It is a priceless gift when someone shows you a gospel treasure hidden in plain sight in the Bible. My good friend, Jameson Nass, just did this for me in his excellent sermon on the tower of Babel from Genesis 11. His insights were so helpful that I want to share a few of them with you.
When Our Aim Is Our Name
You know the Tower of Babel story. The ancient people living on the plain of Shinar 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. (Genesis 11:4)
The Mesopotamians’ had one aim: to make a name for themselves. God is not present in their aim. They are aiming at their own greatness.
And in these ancient Babel-onians we can see a picture of ourselves. Like them, we are sinners too often full of pride and selfish ambition, giving way too much thought about what others think about us and what our legacy will be. Like them, we too often have a ridiculous, exaggerated desire for our own glory and can put great effort into marshaling our resources and systems to achieve it.
God Will Mercifully Mess Up Our Aim
But here’s how God responded to the Ziggurat of human pride:
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. (Genesis 11:5)
The fact that God “came down” to view what men had built puts us all in our place. As Nass eloquently said, “God always has to ‘come down’ to examine our anthill achievements built in the sidewalk cracks of his creation.”
And so in his Trinitarian counsel, the Lord said,
“Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. (Genesis 11:6–8)
Let us make no mistake. God was not feeling threatened in his supremacy by collective human ingenuity. Rather, what God knew, and what the city builders did not know, was the devastation that sin would wreak if human pride were allowed to progress unimpeded.
We, who now have the benefit of a observing a few thousand years of recorded history, should know better than our ancient predecessors. The technologically accelerated 20th century, and the thousands upon thousands of war dead we memorialize today, bear witness to how much evil can be unleashed when the best and brightest human minds put their heads together to build their Babels.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)
So God confused Mesopotamians’ language and scattered them. And it was a great mercy. As Nass put it, “It was the mercy of God for him to make their lives difficult, mess up their one great aim, and give them what they hoped wouldn’t happen.”
God’s Gracious Purposes in Our Disorienting Disappointments
And God does the same kind of merciful confounding in our lives. And it is far more merciful than we know, certainly more merciful than it feels when we feel confounded.
We often do not know what we are really building when we embark on our achievements. We often aren’t aware of how deep, pervasive, and motivating our pride is. We often are blind to how much we cherish the glory of our name. But God knows. And in mercy he confounds us, impedes us, and humbles us. And it is all mercy. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). When it comes to his children, God gives us grace in the act of opposing our pride because it makes us humble. For he knows that the more humble we are, the happier we are. The proud will be destroyed (Proverbs 16:18), but the humble will dwell with God (Isaiah 57:15).
The story of the tower of Babel contains a gospel treasure: Even our disorienting disappointments and failures in making a name for ourselves have redemptive purposes. God loves us and knows what is best for us and in mercy he will not allow any achievement that we pursue for our own glory to rob us of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8).
There is no real gain in making our name known. That’s Philippians 3:8 rubbish. The only real gain is Christ. So God mercifully thwarts our pride-fueled plans in order to make us truly happy.