“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.” – Genesis 11:4
With the story of the Tower of Babel all readers of the Bible are familiar. It is one of the Divine allegories of the opening chapters of the Bible and is, of course, not literally true. But even in the letter it presents a striking picture of self-love, and explains why people fail in heavenly attainment and become confused in their vain attempts to find the satisfying life and power.
There are three levels of meaning within the letter of the Word. The meaning next within the letter is the story of the spiritual development of the human race. The story of the Tower of Babel tells of the end of the Ancient Church. In its beginning this church was faithful to the Lord and to the revelation given to it – the Ancient Word, to which reference is made in our Bible. The story begins: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” – of one faith in general and in particular. But the people did not continue to dwell together in unity. “They journeyed from the east” until they came to a valley. Spiritually the east, where the sun rises, means near to the Lord. Of the Holy City it is written, “The glory of the Lord did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”
Their journeying from the east and going down to the valley of Shinar pictures turning from the Lord and descending into the valley of self-love, self-thought, and strife. They had been living on the mountain top near to the Lord. Now in the valley they are attempting to build the very mountain from which they had descended, using brick for stone, and slime for mortar.
As we descend into the valley of self-life, we feel that we must build the tower of our fame and gain power and dominion, and achieve these by our own thoughts and desires. This is the burnt brick, our own thoughts and imaginings derived from the love of self.
And slime for mortar! Love to the Lord and to the neighbor is the mortar which binds men together, cementing genuine truths into a living faith. Slime is self-love.
The story is a picture of man’s departing from love to the Lord and turning to self, relying upon himself, and endeavoring to attain his goals by worldly loves and self-derived thoughts.
Critics of the Bible say that no people could be so foolish as to leave the mountains and choose a valley in which to build a tower whose top was to reach to heaven. Yet many of them are today striving to do just this. Discarding the Word, they try by means of their own reason to make a name for themselves and to gain dominion. They say that the Word is the product of man’s striving after God, that the universe is self-created, that man civilizes himself. What towers of Babel these are! They are constructed of man-made brick, of self-derived intelligence, cemented into systems of thought by the slime of self-admiration.
And the result is confusion of tongues, conflicting doctrines, and the strife of men. They do not understand one another. They do not agree. They become confused. The tower they construct does not give them the power they expect. The secrets of life are as far away as ever. So they conclude, “I do not know; you do not know; nobody knows. There is no use trying.” And, like those builders of old, leave off building.
When one recedes from the Lord and His Word, he soon exhausts his own resources and comes into complete discouragement, and there is left not so much as an effort to try. This is the end of everyone who journeys away from the Lord and seeks to build a tower of faith from the valley into which human nature has descended.
The Psalmist writes: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together: Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord.” Contrast this city on the mountain and its temple made of stone – truths of the Word – and containing the ark of God with Babel in the valley and its tower of burnt brick built by man that he might reach up to heaven and gain dominion over all things. Is not Babel a counterfeit?
What do Zion and the Holy City mean to us? What is it to be born in Zion? Zion represents a heavenly state of life, near to the Lord. The ascent to the mountain of the Lord by the tribes of Israel pictures the spiritual ascent in our own lives to the mountain top of righteousness, where we worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. In contrast, the man-made tower of Babel is a picture of man-worship, of man’s efforts from the love of self to build his own heaven, a picture of self-love exalting itself until it aspires to gain dominion over all things of earth and of heaven. The words of Lucifer describe these same strivings, which have their origin in the love of self: “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.”
As mount Zion is a picture of a life close to the Lord, in communion with Him, and under His protection and peace, so the tower of Babel is the representation of the man who denies the Lord, lives from and for self, and who exalts his self-derived intelligence above the things of the Word and the church.
Some have taken the story of the Tower of Babel literally and have even identified an ancient structure as this tower. This tends to make the building of the Tower of Babel a thing of the past, of only historical interest. But people today are burning these brick and building with slime for mortar. There is still in the human heart the same disposition to build for oneself a city of doctrine and a tower of faith. Men still build with the same purpose of being sufficient unto themselves, gaining fame in their own power, and making their own heaven. We need not search for a material tower built long ago, for if we look into our own hearts, we can find it there.
Knowing this we should resist every tendency to construct for ourselves a way of life independently of the Lord, every inclination to achieve in our own strength, every desire to subvert heavenly things to our own wills. For this is our natural inclination. To be born in Zion is to be born again, to be regenerated, to build with truths as they are found in the Word, no matter how much they may controvert our own thoughts and desires. Our journey should be not away from but toward the Lord. And as we in humility seek to follow Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word, He will lead us up out of every valley and bring us to the mountain top. For He alone can give dominion, power, and peace.
“Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”