Wonderful Counselor | Isaiah 9:1-7
Brian Hedges | November 28, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in God’s word together. We’re going to be in Isaiah 9.
While you’re turning there, let me ask if any of you have ever seen a live performance of Handel’s Messiah. Let me see your hand. Okay, quite a few hands up. Maybe not quite as many as in the 9 a.m. service, but overall, a lot of folks at Redeemer have attended a live performance of Handel’s Messiah.
The passage we’re going to study this morning is famous because it was used in Handel’s Messiah. The Messiah was an oratorio composed by the Lutheran composer George Frideric Handel in 1741. It strings together over 50 passages of Scripture, and the amazing thing is that it was written in just a few weeks—I think it was just 24 days in which this was written—and it has been performed live every single year since 1741. I actually wondered if that had held true even in 2021; I looked it up, and sure enough, even in 2020 there were live performances of Handel’s Messiah. Of course, it is a beautiful piece of music that tells the story of our Redeemer, the story of redemption, the whole drama of salvation, centering on the work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
One of the most well-known passages that is used in the Messiah is Isaiah 9:6-7, with the fourfold name of the Messiah. For the next four weeks, we’re going to take that fourfold name of the Messiah from Isaiah 9:6, we’re going to look at one title each week during Advent, and as we’re doing that try to piece together some of the broader context of the book of Isaiah, as well as a broader understanding of Scripture and the theological implications of who Jesus is as our Messiah.
This morning we begin by reading Isaiah 9:1-7. If you want to turn there in your own copy of God’s word, or you can follow along on the screen. If you don’t have a Bible but you want to follow along in an actual Bible, you can use one of those blue Bibles in the chairs in front of you. It’s page 573. Isaiah 9, beginning in verse 1.
“But there will be no gloom for her who was 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 has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
This is God’s word.
First of all, we need to understand the context and background to this passage. It is part of the larger context of the book of isaiah, and this particular section of Isaiah, chapters 7-11, which is a summons to God’s people, calling them to trust in God’s promise to bring deliverance from oppression and to establish his reign, his kingdom in peace and righteousness forever.
The historical context, of course, is Isaiah’s prophetic ministry, which spanned from the death of King Uzziah in 739 B.C. (recorded in Isaiah 6) through the reigns of three more kings: Jotham, Ahaz (who was a wicked king), and Ahaz’s son Hezekiah.
The immediate situation in view here is the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. So in verse 1, the reference to the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, that would have been west of the Sea of Galilee in the northernmost parts of Israel; they would have been the first parts of Israel to be invaded, and they were the first parts of Israel to fall to the Assyrians. The residents there were taken captive and deported, and their homelands became Assyrian provinces.
That’s the context, and Isaiah is looking forward to a time where this shame and contempt that these lands have experienced will be turned into glory. “Those people who have sat in darkness will see a great light,” he says. You might recognize that wording from the Gospel of Matthew, because Matthew quotes it in Matthew 4 in the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry, when Jesus is preaching in Galilee. He’s preaching in this very region; they were the first ones to hear the words of the Messiah.
That’s the historical context. But Isaiah has rightly been called the gospel in the Old Testament, and perhaps more than any other book in the Old Testament Isaiah’s prophecies point clearly and directly to Jesus, the Messiah, and to his gracious reign. This is particularly true of this passage, with its titles of the Messiah.
You have the name given, and it’s actually “name” singular, with a series of titles, as was common for kings to be named with a series of titles. This was common in the ancient world. The scholars debate whether there are four titles or five or even six; we’re going to take it in four weeks and look at each one of these titles in turn. Today we begin with Wonderful Counselor.
Now, in the message this morning I really just want to build around three words, and those words are the words wonder, wisdom, and weakness. I want you to see three things:
1. The Wonder of the Messiah
2. The Wisdom of the Messiah
3. The Weakness of the Messiah
I think all of these things are clear in the text and have much to teach us about the Christ that we worship, and will help us as we enter into Advent, helping to form and shape our perspective and our attitudes during this season.
1. The Wonder of the Messiah
“His name shall be called Wonderful . . .”
Right here at the beginning we have to take this word “wonderful” and dig to understand what this word is. This is one of those words the currency of which has been severely devalued, because when we use the word “wonderful” we say things like, “Oh, I had a wonderful day,” or, “It was a wonderful picnic at the park,” or whatever. We mean it was good, but we certainly don’t mean that we experience anything that provokes awestruck wonder. We don’t use the word in that way today; we’ve devalued this word.
But in Scripture, the Hebrew root of this word always carries the idea of that which is supernatural, that which is marvelous; a marvel, a work of wonder that provokes awe. That’s the idea of the word. Here are a few examples.
In Psalm 118:23 we read these words: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” That word “marvelous” is the word here, “wonderful.” The idea here is that people who have seen the mighty work of God, they have witnessed the mighty work of God, they are struck with wonder at the sight of this.
This is especially true in the exodus. You remember how God delivered his people from Egypt in the events of the exodus. He did so with “mighty wonders.” Exodus 3:20 says, “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it. And after that Pharaoh will let you go.”
Or you may remember the song of Moses from Exodus 15:11, where he says, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”
This word “wonderful”, when ascribed to a person, carries the idea of that which is supernatural or even divine. In fact, this pair of words, Wonderful Counselor, is used again in Isaiah, and it’s used directly of God himself. Isaiah 28:29 says, “This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”
Then there’s another story in the Old Testament that I think illustrates the meaning of this word. It’s in the book of Judges. It’s when a man named Menoah, who was the father of Samson, saw the angel of the Lord. There’s this supernatural figure, and he sees this figure and he asks him, “What is your name?”
The angel says, “Why should I tell you my name, for it is wonderful?”
After that that angel ascends to heaven in a flame of fire, and Menoah is actually scared to death. He goes to his wife and says, “We’re going to die because I’ve just seen the face of God.”
That’s the idea behind this word. It is a word that speaks of one who is divine or one who is supernatural, and it becomes, therefore, a prophetic reference to the deity of the Messiah, the deity and the divinity of Christ.
Edward J. Young in his commentary on Isaiah says, “The Old Testament usage of this word compels us to the conclusion that it here designates the Messiah, not merely as someone extraordinary, but as one who in his very person and being is a wonder. He is that which surpasses human thought and power; he is God himself.”
Of course, we know from New Testament revelation that this was true, that Jesus the Messiah was God manifest in the flesh, he was the word who was before all worlds, the word who was with God and who was God, the word who was involved in the very creation of the universe; and this word “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
That this is a reference to deity is reinforced by the other names that we will look at in future weeks, the names Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. It’s for this reason that we can be certain that this name is not a reference to King Hezekiah. That’s what some more liberal scholars want to say, is that this isn’t a reference to the deity of the Messiah, this is rather looking forward to a king in the more immediate future. The problem was that Hezekiah was probably already born by the time this was written, but more importantly that Hezekiah brought nothing in his kingship that resembles the promises of this passage, and he certainly could not be described as someone who was a wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, or the prince of peace. No, this is a reference to Jesus, the Messiah, who is wonderful, who is this supernatural being. He is God of very God, but it’s God veiled in human flesh. It is the wonder of Christmas, wonder in the strongest sense of that word, a wonder that should provoke in our own hearts awe and worship.
Surely this is the appropriate application, isn’t it? When we consider the incarnation of Jesus Christ, when we consider who Jesus is as the very Son of God, our response should be awe and wonder and worship before him.
I think oftentimes we enter into the Christmas season, and there’s lots of emotion, but usually the emotion is more sentimentality. We’re kind of thinking back to our childhoods, we are enjoying Christmas songs, we’re enjoying the Christmas decorations and the lights and all that stuff. I enjoy all that stuff too; it’s fine. I’m not denigrating that at all.
But listen, the message of Christmas is something that actually should provoke deep worship of our God, that God would choose in the person of the Son, that God would choose to become human flesh and live among us.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon in one of his sermons says, “Is he not rightly called ‘Wonderful’? Infinite and an infant, eternal and yet born of a woman, almighty and yet hanging on a woman’s breast, supporting the universe and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms, king of angels and yet the reputed son of Joseph, heir of all things yet the carpenter’s despised son.” This is marvelous, it is a wonder, and it should provoke awe and reverence and wonder in our hearts as we think about the real meaning of Advent, the real meaning of Christmas. The wonder of the Messiah.
2. The Wisdom of the Messiah
I also want you to notice the wisdom of the Messiah. “His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor . . .”
What is a counselor? A counselor is someone who gives advice. A counselor is someone who dispenses wisdom. You might think, for example, of counselors today. If you go to a financial counselor, here’s someone who’s giving you advice about how to use your money. Or if you go to a marriage counselor you’re getting advice from someone who’s telling you how to have a better relationship. We could go on and on with examples.
That’s the basically the meaning of the word here. The word is used often in the Old Testament for someone who’s served as a counselor in a king’s cabinet. You might think of Ahithophel, who was the counselor to King David but then betrayed him during Absalom’s revolt in 2 Samuel 17.
The word is used in wisdom literature to describe someone who gives advice. Proverbs 11:14: “Where there is no guidance a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
Proverbs 15:22, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisors they succeed.”
So here, as a Messianic title, it points to the wisdom of the Messiah, the wisdom of the King, the wisdom of Jesus Christ. He is wonderful, he is counselor. That means he is characterized by wisdom.
We get another hint of this just a few chapters later in Isaiah with yet another prophecy of the Messiah, this time using the language of a branch or a root, a shoot from the stump of Jesse. The idea here is that the house of David, under God’s judgment, has been cut down to just a stump in the ground, but out of this stump in the ground a fresh shoot is going to come out and there’s going to be a branch; there’s going to be the fulfillment of God’s promises to David in the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7).
Isaiah’s picking up on that theme in Isaiah 11:1-2. Listen to what he says. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Of course, the New Testament presents Jesus as the source and the embodiment of the wisdom of God. Over and over again in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is still just a little boy, we read that he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
During his earthly ministry, when Jesus began teaching in the synagogues, do you remember the response of the people? They said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”
Or think of how Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 calls Jesus Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” or how in Colossians 2 he speaks of Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The Messiah is a Messiah, a king, who is characterized by wisdom and by counsel.
Now, in what sense would we say that Christ is the source of wisdom? Of course we would say he is the sense of all wisdom. But let’s get it practical for a minute. What are some of the specific ways in which we get wisdom from Christ?
One way in particular is that we get from Christ a view of the world, a way of understanding the world and answering the deepest questions of the world.
Pastor and apologist Tim Keller has said that there are three things the human race needs desperately that worldly wisdom can’t give at all. They don’t even claim to be able to give it. These three things are, first of all, you need to be able to face death with assurance and confidence and even joy. Secondly, you have to be able to live with your past (that is, live with your sins, deal with your mistakes, live with your past); and then thirdly, you have to be able to forgive your enemies even when they do terrible things against you.
Keller says that you don’t find that in any worldly wisdom. You don’t find that in Plato, you don’t find that in critical theory—you don’t find that anywhere else. Read any philosopher as they try to answer deep questions. Unless they are directly connecting to Christianity, they’re not giving answers to those specific questions.
The tremendous power of the gospel is that does answer those deepest, most profound questions that we have, and we get wisdom, we get an understanding, we get a worldview, a way of answering the deepest questions of our lives.
Keller goes on to illustrate the tremendous power of Christ’s wisdom in the gospel by talking about the growth of Christianity in the third world, places like Africa and South America. He says, “You know what’s sweeping those continents? You know what’s growing seven to ten times faster than the population, even in those fast-growing populated places? The wretched of the earth in the barrios, in the alleyways, in the villages of the world are not forming little study groups to study Plato or critical theory; they’re coming together to study the Bible. They’re coming together to study the gospel. That’s what’s teaching them to face death, that’s what’s teaching them to deal with their conscience, that’s what’s breaking their addictive habits, that’s what’s putting families together; that’s what’s healing whole villages.” Wisdom from the Messiah answering the deepest, most profound questions we have.
But also it is wisdom that teaches us how to live in our present day-to-day lives. When you follow the teaching of Jesus, when you listen to what he says, what does Jesus do? He teaches us about servanthood and humility. He teaches us to love others, to love our neighbors as ourselves. He teaches us to forgive those who sin against us. I mean, those are practical things! He teaches us to give generously.
You think about the season of Advent. I mean, how important is it for us to put that stuff actually into practice? This is the season where you’re getting together with extended family, your schedule is feeling all the pressure. You’re giving—hopefully generously and lovingly, but sometimes perhaps even grudgingly, you feel like you have to give the Christmas gift, right? I mean, there are all these pressures that come.
Then you’re getting together sometimes with family, and sometimes the deepest wounds we have are the wounds we carry in our hearts that come from family, people who have sinned against us, people who have hurt us.
Where do we get wisdom that will practically help us to navigate all of these scenarios with grace and humility and love? We get it from the teaching of Jesus, as he teaches us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, to love as we’ve been loved, to serve others even as he has served us.
Let me ask you this morning, do you view Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom? I think most of us would probably say yes. We’re here, after all. We came here this morning to hear the word of God, to worship Jesus Christ. But here’s the real test. Do you listen to his words? Do you live by his teaching? Do you follow his example? And can you see in actual, practical ways in your everyday relationships with family, with coworkers, and with friends that you are living in the way of forgiveness and of love and of humility? This is what it means to live in the wisdom of Jesus Christ, following him as the Wonderful Counselor.
3. The Weakness of the Messiah
The wonder of the Messiah, the wisdom of the Messiah; but then thirdly, and I think supremely important, is the weakness of the Messiah.
You might wonder, “Where is he getting the weakness of the Messiah?” Well, it’s the beginning of the verse. It says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
Isn’t this amazing? This is a prophecy of the Messiah, it is a prophecy of the king, the one who will sit on the throne of David, of whose kingdom there will be no end—but he comes as a child. It is, of course, a reference back to Isaiah 7:14, where the Lord gave wicked king Ahaz a sign. Ahaz was refusing the word of the Lord, he was refusing to walk in the wisdom of God. Rather than trusting in God for protection and deliverance, Ahaz chose political alliances with other nations. But even in the face of his rebellion and rejection, the Lord gives Ahaz a sign in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.”
I love the words of Ray Ortlund, who said, “God’s answer to everything that has ever terrorized us is a child.” The weakness of the Messiah. He comes as a child.
Do you remember the words of Wesley?
“Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever;
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.”
The Messiah comes as a child! A child is given, a son is given. This is one of the amazing mysteries of the incarnation, the mystery of Christmas.
Why is this?
The reasons are many, but here’s one, and it is a fundamental principle that governs the Christian life. It is because God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. This is how God typically brings deliverance.
Think about some of the greatest stories of deliverance in the Scriptures. Do you remember the exodus? I referenced that earlier. There are actually all kinds of exodus language and imagery here in Isaiah. Do you remember how God delivered his people? He raised up Moses, but Moses wasn’t a great military leader, he was an old man, right? He didn’t raise up an army; instead, God worked wonders supernaturally to bring Pharaoh to the point of letting them go. It was only after Israel was passed over by this angel of death and of judgment because of the slaying of a sacrificial Passover lamb, only then are they released. And then they come right up to the brink of the Red Sea, where only by a supernatural act of deliverance could they be freed. They have to come to the end of themselves to see the strength and the power of God.
Or think about David. He was Israel’s most famous king, and while in his later life, of course, he was a man of war, do you remember how David comes on the scene in 1 Samuel 17? There’s this giant, Goliath, in the Philistine armies, and they are taunting the armies of Israel and the God of Israel. All the Israelites are quaking in their sandals, right? They’re afraid to go out and meet him. Even King Saul in all of his armor, he will not go out and meet the giant. But here is little David, teenage shepherd boy; he goes out armed with only a sling and stones, and through the power of God he defeats the enemy.
Here’s one more. Do you remember the story of Gideon in the book of Judges? This one’s important because there’s actually a reference right here in the passage, in verse 4, where it says, “For the yoke of his burden and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” That’s a reference back to the book of Judges.
Here’s the story. Gideon is this man who’s actually a coward. When you first find him, when you first encounter him, he’s hiding. He’s cowardly. Yet he receives this message: “O Gideon, mighty man of valor . . .” It’s irony, right? He’s called to lead the armies of Israel. So he gathers an army of 30,000 people, and do you know what God says? He says, “You have too many people. Cut it down.” He gets it down to 10,000 people, and what does God say? “Gideon, you still have too many!”
Through a process of elimination he gets the army down to just 300 people, and with that small band of 300 people God works a miracle to defeat the armies of the Midianites.
This is typical of God’s deliverances of his people in Scripture. He shows his strength through weakness.
The point here, as it relates to Jesus the Messiah, is simply this, that God is bringing deliverance to his people, he is bringing light instead of darkness, glory instead of gloom. He will break the yoke of oppression, he will bring justice and he will bring righteousness, he will establish the throne of David; but he will do it in a way that utterly startles, upsets, and overturns human expectations. He will do it first by sending a child in the incarnation. Then, as this child grows and matures and reaches adulthood, what does he do? He doesn’t ascend a mighty throne; instead, he goes to the humble death of the cross.
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:20-25)
This is the way God works. He works through weakness. We receive joy, but through the Man of sorrows. We receive riches, but it’s through his poverty; victory through his defeat; life through his death.
Tim Keller, once again, talking about how Christianity is spreading in the third world, describes this message, the message of the gospel. “What is it?” he asks. “It is this wonderful foolishness, this God in a manger, this poor carpenter, this God, arms stretched out, dying on a cross, life ebbing out, sacrificing for you.” It’s the weakness of the Messiah, and that’s fundamental to the message of Christmas.
The application, of course, is simply this: to follow this king is to walk in the way of weakness. It is to follow him in the way of the cross.
J.I. Packer was one of the great theologians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He died just last year, well into his 90s. By the end of his life he was almost completely blind. One of the last books that Packer wrote was called Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength. Largely the book is a meditation on 2 Corinthians, that book of Paul that most bears the heart of the apostle Paul as he glories in his tribulations, he rejoices even in his suffering, and where he says that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
In 2 Corinthians 13:3-4 we read these words: “For Christ was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God. For we are also weak in him, but we.... will live with him by the power of God.”
The wonder of the Messiah, the wisdom of the Messiah, the weakness of the Messiah. How should this frame our attitudes as we move into this season of Advent. the next four weeks leading up to Christmas Day? This is Advent; it’s the season where we identify ourselves with the Old Testament people of God as they waited for the first coming of Christ, and it’s the season where we renew our own expectation as we wait for the second coming of Christ. What should be our attitudes? What should we cultivate in our hearts and lives?
(1) First of all, worship. Worship him with reverence and with awe. Why? Because the Messiah is wonderful, because he is supernatural. He is divine. This is God revealed in human flesh!
So during this season, let me encourage you to focus particularly on the person and the work of Jesus Christ, and to worship him. “Oh come, let us adore him,” we often sing. Make that a reality for your own heart, your own life; in your devotional life, in your family times, in your prayers, in your worship. Worship the Messiah.
(2) Secondly, because the Messiah is a wonderful counselor, because he is wise, let us listen to and obey his word. Let’s put the teaching of Jesus into practice during this Advent season, and particularly the teaching of Jesus regarding forgiveness. When somebody in your family sins against you or disappoints you or hurts you, or some old wound is reopened, forgive.
Let’s put into practice the teaching of Jesus in servanthood and humility. When you’re finding a schedule conflict, when you’re not getting your way, when your expectations are being disappointed, instead of hankering for your own way; instead, lay down your rights. Be the servant. Humble yourself and follow the Christ of the cross. Listen to his wisdom.
(3) Then he came in weakness as a child, finally to the cross. Why did he do it? He did it for our sins. He did it "for us and for our salvation," as the old creed says. Therefore let us trust his grace, let us trust his cross, let us trust in the great salvation that he has brought to us in the way of weakness, suffering, and death; and may that transform our own perspective on our own sufferings, our own burdens and trials, as we believe the promise of God. For those who are in him, for those who love him, for those who are called according to his purpose, all these things work together for our good.
Are you trusting the Messiah this morning? Let me encourage you, look to him today. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we thank you this morning for the good news of the gospel. We thank you for the incarnation, this amazing truth that you sent your Son into the world to be one of us, to take our very nature, and then to take our sins upon himself, to die in weakness and shame, bearing the judgment we deserved, so that we could be free, so that we could be forgiven, so that we could have eternal life.
Lord, what possible response can we give to you other than love and worship and praise? We thank you.
We pray this morning that you would help us to humble our hearts, to trust you, to trust your grace, your wisdom, to trust the teaching of your Son, and to imitate him in our own lives.
Even as we come to the Lord’s table this morning, Father, I pray that the table would be for us a means of grace as we reflect on the sufferings of the Savior and why he suffered—not because we’re worthy, not because we’re good, not because we’re righteous. He suffered for our sins. He suffered because we could not save ourselves. So would you help us this morning by faith to come to Christ afresh, looking to him for mercy, for grace, for salvation, for all that we need? We ask you to meet with us by your Spirit as we come to the table, and be glorified in our hearts. We pray it in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.