Dust and Ashes

The Holy Spirit, in writing the Holy Scripture, is in nothing more diligent than to pull down our vainglory and pride, which of all vices is most universally grafted into all mankind, even from the first infection of our first father Adam. And therefore we read, in many places of Scripture, many notable lessons against this old rooted vice, to teach us the most commendable virtue of humility, how to know ourselves, and to remember what we are of ourselves.

Dust and Ashes
In the book of Genesis (Genesis 3:19), Almighty God gives us all a title and name in our great grandfather Adam, which ought to warn us all to consider what we are, where we came from, and where we shall go,. He says, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Here, as it were, in a mirror we may learn to know ourselves, that we are but ground, earth, and ashes, and that to earth and ashes we shall return.

Also, the holy Patriarch Abraham well remembered this name and title — dust, earth, and ashes — appointed and assigned by God to all mankind. That is why he calls himself by that name when he makes his earnest prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:27). And we read that Judith (Judith 4:10-11, 9:1), Esther (Esther 14:2), Job (Job 42:6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 6:26, 25:34), with other holy men and women in the Old Testament, used sackcloth, and cast dust and ashes upon their heads when they lamented their sinful living. They called and cried to God, for help and mercy, with such a ceremony of sackcloth, dust, and ashes, that they might declare by this, to the whole world, what a humble and lowly estimation they had of themselves, and how well they remembered their previously mentioned name and title, their vile, corrupt, frail nature — dust, earth, and ashes.

The book of Wisdom (Wisdom 7:1-6), also willing to pull down our proud hearts, moves us diligently to remember our mortal and earthly origins. It says we all come from the one who was first made, and that all of us, kings as well as subjects, come into this world and go out of it in the same way — that is, of ourselves totally pitiable, as we may daily see. And Almighty God commanded his Prophet Isaiah to make a proclamation, and cry to the whole world. And Isaiah, asking, “What shall I cry?”, the Lord answered, “Cry, that all flesh is grass, and that all its glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower falls, when the wind of the LORD blows upon it. Surely the people are grass, which dries up, and the flower fades away” (Isaiah 40:6-7).

And the holy man Job, having in himself great experience of the miserable and sinful state of man, reveals the same to the world in these words: “Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble. They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure. Do you fix your eye on them? Will you bring them before you for judgment? Who can bring what is pure from the impure?” (Job 14:1-4 NIV). And all people, in their evilness and natural inclinations, are so universally given to sin, that (as the Scripture says) “God regretted that ever he made them” (Genesis 6:6). And his indignation was so much provoked against the world by sin, that he drowned all the world with Noah’s flood, except Noah himself, and his little household (Genesis 7). 

It is not without great cause, that the Scripture of God so many times calls all people here in this world by this word, “earth”. “O earth, earth, earth,” says Jeremiah, “Hear the word of the LORD!” (Jeremiah 22:29). This, our right name, calling, and title — “earth, earth, earth” — pronounced by the Prophet, shows what we truly are, regardless of whatever other honours, titles, or dignities people may use of us. This is what he who knows us best (both what we are and what we ought rightly to be called) plainly named us.

All are sinners
And this is how he describes us, speaking by his faithful Apostle, Saint Paul: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:9-18 NIV). And in another place, Saint Paul writes in this way: “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Rom 11:32).

The Scripture locks up all under sin, so that the promise that is given through faith in Jesus Christ, should be given to those that believe (Galatians 3:22). Saint Paul in many places paints us in our true colours, calling us the children of the wrath of God when we are born (Ephesians 2:3), saying also that we cannot think a good thought of ourselves, much less can we say well, or do well of ourselves (2 Corinthians 3:5). And the wise man says in the book of Proverbs, “the righteous fall seven times a day” (Proverbs 24:16).

The most tried and approved man Job, feared all his works (Job 9:28). Saint John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother’s womb, and praised before he was born. He was called an Angel, and great before the Lord, filled even from his birth with the Holy Spirit, the preparer of the way for our Saviour Christ, and commended by our Saviour Christ to be more than a Prophet, and the greatest that ever was born of a woman (Luke 1:15, 76, Malachi 3:1, Matthew 11:9-11). Yet he plainly grants that he needed to be washed by Christ. He worthily praised and glorified his Lord and master Christ, and humbled himself as unworthy to unbuckle his shoes, giving all honour and glory to God (Matthew 3:11-14).

So does Saint Paul both often and evidently confess that he was, of himself, ever giving (as a most faithful servant) all praise to his master and Saviour. So does blessed Saint John the Evangelist, in the name of himself and of all other holy men (be they never so just) make this open confession: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

For this reason, the wise man in the book called Ecclesiastes makes this true and general confession, “There is no one on the earth who is so righteous that they do good and never sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). David is ashamed of his sin, but not ashamed to confess it (Psalm 51).  How often, how earnestly, he laments and desires God’s great mercy for his great offences, and that God should not enter into judgment with him (Ps 143:2)! And again, how well does this holy man weigh his sins, when he confesses that they are so many in number, and so hidden and hard to understand, that it is in a manner impossible to know, utter, or number them (Psalm 19:12, 40:12). This is why he, having a true, earnest, and deep contemplation and consideration of his sins, and yet not coming to the bottom of them, he makes supplication to God to forgive him his private, secret, hidden sins which we cannot know. He rightly weighs his sins from the original root and headspring, perceiving inclinations, provocations, stirrings, stingings, buds, branches, dregs, infections, tastes, feelings, and scents of them to continue in him still. So he says, “Behold, I was conceived in sins” (Psalm 51:5) — out of one (like a fountain) all the rest spring.

Lay down your pride
Our Saviour Christ says, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19), and that we can do nothing that is good without him (John 15:5). Nor can anyone come to the Father but by him (John 14:6). He commands us also to say that we are un-profitable servants, when we have done all that we can do (Luke 17:10). He prefers the penitent tax collector, before the proud, holy, and glorious Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). He calls himself a Doctor (Matthew 9:12), but not for those who are whole, but for those who are sick and have need of his salve for their sore.

He teaches us in our prayers to acknowledge ourselves sinners, and to ask for righteousness and deliverance from all evils, from our heavenly Father’s hand. He declares that the sins of our own hearts defile our own selves (Mark 7:14-23). He teaches that an evil word or thought deserves condemnation, affirming that we shall give account for every idle word (Matthew 12:36). He says he came to save none but the sheep that were utterly lost, and cast away (Matthew 15:24).

Therefore few of the proud, just, learned, wise, perfect, and holy Pharisees were saved by him, because they justified themselves by their counterfeit holiness before people. Therefore (good people) let us beware of such hypocrisy, vain glory, and justifying of ourselves. Let us look down at our feet, and then down peacock’s feathers, down proud heart, down vile clay, frail and brittle vessels!


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