The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern (Prov. 29:7).
Shalom has become a popular buzzword in certain evangelical circles, particularly around the whole ‘justice for the oppressed’ debate. What do we exactly mean by the word Shalom? Tim Keller has certainly written more material on this than you can shake a stick at and there is also an interesting little book by Kevin De Young entitled, ‘What is the Mission of the Church’? Clearly, both ‘sides’, if I can call them that, have both their fans and their detractors.
More importantly, what does the Bible teach? Is it the same as the word ‘peace’ such as ‘he is our peace’ in Ephesians 2:14? What about in Numbers 6; 24-26; Isaiah 9:6? The Lord is our Shalom. Look at Isaiah 57:7 and how is it used there? The context is light. What about Ezekiel 37:26? How is it used there? The connection to a future spiritual blessing. Interestingly, Shalom appears in the Hebrews about 250 times and not once in the NT. It does have a Greek equivalent though, eirene (eye RAY nay). In fact the word irenic means peaceful. We find it in Luke 2; 14, Acts 10:36, Ro. 1:7 where it is used as a greeting. In Phil 4:7 it is used to bless the people of God. Of the 90 times it used in the NT is it almost exactly in the same way that Shalom is used in the OT.
But, Shalom is also used in unusual ways. It is mentioned in the context of war in 2 Samuel 11:7. Breaking down towers in Judges 8:9, and punishment in Isaiah 53:5. It is a hard word to get to grips with, if we are honest. Because it has such a broad meaning across the Scriptures, I am always wary when people try to push for one urgent meaning of it and seek to particularise it to apply solely to the debate around the poor and the oppressed. Let me give you an example of what I mean concerning interpretative issues with regard to the word. Often our English Bible translations don’t do their job well. Genesis 43:27 being a good case in point.
“And he (Joseph) asked of them (his brothers) concerning shalom, and he said, ‘Is your father shalom?'”
That is good idiomatic Hebrew, but it is not good English, so the New Revised Standard Version translates properly.
“And he inquired about their welfare, and said ‘Is your father well?’”
In other words, we do well to look at this issue with a King James Version of the Bible in one hand and some of the old school concordances in the other. Regardless, we must do our homework and check out whether it is shalom and/or eirene that lie behind the translations we are being pointed to. It may seem petty, but we must do it if we are going to be making big etymological claims and building whole theological foundations on these ideas.
Tim Keller has defined shalom in the following way:
The webbing together of God and man with all creation to create universal flourishing and wholeness. In Ps. 102 God has made the world like a garment with billions of entities interwoven to make up the beauty of all that is created. Sin has come in and torn a whole in the fabric.
In other words, the shalom is in need of repair. He goes further and pinpoints three types of shalom:
1. Physical Shalom
When all the parts fit together in a body then we know something of ‘Physical Shalom’. So, for example, when you have cancer, you experience a loss of this physical shalom.
2. Psychological Shalom
When the mind, conscience, and passions tell me to do and I do it, I experience psychological shalom. If you want to do something and the conscience says “no” and you do it, we lose psychological shalom.
3. Social Shalom
When those who have connections are threading this throughout the community then there’s an inter-wovenness. This breaks down when people feel excluded from society. they are in fact experiencing a break in social shalom.
Now, it is clear that I see the breakdown of shalom, as defined by Keller, in Niddrie. That is without any doubt whatsoever. Certainly, it doesn’t take a theological genius to trace the original fault line back to the fall and the terrible, physical, psychological, social and cosmological effects that this has had for our world. The real question comes when we ask: ‘what are we to do about the breakdown of shalom?’ Should we just ignore the issues going on all around us and just proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or, should we seek the welfare of our scheme by looking at ways we can ease the pain and restore some of the shalom back to our neighbours? Should we be seeking to make Niddrie a safer place to live, a happier place to live and a more peaceful place to live? Or, should we be seeking to remain faithful to the great commission which charges us to preach Christ and make disciples?
These questions aren’t new to this site nor to the people who read this site regularly. The NT offers us no imperatives with regard to actively repairing any of the above ‘shaloms’. Timothy, for example was urged to continue preaching the Word in season and out of season. In Ephesians we read that the main gift set given to the church; preachers, teachers, apostles etc were all Word based ministries. In Jude we are challenged to contend for the gospel. Romans is clear that it is only the gospel that has the power to transform any believer and thus, by definition, society. So the answer, surely, is to preach the gospel first and foremost. Yes we care for one another, we love one another, we feed and we shelter the ‘alien’ (those outside the covenant community) but these are as a result of hearts of faith expressing themselves through love (Galatians).
For example, I preach Christ in Niddrie to Mr. X who has a history of alcoholism, burglary and abusing his partner. He comes to Christ. What happens?
1. His physical shalom begins to improve under the influence of the Holy Spirit as he stops poisoning his body.
2. His psychological shalom improves as he bows the knee to King Jesus and seeks to live under his rule.
3. Social shalom kicks in as he stops abusing his neighbours, burgling houses on the scheme, shoplifting from the local store, beating his partner and tormenting his children. Instead of contributing the to breakdown of social shalom he begins to become a force for good.
All of these things are as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a person who has heard the Word of God proclaimed first and foremost. It is gospel above all and then shalom comes not as a means of personal evangelism but as a proof of God’s Spirit at work in a person and a community. By all means let’s pray for the shalom of our schemes but let’s remember that without a return to fearless, faithful gospel proclamation these places and people are going to remain in darkness; lost and broken.
We press on.