The City of God and the Cities of Men

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The author of Hebrews tells us that before Cain ever founded the first earthly city, his brother Abel had set his hope upon the heavenly city God has promised to His own (Heb. 11:4, 13–16). The hope of the heavenly city is the first principle of the faith that pleases

God. It is a faith that implies the expectation of a restored relationship between man and God and between man and man. It looks to God’s work for healing. And it looks to God’s salvation alone. Cain’s city, built by the work of his own hands, is thus exposed as a fraudulent imitation of true faith. The Bible tells us that Cain’s city was devoted to the necessary arts of making tents and raising livestock, to the aesthetic arts of the lyre and the pipe, and to the practical arts of smelting iron and bronze. Cain’s city developed a sophisticated technology as a type of salvation by works. His best achievement, however, could only be a parody of the paradisal city of God.

The Scripture tells us that Cain founded his city when his son was born (Gen. 4:17). In contrast, when a son was born to Seth, men began “to call upon the name of the Lord” (4:26). While the ungodly dedicate themselves to building the earthly city, the godly look by faith to inherit the city of God. They devote themselves to building a community of worship, to calling “upon the name of the Lord.” They are thus a pilgrim people, like Abraham called out of the earthly city of Ur and made to journey in this world, seeking the heavenly city of Zion, the city of God: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.… For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:8, 10).

City-building becomes the great work of man, even as the New Jerusalem is the great work of the true Man. It is a project that defines the great divide in the history of redemption. Except when they are in bondage to pharaoh, the godly do not build cities in the Bible. Rather, they inherit the cities of the land of promise. And they look to inherit the city of God. The ungodly, on the other hand, are devoted to raising great cities in the earth. Consequently, biblical history is marred with the bloody memory of Enoch, Babel, Sodom, Pithom and Raamses, Jericho, and Jebus. By contrast, the heavenly city is the work of God, who alone is her “designer and builder” (Heb 11:10). Cain’s city filled the earth with violence (Gen. 6:11). God’s city is ruled by justice, and cheers the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Heb. 12:23). Man’s city, like Babel, will be made of brick and pitch and raised up in rebellion toward heaven (Gen. 11:3). God’s city, however, is made of gold and glittering jewels, and comes down in grace from heaven (Rev. 21:2).

Socrates claimed that the city is “the soul of man writ large.” This magnification enables us to see more clearly the otherwise unseen distinctions between the city of man and the city of God. The two cities are distinguished by their founding principles, their loves, and their destinies.

First, the foundation of the city expresses the community and the fellowship of mankind. How ironic, then, that the first city should be founded by a man who murdered his brother! Interestingly, classical political philosophy agreed with the biblical assessment that the cities of man seem somehow always to be criminal in their origin. Plutarch recounts the legend of Romulus, the founder of Rome, who like Cain was a fratricide. Theseus, the mythic founder of Athens, was a parricide. Lycurgus, the traditional founder of Sparta, was a regicide. How different is the origin of the city of God, which is founded by One who laid down His life for His friends (John 15:13)! Abel’s blood cried out for justice against Cain (Gen. 4:10). But Christ’s blood speaks better than the blood of Abel, crying out to the Father for forgiveness
(Heb. 12:24).

Second, the two cities are distinguishable by their distinctive loves. Augustine’s great treatise The City of God traced the whole of redemptive history under the figure of two cities, the city of man and the city of God. These two cities, Augustine claimed, are created by two loves. The city of man is sustained by the love of self, even to the despising of God. The city of God, on the other hand, expresses the
love of God, even to the despising of self.

Finally, the two cities are distinguished by their destinies. The city of man, as Bunyan named it, is the “City of Destruction.” Her titanic self-assertion and defiance of the faith that pleases God make a terrifying doom inevitable. But the “Celestial City” is the everlasting and blessed prospect of those who love God. Her crystal streams will make glad the city of God (Rev. 22:1–2). The tree of life in her paradisal garden will sustain all those who overcome by faith (Rev. 2:7). For her mountain, beautiful for elevation, is the joy of all the earth (Ps. 48:1). Her towers and ramparts are inviolable (Ps. 48:12–13), so her gates of pearl are never closed (Rev. 21:25). God remembers all those who are enrolled there (Ps. 87:5). For she is the city of the great king; she can never be shaken (Ps. 46:5). And God Himself
will make all her habitations glad!  ν

 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.