************ Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 16, 2011
Language can be a strange thing. Did you know most languages assign a gender to things. For instance, the word "moon" is masculine in Polish but feminine in Portugese, Russian, and Spanish. The word "potato" is masculine in Russian but feminine in Spanish. By way of contrast, in English our words generally are gender neutral.
Each language also has its own unique sayings and phrases which confuse people from overseas. For instance, no matter how hard we try, there really is no accurate translation for the Dutch word "vies" or "gezellig". American English is the same way: when we memorize something we say we "learn it by heart" but people from overseas think we should say "learn it by mind." If you come from England, you put "petrol" in your gas tank and your trunk is called a "boot" and one of those things that fly is pronounced "helicopter."
Where does our different and unique ways of talking come from? Many today point to what they say is our evolutionary past. Language evolved, they say, just like the different tribes and races and peoples and nations evolved. But that is not what the Bible says – about either the different tribes and races and peoples and nations or the different languages. Our Scripture reading begins with these words:
(Gen 11:1) Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.Contrary to what evolutionists and secular anthropologists believe, language and speech is NOT something that man developed over millions of years. When God made us, He made us with the ability to talk and think and write. Furthermore, when God made us, He made us with one language and a common speech. And, it is the Tower of Babel that explains where our different languages come from.
This is now our third message on the formation of the different nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. In our first message we looked at Noah's prophecies about his three sons and their descendants. In our second message we looked at the names of the different nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. In this message we look at how God brought about their formation.
This past week someone asked me why the list of nations is given before the events at Babel? Let me tell you what I told him: not all of the Bible is chronological in order. Sometimes, as we have in Genesis 9-11, the Bible is organized by topic rather than by time-line. Don't forget, this is part of the Spirit's inspiration of Scripture.
I Mankind's Sin
A As the children of Israel heard Moses read the story of the Tower of Babel, they heard fateful words in verse 2 already:
(Gen 11:2) As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.The "east" is where God planted the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8). However, when man fell into sin and was driven out of the Garden, he went further east (Gen 3:24). After being cursed by God, Cain lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Gen 4:16). Notice, those who want to get away from God and the presence of God always move "east" – further and further east. In Genesis, when man goes "east", he leaves Eden and the Promised Land; when man goes "east he leaves the place of God's blessing. In this light we are to realize that man's move east, to the plain of Shinar, is not a good thing because man goes away from the presence of God. Contrary to this, I want you to notice that at the end of Genesis 11, Terah and Abraham and Lot and their families move in the opposite direction (Gen 11:31; 12:5). The same is true for the children of Israel as they first hear this story.
In which direction is your life headed? To God or away from God? Are you like the people of Babel or like Abraham and the saints of God? Do you seek God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength? Or, do you seek life apart from God?
How do you know when it comes to your life? Well, let me ask, do you earnestly desire to worship God? Those who seek God, first of all worship God. That comes first. That is most important. Then comes the other spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, Christian fellowship, involvement in the church and kingdom, and your attitude towards the things of this world.
B Notice what happens after they move east and away from God: in Shinar they make bricks and use tar as mortar. This implies a building project. It started off small as they built homes and barns but, as we will see, their project got bigger and bigger.
In Shinar they make bricks and use tar as mortar. Building projects of brick and tar do not happen overnight – they involve an enormous amount of time and energy that take away from the search for life's necessities. This tells us that Shinar must have been rich in food, water, grass, flowers, honey, and animals – because they could choose to live and build there rather than pursue food and drink. Doesn't this kind of remind you of Lot who picked the well-watered plain as the place to live (Gen 13:10)? We are being told, then, that the people of Shinar were materialists. Their focus was not life with God but the things of this earrth. On the plain of Shinar the people were moving away from God.
C As I already mentioned, their building project got bigger and bigger:
(Gen 11:4) Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves ... a tower that reaches to the heavens ..."
What is missing from I just read to you? I omitted a small but very important detail. Let me read the entire text to you:
(Gen 11:4) Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens ..."Do you hear what they were building? Sunday School lessons and children's story Bibles tend to emphasize the tower of Babel. But, notice, they were not just building a tower. Rather, they were building a city with a tower. First, and foremost, they were building a city.
On one level, Babel shows human ingenuity, ability, imagination, reason, forethought, and planning. People back then were not the ignorant savages and cave-dwellers pictured by National Geographic. No mud or stone huts for them. Think of everything that goes into building a city and a tower that reaches to the heavens. They needed to have production teams. They needed to have a plan, a set of drawings. They needed to plan ahead. They needed to divide the labor. They needed to use tools. They needed to know the formula for making bricks. They needed ovens or kilns hot enough to bake bricks. They needed to prepare tar as mortar not only to paste the bricks together but to also weather-proof against rain and cold and wind. They needed the engineering skills to build walls and roofs. They needed to know about angles and elevation and plumb lines. It was a highly developed construction process that we see in Genesis 11. Nothing wrong with any of this – they were fulfilling the cultural mandate to fill the earth and subdue it.
They were building a city. So what? What is the big deal? Back then, most people lived a nomadic lifestyle. They wandered from place to place. Think of Abraham and the patriarchs. Think of the children of Israel listening to Moses tell them the story of Genesis. They were wandering through the desert. For forty years they were wandering on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. To a nomadic people, a city is a big deal. A city represents the ultimate in human community and fellowship.
They were building a city. However, as we will find out, they were building a godless community, an unholy fellowship; it was an attempt at life without God. In the Bible, Babel or Babylon stands as a symbol of organized resistance against God (cf Rev 17-18). Babylon has always been a city set in opposition to the one only true God – whether run by a committee of rebels or a ruthless dictator like Nebuchadnezzar or a mob of Moslem clerics. Those who first built Babel were moving away from God.
They were building a city, a godless city. Why? Because the tower needs a people and a lifestyle to support it. Because the tower will fail or fall without the city.
D Verse 4 reveals three sins with the building project on Shinar. First, they were building a tower "that reaches to the heavens" (Gen 11:4). In that time and place the "heavens" was regarded as the home of the gods. Do you see what man was doing? Man was attempting to find his own way into heaven. Man was attempting to find his own way into the presence of God. Sinful man was attempting to come into the presence of God without an atoning sacrifice for sin. Sinful man was attempting to come into the presence of God without the services of a Mediator. As Jesus said,
(Jn 14:6) "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."Sinful man thought he could find God on His own forgetting that God needs to seek Him out – as we see with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen 3:9). Needless to say, the people of Babel failed in reaching God.
Second, they wanted to "make a name" for themselves (Gen 11:4). Their goal was fame, independence, glory. "Look at what we have done. Look at what we have built. Look at our skill and our accomplishments." How quickly man forgot his goal in life was supposed to be the glory of God.
By the way, can you name any of the people of Shinar? They built the city with its tower to make a name for themselves, so can you name any of them? Do you know a single name of the people in this rebel group? Of course you don't! Those who defy God are quickly forgotten. You remember Enoch because he walked with God (Gen 5:21). You remember Noah because he was a godly man (Gen 6:9). You remember Abraham because he was a man of faith (James 2:23). But you don't remember anyone in Shinar. So, they failed in their second goal as well.
The third sin revealed in verse 4 is that they wanted to keep themselves from being "scattered over the face of the whole earth" (Gen 11:4). Remember God's command to Adam and Eve, a command repeated to Noah and his sons?
(Gen 1:28) God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it." (Cf Gen 9:1-2)In defiance against the will of God, they wanted to stay in one place.
So, on the plains of Shinar man wanted to reach heaven on his own, he wanted to make a name for himself, and he wanted to stay in one place instead of filling and subduing the whole earth. They were moving away from God.
E Today, we live 4000-5000 years after Babel. Babel may be a different time and a different culture and a different location, but the sins today are exactly the same, aren't they?! What is the number one charge our culture makes against Christians? What is our chief and worst sin in the eyes of 21st century America? We are accused of being intolerant because we claim Jesus is the only way. The world hates us because we give no saving credit to other faiths and religions. Well, the world is right. In saying Christians are intolerant, the world understand Christianity better than many Christians do. They correctly understand that our claims about Jesus make us intolerant. The world hate us for this because, as in Shinar, man wants to find his own way to heaven.
Also, man is in a continual quest to make a name for himself. The people of Shinar built the Tower of Babel. Guess what? We continue to build towers, cities, and other structures that glorify man. For instance, the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai built in 2010 at 2,717 feet; this is in the middle of a desert kingdom where space is not exactly at a premium. It took over the honors from Taipei 101 built in 2004 at 1,670 feet. The tallest before that were a pair of towers built in Malaysia in 1998 at 1,483 feet. Man continually strives for bragging rights: for the highest tower, the most money, the best sports team, and so on. Man still wants to glorify himself rather than God.
The Bible teaches us that God measures fame by obedience and faith. So, what do you want to be remembered for? What do you want people to remember about you after you are gone? Your money? Your work? Your business? You silver and gold? What kind of legacy will you leave behind? In what direction are you moving? Unless you are moving towards God and Christ, your works will not survive you (1 Cor 3:10-15)
As at Babel, man today continues to defy God and the will of God. Man questions God at every turn: the definition of marriage, male spiritual leadership, Sunday worship, work. Man wants to climb into heaven not to get close to God, first of all, but to take God's place. Man's intent is to dethrone God and enthrone himself.
II Judgment and Grace
A In verses 5-6 we see God's response to man's sin. "But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building" (Gen 11:5). I want you see the irony and the sarcasm here. The God Who keeps His eyes on the sparrow and numbers the hairs on our head (Lk 12:6-7) certainly does not need to come down from heaven to see the city and tower. This is the God, after all, Who sees when I sit and stand and come and go (Ps 139:2-3). So why does God come down out of heaven? Because man's efforts are so puny and so pathetic and so insignificant that the God Who sees everything pretends He has to come down to see what man has done. What looks impressive to man is but a joke to God. Truly, next to God the works of man are nothing (cf Is 40:15,17).
B At first glance, God seems and sounds worried in verse 6. Listen to what He says:
(Gen 11:6) The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."God is not speaking about human technology. God is not speaking about human engineering. God is not speaking about human empire building. God is speaking about human morality. There is no limit to the evil that can be done by a humanity speaking the same language. In a fallen world, one worldwide language makes all of mankind partners in sin. Think of what one world-wide anti-Christian state could do to the church and the spread of the Gospel. Think of the horrific persecution that could arise. At Babel, God prevents this from happening.
What follows is a trinitarian meeting: "Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other" (Gen 11:7). So, what was God's plan? God's plan was to bring about the different languages and tribes and peoples and nations so that mankind could no longer unite in evil.
Moses tells us the results of this plan in verses 8-9. Moses writes:
(Gen 11:8-9) So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. (9) That is why it was called Babel --because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.God forced the people after the Flood to do what they refused to do voluntarily – namely, scatter over the face of the earth. As soon as God confused the language, the engineers could not speak to the brick-layers and the brick-layers could not speak to the brick-makers. All the work came to a stop. The confusion led to a scattering of people over the "whole earth." God did not allow human rebellion to reach the level that it had before the Flood.
C Do you hear the message that comes through consistently in Genesis? God does not allow sin to go unpunished. When man fell into sin in the Garden, God removed man from the Garden. When man's wickedness increased greatly on the earth, God sent the Flood. When man bonded together in an unholy alliance called Babel or Babylon, God sent a confusion of languages. God responds to human sin. God punishes and thwarts and condemns human sin.
But, there is also another message that comes through consistently. In the Garden, God announced a coming Savior, a seed of the woman, Who would crush Satan (Gen 3:15). After the Flood, God blessed Noah and his sons and made a covenant with them (Gen 9) and gave the rainbow as a sign of the covenant. At the time of Babel, God confused the languages – as punishment, yes – but also to protect man from himself. The grace of God does not allow man to do what he wants in and with the world.
We see that when man moves away, God moves in with judgment and grace. Why? Because He cannot let sin go unpunished! And, because He cannot let His people go!
III Babel's Future Reversal: Unity in Christ
I want to end with the cross and Spirit of Christ.
At Babel, God confused man's language. Did you know this confusion is reversed in Christ? In one of his worship scenes in the Revelation, the Apostle John saw a crowd beyond number. Who was in this crowd? Where did they come from? This is what John writes:
(Rev 7:9) After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.In a song to the Lamb that was slain, John explains how they got there:
(Rev 5:9) You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Do you see what John sees? John sees every tribe and language and people and nation together again. Before the Lamb. Before the throne. It is Jesus, with His blood, Who undoes the scattering of Babel. Because of the cross, we are brought into the presence of God. We need Jesus to have a closer walk with God.
I want you to also think, for a moment, about what happened at Pentecost. Because of Jesus and the Spirit of Jesus, people who could not understand each other, people from "every nation under heaven," could hear and understand in their own language what the Apostles were saying and they repented and believed (Acts 2:5-12).
Do you want a closer walk with God? It starts with Jesus – His blood and His Spirit. You need to repent and believe and then yours, too, will be a closer walk with God. Then you will be moving to God rather than away from God!
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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