Prompted by an excellent podcast that I listened to yesterday discussing the relation between the kingdom of God and “shalom” in scripture, I want to look briefly at Isaiah 9:6-7.
The passage speaks of the birth of a child who will sit on the throne of David, saying that “of the abundance of government and shalom there is no end” (my translation). He will rule over Israel “with justice and righteousness from now for his lifetime” (also my translation—it raises some questions, I know).
The question is whether the juxtaposition of “government” and shalom here amounts to an identification of “kingdom” and a creational well-being and wholeness that carries over into the New Testament, so that, in effect, the proclamation of the coming kingdom of God is the proclamation of shalom.
The prophecy sits a little oddly in Isaiah’s dour account of tensions between Israel and Assyria. Judah and Jerusalem will face gloom and destruction, but the northern regions around Galilee have emerged from darkness into light. YHWH has defeated the oppressor and has given prosperity to the nation (Is. 9:1-4). Whether the perfect tenses are real or prophetic is debatable.
The reason for celebration in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali is that a child has been born, a son has been given. Like other boys born in this section, he is given a prophetically significant name. Isaiah’s own son bears the name A-Remnant-Shall-Return (Is. 7:3). A boy is called God-With-Us as a sign that YHWH is present in the midst of the Assyrian crisis (Is. 7:14; 8:8). A prophetess bears a son and gives him the name The-Spoil-Speeds-The-Prey-Hastens (Is. 8:3) because Assyria will soon plunder Damascus and Samaria.
The child whose birth is announced in Isaiah 9:6 is also given an unwieldy but prophetically significant name: Wonder-Counsellor-Warrior-God-Father-Forever-Prince-Of-Peace. His name is an assurance that YHWH will fight against the Assyrians and bring peace to Israel. But unlike A-Remnant-Shall-Return, God-With-Us, and The-Spoil-Speeds-The-Prey-Hastens, this boy will be a righteous Davidic king and will rule over Israel.
Significantly, this passage is not applied to Jesus in the New Testament. Rather, an unmarried woman will conceive, and she will bear a son and will “call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21).
Government and shalom clearly go together in Isaiah 9:6-7. Peace is not an idyllic, apolitical or supra-historical condition. It is the consequence, on the one hand, of victory over the oppressor Assyria (Is. 10:12-19), and on the other, of good government in which justice is enacted by the king. In other words, shalom is the product of kingly rule, and kingly rule presupposes the continuing need to act both to protect Israel against external enemies and to judge Israel internally.
This is the obvious template for “kingdom” in scripture. It goes all the way back to the original demand for a king: “there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:19–20). Kingdom is the internal maintenance of justice and righteousness and the external maintenance of security; and crucially, in the biblical story, when justice and righteousness break down internally, Israel is exposed externally to invasion, destruction, and exile.
When that happens, YHWH steps in and acts sovereignly to reestablish the kingdom arrangement in order that his people may experience shalom again. So the prophet brings good news to shattered Jerusalem, publishes shalom and salvation, and declares to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Is. 52:7). In the Septuagint this is “Your God will act as king (Basileusei),” and in the Targum “The kingdom of your God has been revealed.” Then he will make the wilderness of Jerusalem “like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD” (Is. 51:3).
Kingdom and shalom, therefore, are not the same thing. The kingdom of God is the “political” action in history that will reestablish—and then maintain—the conditions under which there may be peace. Kingdom is necessary because God’s new creation in microcosm is always under threat, both routinely and climactically.
The New Testament events presuppose the most grave, climactic, indeed existential, crisis in the government of God’s people. The coming of the kingdom of God in this context is, first, the judgment of unjust and unrighteous Israel by means of Roman invasion and the establishment of a renewed community; and it is, secondly, on a broader but no less historical basis, the defeat of Greek-Roman opposition to the Lord and his Anointed and the establishment of Jesus as king, not over Israel only but also over the nations.
These mighty works of Israel’s God would bring about a new shalom—and glory—in the ancient world for his people. Persecution would be brought to an end, formerly pagan nations would be reconciled to the one, true, living God, a new holy priesthood would be installed in place of the old pagan priesthoods, and the risen Lord Jesus Christ, as YHWH’s king, seated on the throne of David, not for the span of a human lifetime but forever, would maintain justice and righteousness.
At least, that’s how the early church imagined things. The chart below roughly maps the internal failures, which are always a loss of shalom, and the external crises throughout the ages. The pattern continues in principle into the Anthropocene. Peace is as elusive as ever, the need for the historical management of the people of God—in shorthand “kingdom”—remains.