Sunday, February 12, 2017

Man at His Best and Worst (Genesis 11:1-9)`


Everyone, it seems, has an opinion these days of what is needed to make our world a better place. Perhaps what we need is a more perfect environment? Maybe changes in the educational system will help us? Perhaps a coming together of the nations under some new system of cooperation and alliance will rid the world of its troubles? However, as Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote in the middle of the last century, “God has tested man under every conceivable condition and found him wanting.”[1] We must remember that human history began in the perfect environment of Eden, and even there, man still rebelled against God. It is hard to imagine a more complete education than Adam had,  yet man’s state only spiraled in decline. And we come to this scene on the plains of Shinar where the whole of humanity coexisted together in a singular community with one government and one language, only to find that even under these conditions, humanity strived for greatness and sank into an even deeper level of rebellion.

In these verses, we see a true picture of man at his best and worst. As a result of the divine image in which man was created, he is capable of extraordinary things! But because that image has been marred by human sinfulness, those capacities are extraordinarily corrupted. As man exercises these capacities in the world, God observes and intervenes in such a way that nothing thwarts His sovereign plan for the world and for the people who bear His image. It was true in the days of Genesis 11, and it is still true for individuals, for nations, and even for churches. Therefore, while this text explains how the planet came to be filled with such a diverse population of humanity, it does more than this. It speaks to us even now of mankind at our best and at our worst.

As we dive into our text, we will observe first of all …

I. The Industrious Resourcefulness of Man

One of my earliest memories of childhood is sitting on my father’s lap as he read to me the story of the Little Engine That Could. You remember that story. The little train comes to a seemingly insurmountable hill and says to himself, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” And he did it! Parents and teachers often shower this kind of encouragement on young people. “You can be whatever you want to be.” “You can do whatever you put your mind to.” “If you can dream it, you can do it.” And we find that it is often true. Human beings have been created with amazing potential and capabilities to be, to do, and to make.

We see this industrious resourcefulness of humanity on display with the people of our story in Genesis 11. By God’s design, they had all they needed to do great things. They had the gift of communication. Verse 1 says that “the whole earth used the same language and the same words.” You will recall from the creation account that of all that God made, only mankind was blessed with the ability to speak. Because God is a speaking God, those who were made in His image were blessed with the gift of speech that they might live in communion with Him and with one another. Because every person on the earth after the flood descended from the sons of Noah, it is not surprising that they were bound together by a common language. With that ability to communicate, there was no limit to the plans that could be conspired and carried out by men and women.

We also observe that human beings had the gift of creativity. Just as we speak because God speaks, so also we create because God creates. Creativity is part of His image within us. We do not create in the same sense that God creates, for in His infinite and omnipotent nature He is able to create something from nothing. Yet, man has the unique ability to take of what God has created, and create something fresh and new with it as we carry out our God-given commission to exercise dominion in the world. Francis Schaeffer observed, “We never find an animal … making a work of art. On the other hand, we never find men anywhere in the world or in any culture in the world who do not produce art. Creativity is a part of the distinction between man and non-man. … Creativity is intrinsic to our mannishness.”[2]

This creativity most often finds expression in our efforts to solve problems. That’s what we find the people of Genesis 11 doing. As the human race began moving away from the mountains of Ararat where Noah’s ark came to rest, they journeyed east. The word used here for “journeying” speaks of Bedouins moving from place to place, packing up their tents as they went along each time. Coming to the plains of Shinar, they made the decision to “settle” there. This is part of that region known as the “fertile crescent” which became the cradle of civilization. No longer a people on the move, there was a need to establish a more permanent kind of dwelling place. So they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” In the asphalt pits that are abundant in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, they found tar that was suitable for joining those bricks together to build things.[3] And so they began to build homes. Several homes built become a village. Several villages built, and soon enough there is a need for a larger structure of society.

Here we find man’s industrious resourcefulness employed once again, exercising the gift of civilization. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city.” Because God is a God of order, His image in man imparts to us a desire for orderliness and an ability to create and maintain it. So, these industrious folks began to orchestrate their building into a well-organized city. There were systems of government and public administration necessary to run this city, goods and services that could be provided to meet the needs of the people. And man’s innate ability to order and organize came together to create a civilization – a city from which nearly every known civilization of the world today can trace its roots. When you study the history of world cultures, invariably the study begins with the Mesopotamian society of Sumer. There is a linguistic connection between Sumer and the word found here in verse 2, Shinar.[4] This is the place where the postdiluvian people began organizing themselves into the great city-states that have filled the timeline of human history.

So, we see here the industrious resourcefulness of man. It is a glimpse of mankind at his best: exercising his God-given abilities of communication, creativity, and civilization as a reflection of His divine image in which he was created. This industrious resourcefulness is so admirable when it is employed for the God-given task of exercising dominion on the world as God’s steward. It brings glory to God when it is carried out in the right way. But as is so often the case, when mankind is at his best, it is not a far step for him to degrade into his worst. That industrious resourcefulness can be set to motion by entirely wrongheaded motivations, and that brings us to consider …

II. The Relentless Rebellion of Man 

One of the strongest motivators in human achievement over the course of history has been the desire to prove wrong those who say something cannot be done. Tell me I can’t do it, and it only makes me want to do it more. Some might say that this sense of indomitable drive, this defiant spirit, is what makes us human. But that defiant spirit first made itself known in humanity in our relationship with God when Adam willfully disobeyed the Lord’s singular command. That led to the corruption of our entire race. By the time of the flood, God evaluated humanity with this sobering indictment: “every intent of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). And the situation was unchanged after the flood. After a life of God-honoring obedience and service, Noah’s story ends with him naked, drunk, and shamed in his tent.

Adam and Noah are great-grandfathers to us all, and the apple has not fallen far from the tree. We bear the strong family resemblance when we exercise our defiant sense of indomitable drive in rebellion to the Lord. And it is in us from birth. Children do not need to learn how to disobey, for they are born with a mastery of that deformed skill. Tell a child not to do something, and it awakens an unquenchable desire to do that very thing! And as adults, we seldom fare better.

Notice that the disobedience of the Shinar settlers was deliberate. The operative word in verse 2 of our text is the word “settled.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a settler, unless your calling is to be a pioneer. These people had not been called to settle but to pioneer. Remember that the Lord gave explicit instructions to Noah and his sons upon their emergence from the Ark: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1, 7). But this generation of pioneers determined it was better for them to settle. With deliberate intent, they disobeyed the Word of the Lord and put down roots in once place instead of carrying out the Lord’s commission.

Not only was their disobedience deliberate, it was determined. Once they settled, they began to conspire ways to remain settled. “Let us make bricks,” they said, which led to, “Let us build a city.” And the motive behind all this is spelled out in the final words of verse 4: “otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But that was the very thing that God had told them to do! Their deliberate and determined disobedience to the Lord provoked them to dig in their heels and raise up their fists to God and say, “We have come this far and no further! We shall not be moved!”

This willful rebellion has played itself out over and over again throughout human history. I dare say that most of us have observed it playing out even in our own lives. We are all well and good to say to the Lord, “Thy will be done,” so long as His will coincides with our own. But when His will beckons us beyond our comfort zones, when it threatens to inconvenience us, when it lays the axe at the root of our deepest personal desires and devotions and bids us to chop, our natural inclination is to sink in our heels and raise up our defiant fists to God and say, “No! My will be done!” And rather than yield ourselves to the kindness of God which leads us to repentance of our deliberate disobedience, we are more inclined to persist in determined disobedience until at last we are ready to make that final leap of unreasonable faith in which we say, “OK, then, I will just consider God to be nonexistent!” This is what Paul speaks of in Romans 1 as “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” However, we cannot escape the nagging awareness, though we dare not admit it publicly, that God’s existence is not dependent on our acknowledgment of Him.

C. S. Lewis said,

When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshall us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. … A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.[5] 

And so these settlers of Shinar have reached that point in their relentless rebellion. Crayon in hand, they prepare to scrawl God out of existence in a demonstration of our next observation, which is …

III. The Arrogant Idolatry of Man 

It’s been almost 20 years since the mass suicide of the followers of the Heavens Gate cult in San Diego. Do you remember those guys? Their bodies were all found wearing matching sweatsuits and Nike shoes, having been convinced by their leader that their spaceship was coming with the Hale-Bopp comet to take them to a new level of existence. I remember a news commentator saying these profound words: “When people stop believing in reality, they don’t believe nothing. They will believe anything.” That’s not new. That’s been true since the beginning.

Having determined that they would not yield to the word and will of God, the settlers of Shinar determined that they could get along just fine without Him. Rather than worshiping and serving the God who made them in His image, they began to craft for themselves a religion made after their own image. Thus arrogance is always at the root of idolatry, because it is always ultimately a worship of self. Verse 4 shows us how it took shape at Shinar.

It began with the pursuit of heaven without God. After determining to build for themselves a city, they began to build “a tower whose top will reach into heaven.” There are many scholars who believe that it was not a literal heaven that they hoped to attain by their tower, but a representative one. That is, atop this tower would be a temple where acts of worship and divination could take place, perhaps in devotion to the star patterns or something. And so this tower began to rise. All across the Mesopotamian region, archaeologists have uncovered the efforts of those who followed in the footsteps of these tower builders. The ancient ziggurats, a precursor to the pyramids, were built with ramps and stairs leading up to the central shrine on the pinnacle. And the names of almost all of them speaks of something to the effect of “The Link Between Heaven and Earth,” or similar. The tower in Genesis 11 was the prototype of them all.

We see their ambition clearly in their own words. Having rejected God’s word and God’s will, and determined to live this life in this world on their own terms, they concocted a system by which they hoped to attain the next life in the next world on their own terms without God as well. All that was necessary – climb that tower! We will apply all of our effort to build it, and then apply all of our effort to climb it in order to get to heaven. Who needs God? We can do it ourselves!

This arrogant idolatry has persisted in false belief systems throughout history. Work as hard as you can! Apply your own effort! Build as high as you can build, and climb as high as you can climb! That will get you to heaven! So says every religious system apart from biblical Christianity in the world to this day. From the false gospel of prosperity televangelists, to the homespun mythology of folk religion, to the pantheons and pagodas of Hinduism and Buddhism, and at all points in between, the common thread running through all these systems of belief is that you can get to heaven on your own merit and effort if you work hard enough.

Not only did they seek heaven without God, they also sought glory apart from God. They say, “Let us make for ourselves a name!” Standing on plains of freshly deposited soil and sand that had buried generations of nameless, forgotten people who perished in the flood, these people wanted to do something great that would give them fame and notoriety! What’s so wrong with that? Well, in fact, there could be a great deal wrong with it. You see, in the Bible, the right to “name” something implies authority over it. God names things with symbolic names of what He is going to do with them or make of them. So He named the first man Adam. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham. He changed Jacob’s name to Israel. And so on. And He gave man authority over creation, and man exercised it in Genesis 2:19-20 as he gave names to all the animals. But God did not give man the right to make a name for himself, as if man was the sole authority over himself. Contrary to Henley’s famous poem, Invictus, I am not the master of my fate: I am not the captain of my soul.” Man brings glory to God by living out the purpose for which God creates us and names us by His sovereign authority. But these people wanted to bring glory to themselves and make a name for themselves apart from God. Oh, they earned for themselves a name, alright. Verse 9 says, “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The name that they made for themselves lives in infamy, an epitaph of a civilization bent on godless corruption, which resulted in confusion and dispersion.

John Calvin exposes this arrogant idolatry to which we are all disposed by contrasting it with genuine faith in God. He says, “What is more consonant with faith than to recognize that we are naked of all virtue, in order to be clothed by God? That we are empty of all good, to be filled by Him? That we are slaves to sin, to be freed by Him? Blinded, to be illumined by Him? Lame, to be made straight by Him? Weak, to be sustained by Him? To take away all occasion for glorying, that He alone may stand forth gloriously, and we glory in Him?”[6]

Heaven cannot be found apart from Him. Glory is nowhere to be attained except for in Him. And with mankind demonstrating the use of his best abilities to carry out his worst designs, divine intervention is unavoidable. And so we come at last to …

IV. The Surprising Condescension of God

There are some poor, unfortunate people who believe that God does not have a sense of humor. How dull their lives must be! God has a remarkable sense of humor, and He is not opposed to showing it off from time to time. How does he respond to man’s attempt to build a tower as high as he can build it, all the way to heaven? Verse 5 says, “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.” So infinitesimal was this monument to man’s own greatness, it was barely visible from God’s throne in heaven. So He had to come down. He condescended to intervene in humanity’s endeavors, and He did so in surprising ways.  

We observe His patient condescension. He knew what these people devised to do before they did it. And at any point in the process He could have put a halt to it. But He waited patiently, and He allowed them to finish the project, giving them time all along to come to the end of themselves and repent of the folly of their rebellion, or to be ensnared by their own vainglory. It is as though He gives mankind enough rope to serve as a lifeline or a noose, and He leaves the choice to man what to make of it. How patient has He been with you and me? In His kindness, He’s leading us to repentance, not wanting us to perish, but wanting to rescue us before we destroy ourselves in persistent rejection of Him.

We see His merciful condescension. Just as the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden may have seemed harsh but proved to be for man’s own good, so here, the Lord came down to chasten humanity, but it was a compassionate chastening. Verse 6, He says, “Behold they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do?” In other words, with all that man had going for him, he chose to use it to destroy himself in rebellion. The Lord says, “Now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” In other words, “If they think they can get to heaven without Me, and make a name for themselves apart from Me, there’s really no limit to the depths of their depravity!” And so He says in verse 7, “Come, let Us go down.” Notice the parallel expression. Twice the builders said to one another, “Come, let us,” and a third time, “let us.” Now God says with the final and authoritative word, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Why not just topple the tower? Because they would just build another. God’s chastening goes deeper. For man’s own good, God must make more difficult for them to conspire themselves together to their own demise. How merciful it is when God takes from us that which we love, that to which we aspire, but which in the end would destroy us! As I look back on my life, I count few days happier than the day in which the Lord toppled the tower of my own making and delivered me from the name I was seeking to make for myself! How miserable I would have been had He let me succeed! It is His mercy which we see in His condescension.

And we also see His sovereign condescension. Verse 8 says He scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth. That’s what He told them to do in the first place, and it was the very thing that they refused to do, the very thing that they tried to prevent from happening! But God has the final word! His will cannot be thwarted and will be done at the end of the day. I read these words and I wonder how many churches in our day can be likened to these Shinar settlers? Concerned only for their own institutional preservation and the making of a name for themselves, they build and maintain and manicure their facilities, to the neglect of the commission by which the sovereign Lord bids us go into all the world making disciples for Him! God forbid that it ever be so of this body of believers! May we never prioritize the preservation of our name or our building project over the mission of God in Christ! If it were to happen, we would deserve and invite upon ourselves the toppling of our building and the scattering of our people.

All around the world, all throughout history, all around us today, there are individuals and institutions, cities, countries, and cultures – people made in God’s image and blessed with remarkable gifts that could be employed in the service of God for the betterment of the world according to His will. But time and time again, those capabilities are exercised in persistent disobedience to Him, and those individuals, institutions, cities, countries and cultures go about seeking a heaven of their own making and the glory of their own name. But it is not in the building up of towers of our own effort that heaven is found, that glory is attained, or that a name is made for ourselves. It is in the coming down of the Lord. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not tell you to build your own way to heaven and climb as hard and high as you can climb. It says that God has come down to rescue you – to live for you and die for you in the Person of Christ. It is in Christ that the confusion and scattering of Babel begins to be reversed. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God began to unite the languages of men again and gather a people together for God’s own glory and in the name of Jesus. He is building for Himself a church, a family, a kingdom into which those of every tribe and nation and tongue are gathered as one body in advance of the day when we will behold the glory of God face to face. And so, the Proverbs tell us, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe” (18:10).  




[1] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Genesis: A Devotional Exposition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 1.70.
[2] Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1973), 34-35.
[3] Henry Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 268.
[4] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 351, esp. fn. 9, pp 351-2.
[5] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 47.
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:13. 

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