Word Study: Sins as Scarlet


Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith- the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

This is one of those popular verses you hear all the time and every time I hear it I wonder: “Why does God call sin as scarlet?” Why is it not called black? I mean scarlet is the color of blood and it is the blood of Jesus that removes the sin, it is not the sin. Frankly, I just don’t like assigning a color to sin. In Bible College I worked briefly with Child Evangelism Fellowship and in that day they had what was called the wordless book. The color black was used for sin and I had to present the book to a group of inner city children who were taught something else about black. My refusal to use the wordless book or at least the color black for sin created a falling out between the director and myself and I would have failed my PCW assignment (Practical Christian Work) had not the director of the PCW department for the college expressed similar shock over the use of the color black for sin.

But I don’t think the ancient Middle East has such problems as we do in our culture with the color so it is doubtful God was trying to be politically correct. So the question stands, why scarlet? The word used for scarlet is kashanim from the root word shani which is a word for an insect. The ka in front of the word is a preposition like or as so it is, though you sins be as an insect. Well, that makes as much sense as the word scarlet. However, translators are correct to us the word scarlet because the people of that day were very familiar with this type of insect. This type of insect attached itself to a tree to bear its young and when it died and dried up it turned a bright scarlet.

Congress and President Trump passed a budget the other day which showed a 21 billion dollar increase in defense spending. Such as increase was pretty bipartisan. Not only because defense is a major priority with our country but because it also creates jobs to use that money. There is probably not a person in the country that has not heard of the Army, Navy and Air Force. We are all familiar with terms like nuclear weapons, ICBM missiles, tanks, aircraft carriers, and even terms like the F-15. When you think about it we know quite a bit about our national defense and there are few families in this nation who does not have a friend or relative that are in the military and/or are working for defense projects.

My point is that just like today where everyone knows what a nuclear bomb is, so did everyone in Israel know what scarlet was. Many were employed to gather these little insects. Once they died and dried out and begin to decay giving off its scarlet color. These dead insects were then collected, crushed and turned into a scarlet color dye.

So when one heard the word shani or scarlet they immediately thought of this insect that was dead, decaying. The association with sin would then be quickly recognized as that dead decaying thing in your life, that chocked the spiritual life out of you. God was saying that although your sins make you about as spiritually dead as that insect, He will restore you to new spiritual life.

Now in my almost ten years of doing these little word studies I never did a study on Isaiah 1:18 because I figured everyone at some point heard their preacher teach on this. Since my website exist to not repeat what you hear in church but to present you with something you will not normally hear, I just ignored this verse until now.

The other day, I was reviewing some of my notes I gathered for my doctoral dissertation (my PhD being in Biblical Archaeology) and I found a notation about the uniform of the Assyrian army. The Assyrians were the biggest enemies of Israel during the time of Isaiah and eventually, after years of warfare, they conquered Israel. Everyone living in Israel most likely heard the stories of the battles and one thing they discussed was the uniform of the charioteers. Chariots were manned by two warriors. One to drive the chariot and the other warrior to shoot the arrows. You see the chariot would lead the charge toward the enemy, they would race as close as possible to the enemy lines, where the archer would release the arrow and then circle around for another attack.

My cousin is married to a Viet Nam veteran who served with the Spot Light unit. I never heard of this outfit but the men of this unit had to be some brave dudes. They drove a jeep with a spot light attached at night and when enemy movement was detected one of the men in the spot light unit would mount the spotlight and flash it on the area where the enemy was detected so our infantry knew where to shoot. I mean the old boy mounting the spotlight should just as well have said: “Hey everyone hiding in the bushes, here I am, take you best shot.”

That was what it would like to be a member of the chariot brigade. You were wide open and the enemy let lose all their arrows at you. Casualties were quite high, but one arrow did not usually bring these warriors down. They were tough cookies, but they still would bleed. However, wearing a scarlet color uniform concealed or hid the blood so the enemy would shake their heads wondering if they were fighting against some gods. “Hey, Bunkie, did you see that, the guy has a half dozen arrows in him and he is not bleeding.”

Scarlet became known also as a camouflage, a means of keeping the extent of your injury concealed to the onlooker. Thus, when God says that even though your sins are as scarlet, these sins were not just destroying you but they include sins that were hidden and concealed. Your secret sins. Even your concealed sins will be cleansed. That is, the sins that nobody else knows about.

Just a side note, it is interesting that the word for sin is chata’ which is an archer’s term for missing the mark or target. Maybe there is an illustration there, maybe not, I will let you decide.