An Opposer of the Proud. Unity isn’t always a good thing – the opening portion of Genesis 11 bears witness to that. The whole earth had one language and one speech (vs.1) passed down from Noah and his family; so there were no barriers to their communication; and ultimately that wasn’t a good thing either. If they were living in the new earth with glorified bodies, it wouldn’t have been a problem; but they were still living in a fallen world with fallen bodies that had a bent towards rebellion and self-exaltation. The first hint of the former comes in verse two where, after God had commanded Noah and his sons to fill the earth (Gen. 9:1,7) we find that the people journeyed east, found a plain in Shinar and dwelt there (Gen. 11:2). Instead of spreading, they were settling. And shortly after they stopped we hear what they said (vs.3-4). In two verses we see the phrase “let us” appear three times. They were ready to weary themselves (vs.3) to exalt themselves by building a city and a tower that reached into the heavens (vs.4). It’s possible that this tower was a ziggurat suited for the worship of, and supposed communion with, pagan deities; it’s also possible that they were building the tower to reach into the heavens so as to guard themselves from a future flood – such a motivation would have been a notable outworking of their unbelief; but the clearest motivation from the text appears to be self-glory: “let us make a name for ourselves (11:4b).” It’s never a good thing when someone speaks or thinks like that – Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Herod are three witnesses of that reality. And the rest of the narrative makes evident that God was against the motives behind the building project. It’s not surprising that the God who opposes the proud (Jas. 4:6) would be against a ‘city of man’ built for the glory of man. It’s good for Christians to listen in on the motivations of those at Shinar. It can help us more quickly identify a ‘let me…for myself…’ mentality. Our fallen frames desire recognition; but God’s Word tells us, “let nothing be done through selfish ambition (Phil. 2:3).” Our fallen frames desire to make a name for ourselves, but God’s word tells us, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus… (Col. 3:17a)” and for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Our fallen frames prod us to exert ourselves to exalt ourselves, but God’s word esteems men who go forth for Jesus’ name sake (3 Jn. 7) and risk their lives for His fame (Acts 15:26). And while God is against man’s self-exaltation, He is not anti-exaltation. In His time He exalts the humble (1 Pet. 5:6). And for those who love the praise of God more than the praise of men, they will not be disappointed. Even as they have glorified Christ they will be glorified in Him (2 Thes. 1:11); and even as they have sought that men praise God, they will receive praise from God (1 Cor. 4:5).
Opposed to Human Self-Dependence. Another implicit problem behind all the “let us” statements in the plain of Shinar was that they demonstrated the perceived independence of Babel’s builders. They didn’t have God as an end, and neither did they see Him as a means. Now while the text doesn’t come right out and elaborate upon God’s emotions towards human self-dependence, I believe the contrast between the people’s words at Shinar and God’s words to Abraham (formerly “Abram”) provide enough evidence to make the case. Whereas the refrain of Genesis 11:3-4 is, “Let us… let us… let us…” God’s promises to Abraham were repeatedly preceded by the phrase:, “I will…I will… I will… I will… (Gen. 12:1-3)” Abraham was not going to beget his own destiny. Nor was he going to make for himself a name. He was going to be a beneficiary of God’s sovereign grace. Not to get too ahead ourselves, after all, we are in Genesis 11, but Abraham was to spend the rest of his life being completely dependent upon God to beget the provision, greatness and protection He promised him. And while Abraham did that imperfectly, the Lord Jesus Christ did it perfectly. Although He was fully God, as one who was (and is) fully man He lived in complete dependence upon His Father. He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. (Jn. 5:19)” So while God may be against human self-dependence, He loves when His people say like His Son, “I can of Myself do nothing (Jn. 5:30a).”
Evaluator. The verse that presents God as the evaluator who ‘draws near’ in a kind of fact-finding mission is, I think, strategically placed to communicate a kind of ‘shot’ at man’s attempt to reach the heavens. Right after we read that the people were constructing a tower to reach into the heavens (Gen. 11:4)… we’re told, “But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built (Gen. 11:5 emphasis added).” Of course God had a perfect view of the events at Shinar: His eyes run to and fro the earth (2 Chron. 16:9) and nothing in creation is hidden from His sight (Heb. 4:13). But the language is helpful in stressing not only (a) the reality of Yahweh’s exaltedness and the futility of man’s self-exaltation – as though to say, ‘The tower they were building wasn’t that high…Yahweh came down to see it…’ but also (b) the reality of God’s scrutinizing nearness to His creation. It is another scriptural contribution to the decimation of the deistic conception of God. The one true God did not simply create the world and abdicate involvement with it. Neither does He sustain it from an indifferent distance. He is an inspector. An evaluator. His eyes are continually in every place, beholding the evil and the good (Prov. 15:3) – a fact that even forgiven Christians would do well to be reminded of. The God who will one day evaluate the works of His people for the sake of rendering rewards (1 Cor. 3:13-14) is currently evaluating their paths (Prov. 5:21; Jer. 32:19) and hearts (Jer. 17:10; Rev. 2:23). And if we are mindful of that, we’ll be more likely to “ponder the path of [our own] feet (Prov. 4:26)” and pray Psalm 139:23-24.
Thwarter. When God has purposed, no one can thwart Him (Isa. 14:27; Job 42:2), but when men purpose against God, they can expect their plans to be thwarted (Ps. 2:1-12). And that’s what we see in Genesis 11. God had a response to the self-dependent refrains of “let us…” – a “let Us” of His own! He said, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech (Gen. 11:7).” Leaving aside what appears to be another reference to the one true God’s plurality of personhood (cf. Gen. 1:26), let us behold the way in which God thwarted the sinful plans of man by mercifully dividing the formerly united world. The people had settled in the plains of Shinar in defiance of God’s decree so that they would not be scattered over the face of all the earth (vs.4), but the result of God’s confusing their language was – they were scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth, a point mentioned in consecutive verses (8, 9). In this case the thwarting had a clear element of mercy. It was a preventative. God knew that this one-world-order in lock-step rebellion against Him would exasperate evil. Humanly speaking, no evil they proposed to do would be withheld from them (vs.6). So, then, God’s thwarting and subsequent development of differing nations provided a kind of checks-and-balances against evil. Imagine a one-world-government under the direction of Nimrod? Or Stalin? Or Hitler? In God’s mercy He thwarted the unity at Babel to restrain such lock-step evil – at least until the coming of the beast, i.e. antichrist (Rev. 13:3). But he, too, will be thwarted, by the God whose plans cannot be (Rev. 19:19-21).
Gracious. There is perhaps an interesting hint of grace provided for us in the genealogy of Shem (Gen. 11:10-26). Earlier in chapter ten we were told that the earth divided in the days of Peleg (Gen. 10:24-25) – a reference that almost certainly refers to the tower of Babel event. Not surprisingly, Peleg shows up again in chapter 11 – about halfway through the genealogy of Shem (vs.17-18). What that means is – the tower of Babel event happened somewhere in the middle portion of the genealogy that began with Shem (vs.10) and thematically concluded with Abram (vs.27-31). We’re reminded, then, that before and after Babel God was committed to bless the world through the line of Shem and through a man named Abram. And if you can appreciate how this family tree communicates grace (Gen. 11:10-32), just wait till you see where it goes (Lk. 3:23-38), and the literal tree upon which its greatest descendant would hang.