Confused Language

A recent Economist magazine review on Noam Chomsky’s work [paywall] comments:

Since he wrote “Syntactic Structures” in 1957, Mr. Chomsky has argued that human language is fundamentally different from any other kind of communication, that a “linguist from Mars” would agree that all human languages are variations on a single language, and that children’s incredibly quick and successful learning (despite often messy and inattentive parental input) points to an innate language faculty in the brain.

This view is remarkably accurate, especially considering the differences between Western and Eastern languages. The Economist review goes on to say that Chomsky and a computer scientist, Robert Berwick, claim to explain the evolution of human language in their new book titled: Why Only Us. Perhaps they’re wrong?

For a different perspective, it’s worthwhile reading the entire biblical account of this phenomenon.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 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.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore, its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9 English Standard Version (ESV)

So the choice is stark. Either we have different languages because they “evolved” that way. Or we reaped what we sowed in trying to “make a name for ourselves.” And we did; just not a good name. Let’s see what Calvin has to say on this scripture passage.

And the Lord came down. …Moses…intimates that God, for a little while, seemed to take no notice of them… For [God] frequently bears with the wicked [such] that he not only suffers them to contrive many nefarious things, as if he were [unconcerned;] but even further[s] their impious and perverse designs with animating success, in order that he may at length cast them down to a lower depth.

Behold, the people is one. …God complains of a wickedness in men…to teach us [not that he is swayed by any passions, but] that he is not negligent of human affairs, and that, as he watches for the salvation of the faithful, so he is intent on observing the wickedness of the ungodly; as it is said in Psalm 34:16,

“The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”

Go to, let us go down. …[God] declares that the work which they supposed could not be retarded, shall, without any difficulty, be destroyed…This example of Divine vengeance belongs to all ages: for men are always inflamed with the desire of daring to attempt what is unlawful. And this history shows that God will ever be averse to such counsels and designs; so that we here behold, depicted before our eyes what Solomon says:

‘There is no counsel, nor prudence, nor strength against the Lord,’ (Proverbs 21:30)

Unless the blessing of God be present, from which alone we may expect a prosperous issue, all that we attempt will necessarily perish.

So the Lord scattered them abroad. Men had already been spread abroad [by virtue of] the benediction and grace of God. But those whom the Lord had before distributed with honor in various abodes, he now ignominiously scatters[as] a violent rout, because the principal bond…between them was cut asunder.

Therefore, the name of it [is] called Babel. …What [did] they gain by their foolish ambition to acquire a name[?] They hoped that an everlasting memorial of their origin would be engraven on the tower… [However,] they [did] gain a name, but not each as they would have chosen: thus does God opprobriously cast down the pride of those who usurp to themselves honors to which they have no title.

However, Calvin points out God’s mercy and grace through all this:

Now, although the world bears this curse to the present day; yet, in the midst of punishment…the admirable goodness of God is rendered conspicuous, …because He has proclaimed one gospel, in all languages, through the whole world…

…They who before were miserably divided, have coalesced in the unity of the faith. In this sense Isaiah says, that the language of Canaan should be common to all under the reign of Christ, (Isaiah 19:18); because, although their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry, “Abba, Father.”

***

What always stands out to me in this Genesis scripture account is the verse: “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” This was God’s assessment of us when we had one language. With increasing consolidation around a few key languages and advances in CRISPR, AI, and nuclear annihilation, we may still do on a global scale what should have remained impossible for men to do.

Because of these things, but not only these, I urge you to embrace that other human impossibility:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:25-27 (ESV)

Please enter His kingdom, now.

Tower of Babel - Bruegel

The Tower of Babel, 1563, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), public domain in the United States

Whose Strength?

Some days, we might wonder, “How can any of us continue this way?” The children, our spouses, the relatives or neighbors, our work schedules, these contentious elections, worries about terrorism here and war overseas; the list is endless. Perhaps your trials have dragged on over weeks, months, or even years. Can anyone bear up under such persistent pressure? Where is there strength to carry on one more day? The song writer, Asaph, penned these words:

My flesh and my heart may fail,

    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:26 English Standard Version (ESV)

John Calvin summarizes the import of the entire song this way:

[The Psalmist]:

…Extolls the righteousness and goodness of God.

…Confesses that when he saw:

the wicked abounding in wealth, …scornfully mocking God, and cruelly harassing the righteous…

and the children of God […, who] practice uprightness, …weighed down by troubles and calamities, …were pining away…

while God, …did not interfere to remedy [this injustice.]

[This disparity] almost [caused] him to cast off all…religion and [his] fear of God.

[But, the Psalmist] reproves his own folly in rashly…pronouncing judgment, merely [based on] the present state of things…

…He concludes that, provided we leave the providence of God to take its own course, …in the end, …the righteous are not defrauded of their reward, and that, on the other, the wicked do not escape the hand of the Judge.

It is in this context that Asaph declares his own powerlessness to face what seems unjust: the wicked prosper, the godly suffer, and God doesn’t seem to care. Asaph also acknowledges his dependence on God for any ability to stand under this weight. As Calvin explains:

…There is here a contrast between the failing which [the Psalmist] felt in himself and the strength with which he was divinely supplied; as if he had said,

“Separated from God I am nothing, and all that I attempt to do ends in nothing; but when I come to Him, I find an abundant supply of strength.”

It is…necessary for us to consider what we are without God; …We will seek nothing from God but what we are conscious of [lacking] in ourselves. Indeed, all men confess this, [but the majority] think that all which is necessary is that God should aid our [weaknesses], or [give us assistance] when we have not the means…ourselves. [However, the Psalmist’s] confession…is far [stronger] than this when he lays, so to speak, his own nothingness before God.

He, therefore, …adds, that God is his portion…[denoting] the condition or lot with which every man is contented. …The reason why God is represented as a portion is, because He alone is abundantly sufficient for us, and because in Him the perfection of our happiness consists.

Whence it follows, that we are chargeable with ingratitude, if we turn away our minds from Him and fix them on any other object, as has been stated in Psalm 16:4, where David explains more clearly the import of the metaphor.

None of this means that we will escape from trouble in the here and now. We will go through it, and yet we have hope if we do well.

***

The Apostle Paul lived in the truth Asaph wrote about. When commending his service for God to the Church, he said:

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God. 2 Corinthians 3:5 (ESV)

We can see that Paul’s witness stands to this day. Since our sufficiency comes from Him, will you give up your own methods? Will I? We must rely on the Lord Jesus Christ’s strength alone in these perilous times.

Michael Roe – I Could Laugh (feat. Chris Taylor) – bd’s house 2014, Lyrics

Faith Fail?

This was a critical time in the Lord Jesus Christ’s service to humankind. The ruling leadership was plotting his murder with one of His inner circle of disciples, Judas. Jesus had sent Peter and John ahead to prepare for a significant religious dinner celebration.

Then, at that dinner, while instructing His disciples of His impending death and resurrection, a controversy over who was the greatest disciple broke out. After Jesus taught them the meaning of humility and about their future roles as his disciples, He tells Peter how he will betray Him:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” Luke 22:31–34 English Standard Version (ESV)

Calvin explains:

…When Christ formerly promised to his disciples the spirit of unshaken fortitude, he referred to a new state of things which followed the resurrection; and, therefore, as they were not yet [endowed] with heavenly power, Peter, forming confident expectations from himself, goes beyond the limits of faith.

…This claims our attention, that every man, remembering his own weakness, may earnestly resort to the assistance of the Holy Spirit [through prayer]; and next, that no man may venture to take more upon himself than what the Lord promises. [Thus,] Paul…enjoins us to:

…Work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God that works in us to will and perform, (Philippians 2:12 – 13.)

…Therefore, whenever any temptation is presented to us, let us first remember our weakness, that, being entirely thrown down, we may learn to seek elsewhere [i.e., from God] what we need [i.e., His mercy and grace]; and, next, let us remember the grace which is promised, that it may free us from doubt.

So, we must rely on Christ and not on our own strength. However, this is not the end of the matter. Christ, through His servant Paul, challenges us:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 2 Corinthians 13:5 (ESV)

And Calvin says:

…But what does Paul say here? He declares, that all are reprobates, who doubt whether they profess Christ and are a part of His body. Let us, therefore, reckon…right faith [is that] which leads us to [rest] in safety in the favor of God, with no wavering opinion, but with a firm and steadfast assurance.

They admonish us because God supplies saving faith; it is not our own doing:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV)

Yet, facing ourselves more deeply, let us not forget the parable of the soils. As Christ explains:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.

And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.

And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Luke 8:11-15 (ESV)

Let us therefore exercise patience in our calling because He cannot fail; though we may:

My flesh and my heart may fail,

   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:26 (ESV)

To this, Calvin reveals:

…There is here a contrast between the failing which David felt in himself and the strength with which he was divinely supplied; as if he had said, “Separated from God I am nothing, and all that I attempt to do ends in nothing; but when I come to him, I find an abundant supply of strength.”

It is highly necessary for us to consider what we are without God; for no man will cast himself wholly upon God, but he…who despairs of the sufficiency of his own powers. We will seek nothing from God but what we are conscious of [lacking] in ourselves.

Then, let us cast ourselves wholly upon Him that our faith may not fail.

The Denial of Saint Peter - Carravagio (1610)

The Denial of Saint Peter, circa 1610, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), public domain in the United States

Confess Your Sins

It’s frightening to admit our sins to God and man. But they see them whether we confess or not. Our audacity, dignity, authenticity, or autonomy may stand in the way. Let’s not let them.

Confess your sinfulness to God to receive His forgiveness and cleansing. As the Apostle Paul says:

“Nothing good dwells in me.”

Confess your sins to one another to receive their forgiveness and restore the broken relationship. The relationship is broken whether we believe it is or not.

It takes humility on our part. Humbling ourselves may go against our personality. However, something I observed early on is that personality strengths can often be weaknesses as well. Paul valued his weaknesses, for when he was weak he was strong.

Confessing our sins, one to another, is another way to express our gratitude towards God.

Showing kindness in this way toward others is a fulfillment of the whole Law.

Romeo and Juliet

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, circa 1850, Frederic Leighton (1830–1896), in the public domain in the US