This article looks at the Greek and Hebrew words for peace in connection with war

Source: The Outlook, 1985. 2 pages.

The Peace of God

The English word "peace" is a word with a rich meaning. It is related to the French word "paix" and both these words go back to the Latin "pax." We are not at this time interested in examining the range of meaning of the English word "peace" however. It is our purpose to examine the biblical background of the word "peace." To do so we must go into a brief discussion of Hebrew and Greek words. For in the Bible the word "peace" is a translation of either the Hebrew word "shalom" or the Greek word "eirene."

We here wish to examine briefly this Hebrew word shalom. Some years ago one could hear a song that was sung in some of our church related gatherings: "Shalom, dear friend, Shalom." We believe that one or two of the Christian Reformed Churches in North America have used the word shalom as the name for their church. An excellent choice!

What, precisely, does the word mean? As one studies the many instances of the word's use in the Old Testament it becomes apparent that the English word "peace" does not do justice to the richness of meaning which the Hebrew word has. The English word often expresses the idea of stillness, quiet and the absence of war. In contrast, the Hebrew word accents rather the affirmative. Peace (shalom) can stand for prosperity, as in Isaiah 45:7. This verse is translated in the King James Version, "I Make peace and create evil." Newer English versions render this, "I bring prosperity and create disaster." Clearly, the Hebrew word at this point is not opposed to "war" but to "evil," "disaster."

Note also the close parallelism between "strength" and "peace" in Psalm 29:11. The Hebrew notion of "peace" (shalom) has to do with wholeness, happiness, well-being. Absence of war may be part of this peace, but not necessarily so. The most striking example of how "peace" (shalom), in the Old Testament, is not opposed to war is found in 2 Samuel 11:7, where David is inquiring of Uriah the Hittite "how the war prospered" (King James). As one checks the Hebrew at this point he finds that David is actually inquiring about the shalom of the war. In other words, here the word "shalom" does not mean the absence of war, or its cessation. Rather, it means the prosperous conduct of the war itself. This may be a rather unusual notion for our western mind to grasp, but, if we are concerned to ascertain the biblical range of the word "peace", we must take such usage into account. Otherwise the danger exists that the word "peace" in the Bible will be uncritically and erroneously used to bolster certain current peace ideologies underlying the "peace" movements of the present day.

Still another instance of the very positive and almost war-like connotations of the word shalom in the Bible is found in Judges 8:9. This story deals with Gideon's pursuit of his enemies. As he pursues them Gideon requests the assistance of certain cities on the way of pursuit. But they refuse to render such assistance. At that point Gideon makes the following threat: "When I come again in peace, I will break down this tower" (King James). Here the word "peace" (shalom) actually means something like "victory" or "triumph." This is how the newer versions render it. It should be clear that the word shalom at this point is anything but "peaceful" in the commonly understood sense. It is consistent with retaliatory action such as the breaking down of a tower.

It is this positive, life-affirming meaning of the word shalom which makes it such a good word to use as one person meets another. At such a point they inquire about each other's shalom. It means: "Are things going well with so and so?" Joseph's brothers in the field at Dothan were not exactly a peaceful lot. The life of a shepherd and herdsman just was not that way. Still, Jacob sent his son Joseph to inquire about the shalom of these men.

Those who have studied this word further, also in its New Testament usage, have concluded that the New Testament notion of "peace" leans to a considerable extent on its Old Testament predecessor.

A good deal more may be said about this rich biblical word and its Hebrew and Greek background. What has been reported here may serve to caution against a glib quoting of biblical words to defend the pacifism which one encounter among even Christian believers today. Whatever we may say about the significant issues of war and peace and about our civil duty with respect to these matters, let us beware of incorrect use of the Scriptural terms. In the Bible, strength is allied with peace, and at certain points the progress of a war may be expressed in terms of the word shalom.

The Christian must indeed "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:14). Yet, in doing so the Christian will always remember that the deepest and most complete peace that is worth pursuing is a peace which the "world" does not give (John 14:27), because it is a peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7). God is not a God of disorder but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33, NIV). They who pursue God's "order" in the world will thereby be pursuing the peace of God.

As concerns the future, the biblical picture concerning the end-time is not that things will first threaten to get out of hand before Christ returns to bring about the eternal order. According to the biblical view of things, Christ will be ahead. It is Christ's coming that is accompanied by earthquakes, famines, war and rumours of wars. These are the signs of His coming. Let us listen to the distant sound of the trumpet and to the voice of archangel in the things we witness told.

He has told us that He won't be a minute late.

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