The people of God were a house divided. They had been ever since the death of King Solomon. In the later years of his reign, Solomon turned away from God and the ways of his father, King David, to worship the false gods of the surrounding nations. In judgment, God took the ten northern tribes away from Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam. The northern tribes became the kingdom of Israel, which was sometimes referred to as Ephraim, for its dominant tribe. The south was known as the kingdom of Judah, after its dominant tribe. One people became two nations; as is the way of the human heart, self-will and the desire for power and control turned that separation into rivalry, and often enmity.
In the days of King Ahaz of Judah, Israel allied with Syria to launch a plot against Judah—a plot to remove Ahaz from the throne of David and replace him with a Syrian puppet king. This was nothing God would ever allow to happen, whatever might be said for Ahaz himself—which wasn’t much, to be honest—because it would violate the covenant promise God had made to David. To reassure and encourage the king, God sent Isaiah to tell Ahaz that hewould take care of those two burned-out torches. Just sit quiet, don’t worry, and don’t do anything, Isaiah says, because God will stop them. What’s more, the prophet makes clear that this is the king’s only hope: “If you don’t stand by faith, you won’t stand at all.” To confirm his promise, God invites the king to ask for a sign—anything at all—and God will do it.
Unfortunately, while Ahaz has spent his entire life around the worship of God, he doesn’t really worship God himself. In our terms, he’s the sort who’s in church every Sunday but isn’t actually saved. Like a lot of folks like that, he’s become adept at using the Bible and spiritual-sounding language to make excuses for not doing what God has explicitly told him to do. He’s so good at that, in fact, that he thinks he can pull that on God’s own prophet and get away with it. He doesn’t.
You see, Ahaz doesn’t want a sign from God because he’s already made up his mind how he’s going to deal with Israel and Syria: he’s going to ally himself with the Assyrian Empire. Now, on the list of spectacularly bad ideas in human history, this one deserves a special place; it’s the kind of idea only a politician could think would work. Assyria was arguably the most horribly cruel empire in human history, and its armies were conquering everything they possibly could. Israel and Syria had formed an alliance to try to hold the Assyrians off; the only reason they were ganging up on Judah was that Judah had refused to join them voluntarily. So how does Ahaz want to solve this problem? By allying himself with the bad guys instead! It’s as if modern-day Israel said, “We’re tired of dealing with Lebanon—we’re going to help al’Qaeda take them over.”
In response, Isaiah tells Ahaz that God is still going to give him a sign, but now it’s not going to be all positive. A virgin will give birth to a son, and before he grows up, Israel and Syria will be destroyed. Sounds good, right? Not exactly. In verse 8, the prophet had promised that Israel would be destroyed within 65 years—65 years in which the northern kingdom would hold off the Assyrians. Now, the timeline is less than a decade: Assyria will roll over Israel and bring disaster on Judah. The nation will be spared from complete conquest, but this is the tipping point for the dynasty of David: from here on, while Judah will continue to exist for a century and more, it will no longer be truly independent. David’s descendants will rule under the shadow of pagan empires.
This is the darkness into which the promise of Isaiah 9 is spoken. This is the human failure which God promises to redeem. A weak and foolish king has put his trust in war to protect his own life and power, and in so doing, he has betrayed the trust of his people. He has brought disaster on the nation and led it into the valley of the shadow of death. In his time, God will shine a great light in that deadly darkness and lead his people out. He will give them a new king, a descendant of David who will be everything Ahaz isn’t, who will bring about everything Ahaz couldn’t.
Indeed, this new king will be perfect, because while he will be fully and humbly human, he will be far more: he will be God. The child is born, delivered by his mother just like anyone else, with dirty diapers and runny noses just like any other child. The son is given, sent by God to redeem his people, to do what no mere human could do—and to do it not in the “adult” way of politics and power games and crushing the opposition, but in the way that a newborn changes your heart, the way of weakness.
As the Old Testament scholar John Oswalt puts it, this shows us “the central paradox in Isaiah’s conception of Yahweh’s deliverance of his people. How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression, and coercion? By being more arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely, the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble—the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.”
That this child-king would be no less than God among us—the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of Immanuel, the one who fulfilled that sign as it should have been—can be clearly seen in the four great titles of verse 6, for only God himself could merit these names; and the people of Israel didn’t make mistakes about that. Having taken some time this morning to set the stage, I’d like to look at each of these four names in turn to see what they have to tell us.
The first name Isaiah gives is traditionally translated “Wonderful Counselor.” Contemporary English doesn’t do us any favors here. For us, “wonderful” roughly means “neato,” “spiffy,” or anything that gets us excited, while a counselor is a very human figure. Some of us may even have described one as a “wonderful counselor,” if they had helped us work through a particularly difficult issue. But there is this, at least: while we might not use these exact words, we go to counselors seeking wisdom for our lives. That much of the idea does remain.
“Wonderful” here means miraculous and supernatural—something which can only be explained by God. The child born to us will give counsel which is wise beyond any human wisdom, which is in fact the pure wisdom of God. The contrast here with Ahaz is stark, as Ahaz turned away from the wisdom of God to act with supernatural foolishness—a folly straight from the pit of Hell. By his folly, he brought disaster on his family and his nation. To redeem that disaster and fulfill the promises of God required wisdom greater than Solomon’s—for even Solomon fell into folly in the end. As the Old Testament scholar J. Alec Motyer has written, “The decisions of a king make or break a kingdom and a kingdom designed to be everlasting demands a wisdom like that of the everlasting God. In this case, like God because he is God.”
We have a king, and a Lord for our lives, whose wisdom is perfect and unfailing. We can trust him with the decisions we have to make today, with all of life, and for the future—no matter how bleak the present might be—because he is the perfect wisdom of God born for us—our salvation and holiness and peace.