Shalom – a definition
This simple ancient Hebrew word expresses an entire worldview about our human experience. Often translated as ‘peace’, shalom is about harmony, wholeness and the transcendent peace that proceeds from these.
Shalom means that everything is in the right place, and nothing is in the wrong place.
Shalom gives attention to both aspects of this reality: a life lived in shalom is one that is full; complete of the things that produce harmony and wholeness. It is also one that actively and necessarily excludes everything that reduces these.
Most, if not all of us, desire to live in shalom, yet most, if not all of us, do not know how to live this way. This series of reflections provides a paradigm for shalom intended to help those who seek to live it.
Psalm 23 — An expression of Shalom
A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
1. The Lord is my shepherd.
The journey of shalom begins here.
This simple first line introduces a very profound concept: shalom is not something I can achieve on my own — I need guiding. Furthermore, living shalom is not a fixed state, but a life led by one who acts like a shepherd.
Here the Psalmist names the shepherd as the Lord (also Yahweh or Jehovah) which is the self-revealed name of God, who is also the Creator. The Bible begins with — and indeed has as its premise — God as Creator. So we could say, “My Creator is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Which leads us to a more profound discovery: reality itself only makes sense through the ‘shepherding’ of the one who created it. In other words, our understanding of the world, our lives, and any sense of ‘purpose’ come from the Creator and what he chooses to reveal to us.
Accepting this is crucial because it is the paradigm with which we can understand shalom, and without which we cannot. There are, of course, other ways of perceiving reality, the universe, our lives and our purpose, but none of these would be ‘shalom’.
We cannot separate shalom from this crucial understanding:
The Creator has structured reality with shalom as its purpose,
and is continually and actively involved in bringing it into being.
To live with shalom, I must choose to submit myself to be led by the Shepherd. I must also know who he is — the Creator of all things. I cannot lead myself because I am not the Creator, and therefore don’t know how. If the Lord is my Shepherd, he knows everything — everything about who I am, and everything about where I need to go. His purpose for me is shalom, and if I follow him, he will lead me.
Therefore, the Lord is my shepherd.
I AM the Good Shepherd
“I am the Good Shepherd”
With this claim, Jesus reveals himself as both the Creator and the Shepherd. The “I AM” part is undoubtedly a reference to the same “I AM” God uses to reveal himself to Moses at the burning bush. John’s gospel begins with clear statements that Jesus is God — the ‘word’ that was there in the beginning and through whom all things were made. It is John who repeatedly records Jesus making his “I AM” claims. When we hear Jesus say, “I AM…” we are supposed to hear those words as being the voice of God spoken through the one who is the ‘living word.’ Jesus makes seven such claims in John’s gospel — no accident as seven is the number of perfection and a further hint of Jesus’ divine nature.
In this particular claim, Jesus reveals himself as the Creator Shepherd. As we saw earlier, reality itself has been created with shalom as its purpose and Jesus as Creator is continually and actively involved in bringing it into being (see Colossians 1:15-17 & Hebrews 1:2-3). As the Good Shepherd, Jesus knows that we must be led if we are to live in shalom. He knows our needs and we recognise his voice. He calls us forward from our past into a future of hope, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
As our Good Shepherd, he says to each one of us, “follow me.”
May you live in Shalom, and may you know that the Lord desires it for you.
May you know that the Lord made you and will also lead you.
May you know that the Lord is your shepherd.