About a thousand years before the coming of Christ, King David asked: ‘If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ (Psalm 11:3)
But he knew the answer to his own question: ‘The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test, the children of men’ (Psalm 11:3-4).
In the darkness of this world, we may well come to perceive the light of the gospel more clearly. Scripture is given to us for discernment and understanding (Psalm 119:99) and for encouragement and hope (Romans15:4), and as we look out on our troubled world today we stand in need of all these things.
We ought not to fall for the lie that our times are totally unique. God does not change, and neither does human nature, nor the principles by which God governs his world. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but the City of God remains for ever.
Times were troubled in the early part of the fifth century, as the western half of the Roman empire lurched towards collapse. In AD 410 Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome, the ‘eternal city’ of Virgil’s Aeneid.
The events of 410 in Rome have been compared to the events of 11 September 2001 in New York.Virgil had lauded the Roman empire as one that would last for ever. The first emperor, Augustus, had proclaimed: ‘May it be my privilege to establish the republic safe and sound on its foundations, gathering the fruit of my desire to be known as author of the ideal constitution, and taking with me to the grave the hope that the basis which I have laid will be permanent’ (C. N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, Galaxy, 1966, p.1).
Despite challenges by the Barbarians in the north and Persians in the east, the Roman empire retained its confidence in its own power. One of Rome’s administrators even wrote that Rome had ‘learnt to scorn finality’ (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Faber and Faber, 2000, p.14).
The sack of Rome was a shock to a complacent world. There had been a crisis in the mid-third century when the empire looked shaky, but outwardly it appeared to have recovered somewhat since then.
To many, it seemed as though nothing was safe, and that the whole world was under threat. The British monk, Pelagius – no theologian but a reliable eyewitness – had been present in Rome when it was sacked, and wrote of the event to a Roman lady: ‘It happened only recently, and you heard it yourself. Rome, the mistress of the world, shivered, crushed with fear, at the sound of the blaring trumpets and the howling of the Goths.
‘Where, then, was the nobility? Where were the certain and distinct ranks of dignity? Everyone was mingled together and shaken with fear; every household had its grief and an all-pervading terror gripped us. Slave and noble were one. The same spectre of death stalked before us all’ (Augustine of Hippo, pp.286-287).
By 410 Rome had long ceased to be the capital of the empire, although it still retained its ancient prestige. By the end of the fifth century, however, its population had fallen from about 750,000 to about 100,000. The ‘eternal city’ had become a shadow of its former self. For us, it is yet another reminder that civilisations rise and fall – and their collapse can seem quite catastrophic at the time.
Western civilisation may or may not be collapsing. Back in the eighteenth century, the historian of the Enlightenment, Edward Gibbon, wrote, with touching if unconvincing optimism: ‘Yet the experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes, and diminish our apprehension: we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection; but it may safely be presumed, that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism'(Edward Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley, Penguin, 1995, p.515).
One thing is certain, however – the kingdoms of this world are not the same as the City of God. In the next century after Gibbon, John Ellerton penned the hymn ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’. This concludes most powerfully:
So be it, Lord! Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away,
Thy kingdom stands, and grows for ever,
Till all Thy creatures own thy sway.
That was very similar to the response of the great Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa. To allay the fears of Christians and to counter the criticism of non-Christians that Rome was suffering for having embraced Christianity, Augustine wrote The City of God, which was begun in 413 and completed in 426.
He demonstrated the moral perversity and futility of the Roman gods, and dealt with the Christian world view. Ultimately, Augustine saw that all humanity was driven either by a love of the world or a love of God.
Hence he wrote, ‘We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self’ (Augustine, The city of God, XIV, 28).
These two cities are intermixed within the world until the last judgement, when they will be separated for ever. Both cities alike enjoy the blessings of this life and suffer its adversities, but ‘the good make use of this world in order to enjoy God, whereas the evil want to make use of God in order to enjoy the world’ (XV,7). The earthly city glories in itself and the eternal city glories in the Lord – and both can be traced back to Cain and Abel (XV,1).
The City of God was largely to be found in Israel in the period before the coming of Christ, although it could not be denied that ‘in other nations also there have been some men who belonged not by earthly but by heavenly fellowship to the company of the true Israelites, the citizens of the country that is above’ (XVIII,47). The earthly city came down, for the most part, through the Assyrian and Roman Empires (XVIII,2).
This overall view of the flow of history is set out clearly in the sixth century BC by the prophet Daniel (cf. Daniel 2, 7). The Babylonian empire would be succeeded by the Medo-Persian empire, then by the Greek empire, then by the Roman empire. But all would fall before the kingdom of one like a Son of Man, whose everlasting kingdom is worldwide and is not made with human hands (Daniel 2:35, 44-45).
The human race could not produce its own king and saviour. Christ alone is, in Augustine’s words, ‘the eternal king of the city of God’ (XV,20). Christ Jesus is the king of Israel (John 1:49), the king of the world (Matthew 28:18-20), and the king of the whole universe (Ephesians 1:19-22).