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In Revelation 11:3 is written:

"And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth."
(Revelation 11:3, NASB, emphasis mine)

I understand this is a material, but what sort of material or of what composition would it be made?

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Many Bible Dictionaries identify it as a course fabric made of either goats hair (most commonly) or camel hair which was often used to make sacks with, but also worn by mourners, see for example:

  • SACKCLOTH. A coarse cloth (Heb. śaq, Gk. sakkos, from which the Eng. word is derived), usually made of goats’ hair (Siphra 53b) and black in colour (Rev. 6:12).

    [Thompson, J. A. (1996). Sackcloth. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1032). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]

  • Sackcloth. Poor quality material or a garment of goat hair usually worn as a symbol of mourning, but also worn by some prophets and captives.

    [Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1880). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.]

  • sackcloth, a dark-colored material of goat or camel hair used for making grain bags and garments

    [Schiffman, L. H. (2011). sackcloth. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition., p. 902). New York: HarperCollins.]

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  • It has just come to mind that John the baptist had a garment made of camel hair Math 3:4 "Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair". So yes it was either camel or goat in revelations! – John Unsworth Feb 24 '15 at 7:33
  • @John Unsworth-My understanding is,sackcloth (goat hair) is usually associated with mourning,whereas a garment made from camel hair is usually associated with the prophets.CAMEL’S HAIR. Mentioned only in Matt.3.4 and Mark.1.6, where we are told that John the Baptist wore a garment of camel’s hair. It is probable, however, that this was not a garment made of the relatively expensive woven camel’s hair, but of dressed camel’s skin. Such garments are still used in the Near East. Some think that Elijah’s mantle was made of camel’s hair (2Kgs.1.8; cf. Zech.13.4). – Bagpipes Feb 25 '15 at 9:34
  • @John Unsworth- With reference to the "two witnesses,"it is reasonable to conclude, that they are in "mourning." For a very interesting read about "sackcloth," see here: books.google.co.uk/… – Bagpipes Feb 25 '15 at 9:55
  • @Bagpipes will have a read thanks. Im not sure if i understand them as mourning. john the baptist wore sack cloth...i think they have a similar role heralding the coming of the messiah, the second time. 'Sackcloth and ashes' seems to identify mourning more precisely. These two are clothed in sackcloth but no mention of ashes. There is more judgement in their action than mourning would you not say, at least in the context. Mourning is always associated with judgement though. – John Unsworth Feb 25 '15 at 12:08
  • @JohnUnsworth- John the Baptist did NOT wear sackcloth.His garment was made from camel hair,NOT goat hair.Yes there is more judgement in their action, (as you say) but the mourning will follow the judgement.This is why the two witnesses/prophets, are dressed in sackcloth and not camel hair. – Bagpipes Feb 25 '15 at 13:18
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The answer to your question is in the book of Revelation chapter 6:12, where we find sackcloth is made from goat-hair.

In Revelation 6:12-17 it is written (NIV)

12 Then I saw Him open the sixth seal. A violent earthquake occurred; the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair; the entire moon became like blood; 13 the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its unripe figs when shaken by a high wind; 14 the sky separated like a scroll being rolled up; and every mountain and island was moved from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the nobles, the military commanders, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 because the great day of Their wrath has come! And who is able to stand?"

The reason why the Two witnesses are dressed in sackcloth is because they are in "mourning",awaiting the imminent return of Christ.For it is written in Revelation 1:7,

And all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.

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  • "μέλας ὡς σάκκος τρίχινος" literally as 'black as sackcloth of hair' - no mention of goat in the Greek. – Jonathan Chell Feb 23 '15 at 18:33
  • I must admit I was surprised that I had missed that one. The NASB has "Made of Hair"! – John Unsworth Feb 24 '15 at 7:30
  • @JonathanChell- Hi,do you know why the NIV should choose to say goat in the text? – Bagpipes Feb 24 '15 at 15:22
  • @Bagpipes There must be a reason! – John Unsworth Feb 24 '15 at 20:49
  • Possibly they felt it would add clarity. – Jonathan Chell Feb 25 '15 at 19:43
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Not all sack was made of goat hair. It is wrong to automatically assume this. Sackcloth was no doubt made with materials locally obtained. Remember this material and the bags made from it was serving a whole lot of differant products. While goats hair was suitable in some cases but not in all cases. Mort common was cloth made from vegetablr fibers such as cannabis from which we derive the word canvas. This material was in use in the ancient world being discovered by the Scythians who exported canvas to the ancient middle east. While goats hair was relatively expensive. Canvas would be cheap.today we use sisal and jute. Jute is used to make burlap. It would seem that these 2 witnesses are poor folks. Just as our master Christ Jesus was.

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What a quintessential example of the "intertextuality" of the scriptures. This passage would be an excellent teaching example of how the scripture "drops words" that connect the current discussion with the stories and imagery scattered all throughout the scriptures. This is how the scriptures are designed to be read, with one passage illuminating the other. Awesome, and a large reason I'm a believer today.

So to be clear, John is not simply describing people and events. The people and events are filled with symbolism and each symbol connects with history and other scriptural people and events such that the effects of the imagery are multiplied and feed off of each other. Praise God and give him glory.

Sackcloth is simply coarse cloth, such as one would use to make a sack such as a sack for potatoes or corn. It is rough to the touch in contrast to "fine" material. The word also refers to a garment made of it. It has been used throughout Jewish history as a symbol of mourning:

Term originally denoting a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat's hair. It afterward came to mean also a garment made from such cloth, which was chiefly worn as a token of mourning by the Israelites. It was furthermore a sign of submission (I Kings xx. 30 et seq.), and was occasionally worn by the Prophets.

[1Ki 20:31-32 KJV] 31 And his servants said unto him, Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel [are] merciful kings: let us, I pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes upon our heads, and go out to the king of Israel: peradventure he will save thy life. 32 So they girded sackcloth on their loins, and [put] ropes on their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said, Thy servant Benhadad saith, I pray thee, let me live. And he said, [Is] he yet alive? he [is] my brother.

Notice that they do not say, "Let's get some sacks and cut out holes for our heads and arms..." but rather "let us, I pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins". This example of simply taking a piece of coarse fabric and tying it around one's waist seems to be what "putting on sackcloth" originally entailed. The fabric is scratchy and at least partially see-through so it is to place oneself in a humble circumstance:

[Mat 5:4 KJV] 4 Blessed [are] they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

It might or might not be made of animal fur. The verse in the OP is not specifically said to be "of hair" so it was not necessarily of animal fur as is the sackcloth mentioned in an earlier chapter:

[Rev 6:12 KJV] 12 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

So perhaps the material is not the focus. The material might tell us the level of discomfort and humility it provided but it seems that what the author wants to do is to associate the "sun" with "prophets and prophecy" and perhaps particularly Elijah and John the baptizer:

[2Ki 1:8 KJV] 8 And they answered him, [He was] an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And he said, It [is] Elijah the Tishbite.

[Mat 3:4 KJV] 4 And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

The association of "rough clothing" with prophets and prophecy was so strong that false prophets would wear it to pretend to be a true prophet:

[Zec 13:4 KJV] 4 And it shall come to pass in that day, [that] the prophets shall be ashamed every one of his vision, when he hath prophesied; neither shall they wear a rough garment to deceive:

So when the 6th seal opens and the sun is shouting down "prophets and prophecy" in association with the "moon turned to blood" it seems that the prophets are raining down the prophecies of doom upon Babylon (IE: Jerusalem).

[Rev 11:3, 6 KJV] 3 And I will give [power] unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred [and] threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. ... 6 These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.

Further reading:

SACKCLOTH (שַׂק, saq; σάκκος, sakkos). A rough cloth made from animal hair, usually that of a goat or camel. In both Greek and ancient Near Eastern literature, it refers to a type of material used in various household duties such as the construction of clothing and sacks; the word can also refer to the clothing or sack itself. In the ancient Near East, the use of a garment made of sackcloth came to symbolize sorrow or submission. The Hebrew and Greek words undoubtedly share a common etymology.

Use in Biblical and Related Literature Sackcloth in the Bible can refer to a type of material (Lev 11:32; 2 Sam 21:10; 11QTb; Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes 8.4), to sacks (Gen 42:25, 27; Josh 9:4), or to an item of clothing worn to express contrition (1 Kgs 20:31–32; Psa 35:13), lamentation (Jer 4:8), mourning (Gen 37:34; Psa 30:11), supplication (Josephus, Antiquities 12.300), or repentance (1 Kgs 21:27; Matt 11:21). When used as a sign of grief, it is sometimes accompanied with the use of ashes (Esth 4:1; Isa 58:5; Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13). In the Old Testament the wearing of sackcloth is also often accompanied by tearing one’s clothes (1 Maccabees 2:14; History of the Rechabites 8:2), pulling out one’s hair (Ezek 27:31; Amos 8:10), going barefoot (Josephus, Antiquities 8.362), lying or sitting on the floor (Esth 4:3; Josephus, Antiquities 19.349), wearing ropes around the head (1 Kgs 20:31–32; Josephus, Antiquities 8.385), and praying or fasting (Dan 9:3; Jonah 3:5). The practice of using sackcloth in the form of a robe to demonstrate penance continued into at least the early medieval period (Richter, Meaning, 182).

Usage as Clothing Sackcloth was uncomfortable to wear as clothing. Wearing sackcloth, especially as an act of penance, was practiced by men, women, children, servants (of the penitent), and priests; religious items and possibly even farm animals could also be covered in sackcloth as part of a community’s act of penance (1 Kgs 19:2; Jonah 3:8; Judith 4:10). It is probable that someone could wear sackcloth in several different ways, depending on the period and the occasion—as a small body cloth (Gen 37:34; Jer 48:37), an undergarment (2 Kgs 6:30; Judith 9:1), an external cloth meant to be seen (Judith 10:3; Josephus, Antiquities 5.37), or as a larger covering (1 Chr 21:16). Sackcloth was unattractive and dark, if not black, in color (Rev 6:12; Isa 50:3; Josephus, Antiquities 7.154; Apocryphon of Ezekiel [compare 1 Clement 8:3]). It was also easily recognizable, and thus people could be prohibited from wearing it in certain places or situations (Esth 4:2). Sackcloth is contrasted with fine attire (Isa 3:24; Psalms of Solomon 2.20). Other types of material (such as burlap, ὠμόλινον, ōmolinon, Sirach 40:4) could possibly be substituted when needed.

Bibliography Richter, Klemens. The Meaning of the Sacramental Symbols: Answers to Today’s Questions. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1990.

Estes, D. (2016). Sackcloth. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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The two witnesses in Rev. 11 link with the Old testament explanation of mourning. It should enable those of us who want to take advantage of the Old testament tokens, to seek out the meaning of the tokens. Jesus referenced the use of the tokens in the gospel for those who rejected the signs and wonders He performed.

21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.

Then just a few verses later He says who would actual believe and perform the ritual of repentance using sackcloth and ashes. The wise and prudent always have good excuses why they don't need to humble themselves in the dirt and ashes. "Oh, we be children of Abraham" and now it is Cross that takes care of the sin, no worries, etc.

25 At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.

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