City of God, Book 17: The Era of the Prophets

In Book 16, Augustine traced the development of the City of God from Noah to David. The bulk of Book 16 was devoted to Abraham with about two pages covering the entire history of the City of God from the birth of Moses up to the reign of David.

Book 17 traces the history of the City of God through the era of the prophets. Augustine revisits the promises made to Abraham, chiefly to give him the land and make him into a nation through his physical posterity, and to be the father of all nations “who follow in his footsteps of faith.” He considers the first promise to be largely fulfilled by David and Solomon who extended Israel’s borders, gave them victory over their enemies, and brought an era of peace. “Nothing further remained for the fulfillment of that promise which concerned worldly territory,” contends Augustine.

Regarding the second promise to Abraham, Augustine writes, “Now the divine oracles given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the other prophetic signs or words found in previous sacred writings, refer partly to the nation physically derived from Abraham, but partly to those descendants of his in whom all nations are blessed as coheirs of Christ through the new covenant, so as to obtain possession of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven. The same is true of the rest of the prophecies, from this period of the kings.” I think that’s an important statement regarding how Augustine interprets prophecies. He explains, “Thus the utterances of the prophets are found to have a threefold meaning, in that some have in view the earthly Jerusalem, others the heavenly, and other refer to both.”

However, “the fact that Jerusalem is called the City of God has a double reference, convinced as it is with the prophecy of the future house of God in that city.” Jerusalem is not only an earthly city, but “a symbol of the Jerusalem in heaven.” Therefore, some argue even a prophecy or story that is centered on Abraham’s physical descendants contains “an allegorical meaning which is to be fulfilled in those descended from Abraham in respect to faith.” Augustine disagrees, “it is certainly a complete mistake to suppose that no narrative of events in this type of literature has any significance beyond the purely historical record; but it is equally rash to maintain that every single statement in those books is a complex of allegorical meanings.” The task of the interpreter is to discern which prophesies and which events have an allegorical meaning pointing to Christ and the church and which are purely earthly/historical.

What follows if fairly detailed examinations of prophesies pointing ahead to the spiritual kingdom, starting with Hannah, “Samuel’s mother, who personifies the church.” Eleven pages are dedicate to Hannah and her prophesy regarding the “anointed” and the change in kingship fulfilled ultimately in Jesus. Five more pages to the prophesy given to Eli regarding the priesthood, a prophesy Augustine sees as setting the stage for the shift away from Aaronic priesthood “destined to take place in Christ.”

In the midst of discussing these prophesies and how promised eternal nature of the kingdom and priesthood must apply to others, not simply physical Israel, Augustine makes an important statement, one later echoed by Calvin in his famous “lisps and whispers” analogy. Augustine reminds us, “The true is that when God speaks through the mouth of a man he speaks in human fashion.” The language is condescension, baby speak, and employs anthropomorphisms to make his revelation accessible to us.

Picking back up on the story line, the division of the kingdom “prefigures the perpetual separation of spiritual from carnal Israel…into Israel the enemy of Christ, and Israel which attaches itself to Christ, the Israel connected with the maidservant, and the Israel connected with the free women. For these two kinds of Israel were first together, just as Abraham was attached to the maidservant until the barren wife, made fertile by the grace of Christ exclaimed, ‘Throw out the maidservant and her son.'”

The promises made to David were in no way fulfilled by Solomon, but fulfilled in every way in Christ. Solomon is, at best, a shadowy sketch of the promises made to David, Christ is the reality. This theme continues throughout the rest of Book 17. Augustine admits that space does not allow for an in depth examination of all the prophesies regarding Christ. He does use a lot of ink on the book of Psalms, where “anyone who has the wish and the capacity may read those books and will discover the large number and the great importance of the prophecies uttered by David, who was both king and prophet, about Christ and his Church, that is, about the king and the community which he founded.”

After Solomon’s reign, the kings uttered “scarcely any prophesies regarding Christ and his Church.” Yet, God did not relent in sending prophets to warn, to rebuke, and to point ahead.

Book 17 ends with a brief mention of the prophets who wrote during the post-exilic period. I find it incredibly odd that no mention is made in Book 17 of the prophet Isaiah, and only a brief early reference to Jeremiah!

On the whole, Book 17 was insightful and encouraged me to read the Old Testament with a keener eye, always looking for Christ. Many evangelical readers reared on the grammatical-historical method would have a knee jerk reaction to the allegorical meanings Augustine searches for and to the idea he advances that prophets, Hannah for instance, spoke “transcending the limit of their own understanding.” In other words, the words she spoke did have a meaning that she, the original author, did not intend nor would she have understood. But, we should remember, these prophets spoke under the inspiration of the Divine Author. His intentions always supersede the intentions of the human author!