Shalom in the Drama of Scripture

Monday 9 August

With Rev Doc Chris Wright: After he was ordained pastoral ministry in Kent, Chris taught the Old Testament in India for five years (1983-88) and then at All Nations Christian College in England, where he was also Principal from 1993-2001. In 2001 he took on the leadership of Langham at the invitation of the founder, John Stott. Chris was the chief architect of The Cape Town Commitment – the statement of the Third Lausanne Congress 2010. For NH2021, Chris will explore the theme of “Shalom” throughout scripture during our morning Bible Teaching sessions.

The theme of New Horizon this year is “People of Peace.”   In our morning Bible sessions, we want to see that great biblical theme of peace – shalom – in all its rich depth of meaning, in the Bible story as a whole. 

What do we mean by the Bible story as a whole?  It is important to remind ourselves that the Bible is not just a book full of rules, or promises, or doctrines (though there are plenty of all of those).  Taken as a whole canon in the form God has given it to us, the Bible is like one great drama – an action-packed “play” with many characters and scenes but with God Himself as the author and director of the drama and the principal character within it.  It’s like a drama in seven acts.  

Act One: Creation – God created the heavens and the earth and put humanity in the earth to live there with God.        

Act Two: Rebellion  – it all goes wrong in our sinful fall and rebellion against God, which brings such evil into the world.

Act Three: Promise – this begins with God’s promise to Abraham and the people of OT Israel who are told that through them God intends to bring blessing to all the nations on the earth and that forward leading promise leads to…

Act Four: Christ – the very central act of course which is the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, his birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension which is at the very heart of the Bible story.         

Act Five: Mission – the redemption story leads on to the Day of Pentecost and the launch of the mission of the church going right up to the return of Christ when we will see…

Act Six: Judgment and Act Seven: New Creation

Here they are in a diagram form: 

The question is what does “shalom” look like in each of these “acts” of the biblical drama? But we only have five sessions!  So we will consider acts 1 and 2 together today, and Acts 6 and 7 together later in the week. 

Shalom established and broken

So today, then, we go back to the very beginning, to see how shalom was established in creation, and then shattered by our rebellion (acts 1 and 2).  Now that would take us back, of 

course to Genesis 1-2, the creation accounts, and to Genesis 3-11, the story of our human rebellion and fall, and the growth and spread of evil throughout the earth and all history. 

But I’d like to take you somewhere a bit less familiar, to a chapter where we find a strongly creational understanding of shalom. It is a beautiful picture of what it could mean to enjoy it, alongside a pretty horrible picture of what it means to lose it. 

That’s Leviticus chapter 26.  Here we find God promising to Israel that, if they would live within His covenant and obey His commands as their Redeemer God and Lord, then they would enjoy a range and quality of blessings that amounted to a restoration of the shalom of creation itself. 

“I will grant peace, shalom, in the land,” says God (v6)

But if they persisted in rebellion and sin, then they would suffer greatly – as sadly did happen.   But let’s look on the positive side first of all. 

Here we are, then, in the book of Leviticus, with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. They have experienced God’s compassion and grace and redeeming power when He rescued them from slavery in the exodus in that great act of redemption.  They have responded by promising to hear and obey His word. They are in covenant relationship with their God.  They have experienced His incredible forgiveness even after their terrible rebellion at the golden calf (Exodus 32 – 34).  And now He is dwelling in their midst in the tabernacle – that portable tent of God’s presence, as they travel on. 

The big question now is:  Can this happy state of affairs  – this shalom as we might call it – continue when they get into the land God had promised them?  Yes, says God, but only if you continue to live in obedience to me, in the ways I set before you. 

And that brings us then to Leviticus 26. 

Now at this point I have to object to the heading inserted into our NIV.  Can you see it there, “Reward for Obedience.” And then a bit later: “Punishment for Disobedience”.   That seems to suggest that God’s blessing would be some kind of reward, as if Israel could earn God’s blessing by their obedience.  But that’s not what’s happening at all. Yes – sin and rebellion deserve God’s judgment, as He makes clear in the whole Bible.  But No, obedience never deserves, God’s blessing.   On the contrary, it is a response to God’s grace. In Israel’s case, the grace of God’s salvation in the exodus deliverance. God’s grace comes first, and obedience follows as the only proper response. 

Obedience to God’s law for Israel was not a way of earning or deserving God’s blessing as some kind of a reward.  Obedience was simply the only way to remain within the sphere of blessing that God had already granted by His grace and salvation. But if Israel wanted to go on enjoying that blessing of God’s promises and the covenant and salvation, then they must live accordingly. God’s blessing is not a reward for obedience – but the reason for it!  

Now then, what would that blessing look like if Israel responded to God by living in obedience to Him as His redeemed people?  Well, that’s what Leviticus 26:1-13 sketches in. You’ll find the same promises in the first part of Deuteronomy 28, when God renewed His covenant with Israel just before they entered the Promised Land. 

It is all very creational, very earthy, very practical.  That’s to say, God doesn’t say, “If you obey my commandments, then you can all come to heaven when you die.”  No, God is the creator of heaven and earth.  Remember that “creation triangle” in Act 1 of the drama of scripture?  

God put human beings on earth to live and flourish in a relationship of shalom in all directions:  peace between people and God, peace between people and one another, and peace between people and the created order that we are part of.  And that rich, multi-dimensional, shalom of God’s creation intention, is reflected here in Leviticus 26 – even with awareness that we live in a fallen world in which there are dangerous enemies and wild beasts. 

The Ingredients of Shalom

1. Shalom means knowing the living God (vs. 1, 2, 13)

In 26:1 God warns Israel not to worship other gods or set up idols. Why not? Because they now know who the one true living God is – and that is Yahweh, the God who had revealed His name to Moses at the burning bush, and shown His power in the exodus.  And so again and again God simply says, “I am the LORD your God”  (I hope you know that when our English Bibles put the word “the LORD” in capital letters, it is translating the personal name of God in the Old Testament – Yahweh, or Jehovah in the older versions).  You can see it there in 25:55,  26:1, and 2, and 13.   Again and again. God just keeps insisting:  This is who I am, and you know it. You know the living God by name! 

It was the greatest privilege of Israel among all the nations of the world at that time, that they knew the name of the living God, the true God, the only God, in a way that no other nations did at that time. Look what God said to the Israelites even before he rescued them from Egypt. 

‘Therefore, say to the Israelites: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.  I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”’ 
Exodus 6:6-7

And later, after it had all happened – here’s how God underlined the uniqueness of Israel’s experience and what they now knew: 

Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?  Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, …  like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?.. You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides Him there is no other. …Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.
Deuteronomy 4:32-39

So you see, Israel had experienced God’s revelation and God’s redemption in ways that no other nation on earth had done, at that time.  So they knew the living God in ways no other nation did.  And that should have brought them great joy and peace – and for many of them, of course, it did, as we can read in the Psalms.  In Psalm 33, the writer celebrates how Yahweh is the God of truth, righteousness and love, the creator of the heavens and earth, the Lord of history, the governor of nations:  And then he burst out: 

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He chose for His inheritance
Psalm 33:12

As it was for Israel, so it is for us, indeed for anyone.  The only way to true shalom, to having peace in the midst of this fallen world, is to know the living God.  And for us, of course, that means to know Him in and through the person of His Son, Jesus Christ – who is the perfect and final revelation of God. 

So that is why God warned Israel again and again to avoid the way of idolatry – of going after other false gods, all the things we make into gods for ourselves. When we make false gods, that is what shatters our shalom and inflicts every kind of brokenness and strife upon us.  That is what Paul sees so clearly in Romans 1.  As a whole human race we have substituted the knowledge of the living God for every kind of idolatry.  And look at the mess we end up in – personally, spiritually, and socially. 

2. Shalom means rest in the midst of work

v2 –  “observe my Sabbaths.”  Might seem a bit strange to us, or even, (sadly) a bit legalistic.  

Now work is a good thing in itself. It is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.  The God we meet in Genesis 1 is a worker.  He decides, plans, organises, executes and accomplishes and is satisfied with His work –  and then He “rests”.  Not “rests” in the sense of “gets tired and takes a break” but in the sense of enjoying His own handiwork and exercising His kingly rule within His ordered creation. Human beings, then, made in the image of God, are to do the same – that is to work and rest within their enjoyment of God’s creation. 

That is why the Sabbath commandment within the Ten Commandments makes the day of resting from work, a day of remembering the creator. Human life includes our work but is not defined by our work but by our relationship with God, our creator. So He gave the Israelites the Sabbath day, breaking up time into weeks, with a rhythm of work and rest. In Egypt, the Israelites had no freedom to rest – their work was all for the benefit of Pharaoh.  So the Sabbath was one of God’s amazing gifts to His people – and to the world.

But He gave them more than one day a week. The rhythm of sevens extended also to their years.  Notice the context.  The whole of chapter 25 has been dealing with the world of work and the economy, and the impact of impoverishment and debt. Sometimes work is the only thing a person can sell to survive, and so it can become enslaving. God recognises this fact of economic life in a fallen world. For all sorts of reasons (sometimes natural causes, sometimes wickedness, greed and oppression) people fall into debt, and that can be crushing.  So God gave them an economic system that involved period relief of debts and a way of ensuring that whole families did not end up in slavery forever – the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. 

We can’t go into the details here (though they are fascinating!).  But the point is: this whole Sabbath principle in Israel was a check on the idolatry of work.  Work is a good thing but it easily becomes a ‘god-thing’. And anything that becomes an idol like that can take over our lives and ruin the other good things like our marriage or our family or even the joy of life itself.  Here’s how that astute social commentator in the book of Ecclesiastes observed it: 

Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: there was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’ 
This too is meaningless –a miserable business! 
Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

So God says, don’t let that happen.  Balance work with rest and remember your creator and your redeemer.  Every week there was to be a day of rest and peace, for the whole community including working animals. And every seventh year, a year of rest for the whole land and release for those enslaved by debt.

So it should be for us too, even in this New Testament era of our lives in Christ. Shalom should involve what they call a good “work-life balance” – a life in which work is important (of course it is, and should be) but is not the be-all and end-all of life itself; a life in which we take time to rest, to remember the Lord, to re-focus on the rest of God’s purpose for our lives. 

But Shalom also means the peace that come from “resting” in Christ –  (not RIP).  Hebrews 4 points out that the Sabbath in the Old Testament was a kind of signpost to an even greater and better “rest” that can be ours in Christ, both now (in freedom from anxiety and panic as we obey Christ by trusting our Heavenly Father), and in eternity when we enjoy the perfect shalom and “rest” of the new creation. 

3. Shalom means freedom from hunger and fear

I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.  I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. v 4- 10

Verses 4-10 also take us back to creation and the Garden of Eden (well, except for the enemies and battles of v. 7-8 because we still live in a fallen world). 

In fact verse 6 uses our word:  “I grant give shalom in the land.”  This literally means, “I will give peace on the earth” – that’s the resonant phrase here that echoes on down through Scripture, even into the song of the angels at the birth of Christ.   And God’s idea of “shalom in the land” includes the rich creational blessings of the soil – as He gave to the Adam and Eve in the garden.

God’s first gift to humanity was a menu (as Tim Chester puts it),  “You may eat of any of the trees in the garden…” Not without work, of course as we saw in the last point.  So our text speaks of planting, sowing, harvesting and so on, all the natural and necessary work of agriculture.  And Shalom includes all that – under God’s blessing.

“I will… make you fruitful and increase your numbers…” again, a promise that echoes God’s original instruction to the human race to be fruitful and multiply.  Shalom includes the normal processes of sex, births, children and families.  

And Shalom means freedom from fear, the fear of violent death whether by wild beasts or vicious enemies.  When we live in such circumstances, that too is God’s blessing and we should be grateful for it.  

However, we know, of course (and so did the Israelites) that we live in a fallen world, in which there are all kinds of brokenness and failure.  Crops fail. People die young. Wild animals kill humans. Accidents happen. Robbers kill. Wars break out. 

What then is Shalom in such a world?  It means both being thankful when we do enjoy the blessings of food and safety, and trust in God even when we don’t. You remember the book of Habakkuk and how that book ends?  Even in fear and need, he rejoices and trusts in God.

Psalm 34, for example, balances thankfulness for God’s protection and deliverance from evil and enemies but also recognises that the righteous may indeed, and often do, suffer all kinds of bad things.  So the Psalmist’s strong faith that God will ultimately deliver the righteous and destroy the wicked becomes a firm hope for the ultimate future. 

The righteous person may have many troubles but the Lord delivers him from them all. Evil will slay the wicked; the foes of the righteous will be condemned. The Lord will rescue His servants; no one who takes refuge in Him will be condemned.
Psalm 34:19-22

And that was indeed how Israel envisaged that future of perfect Shalom. Not as some kind of fairy-tale heaven in a purely spiritual realm but as the perfection of all God intended for us at creation – the fullness of life and work, and freedom from hunger and fear. 

And you see some of these pictures in Isaiah 11:4-9, Isaiah 32:15-20 and Isaiah 65.

4.  Shalom means God in our midst

The climax of God’s promise of blessing for an obedient people comes in verses 11-12.

I will put my dwelling-place among you, and I will not abhor you.  I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.

You see, it was not enough merely for Israel to know God as we were thinking in our first point to know that there is only one true living God and that Yahweh is His name and character.  That in itself is a vast privilege.  What God wants is not just for His people to know Him but for them to be His dwelling place on earth.  God comes to stay.  God makes Himself at home in the midst of His people – that is shalom! God with us! Immanuel!

This takes us back to the book of Exodus and the tabernacle.  In fact the world “my dwelling place” is the same as “my tabernacle” – for that was indeed the focal point of God’s presence – right in the heart of His people, in the middle of the camp. God camps there with His people. 

And God told Israel – That’s what I really want.  That’s why I brought you out of Egypt – not just for liberation, not just to receive my covenant and law, but so that I might dwell in your midst – as God had wanted to do ever since the Garden of Eden. 

‘So I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests.  Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
Exodus 29:44-4

God says that’s why I brought you here because I want to live in your midst and to dwell with you.  And this too is a kind of restoration of Eden.  Look at what God says in verse 12:  “I will walk among you.”  Now that is a very unusual form of the normal verb “to walk”.  It is a kind of self-reflexive meaning – something you do for yourself.  It’s not like walking purposefully to a destination. It’s the walking you do for pleasure, just going for a walk, going for a stroll, with somebody else, for a nice time of companionship and chatting together.  Just out together for a walk.  

And the other place that form of the verb is found is precisely in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:8, God used to go walking with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening. God and human beings strolling together in harmony, enjoying the end of the day’s work, relaxing together. That is Shalom!

Sadly, in Genesis 3, that day ended in exposure of sin and disobedience and expulsion from the garden.  But God says here – “I long to do that again.  I want to have that kind of relationship with my people.  To be able to walk among you as my family, in easy, peaceful friendship and love.”

Now for Israel that meant having the tabernacle as the sacred, holy space in their midst, where they could only “walk with God” through the ministry of the priests and sacrifices of atonement and cleansing.  God in His holiness could not just jog in and out among the people in their sin but He longed for that restored relationship, that Shalom.  

What about us?  Well of course it points us to the Lord Jesus Christ.  First of all, in His incarnation, when the Word became flesh, as John tell us, He “tabernacled among us” –  Jesus became the new “tabernacle” or temple –  the place where heaven and earth meet,  the presence of God on earth. That’s even how Jesus described His own body, in death and resurrection, as the building of a new temple. He becomes the way we can meet with God and have God among us. 

For secondly, as Paul tells us, we ourselves through our union with Christ have become the dwelling place of God. In that incredible passage in Ephesians 2.  But we still live in this world of sin and wickedness – with no justice and no peace.  But this promise of God in Leviticus 26 once again points us to an ultimate future when it will be truly and abundantly fulfilled in the new creation.  

Here is God Himself speaking from His throne, as the whole creation is transformed into the city of God, into the temple of his dwelling with us forever. 

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.’
Revelation 21:1-4

But that is the end of the story!  We’ll get there on Friday, in acts 6 and 7 of the great drama of Scripture.  What then is Shalom for us, in light of acts 1 and 2 of the great Bible story – creation and fall? Well, many things. But from this short passage it should certainly include: knowing the living God, knowing that God made us for rest as well as work, being free from hunger and fear and rejoicing in that, or being able to trust God when such things hit us in this fallen world, and above all knowing the daily loving, living presence of God in our hearts and in our midst.

Through Christ these promises of Leviticus 26 can be true for us, in ways that need to be worked out in our daily lives.   And may God give us grace and wisdom to know how to do that for His glory.

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