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CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY NOTES
We now enter upon the last division of this Book, which comprises fifteen chapters (22–36).
“In the steppes of Moab the Israelites encamped upon the border of the Promised Land, from which they were only separated by the Jordan. But before this boundary line could be passed, there were many preparations that had to be made. In the first place, the whole congregation was to pass through a trial of great importance to all future generations, as bearing upon the relation in which it stood to the heathen world; and in the second place, it was here that Moses, who was not to enter Canaan because of his sin at the water of strife, was to bring the work of legislation to a close before his death, and not only to issue the requisite instructions concerning the conquest of the promised inheritance, and the division of it among the tribes of Israel, but to impress once more upon the hearts of the whole congregation the essential contents of the whole law, with all that the Lord had done for Israel, that they might be confirmed in their fidelity to the Lord, and preserved from the danger of apostasy. This last work of the faithful servant of God, with which he brought his mediatorial work to a close, is described in the book of Deuteronomy; whilst the laws relating to the conquest and partition of Canaan, with the experience of Israel in the steppes of Moab, fill up the latter portion of the present book.”—Keil and Del.
In this and the succeeding two chapters we have the record of Balaam and his prophecies.
Numbers 22:1. “The plains. Heb. araboth; the word is the plural of that which is used to denote the whole depressed tract along the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and onward, where it is still called the Arabah, to the Elanitic gulf. Near the mouth of the Jordan this tract is about eleven miles across, a breadth of from four to five miles being on the eastern bank. The space occupied by the Israelitish camp consisted, in the main, of a large and luxuriant oasis upon this bank, slightly raised above the barren flat, sultry because sheltered by the Peraean hills which bear up the fertile plateau above, and watered by the brooks which, descending from those hills, run westward across the plain into the Jordan (see Tristram, ‘Land of Israel,’ pp. 528 sqq.).”—Speaker’s Comm.
Plains of Moab: See on Numbers 21:20.
On this side Jordan by Jericho. Keil and Del. translate, “Beyond the Jordan of Jericho.”
Numbers 22:2. Balak = waster, destroyer.—Fuerst.
Zippor = a bird.
Numbers 22:3. “Was distressed because of. Lit. ‘shrank from before them’ in terror.”—Speaker’s Comm.
Numbers 22:4. Midian. “The Midianites, who are referred to here, must be distinguished from the branch of the same tribe which dwelt in the peninsula of Sinai (Numbers 10:29-30; Exodus 2:15-16; Exodus 3:1). They had been settled for a long time (cf. Genesis 36:35) on the eastern border of the Moabitish and Amoritish territory, in a grassy but treeless steppe-land—where many ruins and wells are still to be found belonging to very ancient times—and lived by grazing (Numbers 31:32, sqq.) and the caravan trade. They were not very warlike, and were not only defeated by the Edomites (Genesis 36:35), but were also subdued and rendered tributary by Sihon, king of the Amorites.”—Keil and Del.
“The elders of Midian are heads of tribes who administered the general affairs of the people, who, like the Israelites, lived under a patriarchal constitution. The most powerful of them bore the title of ‘kings’ (Numbers 31:8) or ‘princes’ (Joshua 13:21).—Ibid.
Numbers 22:5. Balaam = “devourer of the people” (Hengstenberg); or, “one not belonging to the people, i.e., a foreigner; or, conqueror, corrupter of the people.”—Fuerst.
Beor is regarded by many as derived from בָּעַר, to burn, to consume. Fuerst says it signifies shepherd, and is from בְּעִיר, cattle. In 2 Peter 2:15 the name is written Bosor.
“Pethor, which is by the river, &c. Rather, ‘which was on the river’ (i.e., the Euphrates, so called here and elsewhere by pre-eminence) ‘in his native land.’ ”—Speaker’s Comm.
Pethor was a city of Mesopotamia (Deuteronomy 23:4) on the Euphrates. Its site is unknown.
Numbers 22:7. Rewards of divination. “The soothsayers’ wages” (comp. 2 Peter 2:15).
Numbers 22:15. Princes, more, and more honourable; i.e., more in number and of more exalted rank, and with more splendid presents or proffers of reward.
Numbers 22:36. A city of Moab. Heb., Ir-Moab. See on Numbers 21:15.
Numbers 22:39. Kirjath-huzoth. Margin: “a city of streets.” Fuerst: “city of the steppes.” From the context, it was “apparently within Balak’s dominions, and therefore south of the Arnon. Hardly however far south, for from it, on the morrow, the company proceeded to Bamoth-Baal, which lay north of the Arnon. It was probably a place of importance, and possibly that of Balak’s residence.… All the conditions implied as to the site of Kirjath-huzoth in the Scriptural notice of it are satisfied by the ruins of Shîhân, four miles west by south of the site assigned to Ar or Ir. They stand on a slight but insulated eminence, and form a conspicuous object to all the country round.”—Speaker’s Comm.
Numbers 22:41. The high places of Baal; or, Bamoth-Baal. See on Numbers 21:19.
The utmost part of the people; or, “the end of the people,” i.e., the outermost portion of the camp of Israel. Balak seems to have thought that Balaam must have the Israelites in view to curse them effectually.
PILGRIMS NEARING HOME
The Israelites have now ended their wanderings. They have encamped for the last time. When they strike their tents again it will be to march forward towards the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Viewing them in their present position, we regard them as an illustration of the Christian approaching the end of his pilgrimage. There is an analogy in the following particulars. The Christian as he draws near to the end of his pilgrimage,—
I. Is cheered by delightful prospects.
From their present encampment the Israelites could behold the land promised to their fathers. They looked forward to—
1. Rest from their toils and wanderings. The Christian nearing home anticipates rest from sin and sorrow, from toil and trial, from doubt and fear. Soon they shall “rest from their labours,” &c. (a)
2. Possession of the inheritance. The “inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away,” will soon be entered upon by the Christian who has the end of his journey in view.
3. The realisation of precious and long-cherished hopes. For generations past the noblest of the Israelites had been animated by the hope of the possession of Canaan; and now that hope is on the point of fruition. The Christian hopes for freedom from sin, for holiness, for likeness to Christ, for the vision of God (1 John 3:2-3); and as he nears the bourne of his pilgrimage the realisation of these splendid hopes comes into clear and clearer view. Most brilliant and blessed are his prospects. (b)
II. Needs preparation for the new state into which he is about to enter.
In this encampment in the plains of Moab much preparatory work had to be done amongst the Israelites before they could advance to the possession of Canaan. This preparatory work is narrated in the last eleven chapters of this book, and in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses completed his work as legislator for them, gave them directions as to the conquest and division of the land, took great pains to guard them against apostasy, to confirm them in their covenant relation to God, and to strengthen their loyalty to Him. And as the Christian approaches the end of his pilgrimage, the progress of his preparation for heaven is often manifest to the spiritual observer. His increasing meetness for his inheritance may be seen in the beautiful ripening of his character, which grows rich and mellow. His life becomes luminous with fore-gleamings of the great glory to which he approaches. Gradually he is “made meet to be a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light.” (c)
III. Is still subjected to trials and difficulties.
While encamped in the plains of Moab, and before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites experienced—
1. Perilous temptations. In the twenty-fifth chapter we have an account of temptations arising from their association with idolatrous peoples and practices, to which great numbers of the Israelites yielded. The true child of God is sometimes sorely tempted and tried, even when he has the heavenly Canaan within his view.
2. Painful separations. Their great emancipator and leader, “Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab.… And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days.” And the aged pilgrim nearing the end of his course often experiences painful separations. The dear partner of his life is perhaps summoned home before him, leaving him to finish his journey alone in weariness and sorrow. The end of the pilgrimage always involves separations, and very often trying ones.
3. Formidable difficulties. Jordan had to be crossed before the Israelites entered into Canaan. And death is an experience which must be passed through by the Christian pilgrim before he gains the heavenly rest; and to some this is a source of great anxiety and trial. (d)
Ye aged pilgrims, and ye who by reason of sickness or weakness are nearing home, be of good cheer, for your heavenly inheritance is at hand. Be ye also diligent that when the summons to arise and depart is given to you, ye may be ready joyfully to obey it.
(a) O weary sons and daughters of Adam! you will not have to drive the ploughshare into the unthankful soil in heaven; you will not need to rise to daily toil before the sun hath risen, and labour still when the sun hath long ago gone to his rest; but ye shall be still, ye shall be quiet, ye shall rest yourselves. Toil, trouble, travail, and labour are words that cannot be spelled in heaven; they have no such things there; for they always rest.—C. H. Spurgeon.
(b) I do not know a more beautiful sight to be seen on earth than a man who has served the Lord for many years, and who, having grown grey in service, feels that in the order of nature he must soon be called home. He is rejoicing in the first-fruits of the Spirit which he has obtained, but he is panting after the full harvest of the Spirit which is guaranteed to him. I think I see him sitting on a jutting crag by the edge of Jordan, listening to the harpers on the other side, and waiting till the pitcher shall be broken at the fountain, and the wheel at the cistern, and the spirit shall depart to God that made it. A wife waiting for her husband’s footsteps; a child waiting in the darkness of the night till its mother comes to give it the evening kiss, are portraits of our waiting. It is a pleasant and precious thing so to wait and so to hope—Ibid.
During the last days of that eminent man of God, Dr. Payson, he once said, “When I formerly read Bunyan’s description of the land of Beulah, where the sun shines and the birds sing day and night, I used to doubt whether there was such a place; but now my own experience has convinced me of it, and it infinitely transcends all my previous conceptions.” The best possible commentary on the glowing descriptions in Bunyan is to be found in that very remarkable letter dictated by Dr. Payson to his sister a few weeks before his death. “Were I to adopt the figurative language of Bunyan I might date this letter from the land Beulah, of which I have been for some weeks a happy inhabitant. The Celestial city is full in my view. Its glories have been upon me, its breezes fan me, its odours are wafted to me, its sounds strike upon my ears, and its spirit is breathed into my heart. Nothing separates me from it but the river of Death, which now appears but an insignificant rill, that may be crossed at a single step, whenever God shall give permission. The Sun of Righteousness has been gradually drawing nearer, appearing larger and brighter as He approached, and now He fills the who’e hemisphere, pouring forth a flood of glory, in which I seem to float like an insect in the beams of the sun, exulting, yet almost trembling, while I gaze on this blessed brightness, and wondering with unutterable wonder why God should deign thus to shine upon a sinful worm.”—George B. Cheever, D.D.
(c) Am I nearer heaven? then I will be doing more of the work which I shall do in heaven. I shall soon use the harp: let me be carefully tuning it: let me rehearse the hymns which I shall sing before the throne; for if the words in heaven shall be sweeter and more rich than any that poets can put together here, yet the essential song of heaven shall be the same as that which we present to Jehovah here below:
“They praise the Lamb in hymns above,
And we in hymns below.”
The essence of their praise is gratitude that He should bleed: it is the essence of our praise too. They bless Immanuel’s name for undeserved favours bestowed upon unworthy ones, and we do the same. My aged brethren, I congratulate you, for you are almost home: be yet more full of praise than ever. Quicken your footsteps as the glory land shines more brightly. You are close to the gate of pearl; sing on, dear brother, though infirmities increase, and let the song grow sweeter and louder until it melts into the infinite harmonies.—C. H. Spurgeon.
(d) In itself, death is the self-same thing to the righteous as to the wicked. It is the same painful, convulsive separation between soul and body, sometimes attended with greater suffering, sometimes with less, but always constituting the supreme last strife of agony endurable in this mortal tenement.…
Some wicked men have suffered much less in dying than some righteous men. “One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet. Another dieth in the bitterness of his soul. They shall lie down alike in the dust, and the worms shall cover them.” It would be interesting to draw a comparison between the deaths and the death-beds of a number of the most remarkable wicked men, with an equal number of the most remarkable righteous man. The circumstances of disease, of mere material evil, are much the same, except that as material evils, they are always aggravated by spiritual distress; the pangs of conscience giving sharpness to the pangs of dissolving nature. Compare even the death-beds of Hume, Voltaire, and Paine, with those of Edwards, Brainard, Henry Martyn and Payson, and you will find that there is not much to choose as to the physical pain of dying. Take the deaths of Herod and of Paul, the one eaten of worms, consumed inwardly, and the last in all probability crucified, and there was about as much physical suffering in the one death as in the other. Take the deaths of Nero and of John, the one is a suicide, the last dying quietly at a hundred years of age; the pangs of dissolution in both cases were probably very nearly equal. The death of the righteous is no more exempt from physical distress and suffering than that of the wicked.—G. B. Cheever, D.D.
For another Illustration see the description of Christian and Hopeful passing through the river of Death in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
I. This alarm was great.
“Moab was sore afraid of the people, and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.” “As the Israelites passed by the eastern border of the land of Moab, the Moabites did not venture to make any attack upon them; on the contrary, they supplied them with bread and water for money (Deuteronomy 2:29). At that time they no doubt cherished the hope that Sihon, their own terrible conqueror, would be able with perfect ease either to annihilate this new foe, or to drive them back into the desert from which they had come. But when they saw this hope frustrated, and the Israelites had overthrown the two kings of the Amorites with victorious power, and had conquered their kingdoms, and pressed forward through what was formerly Moabitish territory, even to the banks of the Jordan, the close proximity of so powerful a foe filled Balak, their king, with terror and dismay, so that he began to think of the best means of destroying them.” Keil and Del. To go out and fight against them, to attempt to oppose their progress by force, were projects which could not be entertained even for a moment by the Moabites. They shrank from before them in extreme alarm.
II. This alarm seemed to be justified.
The historian mentions three things as giving rise to the terror of the Moabites.
1. The number of the Israelites. “Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many.” The number of men, “from twenty years old and upwards, able to go to war in Israel,” was at this time about 601, 730 (Numbers 26:51), not including the Levites.
2. The needs of the Israelites. “And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.” The idea seems to be that so great a multitude would have great needs, and with their great power would seize and entirely consume all the possessions of the Moabites and the Midianites. The Israelites “seemed able to eat up the Moabites, to consume their towns, to possess their substance, and to take both their cities and substance into their own hands.”
3. The deeds of the Israelites. “Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” They had conquered completely the former conqueror of the Moabites; how, then, could they expect to stand before them? It is probable that they had also heard of “the supernatural might of the people of God,” of the wonders which He had wrought for them, and this increased their terror by reason of them.
III. This alarm led to the formation of an alliance against Israel.
The Moabites induced their neighbours, the Midianites, to make common cause with them against the people who seemed such a dangerous foe to both of them. In this we have an illustration of many alliances which have been entered into against the cause and people of God. “Notwithstanding the differences and divisions amongst the enemies of God and His truth, they can join hand in hand together to oppress the Church.” We have illustrations of this in Judges 6:3; 2 Chronicles 20:1; Psalms 83:5-8; Matthew 22:15-16; Luke 23:12; Acts 4:27; Acts 6:9; Acts 17:18.
IV. This alarm was needless.
“There was no ground for such alarm, as the Israelites, in consequence of Divine instructions (Deuteronomy 2:9), had offered no hostilities to the Moabites, but had conscientiously spared their territory and property; and even after the defeat of the Amorites, had not turned their arms against them, but had advanced to the Jordan to take possession of the land of Canaan.” We may regard this as an illustration of—
1. The groundless fears of the good. Thus “David said in his heart, I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul.” And the disciples of Christ “cried out for fear,” when Jesus came to them walking on the sea. (a)
But the terror of the Moabites more appropriately illustrates—
2. The groundless alarms of the wicked. “The wicked fleeth when no man pursueth.”
“Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind;
The thief doth fear each bush an officer.”
“The evil man feareth oftentimes where no fear is, trembling at the fall of a leaf, starting at his own thought, and shaking at his own shadow.” “Conscience before sin committed, is a bridle to keep us from it, but when it is committed, a most sharp scourge and whip.” (b)
1. It is not always well to judge by appearances. In this respect the Moabites erred. (c)
2. No alliance can prevail against the cause of God.
3. The infallible antidote against alarm is firm faith in God (comp. Psalms 56:3; Psalms 56:11; Psalms 112:7).
(a) I remember, when a boy, reading a story of a traveller, who arrived in the dusk of the evening at a place where two roads met, and was greatly alarmed by what appeared to him, at a distance, to be a frightful ghost, dressed in white, with arms extended, ready to seize him in his frightful embrace. Cautiously advancing, however, he soon discovered that what appeared to be a terrible monster, ready to clutch him, was only a guide-board to direct him on his journey. Such are the afflictions that often befall us in this life. Seen at a distance, in the feeble light of our dim faith, they are frightful apparitions that alarm and terrify us; but, in the event, they prove so many friendly guide-boards, that a wise and gracious Providence has placed by the wayside, to guide us on to glory.—Anon.
It often happens that the coming of Christ to His disciples, for their relief, is that which frightens them most, because they do not know the extent of God’s wardrobe; for I think that as a king might never wear the same garment but once, in order to show his riches and magnificence, so God comes to us in all exigencies, but never twice alike. He sometimes puts on the garments of trouble; and when we are calling upon Him as though He were yet in heaven. He is walking by our side; and that from which we are praying God to deliver us is often but God Himself. Thus it is with us as with children who are terrified by their dreams in the night, and scream for their parents, until, fully waking, behold, they are in their parent’s arms.—H. W. Beecher.
In regard to these temptations, Bunyan was sometimes just like a scared child that thinks it sees a ghost, or like a timid person in a wood by twilight, that sees in the stump of a tree a man crouched and lying in wait, and instead of daring to go boldly up to it to see what it is, stands shivering and almost dead with terror. Who has not realized this in his own experience, timid or brave? And just so Bunyan did not dare to go up to and examine and look in the face of the shocking blasphemies, accusations, and wrathful passages that Satan would be ever thrusting into his soul; but went cowering and shivering and bowed down as a man in chains under the weight of them. There was a time when all that Satan said to him he seemed morbidly inclined to take upon trust; and if it were a fiery passage of God’s Word, so much the worse; for instead of coming up to it as a child of God to see what it was, and whether it were really against him, he fled from it at once as from the fiery flaming sword in the gate of Eden. And nothing can be more curious, more graphic, more affecting in its interest, more childlike in its simplicity, than the manner in which Bunyan describes the commencement and progress of his recovery out of this state of condemnation and terror: how timidly and cautiously, and as it were by stealth, he began to look these dreadful passages in the face when they had ceased pursuing him, standing at first afar off, and gazing at them, and then, as a child that cannot get rid of its fear, slowly drawing near, and at length daring to touch them, and to walk around them, and to see their true position and meaning, but always conscious of their awful power.—G. B. Cheever, D.D.
(b) However vauntingly men may bear themselves in the hour of prosperous villainy, proofs enough have existed of the fears of guilt, when the hour of calamity approaches. Why did our first parents hide themselves after their sin, when they heard the voice of the Lord in the garden? Why did Cain alarm himself at being pursued by the people of the earth? Why shrunk Belshazzar from the handwriting on the wall? Adam had before heard the voice of the Lord, and trembled not: Cam knew that no witness of the murder of his brother existed: Belshazzar understood not the meaning of the writing upon the wall:—and yet they all, after the commission of their several deeds of sin, trembled at the voices that were heard, and the signs that were about. Whence, then, was this? It was because conscience told them, that there is an Eye to which all hearts are open, and whispered the important truth, which has since been proclaimed aloud to all the world, that doubtless there “is a God that judgeth in the earth.”—Mathew.
What a state is guilt,
When everything alarms it! Like a sentinel
Who sleeps upon his watch, it wakes in dread
E’en at a breath of wind.
When apprehension can form naught but fears,
And we distrust security itself.—W. Havard.
(c) I remember well, one night, having been preaching the Word in a country village, I was walking home alone along a lonely foot-path. I do not know what it was that ailed me, but I was prepared to be alarmed, when of a surety I saw something standing in the hedge ghastly, giantlike, and with outstretched arms. Surely, I thought, for once I have come across the supernatural; here is some restless spirit performing its midnight march beneath the moon, or some demon of the pit. I deliberated with myself a moment, and having no faith in ghosts, I plucked up courage, and resolved to solve the mystery. The monster stood on the other side of a ditch, right in the hedge. I jumped the ditch, and found myself grasping an old tree, which some waggish body had taken pains to colour with a little whitewash, with a view to frighten simpletons. That old tree has served me a good turn full often.—C. H. Spurgeon.
BALAK’S FIRST APPLICATION TO BALAAM: MAN AND THE SUPERNATURAL
Here we have the beginning of the action arising from the alliance between Moab and Midian against Israel. “ ‘Willing to wound, but yet afraid to strike,’ the Moabites felt that it would be in vain to contend with them while they so manifestly enjoyed the blessing and protection of a mighty God. But they did think that it might be possible to withdraw or neutralize the force of that advantage, by laying upon them the heavy ban of some powerful magician; and by having them thus rendered weak as other men, they might be assailed with every prospect of success. It must have been a great recommendation of the design to them, that the result would enable them to recover the territory that had once been theirs, but which the Israelites now held by right of conquest from the Amorites. Indeed, could the Israelites be exterminated, or driven back into the desert, the children of Lot might well calculate on not only recovering what they had lost, but on adding the rich lands of Argob and Bashan, which the Israelites had won from Og, to their former territories; and they would thus, with some allied tribes of Abrahamic origin, become the sole possessors of the whole country east of the Jordan.”—Kitto. With these views they sent to Balaam, a celebrated soothsayer, requesting him to come and curse Israel. In this portion of the history we have the following instructive themes for meditation—
I. Men in difficulty seeking supernatural help.
“Balak sent messengers unto Balaam the son of Beor,” &c. (Numbers 22:5-7). This action manifests the belief that Balaam wielded supernatural powers. “It was supposed that prophets and sorcerers had a power to curse persons and places so as to confound all their designs, frustrate their counsels, enervate their strength, and fill them with fear, terror, and dismay.” (a)
1. There is a measure of truth in this. It is true that men have had power granted them to curse others. We have examples of this in Genesis 9:25; Joshua 6:26; 2 Kings 2:24. It is probable that Balaam had this power. It is also true that when natural resources are unavailing, under certain circumstances and conditions man may obtain supernatural aid. The godly man may obtain such aid by means of prayer to God.
2. There is much error in the views under consideration. It was utterly erroneous to suppose that Balaam, or any one else, possessed this power independently, and could wield it arbitrarily. “The curse causeless shall not come.” No man can curse those whom God hath blessed. And the power to curse or bless does not depend upon sacrifices or incantations; it is rather a gift bestowed by God, and which can be exercised only by His permission.
II. Man conscious of supernatural powers and of his subjection to Divine authority in the use of them.
And he said unto them “Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me.” Balaam was certainly not altogether an impostor. “In his career,” says Dean Stanley, “is seen that recognition of Divine inspiration outside the chosen people, which the narrowness of modern times has been so eager to deny, but which the scriptures are always ready to acknowledge, and, by acknowledging, admit within the pale of the teachers of the Universal Church the higher spirits of every age and of every nation.” But notice—
1. His consciousness of great powers. This is clearly implied in the history. “He was endowed with a greater than ordinary knowledge of the one true God: he was possessed of high gifts of intellect and genius: he had the intuition of truth, and could see into the life of things—in short, he was a poet and a prophet.” (b)
2. His consciousness of subjection to God in the use of his powers. Repeatedly in the history he confesses that all his great powers were not his own, but derived from God, and could be used only by His permission. This is clearly implied in the portion of the history now under consideration (Numbers 22:8; Numbers 22:13). He seems also to have been aware of the relation of Israel to the true God; and to have doubted whether he would be allowed to curse them. Hence we see—
3. His sin against God. Knowing what he did, he ought at once, and decidedly, to have refused the request of Balak. But he said to his messengers, “Lodge here this night,” &c. He coveted “the rewards of divination”; he “loved the wages of unrighteousness.” For unhallowed gain he would have prostituted his great gifts to wicked uses; and hoped to gain permission to go with the messengers of Balak. (c)
III. Man receiving a supernatural visitation.
“And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?” (Numbers 22:9-12). This was an extraordinary visit. But here are three points of general application:
1. God’s access to man’s mind. It was probably by means of a dream or vision that God came to Balaam that night, and made known to him His will. By many avenues God can enter into man’s mind, and influence his consciousness. With or without the concurrence of man’s will, or even against His will, God can enter his mind and speak to him.
2. God’s interest in man’s life. This is seen in His question to Balaam, “What men are these with thee?” and in His prohibition, “Thou shalt not go with them,” &c. The Lord was concerned for Balaam’s welfare; He was solicitous that he should not succumb to the temptations presented to him. (d) In many ways God still manifests His solicitude for man’s salvation, and His deep interest in every human life.
3. God’s authority over man’s life. “God said unto Balaam, thou shalt not go with them,” &c. It is God’s to command; it is man’s to obey. Man’s well-being is in the practical recognition of God’s authority over him.
IV. Man dealing unfaithfully with a Divine communication.
“And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak,’ &c. (Numbers 22:13). The most important part of God’s message to him, that which would effectually have ended the business, he withheld from the messengers of Balak. He spoke as if it were possible to curse them, and as if he were inclined to accede to the request of Balak. His avarice is still further manifest in this: he could not bear to lose for ever “the rewards of divination” which the messengers had brought with them. “Balaam’s character is not so peculiar as it seems. Separated from the external accidents of time, of country, and position, we may go into the streets, and find a Balaam in every third man we meet. He belonged to that still numerous class who theoretically know God, and who actually do fear Him, but whose love and fear of God are not the regulating and governing principles of their minds. They are convinced, but not converted. They can prize, and strongly desire the privileges of God’s elect; they long to ‘die the death of the righteous,’ but are unwilling to live their life. They would serve God, but they must serve mammon also; and in the strife between the two contending influences, their lives are made bitter, and their death is perilous.”—Kitto.
V. Men dealing unfaithfully as messengers.
“And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.” “Observe Satan’s practice against God’s word,” says Ainsworth, “seeking to lessen the same, and that from hand to hand, till he bring it to naught. Balaam told the princes less than God told him, and they relate to Balak less than Balaam told them; so that when the answer came to the king of Moab, it was not the word of God but the word of man; it was simply, ‘Balaam refuseth to come,’ without ever intimating that God had forbidden him.”
1. The Divine communications have never been limited to any one people, or country, or age. Amongst heathen peoples Divine voices have been heard, Divine visions have been seen.
2. Great goodness it not always associated with great gifts. “The illumination of the mind is by no means necessarily associated with the conversion of the heart.” “Broad is the distinction between spiritual endowments and spiritual character.”
3. Great gifts involve great responsibility and grave peril. The responsibility of using them in accordance with the will of the Giver, and the peril of misusing them.
4. The temptation to covetousness is of great subtlety and strength, and assails even the most gifted natures. “Take heed and beware of covetousness;” &c. (Luke 12:15-21).
(a) Their proceedure, in seeking to lay the armies of Israel under a curse, that their own arms might be successful against them, is a strange no ion to us. But it is not so in the East. Even at the present day, the pagan Orientals in their wars have always their magicians with them to curse their enemies, and to mutter incantations for their ruin. Sometimes they secretly convey a potent charm among the opposing troops, to ensure their destruction. In our own war with the Burmese, the generals of that nation had several magicians with them, who were much engaged in curing our troops; but as they did not succeed, a number of witches were brought for the same purpose. We may indeed trace it as a very ancient opinion among all people, that the maledictions, and the blessings, the charms, the incantations, and the devotements of men who were believed to be inspired by a superior spirit, good or evil, had the most marked effects, not only upon individuals, but upon regions and entire nations, and even upon cattle and upon the fruits of the field. Not seldom they sought by strong enchantments to evoke the tutelary divinities of their enemies’ cities, desiring thus to deprive them of what was regarded as their chief defence. Hence the proper name of many great cities was preserved as a state secret, that no enemy might be able to make use of it in their invocations. The names by which cities were ordinarily known,—as, for instance, Troy, Carthage, Rome—were not the true and secret names of these places. Rome was called Valentia—a name known as hers by very few persons; and Valerius Soranus was severely punished for having disclosed it. The heathens had, indeed, certain solemn invocations, by means of which they devoted their enemies to certain divinities, or rather to malignant and dangerous demons. The following is the formula of one of these imprecations, as preserved by Macrobius: “Dis-Pater, or Jupiter, if it better please thee to be called by that name—or by whatever name thou mayest be invoked—I conjure thee to pour upon this army (or this town) the spirit of terror and trepidation. Deprive of their sight all those who shall aim their strokes at us, our armies, or our troops. Spread darkness over our enemies, over their cities, their fields, their forces. Look upon them as accursed. Bring them under the must rigorous conditions to which any armies have ever been obliged to submit. Thus do I devote them; and I and those whom I represent, the nation and the army engaged in this war, stand for witnesses. If this doom be accomplished, I promise a sacrifice of three black sheep to thee, O Earth, mother of all things, and to thee, great Jupiter.”—John Kitto, D.D.
For additional illustrations on this point see Dr. Adam Clarke in loco.
(b) Was this knowledge a reality or a pretence? If we take the narrative in its plain meaning—and that is the meaning in which we think that all historical Scripture should be taken—there can be no doubt that Balaam actually had this knowledge, that he not only held the truth, or much of truth, though he held it in unrighteousness, but that God did, in subservience to His own high purposes, actually communicate with him. Any other explanation, however ingenious, is but a continuous and painful distortion of the whole narrative, which revolts the understanding more than do even the strong facts which it tries to mitigate, in deference to the tastes and tendencies of the age. Besides this, the deep attention that Balaam had given (and was doubtless known to have given) to the affairs of the Hebrews, and his acquaintance with their early history, their existing condition, and their future hopes, are shown in the noble prophecy which he was eventually constrained to utter.
How he became possessed of the knowledge he held—and held with so little advantage to his own soul—is a question that looks more difficult than it is. May he not have owed something to such remains of the patriarchal religion as still existed in Mesopotamia when Ja ob was there, and which his residence for twenty years in that quarter may have contributed to maintain? But the only supposition which accounts fully for the knowledge which Balaam possessed of Jehovah, whom he generally mentions by that high and peculiar name, is the one which adds to whatever knowledge he possessed from other sources, that which he owed to the Israelites themselves. The way in which this knowledge might be acquired is clear. There could not but be many reports concerning, the Israelites during their forty years’ wandering in the desert. With a mind awake to everything which concerned his profession, he would be naturally attracted by the reports of the deliverance effected by the Lord for this people who had come out of Egypt, and whose parentage could not be unknown to him. He had surely heard of the passage of the Red Sea, of the waters of Meribah, of the miracle of the brazen serpent; and, as in the case of Simon M gus, a new source of celebrity and of emolument seemed to open up before him, most enticing to his besetting sins. He then, we may conceive, adopted Jehovah as his God, and named himself Jehovah’s prophet. Nor, it may be, was this wholly with views of worldly advantage. It is quite possible, as Hengsienberg supposes, that there was a mixture of a higher order of sentiments, a sense of the wants of his moral nature, which led him to seek Jehovah, and laid the foundation of his intercourse with Him. This is all the more probable, as we feel bound to understand that the Lord did, in the accomplishment of His own great purposes, vouchsafe unto him special manifestations of the Divine will.—Ibid.
(c) Take heed of cares and covetousness, which is an immoderate desire of getting and enjoying the wealth of this world. For it stealeth away the heart of man from God and godliness, and maketh him bend the whole course of his life on earthly pleasures. This is the common sickness and disease of this age wherein we live. For give me one among many that is not overcome with the pleasures of sin, and the profits of the world. It stealeth on such as have sanctified affections, and have escaped out of the fil hiness of the world, through the acknowledging of the Lord, and seeketh to overcome them. It is so deceitful and dangerous a sin, that it hath greatly assaulted, and fearfully overcome them after their calling to the truth and profession of the glorious Gospel of Christ our Saviour, and after they have began to make some conscience of their life and conversation. Nay, such as before their calling and conversation felt no such desires and cares, now begin to be pressed, cumbered, and tempted with them. For as Satan by all means seeketh whom he may devour, and how he may hinder the repentance of sinners, so when he cannot any longer hold men in horrible sins of idola’ry, blasphemy, adultery and contempt of God then like a wily and subtle serpent, he creepeth in another way before we can espy him; then he suffereth us to hate evil company, surfeiting, drunkenness, riot, and excess, but he driveth to another extremity, and possesseth us with distrustful cares, and immoderate thoughts of this world, to desire greedily, to seek continually, to keep wretchedly, and to depart heavily from the vain and momentary things that perish with the use. And as this is a secret and subtle sin (albeit deeply rooted, yet hardly espied) so is it seldom cured and recovered, because men do not much consider of it and regard it, but please and flatter themselves in it. If we would attain to our former estate, and see the danger of this disease, consider the vanity and uncertainty of all worldly things; compare them with spiritual blessings, and they are as dung and dirt matched with gold and silver. “Love not the world,” &c. (1 John 2:15-17; 1 Timothy 6:17-19).—W. Attersoll.
(d) Balaam was blessed with God’s special favour. You will ask at once, How could so bad a man be in God’s favour? But I wish you to put aside reasonings, and contemplate facts. I say he was specially favoured by God. God has a store of favours in His treasure house, and of various kinds—some for a time, some for ever; some implying His approbation, others not. He showers favours even on the bad. He makes His sun to rise on the unjust as well as on the just. He willeth not the death of a sinner. He is said to have loved the young ruler, whose heart, notwithstanding, was upon the world. His loving mercy exteeds over all His works. How He separates, in His own Divine thought, kindness from approbation, time from eternity; what He does from what He foresees we know not, and need not inquire. At present He is loving to all men, as if He did not foresee that some are to be saints, others representates to all eternity. He dispenses His favours variously—gifts, graces, rewards, faculties, circumstances, being indefinitely diversified nor admitting of discrimination or numbering on our part. Balaam, I say, was in His favour; not indeed for his holiness’ sake, not for ever; but in a certain sense, according to His inscrutable purpose who chooses whom He will choose, and exalts whom He will exalt, without destroying man’s secret responsibilities, or His own governance, and the triumph of truth and holiness, and His own strict impartiality in the end. Balaam was favoured in an especial way above the mere heathen. Not only had he the grant of inspiration, and the knowledge of God’s will, an insight into the truths of morality, clear and enlarged, such as we Christians even cannot surpass, but he was even admitted to conscious intercourse with God, such as even Christians have not.—J. H. Newman, D.D.
GOD’S INTEREST IN MAN’S COMPANIONSHIPS
Human companionships are—
1. Observed by God. The guests we entertain, the persons who visit us, the associations we enter into, the friendships we form, are all known unto the Lord.
2. Challenged by God. “What men are these with thee?” This enquiry was made neither because the Lord needed information, nor yet simply to open the conversation on the mission of the messengers of Balak. It was designed, as Hengstenberg suggests, to awaken “the slumbering conscience of Balaam, to lead him to reflect upon the proposal which the men had made, and to break the force of his sinful inclination.” God addresses the same question to the young who are forming dangerous associations; to Christians who take pleasure in non-religious and worldly society, &c. He urges this solemn enquiry
(1) by the voice of conscience;
(2) by the preaching of His truth;
(3) by the exhortations and admonitions of His Word; and
(4) by the remonstrances of His Spirit.
This enquiry also indicates the Divine concern as to human companionships. We may regard this concern as—
I. An indication of the Divine solicitude for the well-being of man.
Nothing whatever that is of importance to us is uninteresting to God. In every man, created in His image and redeemed by the precious blood of His Son, He has the deepest and tenderest concern.
II. An indication of the importance of our companionships.
Inasmuch as He is so concerned as to the character of our associates, it must be a matter of vital importance to us, and should receive our serious attention.
1. Our associates indicate our character. “A man is known by the company which he keeps.”
2. Our associates influence our character. “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise; but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.” (a) “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not;” &c. (Proverbs 1:10-15). “Enter not into the path of the wicked,” &c. (Proverbs 4:14-19). “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” &c. (b)
III. An indication of our responsibility to God for our companionships.
For the associations we form and the alliances we contract we must every one give account to God. Soon or late we each must answer the interrogation, “What men are these with thee?”
IV. An indication of the danger of dallying with temptation.
Balaam should have sent the messengers back to Balak at once, with a firm refusal to comply with his request. His longing for “the rewards of divination” led him to keep them for the night; and by so doing he increased the perilousness of his position tenfold. “To parley with temptation is to play with fire.” In matters of right and wrong let us never hesitate; for hesitation in such matters is both sinful and dangerous. (c) To the invitations of the tempter let us respond with a prompt and decisive No. To the summons of Duty let us render speedy and hearty obedience.
(a) The examples of our companions will exert a plastic influence in the formation of our own character, slow and silent, perhaps, but irresistible and successful: and this influence will be in proportion to the love and esteem we cherish for them. All nations and all ages have confessed the truth of this sentiment. The example of a beloved companion is omnipotent, more especially if he be a sinful one, because a bad model find in the depravity of our nature something that prepares it to receive the impression. One evil companion will undo in a month all that parents and teachers have been labouring for years to accomplish.—J. A. James.
There is a certain magic or charm in company, for it will assimilate, and make you like to them by much conversation with them; if they he good company, it is a great means to make you good, or confirm you in goodness; but if they be bad, it is twenty to one but they will infect and corrupt you. Therefore be wary and shy in choosing, and entertaining, or frequenting any company or companions; be not too hasty in committing yourself to them; stand off awhile till you have inquired of some (that you know by experience to be faithful), what they are; observe what company they keep; be not too easy to gain acquaintance, but stand off and keep a distance yet awhile, till you have observed and earnt touching them. Men or women that are greedy of acquaintance, or hasty in it, are oftentimes snared in ill company before they are aware, and entangled so that they cannot easily get loose from it after when they would.—Sir Matthew Hale.
(b) Flee unholy company, as baneful to the power of godliness. Be but as careful for thy soul as thou wouldst be for thy body. Durst thou drink in the same cup, or sit in the same chair with one that hath an infectious disease? And is not sin as catching a disease as the plague itself? Of all trades, it would not do well to have the collier and the fuller live together; what one cleanseth, the other will blacken and defile. Thou canst not be long among unholy ones, but thou wilt hazard the defiling of thy soul, which the Holy Spirit hath made pure.—W. Gurnall.
Those who willingly associate with the sinful are like men strolling with some trivial object through a district infected with fever, heedless of the invisible arrows of disease spreading through the air: or they may be compared to the River Thames, which is a sweet and pretty river enough near its source; but in the great metropolis it has kept company with drains and sowers, under the belief that its current was too powerful and pure to be injured by them. It was meant that the river should purify the sewer; but, instead of that, the sewer has corrupted the river.—Union Magazine.
(c) Suffer not Satan’s fiery darts to abide one moment with you; entertain no parley or dispute about them; reject them with indignation; and strengthen your rejection of them with some pertinent, testimony of Scripture, as our Saviour d d. If a man have a grenado or fire-ball cast into his clothes by the enemy, he does not consider whether it will burn or no, but immediately shakes it off from him. Deal no otherwise with these fiery darts, lest by their abode with you they inflame your imaginations unto greater disturbance.—John Owen, D.D.
Young persons should, above all things, beware of beginnings, and by no means parley with temptations; their greates security is in flight, and in the study to avoid all occasions of evil; for the cockatrice, which may be easily crushed in the egg, if suffered to hatch and grow up, will prove a deadly serpent hard to be destroyed.—Gleanings.
HISTORY OF BALAAM, AND HIS PROPHECIES.—NO. I
This story of Balaam I believe to be an honest narrative of facts as they actually occurred (see Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14). These repeated references to the history of Balaam in the Old and New Testaments come in support of our belief in the reality of the history; and teach us that since Peter and Jude and John were anxious that the man’s character and history should not be forgotten, and that the Church in their days should profit by the beacon-warning which the whole career of this half-bad, half-good man furnished; so, too, should we in our day gather up the details of his history and from them learn what is the lesson of the whole, how a man may struggle and fight against God; against God’s kindness and God’s voice, and God’s warnings, and against his own thoughts and convictions, and better aspirations, until he becomes a light quenched in darkness, a heart hopelessly hardened, a man whom it is “impossible to renew unto repentance.”
Look at the circumstances that brought Balaam into notice.…
Let us notice three things, as illustrative of human character and of the general history of Divine Providence.
I. How the career and fortunes of the children of Israel were made known in those days.
Those were the days of mere oral communication. From mouth to mouth, and from father to son, events passed along and through society. There was no machinery for the spread of intelligence: it was circulated just in the natural order of things. By these means the knowledge of Israel and of Israel’s God appears to have been spread throughout all the countries surrounding the Sinaitic peninsula. This was in fact a revelation to these people; a mercy in making known to them, that amidst all their gods and vanities, there was yet a mightier and holier One, who would not give His name to idols, nor His “praise to graven images.”
II. But this fear of the Moabites was needless, from the express instructions given to the Israelites (see Deuteronomy 2:9).
Of course the King of Moab, Balak, knew nothing of this; he and his elders might, however, have reflected upon the fact that the Israelites with anxious solicitude had avoided doing the least injury to the territory of the Moabites; they might have remembered that this powerful body of people had scrupulously paid for the bread and water that had been furnished them as they passed through their territory (Deuteronomy 2:28-29). But the Moabites themselves were a lawless predatory tribe, in whom the will for conquest was manifested as far as their power went; and hence the needless fear of the King of Moab, expressed in that nervous language that at once reminds us of the old shepherd princes: “Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.” What a fine illustration is this of human nature! How “the wicked fleeth when no man pursueth:” how suspicious unprincipled men generally are! how men have estimated others by their own standard of right and wrong!
III. Let us add a word or two about Balaam.
What was he? Was he a heathen soothsayer? (and in Joshua 13:22 he is called so): and if he was a heathen soothsayer, how did he come to utter such glorious and far-reaching predictors? Or was he a prophet of the true God, like Isaiah or Micah? And if so, how did he come to do such wicked things, and be so base and avaricious, and at last so gross and sensual a tempter of the people of Israel?
In reply to such questions, we remark, that previous to the constitution of the children of Israel into a separate religious nation, a nation selected for a religious purpose, with ultimate reference to the Messiah, there was a patriarchal Church extending among all the faithful that preserved uncorrupted the early traditions of the human family. This church, doubtless, received frequent oral communications from God Himself. The men composing this church were not of the seed of Abraham, but were in those far distant days a pledge and type of the enlargement of the Church of Christ among all nations. Such were Shem, Job, and Jethro.
Now, Balaam, I take it, was one of that ancient patriarchal church traditions, partly correct and partly corrupt, had been handed down generation after generation until they came to him; on these traditions, and on occasional visits from God, his soul lived. There was a religiousness and purity about the man that attracted attention among the wild and lawless Moabites; they were impressed and awe struck with the blameless simplicity of his life as compared with the licentious character of their sensual Baal worship; and so the man came to be regarded with reverence and fear by them, to be invested with a kind of supernatural and mysterious power by which whomsoever he blessed was blessed, and whomsoever he cursed was cursed, in the estimation of these wild Moabites.
Now you can hardly imagine a more difficult and perilous position for a man to be placed in. A man standing alone in his religious ideas; far in advance of all around him in real and essential truth; got to be regarded by others, until he comes to regard himself, as a very extraordinary character; looking down upon others quite as much as they look up to him; surrounded by wild nomadic tribes, who are filled with a vague but real, and all the more real because it was vague, dread of this superior being. What a school this, to learn lessons of the human heart—to learn how it will shuffle, and cheat, and lie, to keep up this spiritual power—to learn how, under seeming religiousness, it will aim at personal aggrandizement and influence; to learn how, step by step, he who was at one time the most religious man among them, may become the darkest and the blackest sinner among them. To us in this history the Scripture says, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”—W. G. Barrett.
HISTORY OF BALAAM, AND HIS PROPHECIES.—NO. II
There is nothing so dear to man as power; the acquisition of influence over the minds of others is a conquest full of hazard and responsibility. Balaam had this influence. He had the key of Balak’s heart, and could turn its wards which way he pleased. To him, living a retired life in the desert, the messengers of the king come; their request is urgent, for it is from the king; their request is flattering, for it is a testimony from Balak that a prophet’s word is better than a king’s sword; their request is apparently reasonable, for why should the Moabites be destroyed? and their request was accompanied by “those rewards of divination” without which the heathen never consulted their favourite oracles.
But their request was a sinful one; and I believe from the language of Numbers 22:9, Balaam saw even then that it was a wicked request; but it had come before him so unexpectedly—he was so honoured and flattered by it, that his moral sense, his religious convictions, got crushed and overpowered as this huge temptation came and stated itself before this weak man, and said to him, “Yield to me, yield at once, for riches and honour are in my right hand: all these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
Let us notice—
I. The first false step Balaam took, as indicative and prophetic of all the other downward ones.
(Numbers 22:8.) “And he said unto them, Lodge here this night,” &c.
This was not the way to meet this great peril. I believe he had quite enough knowledge on the subject to have shaped for himself a different course. I believe this was just a hypocritical pretence to gain time, and that the man, even now dazzled by the gifts of gold, the rewards of divination, was clutching them in his heart long before they came into his actual possession. This I think furnishes the key to the whole after-history of this greatly bad man. I do not think Balaam meant at all to consult God. The matter was too plainly before him to create any necessity for that; but it was a capital trick to play off upon these Moabitish courtiers to impress them with a deeper sense of his importance and influence.
Do not you think we may do the very same thing? We may talk of praying over such and such a matter, and seeking Divine direction, and asking for the leadings of Providence, when really God’s will is the last thing we are thinking about; when we have already decided and determined what to do. God sees our purpose and determination to have our own way, and man hears our words about Divine direction and guidance; and so, next to cheating God, the worst thing a man can do is to cheat himself; so Balaam did, and you know how it succeeded.
II. The warning Balaam had during the night of agitation that followed this visit.
My reason for thinking that Balaam did not intend to consult God at all is the language of the ninth verse, which reads to me very much like a reproof. It is not Balaam going to God and asking, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” but God coming to Balaam and saying to him, “What are you doing? ‘What men are these with thee?’ How is it they are with thee? How is it that you did not dismiss them at once?”
Ah! that must have been a sore night of perplexity and agitation to Balaam.… How often must he have resolved and re-resolved, and yet, spite of all his resolutions, in the absence of a holy will did he reconsider the thing, and make up his mind, if possible, to go with the messengers of Balak.
Then in the stillness of that night, came this warning to Balaam, “What men are these with thee?” How that warning might have saved him if he bad heeded it: but out of stammering lips and from an undecided heart he speaks the truth, and tells God their character and message to him.
All this was the beginning of the end of Balaam.… Let us look here, and see the easy steps to hell. “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Learn how a man, in spite of his better nature and religious revivings, may quench the Spirit and die a desolate and forsaken outcast.
III. The positive refusal God gave to Balaam.
“Thou shalt not go with them.”
Here was mercy and severity! It was mercy not to abandon this man; not to give him up hopelessly and for ever to his own heart’s lust, without another word of warning; mercy to follow him after his stammering, hesitating, halfhearted confession, to say, “No, no, thou shalt not go! There is a way that seemeth right to thee, Balaam, but the end of it is death.” And does God never follow us in that manner? Does he not come and cry unto us, “Turn ye, turn ye at My reproof; why will ye die?” Oh! if you have ever heard that voice, listen to it; it is thy life! “To-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your heart.”
Here was severity too. Do you think a man like Balaam ought to have required such a prohibition? Ought he not at once to have felt that the whole scheme was a wicked one, which he ought to hate, and to shun and to protest against?
Ill fares it with the health of life and soul when it must be put under the care of lock and key; when nothing but commands and prohibitions can keep it in order; when it must be surrounded by “thou shalt,” and “thou shalt not,” to keep it right. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty; and the emancipated spirit has higher but happier constraints than the law of Sinai, in the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.—Ibid.
BALAK’S SECOND APPLICATION TO BALAAM: THE DECREASE OF RESISTANCE TO EVIL
In this section of the history we have four conspicuous steps.
I. The repetition with increased force of the request of Balak to Balaam.
“And Balak sent yet again princes,” &c. (Numbers 22:15-17).
1. The embassage was more influential. The princes who were sent this second time were more numerous and more honourable than the former ones. Here was a powerful appeal to the vanity of the prophet.
2. The message was more urgent. “Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me.”
3. The inducements were stronger, “For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me,” &c. If Balaam wanted rank and dignities, he should have them; if he wanted wealth, he should have it also. If he will but comply with the request of the King of Moab, the most splendid honours and the most munificent treasures shall be freely given to him. Learn: that temptations which have been declined reluctantly or half-heartedly are presented again, and with greater force. The manner of Balaam’s dismissal of the former messengers prepared the way for a repetition of their mission.
II. The repetition under aggravating circumstances of guilty delay by Balaam.
“And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak,” &c. (Numbers 22:18-19). In entertaining the proposal at all, and in keeping the messengers during the night, the prophet sinned and that heinously; he ought to have sent them back to Balak with a firm and final refusal. And his guilt was the greater because—
1. He had been challenged by God as to the presence of the former messengers. “God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?”
2. He had already been prohibited from complying with the request of Balak. “God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them,” &c. (Numbers 22:12). To a really good man this would have been a final settlement of the question. So it ought to have been to Balaam.
3. He himself felt and plainly declared that he was bound by the Word of the Lord in the matter. He “said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the command of Jehovah my God, to do little or great.” An utterance worthy of a holy man and a true prophet. But in the light of this declaration, Dr. Kitto forcibly enquires: “Then why not at once dismiss the messengers? He already knew the mind of God, and he ought to have known that ‘God is not a man, that He should lie; nor the Son of Man, that He should repent.’ Instead of that, he says, ‘Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more.’ What ‘more’? Did Balaam fashion to himself a god after his own heart, and imagine that he also was to be moved from his declared purpose by the gifts and promises of Balak? Could he mean to insult God by his importunities? Did he hope to extort from Him, out of regard to his own worldliness, permission to bring a curse upon an entire nation which, as was well known, had been so long the object of His covenant care? Even such was what Peter calls ‘the madness of the prophet.’ ” Such also was the great wickedness of the prophet. He was afraid to transgress the command of God; but he hoped to obtain from Him permission to accompany the messengers, and so to gratify his passion for worldly gain. (a) The temptation was stronger than before; but the reasons for resisting it were also more clear and cogent; and his guilt in not doing so was darker and heavier. A temptation once dallied with, it becomes more difficult to resist it hereafter.
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet, seen too oft, familiar with her face
We first endure, then pity, then embrace”
III. The repetition of the Divine visit to Balaam.
“And God came unto Balaam at night, and said,” &c. (Numbers 22:20). Here are two things which claim attention—
1. The permission granted. God said unto Balaam, “If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them.” When man is determined to have his own way, a time comes when God ceases to oppose him in the matter. “My people would not hearken to my voice, and Israel would none of me. So I gave them up unto the stubbornness of their heart; they walk in their own counsels.” In giving permission to Balaam, “God granted in anger what He denied in mercy” (comp. Numbers 11:18-20; Numbers 11:31-33).
2. The condition enforced. “But yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.” God allows Balaam to go, but He restrains him so that he shall not in any way injure His cause and people. The power of the wicked for injury is limited by the Lord.
IV. The setting out of Balaam on the journey.
“And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.” (b) Mark his unbecoming and sinful haste: God said to him, “If the men come to call thee, rise up and go with them;” but he did not wait to be called: he “rose up in the morning,” &c. “Because,” says Dr. Adam Clark, “he was more hasty than he ought to have been, and went to them instead of staying till they should come to him, it was said of him, not כי הלך ki halach, that he went; but כי הולך הוא ki holech hu, i.e., he went of his own head—without being called.” He “ran greedily for reward.”
The chief lesson of our subject is, the importance of meeting the first temptation to evil with uncompromising resistance: to hesitate or to parley is to diminish our power of resistance, and to increase the power of the temptation, thus making successful resistance a task of almost insuperable difficulty. (c) “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil,” &c. (1 Peter 5:8-9).
(a) You will observe he wished to go with Balak’s messengers, only he felt he ought not to go; and the problem which he attempted to solve was, how to go and yet not offend God. He was quite resolved he would, any how, act religiously and conscientiously; he was too honourable a man to break any of his engagements; if he had given his word, it was sacred; if he had duties, they were imperative; he had a character to maintain, and an inward sense of propriety to satisfy; but he would have given the world to have got rid of his duties; and the question was, how to do so without violence; and he did not care about walking on the very brink of transgression, so that he could keep from falling over. Accordingly, he was not content with ascertaining God’s will, but he attempted to change it. He inquired of Him a second time, and this was to tempt Him. Hence while God bade him go, His anger was kindled against him because he went.
This surely is no uncommon character; rather, it is the common case even with the more respectable and praise worthy portion of the community. I say plainly, and without fear of contradiction, though it is a serious thing to say, that the aim of most men esteemed conscientious and religious, or who are what is called honourable, upright men, is, to all appearance, not how to please God; but how to please themselves without displeasing Him. This surely is so plain that it is scarcely necessary to enlarge upon it. Men do not take for the object towards which they act, God’s will, but certain maxims rules, or measures—right perhaps as far as they go, but defective because they admit of being subjected to certain other ultimate ends which are not religious. Men are just, honest, upright, trustworthy; but all this, not from the love and fear of God, but from a mere feeling of obligation to be so, and in subjection to certain worldly objects. And thus they are what is popularly called moral, without being religious. Such was Balaam. He was in a popular sense, a strictly moral, honourable, conscientious man; that he was not so in a heavenly and true sense is plain, if not from the considerations here insisted on, at least from his after history, which (we may presume) brought to light his secret defect, in whatever it consisted. His defect lay in this, that he had not a single eye towards God’s will but was ruled by other objects.—J. H. Newman, D D.
(b) That Balaam saddled his ass, must not lead us to suppose that there were in those days any proper saddle. This is a far later invention, even for riding on horseback, and is not even now in the East generally used in riding on asses. On this subject we have the negative evidence of sculptures. In Egypt, indeed, there are no equestrian sculptures at all except those which represent riding in chariots. Classical sculpture has no saddles or saddle cloths. We used to think that the earliest suddles were to be seen in the sculptures of the Sassanian dynasty at Shahpur in Persia; but the following passage would take them back to the last age of the Assyrian empire: “In the earliest sculptures (at Nineveh) the horses, except such as are led behind the king’s chariot, are unprovided with cloths or saddles. The rider is seated on the nuked back of the animal. At a later period, however a kind of pad appears to have been introduced; and in a sculpture at Konyunjik was represented a high saddle, not unlike that now in use in the East” (Layard).
The saddling of asses mentioned in Scripture probably consisted merely in placing upon their backs such thick cloths or mats as we see in some of the asses represented in the Egyptian paintings. Something of the same kind, or pieces of rug, felt, carpet, or cloth, are still in general use; although a kind of pad is now frequently to be seen upon asses in the large towns of Egypt, Syria, and Arabia, especially among these let out for hire. Such town asses have also bridles, and sometimes stirrups, none of which, any more than the pad, do we remember to have noticed on asses upon actual journeys; and we have known of asses being used continuously on journeys quite as long as that which Balaam now undertook; and that by persons whose position in life quite enabled them to ride a horse or mule had they so chosen. It would not be at all extraordinary, even now, that a person, expecting to be laden with riches and honours, should ride upon an ass, still less in an age and country where no other mode of conveyance, except that of riding upon camels, appears to have been known.—J. Kitto, D.D.
(c) In worldly matters, “think twice;” but in duty, it has been well said, “first thoughts are best;” they are more fresh, more pure, have more of God in them. There is nothing has the first glance we get at duty, before there has been any special pleading of our affections or inclinations. Duty is never uncertain at first. It is only after we have got involved in the mazes and sophistries of wishing that things were otherwise than they are, that it seems indistinct. Considering a duty, is often explaining it away. Deliberation is often only dish mesty. God’s guidance is plain, when we are true.—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
“And Balak sent princes more and more honourable” (Numbers 22:15).
“Tarry ye also here this night” (Numbers 22:22).
“Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword” (Numbers 31:8).
We assume Balaam to have been a true prophet, though not of Israel. He appears to have been a singularly good man. And, taking the history as it rises, we may learn what his religion was.
It was very enlightened. “His eyes were open” (see Micah 6:5; Micah 6:8). These were Balaam’s views of religion.
Balaam’s religion was founded on principle,—the all-comprehensive principle of godliness. All considerations are kept in abeyance, waiting on the will of God. “Lodge ye here this night: I will bring you word as the Lord shall speak.”
His religion was practically exemplified. Balaam acted on principle, and obeyed the word of the Lord. “Thou shalt not go with them,” &c. (Numbers 22:12). Then Balaam said to the princes of Moab, “Get you unto your land,” &c. (Numbers 22:13).
But Balaam fell, and the first of our texts brings us to the turning point of his life—downwards.
I. Balaam apostatized through worldliness.
The temptation was strengthened. “Balak sent princes more honourable.” The overtures now comprehend all that kings can do. “I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me.” Still the prophet resists; but after a hard contest principle relaxes under the influence of this sun of worldly glory. Balaam becomes a soft and pliant thing in the hands of these monarchs—a total apostate from God. By means of the world the devil ever tempts man; tempting again and again by worldly pleasures, ambition, gain. Take heed and beware of covetousness. Of all mortal sins this is perhaps the most insidious and self-deceptive.
II. Balaam apostatized progressively.
Religion is neither got nor lost all at once. The progress of Balaam’s fail may be traced.
1. His heart went after covetousness. He “loved the wages of unrighteousness.”
2. He tampered with temptation. Why were these ambassadors kept a second night?
3. He struggled against his own conscience. Mountain after mountain is ascended, sacrifice after sacrifice offered, that by some means he may obtain sanction to do what God said he should not do.
4. He departs from the word of the Lord. “If the men call thee thou mayest go with them”—a final check and test interposed. Now he is on the downhill course. The deepest, darkest sins follow. “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
III. Balaam apostatized despite the greatest obstacles.
Conscience was a perpetual obstacle. The fear of death haunted him. From the high places of Baal, where he would have cursed, he saw the Israelites encamped below. “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,” he utters in apostrophe; when at once his own death appals him, like a dark vision. Then he abruptly exclaims, “Let me die the death of the righteous!” There were extraordinary as well as ordinary obstacles. What is to do with that poor ass? Mercy, Balaam!.… At last the angel reveals himself, sword in hand. “I have come out to withstand thee,” &c. “If,” said Balaam, “it displease thee, I will get me back.” IF. Alas! he is not turned back yet. “The Lord is longsuffering, not willing that any should perish.” Providence is mediatorial. The very difficulties and obstacles and adversities of life are incorporated with God’s saving plans; yea, are ordered, permitted, or overruled for our good.
IV. Balaam’s apostacy was not only sad but fatal.
Never did he obtain the “wages of unrighteousness.” His career was one of unmitigated disappointment, issuing in the sin unto death. Very briefly is the last tragic scene given. God will be avenged of the Midianites. In the war against them Balaam is found among the enemies of the Israelites. “Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword.” Thus the veil is drawn darkly; nor does the sacred historian ever name the fallen prophet’s name more; but the silences of the Bible are significant as its utterances. Nor did that man perish alone in his iniquity. Does the backslider ever?
From this subject many additional lessons may be gathered—there is one of hope for apostates. The forbearance of God should lead to repentance. Balaam’s case shows that there is hope for the worst and hope to the last.—A Military Chaplain, in The Homiletic Quarterly.
BALAAM AND HIS ASS; DIVINE CHECKS ON MAN’S DOWNWARD COURSE
We are met by a preliminary inquiry; why was God angry with Balaam because he went with the princes of Moab, when He had given consent to his going with them?
(1) It is important to observe that God had not given to Balaam an unconditional permission to go with them. He might go with them on condition that the men came to call him. “If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them.” This condition had not been fulfilled when “Balaam rose up in the morning,” &c. (Numbers 22:21). “And God’s anger was kindled because he went of himself.”
(2) Even this conditional permission was given not because God approved of his going, but because Balaam was determined to obtain permission if it were possible.
(3) He went hoping to set aside the restriction which God had imposed upon him,—that he was to do that which He commanded. Clearly Balaam both desired and hoped to be able to curse Israel, and thus obtain the wealth and honours upon which his heart was set. Hence, “God’s anger was kindled because he went.” (a) God mercifully places obstructions in his way to save him from further sin, and to warn him against attempting to curse Israel, or exceed or deviate from His word to him. This part of the history is a striking illustration of Divine checks on man’s downward course.
I. These checks are sometimes in operation when unperceived by man.
“The Angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him.… And the ass saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand.” Thrice the ass saw the Angel, and presented indications of alarm; but Balaam saw Him not until God had opened the mouth of the ass to remonstrate with him. Balaam was blinded to such sights by the fierce lust of wealth and honours which possessed him. Many a dispensation of God’s providence is intended as a check upon man’s downward course, which is not seen to be such by the person most concerned. As Balaam saw the troubled and troublesome ass, but not the forbidding Angel; so men see the afflictions, the losses, the difficulties of their course without perceiving the merciful design of God in them; they are irritated at the obstructions in their path, but do not see the Angel who is beyond the obstructions.
II. These checks are numerous.
“Mark,” says Babington, “the manifold admonitions that Balaam had, and yet all in vain. The ass avoids the Angel once, twice, and thrice; she hurts his foot against the wall, she lied down under him, never used to do thus before—yet all this could not smite his heart to think, Surely my journey pleaseth not God. Even thus in some sort doth God still deal with men, and yet all in vain; their sin will not be seen—their fault will not be amended. He giveth us a twitch within, either at some sermon, or otherwise, and yet that vanisheth away, and we forget it. Then He striketh our foot against the wall, that is, He crosseth us with sickness or loss, or some calamities, assaying whether that will bring us home; but still we beat the ass, and continue our course. When this will not serve, He throweth us down, ass and all, that is, when the lesser crosses profit not, He layeth on greater, greater, I say, and greater, till He makes us feel, even as a father smiteth more, till he humble the forward stomach of his child, yet many times in vain still.”
III. These checks are of various kinds.
This is very clear in Balaam’s case, in which we see—
1. Obstructions to his progress. The advance of his ass was thrice arrested by the Angel of the Lord. When our course is delayed, or difficulties crowd our path, or sickness removes us for a time from the active walks of life, we shall do well to enquire whether these things are checks to restrain us from sin, or warnings that we are on a dangerous road.
2. Appeals to his reason. God gave to the dumb ass a voice to summon the erring and angry prophet to the exercise of reason. “The Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done,” &c. (Numbers 22:28-30). “And where,” asks Dr. A. Clarke, “is the wonder of all this? If the ass had opened her own mouth, and reproved the rash prophet, we might well be astonished; but when God opens the mouth, an ass can speak as well as a man” (b)
And God by various means still addresses the reason of sinful man. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord,” &c. “Why will ye die?” Christianity is a sublime and mighty appeal, not only to the heart, but also to the understanding of man.
3. Rebukes for his conduct. “The Angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times?” &c. (Numbers 22:32-33). (c) The Lord now rebukes men for their sins by the penalties of those sins, by the condemnations of His holy Book, and by the voice of conscience. And these rebukes are designed to deter from sin.
4. The awakening of his conscience. “Balaam said unto the Angel of the Lord, I have sinned,” &c. His whole line of conduct shows a mind ill at ease, a troubled, anxious mind. His irritation, petulance, and unreasonable anger with his ass, indicate clearly that he had no rest within. God in his great mercy was checking him by the voice of his conscience. Conscience will not allow the sinner to pursue his downward course without stirring remonstrances and stinging rebukes, (d) “Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes with man, to bring back his soul from the pit to be enlightened with the light of the living.”
IV. These checks are graduated in force.
See this in the case of Balaam: first his “ass turned aside out of the way;” then “she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall;” then “she fell down under Balaam;” and then there appears unto the angry man “the Angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand,” who administers to him a stern rebuke. “In this carriage of the Angel,” says Mr. Ains-worth, “the Lord shows us the proceedings of His judgments against sinners: First, He mildly shakes His rod at them, but lets them go untouched. Secondly, He comes nearer, and touches them with an easy correction, as it were wringing their foot against the wall. Thirdly, when all this is ineffectual, He brings them into such straits that they can neither turn to the right hand nor to the left, but must fall before His judgments, if they do not fully turn to Him.”
V. These checks are limited in their effects.
1. By the perverseness of man’s character. The earlier obstructions only irritated and enraged Balaam. His eager lust for wealth and honour blinded him that he did not even see the forbidding Angel. To a perverse and hardened heart mild restraints are utterly ineffectual. There are, alas! some men to whom even severe checks seem ineffectual.
2. By the irreversibleness of man’s conduct. “If it displease thee,” said Balaam, “I will get me back again. And the Angel of the Lord said, Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.” He had advanced too far to turn back then. He must go on. Only in one respect will the Divine restraint be effectual now; and that God insists upon: “Only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.” Unutterably solemn is this irreversibleness of moral conduct. The career once entered upon, in many instances, must be continued. The deed once done, can never be undone; and many of its consequences will live on—for ever! (e)
(a) Why did Almighty God give Balaam leave to go to Balak, and then was angry with him for going? I suppose for this reason, because his asking twice was tempting God. God is a jealous God. Sinners as we are—nay, as natures of His hand—we may not safely in rude upon Him, and make free with Him. We may not dare to do that which we should not dare to do with an earthly superior, which we should be punished, for instance, for attempting in the case of a king or noble of this world. To rush into His prefence, to address Him familiarly, to urge Him, to strive to make our duty lie in one direction when it lies in another, to handle rudely and practise upon His holy word, to trifle with truth, to treat conscience lightly, to take liberties (as it may he called) with anything that is God’s; all irreverence, profaneness, unscrupulousness, wantonness, is represented in Scripture, not only as a sin, but as felt, noticed, quickly returned on God’s part (if I may dare use such human words of the Almighty and All-holy God, without transgressing the rule I am myself laying down—but He vouchsafes in Scripture to represent Himself to us in that only way in which we can attain to the knowledge of Him)—I say, all irreverence towards God is represented as being jealously, and instantly, and fearfully noticed and visited, as friend or Stranger among men might resent an insult shown to him. This should be carefully considered. We are apt to act towards God and the things of God as towards a mere system, a law, a name, a religion, a principle; not as against a Person, a living, watchful, present, prompt and powerful eye and arm. That all this is a great error, is plain to all who study Scripture; as is sufficiently shown by the death of 50,070 persons for looking into the Ark—the death or the prophet by the lion, who was sent to Jeroboam from Judah, and did not immediately obey his instructions—the slaughter of the children at Bethel by the bears, for mocking Elisha—the exclusion of Moses from the Promised Land for smiting the rock twice—and the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira.—J. H. Newman, D.D.
(b) The true explanation lies between the notion that the whole occurrence was purely internal, and consisted exclusively in ecstasy brought by God upon Balaam, and the grossly realistic reduction of the whole affair into the sphere of the senses and the outward material world. The Angel who met the soothsayer in the road, as he was riding upon his ass, though He was not seen by Balaam till Jehovah had opened his eyes, did really appear upon the road, in the outward world of the senses. But the form in which He appeared was not a grossly sensuous or material form, like the bodily frame of an ordinary visible being; for in that case Balaam would inevitably have seen Him, when his beast became alarmed and restive again and again, and refused to go forward, since it is not stated anywhere that God had smitten him with blindness, like the men of Sodom (Genesis 19:11), or the people in 2 Kings 6:18. It rather resembled the appearance of a spirit, which cannot be seen by everyone who has healthy bodily eyes but only by those who have their senses awakened for visions from the spirit-world. Thus, for example, the men who went to Damascus with Paul, saw no one, when the Lord appeared to him in a miraculous light from heaven, and spoke to him, although they also heard the voice (Acts 9:7). Balaam wanted the spiritual sense to discern the Angel of the Lord, because the spirit’s eye was blinded by his thirst for wealth and honour. This blindness increased to such an extent, with the inward excitement caused by the repeated insubordination of the beast, that he lost all self-control. As the ass had never been so restive before, if he had only been calm and thoughtful himself, he would have looked about to discover the cause of this remarkable change, and would then, no doubt, have discovered the presence of the Angel. But as he lost all his thoughtfulness, God was obliged to open the mouth of the dumb and irrational animal, to show a seer by profession his own blindness. “He might have reproved him by the words of the Angel; but because the rebuke would not have been sufficiently severe without some deep humiliation, He made the beast his teacher” (Calvin). The ass’s speaking was produced by the omnipotence of God; but it is impossible to decide whether the modulation was miraculously communicated to the animal’s voice, so that it actually gave utterance to the human words which fell upon Balaam’s ears (Kurtz), or whether the cries of the animal were formed into rational discourse in Balaam’s soul, by the direct operation of God, so that he alone heard and understood the speech of the animal, whereas the servants who were present heard nothing more than unintelligible cries. In either case Balaam received a deeply humiliating admonition from the mouth of the irrational beast, and that not only to put him to shame, but also to call him to his senses, and render him capable of hearing the voice of God. The seer, who prided himself upon having eyes for Divine revelations, was so blind, that he could not discern the appearance of the Angel, which even the irrational beast had been able to see. By this he was taught that even a beast is more capable of discerning things from the higher world, than a man blinded by sinful desires. It was not till after this humiliation that God opened his eyes, so that he saw the Angel of the Lord with a drawn sword standing in his road, and fell upon his face before this fearful sight.—Keil and Del.
(c) We shall find in the sequel the person styled the Angel of the Lord, as in other places, so here, assuming the character and exercising the prerogative of Deity: for He it is that afterwards says, “The word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.” We are to understand, therefore, by this designation, the mighty, the uncreated Angel, by whom God made the worlds, the eternal Word, which was in the beginning, which was with God, and which was God, and which in the fulness of time was made flesh and dwelt among men.—Dr. H. Hunter.
The Angel of Jehovah’s presence, which went before His people in the wilderness, not only to guide, but to guard and protect them; and who was an adversary to their adversaries, and at all times stood up for their help and assistance against all those that hated and opposed them.—John Gill D.D.
(d) Balaam did only what men so entangled always do. The real fault is in themselves. They have committed themselves to a false position, and when obstacles stand in their way, they lay the blame on circumstances. They smite the dump, innocent occasion of their perplexity as if it were the cause. And the passionateness—the “madness” of the act is but an indication that all is doing wrong within. There was a canker at the heart of Balaam’s life, and his equanimity was gone; his temper vented itself on brute things. Who has not seen the like—a grown man, unreasoning as a child, furious beyond the occasion? If you knew the whale, you would see that was not the thing which had moved him so terribly; you would see that all was wrong inwardly.
It is a strange, sad picture this. The first man in the land, gifted beyond most others, conscious of great mental power, going on to splendid prospects, yet with hopelessness and misery working at his heart. Who would have envied Balaam if he could have seen all—the hell that was working at his heart?—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
It is a man’s own dishonesty, his crimes, his wickedness, and boldness, that take away from him soundness of mind; these are the furies, these the flames and firebrands of the wicked.—M. T. Cicero.
(e) Here is a serious reflection, that when we have begun an evil course we cannot retrace our steps. Balaam was forced to go with the men; he offered to draw back—he was not allowed—yet God’s wrath followed him. This is what comes of committing ourselves to an evil line of conduct; and we see daily instances of it in our experience of life. Men get entangled, and are bound hand and foot in dangerous courses. They make imprudent marriages or connections; they place themselves in dangerous situations; they engage in unprofitable or shameful undertakings. Too often, indeed, they do not discern their evil plight: but when they do they cannot draw back. God seems to say, “Go with the men.” They are in bondage, and they must make the best of it; being the slave of the creature, without ceasing to be the responsible servant of God; under His displeasure, yet bound to act as if they could please Him. All this is very fearful.—J. H. Newman, D.D.
Consider the impossibility under such circumstances of going back. Balaam offers to go back. The Angel says, “Go on.” There was yet one hope for him, to be true, to utter God’s words, careless of the consequences; but he who had been false so long, how could he be true? It was too late. In the ardour of youth you have made perhaps a wrong choice, or chosen an unfit profession, or suffered yourself weakly and passively to be drifted into a false course of action, and now, in spite of yourself, you feel there is no going back. To many minds, such a lot comes as with the mysterious force of a destiny. They see themselves driven, and forget that they put themselves in the way of the stream that drives them. They excuse their own acts as if they were coerced. They struggle now and then faintly, as Balaam did—try to go back—cannot, and at last sink passively in the mighty current that floats them on to wrong.—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
BALAAM AND HIS ASS; OR, A LESSON ON OBSTRUCTIVE PROVIDENCES
Is this a literal narrative? Yes; for,—
1. The style in which it is written is plain and unadorned.
2. The story is not essentially incredible.
3. It is referred to in other parts of Scripture as plain matter of fact.
4. The end to be gained was quite enough to warrant the miracle.
5. The speech of the ass is so simple and natural that it could not be either a delusion of Balaam’s excited imagination, or an invention of some later fabulist.
I. See the lessons it taught Balaam.
1. It convinced him of spiritual blindness. He was more stupid than his ass. She could see an angel, but Balaam could not, because he was engrossed and binded by his covetous greed.
2. It taught absolute submission to God. He made his ass, however reluctant, obey him; and he, too, however obstinate, must be taught to obey God. This was indispensable to prepare him to do God’s work among the Moabites.
II. The subject is full of lessons to us.
It shows us the worth of obstructive providences, and the wisdom of giving patient attention and heed to them.
1. We often go on wrong errands, or on right errands in a wrong spirit. Some go on wrong errands, seeking a change of place, from selfish ambition—pursuing a business necessarily sinful—projecting a matrimonial union without regard to piety—resolution to leave home and country from recklessness and self-will. Some have wrong motives in a right way:—e.g., mercenary ministers of religion, self-seeking teachers, &c.—insincere rebukers of sin, who pander to the rich and make allowance for their vices, while they are very severe on the offending poor, &c.
2. God checks us in His providence, and in love to our souls. Illness; raising up of insuperable difficulties; falling off of friends; superior success to rivals, &c.
3. We are apt to fret and be angry at the instruments of our disappointment. We cast our spite and blame on second causes.
4. We should seek spiritual enlightenment, to see that it is God’s doing. Be not angry and resentful, but give yourselves to prayer; else, like Balaam, you will not see that it is God who opposes you (Numbers 22:34).
5. We can only be permitted to go forward when we are brought to a state of perfect subjection to God. Two things are here included: a perfect purity of motive and freedom from worldly self-seeking; and an entire acquiescence in whatever God appoints, desires, or does. Thus, acknowledge God in all your ways, and He will direct your steps.—T. G. Horton.
I. The historic character of the miracle here recorded.
In the history of Christ and in that of His apostles, incidents are recorded which are miraculous, side by side with those which are not miraculous. The one cannot be separated from the other; they are interwoven into one narrative, which must be accepted as a whole, or rejected altogether. So it is in the history of Balaam. It is well to note, concerning this incident, that it is spoken of by a New Testament writer as an undoubted fact (2 Peter 2:16).
II. The miracle itself.
The speech of the ass as the instrument of a higher intelligence, finds an analogy in another Scriptural record. In the first temptation of man, the speech of the serpent was used to convey the thought of a higher and more intelligent creature. If God permitted Satan to use a serpent to tempt man, why should He not Himself use an ass to reprove man? If the tongue of the serpent was used to convey intelligible sounds, why should not that of any other animal be used for the same purpose? In one case the miracle was wrought by Satan for an evil end, in the other by God for a good end. We have another somewhat analogous case in the speech of parrots and other birds, who utter intelligible sentences without understanding them, the difference being that the ass did at once, and therefore miraculously, what these creatures learn to do by imitation. It is evident that these birds possess a special God given faculty to imitate human words, and He who made them made the ass also.
III. The object of the miracle.
It was to bring Balaam to obey the Divine voice of his conscience, which was well nigh drowned in the clamour of his covetousness for “the wages of unrighteousness.”
1. It was calculated to humble him in relation to: gift of God upon which he probably prided himself. It is likely he was an eloquent man. He would now see that God could endow a brute with the gift of speech.
2. He would also see that an ass could discern a messenger from heaven, where he, blinded by his desire for gain, could see nothing but empty space.
3. He might also have learned that all speech was under Divine control, and that he would be able to utter only such words as God would permit.
i. That the means used by God to bring men to obedience are always adapted to that end, although they do not always attain it. Balaam needed to repent of his present course, and nothing could have been more likely to startle him into reflection upon it than a reproof from his own beast. He had a moment’s space for consideration before he stood face to face with the Angel of the Lord; but his half-hearted confession of his sin (Numbers 22:34) shows—
ii. That, when obedience to a certain command is withheld (Numbers 22:12), miracles are powerless to change character. Those who were unwilling to take the yoke of Christ (Matthew 11:29), were not won by His miracles. See also Luke 16:31. Miracles startle the soul, but obedience transforms the character.—From Outlines of Sermons on the Miracles and Parables of the Old Testament.
THE MEETING OF BALAAM AND BALAK
In this portion of the history these are the principal points:
I. The king receives the prophet with marks of great honour.
“And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him” &c. (Numbers 22:36). And as a further token of his respect, the king sent unto Balaam and to the princes who were with him a feast from the sacrifices which he offered (Numbers 22:40). The heathen were accustomed to pay great respect and reverence to their priests and prophets. We have evidence of this in Genesis 47:22; 1 Kings 18:19; Ezra 7:0 et al. Their conduct in this respect is—
1. A rebuke to many Christians. Paul exhorted the Christians at Thessalonica toesteem their ministers “very highly in love for their work’s sake:” yet how many Christians fail lamentably in this respect!
2. An example to many Christians. In this respect we may profitably imitate them. Our Lord saith to His faithful ministers, “He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me; and he that despiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me” (see also Matthew 10:40-41; John 13:20). (a)
II. The king expresses his surprise at the delay of the prophet in coming to him.
“And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee?” &c. (Numbers 22:37). Thus he gently rebukes him for not having come to him when he was first asked to do so. And he seems surprised that his power to reward the prophet had not secured his ready compliance with his request. Clearly he was of opinion that the blessing or curse of a prophet was purchasable if the would-be purchaser could only bid high enough for them; that Balaam had his price; and that he, Balak, was able to pay it (b) (comp. Acts 8:18-23). Balak seems to have had no idea of the sacredness of genius, or of the solemn responsibilities involved in the possession of great gifts, or that endowments from God must be used only in religious accordance with His holy will. A worldly-minded man, he can think of no higher motive than this, “Am I not able indeed to promote thee to honour?” (c)
But of what value are the highest honours and the richest rewards which kings can bestow, when they are obtained at the cost of righteous principles and a clear conscience? (d)
III. The prophet endeavours to moderate the expectations of the king.
“And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee,” &c. (Numbers 22:38). Balaam felt himself under a restraint which he could not throw off; no, not even for all the wealth and honours which a king has power to bestow. (e)
The Lord was watching over the interests of Israel; and while He protected them neither could Balaam curse them, nor Balak conquer them. “Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep,” &c. (Psalms 121:4-8). (f)
IV. The king endeavours by sacrificial offerings to induce Jehovah to favour his design.
“Balak offered oxen and sheep.” Keil and Del.: “The sacrifices were not so much thank-offerings for Balaam’s happy arrival, as supplicatory offerings for the success of the undertaking before them. ‘This is evident,’ as Hengstenberg correctly observes, ‘from the place and time of their presentation; for the place was not that where Balak first met with Balaam, and they were only presented on the eve of the great event.’ Moreover, they were offered unquestionably not to the Moabitish idols, from which Balak expected no help, but to Jehovah, whom Balak wished to draw away, in connection with Balaam, from His own people (Israel), that He might secure His favour to the Moabites.”
How utterly mistaken in this view of the Divine Being! He changes not. No sacrifices can alter His will, or turn Him aside from His purposes. How unworthy of God and how dishonouring to Him is such a view of His character! No bribes, however costly, can induce Him to forsake His people, or to favour an unrighteous cause. And the sacrifices offered to Him with such a view are an abomination in His sight.
V. The king and prophet ascend a height and obtain a view of the camp of Israel.
“And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.” Balak thought that Balaam must see the Israelites in order that he might curse them effectually. And now the time had come for the prophet to make the awful attempt. Balak was in a state of eager anxiety. But who shall tell the state of Balaam’s mind at this time?
(a) For illustrations on this point see p. 62.
(b) As a mere mutter of fact, known to us, by distressing observation, the saving of money is a fascination of the devil to many men; it absorbs their energies; it engrosses their time; it perverts their moral nature; it destroys natural affection; it sets them on fire of hell. Kept from the sight of gold, they may even bear a strong resemblance to pious men; they may be intelligent, genial, and entertaining, yet the moment their thoughts are turned to the accumulation of property, every trace of nobleness is destroyed. The victim of the world is entirely without self-control: every speck of dust is to him as a shackle of bondage; he would risk his eternity for a stone or a clod. At all times he would not know this, for in the moments of his release from the urgency of his tormentor he might discover traits of a better disposition; it is when he is brought again into contact with worldly concerns that he shows how utterly he is enslaved and unmanned. I may remind my young hearers of the tiger that was trained to be the playmate of a favourite child. Weeks and months and years elapsed, and the tiger was gentle and playful; it so happened, however, that in looking the child’s hand it tasted blood, and instantly the natural appetite of the creature was excited, and the child fell a victim to its ferocity. It is so in the moral history of many a man: there are breaks in human life which are filled up by many excellencies, and which apparently give the lie to the charge of apostacy, and yet suddenly some besetting sin will set the whole nature on fire, and in the madness of an hour the fabric of a lifetime may be overthrown.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(c) But few men in any country touch the highest point of fame; thousands upon thousands in all generations come to honour and influence, yet in a few months after their death their names cease to have any interest but for the smallest circles. This reflection ought not to discourage virtue. Peace of heart is better than mere renown. To be known in heaven is the best fame. To have a place in the love of God is to enjoy the true exaltation.—Ibid.
(d) With money you can bay the canvas and the oil, but not the artistic eye which interprets and appreciates the picture; you can buy the poem, but the living and inspiring poetry is not for sale; you can rent the garden, but cannot bribe the flowers to whisper their tender messages. After all, it is but a very little way that money can go; it can do nearly everything in the market-place or among the dust of cities, but what do the angels know of your currency, your bills of exchange, your promissory notes, and your intricate conveyancing of estates? Not one of the great redemptions of life can be wrought out with money; death takes no bribe; the grave will not sell its victories for gold; you may buy the Bible, but you cannot buy the Holy Ghost; you may pay for the masonry, but no money can put you in possession of the Spirit of the altar.—Ibid.
(e) The kite broke away from its string, and instead of mounting to the stars it descended into the mire. The river grew weary of its restraining banks, and longed to burst them, that it might rush on in the wild joy of freedom; down went the embankments, the river became a flood, and carried destruction and desolation wherever it rushed. Unrein the coursers of the sun, and lo! the earth is burned; unbind the girdle of the elements, and chaos reigns! Let us never desire to be rid of those restraints which God has seen fit to lay upon us; they are more needful than we dream. Remember how the vine, when bound to the stake which upheld it, judged itself a martyr, and longed to be free; but when it saw the wild vine at its feet, rotting on the damps and pining amidst the heats, and producing no fruit, it felt how needful were its bonds if its clusters were ever to ripen.—C. H. Spurgeon.
(f) According to the gloomy prophets, all England is going to the bad—not England alone, but all countries are hastening on to a general and everlasting smash. Then one begins to fret about the Church of God; for according to the soothsayers of the age, Anti-Christ is yet to come, and new heresies are to spring up; the dogs of war are to be let loose, the Pope is to rule and burn us, and one hardly knows what else. Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, have been made sometimes to minister poison to every bright hope, but here is our comfort with regard to the future:—
“He everywhere hath sway.
And all things serve His might:
His very act pure blessing is,
His path unsullied light.”
Let the worst come to the worst, the best will come of it ere long. “If the heavens were a bow,” saith one, “and the earth were the string, and God should fit the arrows of His vengeance thereon, and shoot at the sons of men, yet they could find shelter with the archer himself.” Our refuge is in God; let the worst calamities occur to the world in years to come we are secure. It must be well: it cannot be ill. “Jehovah, Jireh.” Lift high the banner and hopefully advance to the battle, for the victory shall surely come unto the Arm eternal, the Will immutable.—Ibid.
HISTORY OF BALAAM.—NO. III
 For Nos. I. and II. see pp. 429–431.
(Numbers 22:36—Numbers 24:25)
We approach the termination of this eventful history. The portion of Scripture that forms the basis of our remarks is Numbers 22:36, to the end of chap. 24.
We left Balaam on his journey to Balak; we now commence with his arrival in the land of Moab. With what strangely mingled feelings must Balaam have pursued this journey! That dumb ass had not spoken for nothing: a good many twinges of conscience, no doubt, Balaam had on the way; perhaps, after all, God did not like his going with these messengers; perhaps he had better have been content with his humble mountain home; perhaps he will get into trouble, for he cannot forget—“The word that I shall speak, that shalt thou speak.” However, Balaam goes on, just this once, and when this affair is over he will return home, eschew Balak and his messengers for ever; in fact, Balak had made him so many presents already, that he will be able in future to afford to keep a conscience, and to say “No” to temptation.
As the key to this history, recall what was said before of Balaam’s connection with the old patriarchal church: he was a monotheist amongst a multilade of polytheists; to that idea of God he was faithful. Moreover, Balaam knows God to be the God of Israel, that God has chosen Israel, and that God is with them. The history of their eight and thirty years’ weary pilgrimage in the peninsula of Sinai, was matter of notoriety among all the wild Ishmaelites of that part; and Balaam is seer, he can prognosticate out of existing facts; and in the opposition of the Amalekites, and Moabites, and Edomites to the Israelites, he sees the certainty of their final overthrow. And yet the King of Moab sends to him to curse the people of God’s choice; a people that Balaam knows are to be victorious; and he goes, although he knows it to be impossible to curse them; but he hopes to get his “wages of iniquity.”
And so Balaam and Balak meet. The first words of the interview are ominous. Balak chides Balaam, and Balaam admits that all he says is right; but adds, “the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.”
When a man has come to that pass it is all over with him. How many do we meet every day, who would be wicked if they dared; who would go here, and would go there, only they are not at liberty; who don’t mind the sin at all, only its exposure:—they might be reproved; they might lose a situation, &c. There is nothing left, but another edition of Solomon’s picture in the Proverbs, “How have I hated instruction, and my heart despised reproof,” &c.
Endeavour to realize the scene. Balaam was alone; he “went to a high place;” there he stood by his burnt offering; below, on the plains, were God’s people Israel: from the top of the rocks he saw their encampment, the “pillar of cloud” still hovering over the assembled host: all was order, security, and strength amongst Israel. Far away is the uncrowned king and his nobles, waiting the return of Balaam: but meanwhile a very notable event occurs,—“And God met Balaam.” Balaam shall yet be warned, shall yet have another word; and so God met him.
The lessons from the whole are—
The formidable power of sin. Man can degrade himself below the level of a beast. The dumb ass was wiser than Balaam.—W. G. Barrett.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 22". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26