Excerpted from Shalom! by Douglas James Harris

Baker Book House, 1970.

Shalom: The Peace of God

When I read Douglas Harris’ book, Shalom, in 1988, I was so impressed with its scope and comprehension of God’s peace that I very presumptuously excerpted the more salient points here with the hope of sharing this wisdom with others who may not have the opportunity to read the book. BTW, the book is still in print and is available from Amazon.

The root meaning of the Hebrew shalom, ‘peace,’ is ‘to be whole, to be sound, to be safe,’ the fundamental idea being one of a pervasive, all-encompassing totality, for which God alone is the provider. Yet shalom means even more, as illustrated in the theologian Gerhard von Rad’s translation of shalom, in his use of the German word schillerndes, the best English equivalent of which is ‘iridescent,’ lending a concept of shalom being many-colored like a rainbow. Shalom, in its entirety, is broad and deep, richly coloring every aspect of life with its touch.

To convey this deeply embedded sense of a community of peace, the Semitic peoples of the Near East greet those they regard as true brethren with ‘shalom’ or ‘salaam,’ inferring “may that which is good within you richly abound and flow out to those around you.” However, wherever there is a barrier – ethnic, relational, or religious – such a greeting is impossible. In contrast, the absence of shalom is an indication of hostility, enmity, distrust and trouble.  Anything standing in its way disrupts shalom.

Shalom and Strife.  Considering the absence of shalom, Isaiah prophesies that in Egypt, “brother will fight against brother, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom” (19:2). Micah sees such loneliness and distrust bringing ruin in his day: “A man’s enemies are the members of his own household” (7:6c).  Jeremiah experienced the same aloneness: “All my friends (of shalom) watching for me to slip, saying ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him” (20:10b). But there is a reaching toward New Testament thinking in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, “Also seek the shalom and prosperity of the city where I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers (shalom), you too will prosper (shalom)” (29:7).  But in the same letter, God promises, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper (shalom) and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (29:11).

Shalom and Loneliness. Loneliness, the lack of community which the Old Testament demonstrates as something unnatural, is an indication that life is failing. Those who suffer speak of ‘being alone,’ out of community. Jeremiah says, “I sat alone, because your hand was on me” (15:17b), and the Psalmist cries out, “I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof” (102:6, 7). Understanding that the wild ass normally lives within a herd, Hosea describes the willfulness and misery of his people Israel like “a wild ass wandering alone” (8:9). The Psalmist David writes of his distress because “Even my close friend whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me” (41:9). What David expresses is the opposite of shalom, for when the close friend, the man of shalom, the one who shares one’s bread, the one upon whom another relies, turns to treachery, then shalom is gone. When enmity comes from one who is close and trusted, there is nothing on which to build wholeness and community. However, it is note-worthy that in the essence of hope, David is moved, through his feelings of loneliness, to a fuller trust in God (31:13-16).

Shalom as Community.  Shalom itself provides the foundation and context for community and Israel was at its best when the harmony, wholeness and well-being of the community was experienced by the people both in quality and quantity.

The Old Testament concept of community involved common and shared participation in the blessings of God. In the community which enjoys God’s shalom, there is harmony and the opportunity for the free and unashamed growth of the individual. Such growth finds encouragement and nurture through helpful interrelationships of other persons, both within and without the family unit.  There is totality in a community when there is harmony, and blessings flow freely among its members, everyone both giving and taking whatever they are in need of, as they are able.

The wholeness and well-being of the community is endangered by selfish and deceptive acts, such as that of Achan (Joshua 7). Even the idea of ‘paying double’ and ‘making restitution’ in the requirements of Exodus 22 indicates an ethical obligation necessary for restoring shalom.

Shalom as Integrity.  There was tension in the friendship of David and Jonathan because of the hostility of Saul toward David, and there was a lack of shalom in David’s own family, particularly centering in Absalom, whose name, ironically, means ‘father of shalom.’ When Solomon, in his prayer of dedication, appeals to Israel, “But your hearts must be fully committed to the Lord our God” (1 Kings 8:61a), the word shalem, ‘fully committed,’ derives from shalom.  In Psalm 41:12 the Psalmist believed God had upheld him because of his ‘integrity,’ the root again being shalom. In Psalm 119:165 we read, “Great shalom have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble.” With shalom such as this, wholeness and integrity are developed in the individual, which in turn produces shalom in the community.

Shalom as Inner Peace.  Where Old Testament references of shalom do not denote the specific condition of inner peace, inferences and interpolations certainly exist.  In Jeremiah 30:5, we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cries of fear are heard – terror, not shalom.’”  That this lack of peace may also include a loss of inner peace may be indicated by the question at the end of verse 6, “Why has every face turned deathly pale?” Isaiah prophesied of the day when “the fruit of righteousness will be shalom; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever” (32:17).

The ‘great peace’ promised to those who ‘love the law’ (Psalm 119:165) could also refer to inner peace.  Also the Septuagint [LXX] rendering of Haggai 2:9 adds the phrase, “even peace of soul for a possession to everyone that builds, to raise up his temple.”  While these words may not have been in the original Hebrew text, they nevertheless reflect thoughts about ‘peace of soul’ in the post-exilic period.

Shalom as Wholeness.  It is easy to see how the root meaning of wholeness would relate to health and well-being.  Jacob inquires concerning Laban, “Is it well (shalom) with him?”  And they answer, “It is well (shalom)” (Genesis 29:6).  The common greeting of salutation of shalom (1 Samuel 25:6; 1 Chronicles 18:10) wishes for the health, the well-being, the shalom of the one greeted.  When a man is ill, there is no health (shalom) in his bones (Psalm 38:3). When the Psalmist is in conflict with those who ought to be closest to him, he has no sense of wholeness; his feeling of community and even his integrity are threatened. Without any consideration of such a concept as ‘psychosomatic,’ the Hebrews realized that spiritual, mental and emotional stressors were comprised as a unity, closely related to one’s health and well-being.

Shalom as Prosperity.  The Hebrew mind sees everything as prospering and growing, where the Greek mind sees things in a carefully arranged and harmoniously integrated world. God extends shalom in the poetic parallel with ‘wealth’ to Israel in Isaiah 66:12. Shalom is the situation where, due to God’s goodness, everything can follow its own proper, undisturbed course to success; even despite disturbances, God moves to bring about shalom.

The story of Joseph illuminates shalom as prosperity at several points with some side glances at shalom in human relationships. When his brothers saw that their father, Jacob, loved Joseph more than all the rest, they could not speak a kind word (shalom) to him (Genesis 37:4). A little later, Jacob, apparently unaware of this rising hostility, sends Joseph to see whether it is well (shalom) with the flock, that is, is the flock prospering? (37:14). In all of Joseph’s trouble in Egypt, God was with him.  God brought prosperity to Potiphar’s house because of Joseph (39:5). The Lord was with Joseph in prison (39:21); when Pharaoh was troubled by a dream, it was God, through Joseph, who gave Pharaoh an answer of shalom (41:16).  When his brothers came seeking food, Joseph told them that if they were honest men (42:19), they were to let one stay behind as a hostage.  When the brothers returned in fear because they found the money they had paid again in their sacks, Joseph said, “Don’t be afraid (shalom). Your God, the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks. I received your silver” (43:23).

Shalom as Salvation.  It is natural that we should think of peace as opposed to strife and war, and this concept is not absent from Scripture. Biblically, if an individual has shalom, he has health, wholeness, soundness, and integrity. As he lives in harmonious relationship with his family, this contributes to shalom. The wider the covenant of peace extends, the more all-inclusive is shalom.

Salvation, as God’s gift, is his action on behalf of his people. Salvation meant victory in the struggles against evil men and nations. The difference between peace and salvation is that peace is the lasting state of harmony and happiness; salvation is the momentary acquisition thereof. The opposite of salvation is trouble, sara, the state of narrowness. Salvation, like shalom, means wholeness and integrity. It means the community joined together in a covenant with God which includes the obligation of loving response to God’s commands.  The fruits of salvation are health, prosperity, well-being, and long life. The result is joy and blessing that come from doing God’s will.

Yet time and again God’s people broke the covenant, becoming subject to God’s judgment and the removal of shalom marked by defeat, disunity, distrust, alienation, poverty and misery.

However, God never wholly abandons his people. With shalom, as with salvation, there is a characteristic openness toward the future which God will, in the fullness of time, bring to pass.

Excerpted from Shalom! By Douglas J. Harris.

(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), pp. 13-28.