An ancient Christmas: The child
Throughout the Bible, God’s promises frequently appear against the backdrop of deep darkness. It is usually in the midst of our gloom that the rays of divine hope shine brightest. That is what we have seen so far in our series on an ancient Christmas. It was when Adam and Eve were at their darkest, having just caved to the temptation to sin, that God gave the promise of a conquering offspring. It was when Ahaz was at his wits’ end, not knowing how to combat the Syrian-Israeli threat, that God gave the virgin prophecy.
As we come to the third ancient Christmas prophecy, found in Isaiah 9:1–7, we again enter a backdrop of “gloom” and “contempt” (v. 1). And it is in the midst of this “darkness”—this “deep darkness”—that the “light”—“the great light”—of Christmas once again breaks through (v. 2).
The backdrop for Isaiah 9 is the same as the backdrop for Isaiah 7, which we saw previously (and the same for Isaiah 11, which we will consider next): Judah, ruled by a godless king and threatened from outside by a Syrian-Israeli coalition, looked to Assyria for hope. But the Lord pointed them to another source of hope—to the promise of Christmas. In Isaiah 9, that Christmas promise is framed in the form of a “child”—a “son” whose “name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Before we look at the character of the promised child, it may be helpful to notice three preliminary matters.
First, observe the certainty of this promise. Though Isaiah wrote six hundred years before the birth of Christ, he framed this promise in the past tense, as it if had already happened. This was a stylistic choice to highlight the certainty of the promise.
Second, notice that the child to be born was to be born, not for himself, but for his people. The child would come for their benefit. The child, says Isaiah, would be born “to us.” Luke picks up on this theme when he writes of Jesus’ birth, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour” (2:11). Theologians speak of Christ’s “vicarious” work—the work that he did on our behalf. The promise of the child is framed in vicarious language.
Third, the child would come as a king, for “the government shall be on his shoulder.” Judah was burdened under a godless king, unable to do what kings were supposed to do: exercise justice and protect their citizens from their enemies. But the child would come as a king to do what King Ahaz failed miserably to do. His kingdom would be perpetual, and he would reign with complete justice and righteousness (v. 7).
So the promise of the child is the guarantee of a king to come who would act on behalf of his people. And what he would do on behalf of his people is described in the fourfold ascription given to him in v. 6.
First, the child would be called “Wonderful Counsellor.” He would be endowed with supernatural wisdom. Ahaz trusted in human wisdom by forming an alliance with a pagan nation, which would prove disastrous for Judah. It was not a wise thing to do—but the child would be endowed with heavenly wisdom. Isaiah warned Ahaz time and again to abandon his alliance with Assyria, but Ahaz believed that he was wiser than God. Ultimately, his folly was made evident when Assyria turned against Judah. It became obvious to all that Jerusalem was the throne of a foolish king. But the child would be a Wonderful Counsellor, possessed of supernatural spiritual wisdom.
Ahaz thought he knew how to save Judah. He was wrong. But the child would have the wisdom to know exactly what needed to be done to save God’s people. Wonderful Counsellor, indeed!
Second, this child would be called “Mighty God.” Astonishingly, the child to come would be God in the flesh. The Word made flesh was God (John 1:1). Jesus Christ is both “God and Saviour” (Titus 2:14). Indeed, it is because he is God that he is suited to be Saviour.
Third, the child would be called “Eternal Father.” Isaiah does not mean by this to conflate the Father and the Son. Proper theology distinguishes between the three persons of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “Father” was, in ancient Eastern culture, a term of respect given to a leader. Elisha thought of Elijah as his “father” (2 Kings 2:12). Naaman’s servants addressed him as “father” (2 Kings 5:13). At least two kings of Israel considered Elisha to be a “father” to them (2 Kings 6:21; 13:14). The point here is that this promised child would be a leader—an eternal ruler—to the people to whom he was sent.
This child would receive all the attributes of God’s eternal rule. His just and righteous reign would know no end (see v. 7). Judah lived under king after king who not only ruled foolishly but who ruled temporarily. Even the good kings ruled only for a time, but the child to come would rule without end.
Fourth, the child would be called “Prince of Peace.” Judah longed for peace. Ahaz proved unable to provide the peace that a king ought to have provided. But the child would be different: He would be the very Prince of Peace. He would be the peace-bringer. The answer to the people’s cries for peace from their surrounding enemies was a child. As another prophet would declare, this child “shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace” (Micah 5:4–5).
The New Testament recognises all of the above in Christ. On the first Christmas morning, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). Jesus left peace with his disciples (John 14:27). The gospel is the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36). Through Jesus Christ, we have “peace with God” (Romans 5:1), for Christ himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14). Jesus died “to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). The promise of the child was a promise of peace.
As Christmas draws near, and as the busyness of life winds down a little, and as we enjoy more leisure time with family and friends, and as we share gifts and good meals with one another, let us remember that Christmas is about a child. What a shame it would be to enjoy all the wonderful benefits of the Christmas season and forget the child, who is “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
As we celebrate Christmas, deliberately focusing on the promised and given child, let us remember that he came to us as a gift from God. “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (v. 7). Christmas is God’s gift to us. The salvation that the child would provide is God’s gift to us. It is not something that we must earn. We do not perform in order to merit God’s favour. The child, endowed with God’s wisdom and bringing eternal peace, was given by God. He was determined to provide eternal salvation for his people, and he did it by sending his Son as a child, born of a virgin, laid in a manger. The child whom we celebrate at Christmas was given by God himself to bring about our salvation. In him, there is hope in our deep gloom and joy in our great sorrow.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne for me, for you;
hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the Babe, the Son of Mary.