Monday, May 26, 2008

Shalom, Shalom: Healthy Selves in a World of Disease

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 5A
Isaiah 26:3
Bob Rakestraw

“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, whose thoughts are fixed on you” (New Living Translation). Here the biblical writer speaks to God with a very strong confidence in God’s ability to fill the minds and hearts of his trusting people with continuous peace.

I memorized this text about forty years ago, and it has been one of the most helpful scriptures to me in the ongoing struggle to stay healthy—spiritually, mentally and physically—in a world that is fundamentally unhealthy. I was encouraged years ago when the words of this verse were set to music with a pleasant and peaceful melody. I sometimes sing this chorus when I need comfort, and sometimes simply to praise God.

The Hebrew says “peace, peace” (literally shalom, shalom). One commentator, F. Delitzsch, translates the verse: “You keep the firmly-established mind in peace, peace; for his [or her] confidence rests in you.” The repetition in the Hebrew is to show that deep and constant peace abides in the mind of the one who trusts in Jehovah.

While I was working on this blog I showed the first draft to my wife, Judy. After reading it, she asked an incisive question: “What actually is the peace God offers here?” Her question was prompted by the realization that even devout Christians struggle to have “peace” (as commonly understood) in the midst of life’s circumstances. Does “peace” mean that we will never have any sense of frustration, irritation, anger or confusion? I was richly blessed by my research on the Hebrew word shalom, and I wish to share a few thoughts here with you.

Unlike the Greek word for peace, shalom is “the opposite not so much of war as of any disturbance in the communal well-being of the nation.” It is used over 250 times in the Old Testament, and includes everything given by God in all areas of life. It “covers well-being in the widest sense of the word.” It includes bodily health, contentedness, good relations between nations and individuals, salvation and wholeness. The social dimension of the word reminds us that God’s desire for you and me to have true peace is something attainable only when our interpersonal relationships are healthy.

Another key thought is that peace is inseparable from Yahweh. The name of the place of Gideon’s altar (Judges 6:24) means “Yahweh is peace” (Jehovah-shalom). In the priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24-27 the concept of peace “sums up all the other blessings and…is closely associated with the presence of Yahweh.”

One final thought—too good to leave out—is that shalom often indicates “a comprehensive kind of fulfillment or completion, indeed of a [wholeness] in life and spirit which quite transcends any success which man alone, even under the best of circumstances, is able to attain…. This is illustrated by the promise of Yahweh that Josiah will be gathered to his fathers not ‘in peace’…which was manifestly not the case, but ‘in success,’ i.e., having achieved his calling (2 Kings 22:20).” [Notes are from The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, pp. 776-779.]

The basic sense of “peace,” then is wholeness, completeness, contentedness, worked in us by the presence of God, producing well-being in the community and an awareness of satisfaction and success in one’s life calling. This is so much more than “absence of war” or even “absence of worry” as peace is commonly thought of.

From my late teens until now I have experienced much peace from this verse, although I did not understand the text as fully as I do now. Whenever I have been plagued by anxiety, doubt about myself or my future, frustration, sadness, discouragement, depression, fear, temptation, anger, grief, and other difficult states of mind, I have tried to keep a “steadfast mind” (NRSV) by trusting in God and focusing on God’s promises and provisions for me. This text is much like the one in Philippians 4:4-9, which we considered earlier in this series. (I strongly recommend the Philippians passage to you as a way of “filling out” the thought of Isaiah 26:3.)

I have to admit that over the years of my Christian life I have frequently failed to keep my mind fixed on God, and in those times I have lacked the peace this verse offers. There have been many times when I have not kept my focus on the beauty and holiness of the Lord, and his intimate bond with me, and my mind became troubled, unholy, and afflicted by the diseases of the world. Each time, however, that I came back to God for forgiveness and cleansing, he faithfully received me and restored me. As I continued to seek him earnestly, he took me to new levels of holiness and wholeness that I had not experienced before.

Yes, this is a diseased world. There is a brokenness at the core of human existence, individually and collectively, due to the alienation from God that the scriptures call sin. The promise of Isaiah 26:3, however, is astounding. Just as God offered his comfort to ancient Israel in the midst of her struggles for survival, health, wholeness and purpose in life, so he offers his shalom to you and me today.

I want to continue further on this verse next time, giving some recent personal information, but right now I give you a benediction as a corollary to our theme.

Now may the Lord of peace himself
give you peace at all times in all ways.
The Lord be with all of you
(2 Thessalonians 3:16).

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