The Importance of Understanding Idioms Idiom: “Cast Dust on Their Heads”

By Karen Thompson

Idiom: “a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people.”

Idioms are expressions, or sayings, used and shared by a particular group of people. Every culture has its own set of idioms. And in every culture, learning to communicate is more than just learning how to speak a language. You have to know and understand the idioms that are part of that particular culture as well. Both the language and its idioms are learned at a young age. Children not only have to learn the language, but they have to learn and understand the idioms of their culture. Sometimes, the learning process can be humorous.

Such was the case when a father videotaped his children and sent it to America’s Funniest Home Videos. His two boys were play wrestling. They kept repeating to each other a very well-known American idiom. Speaking in a tough-guy voice, they said, “Hey, you wanna a piece of me? Huh? You wanna a piece of me?” Their baby sister wanted in on the action, so she began to mimic her brothers. But she got it wrong. That’s when Dad started filming her. With her tough-guy voice, she said, “Hey! You want a piece of meat? Huh? You want a piece of meat?”

Just like children must learn their culture’s idioms, the Bible student must also learn the idioms of the Bible if they want to understand what it is saying. The Bible is filled with idioms that were used by a culture that lived thousands of years ago. Every Bible student will run into these idioms while studying God’s Word. At times, it can make the Bible somewhat difficult to interpret. If they want to rightly divide the word of truth, it’s imperative these idioms are correctly interpreted.

The Bible idiom we’re going to look at in this post is “cast dust on their heads.”

We see this idiom in Revelation chapter 18. This chapter talks about the final destruction of the great city. Verses 18–19 describe the reaction of the shipmasters and sailors when they see the great city burning: “And cried when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like unto this great city! And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas that great city…” (vv. 18–19). The idiom “cast dust on their heads” is linked with the phrasing “and cried, weeping and wailing.” The shipmasters and sailors were in distress that the great city was being burned to the ground. An expression of their distress was to “cast dust on their heads.”

Idioms are not usually interpreted in a literal sense. But in this case, when it says they threw dust on their heads, it literally means they threw dust on their heads. The act of throwing dust on one’s head was a custom observed in mourning. It is only one of several mourning rituals that were observed. Whenever you see one, you most likely will see one or more of the others. Including casting dust on your head, the mourning rituals you will see in the Bible are tearing one’s clothes, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, shaving the head bald, fasting, sitting in silence, hanging your head, falling on one’s face weeping, and repenting. These are all observations that ancient Jewish people observed while in mourning. For now, let’s just focus on the practice of throwing dust on one’s head. Here are a few examples.

Let’s look at Ezekiel 27:30–31: “And shall cause their voice to be heard against thee, and shall cry bitterly, and shall cast up dust upon their heads, they shall wallow themselves in the ashes: and they shall make themselves utterly bald for thee, and gird them with sackcloth, and they shall weep for thee with bitterness of heart and bitter wailing.” Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Tyre, resulting in the ship captains mourning her destruction. Not only did they cast dust upon their heads, but they wallowed in ashes, shaved their hair off, wore sackcloth, and wept.

Now let’s look at Joshua 7:6: “And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads.” The Israelites went up against the small city of Ai and were soundly defeated by them, resulting in the Israelites fleeing. As a result, Joshua and the elders went into mourning to seek God as to why it happened. Joshua cast dust on his head as well as tore his clothing and fell on his face.

Let’s look at one more example in Lamentations 2:10: “The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground, and keep silence: they have cast up dust upon their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth: the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground.” The Israelites are in mourning at the Lord’s judgment. We see them sitting on the ground in silence, casting dust on their heads, and wearing sackcloth.

Throwing dust on one’s head… What does that have to do with mourning? Where does this practice come from?

We get a clue as to its meaning from Abraham in Genesis chapter 18. In this chapter, the Lord revealed to Abraham that He was going to send destruction to Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great sin. Abraham began to intervene on the behalf of any righteous people that might be living in the cities. During his conversation with the Lord, Abraham made a statement: “Behold now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord” (v 27. Amp). Why did Abraham call himself “but dust and ashes?” Abraham is referring to the humble beginning of man when God created him out of the dust of the earth: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground…” (Gen. 2:7). Because man was formed from the dust of the ground, Abraham referred to himself as “dust and ashes.” It was his way of expressing humility. Another way he could have expressed humility was “I, a man of such lowly nature, have the audacity to address God Himself.”

All the mourning rituals are for the same purpose—to express humility before God. Tearing your clothes, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, throwing dust on your head, shaving your head bald, fasting, sitting in silence, hanging your head, and falling on your face are all physical expressions of grief and humility.

What is astonishing is that some of these rituals have survived the passage of time. Two are still observed in American society: tearing one’s clothes and placing ashes on one’s head.

The Jewish people practice a ritual called keriah, which means “tearing the garments.” It is the practice of tearing your garment to express grief and sorrow upon learning of a loved one’s death. The mourner can also opt to have the rabbi make the tear during service to make sure it’s done correctly, as the tear in the clothing must expose the heart to reveal the mourner’s broken heart. After making the tear in the garment, the rabbi prays, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, the true judge.”

Catholics observe a form of casting dust on the head by placing ashes on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, in preparation for Easter. The priest will place ashes on a parishioner’s forehead in the sign of the cross as a sign of contrition, humility, and repentance. The ashes come from the palm branches used on Palm Sunday the year before. They are burned and then the ashes are mixed with holy water to create a paste. After administering the ashes, the priest prays, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

These rituals are literally thousands of years old, and the fact they are still being practiced in some form is astounding! The book of Job is the oldest book in the Bible, and it gives us a clue as to how old these rituals are. The person of Job is said to have lived somewhere between 2,000–1,000 BC. After losing all that he had, his friends came to mourn his loss with him. About his friends, Job chapter two says, “each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven” (Job 2:12 NKJV). Both of these rituals—tearing the clothes and putting dust on the head—were practiced as far back as when Job was alive!

I don’t know about you, but I am gobsmacked that these rituals have survived thousands of years!

What does that say about people? I’m not an anthropologist, so I’m unable to make a professionally informed statement about how or why humankind would cling to rituals for thousands of years, handing them down in some form generation after generation. But one thing is obvious: People find value and meaning in ceremonies and rituals. And as evidenced by history, they cling to them!

There’s nothing wrong with ceremonies and rituals. In fact, they are a good and important part of society. But when it comes to ceremonies and rituals, people would do well to remember this one thing: “…man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

God sees your heart.

If a person performs these mourning rituals to express outward humility and repentance, yet he doesn’t have a heart attitude to match his outward physical expression, it’s all for naught. He doesn’t gain anything by it spiritually. The Lord can tell if you’re just “putting it on.” The heart has to match the outward expression.

There are several places in the Bible where God has emphasized how important it is that our hearts are right with Him. The prophet Joel spoke about this very thing. In Joel chapter two, he prophesied about the coming of the great day of the Lord. He told them to prepare for that great day by turning to Him with all their hearts, with fasting and weeping and mourning. But then he referred to one of their mourning traditions and said, “rend your heart, and not your garments” (v. 13). He said a similar thing in Deuteronomy 10:16: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart….” In both these instances, He’s telling them to pay attention to what is in their hearts. Their hearts have to match their outward expression. The outward expressions of tearing the garments and circumcision are empty if the heart doesn’t match the physical expression.

A group of people the Lord rebuked for this very thing was the Pharisees. Their outward behavior looked holy and upright, but they were dead inside. They had no relationship with God. As a consequence, the Lord rebuked them for their hypocrisy. He said, “For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27–28).

Another time He said, “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me’ ” (Matt. 15:7–8 NKJV). On the outside, they said and did all the right things to look like they were right with God. They might have fooled the people around them, but they never fooled the Lord. The Lord looked past their seemingly holy behavior and saw their black hearts!

With the Lord, it’s all about what is in your heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).

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6 thoughts on “The Importance of Understanding Idioms Idiom: “Cast Dust on Their Heads”

  1. So interesting, human nature clinging to traditions. I loved the last great promise you left us with Matt 5:8, The pure of heart shall see God. I believe in seeing it means knowing but also actually seeing God….


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