Something is wrong with the world, and everyone knows it. One could even say something is not right.
We betray today's spirit of relativism when we say something is wrong with the world, because we are acknowledging a simple truth: we know there is such a thing as right-ness.
The idea of right-ness is universal, although what we think that looks like can differ wildly. The ancient Hebrew people had a specific idea of the way things were meant to be, and it was called Shalom.
What is shalom?
Shalom is a Hebrew word often translated "peace" or "rest" in the Bible. It occurs some 236 times in the Old Testament, and is translated as "peace" in the King James version 175 times. Shalom is much bigger than peace, however. The word has connotations including completeness, wholeness, welfare, safety, health, prosperity, quiet, friendship, contentment, rightness, good relationship, deliverance, and harmony between parties.1
That's a mouthful, so let's agree to use shalom.
is how things were when God made the very first generation of creatures. Plants and animals, stars and humans, God and the world, everything was interrelated, all engaged in mutually beneficial fruitfulness. God is a happy and fruitful worker, and he created a world to share in that happiness.
is what God offered the nation of Israel, if only they would keep their covenant. If you know your Old Testament, you know how huge the concept of the land was to the Hebrew people. But it wasn't just about the land – it was about the good life. Shalom in the land would mean things like abundant harvest, safety, rain in its season, fruitful trees, peace in the land, tame animals, victory over enemies, etc. It meant a life free from fear in the midst of a fearful and fearing world.
is also prophetic. Or the Prophets are sometimes shalomic, if you prefer. Shalom is a key part of the Messianic kingdom - the hoped for Hebraic eschaton. For an example of this, look at Isaiah 9:4-7. In it, the Messiah is called the prince of peace (shalom). The whole prophecy is dripping with the Hebrew vision of shalom – that “one day” out there in the future, when Messiah is on David's throne, ruling God's people. In this vision, everything is safe, good, righteous, happy. In a word, shalom is the way things are supposed to be.
I want to communicate the picture of shalom well – it is so healthy, so good, so hopeful, to get a grasp of what this concept means. So, allow me borrow the words of another. In his book, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. describes shalom like this:
"[Shalom is] the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight. . . . Universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights." (10)
More than some ethereal concept of paradise, shalom is the most earthly of ideas.
It is about prosperity and right-ness between each and every creature, and between each creature and the creator. Shalom means the world functioning properly. Shalom means all creatures worshiping God by being what he created them to be. What would the human experience be like?
Imagine Adam and Eve, living in Eden. What would gardening be like without thorns, impatience, frustration, weeds, and thieves? What would marriage be like without selfishness, miscommunication, and fear? What was it like to undertake scientific classification (he named the animals!) without confusion, bias, politics, enemies, or error? Shalom is not merely the absence of conflict – it is the world in order.
Shalom Should have been the Legacy of Humankind!
But we know better.
That magical land of peace remains forever in the “someday” of fantasies. Shalom is what Hobbits get at the end of the novel, but it's not really going to happen to us.
Sure, people say they want peace. We have so many institutions and organizations created to bring about what ought to be – from multi-national efforts, to the peace corps, to mentoring programs, to your neighborhood watch, down to you volunteering to pick up trash on the highway once a year. Yet peace remains elusive; shalom is a chimera, that thing we wish for, but can never find – the perpetual holy grail of humanity.
Look at a few lyrics from the song One Day, by the Jewish Reggae (oh, it's real) artist, Matisyahu:
One day. One day. On and on and on . . .
I wonder how long we can wait, always looking forward to that “one day.”
Peace escapes us. Some people seem to find a little more of it than others, but we all taste the poison. Even happy spouses hurt each other. Good people still grieve. Our most white-washed neighborhoods are still riddled with drugs, homelessness, domestic violence, depression, litter, debt, anxiety anxiety anxiety. On and on it goes – you know it, I know it, everyone knows it.
Something is wrong here!
Even when we do get some peace, or think we can reach it, it proves to be a hollow travesty. Our peace turns out to be a disappointment. Schaeffer's personal peace and affluence are eventually unmasked, and we discover they really are the sick burlesque he warned us about. The American Dream of shalom: leave me alone and give me my money.
We were designed to inherit a legacy of fruitfulness and positive relationships. Instead, we received a world always at war. We come into the world, mouth open, ready to imbibe life itself - only to choke on a mouthful of dust. I never cease to be amazed at two things: that some people don't believe in goodness (how else can you explain so much bad?); and that some people think goodness is the basic inclination of humanity. We are thousands of years deep into a horror story. Even in the rare decent chapters, the characters all die old and lonely – to say nothing of the majority of history.
Yet, in the midst of it all, we know it could have been better. It should have been better. We entertain hope. We still tell stories with happy endings.
There is a poem
by Lewis, The Pilgrim's Problem, (for the full poem, click here) in which a hiker expects to find himself finished with the difficult part of his walk. He's ready now for the beautiful part. The bulk of the poem is about what he thought he would find. Then comes a sickening realization. Here is the end of the poem:
“Light drops of silver temperance, and clovery earth
Sending up mists of chastity, a country smell,
Till earnest stars blaze out in the established sky
Rigid with justice; the streams audible; my rest secure.
I can see nothing like all this. Was the map wrong?
Maps can be wrong. But the experienced walker knows
That the other explanation is more often true. "
Yes, we are lost, wandering somewhere East of Eden.
1 See Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words;
Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin by Cornelius Plantinga;
I am also indebted to one of my professors, Ryan Ward, for his class notes regarding the biblical concept of peace.
To read the C.S. Lewis poem in its entirety, click here.