Isaiah's Light in the Darkness: 
Faith When Hope Feels Heavy

Nothing can turn back the clock. The prophet writes to a people overtaken by tragedy and hopes to point them beyond the present moment. The Prophet Isaiah knows that hope never glides gracefully over the tumult of our immediate situation. Only when we understand the depth of sin do we fully appreciate the promise of redemption. How, in the present, can we help open people to hope but also help them process the weight of this moment? This study gives congregants recourse to ask questions about what the Christian life looks like in times of upheaval and distress. 


  • Part 1: Isaiah 6 - The accusation of Israel and the prophet's call to rough and unsteady places. What is our own call amidst calamity? (Isaiah 6:1-8)
  • Part 2: Isaiah 9 - God's judgment is never far from God's redemption (Isaiah 9:1-7)
  • Part 3: Isaiah 24/25 - Contrasting the righteous with the unrighteous (Isaiah 24:17-20 and 25:1-10)
  • Part 4: Isaiah 39 - Pride goes before the fall (Isaiah 39:1-8)
  • Part 5: Isaiah 40 - God's neglect or God's faithfulness (Isaiah 40:1-11)
  • Part 6: Isaiah 49 - God's servants to the nations (Isaiah 49:3-7)
  • Part 7: Isaiah 53 - The virtues of meekness and humility (Isaiah 53:1-6, 10-11)
  • Part 8: Isaiah 60/61 - The glorified Zion (Isaiah 60:1-3, 18-22 and 61:1-4)

Part 1: Isaiah 6 - The accusation of Israel and the prophet's call to rough and unsteady places. What is our own call amidst calamity? 

Isaiah 6:1-8 (NRSV)
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivotsa]">[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraphb]">[b] touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Questions for Reflection:

  • What are some of the characteristics you think of when you hear the term “prophet?” How does Isaiah’s call agree or disagree with your picture of the prophet?
  • Have you ever had a distinct moment when you felt God was calling you to a particular vocation? Was this calling easy or difficult to accept? Why?
  • How is humility important, not just for the prophet’s call, but for the Christian life generally? What are some of the ways that Christians can cultivate humility?
  • In the passage, how does God’s Kingship relate to earthly kingship? How do you conceive of God’s sovereignty in your own life? 
  • As Rabbi Abraham Heschel says, the prophet is a person who has “sympathy with the divine pathos (pity).” Have you ever conceived of God as being passionate? In our contemporary moment, what are some of the things that God might be passionate about?

Part 2: Isaiah 9 - God's judgment is never far from God's redemption

Isaiah 9:1-7(NRSV)

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

b]">[b] The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Questions for consideration:

  • Where do you see light dawning? What rods of oppression are broken? What is thrown into the fire?
  • Think of this text with bifocals: what darkness do you see in one lens? What light do you see in the other?
  • Consider new metaphors native to our context and social location. What does prince of peace and wonderful counselor look like today?

Part 3: Isaiah 24/25 - Contrasting the righteous with the unrighteous

Downloadable pdf

Isaiah 24:17-20 (NRSV)

Terror, and the pit, and the snare
    are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!
18 Whoever flees at the sound of the terror
    shall fall into the pit;
and whoever climbs out of the pit
    shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened,
    and the foundations of the earth tremble.
19 The earth is utterly broken,
    the earth is torn asunder,
    the earth is violently shaken.
20 The earth staggers like a drunkard,
    it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it,
    and it falls, and will not rise again.

Isaiah 25:1-10 (NRSV)

25 O Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
    plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
    the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
    it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
    cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
    a refuge to the needy in their distress,
    a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
    the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
    the song of the ruthless was stilled.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
10 For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.

The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place
    as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • What is your reaction to the situation described in Isaiah 24:17-20? What do you think of this language? Can you think of any similar circumstances?
  • How do you respond to the words of destruction connected to the actions of God (25:2, 7, 10)? Do you think of God in these ways? Why or why not?
  • How would you respond to the message of hope in Isaiah 25 if you were living in the sort of times described in Isaiah 24?
  • What is the relationship between the establishment of God’s feast (25:6) and the destruction of the “shroud” over all people (25:7)? What do you think of this?
  • What is the nature of the salvation of God described in 25:9? What does this look like and how do you think it happens?

Part 4: Isaiah 39 - Pride goes before the fall

Isaiah 39:1-8

At that time King Merodach-baladan son of Baladan of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” Hezekiah answered, “They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.” He said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • Compare the behavior and dynamics present in this ancient passage with our own patterns, pitfalls and tendencies. What temptations and tendencies do we share with King Hezekiah?
  • As you notice similarities between our leaders/ourselves & King Hezekiah, what do they tell you about the judgements and direction of God for us today? Do you hear any words of advice, reproof, warnings, or consolations?
  • Do we have a tendency to try to impress potentially powerful allies? What lessons can we learn from Hezekiah about the pitfalls of this tendency? Why do we do this in the first place?
  • What causes pride to creep into Hezekiah, who is otherwise such an upstanding leader - a person of great character with an equally great track record? How may we avoid this temptation?
  • How would you define humility? Why is humility so important in our life with God and one another?

Part 5: Isaiah 40 - God's neglect or God's faithfulness

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.

Jerusalem, go up on a high mountain
    and proclaim the good news!
Call out with a loud voice, Zion;
    announce the good news!a]">[a]
Speak out and do not be afraid.
Tell the towns of Judah
    that their God is coming!

10 The Sovereign Lord is coming to rule with power,
    bringing with him the people he has rescued.b]">[b]
11 He will take care of his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs together
    and carry them in his arms;
    he will gently lead their mothers.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • What ways do you see or experience the church making “uneven ground level” or “rough places plain” in order to better reveal God’s glory to all people? How might you, in your areas of influence, remove barriers for others? (v. 3-5)
  • When in your life have you seen God’s grace and steadfast presence more clearly in the face of suffering, finitude, or conflict? (v. 6-8)
  • How might those who know suffering most intimately be best equipped to proclaim, “Here is your God!”? (v. 9) And how might listening to the voices of the afflicted be vital to the ministry of preparing “a highway for our God?” (v. 3)
  • God is depicted as both a mighty warrior and a tender shepherd (v. 10-11). Which image resonates with your more comfortably? Which image challenges you? What does it feel like to imagine God as both at the same time?
  • In our current polarized climate, it can be tempting to be either gentle or firm but difficult to be both. What does it look like to embody God’s duality: mighty in truthfulness so the ground is made level and tender with the flock around you?

Part 6: Isaiah 49 - God's servants to the nations

Isaiah 49:3-7

3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
    and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
    the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • What words or what truth do you cling to when you share in the Servant’s despair (v. 4a) or find yourself wondering, “What is the point?” Is there a particular Bible verse, belief, or previous life experience that helps ground you in God’s faithfulness?
  • Which interpretation or interpretations of the identity of the Servant resonate most with you?
  • In what places in your life or in our world do you see a need for the good news of God’s restoration and salvation?
  • How might you bear the good news of God’s light and salvation, even – or especially – in the midst of the suffering and hardship of the present time?

Part 7: Isaiah 53 - The virtues of meekness and humility

Isaiah 53: 1-6, 10-11

Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
    he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11     Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
    The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • What piece of this passage holds true for you, and brings hope, in the face of turmoil?
  • Which sliver of Isaiah 53 brings light into your world?
  • How do we come together in meekness and humility?
  • How might we serve God when the world is in the midst of suffering?
  • How does Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant help shape your idea of what it means to be a servant in the world today?

Part 8: Isaiah 60/61 - The glorified Zion

Isaiah 60:1-3, 18-22 and 61:1-4

60 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

18 Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
    devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation,
    and your gates Praise.

19 The sun shall no longer be
    your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
    give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory.
20 Your sun shall no more go down,
    or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your days of mourning shall be ended.
21 Your people shall all be righteous;
    they shall possess the land forever.
They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands,
    so that I might be glorified.
22 The least of them shall become a clan,
    and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Lord;
    in its time I will accomplish it quickly.

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • The prophet Isaiah insists that God’s light shines even (perhaps especially) in the midst of darkness. Where do you see the light of God shining in the world…and in your life…today?
  • These verses are often read in the liturgical season of Advent, which the church has just begun. It is a season of anticipation and waiting. For what are you waiting this year, and how are you preparing to receive it?
  • Prophets are often called to speak words of challenge to their own people. How might you challenge yourself, and those closest to you, to live the instructions of Isaiah 61? 
  • Why do you think Jesus chose these words for his proclamation to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth? How does his life and ministry fulfill this prophetic text?
  • What is the church’s role in fulfilling the promise of the prophet, to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken-hearted, etc.?