“No Peace for the Wicked”

“There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.”
Isaiah 48:22 (NIV)

I am intrigued by words and common phrases. Where do familiar phrases come from? How do they change over time?

When I read the final verse of today’s chapter I suddenly had memories of my Grandma Golly and Grandpa Speck. I could hear them with my memory’s ears muttering the words, “No rest for the wicked!” They would say it when they were busy and had too much to do. Notice that they changed the word “peace” with “rest.” As they referenced it, I always took it as a reference to the theological concept of original sin. In the Garden of Eden God punishes Adam’s sin by condemning humanity to toiling for our food:

To Adam [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.

This got my curiosity going and prompted a little research safari online. I found it interesting that some of the more popular online sites for the origin of phrases interpreted the phrase “No peace for the wicked” as a Biblical reference to the hell-fire and brimstone awaiting sinners. Wow, I’ve gone from original sin to eternal hell-fire and brimstone.

So what exactly was Isaiah getting at?

First of all, the Hebrew word interpreted “peace” in this verse (and paraphrased “rest” by my grandparents and others) is the Hebrew word shalom – which is commonly translated into the English word “peace” has a broad definition of peace that also includes tranquility, wholeness, and welfare. It is an overall positive sense of well-being. It makes sense, therefore, that our Hebrew friends use the word like “Aloha” is used by our island friends. It is used for both “hello” and “good-bye.” It is a wish of well-being both in your coming and going.

Earlier in today’s chapter God through the prophet Isaiah speaks to the Hebrew people taken in exile to Babylon. He promises their return and homecoming from captivity, then says,

If only you had paid attention to my commands,
    your peace would have been like a river,
    your well-being like the waves of the sea.

No shalom for the wicked,” is no reference to eternal hell-fire and brimstone. It’s not a direct reference to original sin. It is a loving parent speaking to wayward children being welcomed back into a loving embrace. It’s dad reiterating the moral of the story. It’s mother’s reminder after scolding: “Listen carefully, my dear child. When you don’t pay attention and are disobedient, then the natural consequences lead away from wholeness, tranquility, well-being and peace.”

And, that’s a good lesson. That’s a lesson this grown-up child needs to be reminded of on a regular basis.

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