The last time we were studying the book of Genesis on a Sunday evening, we were looking at the second half of Genesis 9 where we read about what Noah and his sons did after the flood. And do you remember how I was able to point out some similarities between what Adam did in the Garden of Eden and what Noah did following the flood? In the Garden of Eden, Adam sinned by taking the forbidden fruit. And, after the flood, Noah sinned by getting drunk on the fruit from his own vineyard. After Adam sinned, he was ashamed of his nakedness. And after Noah sinned, he lay naked in his tent. And just as the Devil brought this shame on Adam by tempting him, so Noah’s son, Ham, aggravated the shame of his nakedness by telling his brothers about it. But then, just as the Lord covered over Adam’s nakedness, so Noah’s other two sons covered up his nakedness and they covered his shame.
So, there are these similarities, or parallels, between the story of Adam and the story of Noah. And it’s a reminder to us that though the Lord had wiped the world clean with the flood, and though it was as if he was starting over again, the world God had made was still being spoiled by our sin.
But the last time we also went on to think about the way Noah pronounced a curse on Ham and his descendants and a blessing on Shem and Japheth and their descendants. And I suggested that Noah was speaking prophetically because by cursing Ham and his descendants Noah was foretelling how the Canaanites, descended from Ham, would eventually be destroyed by God for their sin and rebellion. And Noah was speaking prophetically because by blessing Shem and Japheth he was speaking of the time which was coming when believing Jews, descended from Shem, and believing Gentiles, descended from Japheth, would be united together in the church of Jesus Christ. Noah announced in verse 27 that Japheth will live in the tents of Shem. And by this he was speaking of how Jewish and Gentile believers will come together in the church, united together by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And, of course, ultimately Noah was speaking of the time when all those who refuse to repent and believe will be condemned and punished for ever and ever; whereas all of those who repent and believe will be brought into the presence of God, and together we’ll be united around the throne of God and we’ll worship him in that eternal peace and rest which he promises to all who trust in his Son.
So, that’s what we were thinking about the last time. In today’s passage — and we’re going to be thinking about the whole of chapters 10 and 11 — we’ve got two genealogies at the beginning and the end, and sandwiched in the middle is the story of the Tower of Babel. So, in chapter 10 we have a list of the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth. Then, in the first 9 verses of chapter 11 we have the story of Babel. And then, in the second half of chapter 11 we have another list of names, but this time the focus is on the descendants of Shem. And we’re going to be thinking about those three parts this evening.
So, first of all, we have the list of the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth. However, you might have noticed that the order is altered. Whereas the brothers are normally named in the order: Shem, Ham and Japheth, here we have the sons of Japheth first, followed by the sons of Ham, followed by the sons of Shem. No one is entirely sure why the brothers are put in this order in this chapter, but perhaps Shem’s descendants are listed last because Shem’s family becomes the most important family. You see, from out of Shem’s family will come Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And from the people of Israel there will come, eventually, Jesus Christ the Son of God. So, perhaps the descendants of Shem are listed last because they’re the most important ones.
Now, if you cast your eye over the names, some of them might be familiar to you. For instance, in verse 6 we have the sons of Ham: Cush and Mizraim (that is, Egypt) and Put and Canaan. These are the names of nations which are mentioned throughout the Old Testament. Look down to verse 10 and it mentions Babylon. Nineveh is mentioned in verse 11. In verse 15, it mentions the Jebusites — the Jebusites lived in the city of Jerusalem until King David captured it. In verse 21 we’re told that Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber. Now, from the name ‘Shem’ we get the word ‘Semite’ or ‘semitic’. And from the name ‘Eber’ we get the word ‘Hebrew’. The Hebrew people came from Shem. And the point of all this is simply to say that some of the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth are well-known to us from our knowledge of the Old Testament. Many of these names will crop up again, many times, in the Bible.
But the most significant thing about this genealogy in chapter 10 is that it speaks to us of God’s common grace. Now I’ve mentioned before the distinction between God’s particular, or special, grace and his common grace. His particular grace, or his special grace, is his kindness towards his people which leads to our salvation. So, we say that by grace alone, God pardons our sins and he accepts us as righteous in his sight. We didn’t deserve this, but God has done it for us because of his sheer kindness towards us. That’s his particular, or his special, grace and it refers to his kindness in saving us from our sins and giving us eternal life.
But his common grace is his universal kindness towards all that he has made. Because of the fall, and because of our own personal sinfulness, we deserve nothing from God apart from condemnation. He would be perfectly justified in withholding all of his good gifts from us, because, as sinners, we deserve nothing from him. But because of God’s common grace — his kindness towards all that he has made — he continues to supply us with what we need and he fills our lives with good things every day. He does this for his own believing people. But he also does it for those who have never believed. He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the wicked, as well as the good. Because of his common grace, God does good to all that he has made.
And we’ve seen God’s particular grace and his common grace in the story of Noah. We saw his particular grace to Noah and his family in the fact that the Lord saved them from the flood. He could have destroyed Noah and his sons in the flood along with everyone else. But, because of his kindness to them, he rescued them. That’s his particular grace to that one family.
But we also see God’s common grace, because once Noah and his family had come out of the ark, the Lord promised:
While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.
In other words, God promised to preserve life on the earth despite our sin and wickedness. Despite all the things which people do every day, God preserves the world and he upholds life on the planet by causing the seasons to change and the harvest to grow.
So, what’s that got to do with Genesis 10? Well, here’s the thing: Genesis 10 also speaks to us of God’s common grace because here we read how Noah’s sons were able to multiply and fill the earth. From these three sons of Noah, there came many, many nations to fill the earth. In other words, the Lord sustained Noah’s three sons and enabled them to have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and on and on over the generations. If you look down the list again, you’ll see the names of people and nations who became known for their ungodliness and wickedness. Nations like Egypt and Canaan and Babylon who caused all kinds of problems for the Lord’s people. Assyria and Nineveh too. Wicked nations. And yet the Lord sustained them and helped them and provided for them. The Lord multiplied the sons of Noah so that they fill the earth. And so we’re reminded that the Lord is good to all. He’s especially good to his believing people, because he blesses us with one spiritual blessing after another. But the Lord is good to all.
And so, we ought to be doubly grateful to the Lord. We ought to give thanks to him for our salvation. We ought to meet together to praise him and to give thanks to him for sending his Son into the world to live for us and to die for us in order to deliver us from our sin and misery. And we ought to give thanks to him for sending his Spirit into our lives to convince us and to convert us to faith in Christ. We ought to give thanks to him for all the spiritual blessing he bestows on us.
But we ought also to thank him for his kindness to us and to all his creation, and for preserving life on the world and for providing us with all we need for this life. We ought to thank him for all his good gifts to us and for his remarkable kindness towards all that he has made.
But let’s move on now to the story of the Tower of Babel. And the significance of the story of the Tower of Babel is to show us that after the flood the people are guilty of the same sin which Adam and Eve were guilty of before the flood. Why did Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit? They wanted to be like God. Wasn’t that it? Look back to chapter 3 and verse 4. The Devil said to Eve that they would not die if they ate the fruit. On the contrary, the Devil said to Eve, God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be what? You will be like God, knowing good and evil. And so, we read in verse 6 that when Eve saw that the fruit was good for good and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom — in order words, she would know what God knows — she took it. And so did Adam.
Instead of being satisfied with their position in the world, they wanted to be like God. And we see the same thing in Genesis 11. Look at verse 3. The people said to one another:
Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.
And so, perhaps for the very first time, they made bricks and used them to build instead of using stone. And, of course, it’s easier to build with bricks which are all the same shape and size than with stones which are all different shapes and sizes. And so, now that they had bricks to build, they said to one another:
Come, let’s build ourselves a city.
You know; Let’s build a city with houses and streets and walls all around. And that’s not all. Look at verse 4 again:
Let’s build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches where?
With a tower that reaches to the heavens. No longer content to live on the earth, they wanted to climb up to heaven. They wanted to be in the place where God is.
And at the end of verse 4 they explain that they want to build a tower that reaches to the heavens so that they may make a name for themselves. They wanted to climb up to heaven and they wanted everyone to know their name and to praise them for what they had done. If this was happening today, they’d want to put the letters B A B E L in flashing lights at the top of their tower like one of those hotels in Las Vegas so that everyone would see it and know their name and praise them for what they had done.
And look at the last part of verse 4. They wanted to build this city and this tower so that they wouldn’t be scattered over the face of the earth. They wanted to remain precisely where they were. And there, in the city of Babel, they wanted to make a name for themselves. Instead of praising the Lord and worshipping him alone, they wanted to magnify and exalt their own name.
Well, in verses 5 to 7 we see the Lord’s reaction. And it’s hard not to notice the irony in verse 5. The people wanted to build a tower that reached up to heaven. But they didn’t get anywhere near to heaven, because in verse 5 we read how God had to come down, he had to stoop down, in order to see what they were up to.
And the Lord decided to do something in order to prevent them from carrying out their plan. But the way he prevented them from carrying out their plan was quite unexpected, because instead of destroying their tower — which is perhaps what we would do — he confused their language so that they couldn’t understand one another. So, you can imagine what it was like on the building site. One man turned to his mate and asked for the hammer. But his mate only scratched his head because the words he heard sounded like nonsense. The boss came out to see what the trouble was, but no one could understand what he was saying either. No one was making any sense. No one could be understood. And so very soon, the building site was abandoned, and the tools lay in the dirt, and the scaffolding fell down, and the tower was left incomplete.
And wasn’t that the best way to stop them? If the Lord had simply knocked the tower down, chances are they would build another one. And so, the Lord confused them. And because they couldn’t understand one another, they split up and went their separate ways.
And you’ll see the note in verse 9 that the reason the city became known as Babel is because there the Lord confused their language. And the little footnote at the bottom of the page tells us you that Babel is the Hebrew word for ‘confused’. The Lord confused them and stopped their plans and he scattered them throughout the world.
When they could all speak the same language, they were only thinking about themselves and their own glory instead of thinking about the glory of God and speaking about that to one another. Well, many years later, people from all around the world gathered in the city of Jerusalem. They all spoke different languages. And they were there for the Jewish Festival of Pentecost. And on that particular occasion, something remarkable happened. The Lord Jesus Christ, from his throne in heaven, sent his Holy Spirit to fill his followers and on that special occasion, he enabled them to speak lots of different languages so that all the foreigners in the city of Jerusalem were suddenly able to understand what they were saying. Instead of being confused by what they were saying, they understood what they were saying.
And what did they say to one another? What did they talk about? Well, instead of praising themselves and instead of exalting their own name, they praised the name of the Lord and they declared the wonders of the Lord Jesus Christ. What happened on the Day of Pentecost after the Lord’s ascension to heaven was the reversal of what happened in Babel. The people of Babel were trying to make a name for themselves. And God came down and confused them so they could no longer understand one another. But on the Day of Pentecost, God came down and he made it possible for all the people to understand what was being said. And about 3,000 of those who heard the message were convinced by what they heard and they were converted to faith in Christ.
And ever since that time, Christians have gone out into all the world. And wherever they have gone, they have proclaimed the glory of God and of his Son Jesus Christ. And people have heard the message. And they too have believed and they too have begun to praise his name so that the earth is now filled with men and women and boys and girls who love the Lord and their heart’s desire is to praise him.
Do you see? The Lord God is sovereign over all things. He rules over all and his plans and purposes for the world will be accomplished. In the beginning, he wanted Adam and Eve to fill the earth with godly descendants who would praise his name. But Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord. And God commanded Noah and his sons to fill the earth. Again he wanted the world to be filled with those who knew him and loved him and wanted to praise him. But instead we read about the people of Babel who were only interested in their own name and their own praise. But God’s plan and purposes for the world have not been brought to nothing. Because through the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit men and women and boys and girls are coming to believe in him and they are praising him. And the world is being filled with the knowledge of his name and with the praises of his people.
And, of course, one day, when Jesus Christ returns, all of his believing people will gather around God’s throne in heaven, and there will be a great multitude of people which no one will be able to count, but they’ll be from every nation, and tribe, and people, and language. And together they will give thanks to the Lord and they will praise him for ever and ever. Heaven will be filled with people and with one voice we will declare the wonders of the Lord and the glory of his name.
You read about all the things that are happening to Christians around the world. The suffering and persecution of God’s people. And when we consider the church here in the UK, we get so worried because the church seems to weak. And so, we need to remember that our God is still on his throne in heaven and he’s still in charge and he’s still working out his plans to fill the world with the knowledge of his name. Adam and Eve did not frustrate him. Noah and his sons did not frustrate him. The people of Babel did not frustrate him. And so, we ought to put our hope in him and we ought to press on, obeying the Lord every day and trusting in him to make his name great in the world.
Well, very briefly, let’s look at the second genealogy which is there in verses 10 to 32. And, if the first genealogy speaks to us of God’s common grace, or his universal kindness to all, this one speaks to us of his particular grace, because this one focuses on only some of the descendants of Shem. This one focusses in particular on the line of descendants that runs from Shem down to Terah. And Terah became the father of Abram. And in chapter 12, we read how God called Abram and commanded him to leave his father’s house and to go to the land the Lord would show him. He was leading him to the Promised Land. And the Lord promised that he would make Abram into a great nation. And he did: from Abram came the whole of the nation of Israel. But the Lord also promised that all peoples on the earth will be blessed though him. And the Lord kept that promise too, because one of Abram’s descendants was Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. And all those around the world who believe in him are blessed by God because they receive from him the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of everlasting life.
The Lord is sovereign. He rules over all. And in this genealogy we’re reminded of how he was putting into action his plan for our salvation. He’d chosen this family. And over the generations, he protected them and guided them and kept them so that, when the time was right, the Saviour would be born. He had it all worked out and he was putting his plan into action. And no one and nothing was going to thwart him.
But let me finish with this. The people of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves. And deep down, we’re all like that. We want people to be impressed with us and to give us the honour we think we deserve. All the time, we want to show people what we can do. ‘Look at me!’ we think.
Look at me and I’ll show you what I can do which is so much better than anyone else!
We want people to honour us and we get annoyed when people overlook us or disregard us. But God wants us to be concerned not with the glory of our own name but with the glory of his name. So, we’re to humble ourselves before him, and we’re to do our duty by obeying him everyday. And by the things we say, and by the things we do, we want to bring glory and honour to him and to him alone. What did the Lord say?
Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Or think about what the Apostle Peter said:
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God….
The people of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves. But instead of doing things so that people will look at me, we want to live in such a way so that people will praise the Lord.