During Advent, my pastor, Rich Lusk, preached on Zephaniah. A couple of his sermons are relevant to current debates concerning Christian nationalism (here and here).
Rich’s text was Zephaniah 3, and he focused attention on verse 9: “For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of Yahweh, to serve Him with one shoulder.”
As he rightly noted, Zephaniah’s use of “lip” alludes to Genesis 11. When they gather on the plain of Shinar, all the peoples are “one lip” (Genesis 11:1, 6; saphah ‘echat). Yahweh comes near to confuse their lip (11:7, 9; navla . . . shephatam; the verb is balal).
James Jordan has pointed out that “lip” is sometimes used to describe religious uses of language (e.g., Leviticus 5:4). Prior to Babel, humanity spoke a single language (“one set of words”), but they were also united in worship. The curse-blessing of Babel is pluralism in language and religion. After Babel, mankind no longer pursues a single false religion.
Zephaniah 3:9 promises the wound of Babel will be healed, in a twofold unification that overcomes the divisions of Babel.
First, God will purify the lip (singular) of the peoples (plural). As a result, worshipers will bring offerings from beyond Ethiopia, delivered from the shame of their rebellion (3:10-11). The nations will have one lip again, but the name on their lip will be Yahweh.
Second, scattered (putz, Genesis 11:8) nations will no longer be dispersed (putz, Zephaniah 3:10). Yahweh will gather the peoples so they serve (‘avad) with a single shoulder (shekem ‘echad). Yahweh will form an international order of servant-Levites, who together lift Yahweh on the shoulders of their praise.
(A pun reinforces the link between Zephaniah 3 and Genesis 11. The verb translated as “purify” is the fairly rare barar. On the plains of Shinar, Yahweh balaled [confused] the lip of the nations; one day, Zephaniah promises, He will barar [purify] it.)
In certain respects, Zephaniah (and the rest of the Bible) promises a reversal of Babel, which begins at Pentecost. Pentecost is a miracle of language, not merely of “lip” (religious language). Scattered nations are gathered in Jerusalem. Religious diversity and conflict is displaced by a people speaking one-lip in praise of the living God.
In other respects, the effects of Babel persist after Pentecost. Nations still speak distinct languages and develop their own cultural forms.
Yet, Pentecost alters even the features of Babel that continue after Pentecost. Because of the Spirit, nations use their multiple words to say the same thing. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and all the others in Jerusalem begin to speak of Jesus, the cross, resurrection life, the descent of the Spirit.
Because various nations speak with one lip, linguistic barriers become porous. Confessing with one lip, nations begin to develop similar languages and cultures. If religion is the heart of culture, a global religious confession will tend to produce a global civilization.
This is, in fact, the history of Christian Europe. Europe has been (more or less) linguistically unified as Latin, French, and English each took its turn as lingua franca. Though Europeans speak various languages, their languages cross-fertilize each other. (What’s the French word for “picnic,” or the Polish word for “computer”?)
European languages haven’t just unified Europe. They’ve unified the world. At least since Herder, it’s been common to claim that nations are identified, among other things, by a common language. That’s not true, at all.
Dozens of nations today have multiple official languages. Others with a single national language have linguistic sub-communities. In the UK, tens of thousands speak Welsh, Gaelic, and Manx. Castilian is official all over Spain, but certain regions have their own official languages – Basque, Catalan, Galician.
Linguistic diversity exists within nation-states. Plus, multiple nation-states share the same official language. Around sixty have English as an official language, though often as one language among many. About twenty are Spanish-speaking.
Three hundred million people speak French, most of them not in France; the population of France is around 68 million. Four nations (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) have Swahili as an official language; four have Chinese (China, Macao, Taiwan, Singapore).
Dialects often became official through a kind of internal linguistic imperialism. Take France: “By the early 1800s, Parisian French had become the primary language of the aristocracy in France. Near the beginning of the 19th century, the French government began to pursue policies with the end goal of eradicating the many minorities and regional languages (patois) spoken in France.” French public education was partly designed to wipe out patois languages like Breton and Basque, in part to weaken ethnic loyalties among restive minorities.
Nation and language simply don’t match up in today’s world, if they ever did. We live in a world where language groups are often sub-communities within a nation-state. We live in a world of gigantic language blocks.
European exploration, colonization, imperialism are largely responsible for this situation. To fuse nation and language, we’d need to undo centuries of linguistic expansion, contraction, extinction. We’d be quenching the Spirit’s work in bringing the nations to speak with a single lip.
Pentecost also yielded a unified European civilization. Christianized Franks, Danes, Saxons, and Britons merged into Christendom.
Across Europe, you’ll find common forms of architecture, styles of music and art, institutions of government and higher education, a common calendar that, in some places, still preserves a shadowy respect for the Lord’s Day.
Just as the languages of Christendom spread throughout the world, so has the civilization of Christendom. Cities of Latin America look like European cities, with European architecture and city planning. Today, the music of Christian Europe is at least as popular in China and Japan as in its Western birthplace.
Today’s Europe is a new Babel project, a unification in defiance of God. But Europe aspires to unity because it was once a mirror image of Babel, a complex and diverse but unified Christian civilization.
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