The Fearful And Proud Are Confused And Scattered

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Genesis 11:1-9 1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

INTRODUCTION

If you’ve ever spent time around people who speak a different language you know how much we take for granted the ability to understand one another when we talk. I’ve accidentally ordered cheese instead of cheese cake. I’ve tried to say I was sick and needed a bathroom only to (embarrassingly) stare at a blank face. I’ve had an airport official try to get me to pay a bribe without being able to really understand him or know how to report the behavior. I’ve caused a great deal of confusion while trying to hand out free bibles. I’ve tried to get a pharmacist to explain to me the right dosage of allergy medicine (because my eye was twice the normal size) with very little success. I’ve said things that I was sure would be helpful to my wife that somehow got lost in translation. Most significantly, I’ve tried to share the gospel and teach the bible many times in great frustration.

Being able to easily and clearly communicate with others is a real gift. Our passage begins with the whole earth possessing that gift. Because of their fear, idolatry and pride, however, our passage ends with the whole earth forfeiting that gift. To help you understand what happened to bring that about, we’ll consider the people’s hearts and actions, God’s response, and then a few implications for us today. Please pray with me that God would help us see the folly and deadliness of fear, idolatry and pride. Please pray also that God would help us long for the day in which those things will be no more and we will all be reunited in one language with which we will forever sing God’s praises.

THE PEOPLE’S HEARTS AND ACTIONS (1-4)

If we are to understand the significance of this passage we first need to understand the relationship between it and chapter 10. 10:1 and 11:1 start in the same place—one family with one language. The rest of chapter 10, then, describes the scattering that was caused by the events in our passage for this morning. That is, chapter 11 provides the explanation for the things we read in chapter 10. Why in chapter 10 do we read that the “coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with their own language…” (10:5)? Likewise, why is it that in the day of Peleg “the earth was divided” (10:25)? Why did Shem’s sons speak different languages (10:31)? And why were the descendants of Noah’s sons scattered further and further over the course of generations? What caused those things to happen? Again, 11:1-9 answers those questions for us.

Let’s begin at the beginning, then, as we consider the hearts and actions of Noah’s offspring.

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

In the beginning the whole earth was united in speech. From Genesis 1-10, from the time of Adam until the time of Noah’s children, everyone spoke the same language. Anywhere you traveled, you could communicate freely—there was no need for Google Translate. As mankind began to multiply, however, some began to “migrate” further and further out from one another. “Migrated” here is the same idea of the Israelites wandering around the wilderness. It describes a nomadic way of life; living in tents and moving constantly as resources dictated.

At some point the migrants came across a plain—a flat area—in an area called Shinar. The plain was evidently inviting/desirable, because they decided to stop wandering and settle there.

Back before the flood we read that Adam’s son, Cain, built a city and called it Enoch (4:17). We’re not exactly sure what that city consisted of, but it helps us to see that at least some of what we read about in this story isn’t entirely new. People had been gathering together in cities from the beginning. What is new, though—at least there’s no prior mention of it in the bible—is the making of bricks and building with them. This shows remarkable ingenuity on the part of these settling migrants. By the time the Israelites received Genesis the brick making and mortar technology had improved quite a bit, but this was a good start.

From there, however, things (as they always seem to do in Genesis) took a downward turn. While God had made them for worship and peace, they were marked and motivated by pride and fear. We don’t know for sure why they feared being scattered/dispersed, or who they feared would cause the dispersion (it may have been an act of rebellion of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth), but it is clear that they did fear those things. Interestingly, their less-than-great, two-pronged idea to protect themselves from dispersion was to build a tower within their city that reached to the heavens and to build a name for themselves by doing so. Again, it’s we’re not sure how they thought idolatry and pride would protect them from their fear of being scattered, but it must have made sense to them because that’s what they did.

In all of this the people’s actions revealed important things about their hearts. In particular, their actions revealed hearts that lacked trust in God to provide for and protect them; a lack of trust in the goodness of God’s design for them. In fear, then, rather than call upon the name of the LORD and place their hope entirely in Him, they decided to take matters into their own hands; to come up with their own plans and means of accomplishing them. Ironically, their fear drove them to trust in their God-given wisdom and strength instead of God’s wisdom and strength. That is, they forsook the one thing that could overcome their fear for that which had no chance.

Their actions also revealed a rejection of God’s glory in favor of their own. They sought to make a name for themselves instead of God. Practically, at the same time these people wanted to establish autonomy from God and become like God. This was the curse of their first parents and their pagan ancestors. A fool’s errand.

The problem, then, wasn’t ultimately the bricks, city, or even the tower (there’s no divine height limit on buildings). Instead, the problem was their rejection of God’s plan and God’s ways; their pride and fear; their wayward hearts.

What’s more, this passage, as we will see later, explains the beginning of the city of Babylon, the great enemy of God and His people. This passage then (just like chapter 9 did for the Israel/Canaanite conflict), explained the origin of another of Israel’s greatest conflicts. By noting this I don’t mean to fill your head with bible trivia. I mean to remind you that the different stories that make up Genesis are really part of a much larger story of redemption; one that God planned from the beginning. This kind of thing is meant to make our hearts sing even in the midst of this darkness. It’s a short, subtle turning of the tapestry from knotty back to beautiful front.

GOD’S RESPONSE (5-9)

So how would God respond? What would he do in the face of such rebellious hearts and acts?

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

God looked upon them and realized, once again, how wayward their hearts had become. He saw their sin against Him and knew that as things stood it was only the beginning of the evil they would contrive. Clear echoes of this are found in Romans 1:30 as Paul laments those who were “inventors of evil”.

God’s response simultaneously mocked and judged these prideful settlers and the Babylonians that would arise from the settlement. Though the tower reached into the heavens, God had to come down to see them! Though they thought themselves something, God referred to them as children. Though their great ingenuity made a stronger structure than any before it, it couldn’t even slow down the judgment of God (much less stop it). Though they had grand plans for themselves and their name, God drove them out before they could even complete their building. Though they did all of this to prevent dispersion, God dispersed them with a word. Though these people performed significant acts of creativity and ordering (imitating God in creation), because they were the result of mistrust and pride, God quickly turned them to confusion, destruction, and chaos.

Specifically, God’s mocking judgment took the form of their greatest fear: confusion and dispersion. These people had done what they’d done out of fear of being displaced and pride in their ability to prevent it. In one simple act God confused their language, broke their pride, and delivered them over to the object of their fear. The language of v.6 is very much like the language of 3:22-23 where God judged Adam and Eve after their rebellion; after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil—even in the use of the plural.

All of this together is no small thing. The seriousness of the people’s rebellion and the severity of God’s response are hard to miss. It seems like the last echoes of God’s promise in 3:15 were dying out. It seems like creation had been lost; like there was no hope. We’re left wondering what would become of mankind and God’s promises to him.

LESSONS FOR US FROM THE TOWER OF BABEL

All of that also leaves us with the question of how it relates to us. What does all of this mean for God’s people today? I want to share with you a small handful of implications. As always, as I do, I’d also like to earnestly warn you to avoid three exceedingly common pits. First, fight hard to avoid falling into the pit of apathy—of doing nothing. We cannot be a people who hear the word of God and are indifferent to its implications. We must take the things we learn and apply them to our lives. God is not indifferent to our obedience. Second, fight hard to avoid falling into the pit of being overwhelmed by the number of things God’s word calls you to. Pick one thing at a time and go after it. Let each of these implications wash over you, but pick one (or two) to really drill down on. And third, fight hard to avoid falling into the pit of gospel-less acts of obedience. You have already fallen short of all of these things and so you need the gospel. You are too weak to do them on your own and so you need the gospel. You cannot earn God’s favor by doing them so you need the gospel. Jesus already perfectly obeyed them for you and so you need the gospel. You need the gospel. God requires obedience from His people but He also provides the strength we need to obey and the sacrifice required for the times we don’t.

With that please consider the following lessons for us today and fight to apply them to your life.

  1. Ingenuity is not virtuous in itself. The people in this story demonstrated remarkable ingenuity in making bricks, mortar, and brick buildings. And yet, consider also the fearful, prideful motivation beneath it. There is nothing inherently good about doing something new and God is not indifferent to the way we pursue things—even good things. Let us be a people who are constantly looking to express the creative nature of God that is inside us, but let us be a people who, at the same time, test our motives, methods, and goals against the word of God.
  2. Fearing anything but God alone is bad for the people of God. Always. One of God’s most common refrains in the entire bible is “Fear not” or “Do not fear” or “Be not afraid”. God’s logic is very simple. For His people God is always working for our eternal good; even in painful circumstances; even in death (Romans 8:28; Philippians 1:21). Therefore, to believe the promises of God is to believe that we need not fear anything; for everything is from the LORD and for your good. Like the people in this story, by living in fear we block the righteous path God made for us and must, therefore, cut our own new way. And our own new way, like theirs, will always be filled with peril.

    If we fear people (or the opinions of people) we will not be able to love them well or act toward them as God calls us to. If we fear losing our jobs we will compromise our principles and mission just to stay employed. If we fear sickness we will turn inward, caring more about avoiding, recovering, and staying physically alive than we do about proclaiming the eternal sufficiency of Jesus. If we fear pain we will give ourselves to the pursuit of comfort instead of Christ. If we fear death we will leave large parts of the world unreached. In other words, fear always drives us away from that to which God has called us and into great danger. In all of this our fears often reveal our idols. Our fear of a thing is often a symptom of an idolatrous relationship with that thing. This passage teaches us to be on the lookout for such idolatry.

    On the other hand, Grace, if we will learn this lesson we will fear God alone and be truly free cover every corner of the world with the love and gospel of Jesus Christ. Our hardship will be a greater chance to glorify God. And to live will be Christ and to die will be gain.

  3. Pride is bad. Always. Fear drove this people to step outside of God’s will. Pride made them believe they could be successful in their stepping out. Seeking to make a name for ourselves in place of or above God—as these people did—is always pride and, therefore, it is always bad. This is, perhaps, the most subtle and destructive of all sins. It is in one way or another at the root of all sins. Pride is often hard to recognize in ourselves and even harder to kill.

    Here are a few questions that I try to ask myself to help me detect hidden pride. Would I be doing this good thing even if no one knew I was doing it? In the way I go about doing or talking about this good thing are people more likely to think more highly of me or God? Am I doing this good thing more for a sense of personal fulfillment than I am for the glory of God? Have I considered how saying, thinking, doing, or feeling this will impact others?

    In simplest terms pride is putting ourselves in the place of God. The Babylonians did just that and therein helped us to see what is at stake if we join them. We cannot stand against God and prosper; only pride makes us believe otherwise.

  4. Wanting something that God has not given you is a certain path to getting something you don’t want. I often wonder how much time we spend chasing after things that God doesn’t mean us to have. I’ve also wondered how many of the trials in our lives come from doing just that. Grace, God only wants good things for His people. Therefore, where you find a divine command or principle or example in the bible, you have found the only path to glory. God’s commands, principles, and examples are all and only ways to avoid futility, danger, judgment, and death, and gain everlasting life and peace and joy. Don’t despise the prohibitions or requirements of God—even the ones that seem so hard. Seek them out, love them, and thank God for them. For in them is the goodness of God and the only way to the things you truly desire.
  5. The existence of multiple languages ought always to remind us of God’s judgment. Have you ever been in a worship service in another language. There is something special about it, but there is also something frustrating about it. We’re not meant to be ignorant of the praise of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed, one of the great gospel promises is that in Jesus, God will one day gather people from every tongue…and then give us one tongue to sing his praise forever.

    This passage helps us to see that the presence of many languages is a sign of God’s judgment on sin. This is part of God’s blessing to the Israelites; He made them into one people with one language in order to reunite the world. This was also part of God’s curse for the Israelites; He regularly promised to destroy them in their rebellion through other nations of different languages (Deuteronomy 28:49; Isaiah 28:11; Jeremiah 5:15).

    Again, let us rejoice in the fact that the undoing of these events is part of the great promise of God’s salvation. We see it in OT passages like Zephaniah 3:9-11. We see it partially fulfilled in Acts (Pentecost). And we will ultimately see it fulfilled in the New Heavens and Earth (Revelation). The lessons for us here are 1) to learn to look at the world as it truly is and respond as God would have us, and 2) to lean other languages in order that we might proclaim Christ to this broken world.

  6. God’s holiness is more severe than we can possibly imagine. In my experience most of the most common street-level objections to the gospel center around a deficient or altogether absent understanding of the holiness of God. The entire gospel swings on the holiness of God. Without it, none of the rest of the gospel makes sense. Apart from the holiness of God, there would be no sin. Apart from God’s holiness God wouldn’t care about our sin. Apart from God’s holiness eternal judgment would be entirely unjust. Apart from God’s holiness heaven would be anything but infinitely desirable. You get the idea…the holiness of God is the linchpin of the story of salvation.

    To grow in our love for and trust in the gospel, then, is to grow in our understanding of and appreciation for the holiness of God. Therefore, we must seek out, treasure, and hold on to anything that can help us know God’s holiness. This passage is one such thing. In God’s severe reaction to this seemingly small transgression (in the world’s eyes for sure), we find out something critical about God—in His holiness He will tolerate no rivals and no rebellion. He is perfect and set apart in every way. He is perfectly and continually holy. For those who despise this, it will mean certain judgment. But for those who will trust in Him, that is truly good news.

  7. Our salvation will not come from starting over. In this passage we find the continued unraveling of the human race after having been given a second chance; a do-over. A simple restart is not what we need. We need something much, much greater; something that goes much, much deeper. Adam failed, Noah failed, as we’ll soon see Abraham, Moses, the judges, the kings, the sacrificial systems, the priests, and the prophets all failed to fix man at his core. Each represented another kind of starting over. And each showed the impossibility of any from Adam’s line to keep God’s commands or atone for their failures.

    In all of that failing and in all of the revealed inadequacies of the “fresh starts,” we are meant to grow in our longing for the One who would be able to do what everyone and everything else couldn’t. We’re meant to grow in our longing for the promised Son of Eve who would crush the head of the serpent. We’re meant to see the supreme glory of Jesus Christ who alone could break the bonds of sin and death and set the captives free. God didn’t fail, then, in that His ways didn’t do what He meant them to. Rather, He succeeded in showing that Christ alone was the hope of man. The pain and futility and judgment and failed second chances of Genesis are meant to show us the incomparable riches of the grace of God in Jesus. Let’s embrace the frustration and difficulties of Genesis, then, as a means of growing in our appreciation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of our LORD.

CONCLUSION

This story marks the tragic end of humanity’s most ancient history. In Adam mankind fell and then spiraled downward to the point that his every intention was only evil continually. Because of this God judged the world, found it guilty, and destroyed it; save one family. In Noah, then, mankind was given a fresh start, a second chance. And yet once again mankind spiraled downward in pride to the point of a hopeless dispersal…and this one feels especially ominous as it contains no immediate promise of future grace.

As one commentator put it, “It does not offer a token of grace, a promise of any blessing, a hope of salvation, or a way of escape. There is no clothing for the naked sinner, no protective mark for the fugitive, no rainbow in the dark sky. The primeval age ends with judgmental scattering and complete confusion. The blessing is not here…” (Ross, CB, 242).

Thus, at the close of this scene all seems lost in an even darker way. We are made to see with eyes wide open that as long as Adam’s blood runs in our veins, something different is needed. But would it come? Would mankind be given another chance or would God simply allow the downward spiral to continue, ending in judgment and death? In other words, would God remain true to His promise from 3:15 or had man’s unceasing rebellion caused him to change His mind?

Of course God will always remain faithful to His promises. The only question is how. Hints are sprinkled throughout Genesis and throughout the entire OT. What the OT alludes to and anticipates, the NT puts on full display. Praise be to God for sending His one and only Son to take away the sins of the world.

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