Mankind speak many different languages. It is this as much as anything that divides them into nations. The fact has caused much speculation. That man should possess the gift of speech at all is a marvel when the matter is thoroughly considered, apart from its familiarity: That he should exercise the same gift in so many ways—that there should be a French language, a German language, a Russian, a Chinese, an English, an Italian, a Hebrew, Greek and Latin, etc., may appear even more wonderful on reflection. A hundred human beings could be gathered together, no two of whom would understand one another’s speech. The fact has set the wits of “learning” to work. Our own day is distinguished for theories of the origin of language. Many suggestions are made and plausibly supported by facts—(a few facts), and the agreement of the theories with the few facts has caused a great many educated people to jump to the conclusion that the theories are true. And the vague and pretentious nomenclature of the theories has a tendency to create and perpetuate the impression of their unquestionable reliability. In point of fact, the theories are guesses of the most untrustworthy character, distinguished only by common agreement to ignore the Mosaic account of the matter. In themselves, they contradict one another, and they change from year to year with increasing knowledge. They have a very narrow foundation; they stand upon a very few facts. They do not harmonise the whole truth of the case, as they would if they were scientifically true. The only account that harmonises all facts is the Mosaic; it accounts for the total want of elementary affinity between the leading languages of the world, which cannot be accounted for on the supposition that the different languages are mere differentiations of an original common system of vocables. And as besides this, the Mosaic account is supported by Christ, we have a double reason for accepting that account as true.
The account exhibits the visible hand of God. “The whole earth (some centuries after the flood) was of one language and of one speech” (Gen. 11:1), that is, the whole inhabited earth, which at that time was of very limited dimensions. It was inevitable it should be so, arguing from what we see and know in our own day. People who have grown up together all speak one way. Noah’s family would speak Noah’s tongue, and their families the same, and their successors the same, as population multiplied. What tongue this was, we may gather to have been the Hebrew tongue. There does not seem any room for doubt upon this point in view of the simple fact that the names of men from the beginning, even commencing with Adam, are all Hebrew. The Creator’s own name is expressed in Hebrew. The Elohim talked with Adam in Hebrew; and the language which he acquired from them was like theirs. God’s communications with Moses were in Hebrew; the nomenclature of the service of the tabernacle (that “pattern of things in the heavens”) was all in Hebrew. The prophets spoke and wrote in Hebrew. Jesus, after his ascension, in his communication with Saul of Tarsus, “spake unto him in the Hebrew tongue.” The primitive language of the Adamic race is thus, without doubt, the Hebrew tongue, and the same evidence proves that this is the divine language. That the Eternal Father should have a language may startle those whose notions of divinity are of the loose and superstitious order reflected in mere popular tradition. In the exercise of reason and in the light of the evidence, it will only appear natural and fitting that the speech of God should have structure and identity. The Father holds converse with the highest intelligences, the angels of His power, as He has done with Israel through the prophets; and is it not a matter of course that speech should be the vehicle of communion? True, He can commune by Spirit-impulse, but is not the very idea of language rooted in this? Strong idea seeks expression, and expression is a universal phenomenon. God is the archtype of every excellence we see manifested in the universe: the Giver of every good and perfect gift; and if David, with logical power, enquires: “He that hath formed the eye, shall he not see?” may we not with equal force ask: “He that had endowed man with the faculty of speech, shall He not speak?” He is not a man that He should grow faint or be weary. He is not a man that He should be imperfect. He is not confined within the boundaries of any gift; for He has received no gift. “Who hath given unto him?” He is not, therefore, like man, bound by laws of speech. Eternal Corporate Wisdom is not confined to any sounds or signs, in the conveyance of ideas He may wish to express. Nevertheless, among all sounds and signs, there must be those which are best (judged by whatever standard), and it seems reasonable therefore to conclude that those in which Yahweh chooses to express Himself are the best. And He has chosen to do so in Hebrew. Jesus has spoken in Hebrew since his glorification, whence it is no unnatural effort of logic to conclude that this is the language of that state of nature-likeness to Jesus to which men are invited in the gospel. This conclusion brings with it also the other conclusion that Hebrew will be the official language of the age to come, and finally, the language of all the earth. It is noteworthy, in passing, that amidst all their vicissitudes and corruptions, Israel should preserve Hebrew as the language of their worship throughout the world. There is probably in this a providential preparation for the political revolution that is to ensue on Christ’s re-appearing—in the establishment of the Hebrew monarchy as the government of the whole world.
Hebrew, then, was the “one language and one speech” of all the inhabited earth at the time spoken of in Gen. xi. The continuance of this linguistic unity would have permitted of the execution of the plan which commended itself to the leaders of the community for social unity and consolidation. They feared being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” It is easy to understand how they came to entertain this view. The population was limited and confined to a small district, outside of which, all was forest and desert. If they separated themselves they would lose the advantages and comforts and pleasures of society. They were comfortable while living in one community. There was a sense of power and honour in association. But there was a tendency on the part of some to separate and depart to the wilds. They therefore formed a scheme to prevent disintegration. “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven (which could therefore be seen from great distances all round and form a rallying centre of social organization); and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon all the earth” (verse 4).
There can be no doubt that this was a discreet plan from the merely human point of view. They were astute enough politicians who recommended that for the benefit of the community, they should keep together, and secure in co-operation those mutual advantages that cannot be realised in isolation. And no doubt, left to themselves, they would have carried out the plan, which, however, was inconsistent with another plan of which they apparently knew little or nothing, or at all events with which they did not sympathise. This was God’s plan, which will always override every enterprise of human policy that may interfere with it. God’s plan was to employ the descendants of the first Adam in populating, subduing, and developing the face of the globe generally, in preparation for the time fixed in the counsels of His own will, when He should hand it over to the constituents of the last Adam (developed during this process), as a fit and garnished dominion, to be administered by them for the glory of His Name, and the well being of its countless inhabitants. This plan required that they should be scattered in all directions over its surface. Here, they were planning to concentrate—not to scatter; and they had begun to carry out their plan. The city and tower were commenced, and the work was going on prosperously. What was to be done? The angelic consultation revealed apprehensions of the success of the communistic scheme. “The Lord came down (that is, the angels came down, as we have formerly seen. in such a case to be signified) to see the city and the tower which the children of men builded. And the Lord said: Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” The effectual remedy was suggested in the proposal: “Let us confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” This was done with the most signal effect. No work of co-operation can be carried on without a constant mutual understanding; and the workmen ceasing to be intelligible to one another, “left off to build the city.” The few who did understand one another were unequal to the carrying on of the work. For a time confusion would prevail, but by degrees, those who spoke the same tongue would get together, and after a vain attempt to battle with the extraordinary impediments suddenly placed in their midst, they took themselves off in various directions. “From thence did the Lord scatter them abroad, upon the face of all the earth.”
Here was a great and needed intervention of the visible hand of God. It is a rule of the Divine Government that there is no peace to the wicked. Mankind, in a state of sin, are not permitted to realise the blessedness that comes from unity and peace. They were by this event broken up into sections and parties, that soon became hostile. Difference of speech compelled difference of land of habitation, and the two circumstances together created rival interests which destroyed sympathy and bred strife and war. Thus the circumstance that impelled the human race into the path of exploration and emigration, and laid the foundation of the future habitable world, also established a condition of things that furnished a source and means of that retributive evil which is the providential dispensation to our age of sin.
It was of course what is considered a great miracle—a definition to which there can be no objection when a miracle is understood to be a work of power beyond human achievement. In reality, it was a natural result of the means employed. We see a similar result slowly produced every day. Take an academy for the study of the languages. Twelve boys all speaking the English language are brought to be taught each a different language. At the end of seven years each boy fluently speaks the language he has studied. Now, here are twelve boys at the end of the terms of their studies all speaking different languages. How has this result been effected? You say “by study.” Good, but put it nakedly; Speak of the thing and not of the name of the thing; Speak as a philosopher. Is it not this, that in the brains of these boys, certain impressions have been produced which enable them respectively to speak a language which their neighbour does not understand? Now suppose the master of the academy had the power of producing these impressions instantaneously, instead of by a laborious process of sights and sounds, we should have precisely what happened on the plains of Babel minus one particular: the elohistic teachers of language, while imparting a new language, obliterated the memory of the original tongue so that the subjects of their operations not only learnt a new language, but forgot the old. This is beyond the power of any human teacher. His twelve pupils would all be able to speak English, though unable to communicate in the acquired languages. But the angels of Yahweh’s power have control of the root-forces of nature and can as easily erase an old impression, as imprint a new one. This power they used at the tower of Babel, and though a miracle, it was not such in the popular acceptation of the term, but merely a higher manipulation of the powers of the universe than is possible to man.
There was a similar exercise of power with different objects on the day of Pentecost. Here, twelve illiterate men were enabled to speak a variety of known languages with an accuracy that enabled those who had been brought up in them to recognise them as their own mother tongue (Acts 2:1–11). In this case, the prodigy was God’s attestation to the truthfulness of the apostolic testimony to Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:33; 5:32; 11:15–17). Tongues were for a sign—(1 Cor. 14:22)—a sign to unbelievers to show that God was working with those who were preaching the word (Mark 16:17–20). There was in this case no blotting out of the memory of the original apostolic dialect: there was only addition—no subtraction; only an impartation of new knowledge. The purpose did not call for any obliteration. It was not to confound speech, but to emphasise speech in the case of the apostles. Thus the operations of the Spirit are always guided by wisdom (1 Cor. 12:11). The effect of the operation depends upon the will of the operator. The same Spirit produces the most diverse results according to the object aimed at.
Diversity of language among men is the result of a great miracle performed at the beginning, the effects of which have been perpetuated from age to age by natural means. The creation of this diversity of tongue was not a blessing. It was not intended as a blessing, but as a means of frustrating an enterprise that was inconsistent with the Divine plan and also of promoting that plan in the scattering of the human family. Its mission will have been accomplished when the whole earth is gathered under one head and occupied by an immortal population that will be one. Diversity of tongue will pass away with the ephemeral age of evil to which it belongs. A knowledge of languages will become an obsolete distinction when God’s work with the earth is finished. That purpose is to make an end of all nations upon earth except one (Jer. 46:28) which will last as long as the earth—for ever. This nation is the nation of Israel with Jesus at its head—a nation purified by a process of spiritual selection and having absorbed in itself the acceptable elements of all other nations by the same process. When there is thus but one fold and one shepherd, there will be a return to that oneness of language which was a characteristic of human society at the beginning, and which will be one of the glories of that restitution of all things which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His prophets since the world began. The prophets who prophesy the ascendancy of the Anglo-Saxon tongue are prophets of the deceit of their own heart. They judge by the appearances of things and prophesy in harmony with their desires. Probabilities as they appear to human sight are a poor rule of faith. At one time Latin,—at another Greek,—seemed likely to become the ruling tongue. At that time the English language had no existence. Now its jargon’s turn has come; but in due time it will follow all the other Gentile tongues into the abyss of forgetfulness, and make way for the divine language which was confounded at Babel, preserved in Israel, established for ever in Jesus of Nazareth, and which will be the tongue of wisdom and love in all the earth in the ages of perfection that lie beyond. It seems very unlikely at the moment; but the word of the Lord standeth sure.