Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow Isaiah 1:18

From the earliest days of the church the Book of the prophet Isaiah was known as “the Fifth Gospel” or “the Gospel in the Old Testament.” In the 4th Century Jerome wrote that Isaiah “should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” His name Isaiah means ‘Yahweh (is) salvation’, which fits him very well. The kings he mentions indicate that he prophesied for at least forty years, from about 740 BC, the last year of Uzziah, until some point after the siege of Jerusalem in 701 in the time of Hezekiah.
We are very familiar with so many wonderful promises of salvation in the second half of the Book of Isaiah. I have preached on these passages and often quoted from them.
Isaiah 40 talking about how great God is!
25 ‘To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
And that wonderful promise in Isaiah 40
30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Then there’s my favourite chapter in the whole of the Old Testament Isaiah 43
1 But now, this is what the LORD says—
he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
4 Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you,

And this leads on to that wonderful promise of God doing a new thing.

Isaiah 43 18 ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen, 21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.

In particular the second half of Isaiah contains so many prophecies about the Messiah God would send to be the Saviour of the world, God’s Suffering Servant.
Isaiah 53 3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
And who can forget that wonderful invitation in Isaiah 55
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

So many glorious promises! But the first half of Isaiah is also rich in promises and challenges in equal measure. Isaiah was writing in the second half of the eighth century BC. The Assyrians were threatening Israel and instead of trusting in God, Israel was trying to make alliances with them. He was writing at the same time as Hosea, Amos and Micah and they all condemned the greed, corruption and injustice which gripped Israel. But across all the prophets we find perhaps the fiercest criticism of God’s chosen people here in Isaiah chapter 1.
GOD’S JUDGMENT
The nation was rebelling against God
2 Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken:
‘I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’

The Israelites weren’t merely ignoring the God who had given birth to their nation. As their children they were actively rebelling against him, by doing all kinds of evil things.
4 Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!

They were ignoring and rejecting God.

They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.

Things have got so bad that God addresses his own nation of Israel as “Sodom and Gomorrah” – architypes of evil nations who faced God’s judgment and were consumed in destruction.

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

The sins of the people are so great that God rejects their sacrifices and holy days. Their worship and their prayers are no longer acceptable to him.

11 ‘The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?’ says the LORD.
‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.

Here are solemn warnings that songs of praise and worship mean nothing to God if they come from lives filled with corruption and injustice. Sin cuts people off from God.

Isaiah 59:2 “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.”

God’s people were cut off from him by their sin. They were exploiting the poor, the orphans and widows and refugees and God was angry. We have seen recently in our series on Acting Justly that this call for justice comes again at then end of Isaiah.

Isaiah 58
6 ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.

God was rejecting Israel’s empty worship and he rejects the people themselves. He says
Your hands are full of blood!

God is justifiably so angry with his chosen people and especially with their leaders.

21 See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!
She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—
but now murderers!
22 Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.
23 Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves;
they all love bribes and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them.

So God has resolved that he is going to bring judgment on his special people and purify this nation he had chosen and called and redeemed so that they would become holy and belong to him.
24 Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
‘Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.
25 I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.

I think by now it is pretty obvious how angry God is with Israel. As of course he is angry with all sin. But in the middle of this, you can only call it “a tirade” of judgment and condemnation we find one of the most beautiful and memorable promises in the whole of scripture. It’s a promise we claim for ourselves as a prophecy of the wonderful salvation God gives us through Jesus.

GOD’S WONDERFUL OFFER OF FORGIVENESS

Isaiah 1 18 ‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the LORD.
‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

What colour is sin? Some people read this verse and make the mistake of thinking that Isaiah is saying that sin is some shade of red, scarlet or crimson. Some Christians have made the mistake of thinking that immorality in particular is associated with scarlet, “a scarlet woman”, because Revelation talks about the Great Prostitute, dressed in purple and scarlet.

But in Isaiah’s time sin wasn’t associated with any particular colour. The scarlet and the crimson he is referring to here were the most brightly coloured dyes they had in those days to colour their clothes. They were striking shades of red made from the extracts of tiny insects. The significant thing about those dyes was not the actual colours they made but the fact that back then before they had bleaches those dyes were permanent. Scarlet and crimson were indelible. Once a fabric was coloured with scarlet or with crimson that would be its colour. Even if the brightness faded the stain would remain forever. Nothing could remove it! So that is why this promise God makes is so amazing.

Isaiah 1 18 ‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the LORD.
‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

Israel’s sins were like a dye, staining and polluting the nation. Nothing anybody could do would remove them. But God can.

‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;

Freshly fallen snow would be the purest white anybody in Isaiah’s time would ever see. God would remove the stain of Israel’s sin leaving only the whiteness of snow.

though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

Taking away the crimson which had coloured the material it would be restored to its original natural wool colour again. Good as new. And that is exactly how God deals with our sins through Jesus. In Christ we are justified. God makes it “just as if I’d” never sinned.

‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

HOW CAN WE RECEIVE FORGIVENESS AND SALVATION

16 Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

God calls his chosen people to repent. To turn away from sin and do what is just and right. Just as God calls us all to repentance. Of course the irony is that the Israelites cannot wash themselves clean. Scarlet and crimson won’t wash out and neither will sin. All they can do is gratefully receive God’s gracious offer of cleansing which they could never do for themselves, completely unearned and undeserved.

God’s people face a choice. Will they pursue God or will they continue in sin? Will they accept forgiveness or not? Good or evil? That’s the choice everybody faces.

19 If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.’
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

If they choose God then his blessing will fall once again as it did before.

26 I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterwards you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.’
27 Zion will be delivered with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness.
28 But rebels and sinners will both be broken, and those who forsake the LORD will perish.

There is the choice everybody faces. To carry on sinning and face God’s judgment. Or to repent from sin and receive God’s amazing forgiveness.
PSALM 51 begins like this.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. ….
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

This entry was posted in Isaiah.

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