For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Shalom, defined as “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10002), is a divine attribute mostly out of reach in the Books of the Law, where brotherly conflict, not brotherly love, was the norm.
In the Books of the Law, conflict between Cain and Abel over proper worship was followed by conflict between Jacob and Esau over the birthright and inheritance (Gen 25:26–34). Later, conflict between Joseph and his brothers over their father’s favoritism became so intense that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery (Gen 37:2-28). In the ancient world, sibling conflict was considered an extreme form of treachery, much like spousal conflict would be perceived today (Hellerman 2001, 39–40). This brotherly conflict highlights the absence of shalom and the need for divine intervention.
This need for divine intervention appears even in the story of a young Moses, who attempted without success to reconcile two of his Hebrew brothers:
One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, Why do you strike your companion? He answered, Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian? Then Moses was afraid, and thought, Surely the thing is known. When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. (Exod 2:11-15)
Much like God attempted to reconcile Cain and Abel, Moses attempted to reconcile two of his Hebrew brothers, but his effort fails because his own sin—murder—got in the way.
In the Books of the Prophets, peace remains out of reach as two dominant types of conflict emerge.
The first type of conflict arose between the nation of Israel and God because they repeatedly disobeyed the Mosaic covenant, as anticipated in Deuteronomy:
And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deut 30:1-3)
If the nation of Israel obeyed the covenant (practiced holiness), God promised to forgive and reunite them; however, if they ignored the covenant, God would destroy the nation and scatter the people. To remind the people of their covenantal obligations, God repeatedly sent prophets, such as Jeremiah, to warn them of their sins:
Their houses shall be turned over to others, their fields and wives together, for I will stretch out my hand against the inhabitants of the land, declares the LORD. For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace. (Jer 6:12–14)
Here, greedy prophets and priests, who turn their backs on sin, lead the nation to conflict with God and judgment.
In our own times, Bonhoeffer wrote about the problem of cheap grace—false forgiveness for false confession, saying: “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.” By contrast, costly grace requires personal confession of sin and real discipleship (Bonhoeffer 1995, 43–45).
The second type of conflict was internal to the nation of Israel, where kings more often than not behaved badly and wandered from faith in God.
For example, when King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, was crowned king, he was asked to reduce the heavy tax burden imposed by his father. His father’s advisers counseled him to lower taxes, but his friends counseled even higher taxes. When he raised taxes, ten tribes rebelled, leaving Rehoboam only the two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin. The other ten tribes formed a new kingdom (Israel), who crowned Jeroboam king of Israel. Jeroboam, who feared that people visiting Jerusalem for religious worship would eventually return to Rehoboam, set up alternative worship sites and recast new golden calf idols (1 Kgs 12), actions later referred to as the sins of Jeroboam (e.g.1 Kgs 14:16). Weakened by this split, both kingdoms were later destroyed and the people were exiled.
Not only did Rehoboam divide the nation of Israel through his greedy and foolish administration (1 Kgs 12:14), he later abandoned the Law of Moses and was forced, as a consequence, to become a vassal of Shishak, the king of Egypt (2 Chr 12:1-2). Animosity between the Northern and Southern kingdoms continued until New Testament times when Jews openly discriminated against Samaritans—part of the Northern Kingdom. Notice how conflict between the two nations quickly led to idolatry (Jer 1:15–16) and, by inference, tension with God. Increased tension with our neighbor naturally leads to tension with God and even with ourselves, as we strive to have our own way.
The hope of deliverance from conflict in the Old Testament came, in part, through texts, such as Isaiah 9:6-7, that link the Messiah and heaven to the idea of shalom: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Shalom is valuable because it is rare and because it offers a glimpse of heaven, as the Prophet Isaiah sees it:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. (Isa 11:6)
In Isaiah’s vision, an end to animal predation and the picture of a little child playing without fear among dangerous animals, suggests a return to Eden and the outbreak of shalom, a sign of God’s mighty work among us.
BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book.
Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.
Prince of Peace
Other ways to engage online: