Do You Need to Reconnect with the Source of Christmas?
Cut flowers. I have mixed feelings about this.
Yes, I love it when the fairer sex in our home carry in bunches of bulbs, roses, lavender, and hydrangeas from the garden. They brighten and cheer us all, but I think we all feel a bit sad when we cut flowers. We know that we have cut them off from their life source. We stand them in vases of water, but this can only slow the process of death and corruption. The flowers droop, the petals fall, the vibrant colors fade to brown, and then the whole bunch is crammed into the curbside bin with the other rubbish.
Christmas. Exchanging lavish gifts. Putting up a pine in the living room and decorating it to the tunes of Bing Crosby. Drawing together the family. Eating festive foods like ham on the bone, fruitcake, and rum balls. Why do people do this? “Because we have always done it, going back generations.” Yes, but what made our forebears do all this in the first place? What made them celebrate? It was of course the birth of Christ. Christmas was a general celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago.
Like cut flowers, Christmas is drooping because we have cut it off from the source.
But Christmas is drooping. We still do the good old things, but the petals are falling and the colors are fading. We can see a future when it will be tossed out altogether. Why? Because we have cut Christmas off from the source.
Let’s get back to the source. Let’s go back to the things that made us celebrate in the first place. We can’t reconnect cut flowers to the plant, but we can all reconnect to the Christmas history. It’s important to do this. Not to save Christmas—although that may come to be a delightful side effect—but ourselves. To be saved from meaninglessness, our sins, death, fear, and estrangement from God.
Isaiah 9:2-6: God Will Send a Child
In 740 BC the nation of Judah was frightened. To the north, the brutal Assyrian Empire was growing rapidly in power, and it seemed only a matter of time before they would descend to ravage Judah’s villages and homes. Then God told them not to fear because he was going to send them a child:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest….
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:2-3, 6;all Scripture quotes from NIV)
“The government will be upon his shoulders.” And this great prophecy was fulfilled with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem (Luke 1:31-33). He will carry the world in the direction he wants to carry it. He will rule—the future is on his shoulders. God’s people don’t have to live with fear and uncertainty.
The character of a ruler is of the greatest importance.
But what is the character of this Savior? God said through Isaiah to not be afraid because he will rule; but, what kind of ruler would he be?
The fact is, the kings of the day were never good men. Israel’s first king, Saul, was fearful and impatient; he disregarded God’s laws and turned to necromancy. David was Israel’s archetypal “good king,” yet even he succumbed to adultery and a murderous cover-up. Solomon succumbed to the idols of his gargantuan harem. Rehoboam was a hot-headed fool. And so on. There were very few useful kings in Judah, and all of them were flawed.
So we can understand if Judah heard Isaiah’s words cynically: A great king? Universal rule on his shoulders? Yes, but will he be good?
We too know all about bad leaders. Kaiser Wilhelm led the world into the sickening First World War. Mussolini led Italy into fascism and inspired Spain’s Franco and Germany’s Hitler to do the same. The Japanese warlords ravaged Southeast Asia. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao butchered their people. Petty leaders like Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Ratko Mladic were genocidal maniacs. Then there are arch-terrorists like Osama bin Laden and nuclear gangsters like Kim Jong-un.
Even the “good” leaders are fatally flawed.
The British and French general staffs of World War I were homicidally reckless with the millions of young lives under their command. The British Parliament’s appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s paved the way to the great slaughter of World War II. Roosevelt was manipulated by Stalin. Churchill was magnificent but never acknowledged his limitations. Kennedy led his nation into Vietnam. Nixon lied. Thatcher was “never wrong.” The Presidents Bush brought blitzkrieg upon Iraq without any follow-up strategy.
The point is that even our best leaders have deeply flawed characters. The best of them, given universal rule, would eventually bring great harm upon the earth.
The Great King’s four titles describe his nature and mission.
What, therefore, is the character of Isaiah’s Great King whose shoulders will bear the government of the universe? Isaiah tells us. This King will have four titles, and each title describes his nature and mission.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6)
Wonderful Counselor could in the Hebrew be two separate titles, “Wonderful” and “Counselor,” but most translations take “Wonderful” as an adjective. The adjective pele refers to something extraordinary, marvelous. The noun yoētsis built on a verb meaning to counsel, to advise.
When God supernaturally divided the Red Sea with a great wind, the astonished nation sang:
“Who among the gods
is like you, Lord?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
working wonders?” (Exod. 15:11)
The word for wonders in Exodus 15:11 is the same word used in Isaiah 9:6. The child whose shoulders would bear universal rule would not be like any wise counselor on earth. His counsel—his wisdom—would be extraordinary, awesome. The world would be astonished by his wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.
Human counsel is severely cramped. We don’t know everything. We can’t peer into people’s hearts. We can’t predict what will happen in the next hour, let alone the next decade. And we interpret everything according to our own likes and dislikes.
God knows everything, and his counsel is always true and correct.
God is not limited in this way. He knows everything. He knows our secret thoughts. He knows the future, because he determines the future. His only bias is towards holiness. His counsel is always true and correct.
And God knows things that are counterintuitive—that mere human understanding fails to see. God knows, for example, that human weakness can equate with tremendous spiritual strength (2 Cor. 12:10). God knows that what might seem foolish in human eyes might actually be infinitely wise (1 Cor. 1:18-25). This is why God’s counsel is wondrous, astonishing!
This really helps us. We can’t see how God is carrying the world in a good and right direction. Dreadful and appalling things have happened on earth and are happening. The weak suffer. Powerful tyrants get their wicked way. Our own families are struggling. We doubt God’s ability to rule, his wisdom, and even his goodness.
Yet, at the end of time we will see exactly how every appalling calamity has been used by him to bring about a good and perfect result. His wisdom will astonish us. In the meantime, we trust.
The Child would come to fight for his people as their mighty hero and champion.
The Hebrew words for “Mighty God” are ēl gibbōr. The world ēl relates to strength and is the generic Hebrew word for God. The adjective gibbōr means manly and vigorous. The gibbōrīm were the mighty men of David’s army: the heroes and champions who would slay a score of enemies before breakfast. These are the men you wanted fighting on your side and protecting you.
In Deuteronomy 10:17 Moses said, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God (ēl gibbōr).” And in Isaiah 10:20-21 ēl gibbōr is fully equated with “the LORD, the Holy One of Israel.” The child would be called Mighty God because he is God—God come to fight for his people as their mighty hero and champion. This is the God who bears the government on his shoulders, mighty enough to overcome all evil by absorbing all evil on the cross.
The Great King will also be a loving father to his people.
“Everlasting Father” translates into one Hebrew compound word,avīad, which occurs only here in the Bible. The first part, av, means father. The second part, ad, is an adverb that means “always.” Isaiah’s compound word means “father forever,” “Everlasting Father.”
God will be a Father to us. Like a father he gives us life. Like a good father he perfectly protects, provides, and leads us. Like a great father he has great love and tender affection for us. Like a perfect father he gives up himself—his life even—for his beloved children.
So the great King, who bears the government on his shoulders, will also be a loving father to his people. He will be their father forever and will never pause in his fatherly duties.
Isaiah’s Great King is a leader who brings about the end of fighting and ushers in delightful abundance.
The Hebrew words for Prince of Peace are sar-shalōm. A sar is not necessarily “a son of a king” but a leader in general: an official or chief. The sar is the captain of the army of the Lord in Joshua 5, and David leading the down-and-outs of Israel at the Cave of Adullum in 1 Samuel 22.
Don’t forget that shalōm doesn’t just refer to an absence of war, but to the positive blessings of prosperity and abundance. Isaiah’s great king is a Leader who brings about the end of fighting and ushers in delightful abundance.
Note that all four titles are divine titles. They could never be applied to any mere human king. Only God can be the Wonderful Counselor. Only the Eternal and Self-existent God, the Creator, can be the Everlasting Father. Only God can be the Prince of Peace who brings final and lasting stillness to a sin-ravaged world. Mighty God speaks for itself!
The child, on whose shoulders universal government rests, is God. Isaiah is pointing to the incarnation—God taking on flesh, coming to earth, born as a baby—Jesus Christ.
Jesus meets all our needs perfectly.
See how perfectly Jesus meets our needs. Do you need direction, light, and the truth? He is the Wonderful Counselor. Do you need a mighty champion to defeat the enemies of sin and death? He is Mighty God. Do you need permanent fatherly affection and protection? He is Everlasting Father. Do you need to be reconciled to God and your neighbor to enjoy peace and prosperity? He is Prince of Peace.
Jesus the Mighty Savior will defeat all of our enemies: the world, the flesh, the devil, and death itself—enemies that we ourselves are helpless to defeat. He wins our salvation and safeguards our salvation.
It is no surprise that our ancestors feasted and rejoiced and gave gifts at Christmas. The birth of this Mighty Savior was cause for celebration. Yet, our nation has cut the flower of Christmas from this source. Yes, the festivities will go on, for a time of inevitable fading.
How much better it is to rejoin ourselves to the source of Christmas. To look again to the child of Bethlehem. To trust that the government is on his shoulders. To hear, and know, and enjoy the truth of his four magnificent titles.
To make him your Wonderful Counselor, your Mighty God, your Everlasting Father, and your Prince of Peace.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
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