For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:5
Isaiah’s names for Jesus are both beautiful and theologically significant. Jesus is the mighty God. He is one with the Father, eternal in being. He is the true ruler of this world. And his kingdom is one of peace, as the angels would announce to the shepherds centuries later.
But what does it mean that He is our ‘wonderful counselor’? In contemporary parlance, wonderful has become a synonym for great. A counselor for us is something akin to an adviser. But ‘wonderful counselor’ in Isaiah has a far greater depth of meaning.
The Hebrew word for wonderful here, pele’ (pronounced: peh’·leh), is the same word used elsewhere to refer to the wonders of God’s works. For example, Psalm 89:5 declares that the “heavens shall praise thy wonders.” Here what is wonderful is the work of creation. But this sense of wonder is also aroused by God’s work of salvation, as in Exodus 15:11,
Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?
Who is like you, magnificent among the holy ones?
Awe-inspiring in deeds of renown, worker of wonders,
And likewise, Psalm 77:12-13
I will recall the deeds of the Lord;
yes, recall your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your works;
on your exploits I will meditate.
A wonder is something that causes amazement and inspires awe.
This brings us to the second word in the title, counselor. In the context of the Old Testament the main idea is that of a wise adviser. It is used repeatedly in this sense throughout the early historical books, Job, the Psalms, and Proverbs. For example, there is Proverbs 11:14, “For lack of guidance a people falls; security lies in many counselors.” And of particular note is Proverbs 12:20, which connects counsel to peace: “Deceit is in the heart of those who plot evil, but those who counsel peace have joy.”
Although the Hebrew word translated as counsel is different than wisdom, many commentators see the two conceptually linked. The title of Wisdom is a theologically rich one for Jesus. Proverbs 8 depicts Jesus as the divine wisdom through which God created the world. John 1 picks up on this, naming Jesus the Word. The two are closely related. Wisdom is God’s plan and design for his creation, His thoughts about it. We call these thoughts the Word because God’s thoughts are complete (Augustine makes this point in De Trinitate.)
It is now clear how wonder and counselor are related. Christ as the divine Word, the wisdom of God, is the source of all the wonders of creation and redemption (which is the new creation). We can see why these words belong to the same family of theological concepts. But what does it mean when the words—that is, wonder and counsel—are paired together as a title?
Commentators outline several different ways of interpreting the phrase.
In the first place, there is a case to be made that a comma belongs in the middle of the phrase and that Wonderful and Counselor are two related but distinct titles. Christ will be called Wonderful and Counselor. The title of Counselor is akin to that of Word or Wisdom.
To call Christ Wonderful is to affirm that He is a wonder. As two nineteenth century commentators put it, “Not only is this or that wonderful in Him; but He Himself is throughout a wonder.” One eighteenth Methodist commentator, Joseph Benson, elaborates,
He is wonderful in his person, as God and man, God manifest in the flesh, which union of two such different natures in one individual, intelligent, and self-conscious being, is a great and incomprehensible mystery. … He is also wonderful with respect to his birth, life, doctrine, miracles; his love and sufferings; his death, resurrection, and ascension; his humiliation and exaltation; his cross and crown; his grace and glory.
But there are other ways to take the phrase.
We could read it as one whose counsel causes wonder. This certainly applies to the teaching of Jesus which is often described in the gospels as causing amazing or astonishment among those listening. (See for example, Matthew 7:28 and Luke 2:47.)
Alternatively, a wonderful counselor could be a counselor, or a teacher, who works wonders. This too is very apropos of Jesus’ ministry. He was both a wise teacher and a miracle-worker—an unusual pairing for any figure of human history.
There is perhaps yet one more interpretation. One commentary paraphrases the title as “one who counsels wonderful things.” Now that could be another way of referring to Jesus’ ‘wonderful’ teaching.’ Or it could mean something else entirely. It could mean that Jesus counsels us in how to work wonders ourselves. As Jesus said in John 14:12, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”
This promise could refer to miracles — and the apostles and the saints who followed them certainly did those. But the wonder that Jesus could counsel us in could also be our own salvation, which is greatest miracle and wonder of them all. Only in this latter sense does the title ‘wonderful counselor’ approach its contemporary meaning. But this meaning only makes sense when we understand the older ones.
Suffice it to say, Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor in many ways.
Perhaps, for us, during the remainder of this Advent, it is best to let ourselves be caught on that intrusive comma of the more literal translation — ‘wonderful, counselor’ — and to reflect separately on the wonder of Christ’s birth so that we then might be spurred on ever more to seek the wisdom of His counsel.