Topical Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9
We’re replacing our church’s outdated phone system these days, an event which reminds me of a story. The major was promoted to colonel and received a fancy new office. As he entered it for the first time, sitting in the nice new chair, a knock came at the door. He said, “Come in,” then quickly picked up the telephone as a corporal walked in.
“Just a minute,” the colonel said to the corporal. “I have to finish this telephone call.” Then the colonel began speaking into the mouthpiece: “Sorry about the interruption, General. Yes, sir, I will take care of that. Yes, I’ll call the President after I finish talking with you, General.”
The colonel ceremoniously put the telephone down, turned to the corporal, and said, “What can I do for you?” The corporal replied, “Well, colonel, I just came in to connect your telephone.”
Pride is the genesis of all our sins. “You will be as God” is the first temptation in human history (Genesis 3:5), and the heart of all the others. We build our Towers of Babel that we might “make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
But the opposite results. Pride turned Adam and Eve against each other. Cain felt himself inferior to his brother, so he murdered him. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery for the same reason. The religious and secular authorities crucified Jesus out of jealousy for their own power and status. Whenever we try to supplant God, we end up scattering ourselves over the earth.
What was your last problem with someone? Was pride in the middle of it? In what way do you feel isolated, alienated, “scattered” from those you care about? Mother Teresa said the greatest epidemic of our Western culture is not AIDS or leprosy but loneliness. Today we’ll find its cure.
Diagnose the problem
But first we must be clear about the problem theologically. The Scriptures use several words for “pride.” At their heart, they all mean “to be lifted up.” Pride is good when it lifts up God, when we glorify him and tell him that we are proud to be his children. Pride is good when it lifts up others, when we tell our children that we are proud of them.
Pride is sin when it lifts us up, when we exalt ourselves over God and others. When we put our personal agendas ahead of loving God and our neighbor; when we live to impress people with ourselves more than with God; when we define success by popularity and possessions more than by obedience to God and service to others, we build our own Tower today. If I am teaching this message to impress you with myself, I’m laying bricks for my own Babel.
Why is such self-exaltation and self-promotion such a sin?
It supplants God: “Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).
It causes us to hurt others, to make them a means to our end: “In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises” (Psalm 10:2); “Pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence” (Ps. 73:6). When we come first, everyone else comes second and is a means to our end.
It hurts us: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2); “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Pr. 16:18). Self-reliance always leads to failure, for we are failed human beings.
And so it leads to the judgment of God, at Babel and in Dallas: “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin!” (Pr. 21:4).
Why do we put ourselves before God and others?
The “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature. We all want to be God, to be “president of the universe” (Claypool).
Pride and power are the expectations of our culture. How does our society define success? Performance, achievement, drive, initiative. The “self-made man.” When last was a truly humble person elevated as a role model for our youth? We are to be driven, perfectionistic, prideful, or we are not a success.
Most of all, pride covers our perceived inadequacies. We know our failures and weaknesses. Rather than admit them, we compensate for them. We act in prideful ways, to convince others that we are what we pretend to be.
Who is susceptible?
Religious leaders: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector'” (Luke 18:11).
Religious people: Job is described at the beginning of the story as “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Yet he later claimed, “I am pure and without sin; I am clean and free from guilt” (Job 33:9). If it happened to Job, it can happen to us.
Followers of Jesus: Paul chastised the Corinthian Christians, “Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you” (1 Corinthians 4:18).
Churches: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
Anyone who believes that he or she is not.
Study the disease
Next we come at the issue biblically. What do we do with this alienating, isolating impulse which has created an epidemic of loneliness in our world? Let’s walk through our story together.
Our text begins, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (v. 1a). We are now six generations from Noah; as many as 30,000 people are alive on the earth. They have “one lip” and “one speech” so far, as we might expect.
“As men moved eastward,” out into the uninhabited world, “they found a plain in Shinar and settled there” (v. 2). This is the flatlands between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, in the heart of modern-day Iraq. The area was especially fertile in those days, so that grain harvests typically yielded 200- to 300-fold, and palm trees grew all over the land. They had no enemies as yet, and so did not need to settle in mountains where they could protect themselves. So this was a perfect location.
“They said to each other” (v. 3a), no exceptions or dissenters. “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly” (v. 3b), literally “burn them to a burning,” making them stronger than sun-baked bricks. They used “tar for mortar” (v. 3c), a kind of bitumen found throughout the region which literally glued the bricks together. Millions of these ancient bricks have been found; they are typically a foot square and two to three inches thick, and are perfect for building tall structures.
They had this purpose in mind: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (v. 4a). Today we still use their phrase “make a name for ourselves.” We already “have” a name, given by our parents. We “make” a name by our own efforts and success. In this way we seek to leave a legacy, a permanent mark on this world, lest we be “scattered over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4b).
Remains of their tower still exist. It was designed to be approximately 300 feet square at the base, with seven levels of decreasing size, and was intended to reach 290 to 300 feet in height. Think of a football field cubed, and you’ll have the idea. It was by far the largest building in the ancient world for generations.
But compared to the greatness of God it was so tiny that he had to “come down” to look at it (v. 5).
He knew that such pride would lead only to further rebellion and destruction, so he chose to “confuse their language” and defeat their plans (v. 7). And then he “scattered them from there over all the earth” (v. 8), the very thing they tried to prevent by their own egotistical actions.
He could have crushed them, destroyed them with fire, or devastated them with disease. This was an act of grace, to keep us from hurting ourselves further.
As a result, the place is called “Babel” (from which we get “Babylon”), an ironic word play. The Assyrians used the word for “gate of god”; the Hebrews used it for “confusion.” Whenever we try to build the former, the latter results.
Accept the cure
Finally, we consider the issue practically. How does our story help us with our problem? It suggests these clear steps.
First, refuse self-exaltation:
“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Pr 3:7).
“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Pr 26:12).
“Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:21).
“The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:2).
Know that everything which tempts you to self-exaltation is the sin of pride. As Oswald Chambers says, avoid anything which puts you in the position of superiority. You’re only building a Tower of Babel, and your plans will be defeated.
Second, see yourself as the valuable child of God: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ…If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26, 29). When you know your worth before God, you won’t be so motivated to seek it from us.
Bill Glass, the former NFL star and now prison ministry leader, says that the most common denominator behind bars is the absence of a father. We each need to know that our father loves us, that he likes us, and that he wants us. Your Father loves you, likes you, and wants you. Don’t measure yourself by the size of the towers you’re building, but the God who loves you.
Third, seek to glorify God in all you do. When we seek his glory, we cannot seek our own at the same time. J. I. Packer was right: it is impossible at the same time to convince you that I am a great preacher and that Jesus is a great Savior. Measure your success today by the degree to which other people think more of God because of you. Ask how you can glorify him with your abilities, gifts, resources, and accomplishments. How can you turn someone toward him this week?
Last, value humility as the path to God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who know their need of God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3; cf. NEB). Martin Luther was right: “God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.” Ask God to help you stay humble before him, surrendered to his will, seeking his glory alone. Every day of his life, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones prayed the same prayer, “Lord, keep me from pride.” When last did you make this your prayer?
We’ve considered our subject theologically, biblically, and practically. Let’s close not with our heads but our hearts. In England I had the opportunity to stand in a number of elevated pulpits, as is the style on the Continent. I was reminded of the young preacher just out of seminary, climbing the steps to the pulpit for his first Sunday in his first church.
Head held high, notes and Bible in hand, he was proud and dignified. But he tripped on the last step, Bible and notes flying. He tried to shuffle them back into order, but he was too embarrassed to think. He tried to preach his sermon, but stammered and stuttered. Finally he quit, shoved his disheveled notes into his Bible, and descended the steps, head down.
An elderly woman on the first pew said to him, “Young man, if you’d gone up the steps the way you came down, you’d have gone down the way you went up.”
C. S. Lewis, as usual, says it better than I can:
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
“If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed” (Mere Christianity 114).