Isaiah 1:20 provides a warning in the context of the more familiar phrase in verse 18 — “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow.” If the nation would refuse to repent, God says, “you will be devoured by the sword.” But one passage in the Midrash, a collection of rabbinic writings, translates it quite differently — “if you refuse and resist, carob pods you shall eat.” James Moffatt apparently was quite impressed with this view of the text and rendered the verse accordingly in his translation, although every other Bible translation I could find reads essentially as the New American Standard Bible does.
Although this is certainly not the literal meaning of Isaiah 1:20, the idea of “the food of repentance” is common in the Bible. And the carob tree is at the center of it. Known today primarily as the source of a caffeine-free chocolate substitute, carob is an ancient agricultural product common in Israel even today. The pods, and the seeds contained therein, are edible; however, no one with access to more conventional food sources would deliberately eat them. These were almost certainly the “husks” or “pods” the prodigal was feeding to swine in Luke 15:15-16). The depths to which he had sunk — spiritually, socially, and physically — are represented in the food that he would be willing, and even eager, to eat. Some have even suggested that the “locusts” John the Baptist ate in the wilderness refers to the produce of the “locust tree,” which is another term for carob. Given that John’s was a message of repentance (Matthew 3:1-2), such food would be seen as part of his prophetic message; the nation needed to be made to eat the food of repentance, rather than “the fat of the land.”
There is true repentance, and there is the appearance of repentance. There is genuine “godly sorrow,” which produces “repentance without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10-11), and there is the shallow sense of shame that comes from getting caught in a transgression. Many a parent has dragged a young child by the ears to “apologize” for a deed done or a word spoken, gotten a cursory and muttered “Sorry” for his efforts, and declared victory in the war against youthful transgressions. More often than not, though, compulsory apologies do not show a true change of heart. This child is likely to be dragged to another apology the next week, and yet another the week after that, until he genuinely learns the error of his ways. That is not to say the child should not be forced to apologize; that is to say more work needs to be done. He must be made to eat “the food of repentance.”
The Bible records one example after another of people who willingly, and even eagerly, robbed themselves of comfort and dignity as a way of showing their regret. David appears not to have eaten at all when the child of his fornication with Bathsheba took ill (2 Samuel 12:16). Nehemiah was “fasting and praying” as he confessed the nation’s sin before God (Nehemiah 1:4-6). Man and beast alike fasted in sackcloth in Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:6-9). Consequences have always been associated with sin, going back to the fall. Those who are truly sorry for their actions are willing to inflict some of those consequences on themselves to try to avoid far worse penalties from “the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
Children, naturally, would like to skip the food of repentance. They would prefer to go directly from the sin to the forgiveness. And permissive parents who lack the courage of their convictions might be willing to allow them to do so; after all, no parent rejoices in watching their child suffer. But God deliberately inflicted suffering on His people time and time again — sometimes before repentance, sometimes after. He did not do that because of a lack of love; quite the opposite. He loved them so much, He was not willing to allow any lesson to go untaught. The consequences of ignorance are far too great.
Grown-ups, also, need the food of repentance from time to time. Just as saying you’re sorry is not a reliable way of getting out of a parking ticket or murder charge, so also the sinner should not assume he can blithely throw prayers at the ceiling like they were magic spells that ward off God’s wrath. The true child of God is horrified at sin, terrified at its consequences, and desperate to find his or her way back into the grace of God. Eating a little crow in the form of public acknowledgements, requests for help, and/or changing behavior habits should not be a problem for the one who genuinely feels “the gall of bitterness and … the bondage of iniquity” (Acts 8:23) and wants to escape them.