Answer: The prophet Joel functioned as a spiritual watchman over Judah. In Joel 2:12–19, he pleaded with the nation to turn to the Lord in genuine repentance as the only way to avoid the devastating destruction of the coming “day of the Lord” (Joel 1:15). The prophet’s call began like so: “‘Even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:12–13).
The word for “rend” in the original Hebrew means “to split, tear to pieces, rip, bust, separate abruptly or with violence.” To rend one’s garment was an ancient custom that signaled intense grief, repentance, or holy zeal.
When King David received the devastating, but exaggerated, news that Absalom had struck down all of David’s remaining sons, he rose, tore his clothes, and then lay down on the ground (2 Samuel 13:31; see also 2 Samuel 1:11). The Old Testament records Reuben, Jacob, Joshua, Caleb, Jephthah, Tamar, Ahab, Hezekiah, and others rending their garments in gestures of mourning and penitence (Genesis 37:29, 34; Joshua 7:6; Numbers 14:6; Judges 11:35; 2 Samuel 13:19; 1 Kings 21:27 Isaiah 37:1).
In the New Testament, the high priest tore his garment while accusing Jesus of blasphemy (Matthew 26:65). Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes in anguish when they realized the people of Lystra were preparing to honor them as deities (Acts 14:14–15).
More than rent clothing, God wants rent hearts. To “rend your heart” in repentance is to acknowledge your brokenness and need for God’s forgiveness and restoration. As we rend our hearts, we discover that “the LORD is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18, NLT). When we’ve strayed from God, the sacrifice He desires is “a broken spirit,” for He “will not reject a broken and repentant heart” (Psalm 51:17, NLT). We pave the way for healing, wholeness, and a restored relationship with God when we rend our hearts before Him (Psalm 147:3; Isaiah 61:1).
In Joel’s day, the nation of Judah was guilty of putting on false displays of repentance. The people performed rituals of tearing their clothing without experiencing true, heart-crushing remorse for their sin, which would lead to a change in behavior and genuine devotion to God. Only a complete rending of the heart would turn the nation back to receive the compassionate, gracious, merciful, and steadfast love of the Lord.
Instead of saying “rend your heart,” the prophet Jeremiah applied the cutting analogy of circumcision to call God’s people to repentance: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done” (Jeremiah 4:4).
The idiom rend your heart expresses internal spiritual brokenness, which is vastly more important than any empty, hypocritical act of ripping apart one’s clothing. Rituals of repentance mean nothing if the heart is unchanged. External performances are not enough. For this reason, Jesus taught in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Being poor in spirit means recognizing one’s broken spiritual state. We rend our hearts when we admit that we are utterly bankrupt and destitute before God. Without His forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration, we are undone.
Rending our hearts in repentance means wholehearted surrender to God: “Pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord,” says Lamentations 2:19. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” cried David after acknowledging his sin to the Lord (Psalm 51:10, ESV). “Woe is me, for I am undone!” confessed Isaiah upon seeing the Lord lifted high upon His throne. “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5, NKJV).
When we rend our hearts before the Lord, God promises to forgive, cleanse, and restore us: “For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home. . . . I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. . . . You will be my people, and I will be your God. I will cleanse you of your filthy behavior” (Ezekiel 36:24–29, NLT).