By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
Genesis 3:19 (NLT)
Why do people put ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday?
The answer is most commonly based in God’s declaration after expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden; for dust you are and to dust you will return. Ashes represent our mortality.
However, Biblical characters also use ashes to express grief, humility, and repentance when seeking God’s presence.
With Jerusalem under siege and near doom, Jeremiah instructs “put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son” (Jeremiah 6:26).
When Mordecai learns of King Xerxes’ edict to kill all the Jews, “he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly” (Esther 4:1).
With respect and humility, Abraham calls himself “nothing but dust and ashes” after boldly negotiating with God over the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18:27).
After proudly challenging God to explain his suffering, Job acknowledges God’s power and sovereignty. Job expresses humility and remorse saying “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)
Daniel pleads with God to forgive the people, confessing their disobedience and shame. He “turned to the Lord God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).
In grief over our sin, we smudge ashes on our foreheads to humble ourselves before God and repent. This ritual begins the season of reflection and self-examination, a season of drawing close to God and renewing our commitment to follow.
Can you stand humbly before God and acknowledge your sin?
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