Like the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the Southern Kingdom enjoyed initial prosperity following the division of Israel into two separate realms in 931 BCE. It was in this setting that Isaiah (chapters 1-39) and Micah criticized its people for broken covenant relationship with Yahweh, with Micah even predicting the eventual destruction of Jerusalem at a future time of God’s choosing.
Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was a member of the royal family and active from 742-701 (perhaps even until 687) BCE, a time when the Northern Kingdom was overrun by Assyria and its people deported (721 BCE). While the Southern Kingdom survived this onslaught, it was forced to live as a vassal of Assyria.
Isaiah condemned societal injustice, where the rich lived lavishly at the expense of the poor. Its princes were scoundrels (1:23) and its judges corrupt (5:23), leaving widows and orphans defenseless (1:23) and the innocent deprived of their rights (5:23), while the mansions of the elite were filled with the spoils of those they exploited (3:14-15). Yet, there was no contrition, no regret, and no reliance upon God alone. Instead, pride, conceit, and complacency abounded among the wealthy (Is 32:9-14)
Isaiah proclaimed God’s coming wrath.
Behold, the name of the Lord comes from afar,
Burning with His anger, and in thick rising smoke;
His lips are full of indignation,
And His tongue is like a devouring fire;
His breath is like an overflowing stream
That reaches up to the neck;
To sift the nations with the sieve of destruction,
And to place on the jaws of the peoples a bridle that leads astray …
I will punish the world for its evil,
And the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant,
And lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless.
I will make men more rare than fine gold,
And mankind than the gold of Ophir.
Therefore, I will make the heavens tremble,
And the earth will be shaken out of its place,
And the wrath of the Lord of hosts
In the day of His fierce anger. (Is 30:27-28; 13;11-13)
For Isaiah, God’s anger was an instrument of purification. It would not last forever. God’s compassion and forgiveness would return.
For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and settle them in their own land, and the stranger shall join himself to them, and will cleave to the house of Jacob. (14:1)
Isaiah held out two kinds of hope for Judah and humanity. One was immediate, partial and historical: “A remnant will return!” (10:20-23). The other was distant, final and eschatological: the transformation of the world at the end of time.
While Isaiah continually castigated Judah’s elite, he never predicted its destruction. Rising above all his threats was his powerful certainty of God’s lasting, unyielding attachment to God’s people and to Zion.
Micah was a younger contemporary of Isaiah and active from 737-696 BCE. He was neither of noble descent, nor a native of Jerusalem, as was Isaiah. Rather, he came from a small village, Moresheth, in the Judean foothills southwest of Jerusalem. For Micah, the fatal sin of Judah was moral corruption. The rich were full of violence, and its inhabitants full of lies.
He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem (3:9-12), a major distinction from his contemporaries. It was in the days of King Hezekiah (715-687 BCE) that Micah expressed God’s coming wrath.
The Lord is coming forth out of His place,
And will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
The mountains will melt under Him
And the valleys will be cleft,
Like wax before the fire,
Like waters poured down a steep place.
All this for the transgression of Jacob.
And for the sins of the house of Israel. …
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
And the mountain of the house a wooded height. (Micah 1:3-5; 3:12)
Micah shares with the other prophets of this time both the word of judgment against God’s own people (1:2-3, 12; 6:1-7:7), and a promise of divine forgiveness and hope in a future restoration. The latter theme is expressed in an expanded and post-exilic form in 4:1-5:15 and 7:8-20.
God will forgive “the remnant of His inheritance,” and will cast all their sins “into the depths of the sea” (7:18-20). Then, every man shall sit “under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” (4:4)
In addition to Micah’s assurance of God’s eventual forgiveness and redemption of Judah, he also explored the most pressing question of religious existence. What is the way to true worship of God? How is humanity to act before God?
With what shall I come before the Lord,
And bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings,
With claves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
With ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (6:6-8).
[i] A. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, (Harper & Row: New York, NY, 1969), vol. I.