Scarlet has symbolized wealth and power, both politically and religiously, since ancient Bible times. This color, second only to purple, was a status symbol in the mighty Roman Empire. Officers in Rome's army wore cloaks dyed in it as well as high-ranking non-military people. The flag carried by the Crusaders during the Middle Ages displayed a cross colored in scarlet.
Since the late 13th century Roman Cardinals, who are high-level religious leaders in the Catholic Church, use scarlet for their ecclesiastical clothing. This color also plays a prominent role both in the flag of the old Soviet Union and on the modern flag of China.
Egyptians obtained Scarlet for dyeing from a shellfish while the Hebrews extracted it from an insect that infests oak trees. The color is so steadfast that it was one of the most difficult dyes to remove from clothing.
Biblical meaning of the color scarlet
In the King James Version Bible, the word 'scarlet' occurs fifty-two times, six of which are in the New Testament. The Hebrew words that together translate into this color's English name are tola (Strong's Concordance #H8438) and shaniy (#H8144). The Greek word in the New Testament is kokkinos (#G2847), which refers to the kernel shape of the insect from which the color is extracted.
Scarlet's use in Scripture can symbolically represent royalty (Daniel 5:7,16, 29, Matthew 27:28, Mark 15:17, 20, John 19:2) or the power to rule like a king (Revelation 17:4). It can also represent a person's sins and sinfulness (Isaiah 1:18), prosperity (2Samuel 1:14, Proverbs 31:21, Lamentations 4:5, Revelation 18:12, 16) or dedication to opposing God (Revelation 17:3).
Scarlet was used extensively in God's wilderness tabernacle built by Moses (Exodus 25:4, 26:1, 31, 36, 27:16, 28:5 - 8, 15, etc.). It was also commonly found not only in Jerusalem's temple but also on the clothes worn to serve in it. The color was an important part of the Temple rites that cleansed lepers (Leviticus 14) and in ceremonies of purification (Numbers19:6). The Bible also states that warriors wore clothes colored in it (Nahum 2:3).
The book of Matthew states that Pontius Pilate's soldiers placed a scarlet (Strong's #G2847) colored robe on Jesus in order to mock him (Matthew 27:28). The Gospels of Mark (Mark 15:17, 20) and John (John 19:2, 5), however, in their parellel reference, state that the robe used to mock the Lord was purple.
The thread of destiny
In the 38th chapter of Genesis we find a curious event involving scarlet colored thread.
Briefly, a woman named Tamar, who was the daughter-in-law of Judah (one of the sons of Jacob), got pregnant through Judah by pretending to be a harlot. When it came time to give birth, Tamar's midwife discovered that twins would be born. When one of the babies stuck his hand out of the womb, and looked like he would be the firstborn, the midwife tied a scarlet thread around his hand.
Anciently, a scarlet thread was commonly used to designate who was the firstborn. After receiving the thread, the baby quickly pulled his arm back in the womb! The other child to be born, also a boy, then came out of the womb completely! The child who had the thread around his hand received the name Zarah and his twin brother received the name Pharez.
What is the meaning of all this in relation to scarlet? Judah was destined, according to the Bible, to be the royal tribe of Israel from which rulers would arise (Genesis 49:8 - 10). It is through Pharez's descendants (the child literally born first) that not only King David is born but also Jesus Christ as well!