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Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae

Genesis 11

 

 

Verses 4-8

DISCOURSE: 18

CONFUSION OF TONGUES

Genesis 9:4-8. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

THERE are many things observable in the world, of which neither reason nor history enables us to give any account. One would naturally suppose that Noah and his family speaking the same language, their children should speak the same; and that the same would be transmitted to their latest posterity. Small alterations might be expected to arise; but they would only be different dialects of the same language. But instead of this, there are hundreds of different languages in the world. Even in this island there are no less than three. Learned men have indeed endeavoured to trace various languages to one; but though by their efforts they have displayed their own ingenuity, they have never been able to establish their hypothesis. The true origin of this diversity of languages is revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. In the passage before us we are informed respecting the time and manner and occasion of their first introduction. The descendants of Noah were building a city and tower in order to prevent that dispersion of their families, which God had ordained for the replenishing of the earth: and God, in righteous displeasure, confounded their languages, so that they could not understand each other: by this means they were necessitated to relinquish their project, and to fulfil the designs of his overruling Providence.

In our observations on the history of these builders we shall notice,

I. Their intentions—

It does not appear that they designed to fortify themselves against another deluge; for then they would have built on a mountain rather than a plain.—They had principally two things in view:

1. The advancement of their own honour—

[They said, “Go to, let us make ourselves a name.” They thought that by raising this city they should immortalize themselves, and be famed for their wisdom and energy to the remotest generations. And here we see the principle which actuates all the world. What is it but the desire of fame which impels the warrior to the field of battle? What has greater influence on the philosopher, or more forcibly animates him in his researches after knowledge? What is it that actuates the rich in constructing and decorating their spacious edifices, but a desire to display their taste and opulence? Even the charitable are too often under the influence of this motive. To this, in many instances, must be ascribed the founding of colleges, or endowing of hospitals, or contributing to the support of established institutions. If, in any public charity, the publishing of the names of its supporters were to be discontinued, a difference would soon be found in the amount of the contributions. Would to God we could exempt the professors of religion also from this imputation! Where the heart is really right with God, it is on its guard against this base principle; but there are too many hypocrites, whose chief aim is to be accounted religious, and to be admired either for their talents or their virtues. There will at times be a mixture of principle in the best of men, which it is the labour of their lives to detect and rectify: and there is in all who are truly conscientious a commendable desire to approve themselves to their fellow-creatures in the discharge of their several duties. It is not in reference to either of these that we now speak. It is rather in reference to those in whom the love of fame has a predominant ascendancy: of them we say, as of the builders of Babel, that they are the objects of God’s just and heavy displeasure [Note: See this exemplified in Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:30-31.) Herod (Acts 12:22-23.) and even the pious Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:13-18.)].]

2. The gratification of their own wishes—

[God had ordered that the survivors of the deluge should “increase and multiply, and replenish the earth [Note: Genesis 9:1.].” Of course, if the whole earth was to be re-peopled, the rising generations must gradually enlarge their borders, with a view to occupy every quarter of the globe. But the builders of Babel thought that such a dispersion would deprive them of many comforts, and be attended with many inconveniences. As for the divine will, they were not much concerned about it: all they thought of was, their own ease and pleasure: and if obedience to God stood in competition with the gratification of their own wishes, they did not hesitate to sacrifice duty to inclination.

In this respect their example is very generally followed. God has prescribed a line of conduct to us which is difficult and self-denying. He requires us to sit loose to the vanities of this world, and to seek our rest and happiness above. This but ill suits our earthly and sensual dispositions. Hence we choose not to submit to such restraints: we think we are at liberty to please ourselves: we pronounce the commands of God to be unnecessarily strict and severe: we content ourselves with such a conformity to them as will consist with the indulgence of our own desires: and we prosecute our plans without any reference to His will, or any subjection to His control.

Look at the young, the gay, the worldly, the ambitious; and say whether they be not all treading in the steps of these infatuated builders? Say whether they do not systematically shun a life of self-denial, and follow their own inclinations rather than the commands of God?

How offensive such a life is to God we may collect from those declarations of the apostle, That “to be carnally-minded is death,” and that “they who are in the flesh cannot please God [Note: Romans 8:6; Romans 8:8.].”]

Since their purpose was directly opposite to God’s decree, we shall not wonder at,

II. Their disappointment—

God in this place, as also in several other places, speaks in the plural number; “Let US go down [Note: Genesis 1:26; Genesis 3:22.].” By this form of expression he gave, it should seem, an early intimation of the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity, which was afterwards to be more clearly revealed. Moreover, speaking after the manner of men, he represents himself as coming down from heaven to inspect their work, and as feeling an apprehension, that, if he did not interrupt its progress, his own plans respecting the dispersion of mankind would be defeated. He then declares his determination to frustrate their design, and to accomplish his own purposes, by confounding their language.

Now in this their disappointment it will be profitable to notice.

1. The time—

[God interrupted them in the midst of all their hopes and projects. They had made considerable progress in their work, and were, doubtless, anticipating the satisfaction they would feel in its completion. And thus it is that the expectations of those who are seeking their happiness in this world are generally disappointed. They form their plans; they prosecute their designs; they advance in their prospects; partial success animates them to a more diligent pursuit of their favourite object: but sooner or later God stops them in their career, and says to them, “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee.” “When they are saying, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as a thief in the night, or as travail upon a woman with child.”]

2. The manner—

[The means which God used to stop the progress of the work was the most unlooked for that can be imagined. The people engaged in it might conceive it possible that they should be stopped by quarrels amongst themselves, or by another deluge, or by fire from heaven; but they could never entertain the remotest idea of such an interruption as they experienced. And thus does God generally interpose to disappoint the expectations of worldly men. He has ten thousand ways in which to render their plans abortive, or to embitter to them the very things in which they have sought their happiness. We have laboured for honour and distinction: he suffers us perhaps to attain our wishes; and then makes our elevation a source of nothing but disquietude and pain. Many have looked for enjoyment in the acquisition of a partner or a family; who after a time would give the world perhaps to loose the indissoluble knot, or to have been “written childless in the earth.” In short, the Governor of the Universe is never at a loss for means to confound the devices of the wise, or frustrate the counsels of the ungodly.

Moreover, as the disappointment of the builders was strange and unlooked for, so was it in a way that perpetuated their disgrace. The building which they had raised would, for many centuries perhaps, be a witness against them: every time also that they opened their lips, they would be reminded of their folly and wickedness by the very language which they spoke: and as long as the world shall stand, the different nations of the earth will exhibit the sad effects of their impiety, the indelible records of their shame.

And where can we turn our eyes without seeing memorials of human folly, and evidences, that all creature-confidences are vain? Ask the aged, and they will testify; inquire even of the young, and they will confess; that the creature, however fair its appearance or promising its aspect, is only “a broken cistern which can hold no water.” All of them, both rich and poor, “have gone to it with their vessels, and come away ashamed [Note: Jeremiah 14:3.].” They renew indeed their applications from time to time; but only to experience repeated disappointments. There are but few who have not found their cup, notwithstanding its occasional sweets, so distasteful on the whole, that they are almost weary of the world by the time that they have half completed their destined course. And the more eager they have been in their pursuit of earthly good, the more painfully have they been made to feel, that it was all “vanity and vexation of spirit.”

If we look into the eternal world, what monuments shall we there find of disappointed ambition! What multitudes are there, who once said, ‘I aspire after happiness; I shall find it in the attainment of wealth, and in the gratifications of sense!’ They passed their time in dreaming of happiness which they never realized; and knew not that they had been dreaming, till “they awoke to shame and everlasting contempt.” And though, while in this world they justified their choice, they themselves will to all eternity be witnesses for God, acknowledging the folly of their former conduct, and the justice of their present doom.]

We cannot conclude without OBSERVING,

1. How awfully do we at this moment suffer under the curse inflicted on them!

[Difference of language has not only placed obstacles in the way of commercial intercourse, but has given occasion to contiguous or distant nations to consider each other as enemies. Moreover, it has been the means of excluding the greater part of the world from all the advantages of revelation. And if a benevolent person, desirous of diffusing the knowledge of Christ among the heathen, engage in the arduous undertaking, he must first lose several years before he can attain a competent knowledge of the languages in which he is to address them: even then he labours under the greatest disadvantages in speaking to them; and, after all, he must limit his exertions to two or three nations at the uttermost. Multitudes there are who would gladly encounter labour and fatigue in the service of their fellow-creatures; but they are discouraged by these difficulties, and are compelled to restrain their benevolent wishes through a conscious incapacity to carry them into effect. Nor is this all: for the unlearned of our own nation sustain incalculable loss through the introduction of foreign words, and foreign idioms, into our own language; insomuch that, if they hear a discourse that has been penned for the edification of the learned, the preacher is, in fact, “a barbarian to them,” almost as much as if he spoke in another language.

Suffering thus as we do for the transgression of those builders, we ought at least to shun a repetition of their sins, and to humble ourselves before God for all the pride and worldliness of our hearts.]

2. How graciously has God blended mercy with judgment!

[When the plan of salvation was perfected, and the time for the more extensive propagation of the Gospel was arrived, God inspired holy men, without any previous instruction, to speak all manner of languages, and to diffuse the knowledge of the truth through all nations; that as by the division of tongues he had dispersed men through the earth, so by the gift of tongues “he might gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad [Note: Acts 2:3-6 with John 11:52.].” The end of that gift having been in a measure attained, and the gift itself withdrawn, he stirred up men of learning and piety in different countries to translate the Scriptures into their respective languages, so that the unlearned might read them in the language which they understood. “What do we of this nation owe to God, and, under God, to our Reformers, for giving us the Bible in our own tongue! If the volume of inspiration were locked up in the languages in which it was first written, how deplorable would be our state! Oh, never, never can we be sufficiently thankful that the fountains of divine knowledge are open and accessible to all!

Moreover, though the languages of men are still different, there is a language in which all the children of God throughout the earth agree,—the language of the heart. As far as respects the work of God upon their souls, they all speak precisely the same thing. Sighs and groans and tears are universally the expressions of their sorrow on account of sin. They all agree in exalting Christ as “their wisdom, their righteousness, their sanctification, and their complete redemption.” They glory in Him, and in him alone. They are indeed Barbarians to the ignorant ungodly world, who are ready to say of them as the Jews did of the Apostles, “These men are full of new wine,” they are foolish, they are mad. But they understand each other: though brought from the most distant parts of the earth, there will be found such an agreement between them, as will unite their hearts to each other in the closest bonds of love. What was said of them before their dispersion, may be said of them now again, “They are all one, and they have all one language.” Though Egyptians by nature, they have learned the language of Canaan [Note: Isaiah 19:18.], and are again united in building an edifice that shall last for ever.

Let us then bless our God for these rich mercies; and from being “strangers and foreigners, let us seek to become fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.”]

 


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Bibliography Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/shh/genesis-11.html. 1832.

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