The book of Isaiah (at least in part) is written to Judah, and particularly the ruling class in Jerusalem in the wake of the destruction of the northern Kingdom. The prophets recall Judah, at this time, developing a narrative about itself; that they were the chosen remnant of Israel, and God would never allow the city of Jerusalem to fall, or His temple to be sacked by foreign powers. However, even with that narrative of ineffable protection floating around, Ahaz and Hezekiah, the last two kings listed in the intro to Isaiah who ruled during the fall of the north, take all of the precious metals, and ornate statuary from the temple, and give it as tribute to the Assyrians. The temple is essentially plundered before a single hostile soldier comes within a mile of it. And yet the narrative of Judah’s unchangeable security as God’s chosen people persisted, and was treated as a license to act corruptly, and recklessly.
Ahaz was the worst, he revived ancient, pagan practices from the nations God had used Israel to displace; nations whose disinheritance is attributed in the bible to these precise worship practices. In particular, 2 Kings says he made his son (presumably Hezekiah) pass through the flame; a ritual we’re still not sure about, but apparently seems to have involved scarring children with hot coals or irons as a means of dedication or partial sacrifice. Elsewhere, particularly in the Torah, it seems not uncommon that children would die as a result of the ordeal.
Hezekiah, we’re told in 2 Kings, turns the country back around towards YHWH; even destroying the high places which other good kings had failed to do. However, Hezekiah’s righteousness seems to be limited. He apparently amassed his personal wealth while the resources of the Temple were drained. That wealth made Hezekiah proud, and his pride led him to show off the wealth of Judah to the royal envoy of Babylon; a move that will put Jerusalem in the crosshairs. Isaiah will warn him of the terrible consequences of his actions in coming generations, and his response is “at least it ain’t happening to me”.
Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah all tell us they were written to these same generations (Micah misses Uzziah’s generation, but all three end in Hezekiah’s). Uzziah and Jotham are listed among the ‘good kings’ in the book of 2 Kings, and yet all three prophets speak of creeping corruption in Jerusalem. Clearly, even when the person on the throne had their head on straight, by this point the rot had run so rampant through the rest of the bureaucracy and priesthood that there was no going back. We should not miss that, in 2 Kings, when Ahaz enacts pagan practices, builds a pagan altar in YHWH’s temple, and gives the wealth of the temple away to pay off his debts, the priests are either silent, or active participants, and the elders of the people are nowhere to be found.
But the paganism of Ahaz, and the synchronization of YHWH worship with Baal worship in the countryside throughout the reigns of Uzziah and Jotham are not the main concern of the Prophets. Apostasy accelerates Judah’s fall, but the prophets make clear that there was one element of YHWH worship that always seemed to be ignored: YHWH demands justice for the vulnerable. No one can practice injustice against those on the bottom of their society’s social structure, and truly worship YHWH. But that’s precisely what happens in Judah.
Even when there are good kings (¾ good kings ain’t a bad track record for most monarchies), kings who worship YHWH, and recognized Him as Judah’s only God, even then the widow is denied justice in courts structured to disadvantage women. Orphans are still cheated out of their inheritance, and turned away by their kinsmen-redeemers ought to have cared for them. Those with the power to do something on behalf of the powerless stand idly by, so as not to risk their own comfort and security. It is every bit as much for their injustice as for their apostasy that God is rejecting Judah even as he rejected Israel. Read the passage, and notice what it is God says Judah has to change in order to avoid calamity (note: earlier in the poem Judah and Jerusalem were analogized with Sodom and Gomorrah, so God’s still speaking to the rulers of Judah, not a people group that had been gone for well over a thousand years by Isaiah’s time):
Isaiah 1:1; 10-20 (NASB95)
1The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah…
10Hear the word of the Lord, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the instruction of our God, You people of Gomorrah. 11“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” Says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. 12When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? 13Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies— I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. 14I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. 15So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. 16Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, 17Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.
18“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool. 19If you consent and obey, You will eat the best of the land; 20But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword.” Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
He doesn’t say ‘change this worship practice; tear down the high places; stop putting rocks and sticks everywhere and calling them gods’ or anything like that. Those are all things He absolutely wanted them to stop doing, and makes clear elsewhere. But to avoid calamity, to turn what good worship they do offer into acceptable worship, they have to set out to be a just society. One which teaches the ruthless to leave their violent ways behind. One in which orphans don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, or whether they’ll have a place in society when they come of age. One in which those whose voice is muted by powerlessness are readily met with advocates who freely lend their power and their voice to raise the plight of others.
Bottom line, God wants us to recognize Him, to seek after Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He hates seeing us chase after other objects of worship. However, God is patient, and longsuffering in reference to the multitude of ways our sin hurts Him. There is a much tighter limit on how patient God is willing to be with sin that actively harms, and dehumanizes those made in His image (i.e. humans, all of them). God’s perfect mercy gives Him patience to deal with our sin, but His perfect justice cannot abide the spilling of innocent blood, or the cries of the oppressed for long before He is forced to act.
And take note how much of this hinges on who has power, and how they use it. If we hold power, whether in the form of physical ability, intellectual prowess, political influence (not just the power to legislate, but the power to vote, protest, and advocate), personal wealth and influence, or a socially significant position, title, or demographic; no matter the power, if we hold it and wield it for our own gain at the expense of those with less power, or even if we hold it and refuse to wield it on behalf of those with less power, then we endanger ourselves and our society. Why? Because the God who ordered the universe in accordance with His own Character, and created humans in his likeness, is an infinitely powerful God who willingly gave up every ounce of power so that He could save us when we were powerless to save ourselves from sin. Hoarding and abusing power is a literal assault on God’s Character, and a challenge to His authority. It is an act of decreation, and as we have seen with Sodom and Gomorrah, when God is faced with powers that enact and accelerate decreation, in order for His plan to move forward, those who practice decreation must be swallowed up by it.