The concept of “city” has long been of interest to theologians and biblical scholars, from Augustine’s apology for the destruction of Rome and account of the war between the City of man and the City of God (The City of God) to contemporary interest in cities among Christian sociologists (e.g. Jacques Ellul). For this reason I was pleased to receive a copy of T. Desmond Alexander’s The City of God and the Goal of Creation, the newest installment of Crossways series Short Studies in Biblical Theology.1 The book was a rewarding read in many ways, yet it left this reviewer with the impression that something significant was missing.
As with all the contributions to this series, The City of God is written to make the recent scholarly work on biblical theology available to a wider lay-Christian audience. Biblical theology is concerned with the study of the Bible as a cohesive whole, often with a particular interest in the themes that run throughout it and display its unity. Alexander thus tracks the concept of “city” from Genesis to Revelation. He argues that the appearance of cities is by no means incidental, for at the heart of God’s plan for creation is “an extraordinary city,” which “God has graciously and patiently been working to create…, where he will dwell in harmony with humanity” (15-16).2 In the book’s eight concise chapters, Alexander traces the theme of the City of God and its antithesis, Babel or Babylon, by interacting book-by-book with significant passages that pertain to the theme. This is where the strength of the book is most evident; the engaged reader will walk away from The City of God with a better understanding both of the greater unity of Scripture through one of its key themes and of many individual books and passages. Alexander engages with Scripture proficiently and his treatment of Sinai and the tabernacle should prove particularly illuminating to readers unfamiliar with the Old Testament and its religious system (its “cultus”). There is, however, something missing from Alexander’s treatment.
As with many works on biblical theology, orientated as they are to a description of the bible rather than its application, the reader is often left wondering what the exact significance of an exposition or insight is. This is the biggest deficiency of the book. It could largely have been remedied by providing early on—or anywhere—a definition or explanation of what a city is and why this matters.
For a book on “city,” Alexander never actually explains what he or the Bible means by “city” (cf. 15). It is obvious that “city” in English refers, minimally, to a large settlement—a place with a high population density. Yet, it also has further connotations: we juxtapose the city with the country, contrasting urban living with rural living. Contemporary discussion of cities often focuses on their technological nature, and cities have always had significant political connotations. What, though, does a city mean in the Bible?
To this question Alexander never gives an answer. Yet to do so would begin to unveil the great significance of “city.” The various Hebrew words translated “city” all have connotations of a permanent large settlement, sometimes with reference to its fortified or politically significant nature. The Greek word usually translated city, polis, has specific political connotations. In the passages that Alexander presents, the significance of a city is its relationship to God and His purposes. Consider Babel, it is a city defined by its opposition to God and it is the focal point of humanity united in opposition to God. In a word, it is the physical embodiment of that kingdom that aligns itself in opposition to God.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the physical embodiment of the Kingdom of God, the locus both of His presence and of His rule on earth. At its best, Jerusalem represents the unity of redeemed humanity in the service of God. The focus of city as a theological theme in the Bible is, therefore, not the contrast between rural and urban or between technological and natural. Instead, city concerns the embodiment of God’s rule and His presence over a people in a specific location (or the antithesis of this).
Following this line thinking, one does not then have to struggle to explain how the figure of the New Jerusalem in Revelation could describe a literal city (cf. 151-152). If a city concerns God’s rule and presence among and through a people in a specific location, the conclusion of many commentators and theologians that the New Jerusalem is the redeemed people of God living in the New Creation coheres perfectly with the biblical theme of city. New Jerusalem is a city but not primarily an urban center: it is the centre of God’s political and religious presence on earth among a people united in His kingdom. A high density of people implies a complex infrastructure and thus urbanization, yet this is probably not the focus of the theme of city in Scripture. Though this review is not the place, one could draw from such an understanding of city many implications for the contemporary church and its commission to radiate the glory of God in this world.3 Such a discussion of city would go a long way to increasing the applicability of Alexander’s work.
Though I argue that there is something significant missing from The City of God and the Goal of Creation, this does not undermine its value. The theme of the City of God touches upon some of the most beautiful promises in Scripture—living in the presence of God and experiencing joy there forevermore!—and will therefore encourage the reader greatly. Furthermore, it will be useful for anyone looking for a place to start in studying the concept of “city” in the Bible and would be helpful for someone intrigued by the appearance of the New Jerusalem in Revelation and curious about its biblical precedent. This is in addition to what was already observed above. Alexander’s work is not entirely satisfactory, yet I do not hesitate to recommend it to the reader desiring a concise summary of the theme of city in Scripture; I pray that it would whet your appetite for diving further into the treasures of Scripture’s teaching in this regard.
3 E.g. Christians and the World: The Ethics of a City on a Hill; Biblical Themes that Define Us (1): Two Kingdoms; Biblical Themes that Define Us (3): Elect Exiles; Biblical Themes that Define Us (4): Jesus’s Family.