Deep in the heart of every person there is a sense of the way things are supposed to be. Biblical scholar Jonathan Pennington says the desire to “live in peace, security, love, health, and happiness,” has driven our actions and goals throughout human history, transcending both culture and era. We might define “the way things are supposed to be” as human flourishing. Pennington says of human flourishing:
This concept has staying power and universal voice because it addresses what is most basic and innate to all of humanity, despite the diversity of race, culture, and values. It is a concept that proves to be the motivating force and end goal of all that humans do and think. This idea or theme can be identified as human flourishing. … The desire for human flourishing motivates everything humans do. … All human behavior, when analyzed deeply enough, will be found to be motivated by the desire for life and flourishing, individually and corporately.
The Old Testament prophets also understood this idea. They knew how many ways human life had gone wrong because they had a sense from God of the way things were supposed to be. They looked forward to a time when God would put things right again.
This idea of human flourishing is captured in the Old Testament Hebrew concept of shalom. As we have previously discussed, most of our English Bibles translate the word shalom as peace, but this is far too weak an interpretation. Biblical scholars tell us that shalom signifies a number of things, including salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness (to others and to God’s creation), righteousness, justice, and well-being (physical, psychological, spiritual).
Shalom denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe. This was God’s original design for his creation—not that we live in scarcity, poverty, or in minimalistic conditions. He desires that we enjoy the fruits of his creation and the fruits of our labor because by doing so, we bring him glory.
Shalom in the Old Testament
The word shalom is used approximately 250 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), primarily in three ways:
- About 10 percent of the time it is used as a greeting or farewell (such as at the end of Ezra 4:17).
- About 25 percent of the time it is used to refer to a state or relationship that is peaceful or free from conflict or tension (such as in 1 Sam. 7:14).
- Finally, about 65 percent of the time, shalom refers to completeness, maturity, and especially overall well-being economically, relationally, and physically: “And work for the peace and prosperity (shalom) of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare (shalom) will determine your welfare (shalom)” (Jer. 29:7, NLT, emphasis added).
While these three ways of using shalom in the Old Testament are somewhat different, at their core they are speaking about wholeness or completeness. Well-being and flourishing are the fringe benefits of such a state. As Pennington notes, to greet somebody with “shalom” meant to wish them prosperity and peace or flourishing in a holistic sense—personally, economically, and relationally.
Isaiah’s description of the coming righteous king gives Christians one of their favorite titles for Jesus Christ: Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). But the Hebrew is even more clear: it says that Jesus is the Prince of Shalom.
You see, Jesus is not just a prince who will come back to stop all fighting and war; he is the prince who will come back and restore shalom. His work as the Prince of Shalom, Tim Keller writes in Generous Justice, “means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual.” The redemption brought by Christ is about restoring everything to the way it should be. Shalom is introduced at creation in the Garden of Eden (the way it was supposed to be) and is made perfect in the eternal city, the New Jerusalem (the way it is going to be), and informs our actions, however imperfect the outcome, in our current era.
In my next article, we’ll take a closer look at shalom in the New Testament.
Editor’s Note: The new booklet, Reweaving Shalom: Your Work and the Restoration of All Things, from which this article is adapted is available to pre-order now from our bookstore! Secure your pre-order here.