(This post should be read in tandem with the recent citation of City of God 2.19 on Augustine’s use of Psalm 148:11-12.)
In The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan, in his discussion in the chapter titled “The Obedience of Rulers,” refers to two passages in Augustine to illustrate his view of what happens when the people of a royal city repent: the change of conversion–the abandonment of paganism for the worship of the true God–is so drastic that there is a sense in which the old order, the city itself, is “overthrown.” 1 In both of the passages, Augustine is discussing Nineveh and Jonah’s prophecy of destruction. They are both of interest; I include the second here. It comes from Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos 50.11. 2 For Augustine, the “obedience of rulers”–or, in this passage, of a people–has real and visible effects.
11. [v 8.] Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi. Veritatem dilexisti: id est, impunita peccata etiam eorum quibus ignoscis, non reliquisti. Veritatem dilexisti: sic misericordiam praerogasti, ut servares et veritatem. Ignoscis confitenti, ignoscis, sed seipsum punienti: ita servatur misericordia et veritas; misericordia, quia homo liberatur; veritas, quia peccatum punitur. Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi. Quae occulta? quae incerta? Quia Deus ignoscit et talibus. Nihil tam occultum, nihil tam incertum. Ad hoc incertum Ninivitae poenitentiam egerunt. Dixerunt enim, quamvis post minas prophetae, quamvis post illam vocem: Triduo, et Ninive subvertetur: dixerunt apud se, petendam esse misericordiam: dixerunt ita apud se disceptantes: Quis novit, si Deus flectat in melius sententiam suam, et miseretur? Incertum erat, cum dicitur: Quis novit. De incerto poenitentiam egerunt, certam misericordiam meruerunt: prostraverunt se in lacrymis, in ieiuniis, in cilicio et in cinere prostraverunt se, gemuerunt, fleverunt, pepercit Deus 23. Stetit Ninive, an eversa est Ninive? Aliter quidem videtur hominibus, et aliter visum est Deo. Ego autem puto impletum fuisse quod propheta praedixerat. Respice quae fuit Ninive, et vide quia eversa est, eversa in malo, aedificata in bono: sicut eversus Saulus persecutor, aedificatus Paulus praedicator 24. Quis non diceret civitatem istam, in qua nunc sumus, feliciter eversam, si omnes illi insani, nugis suis desertis, ad ecclesiam compuncto corde concurrerent, Dei misericordiam de suis factis praeteritis invocarent? Nonne diceremus: Ubi est illa Carthago? Quia non est quod erat, eversa est: sed si est, quod non erat, aedificata est. Ita dicitur Ieremiae: Ecce dabo tibi eradicare, suffodere, evertere, disperdere, et rursus aedificare, et plantare 25. Inde est vox illa Domini: Ego percutiam, et ego sanabo 26. Percutit putredinem facinoris, sanat dolorem vulneris. Faciunt medici cum secant, percutiunt et sanant; armant se ut feriant, ferrum gestant et curare veniunt. Sed quia peccata magna erant Ninivitarum, dixerunt. Quis novit? Hoc incertum patefecerat Deus servo suo David. Cum enim dixisset, stante et arguente se Propheta: Peccavi: statim audivit a Propheta, id est a Spiritu Dei qui erat in Propheta: Dimissum est tibi peccatum tuum 27. Incerta et occulta sapientiae suae manifestavit ei.
“For, behold, you have spoken truth: you have revealed the uncertain and secret things of your wisdom to me.” “You have spoken the truth”: that is, you have not left the sins even of those you forgive unpunished. You have loved truth: you have given mercy in advance in such a way that you preserve the truth as well. You forgive the one who confesses, you forgive–but the one who punishes himself. Thus is preserved mercy and truth: mercy, because the man is freed; truth, because sin is punished. “For behold, you have loved truth: you have revealed the uncertain and secret things of your wisdom to me.” What are the “secret things”? What the “uncertain”? That God forgives even such men. Nothing is so secret, nothing so uncertain. For this uncertainty the Ninevites repented. For they said–although after the prophet’s threats, although after that proclamation, “Three days, and Nineveh will be overturned”–they said to themselves, “We must seek mercy.” Making this determination, they thus said to themselves, “Who knows whether God may change his judgment for the better and have mercy?” There was uncertainty, when they said, “Who knows?” For an uncertainty they repented, certain mercy they obtained. They prostrated themselves in tears, in fasting, in sackcloth and in ash; they prostrated themselves, they groaned, they wept, God spared [them]. Did Nineveh stand, or was Nineveh overthrown? Indeed, it appears one way to men, and appeared another way to God. I, however, think that what the prophet had foretold was fulfilled. Consider what Nineveh was, and see how it was overthrown, overthrown in evil, built up in good, just as Saul the persecutor was overthrown, Paul the propagator was built up. 3 Who would not say that that society [civitatem] in which we now live was happily overthrown, if all those erstwhile insane men, having abandoned their trifles, were running together to the church with pricked heart, were calling on the mercy of God for their past deeds? Wouldn’t we say: “Where is the Carthage of old?” Because it is not what it was, it is overthrown; but if it is what it was not, it is built up. Thus it is said to Jeremiah: “Behold, I will grant to you to uproot, to dig under, to overthrown, to destroy,” and, again, “to build up and to plant.” Thence is that proclamation of the Lord: “I shall strike, and I shall heal.” He strikes the rottenness of bad deeds, he heals the pain of the would. Doctors do [thus] when they cut, they strike and they heal; they arm themselves in order to smite, they bear the blade and come to cure. But because the sins of the Ninvites were great, they said, “Who knows?” God had revealed this uncertainty to his servant David. For when he had said, with the prophet standing near and rebuking him, “I have sinned,” immediately he heard from the prophet–that is, from the Spirit of God who was in the prophet–“Your sin has been forgiven you.” He revealed to him the uncertain and secret things of his 4 wisdom. 5
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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