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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Genesis 11

 

 

Verses 1-32

On the Building of Babel

Genesis 11

Comparing this account with our own method of life and art, it is clear that from the beginning of time men have been doing pretty much the same thing all the world over. The world"s story is but short; it is very much like a series of repetitions: the actors, indeed, have been innumerable, but the drama has always been contracted, and seldom profound. The actors have made noise enough, but when there has been a little break through the dust, we have observed that they have not always made equal progress. We have a short Bible, because we have a short life. We have a fragmentary Bible, because we have a fragmentary human story. We have a Bible that apparently contradicts itself, because we have a life full of discrepancies—because part of us is Divine and part of us earthly—because we have many chipped links, many unmatched and unmatchable patterns, which no skill can put into anything like decent unity. The world, too, is but a little world. Men jump together again and again as if they could not escape one another"s presence, and as for thinking, strife of mind, intellectual projections and conceptions, originalities there are none; variations many, but no originalities. We are still in the land of Shinar, plotting with one another, burning bricks, building cities and towers, and being thrown from depth to depth of confusion. We are shut up in a very small prison, and can see but little through the narrow grating of our separate cells. What can we do, then? What is our calling? It is to try to alter the moral tone of our work; we must burn bricks, build cities, and erect towers in the right spirit; and we must try to get to heaven, not as the builders of Babel did. If we get to heaven at all, it will never be through the dark and rickety staircases of our own invention. Let us, then, read the story of Babel together, and gather from it what we may.

"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech."

Unanimity is nothing, considered strictly in itself. It is of no value that we say, in excuse of this or that deed, "It was done unanimously." Men may do wrong things unanimously, as well as things that are right. We must distinguish between union and conspiracy; we must distinguish between identity and mere association for a given object. Twelve directors may be of one language and of one speech, but the meaning of their unity may be self-enrichment, at the expense of unsuspecting men, who have put their little all into their keeping and direction. It is nothing, therefore, to talk about unanimity in itself considered. We must, in all these things, put the moral question, "What is the unanimity about?"—"Is this unanimity moving in the right direction?" If it be in a wrong direction, then unanimity is an aggravation of sin; if it be in a right direction, then union is power, and one-heartedness is triumph. But it is possible that unanimity may be but another word for stagnation. There are words in our language which are greatly misunderstood—and unanimity is one of them; peace is another. When many persons say peace, what do they mean? A living, intelligent, active cooperation, where there is mutual concession, where there is courtesy on every hand, where there is independent conviction, and yet noble concert in life? Not at all. They say that a Church is unanimous, and a Church is at peace, when a correct interpreter would say it was the unanimity of the grave, the peace of death. So I put in a word here of caution and of explanation: "The whole earth was of one language, and of one speech"; here is a point of unanimity, and yet there is a unanimous movement in a wrong direction.

"And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly;... and they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven."

There are times in life when lucky ideas strike men; when there is a kind of intellectual spring-tide in their nature, when men rise and say, "I have got it! Go to, this is it!" And in the bright hours when such ideas strike one, the temptation is to be a little contemptuous in reference to dull men who are never visited by conceptions, so bright and original as we deem them. A man has been in great perplexity, month after month, and suddenly he says, "Go to, the solution is now before me; I see my way right out of this dark place"; and he heightens his tone, as the joy swells in his heart. That is right. We could not do without intellectual birthdays; we could not always be carrying about a dead, leaden brain, that never sees light or shouts victory. We like these moments of inspiration to break in upon the dull monotony of such a lifetime as ours. So it is perfectly right that men should express their new conceptions—their new programme—and lay out a bold policy in a clear and confident tone. But are all our ideas so very bright? When we see our way to brick-making, is it always in the right direction? When we set our mind upon founding a city and building a tower the top of which shall rest against the stars, is it right? You see that question of "right" comes in again and again, and in proportion as a man wishes to live a truly Divine life he will always say, before going to his brick-making and his city-founding and his tower-building, "Now, is this right?" Many of us could have built great towers, only we knew that we should be building downwards if we had set our hands to such work as has often tempted us. Do not let us look coldly upon apparently unsuccessful men, and say, "Look at us; we have built a great city and tower; and you, where are you?—stretching in the dust and grovelling in nothing." They could have built quite as large a tower as ours; they could have been quite as far up in the clouds as we are, only we had perhaps less conscience than they had. When we saw a way to burning bricks, we burned them; and a way to establishing towers, we founded them; and they, poor creatures, unsuccessful men, began to pray about it, and to wonder if it was right, and to ask casuistical questions, and to rack themselves upon conscience; and so they have done no building! And yet they may have built. Who can tell? All buildings are not made of brick; all men do not require to lay hot brickfields, and burn clay, in order to build. It may be found one day, when the final inspection takes place, that the man who has built nothing visible has really built a palace for the residence of God. It may be found, too, that some successful people have nothing but bricks—nothing but bricks, bricks, bricks! Then it will be seen who the true builders were. What I pause here to say is this: We may have bright ideas, we may have (to us) new conceptions; there are, to our thinking, original ways of doing things; now and again cunning plans of overcoming difficulties strike us. Do I condemn this intellectual activity? No; I simply say, Let your intellect and your conscience go together; do not be onesided men; do not be living altogether out of the head, be living out of your moral nature as well; and if it be right, then build the tower with all industry and determination. Let it be strong and lofty, and God shall come down upon your work and glorify it, and claim it as his own.

"A tower, whose top may reach unto heaven."

"And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded."

"Now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do."

Here we are brought face to face with the great question of the discipline of human imagination. Life that is lived entirely in the imagination is lived wastefully. We are not to condemn imagination, for most truly imagination is a Divine gift; but it is a gift which is seldom, if ever, to be exercised alone. Our imagination must take counsel of our judgment, and our judgment must act in cooperation with our heart, so that there may be unanimity in all our faculties in carrying out the great objects of life. It is a terrible thing for any man to be given over to the unrestrained dominion of his fancy. Our imagination becomes intoxicated, and we are the victims of dreamings which may lead us into the wildest excesses, causing us to overlook all social claims and all Divine obligations, and to work only for our own aggrandisement and strength. Imagination never thinks; it only dreams. Imagination never reasons; it flies away, not knowing whither it is going. Imagination is never sober; it is always intoxicated with burning desire. I might challenge some of you today, to tell me whether you are not living lives of riotous imagination; dreaming of new plans of securing wealth, of novel projects for the defrauding of unsuspecting men, and whether in this awful excitement you are not forgetting the common duties of life. Men cannot always live upon the wings of their imagination; they must stand still, pause, think, reason, pray; and then, if their imagination can assist them to overcome difficulties, they are at liberty to follow all the will of their fancy. Let us take our starting-point from simple truth; let us hold deep and solemn consultation with the Spirit of Righteousness; let us know that our greatest power is little more than weakness; and then we shall walk without stumbling; and though our tower be not built very loftily, it will be built with a stability which God himself will never allow to be shaken.

"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another"s speech."

This brings before us a hint of the unknown resources of God, in the matter of punishing those who disobey his will. Who could have thought of this method of scattering the builders of the city? God does not send a fire upon the builders; no terrible plague poisons the air; yet in an instant each workman is at a loss to understand the other, and each considers all the rest as but raving maniacs! Imagine the bewildering and painful scene! Men who have been working by each other"s side, days and weeks, are instantly conscious of inability to understand one another"s speech! New sounds, new accents, new words, but not a ray of intelligence in all! "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the living God." God has innumerable ways of showing his displeasure at human folly and human crime. A man may be pursuing a course of prosperity, in which he is ignoring all that is moral and Divine, and men may be regarding him as the very model of success; yet, in an instant, Almighty God may blow upon his brain, and the unsuccessful man may sit down in a defeat which can never be reversed. God is not confined to one method of punishment. He touches a man"s bones, and they melt! he breathes upon a man"s brain, and henceforth he is not able to think. He comes in at night-time, and shakes the foundations of man"s most trusted towers, and in the morning there is nought but a heap of ruins. He disorganises men"s memories, and in an instant they confuse all the recollection of their lifetime. He touches man"s tongue, and the fluent speaker becomes a stammerer. He breaks the staff in twain, and he who was relying upon it is thrown down in utter helplessness. We know but little of what God means when he says, "Heaven"; that word gives us but a dim hint of the infinite light, and blessedness, and triumph which are in reserve for the good. We have but a poor conception of what God means when he says, "Hell"; that word is but a flickering spark compared with the infinite distress, the endless ruin and torment which must befall every man who defies his Maker.

Speaking of this confusion of language, may I not be permitted to inquire whether even in our own English tongue there is not today very serious confusion? Do men really mean words to be accepted in their plain common-sense? Does not the acute man often tell his untrained client what he intends to do in language which has double meanings? Do we not sometimes utter the words that have one meaning to the world and another meaning to our own hearts? Yea does not always mean yea, nor does nay always mean nay; men sign papers with mental reservations; men utter words in their common meaning, and to themselves they interpret these words with secret significations. The same words do not mean the same thing under all circumstances, and as spoken by different speakers. When a poor man says "rich," he means one thing; when a millionaire says "rich," he means something very different. Let us consider that there is morality even in the use of language. Let no man consider himself at liberty to trifle with the meaning of words. Language is the medium of intercourse between man and Prayer of Manasseh , and on the interpretation of words great results depend. It behoves us, therefore, who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, so to speak as to leave ourselves without the painful reflection of having taken refuge in ambiguous expressions for the sake of saving ourselves from unpleasant results. It will be a sign that God is really with us as a nation, when a pure language is restored unto us—when man can trust the word of Prayer of Manasseh , and depend with entire confidence upon the honour of his neighbour.

What shall we carry away from this meditation? Man must work; but he may work in a wrong spirit and with a wrong intent. We may do the right thing in a wrong way. What we have to beware of is atheistic building! "He builds too low who builds beneath the skies." "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid": "Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone." The word of warning to every man is this, "Let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon." A building may be noble in design, ample in magnitude, commodious and convenient in all its appointments, but the one great question relates to the foundation! Of what value is it that we build loftily and broadly, with an eye to all that is beautiful in proportion, and satisfactory in arrangement, if all the while we are building upon the sand? The fires will come, or the floods will descend, or the great winds will conspire to try our work, and though our work itself suffer loss, we shall be saved if we be resting upon the right foundation which God himself has laid. I have spoken especially of ambition. I have not dissuaded young men from being ambitious; I have rather sought to stimulate them to greater desires and more comprehensive plans. At the same time, I wish to caution them against ambition that is atheistic. You hear of men being the architects of their own fortunes; and there is a sense in which that expression conveys sentiments that are truly laudable. I wish, however, to alter the phraseology; henceforth let us consider God as the Architect of our fortunes, and ourselves but the builders working under his direction. Do not let us seek to be both architect and builder. "In all thy ways acknowledge God, and he will direct thy paths." We shall never be relieved from the discipline of work; the great trials of service will constantly be allotted to us; the one thing to be assured of Isaiah , that we are moving along the designs which God himself has set before us, and then, how stormy soever may be the days in which we labour, and how many soever the difficulties with which we have to contend, the building shall surely be completed, even to the putting on of the top-stone.

Do I immediately speak to any poor crushed Prayer of Manasseh , whose tower during the recent commercial panics has been thrown down to the dust? But a short time ago you had a good social position, you lived in comfort, if not in luxury, your name was a watchword of confidence among men of honour; but today you are surrounded by the ruins of your fortune, and your children are almost reduced to beggary. Let us speak about such matters with all tenderness, yet without shrinking from the moral aspects of life. How was your tower built? Did you build it atheistically? Did you live entirely in the realm of your imagination, losing all self-restraint, and plunging into the most riotous excesses of speculation? If Song of Solomon , the explanation of the throwing down of your tower is not far to seek. On the other hand, if you were building honestly, and have been victimised by evil-minded men, it will one day be shown to you that the destruction of your tower has been ordered by Almighty God, and so sanctified as to bring into your heart a stronger faith, a tenderer love, and a more enduring patience. Do not say that all is lost simply because all is thrown down. The foundation abideth for ever; continue to build upon that, and be assured of the final reward. I do not know but that panics are sent of God himself, often directly, for the chastening and purification of man. Uninterrupted prosperity might prove itself to be the direst affliction which could befall society. Do we know what plagues might be engendered by the continuous shining of a cloudless sun? The high winds which try men"s buildings, and often throw them down, are sent for the cleansing of the air.

Do I speak to any who have but little standing-place in the world,—to men who have never built a city or a tower? Let me say to such, "In my Father"s house are many mansions"! We ourselves may not have built anything that deserves the name of a city or a tower, but Jesus Christ has gone away to prepare a place for us, and we who today are the children of want, having hardly where to lay our head, shall be called into a city of glory. The poor Christian has no reason to be discouraged so far as the great future is concerned; today there is little about him that men may call attractive; today he is the child of want, but insomuch as he is in Jesus Christ he holds a title to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away.

Let us now go out again into the world from hearing the word of the Lord; let us resume our building, and in doing so let us invoke the presence and the guidance of Infinite Wisdom through all the processes of our life. Our business is not to build quickly, but to build upon a right foundation and in a right spirit. Life is more than a mere competition as between man and man; it is not who can be done first, but who can work best; it is not who can rise highest in the shortest time, but who is working most patiently and lovingly in accordance with the designs of God.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/genesis-11.html. 1885-95.

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