4.3.2 Covering Options: What to Wear
Volume 4: The Human Condition—Chapter 3.2
Covering Options: What to Wear
It’s about as obvious an anthropological observation one can make today: human beings wear clothing, while animals do not. An evolutionist would be hard pressed to define what he thinks “being human” is without some reference to the use of clothing. I don’t intend to get sucked into a discussion of what sort of human-like creatures God may have introduced into the biosphere—from Australopithecines to Neanderthals—prior to His special creation of Adam and Eve. Even if they made clothing to keep themselves warm (and there is some evidence that they did), it speaks not of their humanity, but of their intelligence. After all, Yahweh created them, as He did us: what artist creates a masterpiece without making a few sketches first? For what it’s worth, the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible notes, “The most primitive form of clothing was made of hides, or leather, which could be sewed to make garments or blankets. As far back as the Stone Age wool shed by sheep was made into a thick, feltlike fabric.”
My opinion (and the Bible’s view) is that “humanity” consists of the physical descendants of Adam and Eve, who were created as a unique species in the Garden of Eden. (Other races of “proto-humans,” if still extant, would have been wiped out in the flood of Noah.) Technically, it is they (we—the children of Adam and Eve) into whom God “breathed the breath of life,” making us “living souls.” (See Genesis 2:7) This “breath” is neither the soul (Hebrew: nephesh—something possessed by all sentient animals) nor God’s Spirit (Hebrew: ruach). It is, rather, the neshamah, which functionally would appear to serve as some sort of receptacle or capacity for spiritual indwelling. (The fact that all three of these Hebrew words are related to breath or wind tells us that the concepts are interconnected, but not identical. See Volume 1, chapter 3.5, and the introduction to Volume 4, for a more complete discussion of these things.) The bottom line is that unlike animals, we neshamah-equipped human beings (1) are made in the image and likeness of God, and (2) consequently possess free will, the privilege of choice, and the capability and responsibility of making moral decisions.
So it is not the wearing of clothing that makes us human, but rather, there is something about our human nature that makes us want to wear clothes. Although our proto-parents were created naked, and we are all born that way, nobody today—from the most backward jungle savage to the most sophisticated urbanite—feels comfortable without some sort of clothing. Whether it’s just a loin cloth covering the genitals or a hand-tailored Italian suit designed to signal one’s wealth and status to the world, our garments say, “I’m human—I choose being clothed over nakedness.”
What we wear, then, is a natural springboard for another series of Yahweh’s metaphors. The things we put on or take off were pressed into service as teaching tools in Yahweh’s schoolroom. Several of these spiritual symbols spring from the first sin in the Garden of Eden. What did it mean to be naked, and how did the advent of sin change that? Why were fig leaves deemed unsuitable as garments? What made animal skins a proper replacement covering? And when post-Eden humans developed agriculture and learned how to spin thread and weave cloth, what symbolic significance did God attach to such man-crafted materials as linen and wool? We’ll address all of these issues, and more, in the following pages.
Since we all wear clothing, it would seem ironic that nakedness is such a fitting symbol of the human condition. Our Creator is omniscient (among other superlatives that might be attributed to Him), so we naturally stand naked before Him—regardless of what we’re wearing. That is, we are vulnerable, exposed, and transparent, no matter how much we desire to hide our faults from Him. This might seem a complete mystery, were it not for the brief history of our transition from innocence to guilt recorded in Genesis 2 and 3.
Adam’s “job” in Eden was to study and tend the biosphere—observing the animals Yahweh had made and cultivating the plants and trees that were to provide his food. He noticed that all the animals had mates—they were male and female pairs—but he did not: “But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him. And Yahweh, God, caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which Yahweh, God, had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man….’”
Moses, the author of Genesis, now adds an explanatory comment: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh….” Having had neither a father nor mother in the biological sense, Adam and Eve knew nothing of mammalian reproduction that they hadn’t learned from observing the animals—and animals don’t usually mate for life, as we are ordained to do. (Only about 3 to 5% of mammals form lifelong pair bonds.) The concept of marriage—one man and one woman becoming “one flesh,” mated for life before God with vows of fidelity in emulation of God’s relationship with us—is a strictly human phenomenon.
Where things get “interesting” (in our present context) is that in their pre-sin state, Adam and Eve did not feel the need for clothing. It never even occurred to them: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:20-25) None of the animals they observed in the garden wore clothing either, of course. And from what we can discern from pre-flood meteorology hints from scripture and science, most of the world was a temperate zone at the time—so cold weather or changing seasons would not have suggested that a person’s skin was insufficient as a covering.
The perceived need for clothing, rather, was the direct result of guilt—or more properly, the awareness and acknowledgement of that guilt—in the wake of our proto-parents’ disobedience of Yahweh’s singular command: “Don’t eat the fruit from that one tree.” “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” (Genesis 3:6-7) They were no more naked than they had been before they ate the forbidden fruit, and they were no more naked than the animals they studied. But something had changed. They felt exposed, vulnerable, and uncomfortable in their own skins. It was a feeling they had never experienced before: shame.
We’ll pick up the story again later—how Adam and Eve attempted to cope with their self-imposed disgrace, and why. But for now, let us examine a universal emotional component of their nakedness that so disturbed them: vulnerability. Solomon wrote, “As he [the greedy man] came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return, to go as he came. And he shall take nothing from his labor which he may carry away in his hand. And this also is a severe evil—just exactly as he came, so shall he go. And what profit has he who has labored for the wind?” (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16) He who worships gold—who hordes his hard-won treasure like a mythical dragon—will find it impossible to “rejoice in his labor” (v.19), but will die as naked and penniless as when he entered the world.
You don’t have to be an idolater to understand this dynamic, of course. Job, by all accounts a righteous man, suddenly found himself bereft of all his worldly wealth—including the non-material riches: his children had also been taken from him. “Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.’ In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.” (Job 1:20-22) Although it is possible for us to “lay up treasure in heaven,” our circumstances as we live our mortal lives might best be characterized as “nakedness”—vulnerability and exposure. We should always bear in mind that all three men singled out in scripture for their righteousness—Noah, Daniel, and Job (see Ezekiel 14:14-20)—endured severe testing and trials. Today’s oh-so-popular “prosperity gospel” is a fraud.
Sometimes, of course, nakedness isn’t so much a literal concept as it is a metaphor for the sort of vulnerability I’ve been talking about. After the captive Joseph had interpreted Pharaoh’s dream about the coming famine, and had been subsequently elevated to the lofty position of Egypt’s “famine manager,” he met the ten brothers who had sold him into slavery decades back: “So Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Then Joseph remembered the dreams which he had dreamed about them, and said to them, ‘You are spies! You have come to see the nakedness of the land!’” (Genesis 42:8-9) Thanks to Joseph, Egypt wasn’t nearly as “naked” as the rest of that part of the world. He had merely used this as a ruse to keep his brothers close (and squirming) for a while—as a step toward reuniting his family. In truth, it was they who were naked before Joseph.
This sort of vulnerability would eventually be revealed by God to be an occasion for mercy. Addressing it would be a way to “love your neighbor as you do yourself.” We are not to “probe our enemy for weaknesses” (as Joseph, in character, was accusing his terrified brothers of doing). Rather, we are to meet their needs if we can. Isaiah corrects the “religious” Israelites of his day, who were relying on pointlessly performing rituals and fasts to please God. “‘Is this not the fast that I [Yahweh] have chosen: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?’ Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you. The glory of Yahweh shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and Yahweh will answer. You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isaiah 58:6-9)
Nakedness here goes beyond the mere lack of proper clothing. It is a metaphor for exposure to the hazards of life without having the means of escape—of “covering your butt,” as the saying goes. The poor, the hungry, and the enslaved—whether temporally or spiritually—are to be the focus of mercy for believers with resources. James says the same thing: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17) It’s not that our works save us; the Object of our faith does that. It is, rather, that the good works we do—“clothing the naked,” so to speak—demonstrate that the faith we claim to have in God is genuine. And it tells the recipients of our mercies that God Himself is genuine.
I find it somewhat ironic that about the only times we humans ever get naked on purpose is (1) during sexual intercourse—which was, by the way, the very first commandment God issued to Adam and Eve (see Genesis 1:28), and (2) when we bathe—something that is instructed in the wake of sexual intercourse (see Leviticus 15:16). Other than during these two symbol-rich activities (both of which are necessary and beneficial) nakedness is invariably associated with shame.
The seventh of the Ten Commandments states: “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14) That is, a man is not to have sexual relations with anyone who is not his legal covenant wife, and vice versa. But then the Torah enumerates dozens of examples of people with whom Israelites were not to have sex—which would automatically disqualify them as legitimate marriage-partner candidates, of course, but also defines incest. It’s not all “recessive gene avoidance strategies” either. Some of this is strictly about respect. In any case, the euphemism Yahweh uses for “sexual intercourse” is “uncovering their nakedness.”
“None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness: I am Yahweh. The nakedness of your father or the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness. The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or elsewhere, their nakedness you shall not uncover. The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father—she is your sister—you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is near of kin to your father. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is near of kin to your mother. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother. You shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law—she is your son’s wife—you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, nor shall you take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness. They are near of kin to her. It is wickedness. Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.” (Leviticus 18:6-18)
I wouldn’t have brought it up, were it not for the fact that the Scriptures so often link illicit sex to the shame of nakedness—something that didn’t even exist before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden. God went into far more detail than what I (in my limited imagination) would have thought necessary in defining suitable sexual/marriage partners. But He wanted to make something crystal clear: marriage (or merely sex) between the “near of kin” was forbidden. The spiritual lesson is subtle, but important: the intimate relationship between God and His people is not a partnership between equals—or even near-equals. Yahweh is as different from humankind as it is possible to imagine, yet He loves us unreservedly. We are therefore not to give our devotion to people “like us.” We are not to make ourselves “naked” (read: vulnerable, exposed, or unconditionally susceptible) before people like ourselves. In other words, do not venerate human beings—politicians, celebrities, smart people, beautiful people, rich people…you get the idea. Worship Yahweh alone.
A few verses later, He went out of His way to prohibit sexual activity I can barely imagine—were it not that Satan is pushing so hard for the normalization of some of these things today. “Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity.” Respect the cleansing process God instituted. “Moreover you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to defile yourself with her.” Don’t commit adultery—which is symbolic of idolatry. “And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am Yahweh.” Child abuse, beginning with the modern practice of abortion and extending through Satan’s latest hot-button ploy, pedophilia, would be included in “Molech worship.” “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” Homosexuality is specifically prohibited. Man worshiping man is metaphorical of the modern practice of atheistic secular humanism. “Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.” Bestiality, then would be a picture of the direct worship of Satan—veneration of the beast. (Leviticus 18:19-23) See Leviticus 20 for the Torah’s prescribed punishments for violation of these precepts in theocratic Israel. God is quite serious about this.
Nakedness doesn’t always imply sexual contact, of course. There is a very early story that takes us in a different direction: “And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.” This had to be at least several decades after the flood, because Canaan, who was the fourth son of Ham, is mentioned. We are left to speculate whether the post-flood changes in climate contributed to a higher than expected alcohol content in the wine Noah’s vineyard produced. All we are told plainly is that Noah got drunk, passed out naked in his tent, and his son Ham saw it. It is clearly implied, of course, that Noah’s exposure indicated shame.
“But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan. A servant of servants he shall be to his brethren.’” (Genesis 9:20-25) A subsequent blessing mentions Shem and Japheth, and makes Canaan’s progeny servants of both of them. But Ham is not mentioned at all, for good or ill.
I don’t want to go wandering off into the genealogical weeds here, but we need to sort a few things out. Based on the Hebrew rendering, the commentators place the order of birth of Noah’s sons as Shem first, then Ham, then Japheth. So the notice about Noah’s “younger son,” along with the curse upon Canaan, begs us to look deeper. Japheth (not Ham) was Noah’s youngest son. But the text’s “younger son” fully translated is actually, “the son, the little one,” which would (in the Hebrew) allow the meaning “grandson” or “youngest descendant.” And Ellicott’s Commentary notes, “Origen quotes a tradition that Canaan was the first who saw Noah’s exposure, and that he told it to his father. Aben Ezra says that Canaan had done worse than mock, though the Scripture does not in words reveal his crime.” Whatever transpired, it’s pretty clear from the record that Noah was outraged at what had been “done to him.”
At the very least, it appears that Canaan saw his grandfather Noah passed out naked in his tent, and mockingly (or at least disrespectfully) told his father Ham, who went in to see the spectacle for himself. Ham did nothing to rectify the situation, but told his two brothers about it. Shem and Japheth then took the initiative to respectfully cover their father’s naked body, restoring his dignity as best they could.
Since God chose to include this rather odd story in scripture, it behooves us to ponder what lesson He meant to convey. Our starting point is Noah’s position as the patriarch. It was his unique faithfulness (not to mention his hard labor) that had saved the family (and the human race) from destruction in the flood. But he had also made mistakes: none of us are perfect; even the best of us are unworthy of worship. Noah was certainly “a just man, perfect in his generations” who “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9), but He was also a sinner, a son of Adam like the rest of us. So the lesson (I think) is that our elders and forebears—especially if they do their best to honor Yahweh—are to be shown respect and esteem. But at the same time, we are not to invest them with “sainthood” (in the Roman Catholic sense). That is, we are to thankfully receive what they got right, and forgive what they got wrong—our sole unshakable foundation being Holy Scripture itself.
If you think about it, Scripture is quite consistent in its portrayal of our good and godly role models as flawed humans. Adam, Noah, Job, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Paul, Peter, and John—giants of the faith one and all—are portrayed in scripture with “warts and all” (as Oliver Cromwell once put it): the good and the bad alike, leaving it up to us to discern what to thankfully emulate, and what to take as a dire warning concerning our common human condition. Between Law and conscience, it’s not all that hard to figure out.
And Christian era “fathers” like Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Origen, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, Eusebius, the Venerable Bede, John Bunyan, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and C.S. Lewis (among scores of worthy candidates) all share the same profile: they were right about a lot, wrong about a little, gifted with insight, and as faithful as they knew how to be, given the light they had. I thank God for them, knowing that we could not see nearly as far as we do, were we not privileged to stand on the shoulders of these giants. I, like Shem and Japheth, am perfectly willing to forgive and cover their occasional errors as I respect their awesome insights. And I pray that you, dear reader, will extend to me the same grace and understanding when I stumble.
We hear echoes of Noah’s predicament in this warning from Habakkuk: “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness! You are filled with shame instead of glory. You also—drink! And be exposed as uncircumcised! The cup of Yahweh’s right hand will be turned against you, and utter shame will be on your glory.” (Habakkuk 2:15-16) “Nakedness” here need not be literal lack of clothing. It is fundamentally a state of vulnerability. Nor is the “drink” restricted to alcohol. The prophet is condemning the ploy of preying upon your neighbor’s human weaknesses in order to gain an advantage. He is saying that, as with Canaan, the strategy will backfire: the harm you meant to inflict on your victim will visit you instead.
It’s a theme that reverberates throughout scripture. As Christ put it, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) Or as Paul noted, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4-7) Peter agrees: “Above all things, have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 4:8) Is that not what Shem and Japheth did for their father Noah? They “covered his sin.” Why? Because they loved and respected him, despite his flaws. We should do no less for those who stumble into error. I’m not saying we should jettison God’s holy standards: sin is still sin, and it needs to be identified as such, as politically incorrect as that sounds. But while bank robbery and serial jaywalking are sins, it is not our job to point accusing fingers at people we suspect are guilty of such things. We are all sinners, after all. Like love, repentance cannot be forced, or it becomes something else entirely.
Concerning Jerusalem (the only city Yahweh ever swore to defend), God ironically uses nakedness as a euphemism for being exposed and defenseless—the state into which we are all born. He says Jerusalem was despised and of questionable parentage, thrown out like garbage at her birth. Yet He took pity on her, and chose her as His own. “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord, Yahweh.” (Ezekiel 16:8) In other words, He covered her sins, as unpromising as she was—just as He does with you and me.
And how did Jerusalem respond to Yahweh’s kindness? She betrayed Him: “Now then, O harlot, hear the word of Yahweh! Thus says the Lord, Yahweh: ‘Because your filthiness was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your harlotry with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children which you gave to them, surely, therefore, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved, and all those you hated; I will gather them from all around against you and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness.’” (Ezekiel 16:35-37) Unwillingness to respond in thanksgiving and honor to Yahweh’s “covering” will result only in further nakedness, exposure, and vulnerability. What is true of Jerusalem/Israel is also true of individuals, for all of us have received the same gift: atonement for our sins, covering our naked shame. If we refuse to put on the garments of righteousness God has provided, we will find ourselves as naked and unprotected as on the day we were born.
I don’t know how to break it to you, but beneath these clothes we’re wearing, you and I are stark naked before God. Nakedness is just another way of saying our faults have been revealed to the One who is Himself faultless. And His word—Holy Scripture—reminds us of what our consciences sometime forget: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13) The entire spectrum of human religion (in the sense of man’s attempts to define God, as opposed to simply letting Him reveal Himself) is geared toward “getting around” that disconcerting fact: that we must one day give account of our actions and motives before our Creator. We will remain “naked” before Yahweh until (and unless) we don the garment of righteousness that He alone provides.
Job’s “miserable comforters” were convinced that his misfortunes must be due to some hidden sin in his life—that Yahweh was punishing him for violating His law (even though the Torah was yet half a millennium in the future). They were all operating pretty much on conscience alone at this point in history: the only direct commandments Yahweh had issued (that we know of) were (1) don’t eat of the fruit of that tree (which was no longer available anyway); and (2) be fruitful and multiply; have dominion over the earth—something that Job had thus far done pretty well.
So without a shred of evidence, Job’s friend Eliphaz threw out a plausible theory as to why he thought God was punishing him: “For you [Job] have taken pledges from your brother for no reason, and stripped the naked of their clothing. You have not given the weary water to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry.” (Job 22:6-7) Somehow, they all knew that these things would have displeased God; and sure enough, one way or another, the Torah would eventually forbid such unmerciful acts in Israel. The problem was, Job also knew he was innocent of the charges. So he replied, “Some snatch the fatherless from the breast, and take a pledge from the poor. They cause the poor to go naked, without clothing, and they take away the sheaves from the hungry…. But He [Yahweh] knows the way that I take. When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot has held fast to His steps. I have kept His way and not turned aside.” (Job 24:9-10, 23:10-11) Thus the root of his troubles was still a mystery to him. The truth is something of which every believer today should be aware: Job was being tested because He honored Yahweh. As Christ would later put it, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
There are some interesting parallels here between Job’s honest retort to the charge leveled by Eliphaz and the counsel the risen Christ would one day give to the final church—Laodicea—the one that was so lukewarm and apostate it missed the rapture, only to repent later. (Technically, the “church of Laodicea” in the prophetic sense would not even exist until after the rapture. It is to be composed entirely of people who will come to faith after it is too late to be “kept out of the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3:10) Yahshua says to Laodicea, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.” (Revelation 3:17-18)
It is as if Job was the personification of the Messiah’s admonition. Yahshua might say, “My servant Job knew that clothing the naked is a merciful act worthy of a child of God [see Matthew 25:36]; therefore, O repentant Laodiceans, be clothed in righteousness, so you may stand justified in My presence. Likewise, being tried as gold in the crucible of adversity will reveal you to have attained the immutable purity of one whose sins have been forever purged through the trial I endured on your behalf—I am your living Redeemer.”
The despondent Job looked forward to being set free from the pains of his mortal existence. But he knew all too well that his vulnerability—his nakedness before God—would follow him even to the grave. “The dead tremble, those under the waters and those inhabiting them. Sheol is naked before Him, and Destruction has no covering.” (Job 26:5-6) Don’t think God cannot reach you after your body has died. This can be either good news or bad, depending upon what you believed in as a living human being. If you loved your Creator, it is a comfort to know that He is able (and eager) to raise you from the dead—as Christ Himself was raised—to a whole new kind of life, not based on DNA and biological entropy, but upon eternal spiritual enabling. But if you made Yahweh your enemy, know of a certainty that He is equally able to raise you to a state of everlasting awareness of your own chosen estrangement from Him—a horror beyond comprehension.
Because Yahshua was tested in every way imaginable, we can never say, “You don’t know what it’s like down here.” He knows exactly what it’s like. That’s how He can function as our eternal High Priest—the One who intercedes with Father Yahweh on our behalf. “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
This includes becoming naked and vulnerable for us as He was crucified by sinful men: “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. They said therefore among themselves, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,’ that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: ‘They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.’” (John 19:23-24; cf. Psalm 22:18) This is one of the most remarkable concepts in scripture: the idea that the God before whom the whole universe is an open book, naked and exposed before Him, was Himself willing to become totally vulnerable—literally naked—as part of His atoning sacrifice for our benefit. It’s the most counterintuitive thing one can imagine. The gods of religious myth wouldn’t be caught dead doing such a thing.
Believe it or not, nakedness can have an “upside.” Under certain circumstances, it can represent the shedding of encumbrances—getting down to the essentials of worship without hindrance or distraction. For example, we read with amazement of an out-of-character spiritual encounter with Israel’s first king: “Then the Spirit of God was upon [Saul] also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’” (I Samuel 19:23-24) Alas, with Saul, it was temporary, a momentary emotional episode in an otherwise self-centered life.
The anointing of the Spirit was a far more frequent occurrence in the life of Saul’s successor, King David. When it was time to bring the previously “misplaced” Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, David could not contain his joy: “Then David danced before Yahweh with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod.” In other words, he was half naked, for all intents and purposes: he refused to put on any royal airs before God. “So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of Yahweh with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet….” Don’t look now, but the imagery of this celebration is identical to the Feast of Trumpets, which in turn is prophetic of the rapture of the church. Will we not celebrate with equal abandon (and humility) when our God brings us “home”?
Keep the rapture doctrine in mind as we read of the “fallout”: “Now as the ark of Yahweh came into the City of David, Michal, Saul’s daughter [and David’s wife], looked through a window and saw King David leaping and whirling before Yahweh; and she despised him in her heart.” (II Samuel 6:14-16) Ask yourself this: how will the Last Days apostate “church” (you know, the one with a “form of godliness,” but that “denies its power,” from whom real Christians were advised to “turn away”—see II Timothy 3:5) react to the news of the rapture, when they realize that they have been left behind? If I’m seeing this correctly, they will not fall on their knees in repentance, but will “double-down” on their disbelief, mocking the raptured saints in incomprehensible denial of the obvious truth.
What happened to Michal? “Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, ‘How glorious was the king of Israel today, uncovering himself today in the eyes of the maids of his servants, as one of the base fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!...’” In case you missed it, that’s sarcasm. She could barely contain her contempt and loathing for her husband, who refused to act like a proud, royal peacock on such an auspicious day. She no doubt took it as a personal affront: “I’m the daughter of a king, you uncouth upstart. How could you do this to me?”
“So David said to Michal, ‘It was before Yahweh, who chose me instead of your father and all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of Yahweh, over Israel.” Ouch. “Therefore I will play music before Yahweh. And I will be even more undignified than this, and will be humble in my own sight. But as for the maidservants of whom you have spoken, by them I will be held in honor.’ Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” (II Samuel 6:20-23) If the “rapture” parallel holds true, this means that the apostate left-behind church (as an institution) will bear no spiritual fruit at all after the saints have departed. We are reminded of Christ’s prophetic admonition to them: “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:17) David may have cast aside his royal robes in order to dance in celebration before Yahweh, but it was his bitter wife, Michal, who was proven in the end to be naked and barren before Him.
Of course, David’s shedding of his royal garb in honor of the repatriation of the Ark of the Covenant was nothing when compared to what Yahshua laid down in the act of becoming human—God becoming flesh. But He too gave us a poignant clue as to what had happened: He transformed Himself from being the King of kings into the lowliest of servants. “And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.” (John 13:2-5)
During His first advent, He found the accolades heaped upon Him by a grateful populace (who had seen Him heal the sick and raise the dead) to be an encumbrance, a distraction. Once, in fact, He had found it necessary to “escape” from an adoring crowd who were determined to take Him by force and make Him their king. (Right response, wrong advent.) This time, He had come to serve—He had come to die. And “dying to Himself” by embracing abject humility before God and man was a pretty effective preview of that reality. In an age of open sandals and filthy streets, it was a poignant kindness to have clean feet after dodging donkey poo all day. That being said, in a house with servants, that job fell to the lowest ranking servant on the staff. It was as nasty a job for the servant as it was a blessing to the recipient of his service. The obvious lesson (spelled out in vs. 12-17) was that as Yahshua had humbled himself on our behalf, so too are we to act toward our brothers and neighbors. And in our present context, note that Yahshua had to “lay aside His garments” in order to get the job done. We too are to be willing to drop our disguises, our pretenses of dignity, if that’s what it takes to serve our fellow man. I’ll leave it to you to figure out precisely what that means in your own walk through life.
A few hours later, after this “last supper” and Christ’s teachings had concluded, they went out to the nearby Garden of Gethsemane to pray. The disciples, not knowing what was coming, had trouble staying awake at this late hour—until the traitor Judas Iscariot led an armed mob sent by the chief priests to arrest Yahshua. “Then Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me? I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.’ Then they [the disciples] all forsook Him and fled….”
Tradition holds that the Last Supper had taken place at the home of the devout parents of John Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, who was a teenager at the time. It has also been widely speculated that Mark himself was the lad who, fascinated with the goings on at his house, snuck out of bed in the wee hours dressed only in his night-shirt to follow Yahshua and His disciples at a discreet distance, out to the Mount of Olives, where Gethsemane lay nestled at its base. When the mob seized Yahshua (though in truth, He went with them voluntarily) and the disciples scattered, the curious Mark was discovered lurking nearby and was captured—almost. “Now a certain young man [note that Mark was the only one to record this incident] followed Him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.” (Mark 14:48-52)
This episode highlights another truth: our clothing is not part of us. Although we universally use it to conceal who and what we are (mostly, the shame of our naked guilt before God and man) it can be shed, like a chameleon’s tail, as a means of escape. In Genesis 39, Joseph tried to use this ploy to escape from the amorous clutches of Potiphar’s wife, only to end up in prison for his trouble—which was exactly where Yahweh needed him to be at that moment. In Mark’s case, the price of his escape was a moment of naked embarrassment, perhaps teaching the young man that all of us are always stark naked before God, no matter what we’re wearing. Our “clothing” (i.e., our moral disguise) can be an encumbrance that threatens to entrap us when confronted with God’s enemies. We need to know when to leave it behind—when to admit our vulnerability in order to encourage our brothers.
A few days later, after the women breathlessly informed the disciples that Yahshua had risen from the dead, John and Peter ran to see for themselves what had happened. “Then Simon Peter came, following [John], and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.” (John 20:6-7) This points out another obvious fact concerning clothing: it is absolutely useless to the dead. Christ had been stripped naked when He was crucified (as we read above), but when Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea entombed Him, they covered His body with linen cloths used to hold in place the spices that were typically used to mask the scent of decomposition. But Christ’s body did not decompose (as had been prophesied in Psalm 16:10). So when He rose from the dead, He left the grave-clothes behind, the ultimate pointless encumbrance.
And yet, when He encountered Mary Magdalene in Joseph’s garden after His resurrection, He did not appear naked: Mary at first mistook Him for the gardener—i.e., He was fully clothed. This leads us to some fascinating insights about the resurrection body—not only Christ’s but also the ones we can expect to inhabit after He raises us up from the mortal state (assuming Christ’s was the prototype for ours, which I believe to be the case). First, we will leave our earthly clothing behind, for it will have been rendered totally redundant. (So yes, your mother was correct: never leave the house without clean underwear, just in case of rapture.) Second, in the immortal state (i.e., in our resurrection bodies) we will appear to others to be wearing whatever clothing seems appropriate. If I may hypothesize, this will always be “fine linen, clean and bright—the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8), no matter what it looks like to other people.
After Yahshua’s resurrection, the disciples (the seven of them who had been fishermen) didn’t quite know what to do next. So they went back to Galilee and went fishing—without much success. “Then [the risen] Jesus said to them, ‘Children, have you any food?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’ And He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment (for he had removed it), and plunged into the sea.” (John 21:5-7) There are a dozen lessons we could draw here, but for our present purposes, I’d just like to concentrate on Peter’s sartorial reaction to Christ’s presence.
Working with fish and nets was smelly, sweaty work, and as was their custom, the men in the boat had stripped down to their “shorts” to work more efficiently. Peter desperately wanted to be in Yahshua’s presence once again. But remember, this took place only a few days after his humiliating denial of Christ, just as the Master had predicted. He was still ashamed of his cowardice. So although swimming the hundred yards back to shore would have been far easier (and safer) wearing just his shorts, Peter put his outer cloak back on before he jumped into the water. I’m guessing, of course, but it would appear that, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Peter’s failure made him feel naked, exposed, and uncomfortable before the One he now knew to be God in flesh. So in lieu of fig leaves, the apostle put on his outer garment, for He could not stand before God uncovered, and he knew it.
Yahshua didn’t mention this, but gently restored Peter, encouraging him to “feed His sheep.” The reason the clothing was not an issue (as it had been for Adam) was that the sacrifice needed to cover Peter’s shame had already been made. The innocence needed to atone for our guilt had been offered up—not an animal, as the Torah’s dress rehearsals had pictured it, but the very “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”: Yahshua Himself.
As Peter discovered, our failures make us feel vulnerable and exposed before God—in a word, naked. This realization, of course, is (or should be) an impetus for repentance—something we, being fallen mortals, need to do early and often. Even though we’re justified, our sanctification is an ongoing process. It should come as no surprise, then, that nakedness is a euphemism (sometimes literal, sometimes figurative) that God employs to inform us of our shame, of coming judgment, and of our need for repentance in sackcloth and ashes.
God often uses one evil to chastise another one. It’s a pattern that will come to final fruition during the Tribulation: with the ekklesia raptured (and the Holy Spirit’s influence along with it), nations and factions left behind will attack each other in greed-fueled rage to such an extent that, in a miscalculated attempt to rein in the anarchy, the world will “elect” the Antichrist to bring unity (or at least a semblance of order) to the earth. His three and a half year reign of demonic terror will almost finish off the planet, but at least when King Yahshua returns, He will have but one entrenched foe to defeat—Satan himself.
This pattern is one we see well established back in the Tanakh. In the seventh century B.C., the prophet Isaiah witnessed the glory days of the Assyrian empire (whose capital, Nineveh, was a city that Nimrod, the father of idolatry, had founded: see Genesis 10:11). Assyria was used by God to chastise any number of pagan cultures, including Israel’s northern kingdom, Samaria. To put things in chronological perspective, Nineveh was the city to whom Yahweh had sent the prophet Jonah, several decades before Isaiah’s ministry, warning them to repent. Much to Jonah’s surprise, they had repented—buying Assyria another century of life. Assyria was thus a powerful force throughout the long prophetic ministry of Isaiah (from about 740 to 680 B.C.) and beyond. Their apparent mandate was to subdue nations in the Near East and Africa who had fallen into gross idolatry—creating, ironically enough, a hedge of spiritual isolation about Judah, in whom the Messiah would appear. As I said, it was a case of one evil punishing another under God’s watchful eye.
Among other nations, Israel (the northern kingdom—Samaria) was on Assyria’s hit list. But it’s not as if they had never been warned of the coming judgment. Hosea’s metaphor concerning Israel (illustrated by his own disastrous marriage to the harlot Gomer) was transparent enough: “Bring charges against your mother, bring charges, for she is not My wife, nor am I her Husband! Let her put away her harlotries from her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts, lest I strip her naked and expose her, as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and set her like a dry land, and slay her with thirst.” (Hosea 2:2-3) Harlotry—adultery—is a consistent Biblical metaphor for idolatry: Hosea is actually talking about Israel’s unfaithfulness. Assyria would be the rod of Yahweh’s discipline.
Amos too predicts Israel’s nakedness before the God they had forsaken: “He shall not stand who handles the bow, the swift of foot shall not escape, nor shall he who rides a horse deliver himself. The most courageous men of might shall flee naked in that day, says Yahweh.” (Amos 2:15-16) All the valor and military might in the world will not save you when Yahweh proclaims that your iniquity is full—that the time for judgment has come. Although spoken against Samaria, these words might apply to any nation on earth.
The warnings, in fact, go all the way back to the famous “blessings and cursings” passage in Deuteronomy: “Because you did not serve Yahweh your God with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies, whom Yahweh will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in need of everything; and He will put a yoke of iron on your neck until He has destroyed you.” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48) The “enemy” Yahweh chose to “send against” Samaria was post-Jonah Assyria. The hammer of judgment, after centuries of patient prophetic proclamation, finally fell in 723 B.C.
At one point, Isaiah was instructed to act out an object lesson directed against another of Assyria’s victims: “Yahweh spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, ‘Go, and remove the sackcloth from your body, and take your sandals off your feet.’ And he did so, walking naked and barefoot….” Wearing the sackcloth of mourning for Israel’s sins must have seemed bad enough, but going naked and barefoot signaled a change—and not for the better. This particular un-dress rehearsal was directed at two nations, Egypt and Ethiopia (i.e., Mizraim and Cush). It was the primary fulfillment of Isaiah’s chapter 18 prophecy—though I am convinced that one has some life left in it, directed at Last-Days America. (See The End of the Beginning, chapter 11.)
“Then Yahweh said, ‘Just as My servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and a wonder against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as prisoners and the Ethiopians as captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. [This would take place within three years of the prophecy—in 671 B.C.] Then they shall be afraid and ashamed of Ethiopia their expectation and Egypt their glory.’ And the inhabitant of this territory will say in that day, ‘Surely such is our expectation, wherever we flee for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria, and how shall we escape?’” (Isaiah 20:2-6) Assyria had developed a reputation for uncommon brutality toward the nations they conquered. People eventually became so terrified of them, they’d simply give up rather than suffer the horrible consequences of making them angry. Assyria’s modus operandi was to transplant entire populations from one locale to another in an attempt to break their emotional attachments to their homelands, making them less likely to revolt. That’s why Israel’s breakaway northern kingdom (everyone except Judah and Benjamin) are sometimes referred to as the “ten lost tribes,” though they were never lost to Yahweh.
Eventually, the sins of Nineveh caught up with her. Their repentance before God died out with Jonah’s generation. Another prophet, a century later, proclaimed the ugly truth: “‘Behold, I am against you [Nineveh],’ says Yahweh of hosts. ‘I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness, and the kingdoms your shame. I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” (Nahum 3:5-6) Nineveh had made other nations naked and vulnerable; now it was their turn. Babylon—the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar II—would be the proximate cause for their fall, but in truth, Assyria had become a rotten tree, corrupt from the inside out and ready to fall from its own weight. It finally fell in 609 B.C.
A mere four years later (though the process of destruction took decades to unfold) the kingdom of Judah (Israel’s southern kingdom) finally succumbed to her own idolatry and apostasy, falling—as Assyria had—to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Again, the prophets characterized the judgment as “nakedness.” Between the loss of Judah’s political independence to Babylon in 605 B.C. and the final and utter destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Ezekiel wrote, “She [Jerusalem] revealed her harlotry and uncovered her nakedness. Then I alienated Myself from her, as I had alienated Myself from her sister [Samaria, 118 years previously]…. For thus says the Lord Yahweh: ‘Surely I will deliver you into the hand of those you hate, into the hand of those from whom you alienated yourself. They will deal hatefully with you, take away all you have worked for, and leave you naked and bare.” Here, nakedness means being stripped of one’s worldly possessions. “The nakedness of your harlotry shall be uncovered, both your lewdness and your harlotry. I will do these things to you because you have gone as a harlot after the Gentiles, because you have become defiled by their idols. You have walked in the way of your sister; therefore I will put her cup in your hand.’” (Ezekiel 23:18, 28-31)
Micah concurs: “Therefore [because of God’s coming judgment on Judah] I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked. I will make a wailing like the jackals and a mourning like the ostriches, for her wounds are incurable. For it has come to Judah: it has come to the gate of My people—to Jerusalem.” (Micah 1:8-9) As does Jeremiah: “Jerusalem has sinned gravely, therefore she has become vile. All who honored her despise her because they have seen her nakedness. Yes, she sighs and turns away.” (Lamentations 1:8) The shame here does not consist entirely of the exposure of Jerusalem to judgment and destruction. The real disgrace is that Jerusalem’s fall was entirely unnecessary. Are you listening, America?
And what of Babylon, Judah’s rapist and the first great “world empire”—identified as “the head of gold” in a sweeping prophecy of successive gentile superpowers recorded in Daniel 2? What would be her fate? Why, nakedness of course. Babylon would be conquered in turn by Medo-Persia (more or less without firing a shot) a mere forty-seven years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. Remarkably, it had been Isaiah, way back in the 7th century (when neo-Babylon was barely a blip on the geopolitical radar) who saw it all coming: “Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones and grind meal. Remove your veil, Take off the skirt, uncover the thigh, pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered; yes, your shame will be seen. I will take vengeance, and I will not arbitrate with a man.” (Isaiah 47:1-3)
The four successive gentile world empires identified in Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in Daniel 2 were all in possession of Jerusalem during their successive tenures as “king of the hill.” Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and then Rome filled the time between the fall of Judah and the first advent of Christ. It was as if Yahweh had given them, in turn, the responsibility of holding Israel—and especially Jerusalem—in trust until His plan of redemption for all mankind could be accomplished. (You’ll notice that Assyria and other ancient regional powers like Egypt or the Hittites never held Jerusalem.) Between the resurrection and the second coming of Christ, it matters little who controls the city of the Great King.
We have read the prophecy of the “nakedness” of the Babylonian Empire, which exiled Judah and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. But both Persia and Alexander’s Greece generally treated the Jews with favor, and were therefore spared dire pronouncements of judgment. Rome, on the other hand, is a special case. They, like Babylon, exiled the Jews from the Land, and they destroyed the rebuilt temple, so judgment is due. But although the Empire per se has been gone since the fifth century A.D., Daniel’s “Four Beasts” prophecy in chapter 8 speaks of a Roman resurgence in the Last Days. (See The End of the Beginning, chapter 7.) That is, it is from this territory and culture that the Antichrist (a.k.a. the little horn, the king with fierce features, the prince who is to come, the willful king, the man of sin, the son of perdition, and the beast from the sea) will arise. And he, being Satan’s counterfeit messiah, will make the whole world naked and vulnerable before him during the short, terrifying tenure of his reign.
In the time honored tradition of God allowing one evil to swallow another, the Antichrist will incorporate every heresy, false religion, and idolatrous practice into the worship of himself (along with the “dragon” who empowers him—Satan). And he will enjoy success the likes of which the world has never seen. John tells us, “He was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months. Then he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven.” This is a reference to the previously raptured saints—those he can’t touch. “It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them.” These “saints” are the belatedly redeemed believers of the church of repentant Laodicea, those who missed the rapture, but came to saving faith in its wake. (The Jews will be miraculously sequestered during these dark days, in anticipation of their repentance and restoration.) “And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world….”
The Antichrist’s goal is to enslave every person on earth in satanic bondage, or failing that, simply kill them. But God says that the evil you perpetrate will be brought back upon your own head: “If anyone has an ear, let him hear. He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.” (Revelation 13:5-10) If you’ll recall the Assyrian modus operandi, they led their captives naked and bound to places they would have no means or interest in defending—after killing those who resisted. This is Satan’s (and his Antichrist’s) intention for the entire population of planet Earth. But remember what the prophet Nahum so accurately predicted concerning Assyria: “I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness, and the kingdoms your shame. I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” What’s the saying? “What goes around, comes around.” Or as Paul put it, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
Remarkably, King Yahshua identifies with the hungry, thirsty, vulnerable, naked, sick, and enslaved—Satan’s would-be targets. After the dark days of the Tribulation, the reigning King will divide the relatively few human beings left alive on the earth into two groups—those who are His, whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (called the “sheep”), and those who are not (labeled the “goats”). “And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’” (Matthew 25:33-36) As usual, the state of being “naked” here isn’t so much a literal lack of needed clothing (though it could easily include such things), but the condition of being vulnerable, helpless, unable to defend or protect oneself against the prevailing conditions of the time. At this point, everybody will pretty much be in in the same sinking boat. So the question will be: were you part of the solution, or part of the problem?
I don’t want to alarm anybody, but note that this division will not be made on the basis of what people believed, exactly. Their religious traditions, doctrinal positions, and theological philosophies will not be taken into consideration. Rather, what they did for the people who were most vulnerable under Satan’s reign of terror, who were most naked and exposed in the world—regardless of whether they agreed with them in every nuance of doctrine and religious practice—was the only criteria allowed for inclusion among the blessed Sheep. Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:40) In the end, mercy withheld is love denied.
Fig Leaves: Religion
Pardon my sloth, but I’d like to begin this section by quoting a few salient paragraphs from earlier in this book (from the essay on the “Fig Tree,” in Volume 3, chapter 3.10). Here, we pick up where we left off in the Garden of Eden, with our parents dealing with their nakedness in the wake of their sin….
“Ask the average man on the street what ‘religion’ is, and he’ll tell you that it’s a set of beliefs, rituals, and practices defining what one group or another thinks about their ‘god’ (or gods), and how to reach out to him (or them, or her, or it)—or something like that. Since no god, real or imaginary, is in the habit of making his presence known in any tangible way these days, religion necessarily entails faith: we behave a certain way because we believe something to be right or wrong, true or false. The rub is that what we believe—what we have faith in—isn’t born in a vacuum. It either emanates from God Himself (if He’s real) or (if He’s not) from some other source, either derivative or imaginary. Religion, then, is the process and practice of mankind defining god (that is, the one to whom they feel allegiance is due, whether an external deity, an internal deity—oneself—or nothing at all). Religion seeks to determine who god is, and to codify what He wants from us.
“But if there actually is a God—a supreme being responsible for our creation and destiny—this process is entirely backward. We shouldn’t be trying to define Him at all; our opinions have absolutely no bearing on what He might or might not want us to do. Our only criteria should be what He actually said and did in our world. In practical terms nowadays, that entails paying careful attention to our scriptures. If you’re a Jew, that means the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets. If you’re a Christian, you’d add the New Testament to the Hebrew canon. If you’re a Muslim, you’d have to follow the Qur’an (which is a bit of a problem, because it’s a contradictory and incomprehensible—not to mention bloodthirsty—political manifesto). But that’s about it for ‘scriptures’ that claim to be the ‘word of god.’ Other well-known examples of ‘scripture’—the Hindus’ Rig Veda and Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhists’ Sutras, Suttas, and Shastras, the Analects of Confucius, the Book of Mormon, Islam’s Hadith and the Sunnah, and even the Jewish Talmud and Mishna—don’t really purport to be God’s word at all, but are rather human wisdom offered up for human enlightenment: the very definition of religion.
“The reason I bring all of this up here is that the very first recorded example of ‘religion’ involved a fig tree. The scene: the Garden of Eden. ‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate….’ They had received very little in the way of instruction from God at this point. Just ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ ‘Exercise dominion over God’s creation,’ and ‘Don’t eat the fruit from that one tree in the middle of the garden.’ So let’s see: they had not borne children yet, they’d let the serpent exercise dominion over them, and then they violated the one specific prohibition that God had given them. So with a record of zero wins and three losses, they found themselves estranged from the God they knew.
“‘Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.’ The innocent animals they managed had no idea they were naked, and neither did Adam and Eve, until this moment. But now, guilt had precipitated shame, and shame cried out to be covered up. But how? Suddenly reticent to appear before God (who was, ironically, the only One who could actually help them with their new problem), they performed the world’s first recorded religious rite: they tried to cover their sin by means of their own invention: ‘And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths….’ All they knew was that they were naked. From this bit of information, they extrapolated a whole series of questionable religious precepts: (1) Being naked (which was how God had made them, by the way) was ‘bad.’ (2) They could repair the guilt they felt in their souls by covering their physical bodies. (3) They could make suitable clothing out of any material that was handy. (4) Their own labor was necessary: they did the sewing. (5) They presumed their shame had something to do with their sexual identities, so that’s the only thing they bothered covering up. (Seems to me, if they’d been thinking logically, they would have made bags to cover their heads, since their eyes, mouths, and brains had gotten them into this mess. Mittens would have made more sense than loincloths.)
“But Adam and Eve soon found out that covering their bodies did nothing to diminish their guilt. The minute God showed up, they knew they were still naked before Him. ‘And they heard the sound of Yahweh, God, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh, God, among the trees of the garden.’ Eve could have put on a full Muslim-style head-to-toe burqa and it wouldn’t have mattered: she would still have been exposed and shamed before Yahweh. There was no place to hide, and they finally realized it. ‘But Yahweh, God, called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”’ (Genesis 3:6-11) One wonders if Adam and Eve had even made the connection between eating the forbidden fruit and feeling naked and guilty at this point. If they hadn’t before this, they surely must have when Yahweh drew this picture for them. It wasn’t the fruit or the tree that changed things, of course. It was their disobedience to God’s clear command that had altered their perception of themselves, the world they lived in, and the God who had made it all.”
Their embarrassment didn’t really have anything to do with the fact that they were naked, because they had always been naked—nothing had changed but their guilt. But they felt they had to do something. These “coverings” they made were not full suits of clothes, but merely aprons or loincloths. The noun chagowr denotes a belt or girdle, derived from a verb meaning “to put on”—an important theological concept we’ll explore more fully in a later chapter.
I don’t know if it was calculated or if they were merely acting on raw instinct, but the only part of the body they felt needed covering was their genitals, their sexual apparatus: the part of the human body that is used to transmit life from one generation to the next. There is nothing shameful about that, in the context of marriage. But it is about as close as we humans ever get to the creation of life—something that is God’s prerogative alone. The serpent had said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5) As usual, a little bit of truth hid a mountain of falsehood. Could it be that Adam and Eve suddenly realized that their sexual organs made it possible for them to “live forever” through the lives of their offspring, as long as the human race endured? Did this not make them “like God” in some small way? Of course, the fact that Yahweh had designed them like this—and then had shown them hundreds of kinds of animals that reproduced the same way—completely eluded them. But as it was, the realization that together they were potential creators, though created beings themselves, may have shocked and mortified them. Well, it’s a theory.
In a way, making these fig-leaf aprons demonstrated that we humans are made in the “image and likeness of God.” By nature, we (like God) are creative problem solvers, clever enough to confront challenges with insight and industry. We experiment. We explore. We tinker. We learn from our mistakes—or at least, we have the capacity to do so. But if Yahweh is the reality, we are but the shadow—a flat and shallow silhouette of God’s nature. We’re missing entire dimensions, for starters. We like to call ourselves homo sapiens—“man, wise.” And we may be, compared to “lower” creatures. But we can’t logically compare ourselves to Him who created us (and everything else). In our fallen state, we are neither wise, loving, powerful, nor intelligent enough to think our way out of a paper bag.
And yet, we in our fallen arrogance presume we can “think” our way back to God. Since animals (as far as we can tell) do not do this—instead spending their entire lives getting food, finding mates, and raising their young—we may deduce that our “religious” tendencies spring from our basic human condition: we have innate knowledge that God exists, but our sinful state has estranged Him from us. My personal theory is that our inbred consciences are what drives the phenomenon of religion. We somehow know that right and wrong exist. We don’t have to be taught that lying, cheating, stealing, murder, rape, and cannibalism are wrong. We just know. In fact, honestly not knowing these things is grounds for an insanity defense in a court of law.
We are told that the “loincloths” Adam and Eve made were constructed of “fig leaves.” In the chapter on “Fig Trees” referenced above, we noted that fig trees were a common symbol for the nation of Israel, often used in association with grapevines (metaphorical of mankind). Obviously, Israel didn’t yet exist in Adam’s day, but perhaps we can learn something if we’re willing to think outside the box a little. Think of “Israel” (as symbolized by the fig tree) as God’s chosen conduit for mankind’s redemption. But the essence of such a tree is not its leaves, but the fruit it bears. A fig tree is a fig tree because it bears figs. An apple tree bears apples. A pine tree produces pine cones. An oak tree makes acorns. You get the idea.
Leaves are there to synthesize sustenance for the tree from sunlight, using God’s miracle of photosynthesis. In other words, the leaves “feed” the tree, making it possible for the tree to feed us in turn by bearing fruit. As Yahshua pointed out, it doesn’t much matter if you have leaves, if you don’t also have fruit growing upon you (see Mark 11:12-14, 20-21; cf. Matthew 21:18-22). The observation may help us understand why “sewing fig-leaf aprons” was the wrong approach to covering sin. The solution to sin was not to be found in the tree at all. Yes, fruit feeds the world, but sin was never a question of the lack of sustenance—a hunger for truth. Sin, rather, is separation from life itself—the very picture of death. It doesn’t help to feed a dead man: he can’t use food.
And leaves? Representing, as they do, man’s solution to the problem (without deference to God’s plan) they represent religion. But like leaves on a tree, religion only feeds itself. Yes, if everything goes as it should, fruit—sustenance for the world—is a result. Religion can be a conduit for enlightenment, mercy, and fellowship. But—and this is important—religion is not the path to salvation. As helpful as it can be (under ideal circumstances), religion’s good works, charity, alms, scriptural illumination, and unity cannot save a person from his or her fallen condition, and do not reconcile a sinner to a Holy God. But there is something that can, and Yahweh implemented this solution—the sacrifice of innocence—as soon as Adam and Eve realized they had sinned. More on this in a bit.
The leaves, however, are not pointless. Even out of season, they help to identify what kind of tree is growing there. Oak leaves don’t look at all like pine needles, nor do lemon leaves resemble those you’d find on a peach tree. The leaves reveal what sort of fruit you’d expect to find on the tree, in its season. That is to say, not all religions are alike: they are not expected to all bear the same kind of fruit. Just for the fun of it, I Googled “fig leaves,” and was surprised to find that they vary widely in shape, due to a wide variety of figs, I presume. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I was willing to see this fact as symbolic of the plethora of religions out there today. Or using another mode of metaphor, with some trees the fruit is good and sweet; in some cases, it’s actually nuts; and with others, it’s just the pits.
The Christian religion (as distinct from Christianity itself—simple faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice) is revealed in Yahshua’s letters to seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Even the churches whom He admonished to repent were known by their good fruit. Ephesus: “I know your works, your labor, your patience… you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.” Pergamos: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith.” Thyatira: “I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first.” And Sardis: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive.”
Christians are expected to have these good qualities—and more. To the persecuted church of Smyrna, He wrote: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich)” and to the faithful Last Days church, Philadelphia, He said, “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name…. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” But alas, of the left-behind (pre-repentant) church of Laodicea, all He could say was this: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” Ouch. Laodicea didn’t fit the “Christian” profile at all: the leaves were feeding the tree alright, but there was no fruit at all, good or bad. Amazingly, however, repentance unto salvation would still be possible even after Yahshua had removed Philadelphia from the earth.
The “leaves” identifying the world’s religions could be said to be their scriptures—the writings they regard as holy and sacred. The Christian religion, of course, at least claims to base its teachings on the Bible—although the extent to which this is actually done varies widely. Judaism claims to be based on the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets (the Old Testament, or Tanakh), but commonly gives equal or greater weight to the Talmud (the Mishna and Gemara—manmade commentaries and compilations of rabbinical opinion).
Of critical importance is the source of the writings. As I explained above, of all the world’s scriptures, only the Judeo-Christian Bible and Islam’s Qur’an even claim to be God-breathed (and the Qur’an is nothing but a self-contradictory manifesto for war against everything Muhammad hated or coveted). The Qur’an, believe it or not, is based (very loosely) on “Bible stories” Muhammad was taught by the Jews of Yathrib (now called Medina) when he was a refugee from Mecca—before they made him an intractable enemy by ridiculing his absurd messianic claims. But the internal evidence demonstrates that the actual source of the stories was not the Torah itself, but the derivative Talmud. In the end, Muhammad, putting words in Allah’s mouth, made every story say the same thing: “Obey the prophet, or suffer the consequences.”
Nothing else even pretends to be a message from the Creator. The Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and Puranas of Hinduism, the Suttantas, Sutras, Suttas, and Shastras of Buddhism, the Shu King, Shi King, Hsiao King, Golden Mean, and Analects of Confucius, the Guru Granth Sahib of the Sikhs, the Tao Teh King and writings of Chuang-Tze from Taoism, the Gathas, Vendidad, and Yasna of Zoroastrianism, the Talmud’s Mishna and Gemara from Judaism, and Islam’s Hadith (the “Sayings of the Prophet”) and Sunnah (the “Example,” Muhammad’s biographies)…. Though considered “scripture,” all of them—and many more—are admittedly the works of mortal men who were trying to find their way to God (or truth, or enlightenment, or inner peace… though that may be an overly charitable assessment in some cases).
The bottom line is that the leaves—those strategies with which Adam and Eve unsuccessfully attempted to cover their shame—are symbolic of manmade religion, which in turn is what the lost world uses to feed its own delusions. The “fruit” of religious thought may be sweet, or tasteless, or downright poisonous, but it never brings salvation, atonement, or reconciliation with God to the supplicant. Only a relationship with the Living Creator can do that.
Animal Skins: the Reason for Sacrifice
So far, the sartorial odyssey of Eden looks like this: nakedness, then sin, then fig leaves. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings…. Then Yahweh, God, called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ So he said, ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ And He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?’…” God knew that eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would result in Adam’s and Eve’s awareness of their nakedness. To them, it came as quite a shock.
It wasn’t the tree itself, I’m pretty sure. It was merely the act of their disobedience, and the guilt that followed in its wake. God could just as easily have said, “Don’t pick up that stick,” or “Don’t turn over that rock,” and the results would have been the same. With a fruit tree, however, He gained the impact of symbology: the concept that whatever we choose to put into ourselves (whether food or ideas) will affect us, for good or ill. The Torah’s later dietary instructions (in Leviticus 11) were given for three reasons: (1) to keep the people as healthy as dietary prudence could achieve (the evident aim of the precepts); (2) to get folks in the habit of being discerning about what they ate (and saw, and studied, and received into their lives); and (3) most importantly, to teach them that Yahweh can be trusted to know what is good for us, and what is not—even if these truths are not particularly self-evident. These lessons began in Eden.
Our parents’ second mistake was in trying to deal with their sin themselves. Granted, they were new at this, but hiding from God is no way to achieve reconciliation with Him, nor is inventing our own atonement mechanisms ever a successful strategy for covering sin. But Yahweh, being omniscient, had a solution ready that would reveal one of the most significant truths in scripture: that only innocence can atone for guilt. “Also for Adam and his wife Yahweh, God, made tunics of skin, and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:6-7, 9-11, 21) The fig leaf loincloths had been rejected by God as coverings for Adam’s and Eve’s guilt. Adam may have been thinking, “Okay, God’s garden—God’s rules. I guess we’re busted.” But it’s not quite that simple, for several reasons.
(1) Though both Yahweh and Adam agreed that his sin required covering, Adam’s solution had cost nothing. The fig tree from which the covering materials had been plucked remained firmly rooted in the ground, and the leaves would grow back. But God’s answer to our guilt revealed that something with a soul had to die: sin is expensive. Logically, the payers of the death penalty would have been those who had disobeyed Yahweh’s command—Adam and Eve themselves.
(2) But God had breathed into their souls the breath (Hebrew: neshamah) of life (see Genesis 2:7), something the animals He had created didn’t have—the capacity for God’s eternal Spirit dwelling within them. Yahweh thus had a vested interest in helping us humans fulfill our unique potential destiny: everlasting life in fellowship with Him. Our sin had made us mortal—as subject to physical death as any animal. Only life could reverse the curse of death—even if that death was deserved.
(3) The rub is that life is precious: losing it is a horrible price to pay. Adam and Eve did not “own” the animals they tended, so they had no right to “ask” an animal to give up his life to cover their sin. The animals belonged solely to their Creator, Yahweh, whose sacrifice it was to take the life of one or more animals in order to clothe the fallen humans. Remarkably, He found the sacrifice worth it. The Spiritless animals were not consulted.
Bear in mind that animals come in two varieties—plant eaters, and those who were designed as carnivores (whether or not they lived as vegetarians in the pre-flood world). Animals were designed as mortal creatures—they lived, and then they died. So sacrificing them to atone for the sins of man merely cut short the life cycle—it didn’t essentially change anything. I’m speculating, of course, but it’s possible that the main job of carnivores before the fall was simply to clean up the carcasses of animals that had died natural deaths, as they all were destined to do. For most of man’s tenure upon the earth, the “job” of some animals was to get eaten by others. However, Isaiah informs us—twice (in 11:7 and 65:25)—that in the Millennial Kingdom, “the lion will eat straw like the ox.” So who knows what it was like in Eden?
Anyway, the fact that “God made tunics of skin, and clothed them” implies that Adam and Eve had a choice to make—the second significant choice of their lives. The first had been whether or not to obey Yahweh’s instructions about not eating the fruit of that one tree. Having blown that one, they now had to decide whether or not they would receive His remedy for their nakedness. A careful reading of the text reveals that Adam and Eve still felt “naked” before God after they had donned the fig-leaf loincloths. That’s why they were trying to hide from Him: their manmade solution hadn’t worked, and they knew it.
So they were happy to put on the “tunics of skin” that Yahweh had provided. They quickly discovered that they no longer felt they had to hide from Him—that fellowship had been restored. Thus donning the animal skin tunics in place of the fig leaf loincloths is the clearest possible picture of the difference between relationship and religion. It was, in fact, our first glimpse of the mechanism of salvation: being covered requires the death of innocence, but it brings us back into fellowship with the Inventor of Life—if we chose to receive it.
We should also consider what it looks like to choose not to receive God’s forgiveness, leading to salvation. We read about just such a case in the very next chapter—the reaction of Cain to Yahweh’s acceptance of his brother Abel’s offering of innocence (in emulation of God’s own provision of their parents’ covering), while his bloodless offering was rejected. We all know the story: the jealous Cain slew Abel, and then tried to deny his sin—or deny that it was a sin—before God. So God told him, “‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.’ And Cain said to Yahweh, ‘My punishment [literally, “iniquity,” or “guilt”] is greater than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth…. Then Cain went out from the presence of Yahweh and dwelt in the land of Nod [literally, “wandering”] on the east of Eden.” (Genesis 4:10-14, 16) Cain passed up at least two chances to repent and seek forgiveness, preferring instead to dwell apart from Yahweh’s convicting and disconcerting presence. Alas, most of the world still makes this disastrously illogical choice—defining it as “the broad highway that leads to destruction.”
We weren’t quite through exploring what happened in Eden. What sort of garment did Yahweh make for Adam and Eve? Their self-made fig-leaf clothing had been simple loin-cloths—designed to cover only the genitals, which (we can only presume) our parents somehow concluded had something to do with their sin. The fact that they still felt naked before God after putting on their skimpy costumes proved that to be an erroneous assumption (which is not to say the same mistake hasn’t been made by “religious” cultures ever since). Sex within marriage is blessed by God, and has been since the very beginning, when He commanded us to “be fruitful, and multiply.”
God, on the other hand, made what is called in Hebrew a kethoneth, most often translated “tunic,” that is, a long shirt-like garment, coat, gown, or robe, often with sleeves. Based as it is on the Hebrew katheph (shoulder), it is clear that the entire torso was covered, not just the hips. The point is that we, having sinned, become sinners—literally, people who have fallen short of God’s perfect and holy standard. That is, it is not our hands, or our eyes, or our brains, or even our genitalia that get us into trouble: it is our souls, our desperately wicked hearts—the essence of our being. So as a symbol, generalized atonement-coverings, rather than specific ones, tell a more accurate story. We are the sinners—not merely the body parts we use in to perpetrate our sins.
Right after the exodus from Egypt, Yahweh revealed why He had instructed the Israelites to “plunder” the Egyptians, asking for articles of silver, gold, and other valuables at the time of the Passover—parting gifts, as it were (see Exodus 11:2, 12:35-36). It was not so they could feel prosperous as they wandered about the desert. Rather, it was so these ex-slaves would have something to contribute to the building of the tabernacle: “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” It has always amused me that those who were not willing were thus doomed to lugging their “treasures” around in the wilderness for the next forty years. “And this is the offering which you shall take from them: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet thread, fine linen, and goats’ hair; ram skins dyed red, badger skins [a mistranslation: I’ll explain it in a moment], and acacia wood; oil for the light, and spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense; onyx stones, and stones to be set in the ephod and in the breastplate. And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.’” (Exodus 25:1-9; cf. Exodus 35:4-9)
Everything God specified for the tabernacle’s construction, furnishings, or service, one way or another, represented some component of His plan for our lives—whether redemption, justification, sanctification, provision, illumination, holiness, or even chronology. As for our current subject—animal skins—we note that two of the four layers of the tabernacle’s “roof/ceiling curtains” were to be made of such skins—from different sources. The innermost layer was to be made of linen; laid on top of that, the second was woven goat hair—think: cashmere wool. For the last two layers, allow me to quote from The Owner’s Manual, Volume 2, Chapter 4: “The Tabernacle of God,” elsewhere on this website.
“The third layer consisted of ‘ram skins dyed red.’ It would be hard to miss the reference to the ram caught by its horns in the thicket that had served as the substitute sacrifice in place of Isaac on Mount Moriah. The ram represents the Messiah in His sacrificial role. In the prototype, the ram’s skin had been dyed red by its own blood as Abraham had cut its throat. Unlike the “scarlet” thread used in the embroidery of the linen layer, no particular dye source is implied in the word chosen for ‘red’ in this passage. What we see, rather, is a play on words with a lesson attached. The word is ’adem, simply meaning red, ruddy, or dyed red. It has the same consonant root as ’adam, a man (male as opposed to female), or a human being—the same word pressed into service as a given name for our proto-ancestor Adam. Thus in retrospect, the substitutionary sacrifice (ultimately Yahshua) is seen as being dyed red with His own blood, and at the same time is identified as a man—a male human. Further, the symbol this One represents is part of the covering of the Tabernacle, which tells us that it’s part of the Plan of Yahweh for mankind’s redemption—but one that won’t be obviously apparent to the world, being covered by yet another curtain assembly.
“The fourth and last layer was to be made not of ‘badger’ skins, as in the unfortunate King James translation, but of tahas, an unspecified aquatic mammal—a porpoise, dolphin, dugong, or seal—indigenous to the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba. Yahweh didn’t ask the people to contribute anything that wasn’t available. Among the 600,000 men who left Egypt, there would have been a fair number of cobblers—shoemakers—who would have brought their stock of materials with them when they departed. Bedouin craftsmen in that part of the world still make sandals from dugong and porpoise hides. It was these hides—enough to make shoes for half a million Israelites for several years—that Yahweh was asking for in Exodus 35:4-9. The cobblers of Israel responded with a faithful and willing spirit, though it left them nothing with which to make shoes in the wilderness. So it is with great admiration for Yahweh’s grace that we read Moses’ observant reminder of God’s provision after the forty years of wilderness wanderings were behind them: ‘Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn out on your feet.’ (Deuteronomy 29:5) Aside from the practical aspect of providing a tough, weather-resistant protective outer layer for the Tabernacle, what, then, might the outer layer of porpoise skins represent? I believe it speaks of Yahweh’s miraculous provision, protection, and preservation through the trials of life. It is this layer that the world would see, if only it cared to look.”
Thus it should be obvious now (even if it wasn’t before) that the animal-skin tunics Yahweh made for Adam and Eve in the Garden represented both Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary and the subsequent “provision, protection, and preservation through the trials of life” that are available to all of us who avail ourselves of His grace: the twin realities represented by the two top-most layers of the tabernacle covering. The eloquent Isaiah points out the bottom line: “I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh. My soul shall be joyful in my God. For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation. He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10) If we understand what God has done for us, our only logical response will be unrestrained joy, celebration, and the jubilant anticipation of a fruitful life together—our marriage to our Beloved Savior, the King of Glory.
At its most basic, the covering of one’s body with clothing of animal skins is meant to present the wearer to the witness as something he is not—it’s a disguise. In the case of Adam, it was meant to conceal his sin before his Creator—who, ironically, was the One who invented this whole scenario. Yahweh was saying, in effect, “If you’ll put this on, I will choose not to see your naked guilt. It’s a matter of trust, of faith.”
A couple of thousand years later, we saw a slightly less-intuitive version of the same truth. Here’s the back story: Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins, sons of Isaac (i.e., Abraham’s son of promise, who, you’ll recall, was willing to allow his father to sacrifice him, at the instruction of Yahweh—making him a “type” of Christ). As the firstborn twin, Esau would ordinarily have received the firstborn’s blessing—entitling him to a double portion of his father’s material inheritance, not to mention the position of the new leader and patriarch of the family, upon his father’s death. But Yahweh had informed Rebekah their mother, before they were even born, that “the older shall serve the younger.”
As the boys grew, Esau became a “man’s man,” a talented hunter and rough-hewn outdoorsman—earning him a special place of endearment in his father’s heart. Jacob, on the other hand, was kind of a “momma’s boy,” not effeminate by any means, but smooth of skin and mild of manner. He knew how to grow vegetables, raise livestock, cook, calculate, and strategize. Hunting water buffalo, not so much. Naturally, he became his mother’s favorite.
More to the point, Jacob had a godly outlook on life (despite his tendency to plot and scheme), while Esau couldn’t care less about the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. We’ve all heard the story of how Esau, after a long day’s (presumably unsuccessful) hunt, came in from the field hungry and exhausted, begging for some of Jacob’s tasty lentil stew. Jacob, taking advantage of his brother’s weakened state, agreed—in return for the birthright. This wasn’t quite the stretch it seemed, for Esau was only a few minutes older anyway. So he agreed, ate his stew, and went his way. We aren’t told if Isaac ever found out about this. But remember the prenatal prophecy Rebekah had received that placed Jacob in spiritual ascendency over his brother Esau.
The day eventually came when Isaac felt it was time to pass the torch to the next generation. He first sent his favorite son Esau out to catch a deer, so he could have some of that delicious venison stew he loved so much, as a celebratory meal. Meanwhile, back in camp, Mom hatched a plan to finish what Esau’s foolish birthright deal had bargained away: using animal skins, she and Jacob would trick Isaac into giving Jacob the firstborn’s blessing.
Though Isaac was half blind, Jacob knew it would still take some heavy subterfuge to pull this off. “Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, ‘Look, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth-skinned man. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be a deceiver to him; and I shall bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.’” Good point. “But his mother said to him, ‘Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, get them for me.’ And he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and his mother made savory food, such as his father loved. Then Rebekah took the choice clothes of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. And she put the skins of the kids of the goats on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she gave the savory food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. So he went to his father and said, ‘My father.’ And he said, ‘Here I am. Who are you, my son?’ Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau your firstborn; I have done just as you told me; please arise, sit and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.’” (Genesis 27:13-19) Isaac bought the ruse, and blessed Jacob in place of Esau.
As usual, a hundred good lessons could be gleaned from this story. But for our present purposes, I just want to concentrate on the role the animal skins played—the one tale that never gets told. With Rebekah’s help (and by God’s design, I believe) they helped convince Isaac (whom, you’ll recall, is an established type of Christ) that Jacob was someone he was not—his firstborn son. At first blush, this seems like cheating, like unfairness, like injustice. Is not this sort of trickery the very sort of thing a just and holy God condemns and forbids? Actually, that’s a trick question. The answer is, “It depends.”
Yes, God personifies justice, and encourages us to be fair in our dealings. But in His view, mercy trumps justice, and holiness outweighs power. Yes, Yahweh is holy, righteous, and sinless, but He is also forgiving, if we will but ask. When it comes to our redemption—and then to our impact as believers in the world—God cheats! He has mercy on the condemned. He forgives the unforgivable. He pardons the guilty. He blesses the underserving. He values the worthless. We have but to ask Him, believe on Him, and trust Him. The “animal skins” are there to disguise—even to God Himself—who we are and what we’re really like.
Yahweh’s theophany in Eden no longer “saw” the sin of Adam and Eve after they put on the tunics of skin He had made for them. And Isaac did not “see” the trick being played upon him, dressing up Jacob like his hairy brother. But the fact is that in God’s eyes, justice was being served through the transparent ruse. Esau didn’t want to walk with Yahweh, even though he was the legitimate firstborn; Jacob did, though he wasn’t technically qualified. All Esau wanted out of the firstborn’s blessing was the double portion of the wealth; all Jacob wanted was the chance to serve and advance the spiritual legacy of his father and grandfather. Ironically, Jacob ended up walking (okay, running) away from the financial component of his firstborn status anyway—only to become a wealthy man in his own right from a completely different source. Esau built Isaac’s flocks and herds to the point where he too was wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, but ended up being the only guy in the entire Bible whom God ever said he hated (see Malachi 1:3). And be prepared to shudder at the curses pronounced upon Edom—Esau’s territory—in Isaiah 34.
Are you and I really any different? Our status before God depends (in a manner of speaking) on what we do with the skins of the innocent animals who have been slain on our behalf. Do we wear them (per God’s instructions) to conceal our inadequacies before Him, or do we insist that He be “just and fair” with us—because we don’t really acknowledge our sin—and in the process condemn ourselves to an eternity without Him? I don’t know about you, but I’ll take mercy over justice any day of the week. After all, I’m guilty, and I know it.
I realize this is an extrapolation that may not be valid, but I found the names of the participants in this counterintuitive little drama to be quite telling. As you know, Hebrew names usually mean something—the prime example being our Savior, Yahshua, which means “Yahweh is Salvation.” In this case, we’ll begin with Esau, which means “hairy.” Jacob means “supplanter, cheater, literally: heel-grabber.” But Yahweh Himself later changed his name to Israel, meaning “prevails with God,” because he desperately desired to cling to the God of his fathers. Rebekah played a big part in this story. Her name apparently means “confining or restraining by means of one’s beauty.” And Isaac’s name (because his mother Sarah laughed at the idea of bearing a child in her old age) means “laughter.”
So the story—as illuminated by the names of its participants—seems to be that Esau lived (and looked) like an animal—with no discernable spiritual component. But Jacob desired to take his place as the spiritual leader in the godly Abrahamic line. Rebekah had her husband wrapped around her little finger from the day they met. She was devoted to him, and he loved her for her beauty and spirit, but she didn’t hesitate to use her wiles and instincts to hoodwink her beloved husband into doing what she knew was Yahweh’s will anyway. And Isaac? Blind or not, I have a feeling he could see (at least dimly) what was going on, and ended up having a good laugh, at his own expense, at having been proved wrong about his sons.
Well, it’s a theory.
Let us take a look at several other “miscellaneous” mentions of “skin” in scripture. There are a dizzying array of offering types in the Torah, all of which, one way or another, speak of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. (See The Owner’s Manual, Chapter 12, elsewhere on this website—for a discussion of the various types.) Among the blood sacrifices were the burnt offering (the olah), the sin offering (the chata’t), the trespass offering (the asham), and the peace offering (the selem). Depending on the circumstances, either sheep, goats, or bulls could be offered up. The meat was either consumed in flame or eaten by the priests and/or the worshiper. The fat was always burned on the altar—“the best” symbolically reserved for God. But the skin—the hide—customarily went to the priest who did the labor of sacrifice: “The trespass offering is like the sin offering; there is one law for them both: the priest who makes atonement with it shall have it. And the priest who offers anyone’s burnt offering, that priest shall have for himself the skin of the burnt offering which he has offered.” (Leviticus 7:7-8)
We aren’t told why. It may be as simple as remuneration for a job well done—not “muzzling the ox who treads out the grain,” so to speak. Priests (being Levites) had no inheritance in the Land. They relied upon the tithes of the other tribes (per Yahweh’s instructions) for their livelihood. Preparing an animal for sacrifice was hard work, and the skins were a valuable and useful commodity in this agrarian society. But we should also consider the symbology of the thing. Priests represent believers, we who rely upon the provision of Christ for everything from our salvation to our daily bread. Moreover, the skins (as we have seen) function as the “disguise of holiness” that God provides for us, through which He chooses not to see our sin. So it makes perfect metaphorical sense for the priests (read: believers) to be given the skins of the sacrifices, indicative of the covering—the atonement—that Yahshua’s sacrifice provides to us, to the exclusion of any other demographic group.
Skin played a small but significant part in a vision shown to Ezekiel concerning the process by which Israel (as a nation) would be restored to fellowship with Yahweh. It’s the famous “dry bones” prophecy: “The hand of Yahweh came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of Yahweh, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ So I answered, ‘O Lord Yahweh, You know.’ Again He said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of Yahweh! Thus says the Lord Yahweh to these bones: ‘Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am Yahweh.’”’” (Ezekiel 37:1-6)
We as individuals can be saved and restored more or less instantaneously—a flash of spiritual insight precipitating faith leading to repentance. But for a whole nation (Israel, in this case) to be brought to this sort of spiritual epiphany, it takes a process, instituted and engineered by God Himself, and playing out over years, if not generations. The “valley” here is the world in which Israel had been scattered: the nation didn’t even exist in any geopolitical sense between 135 AD and 1948. In 135, you’ll recall, the Roman Emperor Hadrian finished what Vespasian had started in 70—putting down the final Jewish rebellion (that of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiba), salting the land to make it barren and worthless, exiling the Jews, and renaming the Land “Palestina” (after the long-extinct Philistines) in an attempt to break the Jews’ emotional attachment to the Land. Yes, there were still a few die-hard Jews living here over the years, but not as an independent nation, and never in very large numbers. Palestina was, for most of that time, considered a backwater province of neighboring Syria—desolate and under-populated, a land of worthless deserts, barren hills, and abysmal swamps.
Many of the exiled Jews eventually ended up in “the far north,” in Eastern Europe and Russia. Wherever they went, they were isolated and often persecuted—which tended to prevent them from assimilating into their respective societies, even if they had been of a mind to do so. In the 1880s, under the pressure of such persecution, they began moving back to “Palestine” in large numbers—buying up huge tracts of land from gleeful indigenous Arabs who considered the land virtually worthless (which it was, in the state the immigrant Jews found it). At this point, the “dry bones” had sinews and flesh upon them—though they still couldn’t be said to be “alive.”
You’ll notice that the prophet says twice that Yahweh will “put breath into you,” in other words, promising to make them “alive” in some way. In both instances, he used the Hebrew word ruach, often translated spirit. In the light of history and prophecy, we can see that the first instance of “breathing life” into Israel was on May 14, 1948, when they were miraculously resurrected from national annihilation, becoming a recognized geopolitical entity for the first time in 1,813 years. The second instance is yet future, when as a nation, Israel will become spiritually alive. As part of this process, Yahweh says He will “cover you with skin.” We should now be able to recognize this as atonement—the covering of sin. And indeed, my study of prophecy has led me to the firm conclusion that this will happen on the definitive Day of Atonement, which (not coincidentally) will also mark the Second Coming of Christ—His bodily, glorious appearing on the Mount of Olives (See Acts 1:11, Zechariah 14:4, etc.). The date (if I am not mistaken about a great many things) will be October 3, 2033. The bottom line says it all: “Then you shall know that I am Yahweh.”
Describing the heroes of the faith—and the depredations they suffered for their testimony—the writer to the Hebrews says, “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” (Hebrews 11:35-40) For our present purposes, let us concentrate on the remark about “sheepskins and goatskins.”
Most of us, given the chance, prefer to wear clothing that is both culturally appropriate and comfortable. But the prophets of old were often reduced to wearing whatever was available. The Benson Commentary notes: “Their outward condition was poor, mean, and contemptible; their clothing being no better than the unwrought skins of sheep and goats. Nothing is here intimated of their choosing mean clothing, as a testimony of mortification, but they were compelled by necessity to use such as they could find or obtain. Thus have the saints of God, in sundry seasons, been reduced to the utmost extremities of poverty and want.”
For example, when King Ahaziah (in II Kings 1) was in need of a prophet, he sent for one from whom he hoped he would get a favorable verdict. But another prophet intercepted the messengers and delivered the bad news the king was hoping to avoid. When they described the man as “a hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist,” the king knew immediately that it was Elijah. Prophets of Yahweh were not known for wearing $6,000 Italian suits.
In the same vein, John the Baptist was described as being “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4) Yahshua reminded the people that prophets were not supposed to be slick, stylish, and diplomatic but blunt, unpolished, and fearless: “Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.”’” (Matthew 11:7-10) The moral of the story: don’t judge people by their sartorial image, but by the plain truth that comes from their lips. I doubt if you’ll catch the Antichrist wearing blue jeans and a sweat shirt.
Linen: Assigned Moral Purity
Most Americans are quite familiar with materials like cotton, wool (including “specialty wools” like Cashmere), synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester, and even silk. We’re familiar with the term “linen” as well, but mostly because we habitually call our bedding, tablecloths, and other domestic cloth items “linens,” whether or not they’re actually made of real linen—the fibers of the flax plant. The fact is, though linen is a superior fabric in many ways, it is quite labor-intensive to grow and manufacture, and is often substituted these days with cotton. Unfortunately, the words used to transmit “linen” and “cotton” in the Hebrew Bible (and there are several of them) are often used interchangeably. But the fabric we’re talking about here is made from the flax plant (Linum usitatissimumro)—what the Greeks called bussos (Hebrew: buts): a very costly, delicate, soft, white (or off-white) fiber.
FAO.org helps us differentiate the two things: “Cotton: It’s almost pure cellulose, with softness and breathability that have made it the world's most popular natural fiber. Fiber length varies from 10 to 65 mm, and diameter from 11 to 22 microns. It absorbs moisture readily, which makes cotton clothes comfortable in hot weather, while high tensile strength in soap solutions means they are easy to wash. Cotton is the world’s most widely used natural fiber and still the undisputed king of the global textiles industry.
“Flax: Like cotton, flax fiber [a.k.a. linen] is a cellulose polymer, but its structure is more crystalline, making it stronger, crisper and stiffer to handle, and more easily wrinkled. Flax fibers range in length up to 90 cm [that’s twenty times longer than cotton], and average 12 to 16 microns in diameter. They absorb and release water quickly, making linen comfortable to wear in hot weather. One of nature’s strongest vegetable fibers, flax was also one of the first to be extracted, spun and woven into textiles.”
The usual Biblical comparison—symbol vs. symbol—is between linen and wool (not cotton). Why this is so will become apparent as we proceed. We’ll cover wool in the next section.
An online linen merchant, Life-Giving Linen, provides further information: “Linen is a natural fiber made from the stalk and root of the same flax plant that produces flax seeds. Flax seeds are not only edible but very beneficial to health (they may reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer), so it logically follows that fabric made from flax plant stalks would also be highly acceptable to the body. Production of flax is both environmentally friendly and sustainable requiring less pesticides and herbicides than what other plants like cotton require.
“Unlike cotton which holds water next to the skin, linen is very effective at absorbing moisture and wicking it away from the body. This is very important for any material worn next to the skin. This is helpful for night sweats, hot flashes, yeast infections, and helping keep toxins away from the skin. The antibacterial effect of linen may help with urinary tract infections. Linen is beneficial in hot temperatures because of its natural cooling effect, and is hypoallergenic and gentle on the skin. It is antibacterial, hypoallergenic (recommended for sensitive skin), is used for internal sutures, because the body accepts it, and is effective in reducing fevers and inflammation. Linen causes 1.5 times less perspiration than cotton, is 20% more absorbent than cotton (making it ideal for feminine products), and it dries quickly. Linen absorbs up to one-fifth of its own oven-dry weight of water without being damp on the surface, which is important when one thinks of clothing worn next to the skin. And it is a very strong, natural fiber it has high resistance to tearing. In fact, its strength increases about one-fifth upon wetting.” This explains why U.S. currency is printed on “paper” that is 25% linen.
Bear in mind that the literal properties of this fiber are not really the point, but they may help us to perceive why God has chosen to use it as a symbol. He’s not saying: “Y’all must wear linen clothing exclusively because it’s such a splendid textile substance.” (My wife would be thrilled to hear this, because linen wrinkles easily, and she hates ironing.) Its literal attributes are spiritually neutral, like a thousand other things that populate our mortal lives. Before we ponder the scriptures, I would merely take note of the facts that (1) flax/linen is very human-friendly—that is, compatible with and beneficial to the way Yahweh designed and built our bodies, inside and out—and (2) because it wicks moisture away from the body, it is a natural metaphor for “not sweating,” that is, not trying to work our way into God’s favor. In other words, it’s symbolic of grace.
Bearing this in mind, let us first explore the many ways God specified linen as a component of the wilderness tabernacle—in which virtually everything bore symbolic significance of one sort or another. It was listed among the many things Yahweh asked the Israelites to contribute toward the sanctuary building project as they began their journey toward the Promised Land. “From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering. And this is the offering which you shall take from them: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet thread, fine linen, and goats’ hair; ram skins dyed red, badger [literally, porpoise] skins, and acacia wood; oil for the light, and spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense; onyx stones, and stones to be set in the ephod and in the breastplate. And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:2-9)
Lots of materials were specified: metals, textiles, wood, oil and spices, and semi-precious gemstones. Some of these things were to be used in the tabernacle proper, and some were to be employed in the priestly garments—but all of them bore symbolic significance. It is my intention to cover all of these things within these pages; I have discussed many of them already. As we proceed, it will become apparent that the sheer volume of materials required for the project was daunting. So bear in mind that although upwards of half a million families participated in the exodus, total commitment from the whole nation was required to make the tabernacle. Most of these things were not available in the wilderness: they had to be brought out of Egypt when they departed. Yes, you could get goats’ hair and rams’ skins, and you may be able to process frankincense or gather acacia wood out in the desert, but you couldn’t stop, plant a field of flax, wait for it to mature, and then weave thousands of yards of fabric from the fibers. You had to bring the linen with you out of bondage in Egypt.
So we read with interest the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary’s notes on the subject: “Linen was the most common fabric used in the ancient Near East. It was spun from the flax plant and bleached before being woven into clothing, bedding, curtains, and burial shrouds. The tabernacle curtains and the high priest’s garments were of ‘fine linen,’ cloth woven so finely that it cannot be distinguished from silk without the aid of magnification.” Judging by what the Israelites contributed, there was plenty of fine linen on hand. Remember: they weren’t planning on ever going back. They took everything they owned with them.
The roof/ceiling of the sanctuary (as we have seen) was comprised of four layers of fabric or skins, the innermost of which was made of linen cloth. “You shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine woven linen and blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them.” The white linen panels were to be embroidered in expensive dyed thread with “artistic designs of cherubim.” How they knew what a cherub (a type of angel) looked like, I have no idea. But this layer was visible from inside the sanctuary, so its appearance counted. The message (one only the priests could perceive) was that “Yahweh’s angels are watching over you.” “The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits. And every one of the curtains shall have the same measurements.” (Exodus 26:1-2) Since the modular sanctuary structure (when assembled) was ten cubits tall, ten wide, and thirty long (i.e., about 15 x 15 x 45 feet), the inner linen layers were too short to touch the ground, as if to say “grace is not to be soiled by contact with the world.” (The other three layers, however, were the full 30 cubits in length, meaning they went all the way to the ground. Everything about the plan of God for our atonement interacts with the world—except for the concept of grace, which is kept separate and holy.)
There was to be a fence-like barrier around the tabernacle grounds, also made of linen: “You shall also make the court of the tabernacle. For the south side there shall be hangings for the court made of fine woven linen, one hundred cubits long for one side….” (Exodus 27:9) The overall dimensions of the court would be 100 cubits by 50, with a single linen screen entrance gateway 20 cubits wide on the eastern side. The hangings were to be five cubits tall (v.18). Since the pillars supporting the linen “walls” were to be spaced at five cubits, it is possible (or likely) that the entire perimeter was composed of linen panels five cubits square, mirroring the dimensions of the altar. Is it just a coincidence that five is the scriptural number for grace? I think not. (See The Owner’s Manual, Volume 2, chapter 4, elsewhere on this website, for more on the construction of the tabernacle.)
I plan to discuss the symbol-rich priestly garments in a future chapter. (The significance of dyes and colors will be handled separately as well.) For now, suffice it to say that these garments were mostly made of linen. It is as if Yahweh was saying, “My priests—symbolic of believers in general, those who have access to My presence—are to be covered with grace. The introductory instructions are as follows:
“They shall take the gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and the fine linen, and they shall make the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen, artistically worked…. You shall make the breastplate of judgment. Artistically woven according to the workmanship of the ephod you shall make it: of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen, you shall make it…. You shall skillfully weave the tunic of fine linen thread, you shall make the turban of fine linen, and you shall make the sash of woven work. For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics, and you shall make sashes for them. And you shall make hats for them, for glory and beauty. So you shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him. You shall anoint them, consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister to Me as priests. And you shall make for them linen trousers to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from the waist to the thighs.” (Exodus 28:5-6, 15, 39-42)
And the craftsmen under Bezalel’s supervision made these articles of clothing to Yahweh’s exact specifications: “They made tunics, artistically woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, a turban of fine linen, exquisite hats of fine linen, short trousers of fine woven linen, and a sash of fine woven linen with blue, purple, and scarlet thread, made by a weaver, as Yahweh had commanded Moses.” (Exodus 39:27-29)
All through scripture, but especially in Leviticus (e.g., 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26) God’s people were admonished to “be holy, because He is holy.” “Holy” (Hebrew: qadosh or qodesh) doesn’t mean “well-behaved,” but rather separate, set-apart; hence, sacred. Yahweh is “holy” because he exists outside—independent of—the universe He created. He is separate from it, not controlled or influenced by it. In the same way, we are to be separate from the world’s influence. Yes, we have to live in the world, but we don’t have to let it live in us. The only way for us to achieve holiness in this way, however, is to invite and allow the One who is Self-defined as holy—Yahweh—to dwell within us.
I realize that to the uninitiated, that sounds a bit too nebulous to be practical. In fact, nobody described how it would work until Yahshua explained it (the indwelling of His Holy Spirit) to His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion. Before that timely revelation, it was really all God could do to give us hints and metaphors that sounded for all the world like rules and regulations, but that explained in practical terms what “being holy” looked like in the real world. At first glance, they’re not particularly intuitive. He said things like: “You shall keep My statutes. You shall not let your livestock breed with another kind. You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.” (Leviticus 19:19) Or, “You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, such as wool and linen mixed together.” (Deuteronomy 22:11)
Yahweh is not micromanaging here. Rather, He is teaching us through symbols about what it means to “be holy as I am holy.” Sheep and goats and cattle, for instance, each mean something entirely different in God’s symbol lexicon. (For a refresher course, review Volume 3 of this work.) Don’t confuse (or worse, blend the attributes of) innocence with service, or expect the endeavors of man to bear your sin for you. Lambs are not oxen, nor are bulls interchangeable with goats. God has kept these symbols separate for a reason. Don’t expect wheat and tares (look-alike weeds) to provide you with equally nutritious bread.
And closer to home, what does it mean to avoid blending wool and linen in a single garment? We use “blended fabrics” all the time today—usually combinations of natural fibers with synthetics, like cotton or wool with polyester. Why? (1) Better performance—improving the characteristics that are poor in one fiber by blending it with another type of fabrics that excel in those characteristics For example, a polyester-cotton blend has moderate absorbency which is almost nil in polyester alone. (2) Improving texture: the “hand” or feel and appearance of fabrics—blending of wool fibers with polyester for example, produces the desired texture for suiting materials. Viscose (i.e., rayon), when blended with cotton, improves its luster and softness. (3) Cost reduction: the cost of a very expensive fabric (e.g. wool) can often be reduced by blending with another cheap fiber (like polyester). (4) Cross-dyed effects: fibers with unlike dye affinity are combined and dyed together, producing interesting color effects. And (5) improving the spinning, weaving and finishing characteristics: for example, the spinning efficiency of polyester is improved by blending it with cotton. (H/T TextileSchool.com.)
So does God have a problem with plastic, or with progress? No. As always, the answer lies in the symbol. This is one that God actually spelled out in scripture—a rather uncommon occurrence. Speaking of the temple service in Christ’s Millennial Kingdom, the priests’ garments are described. “And it shall be, whenever they enter the gates of the inner court, that they shall put on linen garments; no wool shall come upon them while they minister within the gates of the inner court or within the house. They shall have linen turbans on their heads and linen trousers on their bodies; they shall not clothe themselves with anything that causes sweat.” (Ezekiel 44:17-18)
We have already seen that linen naturally wicks moisture away from the skin, minimizing perspiration. Wool, in comparison, tends to cause skin to sweat. It’s not that God’s delicate sensibilities are offended by a little body odor. It’s that sweat implies human effort—works—while the absence of sweat is metaphorical of the opposite condition: grace. It’s all a rather transparent object lesson concerning how salvation is achieved—through grace: the assignment (not achievement) of moral purity. Note that the linen clothing is required only within the confines of the temple and its court. Work (the metaphorical upshot of “wearing wool”) is perfectly appropriate out in the world, but the reconciliation of sinful man with a holy God cannot be achieved through our work, effort, alms, or piety—only through grace.
Ezekiel saw some pretty strange things in visions—things that revealed what Yahweh intended to do, if we paid close attention to the symbols He employed. One that involved linen goes as follows: “Then He called out in my hearing with a loud voice, saying, ‘Let those who have charge over the city draw near, each with a deadly weapon in his hand….’” These are apparently angels whom Yahweh has assigned to watch over Jerusalem. Though his vision “took place” in Jerusalem, Ezekiel had already been carried off into Babylonian captivity with King Jehoiachin and about ten thousand others (in the second wave of conquest, 597 BC). But Jerusalem and the temple still stood: they would be destroyed in 586—hence the continued warnings.
“And suddenly six men came from the direction of [Jerusalem’s] upper gate, which faces north, each with his battle-ax in his hand.” North is symbolic of the place of power, the throne of God, said to be coveted by Satan in Isaiah 14:13. There are six men (angels), indicative of their collective concern with mankind. “One man among them was clothed with linen and had a writer’s inkhorn at his side….” His linen clothing tells us that it is his function to identify and mark those to whom moral purity has been attributed by God. He is to do this using the pen and ink he carries. In context, Yahweh has just shown Ezekiel (in chapter 8) “the great abominations that the house of Israel commits here, to make Me go far away from My sanctuary.” (vs. 6) It must have taken a great deal of gross idolatry to make God want to abandon His own temple—abominations that are described in detail here. But I cringe with horror when I realize that the things that so upset Almighty God in Ezekiel’s vision seem almost tame when compared to the abominations practiced universally in today’s world—even in America, this nation so blessed we even acknowledge our trust in God by printing it on our currency.
The glorious Shekinah was seen leaving the temple in stages—just as God seems to be leaving this once great country. “They went in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub, where it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed with linen, who had the writer’s inkhorn at his side.” He is about to reveal the single attribute that identifies someone as righteous in times of utter apostasy—such as the times in which we now live: “And Yahweh said to him, ‘Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it….’”
What? No theological orthodoxy? No environmental concern or politically correct virtue signaling? No willingness to condone sin in the name of “a tolerant, all-loving god”? No. But God doesn’t condemn men for being unsuccessful in their efforts to stem the tide of apostasy and corruption, either—to “drain the swamp,” in today’s parlance. He realizes that for us flawed and finite men, it can be like rowing up a waterfall. He knows our hearts. Do the “abominations” that are done all around us cause us to “sigh and cry” in contrite agony, confessing our nation’s sins before a holy God? Or do we take it all in stride, trying to go with the flow as we attempt to surf this wave of moral sewage to its inevitable end?
And what is that end? Remember, the angel with the inkhorn was not alone. He was accompanied by others—who were armed to the teeth. “To the others He said in my hearing, ‘Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary.’” (Ezekiel 9:1-6) As grim as this is (and Babylon’s genocidal destruction of Jerusalem was only a pale hint of the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy: the “time of Jacob’s trouble”), there is a silver lining to this cloud. It is, if you think about it, a rare Old Testament confirmation of the doctrine of the pre-Tribulation rapture. That is, God has taken note of who are His, and has sworn to spare them when the angels with battle-axes show up. In a way, the marks on the foreheads of God’s people are parallel to having our names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. But do not presume that merely being “religious” will indemnify you from the headman’s ax: his instructions are to begin judgment at the very sanctuary of God.
The prophet Jeremiah was a rough contemporary of Ezekiel, and he too foretold—and then saw with his waking eyes—the deportation and destruction of Judah. He preached to deaf ears and obstinate, apostate hearts for forty years. As with many of Yahweh’s prophets, object lessons were a big part of how Jeremiah communicated with his audience. And one of these object lessons involved linen. “Thus Yahweh said to me: ‘Go and get yourself a linen sash, and put it around your waist, but do not put it in water.’ So I got a sash according to the word of Yahweh, and put it around my waist….” Jeremiah was a priest, and the linen sash would have been part of the normal priestly “uniform” (see Exodus 28:4). Such a linen sash is specifically mentioned among the High Priest’s garments in regard to the rites of the Day of Atonement, in Leviticus 16:4.
Jeremiah was told not to wash the sash: it was to represent the accumulation of moral pollution on the nation of Judah through generations of apostasy. The fact that it was to be made of linen reminds us of the grace that had been shown to Israel, imputed righteousness that had been subsequently buried under hundreds of years of apostasy and idolatry, a sorry state that God now revealed in His object lesson: “And the word of Yahweh came to me the second time, saying, ‘Take the sash that you acquired, which is around your waist, and arise, go to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a hole in the rock.’ So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as Yahweh commanded me….” The meaning is obvious, in hindsight: the grace Judah had been shown was going to be “buried” for a while in Babylon (which is situated on the Euphrates River). The favor God had shown to Israel in times past—including the responsibility of demonstrating to the heathen world what Yahweh was doing in the world—would be sequestered for a time, useless and forgotten. Remember, the sash was an appurtenance of the priesthood: whatever it was that Israel’s priests represented (intercession and judgment—see Volume 4, chapter 2.3 of this work) was going to be made unavailable because of the nation’s sins.
How long was this condition to last? Alas, there are some things from which full recovery is not possible: “Now it came to pass after many days that Yahweh said to me, ‘Arise, go to the Euphrates, and take from there the sash which I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates and dug, and I took the sash from the place where I had hidden it; and there was the sash, ruined. It was profitable for nothing….” Remember what I said about the linen sash being specifically mentioned in the Torah’s instructions concerning the Day of Atonement? After the general prophecy came to pass (in which Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the temple), the full symbolic function of the temple service was never restored. Yes, the temple was eventually rebuilt (and then extensively remodeled by Herod just in time for its use by the Messiah), but the Ark of the Covenant went missing sometime between the reign of Josiah (Judah’s last good king) and the destruction of the temple—i.e., sometime between 609 BC and 586. Ironically (or not) it was apparently this very prophet, Jeremiah the priest, who hid the Ark in a cavern in these limestone hills so the Babylonians couldn’t desecrate it. (See The End of the Beginning, chapter 13, for the whole amazing story.)
The Ark, you’ll recall, was required for the rites of Yom Kippurym, the Day of Atonement: technically (i.e. symbolically) the sins of Israel could not be forgiven under Torah Law without it. So Jeremiah’s linen sash being irreparably ruined was a prophetic sign that the temple service was being phased out. To observant Jews, of course, the very idea was unthinkable—or at least incomprehensible. But it was Yahweh’s plan all along. Jeremiah himself had declared (in 3:16), “No longer will they say, ‘The ark of Yahweh’s covenant.’ It will never come to mind, and no one will remember it or miss it, nor will another one be made.” The rites and rituals of the temple all pointed, one way or another, to the sacrifice of Yahshua the Messiah for the sins of Israel, and the sins of the whole world. In 33 AD, the blood of Yahweh’s sacrifice, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” was sprinkled once and for all on the Ark of Yahweh’s Covenant. No more bulls and goats were necessary. The temple was torn down for good within a generation, and the priesthood itself would not survive for another century. Jeremiah’s linen sash was indeed “ruined—profitable for nothing.”
Or, as Jeremiah was instructed to explain to us: “Then the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh: “In this manner I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.” This pride was their religion, dependent on the temple (but not on what the temple signified), now a hollow and twisted caricature of what the Torah had actually commanded. “This evil people, who refuse to hear My words, who follow the dictates of their hearts, and walk after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be just like this sash which is profitable for nothing. For as the sash clings to the waist of a man, so I have caused the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah to cling to Me,” says Yahweh, “that they may become My people, for renown, for praise, and for glory; but they would not hear.”’” (Jeremiah 13:1-11)
It wasn’t as if Yahweh had left Israel rotting in bondage. He had left His people in Egypt just long enough for them (and us) to appreciate their deliverance. Then He blessed her abundantly: “I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth.” (Ezekiel 16:10–13) The “blessings and cursings” passages in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 had told them precisely what to expect if they followed Yahweh’s precepts—and if they did not. If they had believed Yahweh, if they had trusted Him to be as good as His word, they would not have abandoned His teachings (which, Christ later pointed out, boiled down to two things: love Yahweh, and love your fellow man). But over time, they did abandon these precepts, so using the same sartorial imagery, the prophet revealed what would happen: “In that day Yahweh will take away the finery… the fine linen, the turbans, and the robes.” (Isaiah 3:18, 23)
There are several scriptural instances in which ordinary men who were given royal privileges and responsibilities were dressed in fine linen to indicate their rank. Joseph and Mordecai come to mind as prominent examples.
Upon appointing Joseph to be Egypt’s “famine czar,” “Pharaoh took his signet ring off his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand; and he clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. And he had him ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ So he set him over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:42-43) The symbols say a lot: the signet ring revealed that Joseph now wielded the very authority of Pharaoh himself—the most powerful man in the world at that time. The gold chain indicated immutable purity—as if to say Joseph could henceforth do no wrong in Egypt. The chariot was the rough equivalent of a “presidential limousine” or Air Force One (okay, Two). And the fine linen reminds us that all this personal power was attributed to Joseph by the king: he did not earn, buy, usurp, or attain it in battle. At its heart, it was this Pharaoh’s acknowledgment that Joseph’s God, Yahweh, was King of kings and Lord of lords.
A later monarch who could rightly be called a “king of kings” in his own right was the Persian king Ahasuerus (a.k.a. Xerxes I, who reigned from about 485 to 464 BC, from whose reign the timing of the Messiah’s coming was revealed in the amazing Daniel 9 prophecy). Through an unlikely (read: God-ordained) series of events, a beautiful Jewish orphan, Esther, was made his queen, and she and Mordecai (the uncle who had raised her as his own daughter) subsequently saved the exiled nation of Israel from being annihilated through Satan’s sinister schemes, perpetrated by a weasel named Haman. It’s a real cliff-hanger, recorded in the Book of Esther—the origin of the Jewish holiday Purim.
Anyway, when the dust settled, a relieved King Ahasuerus rewarded Mordecai with the appurtenances of semi-royal status (befitting a hero of the realm and honored uncle of the queen). This was a far cry from the sackcloth and ashes Mordecai had donned when Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews had come to light. Again, the symbols reveal the status. In a parallel to Joseph’s situation, a royal horse was provided for Mordecai to ride on (6:7-11), and a signet ring was given to him (8:2). “So Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, with a great crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad.” (Esther 8:15) I’ll defer discussion of the colors for a future chapter, but once again, note that the fine linen symbolizes that these many honors were assigned to Mordecai by the king: he did not seize them for himself. In fact, a big part of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews had unraveled when the king realized that Mordecai had never been properly rewarded for saving his life in an earlier episode (see Esther 2:21-23, 6:1-3).
The linen metaphor shows up in the New Testament as well. Yahshua once told a parable (“The Rich Man and Lazarus”) in which the lives, deaths, and subsequent adventures of two men are contrasted. In life, their situations couldn’t have been more different. “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19) Meanwhile, a poor beggar named Lazarus (whose name means “God has helped”) was dressed like, well, like a beggar—rough, cheap, and smelly, hoping for a little charity from the unnamed rich guy. Following the symbols, we are led to the counterintuitive conclusion that the rich man’s wealth—that which defined him—was not so much earned as it was assigned to him: it was at some level a gift from God.
We would do well to ponder the phenomenon of riches: why does God give wealth to people? Is it so that they might look down their noses at the poor unfortunates of the world? Obviously not: pride is the one human attribute Yahweh seems to hate above all others. Is it so that they might exercise power over the weak of the world? No, that’s God’s job (though He does delegate to human governments, mostly to test our willingness to follow His precepts, I’m guessing). Perhaps the key to our understanding can be found in the Torah’s law of the tithe. Israelites were instructed to (1) hold in trust what would have been Levi’s tribal inheritance, (2) give back ten percent of their increase (i.e., not the principle, but the gains) to the Levites, who were in turn instructed to (3) support the priests and (4) feed the poor out of what they received. And who provided this “increase” in the first place? God did, whether through making the land fertile, giving people the ability and opportunity to work, or providing peace and safety in the Land—keeping destructive influences at bay.
It would be instructive to study some of the men in scripture who were noted for their wealth. Job was one of the most successful men in the ancient Near East, yet when he lost it all, he worshiped and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.” (Job 1:21) After describing how he had used his money to take care of widows, orphans, and strangers, Job protests that he had not made wealth his god: “If I have made gold my hope, or said to fine gold, ‘You are my confidence,’ If I have rejoiced because my wealth was great, and because my hand had gained much… This also would be an iniquity deserving of judgment, for I would have denied God who is above.” (Job 31:24-25, 28)
David began as a simple shepherd, but Yahweh elevated him to the position of King of Israel. He was so successful that his wealth became enormous, whether through conquest or tribute. But all he could think about, especially as he grew older, was honoring Yahweh with this treasure, even though God had told him that because he was a man of war, he would not be allowed to build the temple himself. So he did what he could: he funded the temple project—lavishly. I Chronicles 29 reports that David personally provided 3,000 talents of gold and 7,000 talents of silver for the project—matched by the collective elders and officers of Israel with over 5,000 talents of gold and 10,000 of silver (for starters). Bear in mind that at today’s prices, one talent of gold is worth well over $1.5 million. But vast riches meant nothing to David in comparison to honoring God, and his attitude was apparently catching.
And what of Solomon, the son of David who used all this wealth to see his father’s dream come to fruition? His wealth was legendary, since he continued to collect tribute throughout his long reign. But personally? He said, “There is one who makes himself rich, yet has nothing, and one who makes himself poor, yet has great riches.” (Proverbs 13:7) Or “Better is a little with righteousness, than vast revenues without justice.” (Proverbs 16:8) And then there are the words of Agur, son of Jakeh, of whom Solomon thought enough to include among his own proverbs: “Give me neither poverty nor riches—Feed me with the food allotted to me, lest I be full and deny You, and say, ‘Who is Yahweh?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8-9)
On a national scale, we would do well to heed the lament of America’s sixteenth president: “We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of their own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”—Abraham Lincoln. In short, great wealth—“dressing in fine linen” as the Biblical symbol puts it—comes with strings attached. It is a gift from God, to be used to implement His love for humanity.
Back to the New Testament mentions of linen: “Then he [Joseph of Arimathea] bought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen. And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.” (Mark 15:46) The crucifixion of Christ took his followers pretty much by surprise. Yes, He had told them plainly what would happen, and the scriptures had (in more subtle ways) prophesied the event. But no one really understood until after His resurrection that the Messiah’s coming would be separated into two radically different phases: the suffering Savior, and the reigning King. So here we see a wealthy and powerful member of the Sanhedrin—a believer as shaken as anyone by the events of the day—doing what he could to honor Yahshua in death as he had in life: wrapping His mangled, lifeless corpse in fine linen.
Joseph, of course, had no idea of the symbolic significance of fine linen. It was not yet apparent to anyone that linen signified imputed righteousness—assigned moral purity. This fact wouldn’t really become clear until John’s recording of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (in passages we’ll review in a moment). Nor was Joseph attributing righteousness (or wealth) to Yahshua. But unwittingly (perhaps) he was revealing that Christ’s death had provided unearned righteousness to us. Had not John the Baptist called Him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? It would soon become apparent that Yahshua was now the fulfillment of every blood-sacrifice prophecy in the Torah. It explains why He had declared, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) If you think about it, He had to be wearing fine linen as He removed our sins from us in the tomb.
On the third day, however, the linen was no longer necessary. Yahshua left it behind in the tomb when He rose from the dead under His own power. Upon hearing from the devout women that Joseph’s tomb was empty, “Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple [i.e., John], and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And [John], stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.” (John 20:3-7) Again, follow the symbols. If linen is emblematic of imputed righteousness, it was appropriate for Christ to “wear” it as He was achieving this status on our behalf as He lay in the grave. But because He Himself was righteousness personified, it would have been inappropriate for Him to wear it in His risen state. Nobody assigned righteousness to Him. He was, after all, Yahweh in human form: holiness incarnate.
Not only was Christ Himself associated with linen when in the process of imputing our righteousness to us (by sacrificing Himself for our sins), but angels are often spoken of as “wearing linen” in visions seen by God’s prophets. We have already seen one instance in Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 9—the “man” with the inkhorn, marking the righteous as God’s Shekinah prepared to leave Jerusalem to its well-deserved fate. Another example is this vignette from Revelation: “The temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened. And out of the temple came the seven angels having the seven plagues, clothed in pure bright linen, and having their chests girded with golden bands.” (Revelation 15:5-6) As in Ezekiel, judgment is at hand: these seven angels are tasked with pouring out the seven ultimate bowls of God’s wrath onto the earth during the Great Tribulation. Actually, if you compare the imagery of Ezekiel 9-10 with that of Revelation 15-16, the parallels are numerous and specific, as if to inform us that Babylon’s destruction of Judah was to be but a prophetic hint of what would happen to the whole world during the Last Days.
It’s not that angels assign righteousness to believers themselves, but they are definitely involved in identifying those whose “faith is accounted unto them as righteousness” as Abraham’s was, and separating them from the unredeemed. Even in Matthew 25:31-46—Yahshua’s prophetic description of the separation of the “sheep” from the “goats” at the beginning of the Millennial age—angels are specifically said to be there with Him. Perhaps this explains why, in the inner layer of the tabernacle’s coverings—that of linen—depictions of angels were to be embroidered into the fine linen cloth. In my experience, God repeats things when He wants to make sure we pay attention and ponder the ramifications of these things. This detail is mentioned no fewer than four times in the Book of Exodus. Angels are associated with linen—which means that angels are somehow involved in the separation of God’s redeemed from those estranged from Him.
These “estranged” are known in scripture by a code word: Babylon. Historically, the city of Babylon (a.k.a. Babel) was the birthplace of organized, systematic idolatry in the post-flood world—something from which Yahweh has been working tirelessly to separate His people since the days of Nimrod. So when we see “Babylon” mentioned in prophetic texts, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ancient city on the Euphrates: it often points toward this pervasive systemic evil influence—one that will thrive until the Tribulation, but that will not endure into Christ’s Millennial Kingdom.
Babylon as a symbol takes on three distinct but interconnected forms: religious-academic, political-military, and commercial-financial. Multiple times in scripture, God’s people are warned to “Flee from Babylon.” One of them is toward the end of Revelation, where the sudden and catastrophic fall of commercial-financial Babylon is described in detail. “The kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived luxuriously with her will weep and lament for her, when they see the smoke of her burning, standing at a distance for fear of her torment, saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city!...” Although the word for “city” (Greek: polis) is the ordinary word for such a thing, think of the nature of cities in John’s day. They were walled political entities, self-interested and prepared to defend themselves and their interests. If there had been a Greek word for “system,” I imagine John would have used it.
Note, for our present purposes, that fine linen is mentioned several times in this narrative as one of the products purveyed by Babylon to the world: “For in one hour your judgment has come.’ And the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore: merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet…. The merchants of these things, who became rich by her, will stand at a distance for fear of her torment, weeping and wailing, and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls! For in one hour such great riches came to nothing.’” (Revelation 18:9-12, 15-17) From a literal point of view, fine linen is expensive, so it’s included in the list of luxuries in which Babylon “clothed” herself and provided to an idolatrous, greedy world—the rich and powerful “one-percent” at the top, as they’re called today by those who envy them.
But what does this have to do with linen in the spiritual-symbol sense—denoting imputed or assigned righteousness? As I noted above, “great wealth—‘dressing in fine linen’ as the Biblical symbol puts it—comes with strings attached. It is a gift from God, to be used to implement His love for humanity.” If we have been blessed, it is our responsibility to bless others; if we have been imputed with God’s righteousness, it is our responsibility to shower the lost with the love we have been shown. It’s all the same picture. But some hoard their gifts, refusing to be a conduit of God’s blessing, becoming instead a vault, a storage facility for stolen wealth.
This is not a new phenomenon. Jeremiah writes, “‘For among My people are found wicked men. They lie in wait as one who sets snares. They set a trap; they catch men. As a cage is full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit. Therefore they have become great and grown rich. They have grown fat, they are sleek. Yes, they surpass the deeds of the wicked. They do not plead the cause, the cause of the fatherless. Yet they prosper, and the right of the needy they do not defend. Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says Yahweh. ‘Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation [or city, or system] as this?’” (Jeremiah 5:26-29) This message/warning will have come full circle by the time John’s prophetic indictment of financial Babylon finally comes to pass.
It all reminds me of the insightful words of Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol. You remember the scene, I’m sure. The greedy miser Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted with the ghost of his old friend Marley—who had been every bit as miserable a soul as Scrooge was. Searching for something positive to say, the terrified Scrooge compliments Marley on his business acumen in life, to which the ghost angrily retorts, “Mankind was my business!” It was too late for Marley to mend his greedy ways, but there was still time for Scrooge to repent, and eventually, he did. In the story, anyway. I’m afraid the real spirits of unrepentant “Ebenezer Scrooges” will still populate the earth in the Last Days, dressed in the “fine linen” that should have been lavished on Tiny Tim (so to speak). The Fall of Babylon, the Rich Man and Lazarus, A Christmas Carol…it’s all the same story.
In the end, of course, any transfer of wealth (symbolized by fine linen) is only metaphorical of the transfer of essential goodness from Yahshua to those who believe Him—and believe in Him. The definitive description of what linen is really meant to denote is stated here: “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.’ And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” (Revelation 19:6-8)
Who is the wife of the Lamb? Who is the Bride of Christ? “She” is everyone whose soul is in heaven when Babylon is destroyed who can honestly say, “Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power belong to the Lord our God! For true and righteous are His judgments, because He has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication; and He has avenged on her the blood of His servants shed by her.” (Revelation 19:1-2) Redeemed Israel is still on the earth at this point, as are the remnants of the church of Repentant Laodicea—who as mortals will repopulate the earth during the Messiah’s Millennial reign. “The Bride” is definitely the raptured church, and doubtless the martyred neo-believers of the Tribulation (see Revelation 20:4) and the Old Testament saints as well.
For our present purposes, the important symbolic truth to all this is that the “fine linen” she is wearing represents the “righteous acts of the saints.” I am a believer, one who trusts Yahweh unreservedly with my eternal destiny. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I have done no “righteous acts” in my own strength or by my own will. The only reason God doesn’t see my sin (including the “filthy rags” that masquerade as good works in the real world—see Isaiah 64:6) is that He has covered me (and you, I hope) in a wedding garment of “fine linen, clean and bright,” through which, by His own design, my sins are rendered invisible.
A few verses later, we see our “Bridegroom,” Yahshua, preparing for war. “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God….” The white horse speaks of victory, and His righteous judgment reminds us that He is the source of any righteousness (i.e., the linen garments) we have. The multiple crowns explain His title: King of kings and Lord of lords.
“And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses.” We, His bride, will accompany Him. We too are riding white horses of ultimate victory, and remain robed in His imputed righteousness. It is as if after the wedding celebration, our Husband the King says to us, “Before we begin our thousand-year honeymoon, I need to make one quick stop at the office, to keep a long-standing promise on behalf of My people Israel.” We will be witnesses to Armageddon, though we will not participate: our battles are behind us. “Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Revelation 19:11-16)
Before we leave the subject of linen, there’s one more rabbit I want to chase, just to see where it goes. It’s clear from Revelation 19:8 (quoted above) that linen represents imputed righteousness—the “righteous acts of the saints” that the church puts on like donning a wedding garment. So far, so good. But bear in mind the physical characteristics of linen: yes, it’s strong, wicks moisture away from the skin (the source of the symbology), and expensive (since it is so labor intensive to manufacture), making it a lavish gift from God. But linen also wrinkles easily.
So what are we to make of Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians? “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27) Does the “wrinkle” comment mitigate the symbolic necessity of being “clothed in fine linen, clean and bright”? No. First of all, Paul is referring to the Bride herself, not what she’s wearing. We ourselves are sanctified, cleansed, and made glorious through Christ’s love. Although our works—the linen covering provided as a gift from God—may become a little wrinkled as we walk through the world, we ourselves are made spotless and “wrinkle-free” by the cleansing Word of God.
Second, the word translated “wrinkle” (Greek: rhutis) means “bunched up, contracted; figuratively, a wrinkle from aging.” (Helps Word-studies). It is a flaw, a disfiguring defect, especially on the face. It’s used here as a metaphor for a spiritual flaw or defect. If I may extrapolate a bit, this seems to mean that Christ is willing and able to make His beloved bride perpetually young and beautiful—even though we’re not like that at all in our natural state. And it’s not just Self-deception on His part: He actually transforms us into creatures of timeless beauty. Only then does he dress us in the “linen” of righteousness. So the bride our King sees is flawless and perfect inside and out—forever.
Wool: Work-Based Morality
Let us begin our study of wool by reprising the definitive contrast between wool and linen included in the specifications for Christ’s Millennial temple: “And it shall be, whenever they enter the gates of the inner court, that they shall put on linen garments. No wool shall come upon them while they minister within the gates of the inner court or within the house. They shall have linen turbans on their heads and linen trousers on their bodies; they shall not clothe themselves with anything that causes sweat.” (Ezekiel 44:17-18) Since linen wicks moisture away from the body, it is a metaphor for “not sweating”—that is, not working for one’s salvation, in a word, grace. Wool, in comparison, holds moisture, making it the symbolic poster child for work—that which causes one to perspire.
Is it then a simple case of “linen (grace) is good, and wool (work) is bad”? No, not even remotely. Note that the priests were required to wear linen only while performing their duties within the temple court’s inner gates or inside the sanctuary proper. (In the Millennial Temple, there will be an outer court and a second court within it, and within that, the sanctuary. The symbology is complex and wonderful, but it’s beyond the scope of this chapter. See The End of the Beginning, chapter 27, for the whole story.) Anywhere else, the priests could wear wool if they liked. The message is clear: there’s nothing wrong with work—in fact, it’s useful and necessary most of the time. But one cannot “work” one’s way into the kingdom of heaven. For that, you need to be covered with grace. By the way, this also defines the “work” the priests performed in the temple or tabernacle (which was quite rigorous at times) as something other than actual labor in the Levitical-Sabbatical sense. It was, in fact, worship—the remembrance of what Yahweh did for us, even if we didn’t fully understand it.
Like linen, sheep’s wool is white in color, indicating purity. But whereas saints and angels are depicted in scripture wearing linen, God Himself is seen in several visions with hair as white as wool. Daniel saw Yahweh this way: “I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated. His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire.” (Daniel 7:9) And in John’s vision, he saw the risen Christ in identical terms, though with a bit more detail: “Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.” (Revelation 1:12-16) It’s pretty clear: the Son of Man is the Ancient of Days. Yahshua is Yahweh.
So if we ponder this for a nanosecond, it all becomes clear: salvation is by works—just not by our own works. It is through God’s work (performed by His Messiah, Yahshua) that we are saved. Considering our fallen state, Yahweh’s work in saving us from our sins is every bit as impressive as His work creating us in the first place—something else we were totally incapable of doing. Just as we must simply accept the fact that we exist (i.e., that God created us), we must also receive through faith the grace that atones for our sins and reconciles us to our Creator: “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ Says Yahweh. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18)
Let us now revisit the covering layers specified for the wilderness tabernacle. There were to be four of them. In previous sections, we explored the outer two layers made of skins (#3 being ram’s skins dyed red, and #4, the outer layer, being made of porpoise or dugong hides—aquatic mammals from whose skins sandals were traditionally made). Together, these taught us that Yahweh’s provision of salvation would entail the shedding of innocent blood. Then we looked at the innermost layer, made of fine white linen and embroidered with cherubs. This, the only layer visible from inside the sanctuary (where man meets God), taught us (symbolically, anyway) that the purity that reconciles us sinners to a holy God is available only through unmerited favor (symbolized by linen), bestowed upon us by Yahweh Himself. The angels are there to watch over and protect us in Yahweh’s name until we can interact with Him personally, face to face.
That leaves but one layer, #2, left to examine. And wouldn’t you know it? This one is made of wool—not white sheep’s wool however, but goats’ hair wool fabric (which was normally black in color). “You shall also make curtains of goats’ hair, to be a tent over the tabernacle. You shall make eleven curtains. The length of each curtain shall be thirty cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; and the eleven curtains shall all have the same measurements.” (Exodus 26:7-8) There are several symbols to sort out here. First, the fact that wool is specified tells us that God’s labor (not ours) is involved in covering our sin. But why goats’ hair, and not the wool of sheep? Why black, and not white? It is because the significance of this layer is not in the fact of our salvation (the job of the linen cloth beneath it), but of what it took on God’s part to achieve that state.
Goats, as we saw in the rites of the Day of Atonement, are symbolic of Christ as “the sin bearer.” Two goats are involved. One is offered up as a sacrifice, and the other is set free in the wilderness. In other words, both death and life are required of the One who atones for our sins. I’m pretty sure this never made sense to anyone until Yahshua died in our stead, but then rose from the dead on the third day. The same Hebrew word was used to denote both goats (chata’t). It means “sin offering,” but also “sin” itself, that transgression for which the offering is being made. This fact helps us sort out the imagery Paul used: “Be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Corinthians 5:20-21) Christ was our chata’t. He was both the slain goat and the living one, both the sin and the sin offering.
Note too that whereas the linen curtain-layer was too short to reach the ground, the goat’s wool and subsequent layers were the full thirty cubits in length—long enough to touch the earth on both sides of the tabernacle. (The pictures we see of the tabernacle’s coverings being held out at an angle, like a tent, are in error. They hung straight down, touching the ground, except for the shorter inner layer.) The lesson is that our salvation by grace through faith (i.e., the linen layer) was achieved through means ordained in heaven. It is a gift from God. But the other three layers all speak of what Yahweh accomplished in the physical world: the goats’ wool cloth of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the red-dyed ram’s skins denoting the shedding of His blood, and the porpoise-skin outer layer indicating God’s provision, were all accomplished in the earth by Yahshua—the Son of Man, Yahweh’s human manifestation, Immanuel: God with us.
As viewed from the outside, the only thing the unsaved world can “see” is the final layer, indicating God’s provision. The inner linen layer—grace—is visible only to those who are standing within the sanctuary. (To get there, one must first enter the courtyard from the east, encounter the altar of sacrifice, and wash in the bronze laver of cleansing.) Grace, then, makes sense only to the redeemed. To the lost, it sounds foolish—or at least counterintuitive: works make far more “sense” to people who don’t recognize the seriousness of their sin. Layers #2 and #3, meanwhile, are hidden from view—revealed only through God’s word by faith. Well did Paul write, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:18, 22-24)
The word translated “called” here is kletos, a component of the word we translate “church”—ekklesia, literally the “called-out.” The implication is that we believers have not only been called; we have also answered, responded to that call from the Holy Spirit (who is sometimes called the para-kletos—someone called to one’s side or who pleads another’s cause—the Advocate or Helper who testifies of Christ: see John 15:26). And this brings us back full circle to the Day of Atonement (in which the two goats were the sin offering). The central requirement of the Day of Atonement is that we “afflict our souls.” But the Hebrew word for this is anah, which (not coincidentally) also means “to answer or respond.” Who knew that the “wool” metaphor had so much wrapped up in it?
So thus far, we’ve looked at three sources of suitable (pardon the pun) “covering material” used as symbols in scripture: animal skins, a.k.a. leather (innocence attained through sacrifice), linen (unmerited favor), and wool (good works). All of these things are appropriate as “clothing” for believers, as long as we’re wearing the right thing under the right circumstances, metaphorically speaking. For example, you can’t expect work (wool) to do the job of grace (linen), or vice versa. And fig leaves (religion) cannot achieve what animal skins accomplish. For that matter, not even linen (grace) is sufficiently efficacious without innocent blood backing it up (see Hebrews 9:22). It’s all an interlocking system, revealed by the symbols God uses, if only we will pay attention.
All three of these garment “modes” are mentioned in the Torah in regard to “leprosy.” The Hebrew usage of the word (tsaraath) denotes far more that the human infection that has plagued our race for millennia—known today as Hansen’s Disease (something of which no one was ever cured under Torah rules until Yahshua did so). It is also used to describe a broad range of mold or mildew infestations in architectural or sartorial situations. Concerning the latter category, we read, “If a garment has a leprous plague in it, whether it is a woolen garment or a linen garment, whether it is in the warp or woof of linen or wool, or in anything made of leather, it is a leprous plague and shall be shown to the priest….” Considering the amount of “press” the problem of leprosy is given in the Torah (and indeed, throughout scripture), it is clear that God is trying to teach us: it must mean something. As it turns out, this is one of the more transparent metaphors in scripture: “leprosy” is symbolic of sin (which itself is usually mischaracterized; it means “error,” literally “missing the mark,” not “evil”).
The situation here is that the garment (that which we are using to cover ourselves, whether wool, linen, or animal skins—with all that these things metaphorically imply) has developed a spot or flaw of some sort. It is up to the priest (read: believers) to determine whether or not what seems like a problem really is one: “The priest shall examine the plague and isolate that which has the plague seven days. And he shall examine the plague on the seventh day….” That is, the course of action required to confront suspected heresy or error involving works, grace, or the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice (represented by wool, linen, or leather, respectively) involves time and careful observation. Alas, the histories of both Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity reveal that such apparent “leprosy” was a common occurrence.
I’ll offer one example, though there are hundreds from which I could have chosen. Arianism reasoned that because Christ was the “Son” of God, He must have been a created being, thus in some way inferior to the Father—in other words, He wasn’t actually God Himself. This errant teaching was rampant in the early Church, but was denounced as heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Whether or not they knew it, the Council was doing precisely what the Torah had required: “If the plague has spread in the garment, either in the warp or in the woof, in the leather or in anything made of leather, the plague is an active leprosy. It is unclean. He shall therefore burn that garment in which is the plague, whether warp or woof, in wool or in linen, or anything of leather, for it is an active leprosy; the garment shall be burned in the fire.” (Leviticus 13:47-52) Fire, you’ll recall, is a scriptural euphemism for judgment—the separation of right from wrong, good from evil, or innocence from guilt.
Since my own Bible study (the results of which you are now reading) occasionally results in epiphanies that aren’t widely recognized in today’s church, I would hasten to point out that the symbology here limits judgment by believers to matters concerning works, grace, and sacrifice (i.e., wool, linen, and leather). I am pleased to report (and I’m sure you’ve noticed) that my views concerning these issues are thoroughly orthodox—supported by both the weight of scripture and a couple of millennia of Christian tradition. But when I point out (for example) that the Bible has revealed far more about the specific timing and schedule of Christ’s return than most of us realize, please don’t burn me at the stake as a heretic (as some well-meaning folks have tried to do, metaphorically anyway). I have not messed with the basis of your salvation, only pointed out what God has shown me in my more lucid moments—things that most folks miss. Time will confirm (or invalidate) my observations soon enough. (And I’m perfectly willing to admit there’s a chance, however slight, that I missed something significant on the subject. At least I’d be in very good company.)
As long as we’re here in the Torah, let us visit another couple of “wool sightings” in Deuteronomy. If you’ll recall, the skins of the animal sacrifices were to be given to the priests. Their remuneration included much more, of course: “And this shall be the priest’s due from the people, from those who offer a sacrifice, whether it is bull or sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. The firstfruits of your grain and your new wine and your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. For Yahweh your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand to minister in the name of Yahweh, him and his sons forever.” (Deuteronomy 18:3-5) Everything on this list—even the grain, wine, and oil—had a part to play in every blood sacrifice, all of which were symbolic, in some way or another, of the passion of Yahshua the Messiah. If we understand that the priests (as a class) were metaphorical of believers in general, it all makes sense: only believers (we who “minister in the name of Yahweh” though we have no inheritance in this world) benefit from Christ’s sacrifice.
The “fleece,” of course, is that of which wool thread and fabric was made. Note that the worshiper wasn’t required to shear the sacrificial sheep and weave the wool fabric on behalf of the priests. That was something the priests were left to do themselves. Following the symbols then, we learn that priests (read: believers) aren’t handed the world on a silver platter. They themselves must work on behalf of the people, just as their Father God works on their behalf. The priests’ work does not accomplish their salvation, for God’s work does that (which explains why the priests wear the linen of grace, not the wool of good works, in the performance of their duties within the temple). The wool made from the fleece of the sacrificial lambs, sheep, or rams is to be worn by the priests outside the temple—out in the world: that is where our good works mean something. (Confused yet?)
So again we see that both linen and wool (i.e., grace and works) are necessary and beneficial. But we are not to confuse the two things, or worse yet, blend them together. That is why we are instructed, “You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, such as wool and linen mixed together.” (Deuteronomy 22:11) It’s the same precept we looked at when considering linen. You cannot work (or buy) your way into a relationship with Yahweh, for His work has already achieved that blessed state for us, if only we will receive the gift. But neither can we show mercy to the oppressed, feed the poor, or forgive those who sin against us by simply assigning unmerited moral purity to them—as if it were in our power to do so. These jobs require that we actually do something tangible on their behalf.
James (the half-brother of Yahshua) puts all of this in perspective for us. He writes, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can [such a] faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have [or result in] works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:14-20) The world translated “dead” here (Greek: argos) actually means inactive, idle, lazy, careless, barren, or useless. It’s not that such a faith was once alive but has now died, but that it does not function as intended. Argos is a negative expression of ergon—“a deed or action that carries out or completes an inner desire, intention, or purpose.” (Helps Word-studies)
In short, grace through faith (symbolized by linen) is the mechanism by which we receive salvation through Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. But our resultant good works—an outpouring of love upon our fellow man (symbolized by wool)—are compelling evidence that our faith is genuine. As the old saying goes, “If being redeemed by the blood of Christ were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Or as I wrote somewhere, “It is what we believe, and in whom we trust, that determines our status before God. But in the end, that belief is revealed by what we do.”
At the heart of it, of course, God’s works are what establish our faith. How unshakable would Abraham’s faith have been if Yahweh had not bothered providing the ram to sacrifice in place of his son Isaac? An incident that happened during the times of the Judges demonstrates how it works: “So Gideon said to God, ‘If You will save Israel by my hand as You have said—look, I shall put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.’ And it was so. When he rose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece together, he wrung the dew out of the fleece, a bowlful of water….” “God” here is apparently the same “Angel of Yahweh” whom Gideon first met back in verse 11—in other words, a theophany, a manifestation of Yahweh in human form, who had told the timid Gideon to lead Israel in evicting the marauding Midianites from the Land.
Since attempting this in his own strength would have been a suicide mission, and since theophanies look and talk like people, Gideon was perfectly justified in asking Him to do something that God could do, but that a man couldn’t. But then Gideon, perhaps remembering that wool tended to absorb moisture, asked God to repeat the sign, but in reverse. “Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me, but let me speak just once more: Let me test, I pray, just once more with the fleece; let it now be dry only on the fleece, but on all the ground let there be dew.’ And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, but there was dew on all the ground.” (Judges 6:36-40) Some have faulted Gideon for lacking faith here; I merely consider it sound “scientific method,” verifying the “Man’s” identity by observing His works. It’s not at all like the Pharisees demanding a “sign” from Yahshua after they had seen him cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead.
Call it a coincidence if you want, but the use of a fleece—wool—to demonstrate God’s ability and willingness to work on Israel’s behalf is just too delicious to ignore. In the course of this study of God’s symbols, I have come to expect Him to use the spiritually appropriate “prop” in any given situation—as He did here. He doesn’t mention everything (like what Gideon or the Angel wearing, for example). Only what was explicitly stated in the text should be used as a springboard for symbol observation. We are not to build doctrine out of speculation. But when we are confronted with Yahweh’s recurring symbols in a Bible story’s narrative, we would do well to consider the metaphorical message He has laid just beneath the surface. In this case, the fleece tells us that God would work on behalf of Israel. The subsequent story of Gideon’s successes—how Yahweh chose to decimate the Midianites using only a “skeleton crew” of Israelite soldiers—proves it was God’s work, not the Jews’ military prowess, that won the day.
Several of these symbols are built into the Proverb attributed to King Lemuel (who most commentators take as a pseudonym for Solomon—the name means: “devoted to God”). He writes, “Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusts her, so he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and willingly works with her hands.” (Proverbs 31:10-13) Symbolically, the “wife” is the church—the body of believers. Her “husband” is Christ. Note first that she works hard to support her family, but always with an eye toward honoring her beloved husband. He, in turn, trusts her implicitly, for they are one before God. And in regard to our present subject, she makes clothing out of both wool and flax. Yes, she makes the most out of the unmerited favor she has been shown—the linen she wears (v.22), made from the flax she has sought so diligently. But what about wool? This, as we have seen, indicates good works—and specifically, the works of God Himself. Because she is one with her husband, she works in emulation of his good works (or should I say, His, with a capital H—since her husband is actually God Incarnate). Just because we are saved by grace, we must never forget that God gave us six days in which to work, but only one for rest.
As if to emphasize the fact that our good works are—apart from God’s plan—quite beside the point, Isaiah points out, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) Elsewhere, the prophet ties such godless works to the vulnerability of wool: “Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law. Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool. But My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation.” (Isaiah 51:7-8) The contrast here is between those whose works are done in accordance with Yahweh’s Law—in His strength and with His blessing—and those who are operating in their own strength and intellect, whose natural reaction to the things of God is reproach, insults, and mocking. (Sound familiar? Today’s world is sharply divided along these very lines.)
The bad news for the godless mockers is the subsequent distinction between their long-term prospects and the outlook of those who “know righteousness.” The picture Isaiah paints is that of a moth-eaten garment. The moths (or their larvae) don’t eat the whole thing, but just enough to make the garment ugly and worthless. What does this look like in the real world? The mockers build the city, but it ends up little more than a rat-infested slum. They seize the apparatus of education, only to see their students become unproductive, mindless drones, unemployable though saddled with a mountain of debt. Their godless attitude compels them to control the public narrative on every conceivable subject, reproaching and insulting the godly, though their own “facts” are laughably, transparently errant. Amazingly, they wear their moth-eaten garments with pride, blaming anyone and everyone but themselves for their oh-so-obvious failures. Holey is about as close as they ever get to “holy.”
The godless mockers won’t just dry up and blow away, as we might expect (or hope). They’ll remain among us as long as God allows it—putrid, ragged, and destructive, tares among the wheat as it were. We are not to fear them; nor are we to employ their own tactics against them. Rather, we are to hold our ground and wait on God’s perfect timing, for His righteousness, dwelling within us, is eternal. In the end, we will simply outlast them.
Wool (works) and linen (grace) are occasionally seen side by side, as in this passage from Hosea. Yahweh says, “I will not have mercy on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. For their mother has played the harlot. She who conceived them has behaved shamefully. For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.’” (Hosea 2:4-5) The context is Israel’s idolatry, and the chasm between her perception and the reality of her situation. As an idolatrous harlot, she is under the mistaken impression that her “lovers” have been providing both her wool and her linen—that is, both what she has earned in her capacity as a spiritual whore, and what they have freely given her.
Note that it is not only Israel who will suffer for her idolatry, but also her children. And who are these? One of her “children” is Roman Catholicism, who, being estranged from his mother, largely turned his back on the scriptures that could have awakened them both, if only they had paid attention—specifically, the Torah. Another of Judaism’s illegitimate children is Islam, whose own destructive worldview was derived, ironically enough, from Bible-based stories Muhammad was told by the rabbis of Yathrib (a.k.a. Medina), filtered through the Jews’ own perversion of them as presented in the Talmud. This is why most of the characters mentioned in the Qur’an—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Ishmael, etc.—are right out of the Torah. But the stories are invariably twisted to say, “Obey the prophet, or suffer disastrous consequences.” Islam hates his mother so much, in fact, he has been trying to murder her in her sleep ever since he was a toddler.
Hosea’s Israel was mistaken about where her providence had come from. It had actually been a gift from Yahweh (linen—grace) and had been the result of His efforts on her behalf (wool—work). All that her idol-lovers had ever done was take from her. So Yahweh continues: “Therefore I will return and take away My grain in its time and My new wine in its season, and will take back My wool and My linen, given to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall deliver her from My hand.” (Hosea 2:9-10) Hosea ministered in Israel prior to the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom. Their fall, and Judah’s later conquest by Babylon, comprise the near-term fulfillment of this prophecy.
But remember, Israel is metaphorical of mankind in general. The lessons God gives her are applicable to all of us. Yahweh will eventually judge the entire earth. His sustenance (grain and wine) will be curtailed: the good works He has done on mankind’s behalf (the wool) and the grace He has shown us (the linen) will be sequestered in response to the world’s unrelenting apostasy and idolatry. But make no mistake: the Tribulation the world is about to experience will be due not so much to Yahweh’s direct condemnation, as to their own sin.
The same sort of near-far fulfillments are in view here: Yahweh instructs his prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.”’” (Ezekiel 34:2-3) Ezekiel prophesied on the eve of the Babylonian invasion of Judah, but the lessons are still germane today. “Shepherds” here are political leaders. They are being condemned for taking care of themselves at the expense of the flocks they were supposed to protect and defend. For the rulers to “clothe themselves with the wool” is to enrich themselves using the labor of the citizens they should have been serving. The modern ramifications are obvious: corruption, unjust taxation, bribery, waste, and greed. I would merely point out that when Yahweh pronounces “woe” upon you, it is not a good thing.
“Sackcloth” was a coarse, cheap, utilitarian fabric, usually made of goat or camel hair. It was worn as a sign of mourning, anguish, or repentance, since it was the very antithesis of the fine linen or purple-dyed cloth worn by the wealthy and powerful to project their status: sackcloth signaled one’s posture of humility, the affliction of the soul (as expressed in the rites of the Day of Atonement, for example). The self-abasement of wearing sackcloth was often punctuated by fasting and sitting on an ash heap—the rough equivalent of camping out behind a dumpster on Skid Row.
One might presume that the English word “sackcloth” was invented because the fabric in question was akin to the rough burlap from which grain sacks are typically made. But this is one of those rare instances where the linguistic cart actually precedes the horse. The word “sack” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word saq. It’s not a translation. Saq is apparently the origin of the Greek noun sakkos (used four times in the New Testament), the Latin saccus, the Old English sacc, and the Middle English sak. And in case you were wondering, yes: in the Hebrew scriptures, the same word, saq, is used to describe cloth bags used to transport wheat or barley (e.g. Genesis 42:35).
In a poignant modern twist, during the Great Depression in America, poor folks took to making clothing for their children out of cotton grain sacks (since the bags came free with the flour). In an act of Christian kindness, some millers began printing their sacks with floral designs, to help parents disguise the stigma of their relentless poverty. But the sackcloth we’re talking about in this essay is something people would don in times of grief or mourning—purposely and publically signaling their humility before God. One did not don sackcloth to reveal financial poverty, but to demonstrate a contrite heart—spiritual poverty, so to speak.
This wasn’t “clothing” in the usual sense. That is, “sackcloth” did not imply any particular style of garment, a tunic, robe, or ephod, for instance. It might simply be a loose-fitting “bag” that one wore over his bare shoulders with holes cut for the head and arms, or even a loincloth. Being uncomfortable and unfashionable was kind of the point. It was public self-abasement: “I am suffering grief, and I don’t care who knows it. Help me, Father God.” By making one’s anguish obvious, it was a tacit invitation to others to be empathetic and introspective, rather like our custom of flying the American flag at half-mast in times of national mourning.
The first time we see sackcloth in scripture is Jacob’s reaction to the reports of his young son Joseph’s untimely death. Jacob had made no secret of the fact that Joseph—the firstborn of his beloved wife Rachel—was his favorite among the twelve sons, signaling this status by giving him the famous “coat of many colors.” No one (other than the clueless Jacob) would have been surprised when Joseph’s jealous brothers caught the privileged dreamer and sold him as a slave to some Midianite traders headed for Egypt. Getting rid of him was easy; the hard part would be convincing his father that they were innocent of his blood. So they hatched a plot. “They took Joseph’s tunic, killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the tunic in the blood. Then they sent the tunic of many colors, and they brought it to their father and said, ‘We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?’ And he recognized it and said, ‘It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him. Without doubt Joseph is torn to pieces.’…” Basically, they faked some evidence and then allowed their father to jump to the obvious, horrible—and erroneous—conclusion.
I’m pretty sure, though, that the brothers hadn’t figured on the intensity of Jacob’s reaction. The news practically killed him. “Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.” (Genesis 37:31-35) I am reminded of my own reaction upon hearing of the sudden and unexpected death of my second-born son. First came the shock—the inner denial that such an unthinkable thing could be true. Then, when reality refused to go away, an overwhelming sense of loss descended upon me, the unrelenting awareness of permanent separation, the sure knowledge that I would never again hear his voice or see his face in this life. Even now, years later, thinking about him sends a knife through my heart. But I have a distinct advantage over poor Jacob: In the wake of Christ’s resurrection, I know that I will see my son again—in the next life. All Jacob could do is put on sackcloth and refuse to be comforted.
Job (a contemporary of Abraham) had more to mourn about than Jacob (or I) could have imagined. Satan was allowed by God to take away everything he had, mostly (I suspect) to teach us how a godly man reacts to adversity. Upon learning in quick succession that everything he possessed (which was considerable) had been stolen by Arab and Chaldean raiders or had been consumed by lightning—and then that all ten of his children had been killed by a tornado—“Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.’ In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.” (Job 1:20-22)
How many of us could have endured what he did without casting blame on God—who is, after all, ultimately in charge of our destiny? At the very least, Yahweh had declined to protect Job from these disasters. But that is our first lesson here: although His providence is an ever-present reality, God does not normally intervene miraculously in our mortal lives. To do so would compromise our free will. He neither bribes us with riches and health, nor threatens us with misfortune for bad behavior, except on a national scale (see Deuteronomy 28). We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world: good and evil befall the righteous and wicked alike.
The next trial Job faced was the loss of his health. “So Satan…struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes.” (Job 2:7-8) The Pulpit Commentary notes, “Not as a curative process, or even as an alleviation of his pains, but simply as was the custom of mourners.” The “ashes” were the remains of refuse that had been burned—he did not remain in his comfortable home, but removed himself to the city dump. Picture Jerusalem’s Valley of Hinnom—Gehenna—which served as Christ’s metaphor for hell.
When Job’s plight became known, his friends came to offer support and condolences: “And when [Job’s three friends] raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognize him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven. So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:12-13) Job’s friends’ reaction to his plight was heartfelt empathy. To me, this says that their later theories about God punishing Job for some heinous (but hidden) sin were not mean-spirited or self-serving, but genuine (though mistaken) attempts to help Job get to the root of his problem. To this day, that’s what real men do: try to fix what’s broken.
They tore their robes (as had Job)—a sign throughout Bible times of deep distress or mourning. By the time of Christ, however, this gesture had become a cheap and contrived display of mock-shock and dismay among the Jewish elite—used at the drop of a hat to signal the object’s “political incorrectness.” As Shakespeare would have put it, “Methinks the rabbi doth protest too much.” It is revealing that the Torah specifically prohibited the High Priest from rending his clothing in mourning (see Leviticus 21:10), and yet we read that Caiaphas the High Priest did that very thing at Yahshua’s trial, in reaction against His supposed “blasphemy.”
We should ponder why Yahweh instructed the High Priest not to do this. As I have noted, ordinary priests are symbolic of us believers. The High Priest, however, is metaphorical of Christ Himself (see Hebrews 4:14, 8:1-2); He’s one of us, yet sinless: the perfect sacrifice. Being God incarnate, He does not mourn, agonize, or show anguish at the evil He sees in the world—the things indicated by the tearing of one’s clothing. Rather, He does something about it: providing a path toward our reconciliation and redemption with God. We are reminded that Yahshua, arriving at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, did not tear his robe, but wept—and not for the dead man, either, but out of sympathy for his grieving friends and family. He didn’t mourn for Lazarus, because He was about to raise him from the dead. Don’t look now, but Christ is about to do the same thing for all of us who are His friends.
Anyway, back in the Book of Job, it is some time before sackcloth itself is actually mentioned: “I have sewn sackcloth over my skin, and laid my head in the dust. My face is flushed from weeping, and on my eyelids is the shadow of death, although no violence is in my hands, and my prayer is pure.” (Job 16:15-17) I get the feeling that Job’s distress was caused not only by his multiplied misfortunes, but also in not knowing why they had befallen him. He had repented to the best of his ability, but in truth, he had no idea what he was supposed to be repenting from. Like his friends, he had assumed that material blessings from God were the direct and inevitable result of a righteous life—and they are, on a national level, although there can be a pronounced time lag between national righteousness and prosperity, or between national apostasy and utter ruin, as Israel would find out the hard way.
But what Job didn’t know was the back-story—how he had been singled out for testing because he was a righteous man in his generation. The trials he endured, and the lessons he learned, are for our benefit. (Thank You, Yahweh, for preserving the record for the past 4,000 years.) And what was the lesson? What did he learn? In the end, it’s as simple as it is profound: “You aren’t God; Yahweh is. Stop underestimating Him. Cease taking Him for granted. Wake up.” When he finally got the message (one we must all learn, sooner or later), Job said, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6) Our appreciation of our Creator should compel all of us to put on sackcloth—metaphorically, anyway.
The wearing of sackcloth in scripture is usually an indicator of a two-part formula—repentance with supplication. That is, it is an outward, public sign that the wearer has become aware of his sins and of his need to change the direction of his life—an attitude accompanied by a prayer (sometimes only implied) that Yahweh would somehow undo the damage that our sins have naturally precipitated.
I must admit, the early days of Israel’s monarchy sometime sound like a modern television soap opera. Plots, counter-plots, revenge, betrayal—it’s all there, except maybe for the contrived “amnesia” and “evil-twin” plot twists. I’ll spare you the dramatic details in this one, except to say that it revolves around General Abner switching allegiance from the deceased Saul’s last remaining heir, Ishbosheth, in favor of David. The part of the story germane to our present topic says, “So Joab and Abishai his brother killed Abner, because he had killed their brother Asahel at Gibeon in the battle. Then David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, ‘Tear your clothes, gird yourselves with sackcloth, and mourn for Abner.’ And King David followed the coffin. So they buried Abner in Hebron; and the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner, and all the people wept.” (II Samuel 3:30-32)
Though David and Abner had once been adversaries, they had formed an alliance—now destroyed for personal reasons by David’s own Generals, Joab and Abishai. David himself was innocent of Abner’s blood, but in a remarkable move, he ordered Abner’s murderers to don the sackcloth of mourning. In doing so, he helped heal the rift between Saul’s Israel and David’s Judah—eventually uniting the entire kingdom under David.
That’s not to say King David was above putting on sackcloth himself when his own sins demanded it. At one point, rather than simply trusting Yahweh for his victories, David decided to take a survey of his troop strength. (Ironically, the loyal Joab argued against doing this, but was overruled by the king.) And so, as so often happens, the mistakes of the leader impacted the entire nation: “And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He struck Israel.” It didn’t take David long to realize his sin and repent of it. “So David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing; but now, I pray, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.…’” First things first: cleansing and forgiveness had to begin with David himself.
So the King repented in sackcloth: “Then David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of Yahweh standing between earth and heaven, having in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. So David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell on their faces. And David said to God, ‘Was it not I who commanded the people to be numbered? I am the one who has sinned and done evil indeed; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, O Yahweh my God, be against me and my father’s house, but not against Your people that they should be plagued.’” (I Chronicles 21:7-8, 16-17) What a striking contrast we see between David’s actions and those of so many modern national leaders. Most elites today are perfectly willing to let others “fall on their swords” to protect them from the hand of justice. Even if the whole nation suffers from their misdeeds or foolish policies, how many are willing to change course, admit they were wrong, and intercede with God for their citizens? The only thing these people can think about is remaining in power, no matter who gets hurt.
It is fascinating that in the Bible, even the worst kings of Israel and Judah could (and sometimes did) repent of their evil deeds. In the northern Kingdom of Israel, you would be hard pressed to find a worse king than the Ba’al-worshiping Ahab, husband of the notoriously wicked Queen Jezebel. The prophet Elijah was a thorn in his side, a constant reminder to him that there was a real God in Israel, and Ba’al wasn’t it. “Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ And he answered, ‘I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of Yahweh: ‘Behold, I will bring calamity on you. I will take away your posterity, and will cut off from Ahab every male in Israel, both bond and free….” Elijah also foretold Jezebel’s gruesome death at this time—that she was going to be eaten by dogs.
This conversation took place shortly after the famous “prophets’ duel” on Mount Carmel, in which Yahweh convincingly demonstrated His awesome power, while Ba’al was proven impotent. So Ahab wasn’t in a position to just dismiss (or kill) the prophet, as he might have done a bit earlier. “So it was, when Ahab heard those words, that he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his body, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went about mourning.” Considering Ahab’s track record, we might have expected God to say, “Sorry, pal—you’ve made your bed; now sleep in it.” But He didn’t: He responded to Ahab’s contrition. “And the word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘See how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the calamity in his days. In the days of his son I will bring the calamity on his house.’” (I Kings 21:20-21, 27-29) Note that judgment on Samaria would still fall, for Yahweh is a God of perfect justice. But the execution of the sentence would be postponed until after Ahab had gone the way of all men. He would be killed in battle about three years later.
In the southern kingdom, Judah, it would be hard to find a worse king than Manasseh (son and successor of the godly Hezekiah), who reigned for fifty-five long years. Sackcloth isn’t specifically mentioned here, but repentance and supplication are: “And Yahweh spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they would not listen. Therefore Yahweh brought upon them the captains of the army of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze fetters, and carried him off to Babylon. Now when he was in affliction, he implored Yahweh his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that Yahweh was God….”
His repentance was apparently genuine: “He took away the foreign gods and the idol from the house of Yahweh, and all the altars that he had built in the mount of the house of Yahweh and in Jerusalem; and he cast them out of the city. He also repaired the altar of Yahweh, sacrificed peace offerings and thank offerings on it, and commanded Judah to serve Yahweh, God of Israel.” (II Chronicles 33:10-13, 15-16) It’s an amazing turn-around, after a lifetime of idolatry. But it wasn’t enough to turn the nation around. Manasseh’s evil son Amon reigned for only two years before he was murdered. And his grandson, Josiah, would be Judah’s last good king.
Assyria was the tool Yahweh eventually used to bring judgment upon Israel’s northern kingdom—in 722 BC. Ironically, 38 years previously (in about 760), God had sent the prophet Jonah to Assyria’s capital city, Nineveh, to pronounce judgment upon them: “Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” So why were they still around to trouble Samaria? Because they repented in sackcloth and ashes—much to the prophet’s surprise. “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them….” Remarkably, Jonah hadn’t even told them to repent. He had merely announced that their time was up—that their evils had found them out. After all, Assyria had a well-deserved reputation for belligerence and cruelty among its victim-nations.
We get the feeling that Jonah didn’t really want them to repent, because he knew Yahweh might have mercy on them if they did. And he was right. “Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water.” Though animals have no free will, no moral responsibility, Nineveh’s king either didn’t know that, or was just playing it safe: “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?...” Note that the king knew that Assyria’s national penchant for violence was intrinsically evil—but he did nothing about it until confronted with a prophecy of impending judgment.
Nineveh’s corporate repentance was in effect a prayer to Jonah’s God: “Please have mercy on us.” “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.” (Jonah 3:4-10) We are not told why they repented in sackcloth and ashes (other than Jonah’s word, of course). Far more enlightened nations (like Israel, for instance) had received prophetic warnings with far less enthusiasm. One wild theory of mine is that perhaps three days in the belly of the great fish had altered Jonah’s appearance from that of a normal man into a ghastly, zombie-like specter. Whatever the reason, the citizens of Nineveh, from the king on down, took notice and repented before God, buying their nation another century of life.
Assyria’s “repentant” phase didn’t last very long. About twenty years after Assyria had carried Samaria off into captivity, they tried the same thing with Jerusalem. Assyria’s King Sennacherib was ascendant at the time, having conquered or collected tribute from everybody in the region. But Judah was in one of its all-too-rare periods of relative faithfulness to Yahweh, under the leadership of the good King Hezekiah. A rumor got out (false, it turned out) that Hezekiah had applied to Egypt for military aid. So Sennacherib assembled a great army, surrounded Jerusalem, and demanded Hezekiah’s surrender. Militarily, Assyria’s forces were easily strong enough to defeat Jerusalem. But then Sennacherib’s Rabshakeh (i.e., his chief negotiator/extortionist) made a critical error: he told Jerusalem’s watchmen that just as the gods of the other city-states Assyria had defeated (e.g. Hamath, Arpad, Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah—and even the apostate Samaria) had been unable to protect them, neither would Yahweh, the God in whom Hezekiah and Jerusalem had placed their trust, be able to deliver them.
If Yahweh were not the One True God, this would have been a totally credible threat. The first order of business, then, was to alert the king. “Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh….” The state of their attire told Hezekiah how serious the threat was. Torn clothing was, like the wearing of sackcloth, a sign of anguish, of mourning. Jerusalem was in trouble, under siege, and for once in their life, it wasn’t their fault. Hezekiah did the same thing Job had done upon receiving bad news: he humbled himself before God and worshiped: “And so it was, when King Hezekiah heard it, that he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of Yahweh….”
The next order of business was to enquire of the prophet of God, in this case, Isaiah. “Then he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests, covered with sackcloth, to Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz. And they said to him, ‘Thus says Hezekiah: This day is a day of trouble, and rebuke, and blasphemy; for the children have come to birth, but there is no strength to bring them forth.” That is, they weren’t remotely capable of repelling the Assyrians through their own strength, and everyone knew it. “It may be that Yahweh your God will hear all the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to reproach the living God, and will rebuke the words which Yahweh your God has heard. Therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’ So the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah….”
These were the days before the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, of course. Specific insights from Yahweh came either through dreams and visions, or from prophets called of God for the purpose. Therefore, Isaiah inquired of Yahweh, and received his answer: “And Isaiah said to them, ‘Thus you shall say to your master, “Thus says Yahweh: Do not be afraid of the words which you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Surely I will send a spirit upon him, and he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.”’” (II Kings 18:37, 19:1-7)
A more complete treatment of this incident is recorded by Isaiah himself in chapter 37—how Hezekiah mourned in sackcloth, how Yahweh slew the entire 185,000-man Assyrian army in one night, and how Sennacherib was later slain with the sword by his own two sons. My purpose here is merely to relate how our humility (as indicated by the wearing of sackcloth) is an essential component of God’s overt responses to our trials and tragedies. That is why both James and Peter quote Solomon: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
115 years after Hezekiah’s self-abasement in sackcloth had been answered with Yahweh’s decimation of Assyria’s army at the gates of Jerusalem, Judah’s sins finally reached “critical mass.” By this time, the Chaldeans—Babylon—had become the big dog on the block, and their king, Nebuchadnezzar II, was the tool used by God to send the disobedient Judah to “time out.” This time, the prophet Jeremiah was there to record the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of Judah to Babylon.
He wrote, “How Yahweh has covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger! He cast down from heaven to the earth the beauty of Israel, and did not remember His footstool in the day of His anger…. The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground and keep silence. They throw dust on their heads and gird themselves with sackcloth. The virgins of Jerusalem bow their heads to the ground. My eyes fail with tears. My heart is troubled. My bile is poured on the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because the children and the infants faint in the streets of the city.” (Lamentations 2:1, 10-11) I can only wonder how different the outcome might have been if the sackcloth (and its attendant repentance) had been brought to bear in the centuries before God found judgment necessary.
But it’s not as if anyone should have been surprised at the outcome of centuries of apostasy. As far back as the wilderness wanderings, Yahweh had warned Israel what would happen if they did not obey His voice and observe His commandments. “Yahweh will bring you and the king whom you set over you to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods—wood and stone. And you shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations where Yahweh will drive you.” (Deuteronomy 28:36-37) And it would get far, far worse than this before it was over: read the whole passage—once prophecy, now history. The final straw would be Israel’s rejection of her Messiah, a crime for which the nation is still paying.
Israel’s incarceration under the Babylonian yoke had been prophesied by Jeremiah to be seventy years. Her period of punishment this time was to be two thousand years: “Come, and let us return to Yahweh. For He has torn, but He will heal us. He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days [read: two thousand years—see II Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4] He will revive us. On the third day [i.e., during the Millennial reign of Christ] He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.” (Hosea 6:1-2). Don’t look now, but that means Israel is due to be released from her well-deserved “time out” in 2033—exactly two one-thousand-year “days” since their disastrous error concerning the identity of Yahshua, when they had said, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Note that Hosea specifically prophesies that Israel’s national repentance and restoration will occur at the end of the two thousand year period—not before (though individual Jews could and did repent in the interim).
We’re so close to the end of Israel’s “prison sentence,” in fact, she has been enjoying a “work-furlough program” (so to speak) since 1948. But the Jews won’t really “put on sackcloth” until they recognize the One whom their fathers rejected two millennia previously—at the Second Coming of Christ: “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.” (Zechariah 12:10) “Me” here is Yahweh; the whole passage is in His voice. But the One they’ll see descending upon the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4; Acts 1:11) will be Yahshua the Messiah—the One they pierced in crucifixion. He and Yahweh are One. What’s being described here is the definitive Day of Atonement, Yom Kippurym. The date, then, is October 3 (i.e., the 10th day of Tishri), 2033.
Back in Babylonian captivity, Daniel had learned to punctuate his prayers with sackcloth and ashes, for he realized that national repentance was in order: “I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of Yahweh through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem. [See II Chronicles 36:21.] Then I set my face toward the Lord God, to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes….” Daniel had been a teenager when he was carried off to Babylon in the first wave of deportations, in 605 BC. Now an old man, he realized that God’s prophesied judgment (this round, anyway) was almost complete.
So he did what we should all do: pray for what we know God wants: “‘O Yahweh, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us….” Yahweh had already revealed why Judah was to be sequestered in Babylon—and for how long. Daniel was merely asking Him, in an attitude of reverence and humility, to remember His promises. Today, as we believers witness the world crumbling around our ears into Last-Days dystopia, we too should be earnestly praying for what God has already promised He would do: remove His church (His bride) from this darkened world, sequester Israel as He awaits their national spiritual epiphany, and judge the rebellious world for its crimes against God and man. “As in the days of Noah…”
It is not because we all of a sudden deserve to be rescued, but only because of God’s steadfast mercy, that we may petition Yahweh like this. So Daniel continues: “Now therefore, our God, hear the prayer of Your servant, and his supplications, and for Yahweh’s sake cause Your face to shine on Your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by Your name; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for Your own sake, my God, for Your city and Your people are called by Your name.’” (Daniel 9:2-3, 16-19)
God did keep His word, of course. Not long after this, a decree was issued by the Persians (who with the Medes had defeated the Chaldeans and “inherited” their captives the very year this revelation was delivered—in 539 BC) that allowed the Jews to return to the Promised Land if they wished—a land that was now under Persian suzerainty. Not everyone did. Daniel himself, for example, was far too old to make the journey (never mind the fact that he was still a valued and respected “wise man” under the new administration). In truth, most of the Jewish exiles had been born in Babylonian captivity—this was the only home they had ever known. Not only were they settled and comfortable in the Medo-Persian Empire, their ancestral homeland was a disaster area. It would be like a Japanese soldier returning to his home in Hiroshima in 1946—there wasn’t much to come home to.
But those Jews who did return to the Land of Promise were serious about not making the same mistakes their forefathers had. For example, “So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so.” The Feast of Tabernacles hadn’t been celebrated as instructed in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16 for over nine hundred years. “And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he [Ezra the scribe] read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner….” The Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), a.k.a. Sukkot, was an eight-day celebration, beginning and ending with a Sabbath observance (indicating that it was God’s gift—you couldn’t work to attain whatever it signified). The first seven days are prophetic of the Millennial reign of Christ—still in our future, in case you haven’t noticed. And the eighth day looks forward to the eternal state that follows.
The Feast was to begin on the 15th day of the seventh month (Tishri, in the autumn) and run through the 23rd. Set as it was at the season of the harvest, it was designed to be a time of celebration. But when it was over, the ex-exiles were all too aware of how far short of the requirements of the Torah they (as a nation) had fallen. So they went into deep mourning: “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of Yahweh their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped Yahweh their God.” (Nehemiah 8:17-18, 9:1-3) Today, I fear, we find the grace of God a bit too convenient. We know our sins are forgiven, past, present, and future, so we go blithely about our days thankful to be forgiven but not shocked nearly enough at the seriousness of our crimes against God and man. Perhaps there needs to be more sackcloth, fasting, and confession in our lives, and a bit less celebration.
A few years later, back in the Persian capital city of Shushan, events unfolded that had the potential (if such a thing were possible) to derail God’s entire plan of redemption through the Jews. King Ahasuerus became unduly impressed with a political weasel named Haman, and commanded that everyone bow and pay homage to him. But a Jewish gentleman named Mordecai (who also happened to be the uncle of Esther, the young lady who had recently become Ahasuerus’ queen) refused to kowtow before Haman. So the vindictive and narcissistic Haman decided to get revenge not only on Mordecai, but also on his entire race—the Jews. He convinced the king that (in his words), “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws [‘like the one that says everybody has to kiss my feet,’ he was thinking]. Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain. If it pleases the king, let a decree be written that they be destroyed.” (Esther 3:8-9)
So the naïve and trusting king, without bothering to enquire as to who these people were, gave Haman carte blanche to do to them whatever he liked. Bear in mind that this edict was empire-wide, and Persia controlled everything from Ethiopia to India at the time—including the Jewish exiles who had returned to the Land of Israel, mentioned above. Poor, dumb Ahasuerus didn’t even realize that he has just signed the death warrant for his beloved young queen. “When Mordecai learned all that had happened, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city. He cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went as far as the front of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. And in every province where the king’s command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes. So Esther’s maids and eunuchs came and told her, and the queen was deeply distressed. Then she sent garments to clothe Mordecai and take his sackcloth away from him, but he would not accept them.” (Esther 4:1-4)
Mordecai’s reaction was precisely correct: he put on sackcloth, a sign of public contrition and mourning, setting an example for his countrymen. He did not attack Haman or the deluded King Ahasuerus, but appealed directly to Yahweh. To make a long story short, Queen Esther—putting her own life at risk—was able to “blow the whistle” on Haman’s nefarious plot, engineering a defense strategy for the formerly condemned Jews. Haman ended up getting hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, and (as we saw a couple of dozen pages back) Mordecai was elevated to Haman’s old status—clothed no longer in sackcloth, but in the fine linen of royal favor. And somewhere in there, an unnamed ancestor of Mary, the Mother of Yahshua, was spared an unjust death, and the whole human race was given a reprieve. If we only knew…
A lesson today’s Judeo-Christian religions would do well to heed is that knowledge and presumption are two vastly different things. We are all quite familiar with Yahshua’s open condemnation of the hypocritical legalism of the scribes and Pharisees in Judea, and that He subsequently did most of His ministry up north in Galilee. Alfred Edersheim notes, “They [the Galileans] seem to have been a warm-hearted, impulsive, generous race—intensely national in the best sense, active, not given to idle speculations or wire-drawn logico-theological distinctions, but conscientious and earnest. The rabbis note certain theological differences between Galilee and Judea…. [Galileans] show more earnest practical piety and strictness of life, and less adherence to those Pharisaical distinctions which so often made void the law.”—Sketches of Jewish Social Life. That being said, they also presumed that being sons of Abraham, they were automatically in the center of God’s will, thus immune to the pangs of conscience that plagued “sinners,” especially gentiles.
So Yahshua singled out a couple of Galilean towns for correction: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you.” (Luke 10:13-14) Considering the history of Israel, especially in light of the prophetic national warnings of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, they should have known better. The very fact of the Roman yoke under which they currently chafed should have told them that on a national scale, there was still much room for improvement in God’s eyes. So when Yahshua healed the sick, cast out demons, and fed the multitudes in their own back yards, they should have recognized the presence of deity among them—and repented in response. Judgment pronounced is proportional to light received.
And what about our own generation? 99.9% of the world has at least some of the Bible in their own written language. In the age of the Internet, there are only two reasons to be unfamiliar with the Good News: either you have purposely avoided it, or someone is hiding it from you, restricting your access to it—something God characterizes as murder. We need not live in the dark, as did first-century Tyre and Sidon. The “mighty works” of Christ are a matter of public, historical record—the mightiest of them being His resurrection from the dead. Yet how many of us repent in sackcloth and ashes (or whatever the equivalent for these things might be in today’s world)? How many of us “sigh and cry at the abominations” being committed in our streets? (See Ezekiel 9:4 for context.) The fact that we were warned in innumerable prophetic texts about how evil these Last Days would be does not absolve us from “mourning in sackcloth and ashes” for the actions and attitudes of our countrymen.
That’s not to say we should be faking it—making a show of our contrition when we’ve got an ulterior motive other than true repentance before God. A few pages back, we saw how Yahweh postponed judgment upon Assyria when Nineveh repented from their evil practices, and again when Israel’s wicked King Ahab genuinely repented before Him in sackcloth. But the mere wearing of sackcloth does not ensure that one’s contrition is real. One example of this is the desperate subterfuge of Syria’s King Ben-Hadad in I Kings 20.
To make a long story short, he attacked and besieged Samaria, demanding tribute and obeisance of Ahab. But he blasphemed the God of Israel during his “negotiations,” so to make a point, Yahweh sent a prophet to Israel’s King Ahab telling him to fight, though he was badly outmatched, and that God would deliver him. And sure enough, 100,000 Syrian foot soldiers were killed in one day’s battle, and Ben-Hadad lost another 27,000 to God’s direct hand. (He dropped a city wall on them.) There was no way to negotiate as equals after that. So Ben-Hadad’s servants put on sackcloth and pleaded with Ahab for their king’s life. And the ploy worked: although Yahweh had appointed Ben-Hadad for destruction, and had then delivered him into Israel’s hand, the clueless Ahab treated the defeated king as a brother and an equal. God was not amused.
Using sackcloth disingenuously is akin to practicing religion with no deference to the God whose worship that religion is designed to facilitate. If Christ’s condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees can be taken at face value, there is very little God hates more than religious hypocrisy. So Isaiah pens this scathing condemnation of people who were “faking it.” “Tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as [if they were] a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice. They take delight in approaching God. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?...’”
Fasting was never specifically commanded of Israel, though it was a recognized and accepted way to “punctuate” one’s contrition. On the other hand, the affliction of the soul was the central requirement of the rites of the Day of Atonement: it implies genuine remorse, repentance, and introspection. The problem is, though God knows our hearts, these things are all too easy to fake before men: “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh?...” His point is that a true fast is more than simply abstaining from food to impress your peers with your piety. The wearing of sackcloth and the practice of fasting mean nothing if not done in an attitude of genuine humility before God.
There is a reason Yahweh never ordered us to fast or don sackcloth and ashes. He would rather we turned our remorse into action designed to show mercy in the world—in short, to be the hands and feet of His love among those less fortunate than ourselves. So He describes, through His prophet, what a real “fast” looks like: “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out, when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?...” Yes, there is self-denial, of sorts, in “fasting” God’s way. But it is not for show, and not even for personal penance. It is, rather, for the real-world benefit of people whom God loves—the hungry, the oppressed, and the souls trapped in wickedness with no way to escape.
That’s not to say that there is no personal benefit to be had from such godly “fasting.” Isaiah concludes, “Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you. The glory of Yahweh shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and Yahweh will answer. You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isaiah 58:1-9) In short, if we want our prayers answered—if we wish to be blessed of God, both personally and nationally, both spiritually and physically—we should stop being uselessly religious, and start being of practical benefit to this world.
And if we refuse? If we decline to don the sackcloth of repentance when appropriate, or “fast” as Yahweh has defined it—with an eye toward helping our fellow man—then what? Then, disasters calling for sackcloth and ashes may be in our futures. Both Jews and gentiles were warned (separately) about what lay ahead if they did not repent. In the literal sense, Jerusalem and Judah were warned that they would be hauled off to captivity in Babylon: “And so it shall be: Instead of a sweet smell there will be a stench. Instead of a sash, a rope. Instead of well-set hair, baldness. Instead of a rich robe, a girding of sackcloth. And branding instead of beauty. Your [i.e., Zion’s] men shall fall by the sword, and your mighty in the war. Her gates shall lament and mourn, and she being desolate shall sit on the ground.” (Isaiah 3:24-26) Bear in mind that Israel is symbolic of mankind in general: that of which she was warned applies in some measure to the whole human race.
That being said, gentiles—especially nations who have been impacted by Israel (and at this late date, that’s everybody) were also taken to task for their sins. Moab serves as the poster child for this group: “On all their heads will be baldness, and every beard cut off. In their streets they will clothe themselves with sackcloth. On the tops of their houses and in their streets everyone will wail, weeping bitterly.” (Isaiah 15:2-3) As I read this passage, I got the distinct impression that, no matter how true it was historically, the gentiles’ ultimate expression of spiritual remorse will manifest itself during the Tribulation—coming soon to a world near you. Sackcloth is in everyone’s future, whether in anticipation of God’s judgment, or because of it. The choice is ours. One way or another, every knee will bow.
During the short reign of the Antichrist—when evil is given free rein in the world—even God’s servants, those prophets pronouncing woes upon the unrepentant earth, will wear the sackcloth of mourning. “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” (Revelation 11:3) The plagues they announce are designed to awaken the world to the reality of Yahweh’s sovereignty—in the midst of the worst period of dystopia and death humanity has seen since the days of Noah. God is seen—after millennia of patience—sending plagues and judgment upon the whole earth, and the unenviable job of these two witnesses is to announce what’s coming. We get the feeling that the angels of the seven bowl judgments (Revelation 16) carry out whatever woes the two witnesses pronounce upon the world’s inhabitants—drought, water turning to blood, and scorching heat, etc. But note that they are not gleeful that the earth is finally being held accountable for its sins: there is no schadenfreude here. Rather, they are in mourning—grief-stricken that such things were deemed necessary by a holy and just God.
Even the sky above us will mourn in sackcloth and ashes: “I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.” (Isaiah 50:3) John provides more detail: “I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood….” The “seal” judgments are the most general of the three revealed series, the most sweeping in their scope. They describe the what, but not the why. For that, we’ll need to pay careful attention to the Trumpet and Bowl Judgments.
But in the meantime, John continues: “And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place….” Stars falling like overripe fruit sounds like an unprecedented meteor shower, so it’s not as if there won’t be anything to see in the night sky. But “the sky receding like a scroll” tells us that the normal nocturnal paradigm will be hidden—the moon and stars will no longer be able to provide their familiar reference points to the inhabitants of the earth. The message is that “all bets are off; everything you ever relied upon is gone.”
This message will not be lost on the inhabitants of earth: “And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’” (Revelation 6:12-17) This isn’t necessarily repentance in sackcloth, but it is long-overdue acknowledgement that Yahweh and His Christ are in charge. In these next-to-last days in which we live, that is something that only a small minority of the earth’s inhabitants are willing to admit. Bear in mind that what’s being described here is the Sixth Seal Judgment (out of seven)—that is, we’re very close to the end when this happens.
So why has the sky turned dark as sackcloth? We are given more clues in the Trumpet Judgments. “Then the fourth angel sounded: And a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day did not shine, and likewise the night.” (Revelation 8:12) The darkness doesn’t happen all at once, all over the earth. The “one-third” statistic is tells us that the darkness has cumulative causes—war and earthquakes are frequently mentioned in these texts. Adding to the plague of darkness is the next Trumpet, the fifth: “And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened because of the smoke of the pit.” (Revelation 9:2) In context, this smoke is caused by the release of demons from the abyss.
Finally, in the Bowl judgments, we see the darkness being concentrated to the point of pain, aimed directly at the Antichrist: “Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues because of the pain. They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 16:10-11) In the end, then, some will repent in sackcloth, turning belatedly to their Creator God. But some will not, doubling down on their disastrous error until it kills them, even though the very atmosphere of our planet has donned sackcloth and ashes in mourning for the sins of mankind.