Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Isaiah 1:18-20 (ESV)
Oftentimes Christians quote a verse with little knowledge of its context. As I am reading through Isaiah right now I thought I would share some thoughts on reading this verse not as an isolated promise text, but as a part of Isaiah’s literary masterpiece.
Typically you will hear 1:18 quoted without reference to 1:19-20. When this is done it sounds like God is saying, “I have a deal for you: I will take away your sin and replace it with purity.” But this is only part of the deal. Not only does God wash away the sins of his people but he also offers the benefits of purity: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”
In verses 21-23 God describes the city of Jerusalem as a city where the poor are oppressed and uncared for. In this sense “the faithful city has become a whore” (1:21). It is because of this that Israel is facing calamity, both physically and militarily (1:5-8). The cry of the whole chapter is:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Isaiah 1:16-17 (ESV)
The emphasis on widows and orphans runs throughout Isaiah. It is this line of thought that is reflected well in James 1:27:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Isaiah describes other attempts at religion in his first chapter. The people are bringing God a “multitude of … sacrifices” (1:11), but the religion of Israel is an abomination to God (1:10-15). At the end of the chapter we see hints that Israel is pursuing Canaanite worship rituals, which Isaiah says will result in their death (1:29-31).
The central point of the chapter (where we began in verses 18-20) is then this: You need to wash your sins away so that you can eat the good of the land rather than be eaten by the sword! A little bit of historical context may help here. Isaiah prophesied “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1). The days of Uzziah were good days for the nation. Both the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah) were expanding during this time. These were the best years for Israel/Judah since the days of Solomon. But by the end of the 8th century BC the northern kingdom would fall to the Assyrians, and Judah too would be invaded with the Assyrians laying siege to Jerusalem.
It is not clear when in this time frame Isaiah said these words, but based on verses 5-9 it is likely that these words came toward the end of the period. Judah had seen Israel fall and was in danger of falling itself. Sacrifices likely abounded as the people tried to appease Yahweh (and perhaps other gods as well, though Hezekiah himself worked to put an end to idol-worship and to focus people on Yahweh-worship). But God wanted one thing: justice for the oppressed.
As I think about how to apply this today, I realize that I must be a Christian who fights for justice. Other religion is no religion at all. We can make all kinds of prayers and sacrifices for God, but if we freely benefit off of the oppression of the poor in the process, God will not hear our prayers. God would say to the Christian today, “Come now, let us reason together. Your sins have been like scarlet; let’s change that. If you agree to this, I will bless you. If you do not, you will experience my wrath.” Of course God’s blessing does not always mean eating the good of the land in this life and his wrath does not always mean military defeat. But the basic message remains the same. We need to fight for justice, or God will bring us to justice. Lord, help us.