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Isaiah 1:16

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; (KJV)

The repentance motif is continued in the next few verses, including the great promise of forgiveness in verse 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.

Is there a specific rite or ordinance to which Isaiah refers? It is curious to me that these passages come just after the Lord says:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? (verse 11)

Bring no more vain oblations (verse 13)

What kind of washing does Isaiah call for?

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  • The text is in contrast to outward ordinances. It is clearly a matter of the heart. – Nigel J Apr 19 at 5:50
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Isaiah knew about the law for sprinkling purifying water in Numbers 19:

11 “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. 12They must purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean.

He also knew the ablution ritual in Exodus 29:4

Then bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the tent of meeting and wash them with water.

These were in general agreement with Psalm 51:2

Wash me clean of my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

Isaiah 1 proposed something more than just simple cleansing from past sins. He linked the washing with present repentance and future good works:

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

The next logical step was carried out by John in Matthew 3:

1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” ...
8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

What does Isaiah mean by “Wash you, make you clean”? (Isaiah 1:16)

Isaiah related washing to the cleansing of past sins and prophesied the coming ritual of the baptism of repentance.

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What does Isaiah mean by “Wash you, make you clean”? (Isaiah 1:16)

There are nine commands, four negative in verse 16 and five positive in verse 17

Isaiah 1:16-17 NASB

Verse 16

1/ “Wash yourselves, 2/make yourselves clean; 3/ Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. 4/Stop doing evil,

God wants us to “Wash you, make you clean” of the following things to make our worship acceptable to him and so receive his blessings.

Verse 17

1/ Learn to do good; 2/ Seek justice, 3/ Rebuke the oppressor, 4/ Obtain justice for the orphan,5/ Plead for the widow’s case.

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The verse has a four-fold parallel structure. We can benefit from the approach of Kugel to parallelism in his book "The Idea of BIblical Poetry..." (1981, Yale University Press). Kugel posited that parallelism is best read as "A moreover B" where each clause accepts the previous clause and builds on it.

If so we can regard the four verbs in Isaiah 1:16 as four metaphors for fixing, with the climax being repentance. Here are the four stages

  1. Clean - Here the dirt particles are visible and stuck but not embedded in the garment; cleaning removes what is stuck. The analogy might be bad habits which we are stuck with but not yet ingrained in our personality. We have to "cleanse ourselves of them."

  2. Polish (From Zach-Zechucith, polished glass) Here there are no visible dirt particles but the window is "mirky" The polishing process removes the mirkiness without removing anything in particular

  3. The emphasis in the 3rd stage is on the word ma'alotheychem, machinations or subterfuges. Here Isaiah does not ask to remove evil but evil subterfuges, legal subterfuges which however have evil in them. Like the polishing of glass which doesn't appear to remove anything but increases sparkle, the removal of subterfuges adds moral sparkle to the community without stopping any actual evil.

  4. The climax of the verse is "Dwindle causing evil" To use the glass analogy it would mean avoiding environments where glass gets tarnished. To use the cleanse analogy it would mean avoiding environments where clothes get dirty.

Taken together the four parallel clauses define a hierarchy of "removal" - starting from habits we are "stuck to" which can be washed and culminating in avoiding environments where tarnish happens.

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