Scarlet is a distinctive color that carries a lot of baggage. What does the biblical phrase “though your sins be as scarlet” mean? What is the Bible’s solution to this problem?
Whether the word scarlet brings to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett) or Stan Lee (either the Marvel character or the actress with that name), it is a word with powerful connotations. Some of those come from the Bible.
Merriam-Webster.com gives these definitions of the English adjective scarlet:
“2 a: grossly and glaringly offensive ‘sinning in flagrant and scarlet fashion’—G.W. Johnson
“b [from the use of the word in Isaiah 1:18 & Revelation 17:1-6 (King James Version)]: of, characterized by, or associated with sexual immorality ‘a scarlet woman.’”
The word scarlet is actually used 49 times in the New King James Version of the Bible, mostly in a positive context. In fact, blue, purple and scarlet were used extensively in God’s tabernacle (see Exodus 25:4 and many other passages).
“Though your sins be as scarlet”
Still, the Bible does connect scarlet with sin.
In Revelation John saw a harlot dressed in scarlet and purple and riding on a scarlet-colored beast (Revelation 17:3-4). The context shows these represent evil religious and governmental powers that will make war with Jesus Christ at His return (verse 14; read more in our article “Revelation 17: Who Is the Scarlet Woman?”).
The other verse mentioned by Merriam-Webster is Isaiah 1:18, a key passage about how God views our sins, and how He deeply desires to forgive us.
“‘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.’”
The expression is better known as it was stated in the distinguished and long-dominant King James Version: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
The Hebrew words for scarlet, red and crimson
For background, let’s look at the meanings and connotations of the Hebrew color words in this verse: scarlet from Hebrew saniy (H8144), red from adam (H119) and crimson from tola (H8438).
Saniy (scarlet) “describes a bright red color with a tinge of orange in it. It was used to color ribbons, threads, etc., in the ancient world and was easily seen (Gen. 38:28, 30; Lev. 14:4). It was a featured color of various items in the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:4; 26:1; 27:16)” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary Old Testament).
Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon connects this word with the insect from which the scarlet color dye was made.
Adam (red) is “a verb meaning to be red, ruddy, dyed red.” It can be used to describe people like Esau and David, or things like dyed ram skins and red wine. “Metaphorically, this word describes sin as ‘red like crimson’ (Isa. 1:18)” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary Old Testament).
Tola (crimson) can also be translated purple and scarlet. “It refers to the color of one’s sins that stands out in a shocking way, drawing attention to its intensity. … These colors also are associated with royalty, [palatial] living, etc. (Lam. 4:5).”
A form of the word “refers to the colors attributed by scholars to expensive cloth materials or threads, ropes, chains, etc. of cloth, used in the materials found in the Tabernacle and its furnishings (Ex. 25:4; etc.; Num. 4:8). A scarlet string was involved in the ritual of cleansing a leper (Lev. 14:4, 6); a house (Lev. 14:49, 51, 52); and in the law of the red heifer (Num. 19:6)” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary Old Testament).
These Hebrew words could have good and bad connotations. Saying scarlet without context would not be automatically bad.
So let’s look at the context.
The context of “though your sins be as scarlet”
Isaiah 1:4 sets the scene:
“Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward.”
God sent Isaiah with a message of warning to his sinful nation—and it’s a message every sinful nation should take to heart.
The guilt of sin is a heavy burden. The word picture portrayed “an entire people, bowed and crushed under the enormous weight of accumulated crimes” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible, note on Isaiah 1:4).
Reading about the sin, corruption, oppression, violence and hypocrisy of Judah bears an uncanny resemblance to the worsening moral state of our nations today.Reading about the sin, corruption, oppression, violence and hypocrisy of Judah bears an uncanny resemblance to the worsening moral state of our nations today.
How God sees sin
In verse 6 Isaiah describes sin from God’s perspective:
“From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; they have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment.”
To God, their sins were like those that led to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (verse 10). Even their outward show of religion was disgusting to God (verses 11-14).
God said, “Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood” (verse 15).
“The expression full of blood, denotes crime and guilt of a high order—as, in murder, the hands would be dripping in blood, and as the stain on the hands would be proof of guilt. It is probably a figurative expression, not meaning literally that they were murderers, but that they were given to rapine and injustice; to the oppression of the poor, the widow, etc.” (Barnes’ Notes, note on Isaiah 1:15).
“Though your sins be like scarlet” refers to the color of blood
It’s in this context of having their hands full of blood that God compares their sins with scarlet and crimson. This is the most obvious connection. Bloody hands are also mentioned in other passages in the Bible.
God hates “hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17).
The phrase “blood is on their hands” is connected with murder, spiritual adultery and even child sacrifice in Ezekiel 23:37 and 45.
And Isaiah explains that God has great power and desires to help: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity” (Isaiah 59:2-3).
The next dozen verses continue the list of evils that displeased God. Violence, shedding innocent blood, injustice, oppression and revolt are among these iniquities that characterized the society of Isaiah’s day—and ours.
God’s call for repentance from sin
After noting “your hands are full of blood” in Isaiah 1:15, God calls on all sinners to change.
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (verses 16-17).
Repentance involves not only acknowledging our sins, but a deep desire to become clean.Repentance involves not only acknowledging our sins, but a deep desire to become clean. This includes steps to stop sinning and do good instead. None of these things earn God’s forgiveness. Nothing we could do can earn God’s forgiveness. But they are prerequisites—the steps necessary to come to God. Read more about this in our article “How to Repent.”
God can forgive all sin, even murder
God can forgive—and has forgiven—even the sin of murder. God sent the prophet Nathan to point out King David’s great sins. “You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon” (2 Samuel 12:9).
And David cried out in heartfelt repentance. Part of his repentance is recorded in Psalm 51:14: “Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation.”
And the apostle Paul, before his conversion, was a zealous Pharisee and was guilty of persecuting the Church, causing innocent members to suffer martyrdom.
“Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest” (Acts 9:1).
But God struck him down and called him to the right path. Paul deeply appreciated what God had done in calling him to repentance and granting him forgiveness.
And Paul strongly warned the Corinthians—and us—that we must not continue in sin after we have been forgiven.
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
We can be washed and cleansed, not by our own power, but by the awesome sacrifice that Jesus Christ gave.
The price for sins was paid by the blood of Jesus Christ
Sin is so horrible, so destructive, so evil, God’s perfect justice requires the death penalty to cleanse its stain.
Since we have all sinned (Romans 3:23) and earned that death penalty (6:23), we can be eternally grateful that God in His great mercy has provided a way to pay for that penalty without our eternal death.
But that way required the death of our Creator, King and Savior—Jesus Christ.
How to make scarlet as white as snow
We can be “justified by His blood” (5:9). That means our past sins can be blotted out, cleansed. Figuratively we can be like those in Revelation 7:14 who “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
The book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament sacrificial system purified the flesh as a type of the much greater sacrifice of Christ. Compared to the blood of bulls and goats, “how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14).
Repentance is not just a one-time emotional act. It is a commitment to always repent of every sin and to strive to stop sinning. God does the cleansing, but the apostle Paul described the attitude and approach God wants to see in each of us as we strive to change and become like Him.
“For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation. … What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Corinthians 7:10-11; see a helpful explanation of this passage in our article “Godly Sorrow”).
“If you are willing and obedient”
After offering to cleanse our sins and make them as white as snow, God said, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword” (Isaiah 1:19-20).
God’s way ultimately produces blessings—and eternal life! But if we reject His merciful offer of cleansing, the end result will be curses and eternal death.
We have all sinned, and our sins are as scarlet and crimson to God. It’s as if our hands are covered with blood. We are responsible for the death of our Savior.
But He wants us to repent and change. This is the most important continuing commitment we can make. Study more about what God says about repentance, forgiveness, cleansing and living a life of Christian conversion in our concise free booklet Change Your Life!