"1. And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.
2. And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar. And they dwelt there.
3. And they said one to another, Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
4. And they said, Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name. Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5. And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6. And Jehovah said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language. And this is what they begin to do. And now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do.
7. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8. So Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth. And they left off building the city.
9. Therefore was the name of it called Babel. Because Jehovah did there confound the language of all the earth. And from thence did Jehovah scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." (Gen. 11:1-9 NAS)
In this passage of scripture, recording the building of the Tower of Babel, we see some principles of tower building which we will compare to altar building. Before you continue, picture in your mind this huge brick tower rising high into the desert sky, massive and impressive. Got a mental image? Now picture the lowly altar made of stone, like the one Abraham built on which he would offer Isaac, or the one Elijah built on which the fire of God fell, consuming the sacrifice, wood, water, altar, and dirt. Keep these mental images in mind as you read, and then, you may want to ask yourself, "Am I building a tower or an altar?"
Gen. 11:2 says that "as men moved eastward, they found a plain (or valley) in Shinar (Babylon) and settled there". God had told Noah and his descendents to fill the Earth, but as man journeyed he found himself doing what man does by nature: he found himself settling in a valley. God calls us to journey to a specific destination just as he called the children of Israel to journey to the Promised Land and called Abram and Lot to journey to Canaan. However, just as Lot chose the ease and prosperity of the plains, so man is reluctant to make the effort to journey to the mountain heights. Just as Lot had to be forced out of Sodom to the hill country of Canaan, so God many times must confound the efforts of ambitious men to force them beyond their chosen valley of ease and prosperity.
Why did this people decide to build a tower, thereby making a name or a reputation for themselves? Because they feared being scattered, as it says in verse four. The word translated scattered means not only to disperse, but also to be dashed to pieces or broken. This is a profound earmark of a man that is building a tower rather than an altar. This man fears God's breakings; he fears God's dealings. This man has a fear of going down rather than up, a fear that if he gets quiet enough he will hear God requiring him to lose his life or to sacrifice his Isaac. He has a fear of being lost in the graveyard of obscurity. The tower builder avoids the breakings of God by avoiding closeness with God.
A minister that is building a tower believes his tower to be an altar only because he has never seen a true altar. To this man, the cross has never been revealed, and so, because he can only see this mental image of a great tower, he cannot conceive of the lowliness and the death of an altar any more than Peter could fathom the work of the cross when Jesus rebuked him saying, "Get thee behind me Satan".
The minister that is building a tower has heard or read of the mountainous places, but like Lot, has never found a compelling reason to leave his valley in search of these high places. To him, they are an abstraction that he may disdain or delight in, but either way, to him they are good for reflection, conversation or sermons only; they are for theory only, but not for experience. The heights that he desires to reach can be seen overhead and his desire is not to journey, but to ascend, for journey could prove too costly and time consuming.
To the tower builder, the cross is a doctrine, concept or theory, be it ever so beloved, but to him, the cross has never been revealed. For the altar builder, the cross is the way, the only way, and he has grown to love this way, this way that leads down into loss, death and obscurity, for it is on this path that the love of Christ, which has become his very life, becomes ever wider, higher and deeper. The altar builder has lost all but counts it but refuse in comparison to the love of Christ that is his reason for living.
The tower builder has never seen the cross, and therefore fears loss or obscurity. He fears being broken, pounded and crushed as grain beneath the merciless blows of the flail (two sticks tied together). He fears loosing his life and therefore builds a tower in God's name thinking the way to God is up rather than down.
The tower builder heard God's call to the mountain heights, but mistook the call as a call to greatness, a call to do some great thing, to ascend, to build a great work, to make a name. In Mark 3:13 it says that Jesus "went up on the mountain, and called to him those whom he desired..." Christ's call to the disciples was unto Himself. The altar builder has heard Christ's call to be with him, but the tower builder, though hearing this call, misunderstood it. The tower builder heard a call up the mountain, but his spiritual ambition heard it as a call to greatness, a call to ministry, a call to work, and so, he set out to build a great work that would reach to the clouds, convinced this is his calling.
Soon, the tower builders, of which there are multitudes, will be confounded and broken, and those that have taken the time and paid the price to build an altar to their God will be brought from obscurity and will shine as the stars of heaven, whether in this age or in the age to come.
To the tower builder, if intimacy with Christ is at all a consideration, it is as a means to an end, but not as an end in itself, as it is for the altar builder. The altar builder finds no personal satisfaction in his altar outside of the fact that on this altar he can offer up to his beloved a sweet smell of death, for pleasing his beloved is his only reason for living. To the tower builder, God is a means. To the altar builder, God is the end.
In Gen. 11:3 it says of these tower builders that they said to each other, "Come, let us make bricks". It says, "They used brick instead of stone" (NIV). The reason they chose brick over stone was their purpose was to make a name for themselves by building a high tower, and in order to expedite the process, they chose the uniformity of brick made by mass production. These bricks could be easily manufactured without the time and effort of seeking out stones that would have to be carried to the building site and then set in place with great care and skill in order to make a sound structure out of oddly shaped stones of various sizes. The building material was really secondary to the goal, which was to build this great work. The main consideration, as far as the building blocks, was that of quantity over quality. So it is with today's tower builder, who cannot allow himself to lose sight of the goal by being overly concerned with the quality or even the substance of the material. You see, large works can be quickly built using a modern gospel that produces uniform, low quality religious bricks, rather than living stones: the material of the altar.
The altar builder is a master craftsman who, like any true craftsman, emphasizes quality and integrity. Therefore, he takes great pains to gather stones of great potential, and expends much effort and care in placing these stones, which are of such unique size and shape they will fit in only one place in the altar. The stones that make up the altar are not uniform, like bricks. They have not been profaned by cutting away their individuality for the sake of ease or interchangeability (Ex. 20:25).
The altar builder cares much for the stones, for his concern is not the size of the altar, but the quality of the finished structure, and he knows that the quality of the structure is only as great as the quality of the individual stones. The altar builder cares much about quality and little about quantity, but the tower builder cares little about quality, for since his goal is to go high and to make a name, quantity is his main concern since quantity will help fulfill his goal of a large work.
The altar builder will never compromise quality for quantity, but the tower builder will. The tower builder has learned to overlook character flaws in himself and can, therefor, overlook them in his bricks, as long as the bricks are serving their purpose. Only when the bricks become a threat to the work, will the tower builder address these problems.
In verse three is says, "...let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly" (NAS), or let us make brick and cremate them. Just as the bricks were burned, so the tower builder is willing to sacrifice people as a propitiatory sacrifice to his goal. To the tower builder, people are, to a certain extent, disposable. After all, when one is building a tower, one brick can easily take the place of another. The main concern is that there are enough bricks being made quickly enough.
The altar builder is willing to put off growth for years, if need be, in order for time and the elements to shape and hone each individual stone into a work of art in itself. Then, he takes great care, with the nature of the master builder Himself, in placing these stones in just the right spot in order to conglomerate the individual pieces into one large work of art, a communal structure of beauty and strength. He recognizes that beauty does not consist in extravagant and showy carvings, but in harmonious, balanced and useful lines. The altar's beauty consists in its usefulness in sacrifice to the Master, not in its decor or individuality.
The altar betokens quality, usefulness and lowliness, while the tower boasts size, reputation and greatness. Every inclination of the tower builder is to go up, for in so doing, he can save his life. However, the altar builder has found that only in going down into the grave can he find life. God told Moses, "And do not go up to my altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it" (Ex. 20:26 NIV), however, the very purpose of the tower (which consists of many staircases) is to take men ever upward.
Though the tower builder and the altar builder use the same terminology, similar skills, and very similar principles of design found in a common book, their goals, though they sound similar, are as far removed from one another as heaven is from Earth. For the tower builder, the purpose is a large structure, and the fire of God is not even a consideration. However, the purpose for the altar is a place for the fire of God to fall on the sacrifice of love and surrender.
When the tower builder says, "let us burn the bricks", he is speaking, not of the fire of God, but of the solidifying of the wills and purposes of the bricks. The fire he speaks of is nothing more than zeal, for he knows nothing of the fire of God, and if the fire of God is brought to his attention, he sees it as one of many possible helps in reaching his goal. For the altar builder, the fire of God is his goal.
When God says, as in verse seven, "...let us go down...", it will mean for the tower builder confusion, dispersion, erosion and loss, but for the altar builder and his altar, whether great or small, it will be the answer by fire upon a well pleasing sacrifice of intimate love and surrender.