Isaiah is one of the major prophets, along with Jeremiah and Ezekiel. When someone thinks of a prophet and the kind of things a prophet tends to write and say, Isaiah is liable to spring immediately to mind. He's famous for his prophecies about future events—specifically, the final reign of peace on the Holy Mountain.
But is a prophet just someone who predicts the future? That's definitely something prophets do (though if people mend their ways, there's always a chance the negative predictions won't happen), but it's probably fair to say that the main duty of a prophet is to give guidance. Kings and royal officials are all caught up in their usual political concerns and in the difficulties of running a kingdom. That's fine, but they continually run the risk of making running a kingdom and doing business the center of their concern.
Here's where the prophet steps in and helps recall the rulers—and the people as a whole—to their original mission: following the laws of God. He helps replace their mundane, everyday concerns with a bigger and more important concern: obeying the ways of the divine. The prophet, and the prophecies he or she gives, thus help to remind people of where they came from, who they are, and where they're going—keeping their eyes on the prize (i.e., the Kingdom of God) all the while. He keeps calling everyone back to what they know is right, reminding them the outward shows of piety and religiosity aren't good enough. They need to be backed up with a spirit of true devotion and with a commitment to justice, like making sure that widows and orphans are being provided for. The prophet keeps the egotistical tendencies of human beings in check by acquainting them with God.
The title is Isaiah's name, which seems to check out—seeing as how he's the main central figure in the book and all (aside from God, that is). Since Isaiah's character speaks most of the words in the book, even if they're actually God's words (that is, everything but the narrative parts), this makes a great deal of sense. Even if there were really three or more writers or prophets all going under the name of Isaiah, their collected prophecies together were edited into the form of one book relating the prophetic vision of one character, which we call Isaiah (since that's what all the contributors to this book—regardless of who they actually were—called themselves).
By the way, The Hebrew name "Isaiah" means something like "God saves." Lucky name, huh?, since the whole book is basically about God's saving powers. It's like naming a baseball player Homer, or a ballet dancer En-Pointe.
In the second to last chapter of Isaiah, we get a vision of the Holy Mountain, of that promised reign of peace that's going to ultimate and permanently be so awesome. But in the very last chapter, after some initial statements about God vindicating and comforting Zion, we get a darker vision. Isaiah ends on a cautionary note, predicting the how the wicked will suffer the full brunt of God's wrath.
It's a somewhat macabre image—the good, peaceful people will be able to go out and look at the dead bodies of the not-so-peaceful people, rotting in the fields after being destroyed by God:
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24)
It seems, after wrath leading back into mercy throughout the course of Isaiah's prophecies, the book would end with a final, optimistic statement—and it almost does. But it feels it necessary to qualify itself, to say: "But if you don't live up to what's demanded of you, you lose out in a big way."
The Book of Isaiah is set in Judah during the reigns of King Ahaz and King Hezekiah, around the eighth century BCE, and it's often accepted that this is the period when Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1-39) was composed. It's a period where Judah is seeing itself threatened by various outside powers: first, the northern kingdom of Israel's alliance with Ephraim and then the invading Assyrian forces of Sennacherib. The Babylonian invasion and exile is also just around the corner.
So, during this time period, people are struggling to hold on to their own identities and not give into all this outside pressure. Particularly, they're trying to remain faithful to their own God and avoid polytheism. You can see this come up repeatedly throughout the story. Ahaz has to ask God for a sign, turn his attention towards his own deity and away from other preoccupations. Hezekiah, too, is rewarded for (in the end) helping Judah bring itself back to its own sense of identity, its adherence to one God. And for his part, Isaiah is the man who continually calls people back to this obligation, reminding them of their true identity. The setting of Judah during this time period is in many ways the perfect backdrop to Isaiah's lessons about the importance of God to the lives of his readers.
Now, that's just Proto-Isaiah. Other people would zoom in to take up the Isaiah mantle, and keep the prophecy coming.
Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah (come out, come out, whoever you are) were probably writing at some point during or after the Babylonian exile, when things were really going belly-up. Now, Proto-Isaiah expressed the fervent and heartfelt belief that Jerusalem would never ever fall to its enemies. Funny you should say that, Proto-Isaiah... In 586 BCE, the Babylonian empire tromped in and razed Jerusalem to the ground, sending its citizens into exile in Babylon. Translation: enormous tragedy for Israel.
Deutero-Isaiah is a hopeful dude (or dudette—there were female prophets in Israel, albeit very few), who writes how the Persians will allow Israel to return home and rebuild their Temple, which does happen in 539 BCE. It's all very excited and hopeful, and this is where the Suffering Servant and a lot of the Messianic language pops up (tl;dr of Deutero Isaiah: It gets better.)
But, by chapter 54, Trito-Isaiah kicks in, and that smile turns upside down. Trito-Isaiah seems to be frustrated that the exile is over, and yet nothing else has really changed. He's still not sure what the point of the whole exile thing was, and why God hasn't stepped in on behalf of his peeps. (tl;dr of Trito-Isaiah: Was this really necessary?)
So, there are really three settings in the Book of Isaiah, but it's all the same rollercoaster. There are peaks, crazy loop-de-loops, and death-defying drops, but hey: that's Israelite history for you.
When Isaiah arrives at God's throne, he is commissioned to go speak to the people of Judah and Israel. Isaiah says that he can't because he is "a man of unclean lips" plucked from "a people of unclean lips." An angel picks out a burning coal and presses it to Isaiah's lips. Despite needing an immediate application of Vaseline to his kisser, Isaiah is now able to prophesy. The voice of God can speak through him, bringing his message to the people of Judah.
So, essentially, the hot piece of coal represents pain's ability to purify and cleanse. The Suffering Servant undergoes pain in an even more intense way, which also helps to purge people's sins. In this case, Isaiah's pain doesn't purify anyone else, but it does help him to give out the good (and bad) news.
The poem "Vacillation" by William Butler Yeats uses the coal as a symbol of a higher spiritual reality that burns away our consciousness of the usual, everyday material world. In the poem, Yeats' soul tells him that a human can desire nothing more than to be burnt by that fire, but his heart tells him that he'd rather continue talking about the everyday world, asking "What theme had Homer but original sin?"
This isn't referenced all that much in Isaiah. It appears quickly and then it disappears. It's not one of Isaiah's main symbols, but it's important because it's used later on in a famous New Testament parable to represent the foundation of belief in God. In Isaiah 28:16, God says "See, I am laying in Zion a foundation, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a true foundation." There are other passages in the Hebrew Bible relating to the cornerstone—Psalms 118:22 is particularly important—and references to the stone get repeated about six times in the New Testament. Matthew 21:42 is a good example, since it strongly implies that Jesus is himself the cornerstone: "The stone that the builders rejected is become the cornerstone."
Isaiah constantly compares human beings to vegetation—growing, flourishing and dying. And aside from vineyards, grass is one of the central examples. Isaiah 40:6-7 reads,
All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
It's sort of a melancholy image—the grass has its day to live, but when God blows his breath on it, it dries up.
This image has been really influential—Walt Whitman uses it in his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, constantly meditating on the meaning of the smallest blade of grass, and trying to find hope for immortality and the continuation of life. Even though people and grass both die, the grass hints that there's a future rebirth or renewal to come, since it sprouts up from the decaying matter left by everything that dies. Life leads on to death and death leads on to life.
The Holy Mountain is something like the center of the world—it's where the magic happens. Technically, in a time and space sense, it's Jerusalem, Mount Zion, location of the Temple. But in the course of Isaiah's prophecies it becomes God's home base, the place everyone, from all the nations, will eventually be forced to turn to when history runs into its endgame.
The Holy Mountain isn't just a place to bring offerings to God for all the nations—though it is that, as well. It's a place where human character and virtue will reach its fullest flourishing. When the hills leap for joy, and the fields "clap their hands" with joy, this natural celebration of the presence of God will have its center in The Holy Mountain where that presence will be fully made manifest.
In one of the Bible's most famous passages, Isaiah 11:6-9, God says,
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them […] They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
All violence stops on the Mountain. It becomes the center of a final, ultimate peace that radiates out to the rest of the world, causing all conflict to end totally and filling the world with righteousness and the knowledge of God.
Immanuel ("God is with Us") is another figure interpreted as being the same as Jesus by Christian readers. Isaiah tells King Ahaz that a sign will come to the Judah: a child will be born to a virgin (or young woman), and his name will be Immanuel. He'll grow up to be a shepherd (a shepherd of people? a literal shepherd?) and will eat honey and curds (which also might have some kind of symbolic value.) Although devastation—brought by Assyria—will come to the rest of the land, Immanuel will keep surviving, tending to his herd animals.
Aside from the Jesus interpretation, traditional Jewish readings of the prophecy see Immanuel as referring to a child born at the time of the Assyrian invasion. He could potentially be Ahaz's child, like the righteous future king, Hezekiah. Or he could be a child born to some other woman of the time. As well, he could also be another of the symbolically named children of Isaiah, himself.
Isaiah 14:12-14 is where the Devil shows up under the name "Lucifer" (or "Day Star") for the first time—though, actually, this passage probably doesn't refer to the Devil. It seems to be referring to the King of Babylon, prophesying his downfall. Like the planet Venus, the Morning Star, he fades out as the morning of God's Judgment dawns:
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart "I will ascend to heaven, I will raise my throne above the stars of God."
So, even though this is apparently meant to attack a King of Babylon, it actually does allude to an older Canaanite myth about a god who revolted against Ba'al (the king of the gods) and was forced to retreat into the underworld. Throughout history, it's inspired a great number of the stories surrounding Satan, particularly the tale of how he revolted against God and attempted to establish his own kingdom—most famously retold in John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Isaiah continually brings up the memory of how God saved the Israelites from their Egyptian persecutors during the Exodus—parting the Red Sea (or "Sea of Reeds," if you want to get all technical) and allowing them to pass through, before drowning the Egyptian army:
Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit, who caused his glorious arm to march at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths? (Isaiah 63:11-13).
Crossing through the sea becomes more than just an event from Israel's past. It's a metaphor for any passage through chaos and destruction towards peace, wholeness, and holiness. The American poet Robert Hayden used the same sea-crossing metaphor in his poem "Middle Passage" to describe the journey of enslaved Africans on the slave ships, through the experience of slavery itself and into a future of freedom and peace: "Middle Passage: / voyage through death / to life upon these shores."
Suffering from the Assyrian invasion and a future exile in Babylon, Isaiah and Israel look back to their origins, considering the God who saved them from chaos and slavery before by parting the sea. It becomes an image of their liberation, of any people's liberation really. A famous study of the American Civil Rights movement is entitled Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.
Isaiah usually brings up the potter and clay image when God is making a tough point about his people's disobedience, stating that they can't refute him or go against his will any more than a clay pot can rebel against the potter who makes it. God is the Maker, his people are the Made. As he says in Isaiah 29:16:
You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, 'He did not make me'; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, 'He has no understanding'?
Also, the potter and clay imagery helps to explain what God is doing to his people when he bombards them with his wrath. In some sense, he's like a potter smashing a clay pot he already made, melting it back into clay, and then remaking the pot from the clay. It's a way of purging and refining Israel, removing its imperfections and forming it into a more perfect whole.
Leviathan is the sea-monster who most famously shows up in the book of Job—ruler "over all the Children of Pride." But here he reappears again as a power that (like in Job) represents the various oppressions foisted on humanity. Yet, unlike in Job, Leviathan is a power that will eventually be defeated:
On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)
(This is a one-God-version of a story that also exists in Babylonian myth: the high god, Marduk, defeats the evil sea-dragon, Tiamat.)
Here, the dragon is also called "Rahab"—a name reserved to describe the nation of Egypt as another incarnation of the ferocious sea-serpent (Isaiah 51:9). (To avoid confusion: there is also a woman who helps the Israelite's bring down Jericho, who is also named Rahab.) The name itself just means "broad or "large," while Leviathan means "twisted" or "coiled." Keeping these meanings in mind, it's easy to see how Leviathan-Rahab together symbolize the power of oppression that is massed against Israel, whether those are outside forces like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, or the country's own propensity towards wickedness or forgetfulness.
In Job, God doesn't promise to relieve the suffering of human beings living under the power of the Leviathan (or, as Herman Melville interpreted the myth in Moby Dick, suffering under the Law of Nature itself). Although Job himself does escape suffering, at the end. But in Isaiah, God is promising to defeat this power at the end of time, liberating people once and for all from the crushing power of the Leviathan. (In fact, there's a tradition in Jewish folklore that imagines the surviving remnant of the righteous people of Israel holding a massive banquet where they feast on the corpse of the Leviathan at the end of the world.)
This is yet another symbol often interpreted (by Christians) as referring to Jesus:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. (Isaiah 11:1-3)
(The Gospel of Matthew tries to trace Jesus's genealogy back to King David—and by extension, Jesse, since he's King David's dad.)
The shoot also harkens back to an earlier idea in Isaiah 6, where God says that Israel will be so terribly burned and ravaged that it will be reduced to nothing but a stump, though the holy seed is (or, is in) the stump. This fits in with Isaiah's whole discussion of a saving remnant: all the good and righteous people will be preserved and will endure to participate in a future age of peace. The shoot symbolizes then the Messiah, or the righteousness of the people as a whole. It's the goodness that's left over, and that remains to flourish.
A lot of churches and Christian fellowships are named "The Vineyard." The lead singer of Mumford and Sons—Marcus Mumford—is the son of pastors who run a huge and influential ministry called "The Vineyard" in England. And when Bob Dylan converted to born-again Christianity in the late '70s-early '80s, it was with a California-based church going by the same name.
You can see the reasons for this trend pretty obviously in Isaiah. God sees the entirety of his own people as being like a Vineyard, one that he intends to produce good grapes like righteousness and kindness—good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, basically. That's the ideal of the vineyard, but it ends up growing wild grapes, representing all kinds of sins.
In order to repair his vineyard—which also involves sort of destroying it—God has to make some serious alterations:
I will remove its hedge and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. (Isaiah 5:5-6)
At this moment, this sounds kind of just like ravaging the vineyard and eliminating it entirely. But later, in Isaiah 65:8, God says,
As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, 'Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,' so I will do for my servants' sake, and not destroy them all.
So, he's less like a frustrated guy vandalizing a garden that didn't work out the way he intended. He's a lot more like a gardener, pruning out the bad parts of his garden and retaining the plants he desires: the righteousness and the good works of his people.
The watchtower appears most memorably in Isaiah 21:8-10. A sentinel posted on a watchtower waits to for some unknown event. Finally, pairs of riders show up bringing the news, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground." The watchtower may be a literal tower, but it also means occupying a position of hopefulness and awareness. The sentinel in the watchtower could be any person who waits in expectation of the Kingdom of God, by adhering to righteousness and God's laws.
But the watchtower gets plenty of play outside the Bible. This passage from Isaiah inspired Bob Dylan's famous "All Along the Watchtower," which imagines the watchtower as an outlook searching for signs of life beyond a world of petty crimes and futility. And the Jehovah's Witnesses named their main magazine, The Watchtower, after this symbol, suggesting that reading the periodical is itself a way of watching and waiting for the end of time and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
After cities get destroyed in Isaiah—or if God says that they will get destroyed—it's time for the wild animals and evil supernatural powers to move in: hedgehogs, ostriches, goat-demons… the list goes on. The symbolism here is pretty obvious (if it even is symbolism, and not just description): when a city displeases God it will be reduced to a state of nature. Everything human about it will dissolve, and it will be replaced with wilderness and the kinds of beings that inhabit the wilderness.
Among the various animals and goat demons setting up shop in these abandoned cities—like in Babylon or wherever—Isaiah mentions that a figure named Lilith will show up in the desolation of Edom: "Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the Lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest." This is the scriptural basis for the tale from Jewish folklore about how Lilith was actually Adam's first wife, but due to some disagreements (about rather intimate matters), they split up. God created Eve as Adam's new wife, and Lilith went on to a new career as an evil demon, killing infants and causing problems in general.
However, despite this bad rep, Lilith got a second-wind as a feminist icon. A major all-female music festival called "Lilith Fair" was named after her, back in that now-distant and hazy decade called the 1990s (here's a full performance). (P.S. Lilith also became a positive character in George Bernard Shaw's play Back to Methuselah.)
Isaiah uses the relationship between a mother and her child as a metaphor in different ways. First, he compares God to a mother, and Israel to his child:
Can a woman forget her nursing child. And have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)
He both suggests that he is like a mother, but also that his bond with his people is even more intense than that of a mother with his child.
Israel itself is also said to be like a mother attempting to give birth to a child, although that child probably represents Righteousness or, perhaps, the Messiah:
Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near her time, so were we because of you, O Lord. (Isaiah 26:17)
Israel's sufferings under the wrath of God are compared with labor pains, because they're going to ultimately bring forward something good: the surviving remnant of the people who will live in a time of endless peace.
There's not much sex in Isaiah, and pretty much no drugs—unless you count illicit drink-mixing competitions—but there's a ton of violence. It's not quite as psychedelic and disturbing as the violence in Revelation, but it's definitely not toned down either.
Maybe the best example is God's prediction of what will happen to the Babylonians, since it involves the slaughter of every man, woman, and child—including infants—in Babylon. There's plenty more where that came from. Massive destruction is similarly visited on the Egyptians, Moabites, Damascus, Ephrain, Assyria, and plenty of others. In Assyria's case, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers are killed by the Angel of God in just one night.
Technically, you might be able to get away with mass battle casualties at a PG-13 level. But the intensity of the violence and the attacks on civilians puts Isaiah squarely in R-Rated territory—funny for a book that has some of the most famous descriptions of a future peace in world literature.
The British poet and literary critic, Matthew Arnold, loved the Book of Isaiah (he thought it was even better than Shakespeare, apparently). Although he was a pretty secular reader and writer, he still thought Isaiah was a poetic masterpiece, and wrote some commentary on the book, too. It's not exactly light and fluffy bathtub reading, but worth scanning for some good observations.
"The Destruction of Sennacherib" by Lord Byron
This poem by Lord Byron is one of the classic short poems in English, fitting snugly into any anthology. It describes the Assyrian invasion of Israel and Judah and the annihilation of the Assyrians by God's angel. (Technically, it was probably inspired by the telling of the story in 2 Kings 18-19, but the same story exists in Isaiah, so it's cool.)
"The Book of Isaiah" by Anne Carson
Prize-winning Canadian poet Anne Carson wrote this avant-garde piece inspired by Isaiah. But—as a word of warning—it's really, really, really, really weird. It contains lines like "The nation stirred in its husk and slept again / Two slabs of bloody meat lay folded on its eyes like wings."
"The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot's modernist masterpiece contains references to (and direct quotes from) about a trillion other works of literature. So it's not surprising that Isaiah is one of them. The line "Come in under the shadow of this red rock," specifically, seems to refer to Isaiah's description of a righteous king as "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Apparently, the White Witch from Lewis's all-time fantasy classic is actually related to the character of Lilith. This was inspired by George MacDonald's novel Lilith, but the original Lilith herself (Adam's first wife and, later, a trouble-making demon) first appeared (really briefly) in Isaiah.
Lilith by George MacDonald
MacDonald was both a Christian minister and a famous fantasy author—the nineteenth century's C.S. Lewis. This book—one of his major books—involves Lilith (the demonic presence who first appears in Isaiah) as a main character.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Isaiah 40:6 says, "All flesh is grass." The title of Walt Whitman's epic book of poetry launches off from this verse, using the grass metaphor—most prominently in "Song of Myself"—to meditate on mortality, immortality, and the destiny of humankind.
"Vacillation," by W.B. Yeats
The great Irish bard's poem "Vacillation" features a section that references the scene in Isaiah where Isaiah gets his mouth purified with a burning coal, allowing him to speak with the voice of God. In the poem, Yeats' soul and heart argue over what his approach to life should be. The soul wishes Yeats would seek the fire from Isaiah's coal, to speak purely of divine truths. The heart wants him to stick with the world of sin, and sing about it in an inspired way.
"All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan
In writing one of his most famous songs, Bob Dylan was inspired by Isaiah 21:5-9, where two riders approach a watchtower, carrying the news that Babylon has been destroyed. This reappears in Dylan's song as "Two riders were approaching / And the wind began to howl."
The Biblical figure of Lilith (mentioned only in Isaiah) got a bad reputation in later folklore. Adam's first wife, she ends up becoming a baby-murdering demon and all around trouble-maker. But in the late 1990s, the all-female music festival "Lilith Fair," recaptured Lilith as a feminist icon. Here's a full video of one of the shows from the festival.
The name of Stryper—one of the first Christian rock bands to gain mainstream notice—was Isaiah 53:5, a passage about the Suffering Servant: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." As you can judge by this photo, they were pretty intensely '80s.