Language is a perilous thing. It can unite us, but quite often it does the opposite. That, by the way, was God’s intent. We know that from the story of how He created the different languages of the earth as presented in Genesis 11:
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9 NASB, emphasis added)
Ever since then that curse of language has been with us. And, by the way, so has the curse of nations.
Curse of nations? Yes, it does seem to be a curse. It would seem that the Lord did not intend for humanity to be scattered and separated across the face of the planet in competing factions. Nevertheless, nations were His idea. The story of the Tower of Babel explains why. You’ll notice that mankind also had an idea of uniting themselves as one people, but their idea was not the same as the Almighty’s. They wanted to be a single, unified power that could challenge YHVH for sovereignty over this planet. Since these people lived in the generations immediately after the Great Flood, we can suppose that some of them harbored a little resentment at God’s destruction of the pre-Flood civilization. Maybe they thought they could do things better than their ancestors, perhaps by building a strong defense that could ward off any further Divine intervention in human affairs. Now since our God does not change (Numbers 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8), and since the eternal governing principles of the universe which He established do not change (Psalm 119:44; II Kings 17:37; Matthew 5:18, 24:34-35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33), He had to do something about this blatant rebellion. There can only be one God, after all.
The problem with sin is that it seeks to create many gods – in fact, as many as there are human beings on the earth. That is at the heart of Satan’s insidious deception spoken to our mother Eve: “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5 NASB) Tragically, the way our Creator dealt with the deception before the Flood was to destroy humanity. I would surmise He had little choice in the matter since all of humanity apparently was united as a single people, most likely under satanic leadership (not unlike the world we are anticipating at the end of this age when Messiah returns). To make sure He did not have to make a complete end of the human race this time around, the Lord God created nations and then scattered them across the earth. If they were divided in language, they would soon be divided in every other imaginable way, and the resultant wars and rumors of wars would ensure that a united human empire would not arise to defy the Living God until the end of days. In the meantime the Living God could go about the process of cultivating His redemptive work in human hearts while they remained in the nations.
The one element of Steven Spielberg’s movies which has remained just beneath my consciousness for nearly thirty years is not his stunning cinematography or compelling drama. It is a song; a simple Welsh melody which carries us through Empire of the Sun. We first hear Suo Gân (Lullaby) as the movie opens. British choir boys sing it in church in the compound reserved for foreigners living in Shanghai. The soloist is Jamie (Christian Bale), a boy of about 10. He is British by birth, but he has never set foot on his parents’ homeland. Jamie’s family live as privileged foreigners have lived ever since China capitulated in the First Opium War a century before. They take no notice of the Chinese except where their own wants and needs are concerned. Jamie, a son of privilege, knows no other way than to lord it over the natives beneath his station.
Change comes quickly when the Japanese attack. China and Japan have been at war for years, but Shanghai is undisturbed until December 8, 1941. As America’s Pacific Fleet burns in Pearl Harbor, Japan’s legions occupy Shanghai. Jamie’s family flees, but in the confusion he is separated from his parents and left to fend for himself, eventually landing in an internment camp adjacent to a Japanese airfield.
By 1945 he is no longer Jamie, but Jim, a rough lad learning to survive among the mixed multitude in captivity. Jim can hold his own, having grown accustomed to lying, stealing, cheating, and other mischief. His innocence dies bit by bit, not only through the tribulations of war, but through betrayal by men he trusts. Yet Suo Gân remains with him. One morning he awakens to see Japanese aviators participating in the ceremony of the kamikaze. Jim comes to attention, salutes, and sings the lullaby in tribute to these men who will soon die in the service of their Emperor. Their deaths come more quickly than expected. At that instant, American P-51 Mustangs, the “Cadillac of the sky”, attack, rapidly transforming the airfield into a smoking ruin. In their wake Jim pauses to consider the dreadful price he has paid to survive. With despair he confesses, “I can’t remember what my parents look like.”
At war’s end Jim finds himself in an orphanage among children awaiting reunion with their parents. Tears of joy flow, but he stands in shocked silence. His father passes by, not recognizing the hardened youth as the beloved, if rebellious, child he knew. It is his mother who sees him, first as the Jamie she loved, then as the Jim she does not know how to love, and finally as a young man with gaping wounds in his soul who desperately needs the healing that only a parent’s love can bring. He looks into her face and four years of pain and death wash away in peace beyond hope – the peace promised in the strains of Suo Gân.
All Jim can remember is the song, but it is enough to set him on the path of healing and reconciliation. So it is with the exiled, destitute people of YHVH. He also gave a song to them – a song that would carry them through time to peace beyond hope:
Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore. (Deuteronomy 31:21 NASB)
It is quite possible that the greatest literary accomplishment of the year 1844 was the publication of The Three Musketeers. The swashbuckling adventures of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan penned by Alexandre Dumas have delighted readers and audiences ever since, inspiring dozens of stage and film adaptations. Not quite so popular is the trilogy Dumas published as a sequel, which concluded with The Man In The Iron Mask. The story has been told in film, with such notables as Richard Chamberlain and Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, but it does not come close in popularity to its predecessor. Perhaps the subject matter is the cause. The tale concerns a man sentenced to life in prison behind a mask so that no one may know his identity. Dumas based his novel on an intriguing footnote of French history, but with much literary license. The mysterious man in Dumas’ story was Philippe, twin brother of King Louis XIV of France. As the king’s identical twin his very existence posed a threat to Louis. Therefore he was doomed by royal decree to live out his life anonymously behind a mask. This Baroque version of identity theft constitutes a fate worse than death. Not only is the man denied his rights as a member of the royal house, his very personhood is stripped from him, so that in time even he forgets who he is. No wonder The Man In The Iron Mask is so disturbing; this prince of the royal house suffers a fate none of us would ever wish to share.
And yet most Christians and Jews labor under precisely such an identity disability. We have all forgotten who we really are.
It is a perilous thing to start taking God at His word. He tends to change one’s paradigms in most uncomfortable ways. When once we begin studying the Bible with the same amount of devotion with which we study our bank accounts, or the record of our favorite sports team, or the latest offerings from Hollywood, we find that what we have held to be true all our lives is often not quite so. Take, for example, the message of one of the world’s most cherished Christmas carols, Away in a Manger. For the most part this pleasant song is a wonderful hymn to our Savior Yeshua haMashiach (Jesus Christ) Who humbled Himself to become one of us. But then we come to the last lyric:
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care;
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there.