What does the Bible mean by this?
ESV - 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
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Since the breast (or chest area) is where the human heart (whether regarded literally as the sustainer of a person's life, or symbolically as the seat of human emotion) is located, beating or smiting one's breast is used as a sign of extreme sorrow (to the point of death, as would happen if the heart were wounded), or remorse or contrition (in which the beating is symbolic of the person being repentant enough to injure their own heart). In the specific passage cited in the question, the publican was beating his breast as a demonstration of his sorrow and repentance for his sin (in comparison to the proud behavior of the Pharisee, who was as much in need of forgiveness (in God's eyes) as the publican, but who showed no awareness of that fact). (In other passages illustrating this, Luke 23:48 mentions Jesus' followers who had been present at His crucifixion beating their breasts in mourning while returning home after His death. Isaiah 32:12 tells the complacent women of Jerusalem to beat their breasts in sorrow for the judgment that God was about to send on them.)
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