Lest We Be Scattered
From Gospel Translations
One of the most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible is Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The misquotation telescopes the verse so that it says simply, “Pride goes before a fall.” Though this misquotation is not textually accurate, it does capture the truth of the proverb. Indeed, pride is a precursor of a fall and the harbinger of destruction.
We see this illustrated dramatically in the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel:
“Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’ But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech’” (Gen. 11:1–7).
The Tower of Babel was the world’s first skyscraper, probably a high ramp or ziggurat that carried with it a religious connotation. As Martin Luther noted in his Lectures on Genesis, all sorts of fanciful myths and legends developed in the Middle Ages regarding the structure. Some argued that it was built as a place of refuge that would be high enough for people to escape another flood, ignoring God’s promise that He never again would destroy the world by a deluge. Others maintained that the structure reached a height of nine miles, so high that from it one could hear the voices of angels singing in heaven. But these speculative tales miss the point of the story and yield little insight.
Whatever it was, the narrative labors the point that the Tower of Babel certainly was not built to the glory of God. It was a monument to human pride. Luther observed, “I believe their motive is expressed in the words, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower.’ These words are evidence of smug hearts, which put their trust in the things of this world without trusting God and despise the church because it lacks all power and pomp.” Later he added, “Was this not colossal pride and great contempt for God, that without asking God for advice they dared undertake so massive a project on their own responsibility?”
The motive of pride is seen even more clearly in the arrogant declaration “Let us make a name for ourselves.” In the Lord’s Prayer, the first petition Christ instructed us to make is that the name of God be hallowed. This petition is clearly linked to the subsequent pleas — “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God is clearly present in heaven. His will is always done there and His name is hallowed there. But His kingdom is not present and His will is not done where His name is not hallowed. At Shinar, men sought to hallow and exalt their own names. This was Eden redux, in which the temptation to be as gods was replicated.
The construction of this tower to heaven was an attempt at the apotheosis of mankind, the self-divinization of the sons of men. This displays how old “New Age” thinking really is. It reflected what Paul declares to be the universal sin of humanity; the refusal to honor God as God and to be grateful (Rom. 1:21).
The act of building the Tower of Babel was an act of apostasy. It was under the guise of religion, as apostasy usually is, but such religion is pagan idolatry that always seeks to worship the creature rather than the Creator. It involves the substitution of a false god for the true God. Luther comments, “It was no sin in itself to erect a tower and to build a city, for the saints did the same. . . . This, however, is their sin: they attach their own name to this structure. . . .” In this act, true worship is replaced by man-centered worship.
Genesis tells us that in response to this human act of hubris, “the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.” This echoes the situation in Eden, when God came into the garden, provoking Adam and Eve to flee for cover. It was not as if the omniscient and omnipresent God was not cognizant of the situation. Rather, the narrative indicates a visitation of God whereby He came to these people in judgment. The pride that goes before destruction and the haughty spirit that precedes a fall is an attitude of defiance toward God. It is an attitude that assumes that God is unaware of what is going on or, if aware, is powerless to do anything about it. Unpunished sin evokes a fearlessness in the sinner by which he grows ever more brash in his defiance. The sinner mistakes God’s patience and longsuffering for impotence, and carelessly heaps up for himself wrath against the day of wrath. The longer the judgment is delayed, the worse it is when it falls.
The punishment God meted out at Babel was the confusion of human language and the break-up of a united world order. This judgment struck at the heart of human enterprise, as it stabbed to the core of human political and economic activity. People are now grouped into political blocs, wherein a common language unites one nation against other nations. This breeds international hostility, as nations rise against nations. The language barrier likewise presents a major obstacle to international trade, further aggravating the hostility and proving the axiom that “when goods and services cross borders, soldiers seldom do.”
The break-up of human harmony via the confusion of languages has consequences that are both far-reaching and long-lasting. Luther considered the confusion of human language to be a more severe judgment than the Flood itself. How so? After all, the Flood destroyed the entire population of the world, except Noah and his family. Luther’s reasoning was this: The Flood harmed only the humans who were alive at the time, while the confusion of languages harmed all mankind until the end of time. The reason God gave for this particular punishment was that nothing sinful human beings proposed to do might be accomplished easily.
Human history is the record of creatures seeking to build empires for themselves. No empire ever has endured over time. This is true both of political and economic empires. The only possible end for pride is destruction. The proud may stand for a season, but sooner or later they will fall.
Today we move inexorably toward a unified global village. The computer gives us a new, universal language. But what happens if the language of computers fails? What happens if the global economy fails? Where will our pride be then?