Mourning among Oriental peoples was customarily accompanied by much outward display of grief, and this is reflected in the Biblical accounts of periods of mourning. One entire book of the Bible, Lamentations, is an expression of mourning over the fate of Jerusalem.
Causes of Mourning. Persons mourned to express repentance (Ne 9:1, 2; Jon 3:5-9), or because of the imminence of calamity (Es 4:3; Jer 6:26; Am 5:16, 17) or a disastrous condition already prevailing (Joe 1:5-14). The most common cause of mourning, undoubtedly, was death. The death of a member of the immediate family set in motion a period of mourning (Ge 23:2; 27:41; 37:33-35), while the death of a parent or of an only son are set out as occasions of the deepest grief. (Ps 35:14; Am 8:10; Zec 12:10) The death of a national leader occasioned periods of mourning lasting from 7 to 30 days. (Nu 20:29; De 34:8; 1Sa 31:8, 12, 13) The Egyptians continued to shed tears over the death of Joseph’s father Jacob for 70 days, with an additional 7-day period of mourning rites in Canaan.—Ge 50:3-11.
Ways of Expressing Sorrow. Mourning was given expression vocally and by weeping, as well as by disfigurement of the physical appearance and by fasting or otherwise abstaining from normal practices. Wailing or loud and bitter crying might accompany the weeping (2Sa 1:11, 12; Es 4:1), the chest was beaten (Isa 32:11, 12; Na 2:7; Lu 8:52), garments were often ripped apart (Jg 11:35; 2Ki 22:11, 19), dust or ashes might be cast on the head and sackcloth be worn (2Sa 13:19; 2Ki 6:30; Job 2:11, 12), sandals might be removed and the head or face be covered (2Sa 15:30; 19:4), the hair might be pulled out or cut off and the beard shaved (Job 1:20; Ezr 9:3; Jer 41:5), while some persons, following pagan practices, made cuts in their body (Jer 16:6; 47:5). In addition to fasting, the person might abstain from rubbing himself with oil or washing his garments (2Sa 14:2; 19:24; Da 10:2, 3), sometimes sitting on the ground or amid ashes.—2Sa 13:31; Job 2:8; Isa 3:26.
Plaintive elegies at times were composed as songs of mourning. (2Sa 1:17-27; 3:33, 34; 2Ch 35:25) A particular type of song was the shig·ga·yohnʹ, a Hebrew term that occurs in the superscription of Psalm 7; a related term appears in Habakkuk 3:1. This was a dirgelike composition and apparently indicates a highly emotional song with rapid changes of rhythm. It will be noted in both of these references (Ps 7; Hab 3:2-19) that the elements of danger, strong outbursts of appeal or emotion, and subsequent rejoicing in Jehovah are present.
Occasionally, professional mourners were employed at funerals, and musicians played mournful tunes (Jer 9:17, 18; Mt 9:23); these were imitated by little children playing in the marketplaces in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. (Mt 11:16, 17) The pipe or flute was the preferred instrument for lamentation.—Jer 48:36; Mt 9:23; see Josephus’ Jewish War, III, 437 (ix, 5).
After a burial the women customarily visited the grave, to weep and mourn. (Joh 11:31) A funeral meal seems to have been served sometime during the mourning period and, in some instances, appears to have been made into a special feast.—Ho 9:4; Jer 16:5, 7.
Prohibitions Involving Mourning. On occasion God’s people as a body, or as individuals, were instructed not to mourn over the death of certain ones, such as condemned wrongdoers. (Le 10:1, 2, 6) The prophet Ezekiel was commanded to adopt none of the signs of mourning for his deceased wife, thereby serving as a portent for the Israelites with him in Babylon that they would be so stunned that they would not mourn the divine execution of judgment on Jerusalem for its unfaithfulness. (Eze 24:15-24) Jeremiah received somewhat similar instructions.—Jer 16:5-13.
Certain mourning practices were forbidden under the Mosaic Law, including the inflicting of cuts in the flesh or causing of “baldness on your foreheads” (Le 19:28; De 14:1) and the misuse of tithes in connection with the dead. (De 26:12-14) For certain members of their immediate families the priests could mourn openly, but the high priest was restricted from doing so.—Le 21:1-6, 10-12.
A Time to Mourn. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 states that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to wail and a time to skip about.” In view of all mankind’s dying condition, the heart of the wise ones is shown to be “in the house of mourning” rather than in the banquet house. (Ec 7:2, 4; compare Pr 14:13.) Thus, the wise person makes use of his opportunity to express sympathy and give comfort, instead of ignoring such an occasion in favor of seeking pleasure. This helps him to keep in mind his own mortal state and to keep his heart in a right attitude toward his Creator.
Valid motives for mourning are set forth in the Scriptures. In addition to the death of loved ones (Ge 42:38; 44:31), detestable and God-dishonoring practices of false religion are a cause for sighing and groaning (Eze 9:4; compare 1Co 5:2), and grief is rightly expressed because of one’s own errors. (Ps 38:4, 6-10) Jehovah urges those who have drawn away from him: “Come back to me with all your hearts, and with fasting and with weeping and with wailing. And rip apart your hearts, and not your garments.” (Joe 2:12, 13; compare Jas 4:8, 9.) Elsewhere, also, stress is laid, not on the external expressions of grief or mourning, but on the inner stirrings and pain of heart, marking genuine sadness.—Ps 31:9, 10; Pr 14:10; 15:13; Mr 14:72; Joh 16:6.
Even Jehovah speaks of himself as being “hurt at his heart.” (Ge 6:6; compare Isa 63:9.) God’s holy spirit can also be ‘grieved.’ (Eph 4:30) Since that spirit works in God’s servants toward the producing of fruits of righteousness (Ga 5:22-24), those who fail to appreciate this divine provision, who resist its working, and who go contrary to its leading are, in effect, “grieving” it.—Compare Isa 63:10; 1Th 5:19.
A Balanced View of Mourning. In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, mourning was still frequently carried on by the people with much outward expression and accompanying noise and confusion. (Mr 5:38, 39) Though Jesus ‘groaned within himself’ and wept on a number of occasions (Joh 11:33-35, 38; Lu 19:41; Mr 14:33, 34; Heb 5:7), there is no record of his employing the other more ostentatious expressions already described. (Compare Lu 23:27, 28.) His disciples likewise expressed grief and mourning. (Mt 9:15; Joh 16:20-22; Ac 8:2; 9:39; 20:37, 38; Php 2:27) Paul expressed “great grief and unceasing pain in [his] heart” over his unbelieving relatives according to the flesh. (Ro 9:2, 3) He feared that he might have to mourn over those in the congregation at Corinth who had sinned and had still not repented (2Co 12:21), and he mentioned “with weeping” those who had turned aside to walk “as the enemies of the torture stake of the Christ.” (Php 3:17-19) His deep and heartfelt concern for the Christian congregation (2Co 2:1-4) qualified him to instruct others on the need for empathy and sympathy, ‘weeping with people who weep.’—Ro 12:15.
However, in view of the weakening effect of mourning and grief (Ps 6:6, 7; Lu 22:45; Ac 21:13; 2Co 2:6, 7), Christian sorrow is shown always to be tempered, balanced, and even overshadowed by hope and strength-giving joy. (Mt 5:4; 1Co 7:29, 30; 2Co 6:10; compare Ne 8:9-12.) Even in his day King David manifested a balanced, sensible, and principled viewpoint as to mourning, so that while the child conceived through his adulterous relationship with Bath-sheba was ill, David fasted and lay on the earth, seeking the true God in the child’s behalf. But upon learning of the child’s death, David got up, washed, rubbed himself with oil, changed clothes, prayed to Jehovah, and then requested food and began to eat. In explaining his acts to his surprised attendants, he stated: “Now that he has died, why is it I am fasting? Am I able to bring him back again? I am going to him, but, as for him, he will not return to me.” (2Sa 12:16, 19-23) Later, however, he needed help from straight-speaking Joab to pull out of his state of deep grief over the death of his son Absalom.—2Sa 18:33; 19:1-8.
Though “all creation keeps on groaning,” the sufferings of the Christian are minor compared with the glorious hope ahead (Ro 8:18-22; 1Pe 1:3-7), and the promise of the resurrection enables him not to “sorrow just as the rest also do who have no hope.”—1Th 4:13, 14.
Mourning and fasting without obedience to Jehovah’s word are of no benefit. (Zec 7:2-7) However, “sadness in a godly way makes for repentance to salvation.” Such sadness is the result of a person’s seeing a wrongdoing as a sin against God. It moves him to seek God’s forgiveness and to turn around from his wrong course. “But the sadness of the world produces death.” Although a person may be sad that his wrong was exposed and that this has meant loss to him, he has no desire to gain God’s forgiveness. (2Co 7:10, 11) For example, Esau’s tears shed selfishly in hope of regaining his forfeited birthright had no effect on Isaac or on God.—Heb 12:16, 17.
Figurative and Prophetic Use. Figuratively, even the land is represented as mourning because of devastations caused by invading armies or by a plague. (Jer 4:27, 28; Joe 1:10-12; contrast Ps 96:11-13.) In its desolation, the land would grow up in weeds and develop a neglected, uncared-for appearance, like that of a person who has not attended to his face, hair, or clothing while in mourning. Similarly, land devastated by a plague upon the crops presents a mournful sight.
“The sign of the Son of man” and Christ’s revelation are to cause all the tribes of the earth to “beat themselves in lamentation,” or “in grief.” (Mt 24:30; Re 1:7) Upon symbolic “Babylon the Great” plagues—death, mourning, and famine—are foretold to come “in one day,” causing those who have benefited from her to weep and mourn. (Re 18:2, 7-11, 17-19) By contrast, the New Jerusalem brings in conditions upon earth in which tears, death, mourning, outcry, and pain pass away for all time.—Re 21:2-4.