Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; …
Come now, and 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 be as wool. Isaiah 1:16a, 18 (NKJV)
Israel in deformation
The Israel of Isaiah’s days is a far cry from the kind of nation it was in David’s days or at the covenant ceremonies at Mount Sinai. Israel is now serving the LORD like the gentiles serve their idols: just paying lip service, doing the bare minimum to keep the LORD happy in His temple. But in their hearts they deny Him. There is no longer a wholehearted life of obedience. And if there is no ‘walking in the newness of life’ the covenant is already broken, because breaking the covenant begins in the heart.
The call to covenant obedience
Now to this unfaithful people comes the call, through Isaiah: wash yourselves, make yourselves clean … It’s a call for an immediate return to covenant faithfulness, a radical change. Today, if you will hear His voice. The call is not a watered-down appeal like: You do know better than to live the way you do, don’t you! Nor is the call open to debate; it’s an absolute and final demand.
For Israel had once promised to serve the Lord, and to do so forever. And since it had vowed loyalty to the covenant, the call now comes for Israel to return today to the true and faithful service of the Lord, to the first works. There’s nothing strange and nothing new in that, since the details of how they are to live in that loyalty are known; these details had been clearly revealed to them.
Now, however, Israel is living in covenant disobedience, and has thereby broken its covenant loyalty. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the demand of the covenant remains in force and that Israel must therefore heed the call to covenant obedience. For Israel is a called, a chosen, nation. The people must enter the city with foundations, or else they must be beaten with many stripes. That is the reality of Israel’s election.
Repentance involves acknowledgement of disobedience
Now supposing Israel does repent and returns today, would that make up for what it had done in the past? Would there be no further mention of the breaking of the covenant, and would life automatically regain its former brilliance and glory?
No, it would not. For although the covenant did promise a blessing upon obedience, it also came with the threat of a curse upon disobedience. And whatever the LORD has said, He will do. And since Israel has been disobedient, the remainder of the call is filled with dread: Come now, and let us reason (judge the matter) together.
If the Lord would say no more than this, Israel would be lost and have no future; then repentance would be to no avail; it would be too late, the curse would be on its way. It is now, therefore, of the utmost significance what the LORD will say about those sins of the past.
The music in God’s response
That the LORD does not want to give up on His people but has their ongoing reformation in mind – that’s what every penitent now hears in what follows: Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
When the covenant child is being summoned to the court room in this manner, he hears in this call the faithfulness of his God who keeps His oaths and remembers His mercy. He hears that God is not out to destroy His people, but instead wants to drive it to reformation. Now God’s people can go forward, because a new beginning is possible. That is the music in these words.
Confession, forgiveness and reformation
Although the Lord does require a confession of the sins committed in the past, He also encourages the sinner by opening the door to forgiveness of sin. Everything will have to be said, all sins will be addressed in the judgment, but there is the possibility of asking and receiving forgiveness. Israel can expect to return home fully justified – for with the Lord there is mercy, He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
Forgiveness is not an easy matter within the circle of the covenant. It is there only in the context of ongoing reformation. There must be a return to the true service of the Lord, a return to the first works. If we think that we have, together, deviated from the ways of the Lord, have together become unfaithful and are obliged to confess guilt, if we are sincere about that, then there is forgiveness—but only upon repentance. If we are sincere in our confession of disloyalty and our prayer for forgiveness, repentance MUST follow. Whoever calls upon the LORD in His forgiving love, can do so only if he promises repentance, a return to the first works.
And only when there is a return to what was once promised and done, only then is there the certainty that we are forgiven and that God’s favour, God’s grace, goes out to us again. This favour and grace are beautiful realities. Life will then again show its glory in our midst. For also in this covenant situation our faith perceives His favour and goodness.
Prayers are so serious, because the sincerity of our prayers shows up in a life sanctified by the truth.
“Doorgaande Reformatie” by Rev. E. Th. van den Born (1900-1982), in Van Souvereine Liefde, Oosterbaan, Goes, p. 22-24. Equivalent translation from Dutch.