The ancient Jews had a particular custom by which they expressed a variety of emotions. That custom was to rend, or tear, their outer clothing. This action could signify outrage, as when the high priest reacted to Jesus saying that the Jews would see Him sitting at the right hand of power (Mt. 26:64-65). He did this because he considered Jesus’ words to be blasphemous. This action might also signify alarm and concern, as when Paul and Barnabas tore their robes as the people of Lystra attempted to offer sacrifices to them (Acts 14:13-14).
The most common purpose for tearing one’s clothing was as a sign of sorrow, remorse, or contrition. If a family member suddenly died, the surviving family would tear their robes to show their grief. In other cases, tearing one’s clothing showed penitence over sin, and the desire to return to God. Tearing one’s clothing was the first step in being restored to a right relationship with God.
In the prophecy of Joel, God spoke to the people of Judah warning them of His impending judgment. The sins of the nation were such that God was about to bring calamity upon them. In Joel’s prophecy God graphically portrayed the destruction that would come upon them using the imagery of a plague of locusts. However, in Joel 2:12-13 God offered Judah an opportunity to repent and to return to Him. In these verses the scripture says, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.”
The interesting part of God’s statement is that He called upon Judah to “rend your heart and not your garments.” God was not going to be satisfied with only an outward display of contrition. He wanted their hearts to be broken. He wanted Judah to change their attitude about the sin that had separated them from Him. To do this, they would have to take the attitude of the beloved King David. In Psa. 51, which he wrote in the aftermath of his sin with Bathsheba, David said, “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Unfortunately, the people of Judah did not rend their hearts. They persisted in their impenitent attitude and God’s judgment came upon them just as He had warned.
As we consider God’s plea to Judah, it is just as pertinent today as it was then. In 2 Pet. 3:9 Peter said, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God still calls upon mankind to rend their hearts and turn to Him because judgment is coming for all of us, just as it was for Judah of old. In Rom. 14:12 Paul said, “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” In 2 Th. 1:7-8 Paul said that the Lord will return with His angels, in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
The point is that we cannot stand before God with an impenitent heart. We must rend our hearts, breaking them of our selfish, human control, so they will turn back to God in humble obedience. The outward signs of contrition are only valid if the heart is also contrite. Therefore, let us rend our hearts so we may offer to God that which He desires. As David said, “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”