Isaiah is a book with a good number of what you might call "mood swings" in it. It goes back and forth between describing the total destruction of all nations and human civilization (boo), to looking forward to a time of universal peace and goodness (yay). This is because Isaiah—or the people who put together Isaiah's book, arranging the prophecies—lived at a time when destruction and retribution seemed to be at hand. At roughly 800 BCE, Assyria was attacking Israel (which, in the Bible, is a pretty typical Assyrian move), and Isaiah was trying to explain how this was really the result of Israel's own sins. But on the plus side: he also keeps predicting a future time when it all gets better.
Isaiah was a person—but he was also a tradition. The Book of Isaiah wasn't, as a whole, written entirely by the original prophet named Isaiah. Many parts of it were written by other people who were inspired by him, and wrote under his name, in his style—kind of like "fan fiction," except this was extremely high quality, prophetic fan fiction (not some sort of "Harry Potter marries Hermione" alternate fantasy thing). Of course, plenty of people believe it was written by one person, but this is the way scholars of Hebrew typically break down the text to try to understand it:
Originally, scholars thought that there were three different "Isaiahs"—known respectively as Proto Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), Deutero-Isaiah (Chapters 40-55), and Trito Isaiah (chapters 56-66). (This is basically a fun, Latin way to say First, Second, and Third Isaiah.) But now it seems like there were (possibly) many more. The relationship between all these different "Isaiahs" is sort of like the way the band Dread Zeppelin does reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs, except that the original Isaiah's imitators were much more talented and inspired than the consciously not-good members of Dread Zeppelin.
Isaiah fits into the Bible as one of the prophets at the top of the bill—his book is filled with classic examples of the kind of things you would expect a Biblical prophet to say. He's definitely a "major" prophet, and not at all a minor one. In fact, he's up in the big leagues with Ezekiel and Jeremiah, since the books bearing their names are also long and full of plenty of striking images, visions, and predictions. Isaiah has always been a big hit with Christians, too, since they usually interpret him as prophesying the coming of Jesus with his famous passages about the "Suffering Servant." Some have even called Isaiah the "Fifth Gospel" (so, you know, the book's got that going for it).
Whereas Ezekiel's visions are really far-out, and Jeremiah's visions are saturated with gloom and doom, Isaiah's visions always reach towards the hope of finding peace and rest at last. He helps center the other prophets by keeping his eyes on the prize, looking forward to the finale at the end of time, the moment when peace and love are finally allowed to rule over all. Far out.
Well… Isaiah really cares that you care. He's an intense guy, and he wants your attention. He can speak with the voice of God, and he strongly thinks you should hear what it's saying. So, with the dude insistently tugging at your sleeve, are you really going to ignore him?
Maybe—if you've got no idea what he's talking about. But what Isaiah has to offer up is something pretty important: a description of the lowest lows and the highest highs that human beings can conceive of. On the one hand, he's spinning out various visions of total destruction: the wrath of God destroys entire nations and cities, annihilating every man, woman, and child. Wolves and ostriches (yeah, ostriches, among other wild animals) are moving into the ruins, while, on the plus side, the blood and fat spilled by all the dead people is making the soil pretty rich and fertile (ew). So… those are the lows.
But the highs might capture your attention, as well—although they lack the destructive flair of the lows, which you can picture as being like so many well-wrought death-metal album covers. Isaiah continually balances out the massive-scale slaughter with visions of world-wide peace and love. He sees that planet earth will end up being a place where "the lion lies down with the lamb", and where you can play with poisonous snakes without fear of getting bitten (good times).
So, Isaiah isn't just about bringing the wrath, he's also about bringing the love (he's maybe even more about bringing the love, in the end). While reading Isaiah, though, you can keep looking at both aspects. You can also keep wondering whether this is the worst that we're capable of envisioning and the best that we're capable of envisioning—to see how far the your imagination can reach in either direction. Isaiah says that wrath will ultimately give way to forgiveness and mercy. He holds the nice stuff and the not-so-nice stuff up against each other.
The God Isaiah represents is a God of strict justice, but he's also merciful. This might seem to be a contradiction, since pure justice and pure mercy can't really exist at the same time (since you can't forgive someone while simultaneously punishing them)—and in Isaiah, they don't exist at the same time. The justice and wrath of God decimate everyone and pretty much everything for a span of time, but in the end they fall away totally. What you're left with is a vision of what living in a world governed entirely by mercy would look like and as, it turns out, it's pretty sweet.
The chance to wrestle with these issues—to explore the contradictions between mercy and justice on the page and in your own life—is one of the most important reasons to take an interest in Isaiah. After all, what could be more basic than that? They're big concepts, tough to work your mind around, but rewarding just the same. So buckle up and dive into all that Mercy and Justice, Love and War.
The Prophet Isaiah—Chabad
This website is run by the Hasidic Jewish organization Chabad, giving their take on Isaiah and his book.
Isaiah in The Jewish Encyclopedia
The Jewish Encyclopedia article gives a good amount of extra detail from outside of The Book of Isaiah, including a more detailed description of Isaiah's sawed-inside-the-tree death from the Talmud.
We Like Ike
President Eisenhower's farewell address was a warning against the influence of the "military industrial complex." That being the case, he referenced the line from Isaiah 2:3-4 about beating "swords into ploughshares" (though he uses the term a little differently.)
Reagan's @ the UN
President Reagan also referenced the "ploughshares" line in a speech to the UN, one in which he famously speculated on how quickly the US and Soviet Russia would band together under threat of an alien attack. Um, okay…
"Heal the World"
This tune from the King of Pop provides yet another reference to Isaiah's "swords into ploughshares" line. Nice touch, MJ.
Jewel at Lilith Fair
This song, itself, has nothing to do with Isaiah, but it was performed at Lilith Fair, an all-female music festival inspired by the character of Lilith, first mentioned in Isaiah.
U2 is Down
This U2 song relates Martin Luther King Jr. to the Suffering Servant from Isaiah: "One man come here to justify / One man to overthrow."
The Messiah by Handel
Handel's Messiah (the piece with the famous "Hallelujah" part) begins by setting some of Isaiah's prophecies to music. Check out this version from a Cambridge University choir.
Hendrix on the Watchtower
The original Bob Dylan version of the song—inspired by lines from Isaiah—is discussed in the "Pop Culture References" section. But this version is included here because Dylan said it was a better version then his own song. Jimi Hendrix truly made it his own.
The Dartmouth College Seal and Motto
The motto on the Dartmouth College seal echoes Isaiah 40:3 (by way of Mark's gospel, which quotes it): "A voice crying out in the wilderness."
Isaiah by Michelangelo
This is Michelangelo's way of envisioning Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel. He looks beardless, yet… scholarly.
Peace by William Strutt
This is 19th Century British artist William Strutt's drawing of the scene depicted in Isaiah 11:6, with the carnivorous and herbivorous animals getting chummy, and a little child leading them. Aww.
Isaiah by Raphael
Bearded and looking every inch the prophet, Isaiah appears unrolling a scroll—probably a rough draft of his book.
Russian Icon of Isaiah
This Russian Monastery's portrait of Isaiah is a pretty austere and dignified looking one.
Isaiah Receiving His Mission
Here's a stained glass portrayal of Isaiah's tête-à-tête with those fearsome seraphim—though significantly less fearsome, in this case.