We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.
Overcoming Monolingualism 06 - Language: Blessing or Curse? (Genesis 11:1-9)
Despite the abundance of secular theories about how language came into existence, from the beginning we find a speaking God who created speaking beings in his image by his own powerful word. “Now, the whole earth had one language and the same words...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’” (Gen. 11:1,3 ESV). These human words of pride and rebellion against God’s decree to fill the earth come out of mouths that were still speaking the same language.
So, it would seem then that God’s coming down and confusing their languages (v.7) was a curse for their collective disobedience. But perhaps we should not be too hasty. Prof. William Osborne notes that “the divine action was both an act of judgment and an act of grace” (1). Certainly, God’s action was a form of judgment for he was counteracting their sinful disobedience. But it was also an act of grace as God removed the unifying factor that allowed them to perpetuate this sin of disobeying his command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28 & 9:1).
One might postulate that if men had been faithful to God’s decree after the flood and spread throughout the earth that languages and culture might have developed on their own as a manifold display of God’s creative work in making man in his image. But such is not the heart of fallen man. Even still, God’s purpose to be glorified by every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9) would not be thwarted. Pastor John writes,
“When God permits a thing he does so for a reason. And that reason is part of a plan. God does not act whimsically or haphazardly or aimlessly. So when he permits this spectacular sin of the pride and presumption and rebellion on the plains of Shinar, he knows exactly what he is doing and what his response to it will be. Which means that the peoples and languages of the world are not an afterthought. They are the judgment of God on sin, and at the same time they are designed by God for the global glory of Jesus Christ” (2)
So, as men and women redeemed from our fallen state and destined for this multi-cultural worship of God in heaven, what ought be our approach to language learning? Let me suggest three simple aspects:
- Recognize the incredible complexity of God’s creativity as you acquire a new tongue.
- Remember the self-exalting attitude that precipitated such diversity of speech and guard against it in your own heart through this process.
- Rejoice in the grace of God towards man and use this new language to express it in worship and witness.
(1) Osborne, William. “Babel.” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker. IVP: Downers Grove, 2003. Pages 73-75.
(2) Piper, John. Link to Sermon