The Tower That Fell: Why God Stopped the Building Program

Genesis 11:1-9

September 29, 2002 | Ray Pritchard

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

Think of it! A tower that reaches to the heavens. And we thought that we had big ambitions. This one takes the cake, wins the prize, earns the blue ribbon. One hundred years ago a man named Daniel Burnham laid out the plan for the modern city of Chicago. The beauty of the lakefront with its green space, bike trails, and beaches reflects his vision. He summed up his philosophy in two famous sentences: “Make no small plans. They have no power to stir men’s blood.”

The Tower of Babel was an ancient power game for people who felt the inner need to be Number One.

“Make no small plans.” Good advice if you’re building a world-class city like Chicago. Think big, plan big, dream big. Today Chicago is the largest city between the coasts and is becoming what one writer called a “global city” with a vibrant inner core teeming with millions of eager people who actually enjoy living in the city.

“Make no small plans.” That’s why the Sears Tower dominates the landscape from every angle. And that’s why we have two professional baseball teams to go along with professional football and basketball and hockey. And two world-class private universities plus medical schools and law schools. In an earlier sermon I mentioned that big cities are exciting. This is where the jazz is, the music, the lights, the crowds, the fun. If you’re looking for action, you’d better leave the cornfields and head for the city. Anything you want, you can find in Chicago, somewhere, from someone, if you look long enough, and if you have enough money. Daniel Burnham would be pleased a century later at what Chicago has become. He made no small plans, and those who came after him followed his advice. For better or for worse, this is a city of bigness: big shoulders, big dreams, big business, big problems and big ideas.

“Make no small plans.” Daniel Burnham would have loved the Tower of Babel. That was right down his alley. “Let’s build a tower that reaches into the heavens.” “Great idea. Let’s use bricks instead of stones. That way it will last forever.” “I’ll call the bank and set up the financing. We’ll borrow most of the money at prime plus one and the city council will float a bond issue for the rest. We’ll rent out the lower floor for retail, put families in the middle, and reserve the top floors for multi-national corporations that need a prime location.” “I love it. This tower will stand forever. We’ll be the envy of every city in Mesopotamia. They don’t have anything like this in Nineveh.” “It’s a great idea. People will come from everywhere to see the tower. We can make money leading tours to the top.”

“Make no small plans.” No one ever tried to do anything like this before or since. This was the greatest building program of the ancient world. But the tower they started was stopped by God, and it eventually fell to the ground. Let me repeat that another way. They started the tower, God stopped it, and along the way, he confused their language and scattered the people across the face of the earth.

I. Crucial Background Facts

In order to understand this story, there are a few background facts we need to know. First, the story of the Tower of Babel occurred just a few generations after Noah’s flood. It may have happened 100-150 years later. By this time the population of the world had expanded considerably from just eight people to a much larger number. One writer suggests that there were more than 30,000 people living on earth at the time. Second, in those days everyone spoke the same language. That fact (mentioned in verse 1) is crucial to understanding this passage of Scripture. The human race was united then in a way that has never been repeated since then. A careful student of Scripture may wonder how the whole world could speak one language in Genesis 11 when Genesis 10 specifies that the whole earth was divided into competing tribes and nations, each with its own language or dialect. The answer is that Moses has flip-flopped the narrative in order to highlight the essential problem of the human race. Chronologically, the Tower of Babel story comes before the scattering of the nations in Genesis 10. But Moses reversed the order to emphasize the high cost of rebelling against God. We are supposed to come to the end of Genesis 10 and ask, “How did the world become so hopelessly divided?” Genesis 11 answers that question.

Third, most people lived in the Middle East, in an area called Shinar, which is another name for Babylonia, which is in the region of modern-day Iraq. As the post-flood generations migrated east from Ararat, they settled in the region we now call the “fertile crescent,” a well-watered plain near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Fourth, the tower they built was religious in nature. This fact might not be evident from a quick reading of the text. When this passage is taught in Sunday School, teachers sometimes imply that the people were trying to build a tower all the way to heaven. That’s probably not accurate. It seems more likely that they were building a tower that would bring heaven down to earth. Some writers suggest that the tower was tied to the early development of astrology. They suggest that at the top of the tower was an altar surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, making it an enormous symbol of man’s attempt to control the universe apart from God. This suggestion seems likely since we know that astrology originated in ancient Babylon.

At first glance, the religious nature of the tower they built may seem to make it quite different from modern skyscrapers, but perhaps there really isn’t much difference after all. After the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Twin Towers were described as temples of modern commerce and shrines to the ingenuity and prowess of American technology. But this is not unusual. When we visited Mount Rushmore recently, I noted that it is called “The Shrine of American Democracy.” It should not surprise us that when men build anything great, they invest it with symbolic religious significance. Buildings, statues and monuments all say something about the values of those who build them, and those who support them. The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument say something powerful and positive about the values we hold dear in America. And when you come to Oak Park and hear so much about Frank Lloyd Wright (his studio is located here) and Ernest Hemingway (he was born here and there is a Hemingway Museum that draws thousands of visitors each year), those names tell you something about our values as well.

So it was a tower but it was more than a tower. It was a massive, united effort to bring humanity together wholly apart from God. Is it any wonder that the Lord would not let the tower stand?

II. Two Implications

In his sermon on this text J. I. Packer calls this passage a “mirror of the modern world.” It reveals to us what we might call the power game. The builders of the Tower of Babel had two purposes in mind, both mentioned in verse 4: 1) that we may make a name for ourselves, and 2) that we may not be scattered over the face of the whole earth. The tower was meant to make a statement: “Don’t mess with us. We’re the greatest city on earth. No one is like us. No one can touch us.” How modern that sounds. We live in a world that exalts the superlative. Big, bigger, biggest. Good, better, best. Fast, faster, fastest. Smart, smarter, smartest. Tall, taller, tallest. Rich, richer, richest. We all want to be the “est” if we can. Why be the “er” if you can be the “est”? That’s why we compete, that’s why we keep score. We Americans love a good fight and we love competition and we love to win. Last month the World Basketball Championships were held in Indianapolis. I had absolutely no interest in it whatsoever, but one night I tuned in to watch our US team (made up of second-string NBA players) get beat by a team from Argentina. I found myself cheering for our guys (Get that? Our guys, even though I didn’t know a single name on the team) to beat those other guys from Argentina. Yesterday I went to the Internet to check on the progress of the Ryder Cup matches between the US and Europe. Not that I really care, but, hey, this is for the Red, White and Blue. As Al Davis said, “Just win, Baby.” It’s fun to play, good to compete, and it’s very satisfying to win. Losing stinks. As someone said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” That’s a truly American point of view, but it wouldn’t have been out of place in ancient Babylon.

Architecture is theology. Show me what you build or show me where you live (or where you wish you lived) and I’ll know something about your values. Maybe not everything, but I’ll know something important. The Tower of Babel was an ancient power game for people who felt the inner need to be Number One. They wanted a name, they wanted security and they thought the tower would give them both things.

There are two implications I would pass along for you to think about: First, the compulsive drive for power and prestige stems from our deep-seated fear of dependence on someone else. We want to be the “est” in our field—biggest, strongest, smartest, loudest, richest, fastest—because if we are the “est” then others will have to depend on us, but we won’t have to depend on anyone or anything. As the poet said in words that could have been carved on the Tower of Babel, “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” At this point we need to ponder carefully the implications of this story. Is there anything wrong with building a tower? No. Is there anything wrong with working together to build a tower? No. Is there anything wrong with building the tallest tower on earth? No. Is it wrong to advertise that your tower is the tallest tower on earth? No, but at this point we’re drifting into a danger zone, one that is so subtle that we hardly see it until it captures us completely. Human pride is a tricky thing. Pride is what made Lucifer rebel against God in the first place. Pride was the original sin of the universe. Ambition is not wrong, competition is not wrong, winning isn’t wrong, celebrating your victories is not wrong, being the best is not wrong but it is never entirely innocent either. Sin always lurks in the neighborhood somewhere. And usually not too far away. That’s why Jesus declared that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven (Matthew 19:24). When you’ve got money or power or prestige or fame or friends in high places, you think you don’t need God. But when you’re flat broke and your power is gone and friends won’t return your phone calls, you’re on your knees crying out for mercy.

Jesus showed us the antidote to the hubris that built this ancient tower when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3) Blessed are the losers for they shall win in the end. Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek. The meek! You must be kidding. Who wants to be meek? Meekness is weakness and the weak get crushed. Or do they? “They shall inherit the earth.”

That leads me to the second implication, which is that the compulsive drive for power and security leads to the moral degeneration of the soul. Our desperate search for significance leads us to compromise our values time and again in the name of independence, freedom, and the need to control our own destiny. We want to be like Frank Sinatra and say, “I did it my way,” which perfectly expresses the spirit of Babel. And so we cut corners, use illegal drugs, wink at insider trading, break the rules, lie to our parents, lie to our spouses, lie to our friends, and we end up lying to ourselves. We use people and then discard them when they don’t fit into our plans anymore.

And what seems to be noble turns out to be sinister in the end. There is nothing wrong with a tower and nothing wrong with a good reputation and nothing wrong with working as a team to accomplish a great goal. But when those things are fueled by arrogance, the end result is grotesque and outright evil. The tower becomes a symbol of man’s independence from God. It is humanism in its full flower.

There is a kind of uneasy paranoia about being on the top of the heap. It’s striking that the people of Babel feared being scattered even though there was no reason to fear anything. They were the only people on earth! Still they feared what might happen to them. If you’re a basketball superstar, you have to come back one more time even though you’re only a shell of what you used to be. It’s hard to be Number One; there’s a lot of pressure. Win the championship and after the cheering dies away and the lights are turned off, your prize is likely to be two ulcers, high blood pressure, and a heart attack around the next corner. That’s life in the big city, buster. Get used to it or get out.

Life is hard without God. You end up doing desperate things, like building towers that reach into the heavens. Arrogance makes men think they are invincible. But no one is invincible. Yesterday I read those haunting words from Isaiah 40:6-7, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.” This is a good time of year to ponder those words because the leaves are starting to fall to the ground. That’s all we are—grass that fades and leaves that fall to the ground. Here today, gone tomorrow. We don’t like to hear that we are weak and mortal, but we are. All of us were born to die, some of us just get there sooner, that’s all, but we all get there eventually. Men think, “No one can stop me now. No one can touch me.” But as they say out West, “Ain’t no horse that cain’t be rode, ain’t no cowboy that cain’t be throwed.” That’s bad grammar but good theology. As Teddy Roosevelt remarked, there’s a bear trap waiting for every bear.

We desperately need to take these words to heart because we live in a world that encourages us to think we can do it all. Believe it and achieve it. Dream it and do it. No limits on human potential. But remember this. The next time you feel the need to brag about what you’ve done, pay attention to that faint cracking sound. It’s the thin ice beneath your feet that is about to give way.

And that’s why God stopped the building program. If he let them continue with the tower, they would think they could do anything. So God confounded their language. The pipe fitters couldn’t understand the electricians, who couldn’t understand the truck drivers, who didn’t have a clue what the bricklayers were talking about. And that drove the carpenters nuts. Everyone started talking gibberish, no one understood a thing the others were saying, and soon the massive building program ground to a halt. Then the Lord scattered them across the face of the earth. And do you know what they called the name of that city, the one with the unfinished tower, the one that eventually fell to the ground? They called it “Babel,” which means “confusion.” They called it “Confusion City.” Everyone was babbling at the same time, and it drove everyone nuts so they moved away to get some peace and quiet. And that’s how we got so many different languages.

Here is the ultimate irony: They built the Tower so they wouldn’t be scattered but they ended up scattered anyway. Thus does God judge all human efforts that leave him out. He brings down the high and mighty with a great big thud. Write over this story these words, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1).

III. Three Questions

As we come to the end of this story, there are three questions (suggested by J. I. Packer) that seem to jump out from the text to confront us personally.

First, to what extent do I embody the attitude of Babel? Remember, the problem of the tower was not the tower itself but the attitude that built it in the first place. Anything good can become like the Tower of Babel when we are motivated by pride or arrogance or paranoia or a need to establish our own independence from God and from others. There is a mighty thin line between healthy ambition and sinful pride and any of us can cross it without even knowing it. It’s the compulsive need to be in control of every aspect of life, including those around us. It’s the spirit of Babel that causes us to say, “He’s God in heaven but I’m the God of my own little world.”

Second, in what areas have I experienced the judgment of Babel? In Genesis 11 God judged the people by throwing them into confusion and ruining their massive building program. God does the same thing to us today. We suffer confusion and fear and incredible loneliness in our drive to be the “est” at whatever we do. I heard of a fortune-cookie motto that read: “Confucius say, ‘Top of ladder nice place, but very lonesome.’” How true. Some of us have suffered incredibly because we’re still trying to live according to our own rules. So we push God out to the edges of life and then do our own thing. But you can’t push God to the side and succeed for very long. Your tower will come crashing down sooner or later, and when it does, the shaky foundation of your life will be destroyed with it.

Third, have I embraced the alternative to Babel? There is only one alternative—the Lord Jesus Christ. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).

What shall it profit a man,

What shall it profit a woman,

What shall it profit a company,

What shall it profit a team,

What shall it profit a family,

What shall it profit a leader,

What shall it profit a city,

What shall it profit a nation,

What shall it profit you, if you build a mighty tower with your life and lose your own soul in the process? You can have Babel with all its power games, its moral degeneration, its paranoia, loneliness, despair, and deceptive pleasure. Or you can have Jesus Christ. Those are the choices of life.

At this point the gospel message becomes incredibly relevant to our generation because we too are massive Tower-Builders. We’re ladder-climbers, control freaks, estate-builders, and compulsive overcommitters. We’re looking for love and pleasure and power and purpose and meaning in all the wrong places. We build towers that crumble before our eyes and we wonder what went wrong. We’re too busy building our kingdoms to seek first the Kingdom of God. No wonder we’re frazzled, tired, nervous, uptight, jumpy, irritable, easily distracted, and easily seduced by money, sex and power. When the London Daily Mail asked, “What is wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton wrote back a simple answer; “Dear Sir: I am.” He was right. The Spirit of Babel is not just out there, it’s inside all of us all the time. After I preached this sermon, a good friend sent me an e-mail. He said that I as preached, “I felt uneasy about my ‘towers.’ That’s a good thing. They are heavy burdens.” My friend is a wise man who recognizes that it is very easy to start building “towers” in our own strength and for our own glory. And the tricky part is this. You can’t tell by looking at the tower why it was built. Only the Lord knows the thoughts of the heart. So while we may appear to have everything in order because we are happy and busy and successful, God may know that our towers need to come crumbling to the ground.

The people said, “Come, let’s build.” And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). If you are tired of building castles in the sand only to see them washed away by the tides of life, come to Jesus. If you are weary of trying (and failing) to be the master of your circumstances, come to Jesus. If you are burdened with the pressure of trying to be all things to all people all the time and if you fail to meet your own expectations, much less anyone else’s, come to Jesus. If you are worn out from the fruitless search for power and prestige, come to Jesus. Here is a word for frustrated tower-builders everywhere. If you are tired of your life and want something better, come to Jesus. All that hungry hearts seek is found in him. By his death on the cross our sins are forgiven. By his resurrection we gain new life. Do you know him? Has your heart been changed by his mighty power? If you are tired of building towers that fall to the ground, come to Jesus. He’s the firm foundation, the cornerstone that can never be shaken. Build your life on Jesus Christ and you will never be disappointed. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?