A Summons to the Bar of Justice

18 “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. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 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)

God does not bargain over sin. He does not accept repentance as some sort of payment for mercy. Rather, He freely and graciously responds to man’s humble recognition that he lacks the ability to pay anything at all.

Israel’s religious feasts and sacrifices had become loathsome in God’s eyes, so He would no longer hear their prayers (v. 15). Instead, He called the Israelites to clean themselves of their evil deeds and “learn to do good” (v. 17). Then with the words, “Come now, let us reason together,” (v. 18) the Lord called the nation before His judgment seat. He treated Israel as an accused criminal, as one challenged to make a case in court. The Hebrew word “reason” (yakach) appears 59 times in the Old Testament and is translated in a wide variety of ways. In most cases, it refers to a court of law (e.g., Job 13:3; 23:7). God gave Israel the chance to plead her case, but she has no defense to make. The verdict was swift: “Your sins are like scarlet” (v. 18).

The color red was not a symbol for sin. Rather, the text speaks of the conspicuous and permanent stains left by “crimson” and “scarlet” dyes. Such was the nature of the Israelites’ sin.

Even in handing down the verdict against His people, God announced His readiness to forgive them: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Because the Lord was not bent on destroying His people, He repeated the options. If they came to Him “willing and obedient,” without rationalization and in great humility, then they would be blessed with the choicest fruit of the land (v. 19). But if they refused His kindness and rebel against Him, they would be destroyed (v. 20).

Just as the Israelites viewed burnt sacrifices as a kind of rent payment for the continued favor of God, people today look for negotiating chips and points of leverage with Him. Some pastors even preach Isaiah 1 with that perspective; they present “Come now, let us reason together” as the Lord’s exalted way of saying, “Here, I’ll make you a deal. You give me repentance, and I’ll give you forgiveness.” But that kind of thinking is alien to Scripture. It is not God’s invitation to the bargaining table; it is His summons to the bar of justice. And true repentance is nothing more than a person’s humble acknowledgement that his hands are empty and that he has nothing to offer. Only then will blessing flow—and there will be no mistaking its source.