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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 23

Hole's Old and New Testament CommentaryHole's Commentary

Verses 1-65

Num_23:1 Num_26:65 .

The last verse of chapter 22 shed light upon the evil power that animated Moab and Balak their king. They had in their midst the "high places of Baal." So when in the first verse of our chapter we read that Balaam said, "Build me here seven altars," we at once see that this man, who professed himself to be a prophet of the Lord, was really in league with the powers of darkness. When in conflict with Baal, Elijah repaired the one altar of the Lord that was broken down, and he prevailed. In contrast with that, we are now to see that the seven altars of Baal can prevail nothing against the blessing of God.

Balaam however, as verse Num_23:3 shows, treated the offerings burned upon the seven altars as being Balak's, while he himself went off to a solitary place, if perchance the Lord would meet and instruct him there. He evidently had no sense of the supreme power and glory of Jehovah, while he knew that no power could prevail against His word. To him Jehovah was only the First among many, and not the supreme and only God.

God however did meet him, and put into his mouth words, that he was compelled to utter in the presence of Balak, which are recorded for us in verses Num_23:7-10 . Though Balak had called him to curse, and for that had offered him great reward, he found himself unable to do it. God had neither cursed nor defied them, so his mouth for that purpose was closed. The rather he beheld them from the heights, and so considered them as God saw them, from the standpoint of His purpose. That being so he had to announce three things.

First, the separation of the people. God had called Abraham out from his kindred and country, and they, who were descended from him through Isaac the child of promise, were to share in this calling and maintain it, though over four centuries has passed. To this day the Jew is separated from the Gentiles, or nations, for what God ordains is not affected by time nor by the schemes of men.

Second, the multiplication of this chosen and separated people. Their number should be beyond computation. Knowing this, the adversary all through the ages has aimed at reducing their number, and in the process has used many evil human instruments, of whom in our days Hitler has been the last, and one of the worst. But, in spite of all that the adversary can do, this prediction will be verified in the coming age.

Third, their beatification, using this word in its proper meaning, and not the meaning it has been given by the Romish religion. Abraham died "the death of the righteous," and so too have those who were truly "the children of Abraham," (Galations 3.7 ), and not merely his children by natural descent. But in this prophecy Israel is viewed in the light of God's purpose and so viewed, his "last end" will be in the glory of the millennial age. Balaam might well desire such an end, but he never took the road that leads to it. Similarly, many today may desire the end of the Christian, while turning away from the life that we have found in Christ.

Hearing all this, Balak naturally remonstrated, and Balaam reaffirmed that he was under control to the Lord. Balak no doubt believed in many gods, each with his special localities or high places; and so, regarding the Lord as only another of these, he thought a change of place might produce the cursing he desired, but again the Lord met Balaam and put in his mouth the words he had to utter.

His preamble this time is very striking, and of a more positive nature, in it he contrasts God with man. Of man it can be said, "they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies " ( Psa_58:3 ). Moreover the wisest of men frequently commit themselves to actions that prove to be wrong, and they have to repent and retract. Now it is impossible for God to lie, as we are told in Tit_1:2 , and His word stands, so that, when He speaks, He makes it good. God's blessing rested on Israel and no power of the adversary, that Balaam could wield, could prevail to reverse it. The blessings conferred upon the church are far higher than those given to Israel; so as we consider the spiritual and heavenly blessings that are ours in Christ, let us rejoice in the assurance that these verses give.

This time Balaam is forced to pronounce in the first place the justification of God's people, speaking as one who only saw God's side of the matter, for the statements of verses Num_23:21-23 must be read in the light of the words that close verse Num_23:23 , "What hath God wrought!" We recognize the prophetic character of these utterances. When he spoke, God had indeed brought Israel out of Egypt with great strength, but His mighty work which would furnish the righteous basis for the justification of the people, in whom so much iniquity was found and so much perverseness manifested, was not accomplished till Christ came. Nor was "the shout of a king" made effective, according to God.

This is the first positive mention of a king in Israel, for in Gen_36:31 , the word is mentioned in a purely negative way. David was raised up as a king, typical of Christ; but only when Christ Himself returns in glory will "the shout of a king" really be heard in their midst; unless indeed, we are permitted to apply these words to that moment when on the cross Jesus uttered the loud cry and said, "It is finished," while above His sacred head stood Pilate's title, "The King of the Jews."

The power of God had so laid hold of Balaam that he saw and spake of nothing but God, and what God had wrought. The deliverance of the people from Egypt and their passage through the wilderness was all the fruit of His strength. Moreover He would endow the people with His strength, so that ultimately they too should overcome all their foes. This is evident as we read verse Num_23:24 . They should be not only justified and delivered but also overcoming in the power of God.

Disappointed though he was Balak gave Balaam a third opportunity to utter a curse. In his ignorance of the commanding power of God, he still thought something might be gained by a change of place with its further altars and sacrifices. As for Balaam, the opening verse of Numbers 24.0 reveals that though previously he had spoken of going forth that he might meet the Lord, he had really gone "to seek for enchantments." He sought that, but he did not get it, since the Lord restrained the powers of darkness and met Balaam Himself. Something similar is seen in 1Sam 28.0 , when the witch of Endor essayed to call up Samuel through her "familiar spirit," who would have impersonated him; but in result God held in check the demon and allowed Samuel himself to appear. God can thus restrain the adversary as seems good to Him.

As Balaam opened his lips for the third time he spoke of himself in a remarkable way. In saying that now his eyes were opened he confessed that they had been shut, and therefore he had been in the dark. The Spirit of God had come upon him, and he was saying what the Spirit forced him to say. It does not follow therefore that his opened eye meant that he had turned to God: indeed his subsequent history proves that he had not done so. But his prefatory words are intended to assure us that he did indeed speak as a prophet, and the words he uttered were the words of God.

Previously he had been impelled to state that Israel was a people whom God had separated for Himself, and then that He had justified them in spite of their natural sinfulness. Now he has to declare that God had beautified them. In Psalm go we have the prayer of Moses, "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us." Here we find how abundantly God answered that desire, and how He added victory and exaltation to the beauty. Again we have to remind ourselves that the prophecy speaks of what God has in His purpose for Israel, which in due season He will bring to pass. What that nation through the ages would prove themselves to be is not the theme here. In the New Testament we find that God speaks in the same way of ourselves the church of God. See for instance, Rom_8:29 , Rom_8:30 ; Ephesians 2.1-2.7 ; where the purpose of God is in view and not our practical state while in this world.

Balak was left with the statement that to curse Israel was to bring a curse on the head of the one who uttered it. This angered him and he wished to summarily dismiss Balaam, only to find that the Lord was about to give further utterance through Balaam's lips, to which he had to listen. He had summarily dismissed him in anger, and though Balaam spoke of departing, he found himself compelled to predict Israel's future, and particularly what they as a people should do to Moab in the latter days. So Balak had to hear not only Israel's present blessing but also their victorious destiny.

Ungodly though he was, for a fourth time Balaam was forced to utter inspired words, and verse Num_23:16 is instructive as to what is implied by inspiration. He not only " saw ," and " knew ," but also " heard the words of God." Evidently he was verbally inspired. Moreover he used three names; not only "God," but also "The Most High," a name that seems specially connected with His supremacy in the millennial age, and also "The Almighty," the name by which He revealed Himself to Abraham, from whom Israel sprang. Had Balaam really known God for himself in the way these names indicate, he would have been arrested in his evil course. He furnishes us with a solemn example of what good things a man may utter while he himself remains in "the bond of iniquity," like Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.0 .

Bearing verse Num_23:16 in mind, the "Him," at the beginning of verse Num_23:17 is "the Almighty." Yet in his First Epistle to Timothy Paul tells us that God is "invisible," One whom "no man hath seen, nor can see." Balaam was inspired however, and the Deity that he is going to see is no other than our Lord Jesus Christ, though, as he says, "not now?" and "not nigh." Yes, when Balaam stands before the great white throne he will have his only sight of the One we have learned to love. In contrast with this we are to see Him "as He is," and be "like Him."

The "Star" and the "Sceptre" plainly refer to Christ; the former in His first advent, the latter in His second. It is quite possible that this prediction concerning the "Star" was remembered in the East, and handed down from generation to generation, and so furnished the "wise men from the east" with the idea that the remarkable star they saw indicated the birth of the King of the Jews.

Here again then, the Lord Jesus is predicted in a figurative way. In Genesis 3.0 , He was indicated as the " Seed ," but of "the woman." This presented Him as truly Man, yet not of Adam's fallen race: the most fundamental fact of all. Then in Genesis 49.0 , we had old Jacob's prophecy in which He was prefigured as the " Shepherd ," to gather and control God's sheep; and the " Stone ," upon which Israel should ultimately be built up, and, as we know when we come to the New Testament, all God's purposes should be founded. Now He is the "Star," shining with promise and hope for Israel; and the " Sceptre ," who will finally rule in the midst of His people for the deliverance and blessing of the whole earth. We may add that, in consequence of His rejection by Israel, when the star shone over His birth in humiliation, He is going to shine as the "Bright and Morning Star" for His waiting church.

The words of Balaam, however, were mainly concerned with the way in which the "Sceptre" would smite and destroy Moab and the other peoples who were Israel's opponents. His utterances finished, Balaam departed "to his place." This does not mean that he returned to his own land, for in Revelation 14.0 we learn that it was he that instigated the evils that occupy the next chapter, and we presently find that when Moab and the Midianites were destroyed he died amongst them.

Before proceeding to Numbers 25.0 , let us recapitulate for a moment, so that we may observe how truly the law had "a shadow of good things to come." The good things made known in the Epistle to the Romans have come before us in their right order by these shadows.

In Exodus 11.0 , we had indicated the "no difference" doctrine of Romans 3.0 ; and in Exodus 12.0 the blood of propitiation, which gave Israel shelter from the judgment of God, also found in Romans 3.0 .

Then in Exodus 14.0 and 15, we had the shadow of what is stated in the end of Romans 4.0 Romans 4 Romans 4.0 and early verses of Romans 5.0 Romans 5 Romans 5.0 . A way has been Divinely made through death on to resurrection ground, which has broken the power of the enemy and brought us to God Himself in peace, and rejoicing in the hope of glory; just as on the further shore of the Red Sea, Israel sang of God bringing them to His holy habitation in the promised land.

This was followed by the sorrowful experiences of the wilderness, when the utter perversity of man's flesh, as seen in Israel, was fully proved; only to be followed by the incident of the brazen serpent. In Romans 7.0 the sinfulness of the flesh, as revealed in Paul's own experience, is set forth at length followed by the condemnation of "sin in the flesh" in the sacrifice of Christ, who came "in the likeness of sinful flesh," as stated in Rom_8:3 . But in this very passage too we find the Holy Spirit given as the power of the new life in Christ, just as the shadow of this, the springing well, is found in the same chapter as the incident of the brazen serpent.

And now we have had the attempt of the adversary, which signally failed, to bring a curse on the people, and thus defeat God's purpose as to them. Here is the shadow of the triumphant passage toward the end of Romans 8.0 , where we are assured that nothing can defeat the purpose of God concerning His saints, since everyone foreknown is glorified, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

To the Jew, before Christ came, all this was history of much interest, and much condemnation as regards their forefathers. Until the substance was revealed in Christ and His Gospel, its "shadow" character did not appear. It is we who are in a favoured position, which enables us to discern the shadow character of the history. How great must be the Person and the work to cast a shadow extending over thousands of years. The tip of the shadow appeared in the Garden of Eden, where sin first entered. In the events we have been considering the shadow is broad and deep.

As we commence reading Numbers 25.0 , we descend from Israel, viewed according to God's purpose, to Israel, as they actually were at that time in carnality and unbelief. Balaam is not mentioned in the chapter but, as we have noted, he was at the bottom of the evil, instigating Balak to promote it. In result, "Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor." The "whoredom" involved in this was doubtless committed in honour of Baal, and so its wickedness disguised in their minds. Not all the people were involved, but enough to make it an act of apostasy that deserved and got severe and immediate judgment.

At the outset of his prophecy Balaam had declared the separation of Israel from all nations. Now comes the diabolical effort of this evil man to defeat his own words by seducing them into alliance with Moab. He did not succeed of course in defeating God's purpose, but he did seduce many, and so brought condign punishment upon them. There was a display of grief on the part of those not involved in the sin, as we see in verse Num_23:6 , and of zeal for the glory of God, as displayed by Phineas. Not only did twenty-four thousand of the people die, but it brought a sentence of death on the Midianites at the hand of Israel.

Of all Satan's devices against us none is more effective than the temptation to ally oneself with the world; hence the searching words of Jam_4:4 , and of 2Co 6.14-6.18 . In such an alliance the men of the world cannot go the Christian way; they have not the life which would enable them to do so. Having the flesh in him, the Christian can go the world's way. Hence the result of the tension, that is produced, is a foregone conclusion.

Numbers 26.0 records the numbering of the people that the Lord ordered after the plague had subsided. The book of Numbers began with the numbering that took place in the second year after they came out of Egypt; now we have that which was taken just before they entered the land. It is marked by rather more detail than we had in Numbers 1.0 , and it is in this chapter we learn how that the children of Korah were spared when the judgment fell on their father.

If the two numberings be compared, we find that there was only a very small decrease in the total at the end of the journey, yet there were several large variations in the case of individual tribes. For instance Simeon fell to considerably less than half, which is significant in view of verse Num_23:14 of the last chapter. Others decreased in lesser degree. Some increased; notably Manasseh, since its total went up by just over 20,000. We know nothing that accounts for these other variations save that the small decrease in the case of Reuben may be accounted for by rebellion of Dathan and Abiram.

The Levites were excluded from the first numbering, save that they were counted later so that they might be substituted for the firstborn of all the people. In the second numbering they were counted, and the total was only slightly in excess of the earlier time. It is emphasized in our chapter that though the inheritance of the tribes was to be according to their number, and by lot, they were to have no inheritance amongst the others, since they were separated to the service of God.

One striking fact emerges at the end of the chapter. Amongst all these males of twenty years and over, numbering just over 600,000, there was not an individual left alive, who had been in the earlier census, saving Caleb and Joshua. We turn back to Numbers 14.0 , and again reading verses 20-32, we see with what absolute exactitude God fulfils the word He has spoken. A solemn fact for the unbeliever, but one in which we who believe can heartily rejoice.

Bibliographical Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Numbers 23". "Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbh/numbers-23.html. 1947.
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