Genesis 11:1-9 (text); Luke 2:8-14; Acts 2:1-11; Revelation 7:9-12
Rev. Nollie Malabuyo • November 25, 2012 (Pasig) • Download PDF sermon
From Babel to Bethlehem to Pentecost
In 1889, the race to build the tallest building in the modern world began when the 896-foot tall Eiffel Tower in Paris was built. In 1931, Empire State Building in New York became the tallest building in the world at 1,250 feet. Its long reign as king of skyscrapers ended in 1967 when the Ostankino Tower in Moscow towered over it at 1,762 feet. In 2007, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, became king at 2,722 feet. In turn, Tokyo, Japan has completed the design of X-Seed 4000, and with its 800 floors rising to 13,000 feet, can house about one million residents!
Why is mankind obsessed with building these skyscrapers? One of the biggest factors is the lack of space for increasing urban populations. But a big reason is pride: Who can make a name for himself by building the tallest structure in the world?
It is not only modern man who is obsessed with heights. Our text goes back to the centuries after the flood in Noah’s days destroyed all mankind, in the land of Shinar. Our text tells of a proud, unified humanity planning, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4). From the beginning, mankind has always vainly attempted to reach God in heaven. And just like today, making a name for himself takes the highest place in his life.
In only nine verses, the Tower of Babel narrative is short, but not in significance. Verses 1-4 tell of mankind’s pride and plan to build the tower. Verses 6-9 inform us about God’s perspective on mankind’s plan and how he dispersed them from Shinar. The structure of the narrative centers in verse 5, when God came down from heaven “to see the city and the tower.”
But the story does not end in the dispersion of mankind into the whole earth. Millennia later, in the fullness of time, the Son of God, the Son of Man, came down from heaven in the flesh. This time, he did not come to observe the wickedness of man. He instead was born as a human being to save him from his wickedness. And after he ascended back into his exalted place in heaven, Christ the Savior did not leave his disciples as orphans because he sent them the Holy Spirit. One Pentecost Sunday, the Spirit filled all of them, and through his Spirit, God reversed the effects of Babel. God’s people are now able to be united in one Savior and Lord. Instead of confusion and dispersion, now they are able to unite in one language, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and one Kingdom of God.
In this second sermon in the series, “Christmas in Genesis,” our theme is “Glory to Man, Glory to God,” under three headings: first, Man Glorifies Himself in One Tongue; second, God Confuses Man with Many Tongues; and third, Man Glorifies God in One Tongue.
Man Glorifies Himself in One Tongue
If you are familiar with the book of Genesis, you might notice that already in Genesis 10 is a table of nations, apparently already scattered and speaking different languages. Why then does Genesis 11 begin the Babel story saying, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (verse 1)? It is because Genesis 11 is meant to be a flashback, explaining why there are now many nations with different languages.
Several connections between these two chapters are of note. Babel is mentioned as a kingdom built by Nimrod, a name which means “”we shall rebel.” In addition, Shinar is named as another city built by Nimrod (Gen 10:8-10). The name Peleg, which means “division,” is explained by “in his days the earth was divided” (Gen 10:25). This is most probably the same event as the dispersion from Shinar.
A careful reader might also notice the similarity between the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden stories. Both stories show how man attempted to be like God and to ascend to heaven. Both stories tell of God referring to himself using the plural “us”: “The man has become like one of us” (Gen 3:22), and “Come, let us go down” (Gen 11:7). The two events are placed in the same area between the two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, which is Babylon. Shinar is another name for Babylon (Gen 2:14; 11:2). Finally, both stories end with the expulsion of man from the place where they have settled (Gen 3:24; 11:9). In one sense, Babel is another Fall of man.
In rebellion against God’s command to fill the earth, all the people of the earth after Adam’s fall migrated from Eden as one, traveling eastward. When they found the fertile plain in Shinar between the two great rivers, they “settled” there. This means they congregated in this one place.
The phrase “from the east” is ominous of bad things to come. In the Bible, Genesis in particular, “from the east” or “east” usually implies moving away from God’s will and blessing. Adam and Eve were driven away from the eastern gate of Eden (Gen 3:24). Lot traveled away from Abraham to the eastern cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 13:10-12). And Jacob fled from his home to “the land of the people of the east” (Gen 29:1).
If the Egyptians, Mayans, and other ancient peoples built pyramids, Babylonians built towers, known today as ziggurats. They were massive structures, several stories high, and with giant terraced steps. What did the people use? Ancient Israel used stone and mortar for their buildings, but the Babylonians had sun-dried or kiln-baked brick and bitumen (verse 3).
On the top floor of these ziggurats, they built their temples to their gods, thinking that these temples were their gateway to heaven. In fact, one ziggurat was named “House of the Platform between Heaven and Earth.” So the people conspired together to build “a tower with its top in the heavens” (verse 4). The higher the temple on top of the tower, the closer they are to heaven when they worship their gods.
Ever since creation, man has always been deceived into thinking that they can reach God in heaven with their own independent efforts. All kinds of unbiblical religions have always sought to appease their man-made gods through all sorts of works, sacrifices, and even pilgrimages. Make sure you are not like those at the tower of Babel trying to reach God by your own works. According to the Holy Scripture, the true religion is man reaching the God of heaven not by being a good person doing good works, but by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone!
Another reason for building the Tower of Babel was “to make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Recognition and even fame are two of man’s deepest needs. Before the flood, the “giants” on earth were “men of renown,” probably mighty warriors and powerful kings. What was the result of making heroes of these men? “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). After this, God sent the great flood to judge wicked mankind. Just as then, it is now. The heroes of today are Hollywood celebrities, great athletes, the rich and famous. Even churches have their own celebrity circuit of charismatic speakers. Everyone wants to make a name for himself and be famous for 15 minutes.
Those who are not rich and famous like us are not exempt from trying to make a name for ourselves. We want to have our own “legacy” to pass on to our children. We want to be remembered by our friends as those who are kind, loving, plus fun-loving and full of life. We want to be known as those who accomplished much in the workplace. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we look at our accomplishments and declare, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30).
Nebuchadnezzar might as well have said, as Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it my way!” In the Philippines, karaoke bars complete with loudspeakers that can reach whole neighborhoods, are everywhere. People would be singing with gusto until the wee hours of the morning, and if you’re next to one of these, it’s just too bad. So at least a couple of men have been shot dead for singing “I did it my way!” They were killed not because of the message, but rather, because of the bad singing.
We Christians are not to glory in our own fame and fortune, but in God. In stark contrast to the tower-builders who wanted to make their name great, God promised a legacy to Abraham, “I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen 12:2). The names of Abraham and all the Old Testament heroes did not become great of their own desire, because they too were just like us, prone to sin. Because of the faith they showed even in great persecution and suffering, God made their name great and “immortal,” humanly speaking. And in the end, those of us who also persevere in our difficult pilgrimage will be rewarded by God himself. On our foreheads, God will write three names: his name, the name of the heavenly city, and the name of Christ (Rev 3:12; 22:4).
The tower-builders knew God’s command to Adam and Noah to fill the earth, but they were rebellious and driven by their aspiration to be autonomous from God. To prevent their spreading out to the four corners of the earth, they built a great city and a great tower, and settled there. God saw all of these and decided to intervene.
God Confuses Man with Many Tongues
As mentioned before, verse 5 connects the two main parts of our text. After God saw the tower-builders’ rebellious ambition to settle in one place, reach the heavens, and make a name for themselves, he decided to come down and see the city and the tower. As in the later story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God himself came down from heaven to see the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, “I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me” (Gen 18:21).
Moses the author is probably mocking the tower-builders who thought that their tower was great and lofty. But God had to stoop down to see the city and tower, so puny compared to his immensity. In God’s sight, the people of the earth are like grasshoppers (Isa 40:22), and he laughs and derides the futility of man’s ambition to reach the heavens with a microscopic tower (Psa 2:4).
God having to come down to see does not mean that his mind and vision are limited. But the author wants to point out that God is not a God who is “watching over us from a distance.” On the contrary, God is interested in the details of what is happening to mankind and to his whole creation. God’s interest in the affairs of mankind is seen in the rest of Chapter 11, in the genealogy of the godly line from Shem, one of Noah’s three sons.
This genealogy traces the line all the way down to Terah, the father of Abraham, who took his family out of the city of Ur of the Chaldeans. This city was located in the same region where the tower of Babel was built. Terah intended to take his family to Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they stopped and settled there for unstated reasons. In Chapter 12, we read about God’s call to Abram to leave Haran to continue their migration into Canaan, where God made a covenant with him to bless him, make his name great, and be a vehicle of blessing to all the nations of the world (Gen 12:3).
So when God sees that the tower-builders were unified as one people with one language living in one place, God said, “This is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (verse 6). Was God threatened by their unity? No, he was not intimidated one bit. Even when the kings of the earth rebel and plot against the Lord and his Anointed, the psalmist says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury” (Psa 2:2, 4-5).
No, God feared not for himself, but for man. If they are unified in their rebellion and independence against God, they will never turn to God. Total wickedness would again prevail over the whole earth, so that God in his righteous anger would destroy them again, just as when he destroyed mankind in the days of Noah. God’s holiness and righteousness would again demand capital punishment.
Because of this, God made a decision: he will force the unified people to scatter abroad by confusing their unified language into many tongues. The people will then form groups of people with the same language. In those days, there were no translators nor subtitles, so the different language groups naturally separated from those whom they did not understand. What they feared most, in verse 4, “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth,” had come upon them. They abandoned their tower project and scattered over the face of the earth. Their plans failed, but God perfectly accomplished his plan and intention .
Moses makes the connection between what God called the city—Babel—with the similar-sounding Hebrew word balal, which means “mixed-up” or “confused.” Thus, from its beginnings in the land of Shinar, Babylon had become a symbol for the wicked, rebellious, godless—and confused—world. All those who are like Babylon will incur the wrath of God (Isa 14). Isaiah prophesied the fall of the Babylonian empire to be like that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa 13:19). Isaiah’s oracle against Babylon is full of images from the Tower of Babel narrative:
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa 14:12-14).
John describes Babylon as that proud and wicked harlot—spiritually unfaithful—who also persecutes God’s people. But like the tower of Babylon and the ancient Babylonian empire, it will fall to the ground with a great thud, and burn with a great fire, until it is no more. As a picture of the godless political, economic and military powers of the world, its destruction will be complete (Rev 18). The wicked, rebellious world that Babylon represents will mourn (Rev 18:9-19), but the heavenly host, together with all the “saints and apostles and prophets,” will rejoice (Rev 18:20).
The tower of Babel narrative ends in verse 9, when “the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” But the story does not really end here, because even with Babylon leading the whole earth in wickedness, there is hope.
Man Glorifies God in One Tongue
Hope begins unexpectedly in Zephaniah’s prophecy of doom. The Lord will gather the self-sufficient, rebellious nations and kingdoms for judgment, “to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger; for in the fire of my jealousy all the earth shall be consumed” (Zeph 3:8).
But the prophet not only pronounced judgment against the nations; he also gave the Old Testament people hope. In the next verse, Zephaniah says, “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.” This is a prophecy of the reversal of Babylon. The people whose tongues spoke the filthy language of rebellion, wickedness and idolatry, will call upon the holy name of the Lord. Their language will change into the pure language of those who worship God.
Not only will their language be pure; they will all speak one language. The Son of Man was sent into the world to gather those whom his Father had given him before the creation of the world. After he ascended into heaven, he poured out his Spirit on his disciples, and they started speaking in different tongues. Devout men “from every nation under heaven” started hearing the disciples speaking in their own language. And although the preaching was in different tongues, the message was one: the gospel of the life, death and resurrection of the Jesus the Messiah who was born to save his people from sin. They heard the mighty works of God in their own tongues.
Wherever the gospel is preached, people are united to Christ in one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God the Father of all. All believers might be speaking in thousands of tongues all over the world, but the Word that we hear and read, the prayers that we pray, and the songs that we sing have the same message: Repent and believe in the gospel of Christ, and you will be saved.
Because we hear the same Word, we understand one another. Therefore, when believers from many places in the world gather together in a conference in the Philippines, we have a bond that unbelievers will never understand. We do not separate from one another. We speak the same pure speech from the pure Word of God. We love our brethren and help those in other nations who are suffering. We pray for the safety of those who are being persecuted. We send missionaries to preach this one pure gospel into all the world. This is why our Reformed brethren in the Philippines are thankful to those churches that support the mission work there.
Those who hear the preaching of the gospel will come out of rebellious wicked Babylon, which is the unbelieving world. This is what Christ calls us to do:
Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities (Rev 18:4-5).
We must abandon our love for the wicked world, and our desire to be independent of God. Unlike those who reject the one gospel of Christ, our minds and hearts must not be dominated by “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” The tower-builders wanted to reach heaven by building a lofty tower, but instead, they heaped sin upon sin like a staircase climbing to heaven.
On that first Christmas night, the host of angels came down from heaven and sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
What a sad contrast to the tower-builders! In their pride, self-sufficiency and unity of language and nation, they gave glory to themselves for their mighty work of building a great city and a lofty tower. In so doing, these rebels failed to glorify God who had blessed them with great knowledge, skills, and provisions. So God dispersed them by confusing their tongues.
In the end, the confusion in Babel will be reversed in heaven. The new heaven and new earth will not be built by human hands with the aid of human technology. It will be a city “whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). It will not be built from the earth trying to reach up to heaven. Rather, it is a city “coming down out of heaven from God,having the glory of God” (Rev 21:10-11).
There, all the nations, like the angelic host on that first Christmas night, will speak one language of praise, united in giving glory to God and to the Lamb: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev 5:9, 13) Amen.