It would be wrong to say that the structures and patterns of cult and liturgy lack value in the legacy of a biblical prophet like Isaiah. In fact, some of the prophet’s most stirring emphasis of YHWH’s redemption of Israel including the shocking inclusion into worship of people like foreigners and the badly mutilated, who were conventionally excluded.
Yet in the book’s final paragraph YHWH seems entirely unimpressed by, say, a temple constructed for his repose. He could make for himself a thousand of these if the whimsy struck him.
Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.’ (Isaiah 66:1–2 ESV)
Whenever Isaiah assaults religion and its liturgical observance, he does so for one of two reasons. Either the prophet declares ritual performance useless in the absence of an ethic worthy of YHWHS’ people. Or he is by contrast elevating something that is of still greater value than cultic observance, as welcome a thing as the latter might be.
Here Isaiah’s emphasis falls on the second of these motivations.
Limitless and unmeasurable as YHWH is, his acutely focused attention falls on one small detail amid the swirling twin dramas of creation and Israelite nationhood: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
When one steps back, takes a deep hermeneutical breath, and considers the claim that is made here, it is simply astonishing.
This humble person, this broken spirit, this trembling listener may be found inside Jerusalem’s temple but is at least as likely to lean painfully against a wall, hungry and alone in some distant corner of the city. Whatever is his location, YHWH’s attention bypasses the magnificences of temple and cult to take this small figure into his gaze, needy of a word, spirit ground down, unimpressive in every way.
Except that YHWH, in divine fascination, can scarcely avert his gaze.