Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from the crucified and living Lord Jesus! Amen. When I was a kid, the tallest building in the world was the Sears Tower in Chicago. I remember going up to the observation deck and staring down in amazement as I watched the cars and trucks below as if they were scurrying ants. Now the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, towering over 2,700 feet—or almost half a mile—into the sky. For millennia human beings have built grand buildings and monuments for many purposes. The pyramids of Giza, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, and others stand as testaments to human engineering and achievement.
Yet nowhere in history was an enterprise of human hubris so dangerous as the Tower of Babel. In an era when all humanity shared one language and common tongue, they set about a big building project. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’” (Gen. 9:4, ESV). Perhaps their resolve doesn’t sound so terribly bad to you. Maybe their attempt to do something monumental together even strikes us as admirable. After all, we applaud those who achieve the impossible. “Aim for the stars, and you may hit the moon.”
But the people of Babel were aiming for heaven itself. Their tower was an attempt to invade God’s domain and usurp his throne. Rather than praising and glorifying the name of Yahweh, they sought to “make a name” for themselves. They wanted all the glory and power for themselves. They also rejected God’s Word and resisted his command. After the Great Flood, God told Noah and his family to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). Yet rather than spread out to fill the earth, humanity concentrated in one location. They built a city and a tower for the expressed purpose of not being dispersed so as to fill the earth.
Now God has nothing against cities. He’s not a Luddite or only a champion of rural life. When the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, he gave them cities in which to dwell. Jesus spent a lot of time in cities. It’s not cities that bother God, but the motive behind their founding; and the motivation for building Babel was to keep God out of their lives.
The tower builders didn’t trust in God. They didn’t believe his Word. They didn’t live by his command and promises. They put all their confidence and hope in the work of their own hands. So they turned a thing of their own making into their god.
There’s a word for this attitude: idolatry. For whenever we focus on something more than our relationship with our Creator, we turn that thing or person into a false god—an idol. Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism:
“A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart…. It is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol…. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (LC I, 2-3).
Because the original sin was Adam and Eve’s attempt to “be like God” (cp. Gen. 3:5). Even after God sent the Great Flood to wipe out human wickedness from the earth, it only took a few generations before we were right back at it, building Babel and turning our backs on our Creator.
My favorite children’s Bible, The Jesus Storybook Bible, imagines the builders’ plan like this: “We’ll say, ‘Look at us up here!’ And everyone will look up at us. And we’ll look down on them. And then we’ll know we are something. We’ll be like God. We’ll be famous and safe and happy and everything will be all right.”
It’s easy for us to laugh at the folly of the tower builders. But are we really so different than they? We also want to make a name for ourselves. We want to be rich and famous—or people of power and influence. When we want to do something, we just go and do it. We don’t pray before we plan our purposes. We don’t seek God’s face and favor. Maybe later on, as an afterthought, we ask for him to rubber stamp our plans. But we build without his blessing each and every day. Look at me! Look at what I did! Look at what I built. Look at what I bought. Look at what I accomplished. I, I, I! It’s no accident that the first letter in the word “idolatry” is the letter “I.” The human heart is an idol factory, and we’ve been churning them out since the dawn of time.
So Moses tells us in Genesis 11 that God “came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built” (Gen. 11:5). There’s great irony in the fact that they tried to build a tower that reached all the way up to heaven, yet God had to “come down” in order to take a look. Clearly, they were nowhere close to their goal. But it’s no laughing matter.
In fact, God was greatly disturbed by the menace and malice of humanity, just as he was before the Flood when “every intention of the thoughts of [man] was only evil continually” (6:5). Now God realized that because all people spoke the same language, there was no limit to their sin. “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6).
So God went down to confuse their language. The Hebrew verb for “cause confusion” (balal) sounds a lot like the Hebrew noun for Babel (babēl). So we might say that Yahweh “Babeled their babble.” All of a sudden, where once there was one language, now there were dozens—if not hundreds.
None of the builders could understand each other anymore. Now they had different words for “brick,” “hammer,” “plank,” and “measure.” So nothing made sense. They got into fights and arguments and couldn’t work together anymore. So they stopped building and finally dispersed, giving up on their wonderful city. Ironically, they did make a name for themselves, but it wasn’t an infamous name, not a famous one: Babel.
But that wasn’t the end for humanity. The Story wasn’t over. God was finished with us yet. The confusion of language that seemed like a curse turned out to be a blessing. The Jesus Storybook Bible explains why:
“You see, God knew, however high they reached, however hard they tried, people could
never get back to heaven by themselves. People didn’t need a staircase; they needed a Rescuer. Because the way back to heaven wasn’t a staircase; it was a Person.
“People could never reach up to Heaven, so Heaven would have to come down to them.
“And one day, it would.”
The builders of Babel failed when they tried to construct a tower that reached up to heaven. Their own works couldn’t save them. So just as God once came down to confuse their language, so also he would come down again someday in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
God confused our words but sent his Word to live among us and teach us God’s ways and show us God’s love and, ultimately, die for our sins. With hammer and nails, we tried to build a tower. Then, again with hammer and nails, we killed the Son of God, who shed his blood to save us from our sins—and ourselves. On the third day he rose again from the dead. Instead of us making a name for ourselves, he gives us his own name in Baptism (cf. Rev. 22:4). For God has exalted above all things his name and his Word (Ps. 138:2). He sends his Son and gives us the name of Jesus, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
Thus, blessing comes, not when we seek our own glory, but when we give glory to God. To begin anything properly, be it school or work or even a simple project around the house, all our efforts must be with God’s blessing and to his glory. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
Today on Pentecost, we recall the miracle of God pouring out his Spirit on the Church. On that first Pentecost, they spoke in tongues—foreign languages they never studied and learned. All the foreigners in Jerusalem heard in their own language “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). Pentecost is the opposite of the Tower of Babel. Instead of dispersing people, now Jesus gathers his Church. He “un-babbles” Babel. And he does it all for you! To God be the glory forever! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of + the Holy Spirit. Amen.