Study Guide

Book of Isaiah Themes

  • Sin

    Why does everything that happens in Isaiah—or, all the wrathful stuff, anyway—need to happen? "Sin" is one answer. God needs to punish everyone's sins, hence the Assyrians invade and get slaughtered by an angel, hence Babylon falls and the invaders massacre civilians… and so on and so forth.

    But what is sin? It takes all kinds of forms throughout the course of the book, but it pretty much always involves forgetting God, forgetting the origin and the creator of humankind. The Assyrians help God punish Israel for turning away, worshipping other gods, and failing to behave justly (to take care of widows and orphans, in particular). The Assyrian King Sennacherib is himself punished and destroyed, since he openly believes he's superior to God himself. So sin, at its most basic sense, involves turning away from what's really central and important. It comes from getting involved in lots of distractions and egotism.

    Questions About Sin

    1. What are the worst sins anyone commits in Isaiah? Are there any sins that aren't so bad?
    2. Are there differences between the way Judah and Israel sin (or, the kind of sins they commit) and the sins that the other nations commit, like Assyria and Babylon?
    3. Why does pain help purify sin? Could there be a more pleasant way of making things right?
    4. Could people simply avoid the bad consequences of their sins by turning and be good? Or does there need to be a reckoning?
    5. Why do people in Judah (or in Assyria, or wherever) keep sinning? What do they get out of it?
  • Suffering

    The first theme was sin, which leads automatically to the second theme: suffering. The suffering inflicted on Judah (and other places) for sinning is pretty significant. Cities are destroyed, people are reduced to poverty and starvation. There's lots of wandering around in sackcloth (not too comfy, gang), plus lots of weeping and wailing. But Isaiah isn't just depicting suffering, he's attempting to show its causes. He aims to show how the injustice of human beings rebounds like a really awful boomerang right back at them.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Is suffering ultimately meaningful? Or does the kind of pain depicted here ultimately without any "gain" balancing it out at the end?
    2. Do only guilty people suffer in Isaiah? Or do the innocent suffer along with the guilty?
    3. How do people react to their suffering? Are their people who learn no lessons from it (if there are always lessons to be learned from it)?
    4. Does suffering actually help improve Judah? Is it laying the groundwork for a better order, a better time?
  • Justice and Judgment

    Justice and judgment—next to, and not behind, mercy and compassion—is probably the biggest theme in Isaiah. God continually visits his wrathful judgment on everyone, constantly, throughout the course of the book. Isaiah basically exists, as a person, to warn about God's impending judgments and to urge people to change their ways before it's too late (which, you know, they mainly don't do).

    But God, in Isaiah, isn't mainly concerned with whether people are following all the rites and rituals. He wants to see them put their hearts into their actions, and behave with devotion and sincerity. He isn't punishing people for failing to offer him sacrifices. He's punishing them for only offering him lip-service, and for failing to treat the less fortunate (particularly, widows and orphans) with compassion. He's basically trying to get everyone to straighten up, fly right, and treat each other (and him) with respect. Doesn't seem too much to ask, right?

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Do you think God (as portrayed in the Book of Isaiah) is more just than merciful? Or is it the other way around? Why do you think so?
    2. Is God truly just? Why or why not? That's one of Isaiah's big points (that God is just), but the question's still up for debate.
    3. Does God's justice make people behave better, overall? Does it rehabilitate people in addition to just taking revenge on them? Why do you think so?
    4. Are people like Sennacherib given a fair and just shake? If their egotism and destructive tendencies are used by God to fulfill his judgment, is it just when they end up getting destroyed in the end too? Did they ever really have a chance? What reasons do you have for your answer?
  • Power

    Two kinds of power are on display in Isaiah: human power and the (so much greater) power of God. Human beings continually strive to use their power to do things like conquer the world (what the Assyrians and Babylonians do), only to see it snatched away from them, proving that God holds the only power that matters. Whenever a human being starts to assert his or her power and make the sort of classically boastful statements that Biblical villains—like Sennacherib—tend to make, it's time for an immediate smackdown. But the same is true even for the small-time criminals described in Isaiah, those powerful people who won't pay their workers a decent amount of money, and cheat them, but pretend to humble themselves before God in the temple. They all get their karmic beatings, thanks to the just power of God.

    Questions About Power

    1. How much power is it acceptable for a human being to have? When does that power start to aggravate God? Why do you think so?
    2. Does all power come from God? Are there any other sources of power in Isaiah's universe, aside from God?
    3. How should power be exercised (either according to Isaiah or according to you)?
    4. What is God ultimately trying to use his power for? Why do you think so?
  • Loyalty

    Loyalty is what God demands from Judah and Israel. They shouldn't get distracted by other gods, or by lust for cash or craving for power. It's closely tied in with obedience, but there's an element of fervor and love tying it all up. At the same time, God's loyalty to his people is also important. God keeps promising that he will, in the end, own up to all his promises. He will guide everyone to a state of peace—even if they kick and scream along the way. People are going to get rewarded for remaining loyal to him. So, you know, it's a two way street.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Are their different forms that loyalty can take? If so, which forms? Does being loyal to God mean that someone needs to step out of their comfort zone? Or can that person remain loyal and still lead a relatively comfortable life? Why do you think so?
    2. How about Isaiah? How does he demonstrate his own loyalty?
    3. How does loyalty work out? Is it always rewarded or not?
    4. Does Ahaz think he's being loyal when he refuses to ask God for a sign? How do you know?
    5. How do the kings express their loyalty? Are Ahaz and Hezekiah loyal to different degrees?
  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    The big dream that animates the Book of Isaiah is the dream of a future time of perfect peace—basically the exact opposite of what's been going on throughout the course of the book, what with all its examples of annihilation and total war. The wolf and the lamb are able snuggle together, hang out, watch Friends re-runs—whatever. This is also tied up with Messianic dreams, and for Christians, the redemptive mission of Jesus, who they usually identify with Isaiah's suffering servant.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Why does a "little child" lead the people in the future era of peace? What could be the symbolic meaning of that?
    2. Do people themselves have a role to play in bringing this about? Or is it all God's doing?
    3. How do other nations relate to the people of Judah and Israel in the future? How is the relationship changed?
    4. Why does God create a new heaven and a new earth? What does that say about the old heaven and the old earth?
  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Last but not least in our themes, we have compassion and forgiveness—or, in a word, mercy. These ideas comprise the biggest and probably most important theme in Isaiah (along with justice and judgment). Mercy, in a sense, is what it's all building up to. It's the moment of relief that follows the constant conflict and violence and tension (whew). God might treat his people with wrath to correct them from their ways, but at the end of the day (Isaiah says), he ultimately loves them.

    And, apparently, this isn't just a vague sort of love, like the way someone would say "I love Cheetos" or "I love The Sopranos." It's closely compared to human forms of love, indicating how intense and passionate it's really supposed to be. God always goes at whatever he's doing—be it destroying cities or loving everyone—as hard as he possibly can, and in a big way. And—aside from a brief reminder of what'll happen to the continually disobedient people—that's basically how Isaiah ends: with the reign of endless, universal love. It turns out God and Isaiah were both really hippies, in the end, despite earlier death-metal tendencies. Those were just for a historical minute or two, but the rest of eternity is one long jam session to "All You Need is Love." 

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Is God's mercy greater than his justice in Isaiah? Or is he more just than merciful? Why do you think so?
    2. Do the people of Israel and Judah need to be worthy of God's mercy in order to receive it? Or is mercy given without worrying about those kinds of things (because wouldn't it just be justice if you deserved it)?
    3. How exactly does God love his people? Is it like a father loves a daughter, or how a husband loves a wife? What metaphors fit?
    4. Are their some sins that are unforgivable? Who doesn't, in the end, get forgiven and why?