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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 23

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

Verses 1-30

Numbers 23:1 . Seven altars. The Lord commanded Job’s friends to take seven bullocks and seven rams, offered no doubt on seven altars: Job 42:8. This was the highest sacrifice a nation could present. 1 Chronicles 15:26. 2 Chronicles 29:26.

Numbers 23:21 . He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, nor seen perverseness in Israel. The Vulgate reads, ‘There is no idol in Jacob, nor similitude in Israel.’ Our Poole also cites one class of interpreters who read, ‘He does not behold injury to Jacob, nor see vexation against Israel.’ Dr. Wall reads the Septuagint to the same effect: ‘There shall not be calamity in Jacob, nor shall there be seen painfulness in Israel.’ Others read, ‘He doth not approve of any outrage against Jacob, nor allow of vexation to Israel.’ The annotations of the assembly of divines are to the same effect. The original terms, rendered iniquity, or vanity, and perverseness, signify molestation, grief, wrong, misery, and violent strength, rather than sin. How much then has this text been abused, by men who would force upon it an antinomian sense.

Numbers 23:22 . The strength of an Unicorn. Mr. Campbell, who visited the African missions, has been heard to say that he himself killed two unicorns, when about 800 miles north-east of the Cape of Good Hope. They were each as large as four horses. The horn rises in front of the head, and a smaller horn rises below. It is therefore a bicorned animal. Our painters give this animal the horn of the sea-unicorn, being unacquainted with its natural history; they are correct however in giving it a divided hoof. This, like many other animals, is now almost extinct.


Balaam, most joyfully received as the salvation of Moab, and little less than adored, began to consult the Lord by a sevenfold sacrifice on the high places of Baal; for it would have been deemed impious for a nation to have commenced a war without consulting the gods. And why all this religious parade, when he already knew the mind of God? And what could his ministry be, however angelic the language, but a curse and a consternation to the people. So the issue realized. Behold now the altars smoking to the Lord. Behold the prostrate prophet, who before he had cleansed his heart from covetousness, ambition and anger, seek revelations from on high. The bright cloud of vision opens to his soul, the glory and happiness of Israel stand pourtrayed; and his heart impressed for the moment, breaks forth in effusions of sacred song, scarcely equalled by the best of prophets. Mark the sublimity and force of his language. He begins with the dignity of the prince, who had invited him; the greatness of his journey, and its object to curse Israel and defy Jacob. The antithesis, How shall I curse whom God hath not cursed; how shall I defy whom JEHOVAH hath not defied? is extremely striking and pertinent. And seeing the trembling princes on his left hand, and the smiling camp of Israel on his right, he adds, The people shall dwell alone, and shall not be numbered with the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, and number the fourth part of Israel. Let me die the death of the righteous, &c. From the wide spreading host of the Israelites, Balaam predicted the situation and glory of the christian church. They shall dwell alone; being Christ’s new or peculiar people, they shall not be numbered with the wicked; they are also a great multitude which no man can number. This church, blessed of God, travels on to Canaan, and can neither be cursed by Balaam, nor all the Midian host. But how true soever Balaam’s prediction might be, his prayer for a happy death it is feared had no effect. It is evident, this man of eloquence and extensive knowledge, was not unacquainted with the triumphant manner in which Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died. The memory of Melchizedek, of Job, and others could not be unknown to him. They reached the haven full of faith, and mature in virtue; they cheerfully resigned the cross for the crown: their souls overflowing with heaven and the prophetic spirit, took their flight, leaving streams of blessings on all their sons. For such a death Balaam, devoted to covetousness and gain, equally ready to worship JEHOVAH or Baal, and ferociously cruel to his beast, seems to have had no qualification but that of empty desire; nor was it his lot, for he presently fell by the sword, leaving the world no proof of his repentance. Let all ministers who have dishonoured the sanctuary, read and tremble; for many will say, on the coming of Christ, Lord, we have prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have done many wonderful works. And yet he shall answer, I know you not: depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.

Balak absorbed in the idea of danger, urges the venal prophet to a second sacrifice. This misguided prince, seeing the servant purchased by a doubled present, seemed to think that heaven might be gained to reverse its sentence by a double oblation. And what an account must those give, who charge themselves with the morals of a court, and whose sordid conduct drives a nation to infidelity? Behold this prince accompanied with the Druid of Aram, and followed by all the princes, ascending the hill in Zophim, whence the distant camp of Israel might be seen. New altars smoke, and new revelations are invoked, but no fastings, no supplications are enjoined for national guilt. Yet the Spirit of God, ever indulgent to the ignorance and weakness of man, condescends to say that God is not as man, that he should lie, nor as the son of man that he should repent. Balaam frankly tells the king, that there is no enchantment against Jacob, nor divination against Israel. Why then did they not cease from their vain works?

But Balak, frantic with fear, and still blind concerning his prophet, first reproves and then employs him again. He leads him to a third sacrifice on the Jeshimon side of mount Peor. But now the altars smoked in vain; there was neither voice nor vision from the Lord. Why was the king so eager, as though he would have forced heaven with gifts. He exhibits a striking figure of wicked men, when they think that their day is come. Better to have said with Ahaz, I will not ask a sign, neither will I tempt the Lord. But why did Balaam comply? Ah, because allured with the gold of Moab, he was in his heart more ready to curse than to bless the Israel of God. Balak, impiously enquiring of God by Balaam, received no alleviation of his fears. He heard nothing but Israel’s aggrandizement and glory; that all future generations acquainted with the works of the Lord should say, What hath God wrought? Consequently the humiliation of Moab was understood. He could neither bring a curse upon Israel, nor prevent their receiving a thousand blessings.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 23". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/numbers-23.html. 1835.
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