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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 24

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

Verses 1-25

Numbers 24:7 . He shall pour the water. This is a fine prediction of the increase of Jacob’s seed, and of the temporal blessings which should fall to their lot. Agag, a perpetual name assumed by the kings of Amalek, was, it would seem, the strongest prince of his age. This nation, devoted to destruction, was nearly cut off by Saul. 1 Samuel 15:0.

Numbers 24:9 . He couched as a lion, and as a great lion. The original term here rendered a great lion, is rendered in some versions a lioness; in others, an old lion, and in others, a fierce lion. But are not all lions fierce? From the variety of readings it is evident, that the meaning of Moses is not now distinctly ascertained. Homer also mentions the ‘great lion.’ I will not affirm that either Moses, Balaam, or Homer had any allusion to the Carnivorus Incognitum; an entire skeleton of which has lately been discovered. But evident it is, that the Behemoth, described in Job 40:16, was an animal far superior to the elephant. What inspired man would say of an animal but ten or twelve feet high, that his tail was like a cedar; and, Behold he drinketh up a river? It has been observed by moderns, that the ancients, often local in their situation, were very much circumscribed in knowledge; and on that account the christian fathers had not sufficient information to clear up many passages in the old testament. Bones however of very enormous animals have long been dug up in different parts of Siberia, and in other parts of the world, some of whose teeth are formed for eating herbs, and others for eating flesh.

In America, and particularly on the shores of the Mississippi, and the Wabash, bones of this kind were so frequently found as to interest learned inquiries. At length two entire skeletons were dug up; the one carnivorous, the other herbivorous, which seem to have perished in battle with each other, or to have been thrown together by some catastrophe of nature. The herbivorous animal called Mammoth, or Behemoth, shall be described in the fortieth chapter of Job. But the huge terrific animal which subsisted on prey, called the Megalonyx, or great lion, whose skeleton has been removed to William and Mary’s college, and erected at the expense of the congress, is said to be twenty five feet high, and to measure from the nose to the tail, not less than sixty feet. The bones of one of his feet are now exhibited in the Liverpool Museum. “It is sheathed,” says Mr. Ashe, “and ertractile, in the manner of a cat, tiger, and lion. When this paw was dilated on its prey, filled with muscles, flectors, and cartilage, clothed with flesh, with turgid skin and hair, it must have covered a space of ground four feet by three. In a word, this animal must have had a body of unequalled magnitude and strength, joined to the greatest agility, which rendered him the terror of the forest and of man. And from the force expressed by the visible seat of the muscles, his bounds must have been prodigious, enabling him to fall on his prey, to seize it with his teeth, tear it with his claws and devour it. Accustomed to measure his strength with that of all the other animals he used to encounter, the habit of conquering must have rendered him haughty, and intrepid, great and ferocious beyond conception.”

Finding however no clear traces, that the Megalonyx has existed since the flood, I give no confidence to the tradition of the Shawanece orator, quoted by the above gentleman.

Numbers 24:17 . I shall see him, but not now. I do see him by faith, or by the revelation of the Spirit. The future tense is often put for the past, and for the present tense. He speaks of David, and of the Messiah, of whose regal power and victories, David was a remarkable figure. He was the day star of the world.

Numbers 24:22 . The Kenite shall be wasted until Asshur shall carry thee away captive. The Kenites seem to have been a branch of the Midianites, dwelling under the protection of Amalek, whom Saul spared when Amalek was cut off. 1 Samuel 15:6. Jethro’s family was probably a branch of this people, for they also are called Kenites. Judges 1:16; Judges 4:11. Asshur was the Assyrians, Genesis 10:11, whose empire was absorbed in that of Babylon. We have here therefore a prediction of the vast conquests of the Babylonians.

Numbers 24:24 . Ships Chittim shall afflict Asshur (Assyria) and afflict Eber, the father of the Hebrews. Genesis 10:21. Kittim is the name of the patriarch, Genesis 10:4, whose posterity populated Cyprus, the Isles and coasts of Greece and Italy. These invading armies, according to Daniel 11:30, should utterly destroy the Assyrian empire, and after that afflict Heber, and burn the city of the Jews. Daniel 9:26-27. Moses calls these Roman armies that came in the ships of Chittim, a nation from afar, whose language the Hebrews could not understand. Deuteronomy 28:59; Deuteronomy 28:64. This most luminous prophecy, which the prophets recite one after another, is then of itself a grand proof of the certainty of divine revelation, and was fully accomplished when the Romans, invited as allies, delivered the Jews from oppression, and afterwards destroyed Jerusalem for revolt.


This Balaam, this druid of Chaldea, this mercenary prophet, having three times complied with Balak, and dared to seek divinations against Israel, at last desisted from his wicked design. And surely he would have been destroyed in the attempt, had not God reprieved him a few days, that he might awe the nations to quietness whom providence would not now destroy, and drive those to despair, whose doom was near by the brightest predictions of Israel’s prosperity. Nor let the christian be surprised, that the richest truths should drop from the lips of a wicked man: it is no new thing in the history of the church. Pharaoh was inspired with dreams respecting the famine for the salvation of nations; and both the Abimelechs had dreams concerning the safety of Abraham. Leaving therefore his seven altars, Balaam came and contemplated the camp of Israel. Here the light of vision broke in upon his soul, and unfolded futurity to a daring mortal. The sight of the tabernacle in the centre of the host, the rivers flowing in the vales, the cedars adorning the hills, the lions couching in the forests, and the power of Agag, aided by a glare from the Shekinah, inspired him with ideas respecting the prosperity of Israel. And it is evident from his blessing the friends, and cursing the enemies of this people, that he was not unacquainted with the promises made to Abraham. What an account must he have to give for the abuse of knowledge and gifts!

Balaam, who made his person venal, and his ministry profane, when reproached by Balak for blessing instead of cursing his enemies, was extremely solicitous to support a fair appearance. He pleaded, that though the impetuosity of the Spirit constrained his tongue to speak; yet his heart was firm to Moab: for he was very unwilling to forfeit the king’s favour and promised rewards. So false apostles, however divine their words, seek their own interest, and not the glory of Christ. They preach themselves, and not their Lord and master. Now it was, we may presume, that he taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel. 2 Peter 2:15-16. Seeing divinations fail, and Israel rising to empire, he advised the king to cultivate friendship with them by religion and marriage, as in the succeeding chapter. Here Balaam discovered his real character, and the nakedness of his heart appeared. Sooner than lose the wages of unrighteousness, he gave the king advice worthy only of a devil. Lord, what is man! One grain of holiness is worth all the gifts, and all the fame in the world.

If Balaam was favoured with all this light, and all these views of futurity, to quiet and intimidate Moab and Midian; it should greatly humble the popular preacher, who is conscious of an unsanctified heart and habit; who displays an angelic eloquence in the pulpit, but who never feels more at home than when in company with gay and carnal people. Why, it may be asked, is this man qualified to speak as the best of saints, and as the greatest of ministers? Why is he enabled to draw religious characters, and religious affections to the life? Why does he with gracious smiles lead the people to Pisgah, and show them the promised land; and why do they all weep under the unction of his word? It is because God still gives Balaam light for the sake of the people. But after all these fine speeches have escaped the lips of the speaker, he has nothing left but his covetousness, his pride, his voluptuousness, and all the miseries of a hypocritical character.

This prophet not only saw Israel’s prosperity, but he saw the Messiah’s kingdom and glory under the figure of a star, and a sceptre: and all his victories by his gospel, and his judgments over the gentile world. It is common for prophecies to have a double acceptation; the one present, or near, the other remote. The man of God who came to Bethel gave Jeroboam a sign of the accomplishment of his prediction, by rending the altar, and scattering the ashes. David, in this view, was the star, and the sceptre of Israel. David vanquished Moab, put all the neighbouring nations to tribute, and extended his borders to the Euphrates, as God had promised. 2 Samuel 7:0. But Jesus Christ is the everlasting light and glory of the church. He is the root and offspring of David, the bright and morning star. Revelation 22:16. He is the day-star that shall arise in his people’s hearts. 1 Peter 1:19. In a word, he is the day-spring from on high which hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death. Luke 1:78. And it was, no doubt, in consideration of this prophecy and expectation, that providence announced the Messiah’s birth to Chaldea by a singular star, which guided the wise men to Bethlehem. They worshipped him, and rejoiced while all Jerusalem was troubled at his birth: and God forbid that we should ever slight the Lord Jesus, while the nations abroad welcome his beams. Balaam, who was at first received as a god, is now dismissed as a hypocrite. He lost all preferment, and all additional rewards. But God did not let him go unrewarded. Leaving Moab impressed with the badness of his character, he seems to have lingered in Midian till many of them fell by the sword; and Balaam, poor Balaam, with all his sordid wisdom, was numbered with the slain. Hence the angel by the way brandished not his sword against him in vain. He cried, I have sinned, but his repentance vanished with the idea of danger; like the disobedient prophet, slain by a lion, he was not suffered to come to the sepulchre of his fathers. In him let every wary and sordid hypocrite read his end.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 24". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/numbers-24.html. 1835.
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