Most of us have personal definitions of peace based on our experiences. For some, the first images of peace that come to mind are of military ceasefires. For others peace is equated with the absence of anxiety or worry. However, is the simple absence of physical violence or fear true peace? What kind of peace does the Bible talk about, and what does it mean for followers of Jesus to pursue biblical peace in their communities?
WHAT IS SHALOM?
The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom.” While the best English synonym for “shalom” is peace, it is incomplete and an insufficient understanding of the concept. Shalom takes on a variety of meanings in the Old Testament. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of biblical peace requires taking a deeper look at the word itself.
- Absence of Conflict: In the book of Micah, the prophet tells us that peace is beating “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks”. Not only are nations to stop fighting, they are to turn their weapons into tools used for producing food, a necessity for human life. In fact, nations are to stop “learning war” entirely (Micah 4:3).
- Security: In the book of Job, we see shalom used to refer to protection from harm or unmet needs. In Chapter 5, Job is told that “You shall know that your tent is at peace, and you shall inspect your fold and miss nothing” (v. 24). This passage shows us the safety and preservation God promises to those that submit themselves to Him.
- Justice: In Jeremiah 6, we learn about Israel’s oppression of the poor and vulnerable members of society. In fact, God says that “this city must be punished; it is filled with oppression” (v. 6). The Lord later says that “violence and destruction resound in her; her sickness and wounds are ever before me” (v. 7). Jeremiah writes that while Israel claimed that all was well, injustice still reigned. “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (v.14). Without justice, peace will not be present. Dr. Anne Bradley writes that those who perpetuate injustice “will not know shalom; their cruel behavior denying the weak of their basic humanity brings the perpetrators out of harmonious relationship to all of creation. To know shalom is to do mishpat [justice].”
- “Wholeness” and Flourishing: Shalom ushers in flourishing. We see in Psalm 72 that the righteous flourish and experience abounding peace (72:7). In Jeremiah 29, God tells the prophet to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:7). Throughout the Bible, the presence of shalom means that things are “whole” and “complete.” Author Cornelius Plantinga writes that shalom is “a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom He delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
SHALOM IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
At creation, there was only shalom. Shalom saturated everything in the created world - Adam and Eve were in perfect relationship with God, each other, themselves, and their environment. They co-labored with God to work and take care of the Garden. Man was everything God had created him to be - there was no violence, exploitation, covetousness, or hate. God preserved the shalom, and peace abounded.
However, this perfect peace and flourishing ended when Adam and Eve sinned against God. Because of sin, the primary ways we experience shalom - emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually - became impossible to obtain on our own. The brokenness caused by sin became deeply embedded in our world, affecting everything. Death entered existence, as did heartache, grief, pain, suffering, greed, maliciousness, self-interest, and oppression. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, “All that we call human history - money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery - [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
In many ways, this narrative plays out again and again throughout the Old Testament. In Psalm 78, we see that Israel was “a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.” (v.8) They “forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them” (v.11), “tested God in their heart” (v.18), and “moved Him to jealousy with their idols” (v.58). Despite the fact that Israel continued to turn away from God, He remained slow to anger and quick to provide and heal. Through obedience and sacrifice, God gave people like Abraham righteousness (Genesis 15). The Mosaic covenant included a shelamim (peace, or fellowship) offering - “the only one of the Levitical sacrifices in which the offerer receives back some of the meal to eat.”
PEACE THROUGH JESUS
The Old Testament prophets longed for a day that the permanent sacrifice for sin - Jesus Christ - would appear and bring shalom. Isaiah writes that “the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end…” (9:6-7). When Christ came and died for our sins on the Cross, he actually became peace FOR us (in the New Testament, the Greek word for peace is “eirene”). In John 15, we see that the unmatched peace we have available to us as Christians comes directly from Jesus Himself: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (v.27) Without Christ, it is impossible for us to experience true peace - and therefore, impossible for us to effectively seek the peace and flourishing of others.
PURSUING SHALOM TODAY
Christians have been given the privilege (and charge) to participate in the renewal that began with Christ’s death and resurrection and will be completed upon his return. It is our restored relationship with God, and the power of the Holy Spirit, that gives us the ability to pursue shalom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that peacemakers will be blessed (Matthew 5:9), which, according to R.C. Sproul, “suggest[s] we should initiate peace. Anticipate how you can actively bring peace and joy to a situation, relationship, or task.”
The sacrifice Christ made on our behalf should deeply humble and move our hearts toward gratitude and thankfulness. The unmerited rescue believers have experienced empowers us to “seek justice, have mercy, and walk humbly” with God and others to promote their flourishing (Micah 6:8). While injustice will exist until Jesus comes back, Christians are to continue pursuing God’s “kingdom come... on earth as it is in heaven”.
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.