Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? In this prophecy, given centuries before Jesus was born, we’re told that the coming Messiah is going to be a REALLY good counsellor. He is going to come and do a wonderful job at giving people advice. Right? Well, that’s not totally untrue, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
You see, “wonderful” is one of those words we’ve lost track of, like “awesome”. “Awesome” means “inspiring an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime”, but we use it to mean “really cool”. Seems like a bit of a waste now, doesn’t it? Like paying for a drip coffee with a hundred dollar bill, it gets the job done, but it’s overkill.
“Wonderful” has suffered a similar fate in modern usage. We can thank our host for a “wonderful” meal, or happily update a coworker about a “wonderful” weekend away. But could that meal or weekend compare to the counsel of the Lord? I hope you laughed when you read that, because it’s ridiculous to even try to compare such mundane things to something that is TRULY wonderful. Think less “al dente spaghetti” and more “parting of the Red Sea”. Less “lovely beaches with a good book” and more “calming a raging storm with just a word”, or “healing a leper with a touch”, or “rising from the dead”. Remember the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, or the song many of us have sung which goes, “God of wonders beyond our galaxy, you are holy”? Or how over a dozen times the book of Acts records that miraculous wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles?
Time for some easy research. The dictionary tells us that “wonderful” means “exciting rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience”. That is the sense of “wonderful” we are trying to recapture. It’s worth a moment of reflection, so please enjoy this contemplative paragraph break:
Ready to keep going? Armed with our reclaimed definition of “wonderful”, we can see that Isaiah 9:6 invites us to marvel at the work of God. It is preparing us to witness a miracle.
And what is the miracle, the wonder, we being prepared to see? It’s a person. A Counsellor.
First, a bit of context. When Isaiah’s prophecy is given, Israel is under the reign of the wicked King Ahaz. The people have followed Ahaz’ lead and abandoned God in favour of worshipping idols. As a result, God is going to hand them over to the Assyrians.
Isaiah 8 speaks of a coming Messiah, an anointed one who will save Israel… but the chapter closes with the Lord telling Isaiah of the deep darkness and brokenness the people are headed for: “They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”
A bit a dark turn, wouldn’t you say? If this prophecy were about you, wouldn’t you be desperate for some hope? We’ve already learned that the Messiah is coming, but honestly, learning there’s going to be a new leader ruling over us isn’t always good news. We’ve got to know who the leader is! So it’s really amazing to see this addressed in the text. The hopeful revelation Isaiah’s listeners (including us!) have been waiting for isn’t found ONLY in the truth that the Messiah is coming—it’s also rooted in the truth of who the Messiah will be. In Isaiah 9, we read that he will be the dawning of a great light for a people who walk in darkness. We’re told that this conquering king will frustrate every army and oppressor which tries to stand against him as he takes up an eternal reign of peace which will never stop increasing.
So we learn a bit about the vast scope of his victory, but we also begin to learn about who he is as a person. Verse 6 talks about his name, and what it will be called. His name—Isaiah’s ancient Jewish listeners would have understood the name of the Messiah to be the essence of his being, the thing which sums him up, the thing which, if you know it, you will know HIM. When they heard, “his name will be called”, they’d know some key details about the Messiah’s deepest nature are going to follow. “His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor...”
Really? That’s the first thing we learn about the character of the unstoppable Messiah? The one coming to reign offers… counsel?
Let’s first acknowledge that good counsel was highly sought after. In 2nd Samuel, Ahithophel’s counsel was so effective that David sent his friend Hushai as a double agent specifically to frustrate Ahithophel’s counsel. No other reason! “Gain their trust, make your way into their inner circle, and just mess up whatever advice THAT GUY gives, because if they listen to his counsel, we’re in trouble.” Contrast that with King Rehoboam, who listened to the bad counsel of his friends and wound up with a civil war on his hands.
I don’t want us to get this wrong. The idea here is NOT that the Messiah comes to offer us advice, which we are free to take or leave, and which may or may not work out. The idea is that the Creator of the universe gives us counsel, and he is telling us the truth about who he is, who we are, and he gets personally active in the world to bring about righteousness and justice.
There’s a good earthly example of this. The legendary King Solomon, the son of David, the third king of Israel, was revered for his God-given wisdom. Kings and queens came from distant lands to hear his counsel. But the most famous of Solomon’s judgments was passed to settle a civil dispute between two women. Remember the story? It’s in 1 Kings 3:16-28. Two harlots have brought a child into the king’s presence and are arguing about who the mother of the child is. Solomon says to bring a sword and divide the child, and when one woman cries out to defend the child, begging that he be spared and given to the other woman, Solomon determines that she must be the rightful mother. The child is spared and given to her, and verse 28 sums up the reaction of the people of Israel to this very personal case: “And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.”
That’s the sort of counsel a great king offers his people. He’s invested in their trouble, he discerns the truth in the matter, and in the end, he personally ensures that righteousness and justice be upheld. It’s not really the same as Solomon giving each woman life advice, is it? It’s way more active and involved and effectual than that! Wouldn’t it make for a peaceful world if we were all subjects of a king like this? Well, in Matthew 12:42, Jesus says this: "The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”
Something greater than wisdom that was worth travelling the world to hear from? That’s why I’m saying that the counsel of the Wonderful Counsellor is more than just advice. It’s the King himself actively and powerfully participating in his world to bring about righteousness and justice. Solomon was given wisdom from God. But in 1 Corinthians 1:30 we read that Jesus “became to us wisdom from God”. He’s wisdom personified.
According to Blue Letter Bible, the Hebrew word translated as “wonderful” is a noun (a person, place, or thing), and the Hebrew word translated “counsellor” is a verb (an action). To me, it hints that the Messiah’s name and nature are being described as a miracle (a wonder!) that proceeds from God as effectual counsel: a plan and a purpose which is sure to take place, not because it is good advice, but because a sovereign God has, in perfect righteousness and justice, declared that it shall be. Or to put it another way, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
I don’t know how any counsel could be more wondrous than that!
Chris Pulsifer serves in IT and on the sound team at Westside, writes music for films sometimes, and is married to Tiffany Pulsifer.