Tongues of Men vs. Angels

Tongues of Men vs. Angels

This past week I’ve been thinking about how very different the Old Testament account of the Tower of Babel is from that of the event we remember today, Pentecost Sunday, the fiftieth day after Easter on which Jesus Christ kept his promise to send his disciples his Holy Spirit—which promise was also in fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy. The contrasts between these two historic events brings to mind a phrase I’m going to appropriate to express this distinction. It comes from the beginning of the apostle Paul’s well-known love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Though Paul’s point is to emphasize the importance of love being part and parcel of our every action and motive, I’m going to repurpose his eloquent phrase, “tongues of men or of angels” by applying “tongues of men” to the Tower of Babel and “tongues of angels” to Christ’s sending of his Holy Spirit on Pentecost. In other words, I’m going to use “tongues of men” to refer to humanity’s desperate, fallen plight and “tongues of angels” to refer to our gracious LORD’s solution to that plight through the sacrifice of his Son and the sending of his Holy Spirit.

Beginning with Genesis 11 what we find there is a tragic yet too common example of what fallen humanity, untouched by and unconcerned with the Spirit of God, will aspire to achieve. And an important piece of background is provided in the opening verse: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” Difficult though it is to conceive, at this time the wide diversity of languages we see today throughout the world had not yet occurred. It’s extraordinary to think about, isn’t it? Everyone living at this time had the ability to communicate with everyone else. Just imagine if we were able to fly to countries in Asia or Africa or Europe or Australia or South America and, upon landing, discovering that we had a shared language not only with that country but with the entire world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to communicate with people from different cultures upon first meeting them and learning about their lives and beliefs and being able to share the same with them about ours?

Unfortunately, this utopian vision doesn’t factor in humanity’s fallen nature, so subject to sin and depravity. For what actually did occur when people shared a common language was quite different. Verse 2 notes the progress—or perhaps it’s more accurate to state that it notes the regress—of civilization observing, “As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” Now another name for Shinar is Babylonia which is found in the ancient region of Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq. And once people had settled there, “They said to each other,” beginning in verse 3, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” And then again in verse 4, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” In these few verses we’re presented with a picture of what “tongues of men” or fallen humanity looks like.

Whereas the LORD made humans in his own image[1] in order that we, as his stewards, might care for each other and fill and care for the earth[2] that God might be glorified, what we find here instead is God’s image-bearers choosing to make a name for themselves rather than for God. Instead of obeying God’s mandate to care for the whole earth, they chose to stay put and glorify themselves. Notice again the language of self that comes through in these verses:

In verse 3: “Let us make bricks;

And again in verse 4: “Come, let us build ourselves a city…so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the earth” (v. 4).

It’s all about us. In the plans humanity was making for itself, God wasn’t even mentioned. The focus here is on self, not God. And this impulse on the part of fallen humanity to focus on self rather than God exemplifies what “tongues of men” will do when left to its own devices. Tongues of men don’t seek to know God. Tongues of men don’t care to serve him. Tongues of men have no interest in obeying him. In their total disregard for God, tongues of men place their own interests and desires and power and fame above those of the God who made them.

Next we see, verse 5, “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.” Now the language used here is for our benefit. Since God is omniscient—that is, he knows all things; and omnipresent—he is present everywhere (even as we saw last week, he “fills everything in every way,”[3]), it isn’t as though God didn’t know what was going on. Rather to state that the LORD “came down” is a way of indicating that God had taken notice of what his disobedient image-bearers were doing. It’s also a way of indicating that no matter how high this human tower was intended to be built, it was never going to be anywhere near reaching the height of God and his heavens for he had to “come down” in order to see it. If you imagine a multitude of tiny ants seeking to build a tower to rival that of the 790-foot John Hancock Tower in Boston, you begin to get a tiny glimpse of how ridiculous humanity’s endeavor to make a tower reaching the heavens was.

Now when the LORD came down to inspect the fruit of rebellious humanity’s labor, he said, verse 6, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” The LORD knew that to allow humanity to continue in its self-serving ways would only result in even more self-aggrandizement. For the lust for more power, more influence, more fame, more wealth is never satisfied. This is the insatiable nature of “tongues of men.” This is the insatiable nature of humanity’s sinful disposition, untouched by God’s grace. No matter how much it has, its appetite is never sated. When faced with the prospect of a city built by “tongues of men,” a godless city, God intervened by throwing a wrench into his disobedient humanity’s plans. That wrench was confusing their tongues. Therefore the LORD said, verse 7, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  God’s “let us” will always be stronger than humanity’s “let us”; God’s way, the way of heaven, the tongues of angels, will always be greater than the way of fallen humanity, the tongues of men. By taking away their ability to communicate with one another, the LORD made it impossible for them to build a city for themselves. This divine intervention was necessary for rather than use their common language to fill and care for this wondrous earth God had made in order that he might be glorified and his name be made known far and wide as he intended, again, God’s people had chosen instead to build a city and make a name for themselves.

It’s ironic that the LORD’s judgment came in the form of his causing to come about the very thing the people had been trying to avoid. Notice again how it states in verse 4 that the reason the people sought to build themselves a city with a tower reaching to the heavens was not only that they might make a name for themselves but also because otherwise they would be scattered over the face of the earth. Yet as stated in verse 8, in confusing humanity’s language “So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.” In its flagrant disobedience to and disregard for the LORD, humanity ended up receiving the very thing it had been dreading.

The passage then ends with an explanatory note in verse 9: “That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.” And then it repeats how “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” Now some of your Bibles may note that the word “Babel” sounds like the Hebrew word for “confused.” This word play underscores that the confusion of tongues was God’s judgment upon humanity’s pride for, again, his image-bearers had turned their backs on their Maker and sought to glorify their name rather than that of their LORD. And Scripture picks up on this for from this point forward Babylon, from which the word “Babel” is taken, becomes a symbol, as one commentator notes, of “humanity’s ambition to dethrone God and make the earth its own.”[4]

Yet despite the LORD’s judgment, he didn’t give up on his wicked and disobedient image-bearers this time any more than he did during earlier times when humanity disobeyed. For another theme we find throughout Scripture is that though we are faithless, he remains faithful, for God cannot disown himself. [5] As in the story of humanity’s Fall we find a promise of a future Redeemer,[6] this promise of a better world, of a world in which tongues of angels, the Kingdom of heaven’s values, prevail continues to be affirmed throughout God’s Word. Therefore we find the prophet Isaiah pointing to a time when God would make all things new: “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”[7] And the means God would use of bringing about this new heavens and earth was none other than his Son, Jesus Christ. As Paul later states, “if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”[8] This exemplifies the faithfulness of our kind LORD to us, his faithless image-bearers. In Christ, our sins aren’t counted against us but are taken away thus clearing our path back to our dear LORD. And this promise of God’s new creation in Christ is carried into the future into the book of Revelation where we see Jesus himself seated on his throne proclaiming, “I am making everything new!”[9] Though we may turn away from God, he never turns away from us but seeks to bring the values and reality of heaven, the values and reality of the tongues of angels, to shed their light on and disburse the fallen tongues of men.

Again, the beginning of God fulfilling his promise to make all things new occurred when he sent his Son, the eternal King, to die for humanity in order that humanity might have an opportunity to receive the eternal life he so freely offers. The Triune plan of God has ever been that once Christ died on the cross and conquered death by rising from death, never to die again, he would send his Holy Spirit, his very self, his very eternal life, into a world filled with darkness and death. This is what we celebrate this Pentecost Sunday. We celebrate God sending his Holy Spirit to continue his plan of redeeming this fallen world by making all things new in and through and for him. This is what Peter testifies to in the second chapter of Acts. For in fulfillment of what the prophet Joel had prophesied, Christ’s sending of his Holy Spirit was an indication that we are in now “in the last days” for God had now poured out his Spirit “on all flesh.”[10] And so I want to shift gears from the Tower of Babel, from the “tongues of men,” from the time when as a result of their great depravity humanity’s languages were confused for having disregarded the ways of their LORD and Maker, to the time of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2; to the time of the tongues of angels when God, by his Holy Spirit, began to restore the unity and oneness he had promised in and through his Son, Jesus Christ, the King of the Kingdom of heaven he had ushered in.

And so let us notice the contrasts between the tongues of men and the tongues of angels exemplified in Babel—Genesis 11; and Pentecost—Acts 2, respectively:

Whereas at the Tower of Babel, godless men sought to make a godless city with a tower reaching to heaven in honor of—and in order to honor—themselves and themselves only; at Pentecost, God sent his Holy Spirit that any who repented from their godless ways and turned to God might be adopted into his Kingdom to serve Christ as their King, their Savior and LORD;

Whereas at the Tower of Babel, God metaphorically came down to investigate what his evil image-bearers were plotting to do and ended up scattering them thereby foiling their plot; at Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit came down as an expression of God reconciling humanity with himself, gathering together those who had been scattered and by his Spirit intimately uniting those who know Christ with himself and one another for all eternity;

Whereas at the time of the Tower of Babel, the LORD confused the language of the whole world so that it became impossible for people to understand one another; at the time of Pentecost when God sent his Holy Spirit, Jews who had gathered from all parts—“Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs”[11]—”each…heard their own language being spoken.”[12] Specifically the scattered Jews who had gathered heard the 120 disciples who had gathered and been praying in the upper room, both women and men,[13] upon whom God’s Holy Spirit had now fallen like tongues of fire,[14] “declaring the wonders of God in [their] own tongues!”[15] For the sake of declaring the Good News of the Gospel; for the sake of declaring the goodness and greatness of God, God by his Holy Spirit, by his “tongues of angels” made it possible for those who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover, to hear this Gospel in their very own language. Whereas tongues of men had led to division and judgment at Babel; tongues of angels led to unity and blessing at Pentecost;

And whereas at the time of the Tower of Babel, the unity of the tongues of men led them to build a tower that they might go to where they thought God dwelt in order to make a name for themselves; at Pentecost the unity of the tongues of angels caused God to come down to humanity, to dwell on earth with those whom he had made in his image and to make them a temple for himself that he might dwell with them forever. As Peter declares in his sermon in verse 33 concerning Jesus, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” At Pentecost Christ Jesus poured out himself on all who turned to him;

Lastly, whereas at the time of the Tower of Babel, the tongues of men sought their own interests and power and desire in order to make a name for themselves; at Pentecost we see how the tongues of angels caused God’s image-bearers, who by their fallen nature would also have sought their own ways, to instead adopt heaven’s values. For after Peter preached to the crowd and explained how this giving of Christ’s Holy Spirit was intricately tied to God’s plan of redeeming, of restoring humanity back into his good graces, Peter basically made an altar call. As recorded in verses 38 and 39 of Acts 2, the content of that call was, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

As a result of Peter explaining to those gathered the meaning of the events they had witnessed, about three thousand of the Jews present came to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ Jesus, of Messiah Jesus.[16] And at the end of chapter 2 in Acts, Luke records that after turning to Christ, these three-thousand

devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.[17]

Dear brothers and sisters, this is the outcome our gracious and loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desires for us. This is the outcome he has ever intended for us. This is the reason our heavenly Father made us; this is the reason our kind Savior and LORD Jesus died and rose from death for us; this is the reason the Holy Spirit, our Counselor and Comforter and Advocate now seals and indwells us. So this Pentecost Sunday and always, let us celebrate the fact that:

God calls us to devote ourselves to his teaching;

He calls us to devote ourselves to fellowship;

He calls us to break bread together;

He calls us to prayer;

He calls us to hold our earthly possessions lightly and share them with one another;

He calls us to give to any who has need;

He calls us to continue regularly meeting together;

He calls us to share meals in our homes and eat together with glad and sincere hearts;

He calls us to praise God and enjoy the favor of all people.

Isn’t this an awesome vision?

Isn’t this an awesome end?

For as Paul so beautifully states, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”[18]

So let us celebrate the tongues of angels;

So let us seek to live according to the ways of our gracious LORD for he is good and kind and great and merciful and compassionate.

And so let us pray that as we live according to his ways, he might by his grace add to our number daily those who are being saved.

Let us pray.

[1] Genesis 1:26–27: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

[2] Genesis 1:27–28: God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”


[3] Speaking of Jesus Christ, Ephesians 1:23: the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

[4] Reformation Study Bible note on Genesis 11:9. See references to Babylon in Revelation 17–18.

[5] 2 Timothy 2:11–13: 11 Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

[6] To the serpent, the LORD said in Genesis 3:15: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

[7] Isaiah 65:17. See also Isaiah 43:18–19: 18 “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. 19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

[8] 2 Corinthians 5:17–19.

[9] Revelation 21:5.

[10] Acts 2:17 quoting Joel 2:28: And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

[11] Acts 2:9–11a.

[12] Acts 2:6.

[13] After Jesus ascended to heaven, we read in Acts 1:12–15: 12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. 15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty)

[14] Acts 2:3.

[15] Acts 2:11b.

[16] Acts 2:41: Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

[17] Acts 2:42–47.

[18] 2 Corinthians 3:18.