7 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know: Shalom
May 30, 2021
For the last six weeks we’ve learned six Hebrew words that help us read parts of scripture in fresh ways. Today is our final week in this series, and the word I’ve saved for last is one you’re probably already somewhat familiar with: shalom.
As I said in the very first week of this series, I think English is an excellent language to read the Bible in. There are some who claim that learning to read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek will unlock some deep mysteries or hidden secrets in scripture. And that’s just not the case. They’re cool languages, but they don’t do that. However, I do believe that understanding a few Hebrew and Greek words here and there can be helpful in some places, and our scripture passage for the day is one of those places.
As Tammy read for us, this passage in Jeremiah is a direct communication from Yahweh to his people, telling them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Now, “welfare” is not necessarily a poor translation, but it can be a misleading one. Because the Hebrew word that’s translated “welfare” in the passage is actually shalom. God is telling the exiles to “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.”
At this point, some of you might be wondering, “Ok Matt, that’s great, but what does shalom mean?” Fantastic question, I’m glad you asked. For this, I’m going to ask you to take out your biblical scholar hat and put it on with me.
In the Old Testament, shalom is the Hebrew word most commonly translated “peace.” And when we think of peace, most of us think of the absence of conflict or war. And in the Bible, the word shalom can refer to the absence of conflict, but it also points to the presence of something better in its place. This is because the most basic meaning of shalom is completeness or wholeness; nothing missing, nothing broken.
“Shalom refers to something that’s complex with lots of pieces that’s in a state of wholeness.” It’s like when Job says his tents are in shalom because he is missing no flocks or animals. This is why shalom can refer to a person’s well-being. When David visits his brothers on the battlefield, he asks about their shalom (Bible Project).
The core idea throughout Scripture is that life is complex, full of moving parts and relationships and situations, and when any of these is out of alignment or missing, your shalom breaks down. Life is no longer whole; it needs to be restored” (Bible Project). And so when used as a verb, to bring shalom literally means to make whole, complete, to restore.
King Solomon brings shalom to the unfinished Temple when he completes it. In the book of Proverbs, to heal and reconcile a broken relationship is to bring shalom. And when rival kingdoms make shalom in the Bible, it doesn’t just mean they stop fighting; it also means they start working together for each other’s benefit. The Torah law that the Israelites were given by Moses was aimed at offering instructions on how to shalom with your neighbor or with God when things went wrong.
God’s desire is for his people to live in shalom, a state of completeness or wholeness, with each other and with God. But for those who have read the Old Testament or have ever cracked open a newspaper, you know that this rarely happens.
Relationships break, inequalities and prejudice exist, wars are fought, nations rage and politics divide. The last year alone in our nation should be enough to reveal that our nation’s shalom is broken. Between a year of racial inequalities and injustices that have been exposed, the political elections that turned the heat up on everything, and the deep divisiveness in communitites’ responses to Covid have revealed the state of a nation and of communities that are far from God’s vision of wholeness and wellbeing.
I’ve noticed a trend in the last few years. I notice more and more people talking about trying to find their “inner peace.” I see this trend among Christians and non-Christians. It’s almost as if we know it’s futile to find peace out there, so we try to find it in the one place we can control, in here (points to heart). As the storms of life rage around us, we seek to find wholeness inside. Even as the world feels out of control, at least we can find some inner shalom to help us survive it.
Now, I’m going to say something that might sound controversial and even heretical, so stick with me; wait until I’m done and then you can decide if I’m a heretic. What I want to say is: I don’t think God cares very much about your striving for inner peace, if it’s disconnected from your striving for the world’s peace. Here’s what I mean by that: I don’t think Jesus entered our world for the sole purpose of providing me with inner shalom. I don’t think the good news Jesus came to declare was, “Hey, the world is a messed up place, but at least I’ve come to give you inner peace so you feel ok while the rest of the world is burning.”
That doesn’t sound like very good news to me. Or at least it feels too small to be the good news Jesus came to deliver. Because what good is inner peace if the world around us is suffering? What good is inner shalom if we aren’t capable of living in shalom with our neighbors who bug us or with those people who voted differently than we did?
In one Peanuts cartoon Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “I hate everything. I hate everybody. I hate the whole wide world!”
Charlie Brown says, “But I thought you had inner peace.”
Lucy replies, “I do have inner peace. But I still have outer obnoxiousness.”
I think that we like to talk about inner peace to avoid having to deal with the utter lack of peace around us and to avoid any responsibility we bear in fixing it. We may have our inner peace, but what are we doing to make peace with our neighbors whose politics seem a world apart from our own.
Inner peace is an escape from the problems of the world and the problems in our relationships that we don’t want to fix. And Jesus did not come to give us an escape. He came to show us how to carry our cross with him, a cross that bears the weight of the whole world and longs for its redemption and healing. Shalom means nothing broken, nothing missing; it means everything is made whole and complete. As individualistic Americans we struggle with this concept; our version of shalom is often too small, too individual, too weak to be the good news Jesus came and died to proclaim. Which brings us back to today’s passage.
God tells the prophet Jeremiah to share a message with the Israelites in exile, “Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.” I imagine Jeremiah trying to clean out his ear with his finger saying, “Wait a minute…what did you say Lord? I think we have a faulty connection, because I swear I thought I heard you say to seek the shalom of the Babylonian city we’re currently in exile in, and I know that can’t be right.” To which the Lord replies, “You heard me right. Seek the shalom of this terrible place you currently find yourself in, even though you wish you were somewhere else and wish you were surrounded by different people. I mean it, because you will only find your shalom in the shalom of this exile place.”
Goodness, Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said following him was going to be hard. God effectively tells the Israelite exiles that their shalom—their wholeness and wellbeing—is wrapped up in the shalom—the wellbeing—of the community they find themselves in. God isn’t going to provide them with inner peace to help them survive their time in Babylon. Instead, God tells them to immerse themselves in building up the place they find themselves, by planting gardens, raising families and building relationships and a life with the Babylonians in exile. God tells them, “Their shalom is your shalom.” Your shaloms are wrapped up together.
God’s instructions to the Israelites meet us in our 21st century context: “Seek the shalom of your community for in it you will find your shalom.” Every single human being in our communities, whether poor or rich, gay or straight, white or black is beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image, and we are all connected to one another through that common bond. Whether we realize it or not, our shaloms are bound up together.
“Their shalom is your shalom.”This is not just a theological statement, but it is a very practical statement based in real life experience. Because the reality is that the poverty and unjust economic practices that affect some in our community hurts us all. The reality is that racism against some people hurts every one of us no matter what our skin color. In the last year we’ve seen how the decisions of individuals, to wear a mask in public or not, to get vaccinated or not, to party with large groups of people or not, are decisions that affect the whole community. We don’t like to hear that as Americans because we’re all about our freedom and our individual rights. We like to think of ourselves as silos, but that’s not how the world works.
This week we remember George Floyd’s murder that took place one year ago. And if we think that because our skin color is white that George Floyd’s death has nothing to do with us, then we are sorely mistaken, and we have forgotten how connected we are to our black brothers and sisters who are also part of God’s family. Scripture tells us to “weep with those who weep.” If we turn away from the suffering of others, whether it be racial suffering or otherwise, we turn further and further away from true shalom. Any type of inner peace we manufacture for ourselves to protect us against the pain of the world is a false shalom. It is not shalom that comes from God. To focus only on finding inner shalom is to ignore the deep love God has for all of humanity and all of creation.
I do believe that we can experience moments and spaces of shalom in our personal lives, especially in difficult times—and that’s a gift from God when we do—but I also believe that shalom is not something we can keep to ourselves or hold onto. Shalom is meant to be shared with the whole world. God’s vision of shalom goes beyond us as individuals, and seeks to bind our wellbeing to the wellbeing of our communities. God created us to be relational beings, and it is by design that shalom—real wholeness and peace—can only be found in relationship with others. “Seek the shalom of your community, for in it you will find your shalom.
I’ll close with a story.
A young woman worked for a merchant who lived on top of a hill. She worked as the merchant’s laundress and every day she had to walk down the hill to collect water from a stream. She had two pots to carry water, which she hung upon a pole she could carry over her shoulders. With time one of her pots got a slender crack along its side. She observed the cracks on the pot and decided she could still use it.
Every day, the woman carried those pots down the hill to the stream, filled them to the brim, and walked back up the hill, balancing the pole across her shoulders. By the time she reached the house, the cracked pot would be only half full while the other pot delivered a full portion of water.
The cracked pot glanced at the other pot and saw water filled to the top, and it began to feel desolate. The full pot was proud of its accomplishment while the cracked pot felt ashamed and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it was meant to.
After a few years of what the cracked pot perceived to be a failure, it spoke to the woman. “I apologize for my flaws. The crack on my side, has made me useless. I spill half of the water. I’m of no good!” the pot said.
The woman felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and she said, ”But pot, you don’t understand, You haven’t been paying attention. Look around you. As we return to the master’s house, I want you to look at the path we traverse”.
The next time when the woman carried the water up to the hill, the pot carefully observed the path up the hill. For the first time the pot stopped looking inward and instead looked out. On his side of the trail the pot noticed beautiful flowers growing in abundance. While the other side was still dry.
As the woman reached the top of the hill, she asked “Did you notice the beautiful flowers on the path? They are only on your side of the path. I had always known about your cracks and I took advantage of it to water those beautiful flowers along the way. Without you being just the way you are, the path uphill would not have this beauty ”
The cracked pot was overjoyed. He understood that the very thing he thought to be his flaws turned out to be a blessing for the flowers along the path.
The beautiful truth in this story is that we are mistaken if we think we need to fix everything in here (gestures to heart) before we can work for the outer shalom of the communities and people around us. Our shalom, our wholeness and wellbeing, is bound up in the wellbeing of our community.
The good news is that God invites us, cracks and all, brokenness and all, to seek the shalom of all things. God’s vision of shalom is something we carry with us in our very bodies out into the world. Our words, our actions, our service, how we spend our money, has the ability to restore what is broken and to bring wholeness where it is missing.
We do not have to worry if we strive for the shalom of our communities in vain, because God has promised that one day the shalom of all things shall be restored. And we are invited, cracks and all, to be part of that restoration process. Amen and may it be so.