Public Square & Theology 101

The Biblical Definition of Flourishing

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At the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, we often talk about the word “flourishing.” But what does it mean?

Flourishing means peace, or shalom, in every direction. Hugh Whelchel often talks about “reweaving shalom.” But what does shalom mean?

We could look at a dictionary definition. But is it possible to find a biblical definition of flourishing, or shalom? Fortunately, there is such a definition.

Insight from Hebrew Poetry Found In the Bible

Before we get to this definition, it’s essential to understand a little about Hebrew poetry.

In English we often use rhythm and rhyme when we write poetry. Hebrew poetry focuses primarily on thought parallels or images. One form is called synonymous parallelism. This is when the same concept is repeated in one or more lines, but in different words. For instance, in Amos 5:24, it says:

But let judgment run down like waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Another example is from Micah 4:3:

They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.

In both cases the second line restates the idea in the first line, only with different words or images. One classic instance of synonymous parallelism is in Numbers 6:24-26 – the ancient Aaronic blessing:

The Lord bless you and keep you,
the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace (shalom).

Notice the pairs of words. “Bless” and “keep,” “face shine” and “gracious,” “lift countenance” and “give peace.” If you want to understand the somewhat archaic word “bless,” you look at all the other words and images as ways of amplifying your understanding. Most importantly, for our purposes, if you want to know the biblical meaning of “peace,” or “shalom,” just look at the other phrases in the parallelism. When we do this, we notice the following insights:

1. Peace, or shalom, is not just an absence of conflict, but a positive presence of the Lord’s blessing.

2. To know shalom is to know God’s favor. His face will shine with pleasure on you. His face will look in your direction. He is noticing you with approval.

3. To know shalom is to know God’s gracious presence in all areas of your life.

The Biblical Meaning of Shalom

C.S. Lewis says,

 Reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.

He argued that we don’t really understand anything unless we have images, pictures or metaphors to make things clear. The next time you think about shalom, meditate on the images of a face shining, or a countenance not looking down or away, but lifted up to behold you with joy. Think of a father saying to his son, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” You might think of our Lord’s phrase, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

You might also think of freedom: the freedom to worship and enjoy the fruits of your labors. Micah 4:4 is a passage that pictures the aspiration that each one “will sit under his vine and under his fig tree with no one to make them afraid.” This was one of George Washington’s favorite biblical allusions.

In Ezekiel 34:25, similar images are given of what peace looks like. God says,

And I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts…and I will cause…showers of blessing. Also the tree of the field will yield its fruit…and they will be secure on their land…and I will establish for them a renowned planting place…then they will know that the Lord their God is with them.

Again notice God’s gracious provision and the security that is experienced. In every area, personal and public, there is God’s peace, blessing, and favor. This expands our vision of what peace involves. If you have peace, you will have everything included in this great Aaronic blessing. Flourishing means all these things.

How do you define flourishing? Peace? Shalom? Leave your comments here

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