The people failed to grasp the gravity of their transgressions and the tragic consequences they would incur as a result. They preferred to register the successes in life. There was a need to cut them off from their ingrained, habitual conduct of misbehavior.
The books of the prophets are replete with rebukes and reprimands addressed to the Jewish nation. Again and again, the messengers of G-d urged them to improve their conduct before it was too late. Some of the prophecies name specific offenses:
Hear the word of the L-rd, Children of Israel! For the L-rd has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of G-d in the land. Swearing and lying, and killing, and stealing… Therefore the land does mourn, and every one that dwells therein languishes…
How is the faithful city become like a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water. Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes, and chases after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither does the dispute of the widow come to them.
At first glance we are appalled and incredulous at the people's reaction. Not only did they fail to heed the prophets' dire warnings. They not only carried on with their established pattern of daily life, with all its waywardness; the prophet Jeremiah complains that these same corrupt individuals continued to frequent the Holy Temple, to bring offerings and to pray, as though nothing at all were amiss. On the contrary, they considered themselves social leaders and models of propriety and righteousness:
Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom you have not known, and come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My Name is called, and say: 'We have been spared!" – that you may do all these abominations?
What does all this mean?
An individual who sins is like a small child who sneaks to one side and does something he knows is forbidden. He fears that he will be punished at once. If his parents to do not react, if they fail to punish him as he deserves, he quite naturally draws the logical conclusion: his misdeeds are not so serious after all.
It would appear that the people of those generations also anticipated that they would be punished quickly and severely. When they saw that G-d was forbearing, and did not intervene with retribution for their evil deeds, they mistakenly arrived at the wrong conclusion.
The fact is that G-d is in no hurry to mete out punishments. He would far rather that we return to Him of our own accord and serve Him out of gratitude and awe, rather than fear of retribution. As we learn in the verse, G-d is "slow to anger" and "abundantly merciful." Unlike human beings, He is under no pressure to inflict punishments. Rather, He waits patiently for the sinner to repent of his own accord and return to Him.
The people knew in their hearts that they were wrong. They asked themselves again and again: "Why is G-d not punishing us? Why does He allow us to enjoy continued success?"
They drew the wrong conclusion, thinking that Heaven was willing to look the other way and overlook their wrongdoing. It must be, they thought to themselves, that G-d is not so demanding. If so, what need was there to repent, to have remorse for their misdeeds, and to change their ways?
Although this reasoning was flawed, no amount of rebuke, no number of prophets and prophecies, could be of help.
With time, the problem became even worse. The first generation to fall victim to this false reasoning still admitted – at least to themselves – that they had sinned. Not so the subsequent generations, who now inherited a "tradition" of immoral conduct and decaying social standards that complicated the situation greatly.
Why should they act differently from their fathers? The following generation asked what was amiss with the way their grandfathers conducted their affairs?
So it continued, until their sins were so ingrained in their behavior that there was no hope for conventional repentance and rehabilitation. With time, acts which had in the past been considered sins, became only misdeeds. A generation later, they might be mere misdemeanors. It was not long before they became standard behavior. Eventually, they were transformed into accomplishments and laudable acts that brought one admiration, praise, and social prestige. At this stage, there was no reason to make any change at all.
"Our fathers and forefathers always lived this way, and look how successful they were. Why should we change?"
At this juncture, only a drastic shock would arrest the process of erosion of moral standards. When Heaven reached out and brought the day of reckoning, they still had an answer: "Our fathers and grandfathers sinned, and were never punished. That proves that there is no connection between what we do and how Heaven treats us. It's all a question of circumstances or chance."
This attitude paved the way for them to persist in their misdeeds, even when the events around them reached the proportions of a major national disaster.
This tragic chain of events has an essential lesson for us today. Only someone who is, in his heart, prepared to sever his bond with his ancestors' tradition of misconduct will be able to absorb the significance of the fact that punishment is the inevitable consequence of sin.
Then, and only then, will he be capable of accepting the fact that there is no such phenomenon as "chance" or co-incidence" in life. Everything is from Above, all is for the eventual good.
Though there are moments which are difficult and even bitter, all is intended only for our eventual good. As the verse tells us:
"From the mouth of the Most High, will not issue forth the good and the bad?"