The difference between “kingdom of God” and “shalom”

Read time: 5 minutes
The Prophet Isaiah after Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

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.

Thanks for listening to the podcast, Andrew! I hope you heard you work “behind” some of my comments and questions. In any case, I’m grateful for both the praise and constructive critique. It’s in that spirit that I offer this response. Sorry for the length (again). I still don’t know how to respond briefly to your posts!

These are my general points of agreement with this post.

1) Governing and shalom go together; the latter is produced by the former.

2) This governing involves both provision (within a community) and projection (from outside threats to that community) and prophecy (against a community, for its failures).

3) The OT see this most clearly in God’s covenant/kingdom community of Israel; this is its dominant witness/motif.

But here are some possible areas of disagreement:

a) I see significant overlap in the OT language used for creation and kingdom/covenant. On the one hand, the kingdom/covenant community is often described in creational (or new creational) language. But on the other hand—and here’s where I wonder if there is difference—the conflictual language of kingdom/covenant (protection against threat) is also present in accounts of more general creation (the establishment of livable order in the midst of ever-threatening chaos). I suspect, then, that a biblical case can be made that governing-toward-shalom has a wider, creational scope than just Israel.

b) With regard to the covenant/Kingdom people of Israel, I see biblical warrant for caution about the centrality of the kingdom model. It is significantly critiqued at its source, a feature that seems to be downplayed in your use of 1 Sam 8 (and echoed in 12:12). These verses include the note that Samuel “was not happy when they asked for a ruler” (6). God’s response to the people’s request: “they are not rejecting you, they reject me as their ruler” (7). “They desert me and worship other gods” (8). The type of ruler they will receive? One who will “take your youths” into military service (11), “force” others to farm (12), “take” your daughters (13), “take…the best of your fields” (14), “take…your best cattle and donkeys…for personal use” (16), and “you will become slaves” (17), leading you to “cry out against the very ruler you chose” (18). But “YHWH will not answer your pleas” (18). Still, the people “refused to listen to Samuel’s warning” (19). And when this incident is taken up again in 12:1-19, Samuel refers to “the case against you,” and the verses conclude with the people’s confession of “the sin of asking for a ruler” (19). Among other things, this critique creates space for non-monarchic ways of God’s involvement with the covenantal people and therefore less parochial modes of people-to-people engagements.

c) Finally, I think there is biblical (OT) warrant for thinking of God’s kingly rule beyond the covenant with Israel. If we are just searching for the term “kingdom” (or even more limiting, “the kingdom of God,” which might only be present in a few places, e.g., 1 Chron 28-29; 2 Chron 13:8), then we would get a picture in which God’s/YHWH’s Kingdom=Israel. But if we consider kingly functions—ruling and reigning—then the picture is a bit more complicated. This is particularly so with the Psalms: 9:7-8: your “dominion…over all…You rule over all”; 45:6: “He will establish a throne for judgment and will judge the world in righteousness”; 47 “For YHWH Most High is awe-inspiring, the great ruler over the whole earth.” “God rules over all the earth…” “God rules over the nations…” World leaders are gathered, and so are the people of Sarah and Abraham’s god, for YHWH reigns over all the earth…”; 93:1-2: “your throne is forever and ever; a scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom”; 96:12: “Let the fields exult and all that is in them! Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy at the presence of YHWH, for God is coming. God is coming to rule the earth—to rule the world with justice and its peoples with truth!”; 97:5-6: “The mountains melt like wax at your sight, at the sight of the god of all the earth. The heavens proclaim your justice, and all the people’s see your glory”; 98:8-9: “Let the rivers clap their hands and the hills ring out their joy before YHWY, who comes to judge the earth, who will rule the world with justice and its peoples with equity”; 99:2: “YWHH is even higher than Zion, and exalted above all the nations…”; 103:19: “YHWH reigns…the world is established…your throne is established”; 145:11-13: “YHWH has established his throne in the heavens with sovereignty over all”. But it is also present outside the Psalms: in 1 Chron 29:11-12, David praises YHWH before the assembly (in the context of talk of his descendant, Solomon, building the temple), “With you, YHWH, are the greatness, power, glory, victory, and majesty. Everything in heavens and on the earth belongs to you. Yours is the kingdom, O God, and you are exalted as head over all; in Is 37:16, Hezekiah, at the temple says, “YHWH omnipotent, God of Israel, enthroned on the cherubim, you alone are God of all the nations of the world. You made heaven and earth.” And in Dan 4:34-35 Nebuchadnezzar says “God’s rule lasts for all times and God’s dominion endures through all generations. Those who live on the earth count for nothing; God’s will governs the powers of heaven and those who live on the earth. No one can stand against the power of God or say to God, ‘What are you doing?”

In light of these scriptures, it seems plausible to at least say that, within the (parochial) witness of Israel was a sense that God’s kingly rule was not reducible to the kingdom of Israel and, indeed, extended to the whole creational/national order. And thus, God’s governing-toward-shalom is not reducible to or equivalent God’s provision and protection of the covenantal kingdom of Israel. So it seems to me that one element—I’d even grant the dominant element—of the OT account of governing-shalom is political and parochial (centered on the covenantal kingdom of Israel), as you say. But it does seem that the broader OT witness does allow for a more expansive notion of kingdom/governance/shalom, even it is a minor witness.

What Jesus does with this I’ll leave for another occasion, but it seems plausible to me that he works within these OT parameters: employing the dominant meaning (provision and protection for, and prophecy against a political people), while also undermining the problematic elements of royal ideology (echoing 1 Sam 8), and gesturing toward a wider governance-shalom (indicated by the Psalms).

One final comment: stepping back from these more closely exegetical considerations, your more interpretive theological claim that Israel is to be a microcosm seems to imply God doing something in the macrocosm, doesn’t it? Surely covenantal monotheism, in the OT, doesn’t limit God’s good creative work to what is happening in the microcosm alone, right? If so, then perhaps some of these scriptures just noted would be a contribution toward developing a more panoramic biblical theology?