the usual garb of mourners (2 Samuel 3:31; Nehemiah 9:1; Esther 4:1). Sackcloth was a course, thick haircloth, of which grain sacks were also made. In Genesis 42:25, the same word is translated “sack.” In cases of extreme mental anguish, the “sackcloth” was worn next to the skin (1 Kings 21:27). And at times, the tearing of one’s garments was done alongside the shaving of the head (Job 1:20) and tossing dirt on the body (Job 2:12). 

Bible Examples 

There are many examples in the Scriptures to individuals who tore their cloth to express their grief such as:  

  • Reuben, when he learned that Joseph had been thrown into an empty cistern by his jealous brothers (Genesis 37:29).   
  • Jacob, when he believed that Joseph was killed by a wild beast (Genesis 37:34).  
  • Jephthah, when realized that he has made a hasty vow to the Lord about his only daughter (Judges 11:35)  
  • David, and the people with him when they heard that Saul and Jonathan were killed in war by the philistines (2 Samuel 1:11–12).  
  • Ahab, when Elijah said a judgment against him (1 Kings 21:27).  
  • Elisha, when Elijah was translated to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11–12).  
  • Mordecai, when he heard of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews (Esther 4:1).  
  • Paul and Barnabas, when the heathen people of Lystra started to worship them in ignorance (Acts 14:14).   

A Sign of Repentance  

In ancient times, the Lord accepted the sign of tearing one’s garments as a symbol of repentance, forsaking sin and of changing an evil course. But some didn’t carry on this act of humility such as King Jehudi. “And it happened, when Jehudi had read three or four columns, that the king cut it with the scribe’s knife and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the scroll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth. Yet they were not afraid, nor did they tear their garments, the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words” (Jeremiah 36:23,24).  

Since, however, it was possible to show such external signs of grief without any real inward feeling of sorrow over sin, God’s children were instructed to avoid such pretense by rending their garments. The Lord, therefore, declared: “rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm” (Joel 2:13).  

The idea of the “broken heart” is often mentioned in the Bible (Psalms 51:17; Isaiah 61:1; 66:2). A heart filled by sorrow or suffering (Psalm 34:18) prepares a man to learn the most needed lessons that the Lord has to teach (Psalms 119:71).   

In His service, 
BibleAsk Team 

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