Every Tribe and Language and People and Nation
When my grandparents immigrated to Canada from The Netherlands in 1948, they lived in a basement suite underneath a lady who was hard of hearing. My Opa was used to having to raise his voice for her to understand him. But one day she was having a particularly hard time catching on to what he was saying. So he kept talking louder and louder and getting closer and closer until he was inches away from her, yelling into her bewildered face at the top of his lungs. And that’s when he realized he had been speaking in Dutch the entire time.
There were other times when Opa would absent-mindedly slip Dutch words into otherwise normal English sentences. A Dutch word for a cold is kou (sounds like “cow”), and so one day at church when he heard the pastor’s wife coughing he informed her that she had a kou on her chest, and he didn’t like the sound of it.
We laugh, but those early years for them were often difficult and lonely for them. Opa was a brilliant physicist but learning a new language was hard, and they often felt out of place in their new country.
Language is easily one of the most powerful forces in human relationships. Without a shared language, it’s hard to have relationships with others. Nothing can bring people together like language, and nothing can separate people like language.
And if we start to ask what’s the source of all of these language barriers that keep people apart, we can get very different answers. Modern wisdom would tell us that the different languages, like everything else, developed slowly and gradually over a long period of time. But once again, the book of Genesis gives us a very different story. Just like creation itself, languages arose suddenly by a sudden act of God.
And God did this for a very specific reason. And He did this as a part of a bigger purpose that directly impacts each one of us in this room this morning.
So let’s turn to Genesis 11 together where we discover the genesis of languages. As you can see from your outline, we’re going to walk through the passage in four big steps. We’ll start with the background in verses 1-3.
A. The Background
1. One Language (v. 1)
Verse 1 sets the stage by telling us that when this account look place, “the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). Everyone was talking the same language and sharing the same words, which they would have if they had each descended from a single family after the flood.
2. A Settlement in Shinar (v. 2)
Verse 2 tells us that “as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (Genesis 11:2).
We already know from chapter 10 that Shinar was the land settled by Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham. So it’s fair to assume that these people mentioned here are from the troubled line of Ham. They found this open place between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and they settled there.
3. A New Building Technology (v. 3)
And next, as we continue to see the background, we see how these people discover a new building technology. “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar” (Genesis 11:3).
This was a big development. Much construction in the ancient world happened with stones which were quarried out and carried and built into walls. But here you have a group of people out in the middle of a plain, without much stone around. So what do they do?
They do what God built us to do. They innovate. They invent. They discover. They develop technology to make bricks out of the material around them. By baking mud, and using they were able to fashion bricks that were as strong as stone and were when stacked together with bitumen, or tar, in between, they could build big and strong structures.
So far, so good. God told Adam and Eve to have dominion over the earth, and this is a part of what it means. God gave us the raw materials and we cultivate them into new products and technologies. It’s something we’re still doing to the present day.
B. The People’s Plans
But, as often happens, things fall apart. Remember how the intentions of man’s heart are wicked from youth? Give a sinner a new technology, and it won’t take long until he figures out how to sin with it.
And so guess what kind of plans these people make with their newfangled brick operation?
“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’” (Genesis 11:4).
Verse four tells us the two-fold plan they come up with for their new technology. This verse is written in what’s called a chiasm, which means the stuff on the outsides fits together, and the main point is in the middle.
1. A City to Stop Their Scattering (v. 4)
So if you look at the first statement—“come, let us build ourselves a city,” and then the last statement—“lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth”—you can see how they connect together to form the first part of their plan. They want to build a city to stop their scattering.
Now this might sound innocent to us. But God had specifically told people to fill the earth. “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).
Filling the earth meant having lots of babies, but this also meant that they were going to have to spread out. This was God’s intention and God’s command.
And so it sure sounds like these people are wanting to put a stop to that. They’ve had enough scattering. They don’t want to be dispersed over the whole earth. And so they plan to use their new bricks to build this city in opposition to the plans of God.
2. A Tower to Make Themselves a Name (v. 4)
Secondly, if you look in the middle of verse 4, they want to build themselves “a tower with its top in the heavens.” And what do they say next? “And let us make a name for ourselves.”
They want to use their bricks to show off. They want to build a tower up to the heavens in order that other people might hear about it and say “Wow, did you hear what those folks in Shinar were able to pull off? Without any stones? How did they do that? Wow, they’re so great.”
Showing off and trying to get famous did not start with the creation of Instagram. These early people invent a technology, and the first thing their proud hearts want to do is reach for the skies in order to boast and brag. Just like Eve reaching up for the fruit so she could be like God, so these people want to reach for the heavens in order to make their own names great.
C. The Lord’s Intervention
And with that, we come to the third major step in the passage, which is God’s intervention. And this intervention comes in three parts.
1. The Lord’s Descent (v. 5)
First, 11:5 tells us about the Lord’s descent: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” There’s a note of humour here: they wanted to build a tower to the heavens. But God had to come down to see it.
Even the phrase “children of man” here sounds, at least to me, a little patronizing. It’s sounds a little bit like, “Aww, look, they built a cute little tower.
Despite their best efforts, they are still so much smaller than God.
2. The Lord’s Concern (v. 6)
Nevertheless, despite how puny these people are compared to the Lord, He is concerned about what they are up to, as verse 6 shows us.
“And 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’” (Genesis 11:6).
Notice how the Lord makes four statements. The first two go together—they are one people, and they all have one language—and the last two go together: this is only the beginning of what they’ll do, and nothing they want to do will be impossible for them.
We have to understand this statement against the background of Genesis 8:21. If people were perfect and righteous and loving, there would be no concern about them doing whatever they want. But they’re not. The intentions of people’s hearts are evil from youth. And so a bunch of wicked people being able to do whatever they want is a really dangerous thought.
The Lord’s concern here reminds me of Genesis 3:22: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.”
The Lord is keeping close tabs on the capacity of His creations. He knows what they are capable of and He is once again stepping in to limit their capacity as necessary.
He knows that at this point, if they get off to a start like this, it’s going to be really bad news.
Now something we need to remember here is how we’ve been taught that ancient man was primitive and simple, and if that was true than why was God so concerned about a bunch of stone-agers making bricks when He seems to be okay with Toronto and New York City?
But we should remember that the Biblical story is the other way around. Humanity started off at a high point and has fallen far. These people lived for centuries and went around building civilizations. Archeology is filled with ancient technologies modern people are still trying to figure out, like the pyramids. I suspect that if we were to stand beside these early settlers of Shinar, we’d feel profoundly humbled by their intelligence and competence. And perhaps terrified by their capacity for evil, especially given their long lifespans.
The Lord was not overreacting when he expressed great concern at what these people would be able to achieve if the whole world was able to work together as one.
3. The Lord’s Action (v. 7-8)
So what does the Lord decide to do? Genesis 11:7: “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
There’s a few things we want to notice here. First, the purpose of God confusing their speech is not explained. But it’s assumed. If they can’t talk with each other, they can’t work with each other. We’ve seen that in the text. Verse 3: “Come, let us.” Verse 4: “Come, let us.” Working together required them talking together.
Second, it’s interesting that verse 7 opens with God speaking these same words as the people of this city: “Come, let us.” This almost sounds like a parody of the tower-builders. It certainly highlights that God’s plans, unlike the tower-builder’s plans, actually succeed.
It is an interesting question of who the Lord is speaking to. Some suggest the Lord is speaking to the divine counsel, which basically means the angels in attendance to Him. Others see here evidence for the Trinity, just like back in Genesis 1: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
I tend to lean in that direction. I see here evidence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit communicating amongst themselves what they are going to do, similarly—but far greater than—what the children of man, made in God’s image, were doing.
But regardless, the big picture here is hard to miss: the Lord, in a decisive act, confuses the language of the people so that they can’t understand each other anymore and thus can’t all work together anymore.
D. The Aftermath
1. Confused and Scattered (vv. 8-9)
And that leads us into the final major section in the text, where we consider the aftermath of God’s actions. Sure enough, they achieve their desired effect. Verse 8: “So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”
Verse 9 summarizes and repeats these effects of God’s work: “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:9)
They can’t understand each other anymore, and so they can’t work together anymore, and so they stop building the tower and keep spreading outwards like God intended.
The Lord’s plans, unlike theirs, are achieved. They tried to oppose God and it failed. They tried to band together, and it failed. They tried to make a name for themselves, and the only name they got was “Babel”—a wordplay on the Hebrew for “confused.”
In other words, God wins. And that’s a great truth to pause and reflect on. No attempt to oppose God’s plans will ultimately succeed. He makes sure that His plans are carried through, and he thwarts whatever plans of people he wants to.
This is a big part of what it means for us to say that God is sovereign. It means He’s the great king, and He can do what He wants, and He can stop us from doing what we want.
Psalm 33:10–11 says that “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”
God is sovereign and nothing can get in His way. That’s a really important truth for us to consider as we watch the confused and scattered people spreading out just like God wanted them to.
2. The Enduring Challenge of Babylon
But there’s a lot more going on in this story than just this. The story of Babel, wedged in between the accounts of Noah and Abraham, has a really important role in the unfolding story of the Bible.
Form this point on, Babel will represent the rebellion of people who band together to oppose God and His plans.
Have you ever noticed how “Babel” contains the same letters as “Babylon”? That’s because, in Hebrew, they are the identical word. Babel is Babylon.
And we know how Babylon became the number one enemy of the people of God. Particularly in Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon took on the spirit of these early settlers who tried to lift himself high to oppose the God of heaven. And this is manifested in his opposition to Jerusalem, the city of God.
And that’s why, in the New Testament, Babylon—or Babel— continues to symbolize organized human opposition to God. It’s why Rome is referred to as Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13. It’s why Babylon comes up again in Revelation.
It’s not because Babylon is a physical city that’s going to be literally rebuilt. It’s that Babylon is the enduring symbol of the world system united against God. And that’s why God’s final triumph over evil in Revelation 18 is described, symbolically, as the destruction of Babylon. God finally removes all opposition to Himself once and for all.
So where is Babel or Babylon today? It’s not the ruins in Iraq. Babylon today is any place where people band together to oppose God by resisting his plans and making a name for themselves.
Which means that Babylon is everywhere. Babylon is the world system. Babylon is Canada with it’s smug, polite hatred for God and His people. We should not be surprised to find ourselves being treated poorly in our own country. Babylon has always been opposed to the people of God.
And yet in this we can rest in the comfort that God is going to deal with Babylon. That’s the promise and comfort of the Book of Revelation. Hard times are ahead, but God wins. All opposition to the Lord will be removed. Babylon will fall. The question for us is: whose side will we want to be standing on when the dust settles?
So this is one major aftermath of the Babel episode. The spirit of Babel lives on but will be finally dealt with by God.
3. The Future Glory of Peoples and Languages (Revelation 5:9-10)
But there’s more here. One of the most obvious aftermaths of Babel is the fact that there are thousands of languages in the world. These languages caused people to splinter off into groups that developed their own cultures became defined and distinct from each other. Babel is the ultimate reason for all the different tribes and languages and peoples and nations.
And yet God had a plan in this. He had a plan for the glory of His son. He had a plan for Christ to come and, by His blood, ransom people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and make them a kingdom and priests to our God, that they might reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).
The ultimate goal of Babel was not just to stop them from building a tower. The ultimate goal was the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9–10).
Jesus will be glorified forever by the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-language redeemed humanity that He died to save, and He will receive more glory for His work of saving this diverse people than if the whole world was simply one language and people.
How is it that this diverse group brings more glory to Jesus than if we were all the same? One answer is that when a diverse group of people gather around Jesus, it becomes plain that Jesus is greater than any other factor in the world.
It’s easy for people to gather around shared interests like language and culture or even hobbies or food. But when people from all different languages and peoples gather around Jesus, it becomes clear that Jesus is greater than their language or their culture or their ethnicity or whatever else tends to bring normal people together.
Didn’t we get a little taste of that here on Christmas Eve? Wasn’t it beautiful to hear the story of Jesus and praises to Jesus being spoken and sung in German and Tagalog and French and Afrikaans and Dutch, as well as English? Didn’t Jesus receive more glory that night from a group of people who are not all one culture, not all one language, not all one people, but who have been gathered together around the saviour, and so find the deepest and most profound unity, in our diversity, as we worship Him together?
And that was the plan. That’s what God was ultimately after back here in Babel. The people were scattered in judgement so that they could be gathered again in worship around His worthy Son.
It shouldn’t bother us that God used human sin to accomplish this plan. Just like when Jesus was killed, the wickedness of Babel didn’t catch the Lord off-guard. It was all a part of His plan, that His son might be worshipped forever by all peoples and languages.
4. The Great Commission Questions Before Us Today (Matthew 28:19)
And that brings us to our final stop this morning, which is, as you can see on your outline, the Great Commission questions before us today.
The first Great Commission question is, how to we get to Revelation 5 and 7? How do the different languages get to be gathered around Jesus in worship?
And the answer is that the people of Jesus obey the Great Commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ (Matthew 28:19).
But those nations speak different languages, don’t they? So if we’re going to go to the nations, we’re going to need to somehow cross those barriers to get the good news to those people for whom Jesus died.
Sometimes, the Lord does this in a miraculous way. Like at the day of Pentecost, which was basically the reversal of Babel. Instead of a bunch of people who spoke the same language not able to understand each other, at Pentecost you had a bunch of people who spoke different languages suddenly being able to understand the same message, and it was the gospel.
And there are times where God still does that kind of thing. I witnessed it once, as a child, when God gave someone the ability to understand another language for a few minutes in order to translate a gospel message for a group of people.
And that’s the intention for “tongues.” It’s not about dozens of people all speaking at the same time with nobody having a clue what’s being said.
In fact, 1 Corinthians 14:27-28 directly prohibits that from happening.
In the Bible, the “gift of tongues” is always about real human languages. And the goal is that people might understand what’s being said for the sake of the gospel. And God is free to cause that to happen any time He wants.
But most of the time, that’s not how He does things. Most of the time, the way that the languages of the earth hear the gospel is by someone going and learning that language, crossing that cultural barrier, in order to share the good news.
Some of you in this room know the difficulty of language learning. My sister is struggling away with Romanian right now. It’s hard. It’s a part of the aftermath of Babel. And it’s a cost that is completely worth it. The difficulty of learning another language is simply a reflection of the worthiness of Christ who died to purchase the worship of every language on earth.
So what does that mean for us today? For some of you, that means you need to move to another part of the world and learn another language and make disciples in another nation because Jesus is worth it.
What Sharmyn is doing should not be a once-in-a-generation event for our church. It should be normal for us to send people away like this. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the next person to go was here in this room today. Maybe right now there’s something in your heart going on and you’re thinking “Man, could that be me?”
Please don’t give in to fear. Please remember that Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Which means that being a Christian means being willing to follow Jesus absolutely anywhere. So why not open your hands today and ask the Lord to take you where He wants you to do?
At the same time, we also know that for every person who goes, they need a support team. A ground crew. Maybe that’s your role—to use your time and your prayers and your money to help send others to the front lines.
But if that’s the case, that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to have any heart for the nations and languages. Have you noticed how the nations and languages are coming to us, even here in Nipawin?
How do you respond when you encounter people who look so obviously different than you, speaking a language different than your?
It is normal and natural to feel uncomfortable. It’s normal and natural for us to feel more safe with people who are like us. But just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s always good, especially in light of the Great Commission. And so this morning let’s each hear the call to reach out to the nations and languages right here in NIpawin.
Let’s make this really practical question. What goes on in your mind and heart when you see a new business open up in town that is clearly run by someone who is not from Canada. Do you smirk smugly? Do you make jokes about the decor or the signs? Do you think “I’d never step food inside of that place”?
Or, do you have a Great Commission impulse to think “I want to go in there, even just means getting something small, even if it ends up being a waste of money, just to be friendly and try to understand them, and maybe even start a relationship in which I can show and tell them the love of Christ”?
We could ask these questions about all kinds of different examples, but the big idea here is that when we encounter someone who is different from us, followers of Jesus can’t do the natural thing of pulling back into our comfort zones.
Instead, we must reach out with a Great Commission impulse for the nations and languages of the world.
You might feel uncomfortable in some of those settings. I imagine that those people, who came here from another country, feel uncomfortable every day. And when it comes to us, who said anything about comfort when you’re carrying a cross on your back?
If we’re into being comfortable, we wouldn’t be following Jesus.
Instead, would you ask Jesus for a heart for the nations—wherever they are—because He’s worth it?