Isaiah and Jesus: Wonderful Counselor

December 5, 2016

Last week we began our Advent series on Isaiah’s four titles for the King. This week we take up the first title, Wonderful Counselor.

Counselors are people who give advice. This may refer to a therapeutic relationship,or it might refer to an advising role. Political leaders, heads of state, and Kings all have advisers or counselors. Walter Bruggemann is his book Names for the Messiah, talks about counselors in terms of governance. Counselors have the ability to plan and administer policies.

Isaiah’s message may have originally been about a baby to be born or it may have been a coronation message. Either way we still have the question, how is a king a counselor? Who does the king counsel?  More than one possibility comes to mind. We do need to remember that the way God calls kings to rule is not the way kings (for the most part) actually ruled.

One prominent Biblical image about kings was that of a shepherd. Kings were to act a shepherds. Shepherds guide their sheep to safe places with food and water. Shepherds protect their sheep from danger. Shepherds know their flock and how to care for them. Likewise a king was to care and provide for  their people. Kings, all across the ancient world, were understood to in some way stand in for, or  to speak for or  to act for God. Kings were God’s agents. As an agent, a king did have responsibility to be sure their people knew how best to live.

But what about Jesus? In what ways is Jesus a counselor? Certainly one of the ways the Christian tradition speaks about Jesus is as king. And so we think about Jesus as the perfect king, the shepherd who counsels and care for his people. Certainly Jesus tells us, advises us how to live.  But Jesus not only tells us but shows us. By word and by action, Jesus counsels, advises, us about how to live as Jesus’ people.

How about the modifier “wonderful”? If you were going to select a word to go with counselor, would it be wonderful?  I might be inclined to select “wise”, or “good”, or “astute”. It would take me a while to come up with “wonderful”. But that is the word Isaiah gives us. A counselor who is full of wonder. Full of Awe. Full of delight.

I suspect the wonderfulness of Jesus’ counsel is its unexpectedness. King Jesus, the king who knows how we should best live counsels an unusual way of life. His counsel involves including the outcast, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, loving our enemy. In this world, that may or may not be wise or astute counsel but it certainly makes the world wonder.

And because Jesus empowers us to carry on his work, we are called to be wonderful counselors.  Are there places you can speak or enact  inclusion, welcome, healing, loving?  What might your wonderful counsel be this week?

Isaiah and Jesus

November 27, 2016

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.

Isaiah 9:6 NRSV

These are familiar words this time of year. You may be humming the music from Messiah now.  This Advent we’ll spend some time with the four titles in this verse, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

Isaiah’s words and writing date from 742 until 701 or 687 BCE. That means Isaiah lived several centuries before Jesus. Christians associate these titles from the prophet Isaiah with Jesus. But was Jesus the son Isaiah is speaking about?

Well, yes and no. Biblical scholars think this text dates from the time of the Assyrian Empire.  This is after the time of David and Solomon when Israel had separated into two kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had been overtaken by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, was under the threat of attack from Israel and Syria. King Ahaz of Judah  had two bad choices. One was to enter into an alliance with Assyria. However an alliance with the Assyrian empire would endanger the continued existence of the kingdom of Judah. Alternatively, Ahaz could join forces with Israel and Syria to try and defeat the Assyrian Empire. Also a choice full of danger for Judah’s continued existence.

The prophet Isaiah has a third way for King Ahaz, do neither. Ahaz should wait for God to deliver Judah. Isaiah proclaims the birth of a child will be the sign of God’s protection. Scholars think that child was Ahaz’ son Hezekiah.

Ahaz ignores Isaiah’s counsel and makes an alliance with Assyria that results in the loss of territory to Assyria and causes Judah to pay tribute to Assyria. Ahaz also compromised worship in the Temple and swore allegiance to the Assyrian king and his gods. The Old Testament regards Ahaz as an evil king. His son, Hezekiah did try to remove idolatry and purified and repaired the Temple. The Old Testament portrays Hezekiah as one of the good kings.  We don’t, of course, know what would have happened, how history might have been different, had Ahaz listened to Isaiah.

If Isaiah prophecy was about Hezekiah, how can Christians claim the same prophecy to be about Jesus?

When we try to discern whether Isaiah meant Hezekiah or Jesus, we need first to think about the role of prophets and prophecy. Often modern people treat prophecy as a method of predicting the future. But for the most part, prophecy is not about predicting the distant future. Prophets speak about the near term future. The prophet’s task was to tell the truth to the rulers and the people. Prophets told the consequences of disobedience and/or obedience. Sometimes particular signs were given.

Remember Isaiah and Ahaz are living in the time of the divided kingdom but, God’s covenant with David still exists. There is still the expectation that there will be a ruler of David’s line who will govern the nation rightly and justly.

In the short term, Isaiah’s words may well have been about Hezekiah. Hezekiah did try to restore proper worship and proper ways of living for his people. Hezekiah was not completely successful. He was not the one who restored the long awaited Davidic rule. Ultimately (after Hezekiah) Judah falls to Babylon.

It also makes sense to consider Isaiah’s words as speaking about the ideal king. Isaiah describes the king God wants for God’s people.  Isaiah’s words tell us God’s desire and hope. Its an explanation that tells how a king ought to be king.

 And that reading means we can think about how Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s words. Christians came to understand that Jesus is the king God wants for God’s people. King Jesus rules the way God wants a king to rule. King Jesus is the one who is the long awaited king.

It is however, not necessarily an obvious step from Isaiah’s words, wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace to Jesus.  And this is what we’ll spend Advent thinking about. How is Jesus the wonderful counselor? Mighty God? Everlasting Father? Prince of Peace?

My reflections this Advent are based on Walter Brueggemann’s book Names for the Messiah: An Advent Study Guide.  

If you are in the Grand Rapids MI area this Advent, you are welcome to join our discussion of this book at Westminster Presbyterian Church.  9:40 am Dec 4,11,18.

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