Sing a new song to the Lord: Augustine on the interadvental age

Sing a new song to the Lord: Augustine on the interadvental age
John Martin, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, 1816

I recently re-read Augustine's magnum opus On The City of God Against the Pagans. One of the striking features of the book is the extent to which Augustine centres history. The gospel is a declaration about what God has done and is doing in the world’s history through his Son.

One way you see this is in Augustine’s approach to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. In great measure, the glorious vision concerning the city of God in the psalms and the prophets begins to unfold not with the Lord’s second advent and the eternal state, but in the interadvental age itself. Christ, sitting at God’s right hand, is changing the world through his people.

For example, Augustine quotes the legendary Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus, who some centuries before Augustine foretold and lamented that “there will come a time when it will be apparent that it is in vain that the Egyptians have kept up worship of the gods with reverent piety and attentive devotion”. Augustine takes Hermes to be predicting “the present time when the Christian religion has overthrown all these deceitful images” (Bk. VIII, ch. 23), which is a fulfilment of Psalm 96:

The lament of Hermes was concerned only with Egypt; but the change was not confined to that country. It has happened throughout the world, and the whole earth sings a new song to the Lord, as was truly prophesied in the Scriptures and in the writings of the prophets, where we read, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” (Bk. VIII, ch. 24)

Augustine also connects this era of history to the one spoken of by Isaiah, concerning the conversion of Egypt in the day of the Lord:

In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord. And it shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt: for they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppressors, and he shall send them a saviour, and a great one, and he shall deliver them. And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it. (Isaiah 19:19-21)

For both Isaiah and Augustine, the appearance of the city of God in history means that the idols at the heart of Egypt’s public square will be exposed, torn down and replaced with the worship of the true God. Egypt has a future as a Christian nation.

Though Augustine is often claimed by amillennialists as one of their own, a central feature of Augustine's vision of the interadvental age is the actual conquest by Christ over his enemies. Though of course there is variation amongst amillennialists, it is quite common to see the entire age of Christ’s reign in heaven at God’s right hand spoken of as a mere “meanwhile” as far as the history of the earth is concerned. The conquest of Christ’s enemies throughout the world is postponed to the “not yet”.

Not so for Augustine. The kingdom of Christ is a “kingdom at war, in which conflict still rages with the enemy” (Bk. XX, ch. 9). It is true that the two cities are intermixed upon the earth until the Lord’s last coming, but the City of God is not simply sitting quietly alongside paganism and idolatry. It is “against the pagans” not merely in terms of opposing ideological commitments, but because it makes war on Christ’s enemies, tears down their high places, and drives them out of the land the Lord our God is giving us.

Shout on, pray on, we’re gaining ground.