Prophecy is a difficult genre of biblical literature to understand properly. On a large scale, we can find ourselves lost in a sea of judgments, fantastic imagery, and seemingly random predictions. When we zoom in closer, we may come across ideas or phrases that don’t seem to fit within the larger passage. However, a deeper study of those things will lead to a richer understanding of the whole passage.
One example is Isaiah 1:18, where the Lord says, “Come now, let us reason together… though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The words “come now, let us reason together” stand out from the rest of the passage. What does it mean to “reason together”?
If we look deeper at the wording of v. 18 and consider its surrounding context, we find an example of the patience and grace of God.
What is the Context of 'Come Let Us Reason Together' in Isaiah 1:18?
By the time of Isaiah, Israel had split into two separate kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Isaiah himself tells us that he prophesied over Judah during the reigns of four kings (1:1), beginning in the year that King Uzziah died, which was 740 BC (6:1).
According to Old Testament scholar Barry G. Webb (The Message of Isaiah 20-22), Isaiah lived in a tumultuous time. Though Judah had enjoyed a period of wealth and military success during the reign of King Uzziah, massive upheaval on the world stage and economic disparity within the kingdom threatened to bring disaster.
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord makes clear what Judah’s greatest problem was. God describes the people of Judah as rebellious children, a sinful nation that has turned its back on God. In The Message of Isaiah, Webb explains that a period of economic prosperity in Judah had created deep divides within society. Rather than spreading out amongst the people, newfound wealth was concentrated in the upper class while the poor struggled to survive (22). Although people continued to observe religious feasts and offer sacrifices as outlined in the Law of Moses, their actions lacked any devotion to God.
Therefore, God declares his displeasure with their sacrifices and turns his ear away from their prayers. He calls on his people to turn away from evil and learn to do justice. God desires mercy and justice. He wants his people to join him in redeeming the world, not oppress the vulnerable or needlessly shed blood.
What Does 'Come Let Us Reason Together' Mean?
The phrase “come now, let us reason together” (ESV) in v. 18 acts as a hinge within the passage. Up to this point, God has laid out Judah’s persistent rebellion (v. 2-15). He then called on the people to put aside their evil ways and return to justice and righteousness (v. 16-17). Now, God gives an ultimatum: repent and be forgiven, or rebel and be destroyed.
The word translated “reason” in v. 18 is the Hebrew ya.khach, which means “to rebuke.” However, the word is often translated differently depending on the context. Later in Isaiah, the same word is used twice to convey the idea of one settling a dispute between two parties (2:4, 11:3). The NIV favors this interpretation for Isaiah 1:18, rendering the phrase, “Come now, let us settle the matter.” The idea of settling a dispute fits within the broader context of Isaiah 1 when we consider the lawsuit-like language of God calling on the heavens and earth to hear his charge against Judah, and God appealing to the people to restore justice in the land.
By saying, “Come now, let us reason together,” God is calling on Judah to settle the dispute with him. Because God is holy and just, only he has the right to set the terms of the resolution. According to the covenant curses laid out by God in Deuteronomy 28, we might expect to see God pronounce sure and terrible judgment on Judah for their sins. Instead, we find a display of grace followed by an ultimatum.
All the sacrifices the people were making could not take away their sins. The blood of countless animals could not begin to wash away the offenses the Jews in Judah had committed against God. In response, God had every right to bring destruction upon the nation, culminating in exile (Deut. 28:58-68). But he is also a merciful God, perfectly embodying justice and grace (Ex. 34:6-7). The Lord offers forgiveness and restoration because of his great love for his people and faithfulness to his covenant. How this would come about becomes clear as the rest of Isaiah unfolds, introducing the Servant of the Lord (42:1-4) who would suffer for the sins of his people (53:4-6).
After laying out his generous offer, the Lord then presents two choices to the people of Judah. If the people repent of their sins and obey God’s commands, they will be blessed. They will stay in the land God had promised and prosper in it (v. 19). However, if they refused God’s grace and continued to rebel, they would be destroyed by their enemies (v. 20).
As Isaiah continues, it is clear that Judah chose rebellion against God and suffered the consequences of that choice.
Does God Always Warn Us Before He Brings Punishment?
When answering this question, we need to remember that we, as New Testament believers, are under a different covenant than the people of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament. God judged the Jews for not keeping their end of the covenant. In contrast, New Testament believers are made righteous by the blood of Christ. Therefore, we may receive discipline from God, but he does not pour out judgment upon us. Any correction we receive from God is not to pay for our sins but to bring us out of sin and closer to him. But does he bring that discipline without warning?
We see all over the Bible that God is patient and merciful toward his people. However, he is too loving to leave them in their sin. When we live in unrepentant sin, God can use multiple means to get our attention and call us to repentance.
1. The Holy Spirit (John 16:13, Ezek. 36:26-27). The Holy Spirit is the gift of God to every single believer. One of the Spirit’s functions in our lives is to convict us when our lives do not line up with God’s standard. The Spirit may use many tools to get our attention. But we must realize that it is the Spirit of God who ultimately convicts us of sin.
2. The Bible (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Heb. 4:12). God makes very clear in the Bible what is sinful. Both the Old and New Testaments depict sin in its many forms. When we spend time reading the word of God or listening to it taught, God can use that time to confront our sin.
3. Other believers (1 Tim. 5:1-2, Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5:1-5). The church is not just a building to gather in on Sunday mornings. It is a body of believers who are called to help one another along in the faith. Sometimes, helping a brother or sister can mean confronting him/her in love and calling that person to repent. The goal of confrontations like this is repentance and restoration, never shaming.
Certainly, God is infinite in sovereignty and wisdom. He can use any means he wants to get his people’s attention. However, these would be the most common and Scripturally clear avenues for this type of grace.
What Can We Learn from Isaiah 1:18 Today?
Even though the book of Isaiah was written thousands of years ago to people of a different culture under a different covenant, the Spirit of the Lord still uses it to speak to us today. He teaches us his own character and our responsibility as his covenant people.
1. God expects obedience from his people. The Lord’s grievance against Judah was that they were not faithful to his covenant with them. Over and over again, they rebelled against God and went their own way. By doing this, they not only violated God’s holy law, but they made a mockery of his name to other nations.
Similarly, we as Christians are no longer our own. We now carry the name of Christ, and we live to proclaim who he is and what he has done (1 Pet. 2:9, Eph. 5:1-2). Our obedience is important because it demonstrates the power of the gospel to transform sinners into saints.
2. Sin must be dealt with. God cannot ignore sin. His holiness demands punishment for sin. God did not sweep Judah’s sins under the rug. He did not look the other way as the rich abused the poor and expected cold-hearted sacrifices to make it go away.
Nor can God ignore our sins. Jesus’ death and resurrection have paid for our sins, but that does not mean we are free to live in sin. On the contrary, we have been freed from sin. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). If we have been saved, we must be serious about killing the sin in our lives.
3. God is gracious. Judah had persistently rebelled against God despite his many warnings. God had every right to destroy Judah and send them into exile. But this is not what we find in Isaiah 1:18. Instead, the Lord offers an alternative. He extends grace to the people by promising to wipe away their sins.
We, too, have received abundant grace from God. Our salvation in Christ is the greatest expression of God’s grace to us, but it is far from the only one. Every day, God lavishes grace upon us in that he does not immediately punish us for sin. Rather, he brings conviction and warnings into our lives in order to bring us to repentance. It is only when we willfully persist in sin that God disciplines us.
4. People are responsible for their choices. God offered grace and forgiveness to the people of Judah; then he issued his ultimatum. The people had to make their choice, and they chose rebellion. The Lord held the people accountable for that decision and exiled them to Babylon (Dan. 1:1-2).
Though Christians do not face punishments like exile or famine, the Lord does hold us accountable for our actions. As we’ve already seen, God expects us to obey him as his covenant people. When we sin, there is grace and forgiveness available to us, but that does not mean that we are free from the consequences of our actions. This is yet another reason why we should take our sin as seriously as God does and work to remove it from our lives.
Many people see God as either wrathful or gracious, just or loving. Isaiah 1 as a whole, and v. 18-20 in particular, give us a complete view of God’s character. We can take comfort knowing that we are in the care of a good, strong God who works all things for the good of his people (Rom. 8:28).
Photo Credit: Thinkstock/jodie777
Rylie Fine is a freelance writer and editor. She is passionate about the Bible and seeks to equip other believers to study it for themselves. Rylie lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, Evan.
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