Greek (SBLGNT): καὶ ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ ὑπερέχουσα πάντα νοῦν φρουρήσει τὰς καρδίας ὑμῶν καὶ τὰ νοήματα ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.
1) What is the peace of God?
2) How does one obtain it?
Before exploring these questions, I want to review some contextual factors that probably shaped Philippians 4:7.
A) Hebrew, Greek and Roman Terms for "Peace"
The word appearing in the Hebrew scriptures which translators often render "peace" is shalom. See Judges 6:23; Isaiah 9:6; 26:3.
As ardent students of the Bible know, shalom does not signify merely absence from war, strife or conflict, but it denotes harmony, prosperity, and wholeness. Nicholas Wolterstorff connects shalom with justice, the justice of YHWH. Furthermore, he constructs a nexus between prosperity and shalom:
"The flourishing life, thus understood, was called shalom by the Hebrew writers of the Old Testament, 'shalom' being translated with the Greek 'eirene¸' in the Septuagint; the New Testament writers followed in the steps of the Septuagint translators. So if we need a name for this moral vision—this conception of the good life coupled with this maxim of action—best to call it eirene´ism" (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, page 226).
When used substantivally, shalom denotes within respective contexts such things as wholeness, safety, soundness, health, welfare, peace, concord and friendship (Gesenius).
As Wolterstorff explains, the LXX translators rendered shalom with the Greek εἰρήνη (eirene). εἰρήνη occurs ninety-two times in the GNT; Philippians uses this word three times (1:2; 4:7, 9). Gordon Fee makes these remarks about Paul's introduction to the Philippians:
"The traditional greeting in the Hellenistic world was chairein—the infinitive of the verb 'to rejoice,' but in salutations meaning simply 'Greetings!' (see Acts 15:23; Jas 1:1). In Paul’s hands this now becomes charis ('grace'), to which he adds the traditional Jewish greeting shalom ('peace,'⁵⁸ in the sense of 'wholeness' or 'well-being').⁵⁹ Thus instead of the familiar 'greetings,' Paul salutes his brothers and sisters in Christ with 'grace to you—and peace.' ”⁶⁰
Fee thinks that genuine peace (shalom/eirene) is the result of divine grace (charis); additionally, he suggests that Paul could be modifying a formulaic Jewish blessing in the opening verses of Philippians (compare Galatians 6:16). Nevertheless, Fee reckons that Philippians 1:1-2 emphasizes divine grace and resultant shalom--both now and in the life to come.
Cousar (Philippians and Philemon) echoes some of Fee's thinking: “ 'Peace' likely reflects the Hebrew root shalom, implying wholeness and well-being. The source of both grace and peace is 'God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.' ”
Yet Paul was a multidimensional person in terms of his cultural experiences: his writings bear the marks of Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture. Therefore, it would likely benefit students of Philippians to know a little about not only shalom and eirene, but also the Latin term, pax.
Jerome would later translate Philippians 4:7, 9:
et pax Dei quae exsuperat omnem sensum custodiat corda vestra et intellegentias vestras in Christo Iesu
quae et didicistis et accepistis et audistis et vidistis in me haec agite et Deus pacis erit vobiscum
See the Oxford Latin Dictionary entry for Pax in order to get a feel for the role of the term in ancient Rome. Paul lived at a time when the Pax Romana existed: a powerful Roman presence dominated the Mediterranean world. Moreover, some Graeco-Roman philosophers advocated ways to experience ultimate tranquility or peace of mind. Yet these were human attempts to find lasting solace.
B) Addressing the Two Questions Raised at the Outset
Now that we've considered some of the potential background for Philippians 4:7, I now want to addresses the questions above.
Firstly, what is the peace of God?
Some understand the expression ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ to be a genitive of source ("peace from God"). Longenecker and Thompson write:
"The peace of God is the peace that comes from God (genitive of source), about which Paul prays at the beginning and end of his letters. The peace of God is a common theme in the OT, the equivalent of God’s steadfast love and mercy (Jer. 16:5). God is the source of peace (Num. 6:26; Ps. 29:11; Job 25:2)."
If I'm interpreting these words properly, it seems like an objective view of God's peace is being expressed. In other words, the peace that belongs to God's being will guard your heart and mental powers, etc. Maybe this is what the authors mean. Gerald Hawthorne (WB Commentary on Philippians) certainly is convinced that the peace of God is a possession of God himself.
Bonnie Thurston and Judith Ryan take this approach to the text:
"The phrase 'the peace of God' appears only here in the NT. God’s peace is never, in the Bible, the absence of conflict, but something much deeper. That God is the source of peace is a Pauline assumption (Rom 15:33; 16:20)."
No other details are supplied, so I'm not sure whether an objective or subjective view of divine peace is being posited here. Furthermore, what is the deeper component of divine peace that the authors mention? Later on in their commentary, Thurston and Ryan imply that the peace of God is subjective and not affected by what's happening around its possessors. Compare Isaiah 26:3.
Lynn H. Cohick makes the point that anxiety, which Philippians 4:6 warns against (or the verse warns about worrying too much), is like spinning tires in quicksand or its comparable to going around in circles (i.e., going nowhere). Paul teaches that it's much better to pray rather than endlessly worry. That is how one gains the peace of God. Cohick portrays divine peace as being transformative and communal, but she does not give a precise definition of what it is.
Joseph Hellerman provides a somewhat long paragraph arguing that the "peace of God" is not inward, but it's God's peace that belongs to him, issues from him, and fills the Christian community. Hellerman writes:
"The gen. τοῦ θεοῦ is not obj. ('peace with God' [cf. Rom 5:1] is presupposed) but, rather, subj. ('the peace that God has and gives' [R 499]), or perhaps, a gen. of source or origin ('peace from God') (Porter 93). Some take the gen. as loosely descriptive (H-M 246; O’Brien 496)."
Walter G. Hansen adds:
How do we obtain the peace of God? Besides being a Christian, one must obey the divine precepts while being vigilant with a view to prayer.
Cohick, Lynn H. Philippians. The Story of God Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2013.
Cousar, Charles. Philippians and Philemon: A Commentary. New Testament Library.
Louisville, Kentucky : Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.
Fee, Gordon. Paul's Letter to the Philippians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.
Hawthorne, Gerald. Philippians. WBC 43; revised edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
Holloway, Paul. Philippians: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.
Thompson, James W., and Bruce W. Longenecker. Philippians and Philemon. Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Academic, 2016.
Thurston, Bonnie Bowman, Judith Ryan, and Daniel J. Harrington. Philippians and Philemon. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.