Towers of Babel

“Come,” they said, “let us build for ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of all the earth.”  Then the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the sons of men were building. Genesis 11:4-5

Students of the Bible point to the story of the Tower of Babel to explain the existence of various languages. The story goes like this: After the world was destroyed by the Great Flood, the descendants of Noah and his sons all spoke the same language. As the population grew, people began to move to new places and form communities. 

Several generations later, descendants of Noah settled in the region of modern-day Iraq. They wanted to build a tower to the heavens as a symbol of pride in the city they had created. When God saw this, He understood that if men were united in purpose, there was nothing that could stop them, so he confused their languages so that they could not understand one another. This caused the people to scatter to new areas of the world. 

While it is true that the confusion of languages is an important idea in this narrative, there are some underlying spiritual principles that we miss when we look at it merely as a way of explaining the origins of English, Portuguese, and Greek. Three important aspects of this story reveal important lessons about mankind and our relationship with God. 

First, notice the people’s motivation for building the tower. The reason the men wanted to build the tower was to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4). They did not begin building the tower to bring glory to God, but instead, they wanted to bring glory to themselves. 

Second, they built the tower so that they would not be scattered over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:4). However, this is a direct violation of God’s commandment to Noah and his sons, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). God’s plan was for the people to fill the entire earth, to spread his image-bearers across the furthest reaches of the globe, but humans were resisting God’s will, choosing instead to gather themselves into cities they built for their own glory. 

Third, the people wanted to build a tower to the heavens, but notice that God did the very opposite. The men wanted to go up from earth into heaven, but while they worked toward this goal, God came down from heaven to earth (Genesis 11:5). Man’s desire was to ascend to heaven using intelligence, skill, strength, and determination, but God, in His humility, descended from heaven to earth, to consider the works of the men he had created. 

As I read the story of the Tower of Babel, I cannot help but think of when Jesus was walking in Jerusalem with his disciples, looking at the great buildings of that ancient city. The disciples marveled at the beauty of the Temple and the surrounding buildings, which were assembled from gigantic slabs of marble and adorned with precious stones. Jesus said to his disciples, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

Sadly, humans still have not learned the lesson of the Tower of Babel. Despite God’s command to multiply, to fill the earth, and to go into all the world to preach the Gospel to all creation, we are still gathering in cities, building bigger buildings, and seeking greater names for ourselves. Our tallest buildings are a testimony to human ingenuity, and the world’s largest cities are well-known for the skyscrapers that bear the names of famous people and wealthy corporations. Meanwhile, God shows us — by his own example — that we ought to humble ourselves, take the lower place, and serve his purpose with obedience. 

Notably, the great biblical patriarch Abraham never built a city. There is no great monument erected to his memory, nor is there a city that bears his name. Unlike his Babylonian counterpart Gilgamesh, who is remembered for building the walls of the ancient city Uruk, Abraham obeyed God’s voice by going out from his family to a land that God would show him. As the writer of Hebrews observes, Abraham dwelt with his children in tent homes because “he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). 

God is not impressed by the cities humans build. God is not impressed by the towers we construct. We build monuments to our memory, but God asks us to consider the futility of working to achieve glory for ourselves. Rather, he asks us to trust him, to obey his word, and to wait for the glory that he intends to share with us. He intends for us to dwell in a temple that he has built and to sit upon the throne he has established (Revelation 3:21).

In the Book of Revelation, we see the city that God has built, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven after the destruction of Death and Hades. However, this city is not a place, but a people, for cities are not made of bricks of dried clay, but they are made of human beings whom God has fashioned in his own image and likeness. In fact, we are told that the New Jerusalem, the city built by God, is itself the Bride of the Lamb:

Then one of the seven angels with the seven bowls of the seven bowls full of the seven final plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”  And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven” (Revelations 21:9-10). 

Today, stop to ask yourself this very important question: What am I building? Are you building towers to your own memory, fame, and reputation, or are you obeying the voice of God? Are you trying to achieve your way into heaven, or are you fulfilling God’s purpose for you on earth? Are you living a life of pride and vanity, constructing towers from stones that will be thrown down. or are you seeking a home that God has built for you? 

[Has God confused your plans? Maybe it’s time to let God do the building instead. Click here to set up an appointment with a Christian counselor].

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