Shalom – A word can paint an entire worldview

Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for shalom and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV)

Jeremiah 29:11 is a rather well known verse. As much as it is a verse often taken out of context, it is nevertheless a comforting verse; it is the promise God gave Israel as they were about to be taken into exile by the Babylonians, one of the darkest chapters of their history. Because of how well known the passage is, the majority of readers are likely to recognise the word that I have substituted shalom for in the quote above. Depending on translation, one might expect “welfare” (used by the ESV), or perhaps a more complex construction such as “peace and prosperity”.

Shalom is a Hebrew word generally translated in English as “peace”, but in alternative contexts can be rendered as “welfare”, “prosperity” and other related words. While they are all valid translations, none of them individually capture the complete breadth of meaning. In fact, the breadth of meaning conveyed by shalom is not something the average English speaker really expects from a word. In English, we typically expect our words to have a relatively small scope with a relatively precise definition; to discuss a complex concept, we build a picture from a large number of precise terms. Hebrew, particularly when discussing religious concepts, has a number of words that are concepts unto themselves. Some technical terms in English do come close to achieving this sort of breadth – “justification” as it is used in theology is one example – but it is exceptionally rare in everyday language.

The root of the word shalom carries the meaning “completeness”, giving an indication of the type of peace and welfare in question. Peace, in the context of shalom, is not referring to isolated incidences of peace, but complete peace. The English translation “peace” is in many ways preferable to alternative contextual translations (such as “welfare” and “prosperity”) as it preserves an element of shalom that may otherwise be masked. Peace is something that exists in a relationship between two parties, not something that can be had by an individual. Similarly, shalom is fundamentally relational – it is peace-filled relationship. It refers to a peace that is complete in scope and complete in fulfilment.

It is this complete peace that permeates the thinking of the entire Bible. In the Garden of Eden, we see shalom in practice. God interacts directly with man (Gen 2:15-17), relating as a sovereign, loving, providential Creator. Man tends to the garden (Gen 2:15) and names the living creatures (Gen 2:19-20), fulfilling his mandate of responsible dominion over the creation God declared very good (Gen 1:25b-26). Marriage is instituted, with husband and wife relating in a perfect, complementary partnership (Gen 2:23-24). Man and God, man and woman, and man and creation are all in perfect, shalom-filled relationship.

Just as the Garden of Eden perfectly exemplifies shalom, so the Fall perfectly shatters it. Where man was able to walk without shame in the presence of God, after sinning he felt the need to hide (Gen 3:8-10). Sin led to blame and accusation between husband and wife (Gen 3:12), and a curse upon the relationship between man and woman (Gen 3:16c). No longer would man tend the perfectly fruitful garden, but a barren land that would require toil and sweat to bring forth produce (Gen 3:17-19). The animals that man had named and exercised dominion over would now be the sacrifice in his place, covering over his shame (Gen 3:21). There was no element of shalom left untouched. However, even in the midst of this great blow, God gives the first promise of restoration, the promise that the apparent victory of the serpent is merely fleeting (Gen 3:15). And thus begins the story of the rest of the Bible – God progressively fulfilling his promise of restoration.

This restoration is brought about in a number of ways, but all ultimately fit into the same process. To begin, Abraham was selected as the first of a line that would become God’s chosen people through his grandson Jacob. Even from the beginning, it was made obvious that a measure of shalom was at work in their lives – in all respects, they saw great blessings in their lives (e.g. Gen 24:1, Gen 26:12-14, Gen 30:43). However, shalom was still a long way off for the patriarchs, as they experienced lives tainted by lies, betrayal and deceit and often faced periods of doubt in the promises of God. Through the story of their descendants, we eventually see the renewal and refinement of God’s covenant with the patriarchs. Through Moses, God made a covenant with the entire nation of Israel (Ex 19:3-6). Israel’s history was not smooth, and they were regularly unfaithful to that covenant, but even at their worst God continued his work of bringing restoration through them.

There is a misconception held by some Christians that the Old Testament Law was not good, but that it was something unfortunate that simply existed until Christ came along and replaced it. In 1 Timothy 1:8, we read that “…we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully…”. Indeed, when Christ was admonishing the Pharisees for their handling of the Law, he affirmed that when they fulfilled the requirements of the Law they were doing a good thing; it was the fact that they were neglecting other aspects that brought the admonishment (Matt 23:23). The Law, when fulfilled completely, reflects the character of God – Israel, had they fulfilled the Law, should have been a community in shalom. In fact, in Numbers 25:12, God’s covenant with Israel is described as a “covenant of shalom”. This sheds light on Christ’s answer when asked to name the greatest commandment; his answer summarised the entire Law as having right relationship with God and right relationship with others (Matt 22:36-40). When Isaiah foretold the coming of Christ, one of the names he gave was the “Prince of Shalom” (Isaiah 9:6). It is, then, entirely unsurprising that the Prince of Shalom would not come into the world to abolish the covenant of shalom, but to finally see it fulfilled (Matt 5:17).

The problem with the Law was not that it was flawed; it was that man is flawed. Man is in rebellion against God, and no matter how hard he tries he can never live up to the character of God completely, and thus can never fulfil the Law (Rom 3:9-20). But, just as God was at work when all seemed lost for Israel in Egypt and Babylon, so he was at work in man’s utter depravity. God sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to do something monumental. By dying on the cross, Christ once more made shalom possible between man and God. Through the sending of the Holy Spirit, for the first time since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, God dwelt with man, and man knew shalom with God (John 14:26-27 [the word translated “peace”  here is the same Greek word used to translate shalom in the Greek Old Testament]). However, true shalom cannot be restricted to a mere subset of man’s relationships; true shalom with God spills over into all  relationships (1 John 4:20-21).

Of course, while we are still in this world, we are still in the presence of sin. Where sin is, shalom is incomplete. But the day is coming when shalom will be restored. In New Jerusalem, we see the same shalom that was in the Garden at the very beginning (Revelation 21). The restoration of shalom we experience now may be partial, but on that day we shall have perfect, complete shalom once more.

Now, for those who have read my previous post, it may seem odd that I’m yet to mention anything about a Biblical worldview. I have, essentially, spent over a thousand words talking about one– this hardly seems like an outstanding level of efficiency. The reason for this is that I believe a yearning for shalom is the foundation for a Biblical worldview. When we understand that shalom was and will be, and that in the meantime we live amidst its progressive restoration, we understand our place in the grand story of the world. Shalom is relational, and thus we define our worldview based on relationships. For example, how we relate to ourselves determines our anthropology; how we relate to creation determines our epistemology; how we relate to others determines our ethics; and how we relate to wealth determines our economics. In each case, we must first understand two aspects of the relationship – how it is (fallen, sinful world), and how it should be (perfect state of shalom). In order to do this, we must first understand shalom is; that was the purpose of this post.

Having examined the big picture of shalom, where to next? I have a tentative list of relationships I would like to work through that, when in a state of Biblical shalom, starkly contrast with the way they are understood by the modern Western world. These can be loosely grouped into the categories of relationships with God, relationships with self, relationships with others and relationships with creation. My intent is to work through the list in that order, although if I feel particularly drawn to addressing one out of sequence I will probably do so.

Last week I asked those who read my post to come on a journey with me to experience God’s renewal of the mind. I pose the same challenge again this week, but in a more refined fashion. To anyone reading this, I invite you to seek to have your mind transformed in line with shalom, such that every relationship in your life shines with the peace and blessings of God. God knows the plans that he has for you, and they’re plans for shalom – are you prepared to go along for the ride?

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