Son of David, I: Wonderful Counselor
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. —Hebrews 5:15
Isaiah was Israel’s poet laureate in the second half of the eighth century B.C. Around 700 B.C., Jerusalem capital city of a nation roughly the size of Vermont found itself severely threatened by a mighty superpower from the north, Assyria an Egypt-sized nation on the prowl for smaller, weaker nations to blast into oblivion.
The barbarians were at the gate. Jerusalem’s leadership had been slipshod, incompetent, and profane for decades, and hope was almost gone.
And then against this political chaos churning around outside the city gates, the prophet Isaiah pens a paltry poem about a child being born who will lead them out of their deep darkness into God’s marvelous light: “For every boot of the tramping warrior, and all the garments rolled in blood, shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall rest upon his shoulders, and his name is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah’s prediction turned out to be accurate. Good King Hezekiah, whose birth Isaiah’s poem predicted, turned out to possess the wily wherewithal to hold off the barbarians for years and years. Jerusalem survived another century, until a new menace carted them off to Babylon in 586 B.C.
The remarkable thing about Isaiah’s poem is that the Christian Church gave it legs to carry it forward for another 3,000 years. Originally penned to celebrate the birth of an ancient Jewish king, a son of David, the poem became for the Christian Church a celebration of another son of David forty generations down the line.
George Frederick Handel was partly responsible for the fame of this poem when he put these immortal words to the immortal music of his Messiah chorus.
Isaiah gives this savior four distinctive and lofty titles. Today, let’s look at that phrase ‘Wonderful Counselor.’ Now when Isaiah used that extravagant and complimentary title, he was predicting the birth of good and crafty King Hezekiah, whose shrewd diplomatic strategies staved off the barbarians at the gate, but when the Christians appropriated this phrase as a title for the one born at Bethlehem, they of course had something altogether different in mind.
In Jesus those of us who believe have found one who can puzzle together the broken pieces of our lives. He is the one, perhaps the only one, who will understand the sorrows of our deepest sighs. His counsel is wonderful not because he is shrewd and strong, but because he has been there before us, splendid pioneer. His power is made perfect in weakness.
In Jesus Christ the creator of the burning stars and rolling spheres came as close as a human infant, a refugee born to a hovel shivering in the cold with nothing to his name but the rags on his body and the milk in his mother’s breast.
I love the way the letter to the Hebrews expresses the wonder of his counsel: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without sin....He is able to deal gently with the wayward since he himself was subjected to weakness.”
I see Emily Dickinson’s wonderful little poem as a paraphrase of the letter to the Hebrews:
Unto a broken heart,
No other one may go,
Without the high prerogative,
Itself hath suffered too.
What she and the author of the letter to the Hebrews are saying is this: What counselor could be wonderful who does not understand the failures and foibles and terrors of the human heart? It is not shrewdness and strength, but weakness and suffering, which are at the core of our humanity. It is our vulnerability that makes us useful one to another.
Would you ever go to a doctor who did not know what it was like to feel pain? I once went to a dentist who insisted on drilling my tooth without novocaine. I didn’t go back. Unto a broken tooth, no other one may go, without the high prerogative, himself hath suffered too. Thankfully I’m now married to a dental hygienist and get better dental care. I like to get to know her boss; he takes better care of me.
Would you want a teacher who never struggled in her childhood over the baffling labyrinth of language? Would you want a father who forgot what it was like to be young and new to the world and lost in it?
Have I shared with you before Garry Wills’ perspective on the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt? In his book Certain Trumpets, Mr. Wills claims that it was precisely President Roosevelt’s acquaintance with pain that made him perhaps the greatest president of the twentieth century. He says that Mr. Roosevelt might well have become president without the polio attack of 1921, but without it he would have been ill-equipped to lead a nation limping along on its own crutches through the worst depression of our history.
Before he suffered polio, Mr. Roosevelt says Garry Wills, was a genial but lightweight glad-hander, cushioned in astonishing privilege, much too eager to please. He was says Wills, a dithery Bertie Wooster in a straw hat. His cousin Alice called him a sissy and a mama’s boy.
And then his legs just withered away. So he became an entirely different man. He became strong above the waist and in his broken heart. You know he didn’t like to be photographed in his wheelchair. Whenever he made a speech he dragged himself up to the microphones on his braces and crutches to give an appearance of wholeness and strength.
But whenever he visited wounded soldiers in World War II hospitals, he rolled himself in his wheelchair from one bed to another. Once he wheeled himself up to a wounded man who had amputated his own leg to free himself from the wreckage in which he was trapped and Roosevelt said, “I understand you are something of a surgeon. I’m not a bad orthopedist myself.” “Legs spoke to legs,” says Mr. Wills. When a crippled nation saw him drag himself out of his chair, they imitated him and dragged themselves out of the depression. His strength was made perfect in weakness. He too was something of a wonderful counselor. We did not need someone unmarked by hardship, but someone acquainted with grief.
German theologian Jürgen Moltmann is one of our finest contemporary Christian thinkers. Dr. Moltmann never attended church as a youth, and never heard a sermon until he was over 20 years old. He came of age in Hitler’s Germany and served in the German military during World War II, an antiaircraft gunner in Hamburg.
He remembers serving there when the Royal Air Force unleashed a fire storm called “Operation Gomorrah” which destroyed the eastern part of the city. He says that the friend standing next to him at the gunnery was torn to pieces by a bomb which left him unscathed. “That night” he says, “I cried out to God for the first time. ‘My God where are you?’”
After the war he was taken to a Prisoner-of-War camp in Scotland. Germany was in ruins. He spent many a sleepless night remembering the tanks and the faces of the dead peering at him with sightless eyes. It took him five years to lose those horrible memories.
And then he says, came the worst of all. In the Scottish camp they were confronted for the first time with pictures of Auschwitz pinned up in the huts where the German prisoners were lodged. Some of his comrades were so appalled that they refused to go back to Germany; they stayed in England. Moltmann himself decided that it was his duty to return to that land of contradictions, that land which dwelt somewhere between Goethe’s Weimar and Hitler’s Buchenwald.
The turning point came when the chaplains at the Scottish POW camp gave him a Bible to read. He says he wasn’t much interested in it; he would rather have had a few cigarettes. But he disinterestedly paged through it and happened upon the story of Jesus’ passion, and he says, “When I read Jesus’ death cry ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you. I began to understand the assailed Christ because I felt that he understood me: this was the divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection.”
It was in that Scottish imprisonment, which Moltmann describes as a “great churchgoing,” that he decided to study God’s word for the rest of his life, and he is perhaps our greatest living theologian. “I knew with certainty: here is someone who understands you.” For him, Jesus is that wonderful counselor promised by Isaiah.
One woman tells of the time she was going through a difficult time, and her husband touched the tears that were running down her face, and then touched his wet finger to his own cheek. His gesture said, “Your tears run down my face too. Your suffering aches inside my heart as well. I share your wounded place.” It is with such compassion that we lift our finger to the world’s teary face.
So I invite you to seek his wonderful counsel, this man of sorrows acquainted with grief, this high priest who is able to deal gently with the wayward, because he himself is beset with weakness, this Jesus with the broken heart, this one who came down to a manger and went up to a cross, who turned water into wine and common fisherfolk into brave heroes, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see, embraced the foul leper and welcomed every other lost and lonely soul into his love, who faced down the ugly specter of hideous death and never turned aside, and who will take the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection.
Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown), #1704.
Garry Will, Certain Trumpets, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), pp. 26ff.
Moltmann told his story in an article entitled “Wrestling with God: A Personal Meditation,” in The Christian Century, August 13–20, 1997, pp. 726–729.
Sue Monk Kidd, “Birthing Compassion,” Weavings, November–December, 1990, p. 29.