Matthew 5:9 in detail,  blessed are the peacemakers

1. The historical context

Peace in the Hebrew Bible

Peace, the šālôm as found in the Hebrew Bible, was not the absence of hostility, but a much more holistic concept, embracing positive attributes such as wholeness, completeness and health (Healey 1996, 206). Peace could mark an end to war (e.g. Deut 20:10–12; Jos 9:15), but also the existence of friendly relationships and a lack of evil occurrences (1 Kgs 5:2-6)

Isaiah tells us “The work of righteousness will be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever” (Isa 32:17 WEB). The intimate link between covenant righteousness and peace is captured in Psalm 119, where the psalmist states “those who love your law have great peace.  Nothing causes them to stumble” (Ps 119:165 WEB).  

From the same Hebrew root as šālôm came šallēm, the word for payment of a debt and the offering of a sacrifice in fulfilment of a vow (Healey 1996, 206).

Peacemakers and their role

Isaiah 45:7 observes that God is the author of peace (Vermes 2004, 314) and Philo refers to God as a peacemaker when he protects from natural disasters and enemies (Spec. Leg., II, 192; Foerster 1964, 2:419). The term was also used occasionally of a ruler who was strong enough to impose peace (Foerster 19642:419), as undoubtedly was Israel’s God.

The Hebrew Bible portrays God as a strong king who brings peace to his people by entering into a covenant of peace with them (cf. Num 25:12, Ezek 37:26). As God’s servants, the Levites were empowered to uphold that covenant, by providing a judicial function and by teaching its requirements. The role of judgement was enshrined in the Mosaic Law, where it states  “then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled” (Deut 21:5 ESV). In the Vulgate, Isa 32:17 captures this, becoming opus justitiae pax or “peace is the work of justice” (Healey 1996, 206). Hence, “peace is not seen as tranquility and order, but rather as the deep commitment to the work of justice” (Healey 1996, 206). Thus, it is this function that Zechariah refers to when he calls Judah to “execute the judgement of truth and peace in your gates” (Zech 8:16b WEB).

Just judgements, backed by the power to implement them, ensure peace between people. However, there could never be true peace whilst Israel suffered the military defeat, illness and famine arising from the curses of Moab. The Levites were peacemakers, not just because they were empowered to judge, but also because they ensured the nation remained in the right place before God. By instructing the nation in the divine law, restoring those who went astray, and punishing those who rebelled, they ensured the covenant was kept and therefore that the nation enjoyed peace (cf. Ezek 22:26, Mal 2:6).  

The role of peacemaking certainly involved settling disputes between men, but more importantly it involved reconciling humanity to God. This was the particular province of the kings and priests of Israel. Which is probably why the famous Rabbi Hillel “exhorted his students to become disciples of Aaron, ‘peacelovers and peacemakers’ (mAb1:12)” (Vermes 2004, 314)

2. The biblical precedent

Malachi 2:6-10 describes how the Sons of Levi once walked in peace but have not kept God's ways.

2:6 ‘“The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many away from iniquity. 7 For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of Armies. 8 But you have turned aside out of the way. You have caused many to stumble in the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the LORD of Armies. 9 “Therefore I have also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according to the way you have not kept my ways, but have had respect for persons in the law. 10 Don’t we all have one father? Hasn’t one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, profaning the covenant of our fathers?”’

(Mal 2:6-10 HNV)

“Why?” asks Malachi, if God is the Heavenly Father of all (i.e. they are His children), have they been faithless to the covenant of their fathers (Mal 2:10). God describes this covenant of Levi as “my covenant of peace” (Num 25:12 WEB). It follows that returning to God’s way will stop the peacemakers corrupting the covenant of peace and ensure they act like children of God (Matt 5:9).

3. Its place in the sequence

In Ps 24:4 the purity of heart of Matt 5:8 is coupled to cleanliness of hands, an attribute that itself often accompanies righteousness (e.g. Ps 18:20, Job 17:19, 2 Sam 22:21). As soon as you begin to consider issues of cleanliness then you enter the domain of the priesthood and the covenant of Levi. Hence speaking of purity of heart naturally raises thoughts of cleanliness and the role of the Levitical priesthood.

4. Related New Testament texts

According to Paul, Jesus became the ultimate peacemaker when, through his sacrifice upon the cross, he made peace between men and God (Col 1:20)

5. Some church perspectives

Origen saw the peacemaker as one with a clear view of the meaning of the scriptures. He states, based on Pr 8:8-9, “To the man who is a peacemaker in either sense there is in the Divine oracles nothing crooked or perverse, for they are all plain to those who understand” (Origen, II).

Vermes (2004, 314) notes that Matthew’s word ‘peacemaker’ is without parallel in the New Testament. He views peacemaking as the task of reconciling people to one another (Vermes 2004, 314).

Lloyd-Jones sees the peacemaker as “a man who actively sees that there should be peace between man and man, and group and group, and nation and nation” (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 121). He concludes “I think we can argue the he is a man who is finally and ultimately concerned about the fact that all men should be at peace with God” (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 121-2), the character change wrought by turning to Christ being the way to ensure peace (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 121)

France observes that God is the supreme peacemaker and suggests “this quality marks disciples out as his sons, for the son shares the characteristics of the father” (France 1995, 111).