Augustine 2020: The Nation of Israel
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Last week, we introduced the idea that Old Testament Israel was an earthly city, but God graciously used it as an image of the heavenly city to come . One of the challenges we have in interpreting politics in the Bible lies in how we apply passages addressed to the nation of Israel. Often in American church history, even as far back as Puritan New England, preachers, teachers, theologians, and politicians have simply taken these passages and applied them to America . So there has tended to be an emphasis on America having a special place in the world standing for righteousness, existing to bless the nations, possessing a special relationship with God, even having a covenant with God, and holding a primacy in God’s plan for the world. During times of national disaster, people are quick to quote promises from the Old Testament and apply them to our nation, such as 1 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” .
The problem with this approach is that America simply is not biblical Israel. If we truly take Scripture seriously as God’s Word, we cannot merely retrieve certain verses stripped of their context and instantly apply them to any situation we see fit. We have to pay close attention to their original context in Scripture, where they fit in the Bible’s story of redemption, and then think carefully about applying them in light of the work of Christ. This week, Augustine gives us some examples of thinking about the promises given to Israel and teaches us how to interpret them. Spoiler alert: he leaves us no room to simply transfer them to America.
In Book XVI of The City of God, Augustine draws attention to Genesis 49 in which a dying Jacob blesses each of his twelve sons. Augustine focuses on the blessing to Judah because the kings of Israel, the leaders of the nation of Israel, would be specifically descended from him. “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion, like a lioness—who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and the obedience of the peoples is his. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes; his eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk” .
Now, these verses are specifically about the kings descended from Judah. They do not refer to any other king, leader, ruler, or president. Jacob extends this specific blessing from God to a particular person and his descendants. The ultimate descendant of Judah is Jesus Himself . Augustine highlights that these promises are one fulfilled in Jesus. He lays down as a lion when He gives up his life willingly in the crucifixion . He is awakened in His resurrection. His robes represent the Church, washed and purified in His blood . Only in Jesus do the peoples of the world bow down in obedience. Of all the kings descended from Judah, only Jesus has maintained a permanent and eternal claim to the throne.
Israel first emerges as a nation in the Exodus story. The Passover was the celebration of that Exodus from Egypt. Yet this symbol of their freedom from Egyptian oppression at God’s hand, to go to the land promised to them, and to establish themselves as a nation points to Jesus. The centerpiece of the Passover meal is a lamb, whose blood painted on Israel’s doorposts spared them from God’s judgment on Egypt . “This lamb is so much a prefiguration of Christ announcing his passing over to the Father from this world through the offering of His suffering…that when the new covenant was revealed after Christ…was offered, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven on the fiftieth day” .
After the people of Israel were established in their land, the promises still were not completely fulfilled. The story of the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s continual failure to be the people God had called them to be and God’s continual mercy and judgment on them. “That promise would be fulfilled not by the observances of the Old Law but by the coming of Christ in the flesh and the faith of the Gospel” . Once the nation is established under King David, the line of kings regularly serves as a source of Israel’s disobedience, as we will consider next time. As the Old Testament draws to a close, Israel has only just returned from exile and is reconstituting itself in the land, but still under foreign rule. The son of David who establishes God’s Kingdom is Jesus Himself, a topic we will delve into more fully next time.
So how should we read the Old Testament passages addressed to the nation of Israel? We need to see that they are specifically addressed to Israel, but because of Israel’s shortcomings, it never fully achieved what God promised to them as a nation. Instead, Jesus fulfills all of these promises. Those promises cannot be applied to any other earthly nation. They were for Israel and further point us to the Kingdom of Christ. They show us what it means for Jesus to be king, what it means for us to be part of His Kingdom now extended to all peoples of the earth, and they give us a foretaste of what life will be like when Christ returns to fully establish His Kingdom. We miss the full vision they offer of our hope in Christ if we reduce them to promises for earthly kingdoms in the here and now.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Love in the Earthly City,” September 29, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/love-in-the-earthly-city.
 Justin Taylor, “America as a Christian Nation: A Conversation with Mark Noll and George Marsden,” The Gospel Coalition, July 6, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/america-as-a-christian-nation-a-conversation-with-mark-noll-and-george-marsden/.
 1 Chronicles 7:14 NRSV.
 Genesis 49:8-12.
 See Matthew 1.
 John 10:17-18.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 118-119.
 Exodus 12.
 Augustine, p. 120.
 Ibid. p. 121.