“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5:9 (NRSV)
The concept of shalom (peace) is pervasive in the Old Testament. In its largest sense, it refers to a state of affairs where everything is as it should be. It is applied to nations, relationships among people, the relationship between God and his people, and the condition of Israel.
It is very closely related to the concept of Sabbath rest and, in fact, the observance of the Sabbath is a miniature portrait of shalom for the community.
Shalom is something that is both a goal and a hope – something you work towards and something that is the reward of faithfulness. Needless to say, references to it abound throughout the Old Testament with the cast depending on whatever state Israel happens to be in. There is a longing for shalom, the enjoyment of shalom, or the hope that shalom will one day come again.
In Isaiah’s day, Assyria loomed large as a threat. There was no rest for the people because Assyria was poised to lay siege to Jerusalem at any moment, and this was cast by Isaiah as brought about because of Israel’s idolatry. Faced with a storm of Assyrian forces, God speaks through Isaiah to call the people to repentance, discourage the king (Hezekiah) from allying with other nations to save them, and speak comfort to a people who are about to undergo tribulation.
In Isaiah 32, the prophet looks through the upcoming disaster into what kind of kingdom God will forge out of this trial. Verses 1-8 describe this kingdom of faithful kings who keep their people safe, physically afflicted people who are healed, oppressors whose plans come to nothing, and noble acts that last.
In verses 9-15, Isaiah warns that this will only come through a great tribulation that will include the destruction of the great city, which will be desolate, until the day when the Spirit is poured out and restores the fortunes of Israel.
The chapter ends with this:
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
The forest will disappear completely,
and the city will be utterly laid low.
Happy will you be who sow beside every stream,
who let the ox and the donkey range freely.
Isaiah 32:16-20 (NRSV)
It draws together some of the other elements of the Beatitudes and, in fact, ends with a beatitude of its own. In this portion of the vision, we have this perhaps jarring imagery that, out of the rubble of the destruction, the Spirit-filled people of God will build new lives for themselves: safe, free, and perhaps even a hint of growing beyond the boundaries of their original city.
Jesus is setting down the Law for faithful Israel at a time when tribulation is right at their doorstep. Rome is Assyria times five. He urges a certain path of behavior during this time that, in no small part, is meant to challenge Israel’s revolutionary tendencies that could easily bring down their own destruction if they keep pursuing a path of violence and retribution.
But I also think Jesus taps into a larger hope – that of the kingdom of shalom. He doesn’t urge peace just to keep Rome off their backs; he urges peace because a new kingdom has arrived – the kingdom of shalom whose restoration was so hoped for in the Old Testament. The people who make this kingdom will be called children of God.
Making peace is bigger than just resolving interpersonal conflict, although it certainly includes that. The Old Testament concept of shalom defines an entire way of life – an entire world system. It is the world system of the new creation, and blessed are those who bring that new creation into the here and now.
- What are the features of an idyllic kingdom of peace? What are the things in your immediate surroundings that either work against those things or are just simply broken? Might God be calling you to work in those areas?
- What does it mean for your church, your family, and you as an individual to be a kingdom of peace in the world?