Beth Snodderly holds an MA in New Testament from Wheaton College and the equivalent of a PhD in Biblical Studies from the University of South Africa (UNISA). She served in several administrative roles for William Carey International University from 1998–2015.
The Kingdom of God is … righteousness, peace, and joy (Romans 14:17).
“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 2).
The Need for Shalom
Before setting out to “solve” the problems of the world it is important to know the goal toward which one is working. “What does God want human life to look like?” Paul Pierson asked the staff of the US Center for World Mission in 2008. He answered his question with a good description of the Hebrew concept of shalom: grace, health, education, safety, well-being for all people. The Hebrew word, shalom, is commonly translated “peace,” but it implies much more: wholeness and wellness in the context of right relationships with God, people, nature, and with self. The usage and context of several Greek words for shalom that were used by the translators of the Septuagint are the basis for this study. (See a comprehensive list at the end of this article.) The descriptions of shalom correspond with descriptions of God’s will for people and all creation.
Descriptions of the Presence of Shalom
These qualities flow from being in right relationship with God. Jeremiah tied the concept of “prosperity” (shalom/ Greek: eirene) to God’s forgiveness of sins of rebellion. “I will … forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it” (Jer. 33:8, 9).
From this passage, it is clear that shalom is a quality that is observable. An evidence of shalom in the realm of nature was understood by one of Job’s comforters as including the wild animals being at peace (shalom/eirene) with humans (Job 5:23). Isaiah elaborated on this concept in describing the reign of the Messiah: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. … They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6, 9).
In the absence of a knowledge of micro-organisms, and the harm they cause through disease in humans, animals, and plants, Isaiah did not include bacteria and viruses in his list of “animal” life that will no longer harm or destroy when the Lord’s shalom is being experienced (Is. 11:6, 9). But knowing now that disease is caused by bacteria and viruses, and knowing that disease is one of the curses that is evidence of a lack of shalom (see Deut. 28:22), it seems reasonable to include the “taming” (or eradication) of these types of “animal” life in an application of the understanding of shalom in the 21st century.
Another observable sign of shalom is health and healing for a formerly wicked city and the people in it: “I will bring health and healing to [the city]; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace/eirene and security (pistin—the root word for faithfulness)” (Jer. 33:6). This passage demonstrates that there is no dichotomy between social and spiritual healing or between physical and spiritual healing. Shalom is wholistic.
Descriptions of the Absence of Shalom
But there is an enemy actively opposing God’s will. The theme of the Bible is the battle for the rulership of this world. In John 12:31 Jesus says of his upcoming death, “now the ruler of this world is being driven out in.” “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Those who participate with the Son of God in this battle will face the conditions the enemy seeks to impose: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
The whole world lies in the power of the evil one
The plight of those lying in the evil one’s power is described in the Old Testament, although the enemy’s presence was not well recognized. Many of the occurrences of the term shalom in the Old Testament are in the context of conditions in which peace, safety, and well-being are absent. These passages describe the opposite of God’s will: deceit (Is. 59:14; Jer. 9:8); quarreling, war, fighting, violence (Is. 59:6; Jer. 6:14; 23:17; Ezek. 7:23); people are skilled in doing evil: they know not how to do good (Jer. 4:22); war, starvation, and disease (Jer. 32:33); injustice (Is. 59:8-14)
The following generalizations provide some guidelines for understanding what has gone wrong in societies experiencing violence, danger, and disease.
God Judges Evil Societies.
God turns his back on those who do evil. He allows evil societies to experience the consequences of their own actions and does not prevent such societies from being overthrown and destroyed (See Jeremiah 33:4-6 and 4:22-26.) Ralph Winter once commented that it shows God’s commitment to free will that innocent people and even believers suffer while God is allowing evil cultures and societies to burn themselves out and destroy one another. Jeremiah pointed out to the people of Jerusalem regarding the disasters and lack of shalom he prophesied were coming to them, “Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment” (Jeremiah 4:18).
God Deals with Societies According to Their Own Standards.
In a land full of violence, God said he would deal with the people according to their conduct and judge them by their own standards. (See Ezekiel 7:23-27.) In seeking to understand the judgment of God against a society, questions such as these might be helpful:
• What signs can be found in the history of the society of God’s activity or redemptive analogies?
• In what ways have the people, particularly the leaders, disobeyed and rebelled against what was right according to their own culture’s traditional values?
• What are the society’s own expectations of justice and judgment?
Even Nature Is Cursed When a Society Turns away from God.
A person or group that presumes to think they are “safe and blameless” (shalom/ Greek: hosia) when in reality they are persisting in going their own way, contrary to God’s way, will bring disaster on the land. Moses warned that “All the curses written in this book,” listed in Deuteronomy 28:15ff, will come against that person or society (see Deut. 29:18, 19). Among the curses for those not following God’s commands are “wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish” (Deut. 28:22).
Conditions for Experiencing Shalom
God wants to restore and bless societies and people with shalom/eirene when they repent and turn to God (see Ps. 30:11; Jer. 33: 6, 9). Based on Old Testament contexts there seem to be two main conditions for a society or person to experience shalom. One is the intention to follow God’s laws and principles. The other is acceptance of God’s provision of a substitute punishment for not following God’s laws and principles.
Following God’s Principles
The principle of keeping God’s requirements as a condition for blessing was specifically stated to Isaac shortly before he encountered Abimelech, king of the Philistines (Gen. 26:1-5.) It is through following God’s guidelines that a society can function well. In fact, all nations on earth willing to function according to the will of God as revealed through His chosen people, will end up being blessed materially and spiritually (shalom). This is seen in Genesis 26:4, 5 where God repeated the promise to Isaac that was originally given to Abraham: “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.” Immediately following this promise is an illustration of one of the nations, the Philistines, being blessed by the presence of Isaac’s family, in spite of various problems, and sending him away in peace/shalom/eirene without further quarreling or fighting (Gen. 26:29, 30).
When God’s principles are followed, peace results. This is also seen in the encounter between Moses and his father-in-law. Jethro showed Moses how to satisfy the peoples’ need for justice, without wearing himself, out by delegating some of the work to others. Jethro specifically stated that if “God so commands” that the principles of delegation be followed, and if Moses did follow them, then Moses would be able to stand the strain of leadership and the people would go home satisfied (shalom/“in peace”). (See Exodus 18:7-23.)
God’s Provision of a Substitute Punishment to Restore Shalom
Shalom does not come easily. A spiritual enemy has it as his goal to prevent shalom; to prevent God’s will from being done. Broken relationships among people and with God characterize the activities of people and nations throughout the Old Testament. A pattern seen throughout the Major and Minor Prophets is the repeated description of God allowing one nation to punish another for their evil ways, with the focus on the people of Israel and Judah who had the most opportunity to know God’s expectations, yet failed to follow Him. As God would withdraw His presence and hand of protection, the evil one, the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31) would step in and create havoc. The Old Testament prophets, without being aware of this enemy, recognized that God was somehow using or allowing one evil nation to punish another. Then the instrument of punishment of one group of people would in turn experience punishment for their own evil ways, in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
But a climactic statement by the prophet Isaiah points toward the possibility of a break in this vicious cycle. Speaking of the coming Messiah, Isaiah prophesied: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace (shalom/eirene) was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5). Jesus brought an end to the cycle of one society punishing another for the evils it commits in its rebellion against God. Jesus took the final punishment on behalf of any person or society that will accept his peace offering. This was the defeat of the evil one’s schemes against humanity (1 John 3:8). By accepting this substitute punishment, people and societies can break out of the vicious cycle and experience healing of broken relationships with God, people, and nature.
The Battle for Shalom
What is the responsibility of the body of Christ to those in harm’s way? Jeremiah seemed to be saying, in his plea to Israel, that if God’s people will obey him, the rest of the world will be blessed: “If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will glory” (4:1-2). The challenge to be God’s obedient people, who are experiencing some of that blessing, becomes very personal if we dare to ask ourselves the question from the Lord through the prophet Haggai: “What are we doing building our paneled houses and elaborate landscapes when God’s ‘Temple,’ the intended Body of Christ, is in shambles around the world? (see Haggai 1:3); when there are people from many nations in harm’s way whom God wants to redeem for his glory (Is. 11:9)? What is the part of 21st-century believers in the battle for the planet?
Quoting again from Paul Pierson’s presentation, “we are called to call people to become followers of Jesus as authentic disciples of Jesus in their culture and to show something to the world of what the Kingdom of God means, and what are its values.” Pierson added, “What passion has God given you? If he gives you a passion He’ll give you the gifts to go with it.”
The Body of Christ contains people with the gifts to “do” or “make” shalom in many different areas: justice, peace-keeping, skill-building for economic independence, health, fighting and eradicating disease, etc. All of these peace-making activities can potentially demonstrate the values of the Kingdom and bring shalom into the lives of troubled people and societies. Jesus concluded his farewell speech to his disciples by promising shalom in the midst of trouble: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace/eirene. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Jesus: Take heart! I have overcome the world
In 1 John we see that believers in Jesus also overcome the world and the evil one who rules it (1 John 2:13, 14; 5:4). As a result they are able to enjoy and pass on to others the shalom of God, as seen in the greetings of 2 John and 3 John: “Grace, mercy, and peace/eirene from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love” (2 John 3). “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health/Greek: hugiainei and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 2).
What will it take for a society that is not enjoying “good health,” that is engulfed in evil and experiencing the absence of God’s presence, to get to the place where it experiences shalom? What would shalom look like in the Congo, in Sudan, in Iraq, in Myanmar? Contrast the unjust and violent conditions in such societies with Zechariah’s prophesy, as he sings and prophesies to his baby son, John the Baptist, in Luke 1:68-79:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most high: for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God,
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace/eirene.
Zechariah sang about salvation from human enemies, about serving God without fear in holiness and righteousness, forgiveness, mercy, peace—the same shalom spoken of throughout the Old Testament. In the context of similar justice, righteousness and faithfulness, Isaiah described “salvation” from feared enemies in the realm of nature (which can also represent disease micro-organisms that were unknown at that time): “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, … and a little child will lead them. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Is. 11:6, 9).
In the wholistic nature of shalom, there is no dichotomy between physical and spiritual health and well-being. Shalom is the description of God’s will for the earth and everything living in it. Shalom is the goal of International Development because this is the goal of God’s Kingdom: “Our Father in heaven … your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus came and “made peace” by his death on the cross. Believers should expect no less opposition than he faced when they join him as “sons of God” in making peace in a broken war-torn world.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Occurrences and Meanings of Shalom Translated into Greek in the Septuagint:
Wholeness and Right Relationships with God, People, and Nature
Wellness, physical health Gen. 29:6; 37:14; 43:27,28; 2 Sam. 20:9; Esther 9:30; Is. 9:6
Greeting (I wish you well, peace to you, good health to you, prosperity to you) Ex. 4:18; 1 Sam. 25:6
Farewell (go in peace/health) 2 Sam. 15:9
Safety (“salvation”) Gen. 26:31; 41:16; 44:17
God deal mercifully with you, fear not Gen. 43:23
Let good happen to me Deut. 29:19
God has given me rest round about (no one is plotting against me) 1 Kings 4:24
Their houses are safe (good condition; no rod of punishment from God is upon them) Job 21:9
Go out with joy, and be led forth with peace/gladness Is. 55:12
No joy to the wicked Is. 48:22; 57:21
Wholly carried away (Hebrew: peacefully exiled) Jer. 13:19
Die peacefully Gen. 15:15; 2 Kings 22:20; 2 Chron. 34:28; Jer. 34:5
Speak peaceably, kindly, absence of deceit Gen. 37:4; Deut. 20:10; Ps. 28:3; 35:20; 120:7; Prov. 12:20; Is. 52:7; Jer. 9:8; Nah 1:15; Zech. 9:10
Satisfied that justice has been done Ex. 18:23
Absence of quarreling, war, fighting, or danger Gen 26:29; Lev. 26:6; Deut. 2:26; 20:11; 23:61; Josh. 9:15; Jud 4:17; 8:9; 11:13; 21:13; 1 Sam 7:14; 16:4, 5; 2 Sam. 15:27; 19:24, 30; 1 Kings 2:5,13; 5:12; 22:27,28; 2 Kings 9:17,18,19,22,31; 1 Chron. 12:17; 2 Chron. 15:5; Ps. 120:6; 122:6,7,8; 147:14; Eccl 3:8; Is. 27:5; 33:7; 57:2; Jer. 4:10; 6:14; 8:11,15; 12:5; 23:17; 28:9; Eze. 7:25; Mic. 3:5; Zech. 6:13; 8:10
God’s favor/covenant; associated with truth, doing good, righteousness, obedience, healing Num 6:26; 25:12; 1 Kings 2:33; 2 Kings 20:19; 1 Chron. 22:9; Ps. 30:11; 34:14; 37:11,37; 72:3,7; 85:8,10; 119:165; 125:5; 128:6; Prov. 3:2; Song of Sol 8:10; Is. 26:3; 26:12; 32:17; 39:8; 45:7; 48:18; 53:5; 54:13; 57:19; 59:8; 60:17; Jer. 12:12; 14:13,19; 16:5; 29:11; 33:6; Lam 3:17; Eze. 34:25; 37:26; Mic. 5:5; Hag 2:9; Zech. 8:16,19; Mal. 2:5
Safe, secure Josh. 10:21; 1 Sam. 20:7,13,21; 2 Sam. 3:21,22, 23; 17:3; 18:29,32; 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron. 18:16; 2 Chron. 18:27; Ezra 9:12; Job 5:24; Ps. 4:8 Prov. 3:17; Is. 32:18; 41:3; Jer. 25:37; 30:5; 43:12; Eze. 13:10,16
Greeting (peace be to thee; how are you) Jud. 6:23; 18:15; 19:20; 1 Sam 10:4; 25:5; 30:21; 2 Sam. 8:10; 11:7; 2 Kings 10:13; 1 Chron. 12:18; Dan. 10:19
Farewell [go in peace] Jud 18:6; 1 Sam. 1:17; 20:42; 29:7; 2 Sam. 11:7; 2 Kings 5:19
All is well/ is it well? 2 Sam. 18:28; 2 Kings 4:23,26; 5:21; 9:11; Jer. 15:5
Prosperity Job 15:21; Ps. 35:27; 73:3; Is. 66:12; Jer. 29:7; 33:9; 38:4
Friend [man of peace] Ps. 41:9; Jer. 38:22; Obadiah 7