The Music of God’s Providence

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“He bringeth forth in measured harmonies the course of time.” That’s Augustine’s translation of Isaiah 40:26 [“Qui profert numerose sæculam”]. Accurate or not, it got Augustine thinking about God’s providence, the precision of time in music, and God’s soverein orchestration of the cosmos.

Here’s Augustine, writing Jerome in a letter (AD 415):

For not in vain has the prophet, taught by divine inspiration, declared concerning God, “He bringeth forth in measured harmonies the course of time.” For which reason music, the science or capacity of correct harmony, has been given also by the kindness of God to mortals having reasonable souls, with a view to keep them in mind of this great truth.

For if a man, when composing a song which is to suit a particular melody, knows how to distribute the length of time allowed to each word so as to make the song flow and pass on in most beautiful adaptation to the ever-changing notes of the melody, how much more shall God, whose wisdom is to be esteemed as infinitely transcending human arts, make infallible provision that not one of the spaces of time alloted to natures that are born and die — spaces which are like the words and syllables of the successive epochs of the course of time — shall have, in what we may call the sublime psalm of the vicissitudes of this world, a duration either more brief or more protracted than the foreknown and predetermined harmony requires!

For when I may speak thus with reference even to the leaves of every tree, and the number of the hairs upon our heads, how much more may I say it regarding the birth and death of men, seeing that every man’s life on earth continues for a time, which is neither longer nor shorter than God knows to be in harmony with the plan according to which He rules the universe.


Augustine of Hippo, “Letters of St. Augustin,” in The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. G. Cunningham, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 527–528.

Augustine’s Confessions: A Translation Comparison

Here’s a brief bit from Augustine’s Confessions (2.2.2), as translated into English over the years. The striking language Augustine employs to describe his adolescent lusts make the passage especially illuminating in comparing translation approaches:

Pilkington: “Out of the dark concupiscence of the flesh and the effervescence of youth exhalations came forth which obscured and overcast my heart, so that I was unable to discern pure affection from unholy desire.”

Outler: “Instead, the mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire.”

Chadwick: “Clouds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air. The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness.”

Pusey: “Out of the muddy concupiscence of the flesh, and the bubblings of youth, mist fumed up which beclouded and overcast my heart, that I could not discern the clear brightness of love from the fog of lustfulness.”

Pine-Coffin: “Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust.”

Wills: “Instead of affection’s landmarks drawn in light, earth-murks drowned in lust – and my erupting sexuality – breathed mephitic vapors over the boundary, to cloud and blind my heart in clouds and fog, erasing the difference between love’s quietness and the drivenness of dark impulse.”

Sheed: “From the muddy concupiscence of the flesh and the hot imagination of puberty mists steamed up to becloud and darken my heart so that I could not distinguish the white light of love from the fog of lust.”

Ryan: “Clouds arose from the slimy desires of the flesh and from youth’s seething spring. They clouded over and darkened my soul, so that I could not distinguish the calm light of chaste love from the fog of lust.”

Boulding (1998): “From the mud of my fleshly desires and my erupting puberty belched out murky clouds that obscured and darkened my heart until I could not distinguish the calm light of love from the fog of lust.”

Ruden (2017): “Mine were the putrid fumes rising from scummy bodily lusts and the diseased eruption of puberty, befouling and befuddling my heart with their smoke, so that there was no telling the unclouded sky of affection from the thick murk of carnality.”

Myself, I have for several years prefered Boulding with recent growing interest in Ruden.

Augustine on Pride

Augustine defined pride as the creature’s refusal to submit to God. Pride was present at the fall of Satan when he sought to escape God’s authority just as pride was present in the fall of Adam and Eve who sought to escape God’s authority by becoming self-gods (Gen 3:5). Pride is an attempted escape from God — and that’s futile. “For the dominion of the Almighty cannot be eluded; and he who will not piously submit himself to things as they are, proudly feigns, and mocks himself with a state of things that does not exist” (City of God, 11.13). God is, thereby making it impossible to live separate from His presence or authority. Thus Satan is forever caught in the vortex of self-mockery, living only for himself and yet forever unable to escape God’s authority and sovereign influence. Therefore, Augustine says, the life of pride is a life of self-destructive fakery, an entrapment to a false and self-created matrix of twisted un-reality. “To exist in himself, that is, to be his own satisfaction after abandoning God, is not quite to become a nonentity, but approximate to that” (ibid 14.13.1). Pride turns a man inward to find his purpose, it makes him feed on himself in the search for satisfaction, pride folds the soul over onto itself, shrivels it, causes the soul to fade and then to nearly disappear like Tolkien’s Nazgûl. The life of pride is a living lie and entrapment to self-mockery. Oh dear God help us! “Who can unravel that twisted and tangled knottiness? It is foul. I hate to reflect on it. I hate to look on it. But thee do I long for” (Confessions 3.8.16). Our only solution is to be found by fixing our eyes on the humble One and by washing in the divine blood that flows from God’s self-humbling (Trinity, 4.2.4).