The Foolishness of Building Towers

Babel; idolatry

In our previous studies we looked at the account of Noah. We focused on Noah’s faithfulness in building the the Ark and also the faith that enabled Noah to survive in God’s waiting room. As a result of Noah’s faith in God and His promises, Noah and his family were saved while the rest of the world was destroyed in God’s just judgment.

When the flood was over, Noah presented an offering to the Lord. God was pleased and made a promise to Noah, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” (8:21) And then God gave Noah (and us) a rainbow which was to always serve as a reminder of God’s promise.

But did you notice something in the words I read? The flood is over. The ground has dried. But the problem remains. God still says that “every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood.” He does not say this in the past tense . . . it is present tense. This is our nature. As someone has said, we “aren’t sinners because we sin . . . .we sin because we are sinners”. The idea that mankind is basically good or born innocent is something that is never supported in Scripture.

In the couple of chapters that follow we see a sad story about conflict in Noah’s own family and then we read the story of the people of Babel and the tower or monument they tried to build. These accounts reveal that the words of God are true . . . people are naturally rebellious.

In Chapter 10 verses 8-11, in the midst of a long section of “begats” we read about a man named Nimrod. We are told that he became a mighty warrior on the earth. He built cities and the first cities he built were “Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar.” Now that isn’t significant to you right now . . .but it will be in a minute or two.

In chapter 11 we read, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” Did you get the connection? The people in the story of the “Tower of Babel” settled in Shinar . . . the same place where Nimrod built a city. In fact, I think we are right to conclude that the setting for the Tower of Babel story is the city of Babylon which was built by Nimrod.

Now I won’t take a lot of time on the significance of Babylon in the Bible so let me simply summarize. Babylon is synonymous with that which is evil. As Jerusalem is seen as the City of God, so Babylon is often personified as the city of the Devil. As we study the story of the early days of this city we will begin to see why.

GREAT THINGS CAN BE EVIL

The story of the Babylon temple is really a technological marvel.

“Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly. They used brick instead of stone and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 11:3,4

If you have ever seen the pyramids you realize what incredible structures these were. These were the days before tractors, back-hoes, and dump trucks. They didn’t have any cranes to hoist materials. What these people built was a marvel to their technological ingenuity. It was an incredible feat.

When human beings work together, they can accomplish great goals. God made us with minds that can solve many mysteries and with the ability to dream up and create great things. But these great minds can be used for evil as well as for good. Consider the many weapons of war that have been created. Consider the minds of those who plan terrorist attacks. Consider those who lay awake dreaming up schemes to scam others.

And this is where the Babylonian tower becomes sinful. Look at what they were trying to do.

  • to sidestep God’s instructions and not “be scattered over the face of the earth” (9:7) as God commanded.
  • to build a monument “to themselves” (they were seeking to be honored and revered by others . . . a right that is God’s alone)
  • to reach to the heavens

This last item needs a little amplification if we are to understand correctly. Even these early Babylonians realized that they could never build a tower that could literally reach into the Heavens.

In the Hebrew text the words “to reach” do not occur. The text speaks of the top of the tower as “in,” “on”, “with,” or “by” the heavens (all four being possible translations of the one Hebrew preposition). This could mean that the top was dedicated to the heavens as a place of worship or even that it had a representation of the heavens (a zodiac) upon it. [Boice, GENESIS]

If this is the case, then the tower really represented a structure of Satan erected for the express purpose of making the people feel they were being spiritual, while really directing their attention away from God. They were erecting an idol. And they are doing this while the memory of the flood was probably still fresh in the history books. It doesn’t take long for us to forget.

We must be aware that just because something is new or innovative it doesn’t make it better or even good. The Coca Cola company found that out when they introduced “New Coke”. It may have been new . . . but it didn’t taste good! In the same way the church must beware of the mentality that says new is always better. Christians should indeed be constantly on the look out for new ways to present the message of the gospel with greater clarity. But we must be sure that it is still proclaiming the same message not some perverted form of the truth.

There are lots of new styles of worship today. Some don’t even resemble the church of old. In fact, some forms of church worship resemble a stage show more than a time of prayer and devotion. These things may be slick, shiny and fun . . . but that doesn’t necessarily make them good.

GOD’S GREATNESS FAR SURPASSES THE GREATEST EFFORTS OF MEN

Notice the next section of our passage.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.

There is a sense of irony here. Don’t miss it. Let’s paint the picture. These people decide to make a name for themselves. They are going to build a tower that reaches to the Heavens. They are going to make their way to God. So they build this tower and are pretty darn proud of themselves. Then note what happens; God decides to COME DOWN to see what was going on. The greatest accomplishments of men cannot even come close to God.

I am always surprised when I fly into O’Hare airport. The same city that seems so big and overpowering when you are walking around in downtown Chicago seems much smaller when you are flying over the city. And imagine what it would be like to be in a space shuttle over the earth. You wouldn’t even be able to make out the city.

Now imagine that you are God. Imagine how foolish the people of Babel seemed when they seek to “reach to the Heavens”. Imagine how foolish they seemed when they sought to construct their own Gods. Imagine how foolish they seemed as they ignored the Almighty to worship that which has been devised or created by men. Imagine how foolish we seem when we do the same things.

How prone we are to build towers.

  • We build towers to our good works. There are dozens of award shows on television and certainly thousands of awards given out every year. These are all given in acknowledgment of some achievement. That is not a bad thing. We all appreciate (and need) a pat on the back. But the applause of men carries no weight in Heaven.I happen to think that when someone dies we should take time to celebrate the person’s life. So I work hard to share some of the positive contributions the person made to our lives. (Of course, it’s even better to do it while they are alive.) HOWEVER, I am also concerned about such a practice. It concerns me because It is easy for people to conclude that the basis of that person’s hope of eternal life is their good works. It is for people to arrive at the mistaken notice that the person has earned Heaven. To think that is to build a foolish tower. The basis of our salvation is not our goodness. . . but God’s grace. The monuments we build to our goodness are just as foolish as the tower built in Babel.
  • We build towers to Programs and the Wisdom of Men. All you need to do is find some success in ministry and there will be others who flock around to try to copy you. They will want to duplicate your experience because they are convinced that your technique, program or experience is the key. But it’s not. God is the key. Only God.
  • We build towers to people. We give someone celebrity status due to their looks, their ability or for some other reason and then we follow this person like a calf to it’s mother. We listen to everything they say. We do the things they suggest. It may have been a movie star, musician, or athlete at one time . . . now it may be a financial adviser  a Pastor or an author. Anything that occupies the place of preminence reserved for God is an idol.
  • We build towers to things. We may not build actual monuments to things (new cars, homes, possessions) but we do make things the source of our happiness . . . in which case they become a futile tower. .
  • We build towers to other gods (psychics, philosophies, systems) We’ll pay $3.99 a minute to talk to someone about our future instead of spending a few minutes in prayer. We’ll consult the horoscope more “religiously” than the Bible. We listen to worldly discussions more than we listen to God. When we draw our cues from anyone other than the Lord . . . we are guilty of building towers that lead to no where.

In C.S. Lewis’s wonderful book, Screwtape Letters, he writes,

My dear Wormwood: The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity and.” You know– Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Spelling reform.

Lewis is making an important point. The Devil will try to dilute our effectiveness and devotion by distracting us. If He can get us to add something to the gospel our attention will be diverted from the main issue: walking in obedience to Christ. 

THE COST OF IDOLATRY IS EXCESSIVE

Lots of things are expensive today. But most of the time when you spend a lot of money . . . you get something for that money. The cost of idolatry is exorbitant and it yields nothing of value.

Notice what happens with the people of Babel.

The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Don’t misunderstand what God is saying here. God is not concerned that the people are going to overthrow Heaven. He is not concerned even that they are getting too smart or have too much power (His will wisdom and power will always be superior). God’s concern is that this project will lead to an arrogance and callousness that will give them new boldness in their sin.

But “come on, is idolatry really that bad? Afterall, they are just things . . . they can’t do any harm.” Oh?

  • idols of any form rob God of the honor He deserves
  • idols turn us away from the only One who can save us….they move us in the wrong direction.
  • idols give us a false sense of confidence that causes us to “whistle while we travel the road to Hell.”

Yes, idolatry is serious. God confused the languages in order to save the people from themselves. This account reminds us that,

  1. One sinful act often leads to boldness in other sinful activity. There is such a thing as the deadening effect on the conscience of a person. When we commit a sin and the next one becomes easier. The way to attack sin in our lives is to address it in the little things. Don’t take sin lightly wherever you find it.
  2. God will often use adverse circumstances to protect us from ourselves. No one thought that the confusion of languages was good. I’m sure the people sensed a great loss when they could not longer communicate. However, what they didn’t see was that God was protecting the people. He was protecting them from greater foolishness and sin. He was protecting them from themselves.

CONCLUSIONS

The story of the Tower of Babel is an interesting story. It’s one of those that is always included in Bible Story books. But the question you and I must ask is: have we learned the lessons of Babel? Have we learned that great achievements are not the same as great devotion to the Lord? Have we recongized that the greatest achievements of men cannot compare to the greatness of God? Are you alerted to how easily we set up idols in our lives? Have you been reminded of how quickly we turn away from the one who loves us and desires to lead us to the life we have been looking for?

So here’s the question: Are you building some tower to reach to heaven in your life? Is there something that stands between you and the Almighty? Are you trusting your own ingenuity, ability and wisdom over that of the Lord? Is there some tower that needs to be replaced with trust in the Lord?

  • a pride that refuses to surrender to His grace
  • a relationship that is sinful and a barrier to God
  • an anxiety that comes from feeling everything depends on you
  • a confidence in the “system” rather than the Savior
  • an arrogance about your own worthiness for salvation
  • a playful involvement with the occult (astrology, psychics, tarot cards)

Whatever it is, my friend, it is a tower that is leading to no where. You are climbing the ladder of achievement and success but when you get to the top you will discover that the ladder was placed on the wrong building! There is only one road that leads to life and that is the road that goes through the cross. It is only as we trust in Christ that we will find what the people of Babylon and the people of every age has been looking for. It is only in the person of Jesus that we can find forgiveness for our sin. It is only by surrendering to Him that we can be kept from the foolishness of building towers that lead nowhere. Forget the towers, my friends . . . turn to Jesus.

Here are some things to do to remind yourselves of the lessons of this chapter.

  1. Every time you hear someone talking in a foreign language remember that these languages came about because mankind refused to acknowledge God.
  2. Every time you see a tall building, think of the foolishness of those who try to “reach to Heaven”
  3. Every time you see some great achievement, let it remind you to put it into perspective . . . the greatest deeds of men cannot compare to the greatness of our God.

The blunders of history (like building a tower to reach to Heaven) are valuable only if we learn from them.

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Scripture:

Genesis 11:1-9