The Tower of Babel and Human Religion

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

Humans like to build, and the bigger, the better.

At some point between the Flood and Abraham, all humanity came together on the plain of Shinar, in modern-day Iraq, and decided to build a city and a large tower. The endeavor did not end well: God confused the language of humanity, and they stopped building their tower. The place would be known as Babel, or Confusion, because of these events (Genesis 11:1-9).

Even though the Tower of Babel was not a completely fulfilled project, it still stood there, a monument to human endeavor in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, those scattered in Mesopotamia built cities: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, among others (cf. Genesis 10:8-12). Those cities would feature a large building in the middle which we today call ziggurats: large step pyramids which were used, as far as we can tell, as temples and as a high place upon which to make offerings to the gods of Sumer and Akkad. Meanwhile, in Egypt, kings would soon begin to build larger and larger pyramids as tombs for themselves and their families, believing that these large structures would help the soul of the king to reach the heavens.

The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt would become famous monuments. Everyone in the Bible from Abraham to Malachi would have at least heard of the ziggurats and pyramids, and many saw them. We can only imagine how impressive these monuments would have seemed in their younger days; the pyramids are still magnificent despite the ravages of time. They certainly would have projected strength and an air of magnificence. Surely these nations were mighty; surely their gods were strong.

And yet, how many of the Israelites, when hearing about and/or seeing these monuments, thought of the story of the Tower of Babel, and of its ultimate end?

ziggurats and pyramids were influenced by the Tower of Babel; perhaps the Tower of Babel was even considered the first ziggurat. Understood in this way, we can see how the Tower of Babel both explains and is a critique of human religion.

As Paul explains in Romans 1:18-25, when humans no longer give God the Creator the glory due Him, they become futile in their thinking and their hearts are darkened. They turn and give the creation the honor due the Creator. This mentality is on full display on the plain of Shinar. Humans find themselves in a big, lonely world, and do not want to be scattered over its face. Meanwhile, they still search for meaning and value in life. As opposed to honoring God by fulfilling His commandments and giving Him the honor, they instead stay together contrary to His command and work to build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves, not for God. Even after their original plan was frustrated, they kept at it in their new locations, building towers and other large structures.

These structures took on religious meaning and significance. The logic is the same as the use of the high place: the higher the altitude we reach, we imagine, the closer to the divine we get. The Canaanites would imagine that their gods lived on top of the large mountains in their land; the Greeks believed their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Therefore, it was necessary to get up high to present offerings to them or to reach them. And how better to climb up than to build a structure that climbs high into the heavens?

While these structures had religious significance, the glory and honor still went to the nations who built them. To this day we remember the pyramids more as an astonishing feat of engineering accomplished by the “god-like” kings of Egypt than as anything relating to their religion. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia would have made quite the impression on people as well; we can only imagine how the Israelites in exile would have reacted to see such large buildings and the power being projected by the empires which built them. It suddenly becomes clearer why so many started following after those gods: it certainly seemed as if they and the people who built those structures had all the power.

Therefore, human religion seems so powerful, wonderful, and glorious. But it cannot save and is ultimately futile. All such effort is in vain!

The power of God receives testimony from man’s search for meaning and value in life, but it is vain and futile to imagine that we can discover God “out there.” Paul demolished all such thinking when he declared that God is actually not very far from us at all, for in Him we live, move, and exist (Acts 17:26-28). We reach out in vain, trying to please the divine the best we think we know how, but ultimately that can never be enough: we cannot be justified or made righteous on our own by our own effort (Romans 3:20). Even if God is as close as He is far away, we cannot bridge the divide separating us, no matter how much human religion would like to think it can (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Instead, God bridged the gap in Himself. Man, according to his religion, tries to build up to reach the heavens; God, in humility, came to earth as a man, lived as a man, and died as a man (Philippians 2:5-11). Through the God-man Jesus humans can find true religion through reconciliation with God (Romans 5:6-11); it does not involve any elevation, any building, any attempt to reach up by our own unaided efforts to find what we are seeking. We grope and grasp for truth and discover that it has always been here the whole time, reaching out to us (cf. Revelation 3:20-21).

The Tower of Babel was a monument to human pretension, man’s attempt to make a name for himself. Human religion, in its own way, has the same goal: seeking the divine on man’s terms, creating gods in his own image and according to his own fancy, and it all ultimately is designed to glorify himself. Yet such pursuits are in vain. The Tower of Babel no longer exists. The ruins of the ziggurats were discovered by European archaeologists who believed in the God of Israel, the glory of those empires long faded. The pyramids sit in Egypt as ruins, pillaged for stone in medieval days in order to build the old city in Cairo. Few honor the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

We should not imagine that times are altogether different now. We still have human religion with gods made according to man’s fancy. We have large buildings which stand as testimonies to the gods of today: money, power, fame, and so on. Nations build ever larger buildings, attempting to get greater glory and to seem important, a projection of strength. And it will happen to all these nations, buildings, and gods as it happened to the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. They will pass away, Their religion will not satisfy and will fail.

Meanwhile, the name of Jesus is still on the lips of untold thousands, heard everywhere. The Gospel remains powerful, the only antidote to human religion. Human religion projects strength; God came as Christ in weakness. Human religion vaunts itself; Jesus was humble (Matthew 20:25-28). Human religion seeks its own end; Jesus gave up all things to glorify His Father and accomplish His purposes (John 5:19-24, 30-47, Philippians 2:5-11). According to human religion, man seeks to use his power to save himself; in Christ, we learn that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, and so we must yield and submit ourselves to God so that we can work in Him according to all that He has prepared for us (Philippians 2:12-13).

We have a choice: the Tower of Babel or the Temple of Jesus. The former seems glorious but fades and collapses; the latter seems weak but is truly strong and will endure. Let us choose to follow Jesus and become part of His body, His temple, and honor and glorify God in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Tower of Babel and Human Religion

A King of Their Own Making

Jesus therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15).

It seemed as if everything was working out the way it should.

Jesus had come as the Messiah, the Son of God and God the Son (John 1:1-51). The angels spoke of His kingship from His birth (cf. Luke 1:32-33, 2:11). He was going about doing signs and wonders, healing people, and most recently fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fishes (cf. John 2:1-6:13). The people perceived that He was the Prophet who was to come into the world: this is the Messiah (John 6:14)! They wanted to make Him their king!

Jesus knew this, and yet Jesus withdrew from them (John 6:15). At what would seem to be the crowning moment of His ministry, He goes alone to the mountain.

So why would Jesus avoid being made king if He came to be the King of the Jews? The answer, in a sense, comes from Jesus’ response: He withdraws to the mountain by Himself, praying to His Father (Matthew 14:23). He is seeking to do the will of His Father, and takes His cues from God, not man.

This is certainly not the way things normally work in the world. Today we see no end of people who try to obtain fame, glory, and honor through almost any means available. Positive publicity, negative publicity, whatever: as long as there is publicity, things seem to be good. We can only imagine how our modern media environment would have handled Jesus, His story, and His work had He come today as opposed to two thousand years ago. Perhaps there was good reason why the first century was the appropriate time!

Yet Jesus acutely understands the main challenge with the way worldly fame and fortune works: when one becomes famous, one loses control. When one obtains a great fortune, in a sense, one loses control. To obtain power may seem like getting control, but in a real sense, one loses control of one’s image and direction. One’s persona starts being fashioned by those who have made them famous, prosperous, and/or powerful.

Had Jesus submitted to the will of the people, He would have become a king in their own making. The Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and rid them of the Romans and re-establish the Davidic monarchy centered in Jerusalem. There would have been little tolerance for Jesus’ real purpose and what the Father sought for Him to do in that environment and with those expectations. He did not come to be the Messiah of the people’s imagination; He came to be the Messiah of whom God had spoken who would fulfill God’s purposes.

God’s path for Jesus and His Lordship would prove much tougher: He lived humbly, served others, was arrested, suffered greatly, and was executed as a common criminal, raised in power on the third day, ascended to Heaven after another forty days, and His rule would be proclaimed by His twelve followers and those who took up their cross to follow after Jesus because of that proclamation. His Kingdom would become more substantial and real because it was not physically substantial; His rule was more certain because it derived from God in Heaven and not from the whim and dictates of man. By withdrawing from the people, He reconnects with the Father and maintains His integrity and the distinctiveness of His purpose and proclamation.

There is much we can gain from Jesus’ example. We find ourselves constantly tempted and pressured to live our lives according to the way the world works. It is tempting to want to gain prominence so as to serve Jesus on a grander scale. But when we try to do so according to the ways of the world, we lose control of our image and the story which we are trying to tell; it becomes the possession of the media, our society and culture, or other forces, and it gets distorted into the story they want to tell. There are moments when it is best for us to withdraw and commune with God in Christ, maintaining our integrity and distinctiveness of the Gospel message which we seek to proclaim. There is always value and wisdom in seeking to proclaim the message of Christ the way He would want us to proclaim it, and to live the Way of Christ according to the way He would have us live it (cf. 1 John 2:1-6). In all things we ought to be rooted in Jesus and take our direction from Him (Colossians 2:1-10).

The Israelites wanted to make Jesus a king of their own making according to their own desires; Jesus resisted this, choosing the harder but ultimately more satisfying path of being the King according to God’s desire. As His servants, let us always proclaim and magnify Him in His own way, and let us not allow ourselves or others to turn Jesus into a king or other figure of their own making for their own purposes. Jesus is Lord, not us, and let us honor Him properly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A King of Their Own Making

The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom

I communed with mine own heart, saying, “Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18).

We have a love-hate relationship with the Preacher and his message. We really cannot deny its substantive truth, but that does not mean that we have to like it. The idea that our lives “under the sun,” on the whole, is absurd, is deeply troubling to us. Yet the facts are in: all who live die, no matter how virtuous or sinful; you can accumulate much or little and you still cannot take it with you; despite our lofty rhetoric, generations still come and go, and most end up forgotten. And, perhaps most frustratingly for modern man, the pursuit of pleasures never end in true satisfaction.

Yet, in the face of all of this, many still want to redeem the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yes, people understand that satisfying desires for food, sex, money, fame, and the like ultimately do not satisfy, but there is the expectation that there will be some satisfaction in wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is deemed power; thus, the idea is, the more knowledge, the more power. Wisdom is understood also as a benefit to people, and if it is good for us, then more of it should make things better!

But the Preacher has some bad news for us. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge does not fare any better than the pursuit of other pleasures. Too much knowledge, or too much wisdom, can cause as many problems as too little.

There is a reason for the saying that ignorance is bliss. If we suggest it as an absolute truth we are foolish, for there are some things we ought to know and with which we must come to grips– God’s will, our ultimate fates in the flesh, the skills of our profession, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, there are plenty of times when we feel cursed because of some knowledge we have gained or some wisdom we have understood. We feel that we would have been better off without that knowledge or wisdom. In those circumstances, ignorance is bliss.

Knowledge, for its part, often complicates. More fortunate and blessed are those who trust, say, in the divine operation and sustenance of the universe than those who end up rejecting the existence of God because of the challenges and doubts raised in investigating the nature of that operation. While it is true that challenges and doubts sometimes occur because of ignorance, they far too often are the result of digging too deeply into certain subjects concerning which we humans will never truly understand (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17). Not a few heresies and false teachings have been launched on account of people professing “advanced knowledge” of things they really do not understand (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21), or on account of conundrums that come up because of deep investigation of an easily comprehensible statement. Forests are too often missed not just because of trees but because of bark patterns on particular trees!

We honor and praise wisdom, and we are right to do so, since folly should never be in style. But wisdom also has its dark side, and the Preacher understands this all too well. In his wisdom he plumbs the depth of the human experience and feels compelled to come to grips with its ultimate futility. We can experience his grief as he recognizes that the wise and the fool have the same end (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16), or that the fruit of his efforts will enrich another (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). He desires what we desire– the ultimate justification of the wise and virtuous life– and yet is pained by the absurdity of life, where the wicked often prosper to the detriment of the righteous and all meet the same fate (Ecclesiastes 8:14). How much of what we call “wisdom” does not really taste sweet but bitter!

This is quite distressing to us, and yet it remains a good warning. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is to be considered as the pursuit of personal gain and satisfaction. It is not wrong to seek knowledge, wisdom, gain, and satisfaction, and they can provide much good. To believe, however, that any such thing represents the Ultimate Ideal in life is utterly misguided. We internally know, even if we do not always act appropriately on the basis of this knowledge, that money and pleasure is not everything in life or the ultimate goal in life. We must learn the same lesson about knowledge and wisdom. Instead, the Ultimate Ideal and goal in life is God and godliness, and we do well to revere Him and serve Him (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Just as we direct our pursuits of material resource and satisfaction in life toward His purposes and for His advantage, so must we direct our pursuits of knowledge and wisdom. And, just as we know that gain and satisfaction are not God, so too must we know that knowledge and wisdom are not God. There is an end to what we can know and understand, and we must trust in His understanding and His goodness (Deuteronomy 29:29).

To have knowledge and wisdom from God is good. To believe that knowledge and wisdom are the ultimate ideals and end is folly. Let us keep wisdom and knowledge in perspective and trust in and serve God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom