Thursday, April 30, 2015


What are We Building? Will our Towers Stand? Genesis 11:1-9

About a month ago I was asked to speak at Gospel Community Church on the topic of the Tower of Babel as part of our "Beautiful Mess" series focusing on an exposition of Genesis.  The notes below are my sermon notes.  Some of the material here comes from my personal research and some from the works of others.  You are welcome to borrow this material to speak the truth of God's Word.  The link to the recording of this sermon can be found here: .

What are We Building? Will our Towers Stand?
The Results of Pride and the Need for Humility
Genesis 11:1-9

Introduction: Did you ever have one of those weeks? You know, the one where you had a great plan, an organized “to do” list, and time set aside to accomplish all the important goals? Then in the middle of your great plan, something explodes or falls apart. Kind of like the game Jenga; you have a plan for which blocks you intend to pull, but someone always takes a different approach and causes your plan to fall apart? Yeah, that’s the kind of week I had as I prepared for this sermon on the tower of Babel. More importantly, I wonder if that is kind of how God must have felt in Genesis. We’ve covered 9 chapters, so let’s recap:

Adam and Eve—be fruitful and multiply, cover the earth, subdue it, it all belongs to you except one tree!

Cain and Abel—God warns Cain about sin, and Cain doesn’t listen.

Noah and the flood—humans keep pursuing evil and pride, but Noah seems to be a bright spot. Noah finds grace in the eyes of the Lord. Why did Noah find grace and see his family rescued from the flood?  1) Noah walked with God (he had an intentional and intimate relationship with God), 2) Noah listened to what God said, 3) Noah obeyed God. Unlike the rest of the world, Noah did not assert his pride or his own will— What God said, Noah did. (cf. Jesus in John 5:19-20; 8:37-38; and ch. 15). Things were looking up. God gave a command and promise to Noah very similar to the one to Adam and Eve (Gen 9:1ff, 9:7). After the flood, Noah shows that he isn’t perfect, and Ham gets in trouble. Nonetheless, God intends to repopulate the world through Noah’s boys. These events bring us up through Genesis 9. Our focus today is on chapters 10 and 11. 

All of the events we have covered so far are tied together by a literary device utilizing the phrase “these are the generations of . . .” There are 10 or so uses of this formula in Genesis, and before we are done today, we will have seen this phrase about 6 times in 11 chapters. This reference often introduces a genealogy (like in our chapters today). Why are there so many genealogies in Genesis? There are no doubt many ways to answer that question, but I’d like to float a theory today (special thanks to a colleague at work for this idea). 

Background: In Genesis 3:15, God speaks to the serpent and says that he will put enmity between the serpent and the seed of the woman. The seed of the woman will one day destroy the serpent. When Eve gives birth to Cain, she seems to hope he is that “seed,” but Cain fails.  The genealogies then come in abundance. The Hebrew word for “seed” is used next in 9:9 where God makes a covenant with Noah and his family. It shows up again in Gen 12 when God makes promises to Abraham. The story of Genesis seems to be the quest for the “seed” who will deliver humans from the serpent. This concept forms a type of frame around the story we will focus on today. 

After the flood, God makes a promise and gives commands to Noah and his family. After the shameful episode involving Ham, chapter 10 opens with “these are the family records/generations of . . .” and lists the children of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  Japheth’s family is mentioned first, followed by Ham. Ham is the cursed son (remember last week’s sermon). His line includes many nations that will later be enemies to the Jews: Canaanites, Babylonians (Babel), Assyrians (Nineveh), even the Egyptians. Shem’s family line is introduced next, and one name bears mentioning in Gen 10:25: Peleg. This name means “division” and the world is divided during his lifetime. This “division” is what is described in Gen 11:1-9. After our passage, we get another set of “records” from Shem to Abram. 

For now, let’s look at 11:1-9. In our passage we will see two different attitudes and two actions that result from those attitudes. As we look at these, we need to ask: Where do we stand? Which set are we building towards in our lives?  What are we building?  Let’s look at the attitudes and the actions of the people in Genesis 11. 

vv. 1-2: The people’s attitude—In Gen 11, the nations are growing and it has been several generations since Noah and the flood. We have no idea how many actual humans existed at that time, but we know that they “had the same language and vocabulary” (or, literally, they had “one lip and one set of words”).  Unfortunately, this new-found unity was not harnessed to do what God had commanded them. Instead of multiplying and filling the earth by scattering all over it, these united people decide to settle in a place called Shinar (another name for Babylon). This was their first mistake: they didn’t obey, they stayed. They were told to go, to cover the earth, to be God’s stewards and managers of creation, but they chose to stay put. 

They didn’t want to leave Babylon. Maybe they liked being close to family, or maybe the land simply suited them. We don’t know why they stayed, but we know that by staying they were going against God’s command. They should go. They rebelled.

Relationship with God is sometimes described as a pilgrimage.  Eugene Peterson calls is “a long obedience in the same direction.” Discipleship, or relationship with God is usually depicted as more of a marathon than a sprint, but more often than not it is depicted primarily as a movement, a pilgrimage, a relationship on the go. 

Matthew 28 (and Acts 1) reminds us that Jesus wants us to go too. Being his disciples requires us to be willing to change location, to get a passport and go where God leads. Abraham will be introduced later in this passage, and the first command God gives him is to “Go out from your land,” to leave home to go to a place God will show him. We are to be a people on the move with God. Where has he told us to go? Have we decided to settle instead of obey? 

This attitude of pride produced arrogant actions. Verses 3-4 reveals those actions.

vv. 3-4—the people’s actions—once they picked a suitable place to settle, they made a plan for action. Listen to what they say, and see if you can count how many times they refer to themselves.  “Let us build for ourselves . . . let us make a name for ourselves . . . otherwise we will be scattered.” Multiple times they use first person pronouns. 

They wanted to make a “name” for themselves.  They wanted to be the masters of their own fate. They decided to build a monument to their own greatness rather than humbly serve God in his command/promise. They wanted, in essence, to take over God’s proper domain and rule in his place. 

Their purpose is revealed in verse 4… they agree to build a city and a tall tower. Though this endeavor is not evil in and of itself, their motive for building such was. They wanted to make a name for themselves so that they could stay together without fulfilling God’s commission to “fill the earth and multiply” (9:1) – to “populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it” (9:7). They had an alternative plan that differed from God’s commission, and they set out to disobey God through the building of their city complete with a tower.

These tower builders acted in ways contrary to Noah their ancestor. 1) Unlike Noah, they did not pursue a relationship with God, but they confer only with one another. 2) They ignore God’s command and stay put instead of obeying and going. 3) Instead of humility and obedience, they reveal arrogance and rebellion. 

J. I. Packer calls this story a “mirror of the modern world.” Like Noah’s descendants, we want prestige and power. We want to be the best—the smartest, the fastest, the strongest, the richest, etc. Many of us want to make a name for ourselves (instead of making God famous). We rebel instead of obey. We still enjoy making our own rules in spite of God’s warnings. We put our trust in money, prestige, or pleasure instead of relying on God to bring us where he wants us to be or to make us who he wants us to be. 

We make excuses for sin and pretend to be holy, but we can’t be holy on our own efforts. Only God can make us holy in a way that matters (see Phil. 3:1-7). Will we ever learn that our own towers won’t get us where we need to be?

The drive for power and prestige probably stems from our deep-seated fear of dependence on someone else. We don’t mind making others depend on us, but we certainly don’t want to be the one needing help. Human pride is a tricky thing. Pride was the original sin. Our desperate search for significance leads us to compromise our values time and again in the name of independence, freedom, and the need to control our own destiny. So we cut corners, wink at “small” sins, take advantage of loopholes, break the rules, maybe even lie to others, and we usually end up lying to ourselves. We use people and then discard them when they don’t fit into our plans anymore. And what may seem noble at the start turns out to be sinister in the end.  

Arrogance makes us think we are invincible. But no one is invincible. We desperately need to take these words to heart because we live in a world that encourages us to think we can do it all. The mantra is "If you believe it, you can do it.  If you dream it, you can make it happen." The problem is that it never works. Our towers built in our own efforts inevitably fall. Remember, the next time you feel the need to brag about what you’ve accomplished, pay attention to the faint cracking sound you hear. It’s the thin ice beneath your feet that is about to give way.  The weight of arrogance often leads to a crash.

Now that we’ve seen the peoples' attitude and actions, let’s consider those of the other major character in our story—God. 

vv. 5-7—God’s attitude—God “comes down.” In a sense, he “lowers himself” to come to where the people are. There may be some sarcasm here. As the people rebel against God, they build a tower that goes up to the sky to make a name for themselves. The problem is that the tower isn’t high enough. God has to “come down” to see it! While they’re building upward in arrogance, God has to come down to see it (remember Phil 2—Jesus ultimately comes down in humility to be one of us!). God could see quite well what was going on, but in inspiring Moses to use the words “coming down,” he reminds us of Is 66 (what kind of house can you build for me?) and perhaps even foreshadows the humility of Christ who descends to earth to be one of us (human!). This is an example of anthropomorphism (assigning human traits to the unseen God). God is always fully aware of everything, and His “coming down” in this passage is in this case about judgment.

Humans bent on being in opposition to God by building their own kingdom and ruling the earth had a common purpose. Apparently with one language and one common purpose to rebel against God’s plan, their plans would lead them into a world of endless and sinful possibilities. These possibilities lead only to destruction. And it seemed like nothing could be done. Nonetheless, God sees their monument to “human ingenuity” and passes judgment.  God isn’t afraid that they will take over his throne, but being aware that their thoughts were “nothing but evil all the time” he didn’t want to give them any more chances to spread their arrogance. 

If God “came down” among us today what would He find? What are we attempting to build so as to make a name for ourselves? God acted against the builders in Babel for their own good so as to keep them from becoming something that would destroy them. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction…” Is there a fall in our future as a result of pride?   

God’s attitude led to action on God’s part—an action of judgment and love.

vv. 8-9—God’s action—He confuses them and scatters them.  What God wanted them to do voluntarily, he forced on them in judgment.  Their tower was left to crumble, and they were humbled. Here is the ultimate irony: They built the tower so they wouldn’t be scattered but they ended up scattered anyway. Thus God judges all human efforts that leave him out. He brings down the high and mighty with a great big thud. Write over this story these words, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1). 

But God’s judgment here has his love behind it. He wants the people to fulfill his plan, and although he would prefer that they humble themselves and join him he is nonetheless willing to humble them and help them do it. Remember Isaiah 66—God will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at his word.

In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus tells a story about two builders—a foolish one who builds on sand, and a wise one who builds on rock. The difference is described in this way: “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. . . Everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn't act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” The end of the house on sand is destruction, just like the tower of Babel. The end of the house on the rock is stability. It does not collapse under the weight of storms and other problems.

What are we building?  Will our Towers stand?

Do our efforts represent the pride of Babel? Do we embody the attitude of those who settle instead of moving on to maturity? Are we building for our own reputation, or are we living in humility and obedience to God to build his? There is a mighty thin line between healthy ambition and sinful pride. Many of us cross it without even knowing it. It’s the compulsive need to be in control of every aspect of life, including those around us. It’s the spirit of Babel that says, “He’s God in heaven but I’m the God of my own little world.”

In what areas has God come down to us? Where do we need to repent of pride and selfish ambition? Some of us are still trying to live according to our own rules. We push God out to the edges of life and then do our own thing. But we can’t push God to the side and succeed for long. Sooner or later our towers will crash down (often under the weight of our own arrogance and ambition), and when that happens, the shaky foundation of our own efforts will be exposed. We may also find ourselves confused and scattered.

What is the end of all this? Before I answer that, let me finish the chapter.  In 11:10-32, Genesis introduces us to a new “record” or list of “generations.” This list begins with Shem and ends with Abram. Abram will become the focus of the next 14 chapters of Genesis. I won’t take time to read the whole genealogical list, but I wanted to highlight that Terah is a descendant of Shem. From Terah comes Abram. In vv. 31-32, Terah takes Abram and Lot and their families, and moves them to Ur. This will set up Abram’s pilgrimage relationship with God, but it is also a reminder that God is going to produce a seed through Abram. There is one problem however:  Abram’s wife is unable to conceive. The righteous seed seems threatened—Sarai cannot have children.  Chapters 12 and following will continue this drama and explain God’s provision of a righteous “seed” in the face of impossible odds.

Paul tells us in Galatians 3:10-18 that Abraham’s seed is Jesus.  This is our only proper alternative to building our own tower.

At this point the gospel message becomes incredibly relevant to our generation because we are massive tower-builders. We’re ladder-climbers, control freaks, estate-builders, and compulsive over-committers. We’re looking for love and pleasure and power and purpose and meaning everywhere except the one place we can really find it. We’re so busy building our kingdoms we fail to seek first the Kingdom of God. When the London Daily Mail asked, “What is wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton wrote back a simple answer; “Dear Sir: I am.” He was right. 

Here is a word for frustrated tower-builders everywhere. If you are tired of your life and want something better, come to Jesus. All that hungry hearts seek is found in him. By his death on the cross our sins are forgiven. By his resurrection we gain new life. See Philippians 2:5-8—Jesus humbled himself. He had everything, but he humbled himself and was obedient even to the point of death on the cross. If Jesus is God and humbled himself, how can we expect to do anything less as his servants? God “came down” to rescue us, will we reject his offer and try to build our own tower?

Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 7. If we hear his words and act on them, we are wise. Failure to do so is foolishness. So what will we do in response? Will we humble ourselves under God’s hand, or will we keep trying to build our own towers of fame and prestige? To obey requires intentionality, humility, and transparency. Here are some suggestions:

1)     If you don’t have a relationship with God, ask him to start one with you today through Jesus Christ.

2)     If you have a relationship with God though Jesus Christ—examine your attitude and your actions. Are you trying to “help God out” by taking charge of things for him? Are you acting in a way to build a name for yourself? Whose reputation is more important—God’s or yours? If you find a place where you have been building your own tower, or where you have been settling instead of moving on with God, why not take time today to make it right? Come down here at the end of this service. Do business with God. Humble yourself now. Don’t wait—that is arrogance. Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.

3)     Consider where you can start working with God to make his name known instead of trying to take God’s place. How can you serve someone else this week? Who needs encouragement? Who needs love? Who needs truth? Is there something God has been asking you to do, but you’ve settled and decided it doesn’t need to be done? Move off of complacency and move into obedience. 

Think back to our Jenga game for a moment. Did our pride cause us to make a bad move and it all came crashing down? If so, remember this, God can rebuild damaged lives. He can take pride and build humility. He can change us, he can rebuild us, and he wants to do so. Will we humble ourselves and let him? 

 Thanks for reading!  

Labels: , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?