The Origin Of The NationsErwin W. Lutzer | May 25, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Around the world today, nations are populated by the descendants of three of Noah’s sons. But why did God scatter the people throughout the Earth? Pastor Lutzer walks us through the origin of the nations, the reason God scattered the people, and finally, God’s purpose for it all—so that people would look for Him.
When you read about the collapse of the old Soviet Union, when you read about the demise of the Iraqi regime, and when you read about the rise and the fall of nations, what comes to your mind? What we want to do in this series of messages is to train ourselves to think biblically about history, because history is not simply sound and fury, signifying nothing. History is going somewhere. In fact, it has been said that history is “His story.” It’s God’s story. So what kind of a story is God writing?
I hope that as a result of this, first of all, that we not only have a biblical view of history, and understand how God judges history, but secondly that we’ll have a deeper appreciation for God, that we’ll worship more abundantly and more enthusiastically when we see the providence of God among the nations. But also I hope that as a result of this, we are given some insight as to how to interpret the events even here in the United States of America. The last message in the series is entitled God and the United States. How shall we understand terrorism? What is the interpretation of it? Why does God use terrorism? What is His intention? And what is His intention for us as believers in the midst of a world that is becoming increasingly uncertain? Washington keeps reminding us of the terrorist alert. And so that’s the agenda. Join me for the ride on God and the Nations.
When God created man He said, “There are two mandates that I want to give you, Adam. First of all, you should know Me.” God created Adam in His own image. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God so that they might know God. And Adam and his wife walked with God in the cool of the day in the Garden of Eden, which is in modern day Iraq. That’s where it was.
And then God said something else. He said, “I want you not only to know me, but I want you to subdue the earth. I want you to control it, not to misuse it, but to control it, to subdue it.” And nations are going to be evaluated and judged on the basis of what they did with the original mandate.
Now what I’d like to do in the next few moments (and I trust that you will follow with me, and I fully expect you to because I believe that this is going to have insight that will be transforming) is for us to take a few moments and to simply look at three different stages in our understanding of the nations. The first two stages are historical, and the third is theological or philosophical.
First of all now, let’s look at the origin of the nations, and for that I invite you to turn to Genesis 9:18. “The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.” There was universal wickedness but only Noah and his family were spared in the Ark. After the flood subsides you have Noah who has three sons, and from those three sons, all the families of the earth are derived.
Well, you know the rest of the story. Noah was a very righteous man but he is caught in a very unrighteous moment. He begins to work with vineyards and he becomes drunk, and it says that he lay uncovered inside the tent.
Verse 22-27: “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.’” Wow! What a prediction that was actually fulfilled!
How do we regard the three sons of Noah, and where did they land? Ham, known as the youngest of Noah’s sons (and that will become important as we’ll see in a moment), became the Canaanites. Ham had four sons, by the way. We certainly don’t have time to look at this in Genesis 10, but it’s all there. He had four sons and they became the Canaanites in Phoenicia, the ancient Egyptians (not modern Egyptians who are actually Arabs), and then the whole civilization of Sumer, which also has been identified with the plain of Shinar that we shall talk about.
Then you have Shem. And from Shem you have the Jews. You also have the Arabs. Remember Ishmael. Ishmael also is a descendant of Abraham. And then you have Lot, who was a nephew, of course, to Abraham, and he had two sons, Ammon and Moab. And the Ammonites (in Ammon, Jordan today), and the Moabites are also descendants of Shem because of the fact that Lot was related to Abraham. In fact, in Moody Church today we have at least one person that I know about who is an Ammonite from Ammon, Jordan. That’s one of the beautiful things about Moody Church. There may be many Ammonites that are here that I don’t know about, but that is their origin.
What’s interesting is that when you see the conflict in the Middle East today, it is really being played out among cousins. It’s a family feud because they are descendants of Shem. The family isn’t getting along very well, is it? And then you have Japheth – Greece, Germany, England, all of the Indo-European nations that we generally think about. That’s where they went.
Now what I’d like to do in the next few moments is to answer a question that is in your mind. And the question is obviously this, namely, what’s going on here in the text? What did Ham do wrong? What about the curse of Canaan? That’s been a major controversy sometimes in the Christian Church.
Let me say this: We don’t know exactly what it is that Ham did to his naked father. Some people have read into the text homosexuality. Others have found something else that they think might have happened. The simple fact is we don’t know. What seems plain from the text is that he must have delighted in seeing the nakedness of his father, while the other two sons walked backward and covered their father with a blanket. But whatever it was, when Noah awoke he said this. Ham was his youngest son. Now there was going to be a curse on Ham’s youngest son who was Canaan. And throughout the text you always read these words, “Ham, who was the father of Canaan.” But Ham had four sons. Canaan was his youngest son.
And we must interpret the curse this way. First of all, Canaan was not judged because of his father’s sin. It isn’t this way - that God says, “Now Ham, you’re the one who sinned, and because you sinned, Canaan is getting punished.” No. But God did say, “Ham, you sinned. You will be judged. You will have a son by the name of Canaan who will be very specifically judged as well for his own sin, to be sure, but the judgment is inevitable.”
Secondly, the curse was fulfilled. It was fulfilled because we have many instances in the Old Testament where the Canaanites ended up serving the descendants of Shem, namely the Jews. And then when God enabled Joshua to take the land, the land was displaced and the Jews took it over. In that sense the Canaanites became the servants to the descendants of Shem. And for the most part, they were exterminated.
And then number three, obviously the curse does not apply to anyone who is living today because the Canaanites are no longer in existence. So this passage of Scripture cannot be interpreted in any way to make any kind of a racial statement.
But here you have God saying that this curse has come upon Canaan, and the curse was fulfilled in the severe judgment that God brought to the Canaanites who turned out to be very evil and depraved people.
By the way, if you are a Christian today, I want you to know that regardless of your heritage you are not under any curse, whether it’s a family curse or a generational curse, because Jesus Christ bore our curses, and in Jesus we are a free people. We’ll say just that much regarding the origin of the nations. You can tell that this is going to be brief. We are taking a plane ride today.
Secondly, the scattering of the nations! If you look at Genesis 11:1-2, it says, “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.” Now isn’t that interesting? They were all unified, but in chapter 10 we have the table of the nations, about 70 different nations and their origins. So it seems clear that the author of Genesis decided to move in the text thematically rather than chronologically. You see, in chapter 11 we are told why the nations are scattered. And in chapter 10 he gives us how and where they were scattered to. Now that only makes sense because, you see, at the end of chapter 9 he talked about the three sons of Noah, so now what he wants to do is to simply tell us where they ended up after the experience of the Tower of Babel. It’s best to look at the text that way.
Now, you know that the nations were united. God had said, “Fill the earth,” but they decided to live together. It says in verse 3 of chapter 11, “‘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.’” But God says, “If they get away with this, nothing they plan (verse 6) to do will be impossible for them.” And God says they did not scatter willingly, and he said, “I shall force them to scatter upon the face of the earth.”
What’s going on here? They go to a plain in Shinar, which is really modern day Babylon, and they say to themselves, “We are going to build a tower that will reach the heavens.” Now remember that stars are often identified with satanic powers. That’s why the Bible says that Satan reached and a third of the stars went with him. So what they wanted to do evidently, and this becomes clear later on when the Bible talks about the sins of Babylon, is to build a tower by which they would be able to actually not reach the stars but communicate with (quote) the stars, the powers that be, the demonic spirits basically in the heavens.
Now remember that when God created the stars He said of the sun and the moon that they shall be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years. And some people believe also that the stars were for signs. And there is evidence of that. Years ago I read a book entitled The Gospel in the Stars. And I was very critical of the book, but I was amazed at how many messages God might have wanted to communicate via the stars. Did you know that in the book of Job there’s not only a reference to the constellation, Orion, and several others, but in chapter 38 Job uses the word Mazzaroth? And if you look that word up it very probably refers to the Zodiac.
Now here’s what happened. If God was going to use the stars as signs, clearly the stars were not created randomly. They had to be created in certain relationships to one another, certain juxtapositions, so that there could be some sense made of them and some images in the heavens. And that’s the way evidently God created and intended the stars to be - a kind of Bible that people would be able to look at and read. But here’s what happened in Babylon. They perverted it. And astronomy has to be one of the most exciting sciences one could be involved in. If I could go to college again and have an opportunity to study a course in astronomy - the beauty of the heavens, the juxtaposition of the stars, the various constellations – I would take it.
But astronomy collapsed and was perverted into what we now call astrology. People began to look at the stars now for individual guidance. Am I born under this sign? Am I born under that sign? That’s going to determine what I’m going to do. And God says over and over again in the Bible, “I hate it. It is an abomination, because you are supposed to seek Me for guidance.” And you can read into the stars anything that you want. Behind astrology is the spirit world, but it’s the wrong spirit world.
And so God hated what happened in Babylon, and throughout the Bible you have frequent references of Babylon as the mother of all abominations, because what they were going to do was to set up a humanistic religion that did not rely on the living God, but relied on the creature and not the creator. God says, “I’m going to scatter you.” So what He did was he caused every family unit to suddenly begin talking a different language. And so they couldn’t get along together. There was no way that they could communicate and so this family group had to go in this direction and find its way without any roads and without any compasses. This family group had to go its way. And so the nations were scattered. And in the tenth chapter of Genesis you have where they were scattered.
Isn’t it interesting that during the Day of Pentecost what God did is He reversed the curse of the Tower of Babel, because, as we shall see, one of the purposes God has in history is that while sin scatters and divides, at the end of time, God is going to reconcile and bring together. And Pentecost, among other things, was a brief look at the way in which God is going to bring people from every tongue and tribe and nation and have them understand each other and be unified once again.
Now we’ve spoken very briefly about the origin of the nations and also about the scattering of the nations. And now what is God’s purpose in the nations? How do we understand that? For this you have to turn to the New Testament and the book of Acts. Notice in the 17th chapter of Acts Paul is on Mars Hill and he’s giving his famous speech, and it says in verse 24, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Now notice it says, “From one man (the King James Version says one blood) he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth,” and notice, “He determined the times set for them (He determined how long they would last) and the exact places where they should live.”
Is God involved in the nations? That’s why the second message in this series is entitled God’s Providence Among the Nations because you can’t understand a phrase like that unless you believe in the providence of God. But notice that Paul goes on to say in verse 27, “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being, even as one of your poets has said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Paul is saying that God, in a mysterious way (and we certainly don’t understand how), determined the places and the times of various nations. Now of the 70 nations mentioned in the tenth chapter of Genesis, by far most of them are no longer in existence. But God says, “I am determining that and giving all the nations of the earth an opportunity to seek me.”
When the King James says that they might “grope after God,” that’s a good translation, that they might in their frustration and needs and challenges and in the face of their demise and death, seek God. And Paul says in Romans that God gave them two means of revelation – first of all, the starry heavens. It says, “The heavens declare the glory of God and it shows God’s eternal power and Godhood.” Paul said that anyone looking at the heavens should know that they didn’t happen up there by themselves.
I was at a retreat yesterday with some students from some colleges, and one of the students said that he has a friend who is basically an atheist and doesn’t want to have anything to do with Christianity, and is tired of being preached to by Christians, but he’s into astronomy. And he was looking through the telescope at one star, a beautiful star, and he backed away and said, “You know that I am not religious.” He kept saying, “You know that I am not religious, but that couldn’t have happened by itself.” Wow! “I’m not religious but that couldn’t have happened by itself.”
God’s eternal power and then the light of conscience, the fact that we are aware of our sinfulness! This should have caused men and women to seek God, and had they sought God as some undoubtedly did, God gave them further revelation – more revelation – that they might come to know Him. But for the most part they turned away to idolatry, to creating God in their own image. And you look at the history of the nations and you will find by and large that the nations are far from the living God.
Well, how do you like that for a brief survey? But don’t think that the closing prayer is coming quite yet because we are having four transforming conclusions.
First of all, I want you to remember (number one) the unity of the nations. Fundamentally we all came through Mr. and Mrs. Noah. That’s why Paul says, “He hath made of one man, or one blood, all the nations of the earth.” And you can go from one end of this world to another, and you can see all of our different characteristics, and all of the ways in which we live that are so different, and our different speech and our different habits and our cultures, which are radically different, but you always come to this. Every human being upon the face of the earth is created in the image of God and is seeking God with great thirst, though many of them do not know they are. And so they are drinking from pagan fountains, trying to find meaning. But it’s inbred within us because we are all members of the same family.
Secondly, there is a tendency of nations to follow the character traits of their ancestors. We can see this in the case of Ham. Now Ham had a moral weakness evidently, and that moral weakness turned out to be a curse (the curse of the father sometimes to the third and fourth generations), and it was translated as a curse in the life of his youngest son, Canaan, as we explained. And the Canaanites were unbelievably perverse morally. In fact, archeologists who have unearthed things in Canaan say that the kinds of perversion practiced in Canaan are hardly even known in cultures today and their perversions. And we can see this also in Nimrod. This is in Genesis 10. You can read it on your own.
Nimrod, the Bible says, was a mighty hunter. He was a mighty warrior. And what does he do? He begins the city of Nineveh, and you have the Assyrians beginning, who were mighty warriors, oftentimes cruel. And I have to say this very hurriedly. Those are the ancient Assyrians, because we have Assyrians here at Moody Church. We have one on the pastoral staff, a very wonderful man. We have ushers who are Assyrians. And you know that we have whole families that are Assyrians. And one evening I had the privilege of participating in a Bible study in the home of some of our Assyrians. And I want you to know today that they not only are beautiful people, but they are hospitable and gracious and have awesome Assyrian tea that they served to me.
But now what I’d like us to do is to simply look at some of the traits of the nations. And I’m smart enough to not tell you which nation these traits belong to. When someone in the church was doing a little bit of research for me I wondered which nation is the most deceitful. And I discovered not to even begin to go there because there are many nations in which deceit is simply a part of their culture. Early in life children are told and obviously have before them have the model of lying and cheating and using people. And their only rule really is “Don’t get caught.” All nations have that. Some do it superbly. Deceit!
But let’s look at some of the other characteristics that sociologists have come up with. Obviously these characteristics can apply to any nation.
• Some are inscrutable.
• Some are ruthless in achievement of objectives.
• Some are fanatically nationalistic and prideful, and whole wars have been fought, and blood has been shed by the hundreds of thousands because of fanatical nationalism.
• Some are greedy for wealth and power.
These, as you might have already caught on, are the negative characteristics.
• Ruthlessness - hidden behind a façade of politeness.
• Militaristic - cruel but obedient to authority.
• Will pursue incompatible opinions to absurd ends.
• Given to sensuality without restraint.
How would you like to do business with a nation like that? There are some of the characteristics. And then you find some positive characteristics.
• An aptitude for the arts – for music, for art, for sculpturing. Some especially excel in that.
• Some have practical and technical bents. They are the inventors.
• Some have philosophical minds and become great thinkers.
• Some nations are more peace loving.
• Some emphasize physical strength.
But here’s the point I want to make. You and I, because of marriage, because of intermarriage, because of one nation going out of existence and another coming into existence, are a very interesting confluence of genes. And I want you to know today that God not only knows about that, but also made us that way. And it is His intention to take the negative traits that we would have naturally, the negative traits that would come to us because of our culture, because of our heritage, because of our parents, because of our background, and what God does is He overcomes those negative traits and begins to build in us the positive traits of the fullness of the Spirit, and love and joy and peace and longsuffering and gentleness; and to take some of the strengths of our particular culture and to use those strengths for His honor and His glory. That’s what God does in what we call salvation.
Let me give you a third observation. Without God’s intervention, all people would be completely lost. When you look at the nations, as I’ve already mentioned, always there is entropy, a going to randomness and paganism. It’s everywhere. Just think for a moment. Universal paganism and wickedness upon the earth was so great that God could not stand it, “but Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”
Noah has three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth, as we noticed, and from them all the families of the earth are scattered. And what do we have by the time we get to the end of Genesis 11? We have universal wickedness, paganism, and idolatry rampant on the whole earth. And what does God do? He sovereignly chooses Abraham. Abraham, of course, is a Shemite, and it is from Abraham that all the families of the earth are going to be blessed because that’s from where Jesus is going to come. And so God intervenes and he chooses Abraham out of idolatry and says, “Abraham, I’m introducing Myself to you because you would not go looking for Me. I am coming looking for you, and I am going to save you and I am going to make you the father of a great nation.”
Here you have Canaanites, and we spoke about the curse of the Canaanites. And in the midst of that awful curse and the evil that the Canaanites committed, here you have a prostitute by the name of Rahab, who believes in Jehovah. She is saved by the grace of God, and even makes it into the list in Hebrews 11 where you have all of the heroes of faith. She is listed there. And God’s grace was extended to other Canaanites, as well, who came to know Jehovah and to trust Jehovah God. So what you always see is this universal wickedness, but God is always drawing out. God is always intervening. But I want you to know today that without God’s intervention, if we were left to ourselves we would become idolaters, self-serving, and we would not come to know the Lord.
And do you know that it is the same today? I can take you to families where there are no Christians on either side in the family with grandparents that were perhaps into occultism, grandparents who had no time for God. And then parents who equally had no time for God! And in the midst of a family like that God will choose a young woman, and she will get saved, and through her, blessing will come to others. And her family will never understand it.
Or God will choose a young man. I know a young man who is a pastor today who comes from a thoroughly anti-Christian family. And he’s the only one saved in his family, and God reached down and saved him out. Why? It’s because if God did not rescue us from our sin we would remain in it. That’s the hope of the Gospel. And you see, the reason that we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ is we know that God’s means of rescuing people is to have them understand Jesus Christ, and then use that information to cause the Holy Spirit of God to work in their hearts to know that God is in the rescuing business and saves sinners – even big ones. And that’s why we have Evangelism Explosion because we know that God’s purposes in this era are all focused on Jesus.
There’s a fourth and final observation, and that is that in the end representatives will be in heaven from all the different families of the earth. The Bible says in Revelation 5:9 that there will be members that Jesus purchased from every tribe, from every language, from every people, from every nation, and they all will be there.
What is God doing today? God is going to the nations of the earth (and we are going to the nations of the earth), inviting men and women to believe on Jesus so that there will be more tongues to give glory to God. And we will have a part in that representative group because we are a part of God’s plan to rescue people from their sin through Jesus.
I simply conclude today with this thought. If you are here today as a Christian, I want you to know (if you know anything about history) that you are an exception. Somebody hearing that on the radio or on the Internet says, “Oh yeah, that’s the problem with you Christians. You are so proud. You think that you are so special.” I want you to know today that if you are thinking that, you have the opposite response to what you should have. If we are the exceptions, it is all because of God’s grace, his undeserved grace that saved us out of millions and millions who do not know the Savior.
In future messages we will learn that God has two purposes. He has a purpose for the unconverted, and He has a purpose for the converted, and both of them converge in His matchless grace and glory.
How could I preach a message like this without in the end inviting you to believe in Jesus, to trust Him especially if you think of yourself as marginalized or rejected because you belong to this tribe, this nation, this culture or this particular background. No matter who you are, the Bible says, if there’s a desire in your heart to respond to Jesus and to be forgiven and to be reconciled to God, you can be a part of that eternal company. History is going somewhere, and next time we’ll learn that God is guiding it in the process.
Would you join me as we pray?
Our Father, today we want to thank You that You can overcome any barrier, any background and any confluence of genes that made us one way and not another, and that Your grace loves to reach deep so that Your glory might be clearly seen in the lives of the redeemed. May no one listening to this think that they are beyond God’s grace, and may no one listening to this think that they are too good to receive or need Your grace. Help us as we exalt Jesus, the focal point of history. We pray in His name, Amen.