(September 15, 2016) Dr Jim McClure, respected theologian, continues his series on some scripture words…
The Hebrew word shalom is familiar to many people apart from Jews. Most people would say that it means ‘peace,’ and they would be right – up to a point! However, to consider shalom only in terms of the absence of war is to put severe limitations on this great word. For example, two nations may not be dropping missiles on each other, but they may still vent such hostility towards each other that the citizens of both nations may live constantly under the sense of threat and uncertainty. This would not be a definition of shalom. ‘Shalom’ means so much more than that.
When we examine how the word shalom is used in the Bible, we discover that ‘peace’ is a widely embracing word which has a plethora of meanings. It is a word of interaction – with God, between people and, indeed, with all of life. It has to do with harmonious totality. This study explores some of the depth and breadth of this most positive of Hebrew words.
1. Peace is related to an absence of hostilities
We will start with the most common understanding of ‘peace.’ Shalom does mean deliverance from enemies, the absence of hostilities and freedom from danger. It is used in this sense in, for example, Judges 4:17 RSV, ‘But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace (shalom) between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.’
We find shalom used also when describing Solomon’s reign, ‘For he ruled over all the kingdoms west of the River, from Tiphsah to Gaza, and had peace (shalom) on all sides’ (1 Kings 4:24). From the Euphrates to Gaza the nation was secure from attack and the people lived in peace. Yet shalom, in the sense of the absence of war, is the most infrequent use of the word, for primarily, to the Hebrews, shalom resonated with positivity.
2. Peace means wholeness
The sense of wholeness is so closely identified with shalom, for example, in the building of Solomon’s temple. ‘… all the work Solomon had done for the temple of the Lord was finished (shalom)…’ (2 Chronicles 5:1). When the building of the temple was finally and totally completed it was said to be ‘whole’ – it was ‘shalom.’
We see the word used in a similar context in Nehemiah in reference to the rebuilding of the walls: ‘So the wall was completed (shalom) on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days’ (Nehemiah 6:15). This use of shalom in these verses gives us the clue to the essential positive characteristic of the word – it is about things being complete and made whole whether material, social or spiritual. Anything less than that is not biblical peace.
3. Peace is experienced in contentment
In Psalm 38:3 David, who sensed that God was reproving him, commented: ‘Because of your wrath there is no health in my body; my bones have no soundness (shalom) because of my sin,’
David described the result of the breakdown in the relationship between him and God as lacking shalom. His sense of contentment had gone.
One of our great human needs is contentment. Apart from it our emotional responses can be exaggerated and our personalities can become warped. Is it possible to know contentment in the midst of circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us? Biblically the answer is clearly, ‘Yes,’ and the key is to be found in shalom. In Isaiah 26:3 we find the promise, ‘You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.’
It is interesting to note that in Hebrew the phrase ‘perfect peace’ is formed by repeating the word ‘peace’ – ‘shalom shalom’ which emphasises how certain, stable, profound and undisturbed the peace of contentment can be for those who trust in God’s love and faithfulness. These words were given when the threat of Judah’s enemy loomed large. Even in such a situation contentment can be found.
We find also that Paul, while in prison and waiting possible execution, used the Greek word for ‘peace’ (eirēnē), in a similar way in Philippians 4:7, ‘And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
Peace is also part of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ that Paul wrote about in Galatians 5:22. So peace, in the sense of contentment can be an active reality, regardless of the circumstances, for those whose relationship with God is intact and whose trust is fixed firmly on him.
4. Peace is the basis of friendship
In 1 Kings 2:13 there is an account of a meeting between Bathsheba and Adonijah her stepson and half-brother of Solomon.
Before David’s death, Adonijah had tried to claim the throne, nevertheless when Solomon succeeded David as king, Adonijah was treated mercifully by the new king. Here is the record of Adonijah’s meeting with Bathsheba: ‘Then Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon. And she said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably”’ (RSV).
The use of the word peace here was a reference to friendship. Adonijah was being asked if he had come as a friend or as an enemy. Even though he claimed to come in shalom, he was still scheming in order to obtain the throne.
We find shalom used in the same way by David, ‘Take me not off with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbours, while mischief is in their hearts’ (Psalm 28:4 RSV). Friendship means the absence of scheming and mischief-making; people who are pleasant to your face but nasty behind your back are not acting in shalom.
5. Peace is concern about social welfare
The prophets saw that social justice was an inherent requirement in a society which honours God and social justice is one of the facets of shalom. A dominant theme in the prophetic writings is the call to righteous living. In Amos 5:21-24 God denounces and rejects the religious practices of people whose lives lacked righteousness, ‘I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. … But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’
Religion without social concern is an offence to God. Micah spells it out, ‘O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8). A righteous God, who has a deep concern for the disadvantaged and underprivileged, expects his people to share his heart on this matter.
The problem is that even God’s people disregard his requirement on this matter and such disregard has the effect of taking away our peace. God says, ‘If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace (shalom) would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea’ (Isaiah 48:18). And, ‘The fruit of righteousness will be peace (shalom); the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever’ (Isaiah 32:17).
Clearly there is an indissoluble link between shalom and righteousness. They are interrelated and they interact with each other. The psalmist most beautifully expresses it in this way: ‘Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace (shalom) kiss each other’ (Psalm 85:10).
6. Peace includes personal well-being
In Jacob’s meeting with the shepherds from Haran, he enquired of them about his uncle Laban: ‘And he said unto them, “Is he well (shalom)?” And they said, “He is well (shalom)”’ (Genesis 29:6). Jacob was actually enquiring about his uncle’s wellbeing and asking, in effect, about his health and prosperity.
We find that shalom is used in the same way in 2 Kings 4:26. Elisha instructed his servant to go to the Shunammite woman; ‘… run at once to meet her, and say to her, Is it well (shalom) with you? Is it well (shalom) with your husband? Is it well (shalom) with the child?” And she answered, “It is well. (shalom)’ (RSV) This could be translated: ‘Do you have peace? Does your husband have peace? Does your child have peace?’ In Hebrew the woman’s answer is just one word – shalom!
When we enquire about a person’s well-being, we are asking if there is anything lacking in their life. To have ‘shalom’ is to be in good health, to be happy and to be free from financial stress.
7. Peace is not gained but given
Whatever effort we make to attain peace will be in vain, for peace is not something that we can achieve for ourselves, however hard we try. While there is value in meditation and reflection, neither will provide for us the peace we long for. Some religions promote the idea that through certain spiritual exercises, we may attain peace for ourselves – but that is a delusion. Peace is a divine gift and not a human attainment.
Therefore we read in Psalm 29:11 NIV, ‘The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace (shalom).’
The promise that is made here is that within the troubles of life, God can give a peace that is untouched by them. And it is not a ‘false peace’ of resignation or stoicism, but of strength boldly to face the realities of life and yet not to be crushed by them.
Following their return from their captivity in Babylon, the Jews started to rebuild the temple. Some were distressed for it was clear that it would not compare with the glorious temple Solomon had built. Yet God said in Haggai 2:9, ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house … And in this place I will grant peace (shalom).’
It was this temple that later suffered from the blasphemies of Antiochus-Epiphanies who destroyed the sanctuary, so the shalom that was promised for it clearly could not have been an ‘absence of hostility.’ However it was in this temple (later altered by Herod the Great) that Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), proclaimed his messages which were to lead us into the path of peace (Luke 1:79).
He was the one who said to his disciples, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.’ This peace, which is not only a sense of personal contentment, calls for an outworking in all our relationships.
Paul wrote, ‘For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one [that is, Jews and Gentiles] and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2:14 NIV). The peace he gives is one that should impact all relationships – including our relationship with ourselves!
8. Peace is the result of trusting Jesus as our Saviour
This segment flows on from the previous one. In the New Testament the equivalent Greek word for ‘peace’ (eirene) is indissolubly associated with Jesus who came to restore a broken humanity – to make it whole again that men and women may truly know God’s shalom. The angelic message at his birth was, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14).
The universality of the offer of peace contains one condition – that it is given to those ‘on whom his favour rests.’ People throughout the centuries have responded to Jesus in different ways– there are those who have received him gladly and those who have refused him.
On whom, then, does God’s ‘favour rest’? Evidently on those who have put their faith in Jesus and have accepted all that he has done for them through his death and resurrection. They are the ones who know God’s peace.
Paul wrote, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5: 1 NIV). Paul focused the source of peace firmly and uniquely on Jesus in Ephesians 2:14, ‘He himself is our peace.’ It is in a personal relationship of trust in Jesus Christ that peace is experienced as a powerful life changing dynamic.
9. Peace is at the heart of the ultimate triumph of God
In the eschatological vision of the prophets of the future Golden Age peace has a significant place. In a restored world the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, will reign from Jerusalem. (The name ‘Jerusalem’ in Hebrew is ‘yerushalaim’ which literally means City of Peace).
The prophet Isaiah graphically describes the coming age in which God’s purposes are fulfilled and his triumph is complete: ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’ (Isaiah 11:6 RSV).
The Golden Age will be a time of …
- Perfect justice
‘With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’ (Isaiah 11:4 RSV).
‘Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it’ (Amos 9:13).
- Perfect government
‘The Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem and before his elders he will manifest his glory’ (Isaiah 24:23).
- Absence of conflict
‘He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isaiah 2:4).
- An age when the great disturbers of peace – death, sorrow and sickness – will have no place ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives. Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage will soon be available in an electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks (as is Dr Jim’s well-researched Grace Revisited) and is offered free. Link for orders: email@example.com