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CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY NOTES
Numbers 23:1. Build me here seven altars. “As seven was a number of perfection, Balaam chose it on this occasion, because he intended to offer a grand sacrifice, and to offer a bullock and a ram upon each of the altars; the whole to be made a burnt offering at the same time. And as he intended to offer seven bullocks and seven rams at the same time, it could not be conveniently done on one altar, therefore he ordered seven to be built.”—A. Clarke LL.D.
The offerings were presented to Jehovah, whom Balaam acknowledged as his God.
Numbers 23:2. Balak and Balaam offered. “Balak presented the sacrifices to be offered for him and for his people; and Balaam performed the office of a priest and offered them.”—Bp. Patrick.
Numbers 23:3. I will go; peradventure Jehovah will come to meet me. “The meaning of these words is apparent from Numbers 24:1 : and ‘he went no more to meet with the auguries.’ Balaam went out to look for a manifestation of Jehovah in the significant phenomena of nature.”—Keil and Del.
He went to an high place. Keil and Del.: “a bald height.” Speaker’s Comm.: “ ‘a bare place on the hill,’ or ‘a scar’; as opposed to the high place with its grove of trees.” Heathen augurs were wont to select the lonely and barren summits of mountains for their auspices.
Numbers 23:4. God met Balaam. “God served His own purposes through the arts of Balaam, and manifested His will through the agencies employed to seek it, dealing thus with Balaam in an exceptional manner. For to God’s own people auguries were forbidden (Leviticus 19:26).”—Speaker’s Comm.
I have prepared seven altars, &c. “The spirit of these words is thoroughly that of a heathen worshipper expecting in all his devotions his quid pro quo.”—Ibid.
Numbers 23:7. Parable. Heb.: mashal, a proverb, similitude, sententious poem.
Aram. This word signifies “highland,” and denotes the country to the north-east of Palestine as far as the banks of the Euphrates. The country between the Euphrates and the Tigris was specially designated “Aram-naharaim,” or “Aram of the two rivers.”
Mountains of the east, i.e., of Mesopotamia (comp. Deuteronomy 23:4).
Defy Israel. Rather “threaten,” or “menace Israel.”
Numbers 23:8. How shall I defy, &c. Rather: “how shall I threaten whom Jehovah hath not threatened?”
Numbers 23:9. Dwell alone, &c., i.e., separate from other nations. The outward separation was a symbol of their inward separation from the heathen world; and this inward separation was an indispensable condition of their outward separation and safety.
Numbers 23:10. The fourth part, &c. (comp. chap. 2).
Numbers 23:13. Come with me unto another place, &c. Balak’s idea seems to be, that Balaam’s view of the camp of Israel was so extensive, and so impressed him with their number and order and power, that he could not curse them; and that if he took him to a place from whence he could see only a small portion of them, he would then be able to curse them.
Keil and Del., however, take a different view of this. They say the translation should be, “ ‘whence thou wilt see it (Israel); thou seest only the end of it, but not the whole of it’ (sc. here upon Bamoth Paal). This is required,” they say, “by a comparison of the verse before us with Numbers 22:41, where it is most unquestionably stated, that upon the top of Bamoth-Baal Balaam only saw ‘the end of the people.’ For this reason Balak regarded that place as unfavourable, and wished to lead the seer to a place from which he could see the people, without any limitation whatever.”
Numbers 23:14. The field of Zophim. “Or ‘of watchers.’ It lay upon the top of Pisgah, north of the former station, and nearer to the Israelitish camp; the greater part of which was, however, probably concealed from it by an intervening spur of the hill. Beyond the camp Balaam’s eye would pass on to the bed of the Jordan. It was perhaps a lion coming up in his strength from the swelling of that stream (cf. Jeremiah 49:19) that furnished him with the augury he awaited, and so dictated the final similitude of his next parable.—Speaker’s Comm.
Numbers 23:18. Rise up, Balak, &c. A summons to minute and earnest attention.
Numbers 23:20. Omit the “commandment” of the A. V.
Numbers 23:21. “He hath not beheld iniquity, &c. There is a large diversity in the interpretation of this verse. That of Keil and Del. seems to us correct: “God sees not אָוֶן, worthlessness, wickedness, and עָמָל, tribulation, misery, as the consequence of sin, and therefore discovers no reason for cursing the nation. That this applied to the people solely by virtue of their calling as the holy nation of Jehovah, and consequently that there is no denial of the sin of individuals, is evident from the second hemistich, which expresses the thought of the first in a positive form: so that the words, ‘Jehovah his God is with him,’ correspond to the words, ‘He beholds not wickedness;’ and ‘the shout of a king in the midst of it,’ to His not seeing suffering. Israel therefore rejoiced in the blessing of God only so long as it remained faithful to the idea of its Divine calling, and continued in covenant fellowship with the Lord. So long the power of the world could do it no harm. The ‘shout of a king, in Israel is the rejoicing of Israel at the fact that Jehovah dwells and rules as King in the midst of it (cf. Exodus 15:18; Deuteronomy 33:5). Jehovah had manifested Himself as King, by leading them out of Egypt.”
Numbers 23:22. God. אֵל the Mighty One.
Unicorn. Rather, the buffalo, or wild bull.
Numbers 23:23. Surely there is no enchantment, &c. Keil and Del. translate: “For there is no augury in Jacob, and no divination in Israel. At the time it is spoken to Jacob, and to Israel what God doeth.” “נַחַשׁ and קֶסֶם, οἰωνισμός and μαντεία, augurium et divinatio, were the two means employed by the heathen for looking into futurity. The former was the unfolding of the future, from signs in the phenomena of nature and inexplicable occurrences in animal and human life; the latter prophesying from a pretended or supposed revelation of the Deity within the human mind. כָּעֵת ‘according to the time,’ i.e., at the right time, God revealed His acts, His counsel, and His will to Israel in His word, which He had spoken at first to the patriarchs, and afterwards through Moses and the prophets. In this He revealed to His people in truth, and in a way that could not deceive, what the heathen attempted in vain to discover through augury and divination (cf. Deuteronomy 18:14-19).”
Numbers 23:25. Neither curse them, &c. Keil and Del.: “ ‘Thou shalt neither curse it, nor even bless.’ In his vexation at the second failure, he did not want to hear anything more from Balaam.”
Numbers 23:28. Peor. “Mount Peor was one peak of the northern part of the mountains of Abarim by the town of Beth-peor, which afterwards belonged to the Reubenites (Joshua 13:20), and opposite to which the Israelites were encamped in the steppes of Moab (Deuteronomy 3:29; Deuteronomy 4:46).”—Keil and Del.
Jeshimon. See on Numbers 21:20.
THE SACRIFICE OF BALAK AND BALAAM
I. Objectively this sacrifice was as perfect as the offerers could make it.
Clearly they aimed at presenting a perfect offering. This is exhibited—
1. In the number of offerings. There were seven altars, upon each of which they offered a bullock and a ram. Seven was regarded as a sacred and perfect number.
2. In the victims offered. “Seven oxen and seven rams.” The victims were not mean or of little worth; but of the most valuable that were used for sacrifices.
3. In the kind of offerings. They were burnt offerings, which were presented without any reserve, being entirely consumed in honour of the Divine Being.
It was a law amongst the Hebrews that they should present to God offerings of their choicest and best. Spiritually that law is still binding. (a)
II. Subjectively this sacrifice was very imperfect, and even sinful.
In the sentiments and motives of the offerers there was much that was both erroneous and evil.
1. The sacrifice was offered with an admixture of faith and superstition. Balak and Balaam believed the truth that acceptable approach to God must be by sacrifice. But there was superstition in their view of His regard for sacrifices, or the way in which He was influenced by them. It was also belief in heathen superstitions, which led Balaam to go to look for auguries (Numbers 23:3). Superstitions commend neither the offerer nor his offerings to God.
2. The sacrifice was offered under the impression that the offering was meritorious on the part of the offerers, and placed God under an obligation to them. “And God met Balaam, and he said unto Him, I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram.” The state of mind which led Balaam thus to call Divine attention to the sacrifices, implied the ignoring of two facts of vital importance:—
(1) God’s proprietorship of all things. We can only present unto Him His own. David felt this, and said, “All things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee” (comp. Psalms 50:8-13).
(2) Man’s relation to God as a dependent and sinful creature. Where this is realised, all notions of merit in man in relation to God, or of obligation upon God in relation to man, are effectually excluded. The best man at his best, is but an unprofitable servant, as regards God (Luke 17:10). Balaam did not feel thus: he was not humble, but thought he had rendered to God very meritorious service. (b)
3. The sacrifice was offered as a means to induce God to change His mind. He had forbidden Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22:12); Balaam desired Him to revoke that prohibition, and to permit him to curse them; and for this purpose he offered his sacrifice. At first God absolutely forbad his accompanying the messengers of Balak; then afterwards He gave him conditional permission to go with them; and Balaam probably regarded this as the result of a change of mind in the Divine Being, and drew from it encouragement to hope that he might obtain from Him permission to curse Israel. How false and dishonouring was such a view as regards God! how perilous as regards man! (c)
4. The sacrifice was offered with a view of obtaining permission and power to curse the people of God. This was the final cause of the sacrifice, and was utterly sinful in the sight of God.
1. Learn that the true value of sacrifice is to be looked for not in the quantity or quality of the offering, but in the spirit of the offerer. “Thou desirest not sacrifice,” &c. (Psalms 51:16-19). (d)
2. Trusting in Christ Jesus for acceptance, let us present ourselves to God. “God must be worshipped with our best. A man’s best is himself; and to sacrifice this is the true sacrifice.” “I beseech you therefore, brethren,” &c. (Romans 12:1) (e)
3. He who has truly given himself to God will keep back nothing from Him. Hearty obedience and reverent worship he will render to God, and kind and helpful service to man. “By Jesus, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise,” &c. (Hebrews 13:15-16).
(a) For an illustration on this point see p. 101.
(b) For an illustration on this point, see p. 100.
(c) Balaam wanted to please himself without displeasing God. The problem was how to go to Balak, and yet not offend God. He would have given worlds to get rid of his duties, and he sacrificed, not to learn what his duty was, but to get his duty altered. Now see the feeling that lay at the root of all this—that God is mutable. Yet of all men one would have thought Balaam knew better, for had he not said, “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: hath he said, and shall He not do it?” But, when we look upon it, we see Balaam had scarcely any feeling higher than this—God is more inflexible than man. Probably had he expressed the exact shade of feeling, he would have said, more obstinate. He thought that God had set His heart upon Israel, and that it was hard, yet not impossible, to alter this partiality. Hence he tries sacrifices to cribe and prayers to coax God.
How deeply rooted this feeling is in human nature—this belief in God’s mutability—you may see from the Romish doctrine of indulgences and atonements. The Romish Church permits crime for certain considerations. For certain considerations it teaches that God will forgive crimes. Atonements after, and indulgences before sin, are the same. But this Romish doctrine never could have succeeded, if the belief in God’s mutability and the desire that He should be mutable, were not in man already.
What Balaam was doing in these parables, and enchantments, and sacrifices, was simply purchasing an indulgence to sin; in other words, it was an attempt to make the Eternal Mind change. What was wanting to Balaam to feel was this—God cannot change. What he did feel was this—God will not change. There are many writers that teach that this and that is right because God has willed it. All discussion is cut short by the reply, God has determined it, therefore it is right. Now, there is exceeding danger in this mode of thought, for a thing is not right because God has willed it, but God wills it because it is right. It is in this tone the Bible always speaks. Never, except in one obscure passage, does the Bible seem to refer right and wrong to the sovereignty of God, and declare it a matter of will: never does it imply that if He so choose, He could reverse evil and good. It says, “Is not My word equal? are not your ways unequal?” “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” was Abraham’s exclamation in a kind of hideous doubt whether the Creator might not be on the eve of doing injustice. So the Bible justifies the ways of God to man. But it could not do so unless it admitted Eternal Laws, with which no will can interfere. Nay more, see what ensues from this mode of thought. If Right is right because God wills it, then if God chose, He could make injustice, and cruelty, and lying to be right. This is exactly what Balaam thought. If God could but be prevailed on to hate Israel, then for him to curse them would be right. And again: if power and sovereignty make right, then, supposing that the Ruler were a demon, devilish hatred would be as right as now it is wrong. There is great danger in some of our present modes of thinking. It is a common thought that Might makes Right, but for us there is no rest, no rock, no sure footing, as long as we feel right and wrong are mere matters of will and decree. There is no safety then, from those hankering feelings and wishes to alter God’s decree. You are unsafe till you feel “Heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s word carnal pass away.”—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
(d) All sacrifice is worthless which is not vitalized by the moral element. Where the sacrifice represents a broken spirit, where it sets forth the operations of a contrite heart, it becomes acceptable to God, and useful as a basis of negotiation with heaven. Where the moral element is present, the physical element will not be forgotten. Though sacrifice in itself without the presence of spiritual feeling, is absolutely worthless in the sight of God, yet where the moral element is present in the form of a broken spirit and a contrite heart, sacrifice will be presented even in its material forms. Thereby the penitent man expresses his love, and fosters his faith, and testifies his gratitude. Blessed be God, in our case it is unnecessary that we provide bullock or burnt offering. The one final sacrifice has been offered in the person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Higher than this no man can go. After His blood has been shed, the blood of all animals is unavailing. It is enough that the Lamb of God poured out His blood for the sins of the world. Yet we have to offer sacrifices, not indeed of atonement, but of gratitude; we have to testify by exalted pursuits, by noble endeavours, by generous efforts to ameliorate the condition of mankind, by all holy labour in the cause of evangelization, that our hearts have been broken and healed, that our spirits have been bowed down, and yet lifted up—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(e) “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” That is a very solemn enunciation. Sacrifice is worship. You may pray devout prayers, you may sing sweet hymns with rapture, you may rejoice in all the peacefulness of the Sabbath well observed, you may be a religious man, and yet you may not have mercy; men may perish about you, and you be indifferent; works of beneficence may be going on under your eye, and you have no part or lot in them. It is possible for a man to be a religious man, and not a Christian. To be a Christian a man must have that spirit which led Christ to give Himself to be a ransom for the world, and he must carry his life so as to be a perpetual benefaction not to himself, but to others. To be Christlike in these regards is to be a Christian.—H. W. Beecher.
BALAAM’S FIRST PARABLE; THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD
Balaam went out to look for auguries, and the Lord God met him and put a word in his mouth. “God designed to serve His own glory by him, and therefore met Balaam. Balak having chosen him for his oracle, God would constrain him to utter such a coulession, to the honour of God and Israel, as should render those for ever inexcusable who should appear in arms against them.” Thus the Divine message was spoken by the lips of a bad man; and he who longed to curse Israel, in exalted strains pronounces their blessedness. Balaam’s declaration of the happiness of Israel, sets forth the Blessedness of the People of God.
I. It is placed beyond the power of their enemies.
Balaam both felt and declared this—“How shall I curse whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I threaten whom the Lord hath not threatened?… And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me?” &c. (Numbers 23:8; Numbers 23:11-12). Balaam felt that he could not curse Israel. And if he had cursed them, his curse would not have injured them, but himself. “See what it is to live within the wall of God’s blessing.” “Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalms 121:4-8). “They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion,” &c. (Psalms 125:1-2). “Upon this rock I will build My Church,” &c. (Matthew 16:18). “If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” &c. (Romans 8:31; Romans 8:35-39). “Who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?” (a)
II. It consists in their separation from the ungodly.
“From the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” “The separation of Israel from the rest of the nations was manifested outwardly to the seer’s eye, in the fact that ‘the host of Israel dwelt by itself in a separate encampment upon the plain. In this his spirit discerned the inward and essential separation of Israel from all the heathen.’ ” In three respects were the Israelites separated from other nations—
1. Politically they were independent of them. Both their country and their polity the Hebrews received from the Lord God; and so long as they kept themselves from the vices of the heathen, their independence was unimpaired.
2. Morally they were separated from them. God called them to complete separation from the idolatries and vices of the corrupt Canaanites and others, and to the practice of a pure morality and the observance of an exalted and exalting worship.
3. By the possession of peculiar privileges they were separated from them. “Thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God; the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto Himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth” (comp. Deuteronomy 7:0). To them pertained “the adoption, and the glory,” &c. (Romans 9:4-5). This declaration of their separation from other nations “has been so marvellously realized in the history of the Israelites, not withstanding their falling short of the idea of their Divine calling, ‘that whereas all the mightier kingdoms of the ancient world, Egypt, Assyria, Babel, &c., have perished without a trace, Israel, after being rescued from so many dangers which threatened utter destruction under the Old Testament, still flourishes in the Church of the New Testament, and continues also to exist in that part which, though rejected now, is destined one day to be restored’ (Hengstenberg).”
The people of God are still called to be a separate people. “They are not of the world,” said Christ, “even as I am not of the world. I pray not,” &c. (John 17:14-16). Their maxims, customs, laws, and conduct are dissimilar from those of the world: “their inheritance, their home, their citizenship are in heaven; their affections, conversation, pursuits, and pleasures are heavenly.” (b)
III. It consists also in their vast numbers.
“Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the numbers of the fourth part of Israel”? To the eye of Balaam the Israelites seemed an innumerable host (comp. Genesis 13:16, and Deuteronomy 10:22). Their rapid increase was regarded as the result of the blessing of the Lord their God.
The spiritual Israel of God is “a great multitude which no man can number.” We may form an approximately correct idea of the countless hosts of the people of God from three considerations. Their number is—
1. Unlimited as regards time. It includes the good of all past ages of the world’s history, of the present, and will include those of all future ages.
2. Unlimited as regards place. The good of all lands are members of the great Church of the living God. “They shall come from the east, and the west, and from the north,” &c. (Luke 13:29). “A great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations,” &c. (Revelation 7:9).
3. Unlimited as regards race or class. The godly African as well as the godly European, &c. The rich and the poor; the learned and the unlearned; the bond and the free, &c. (c)
IV. It consists also of righteousness of character.
Balaam speaks of the Israelites as “the righteous” (Numbers 23:10). “But Israel,” says Keil and Del., “was not only visibly blessed by God with an innumerable increase; it was also inwardly exalted into a people of יְשָׁרִים, righteous or honourable men. The predicate righteous is applied to Israel on account of its Divine calling, because it had a God who was just and right, a God of truth and without iniquity (Deuteronomy 32:4), or because the God of Israel was holy and sanctified His people (Leviticus 20:7-8; Exodus 31:13), and made them into a Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 33:5; Deuteronomy 33:26). Righteousness, probity, is the idea and destination of this people, which has never entirely lost it, though it has never fully realised it. Even in times of general apostasy from the Lord, there was always an ἐκλογή in the nation, of which probity and righteousness could be truly predicated (cf. 1 Kings 19:18). The righteousness of the Israelites was a product of the institutions which God had established among them, of the revelation of His holy will, which He had given them in His law, of the forgiveness of sins, which He had linked on to the offering of sacrifices, and of the communication of His Spirit, which was ever living and at work in His Church (Hengstenberg).”
The people of God are still called to be righteous; and they realize this calling by the exercise of faith in Jesus Christ:—“even the righteousness of God through faith of Christ Jesus unto all and upon all that believe.” There cannot be any true blessedness apart from righteousness. (d)
V. It is in some respects desired even by the ungodly.
“Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” “Death,” again quoting from Keil and Del., “is introduced here as the end and completion of life. ‘Balaam desires for himself the entire, full, indestructible, and inalienable blessedness of the Israelite, of which death is both the close and completion, and also the seal and attestation’ (Kurtz). This desire did not involve the certain hope of a blessed life beyond the grave, which the Israelites themselves did not then possess; it simply expressed the thought that the death of a pious Israelite was a desirable good. And, this it was, whether viewed in the light of the past, the present, or the future. In the hour of death the pious Israelite would look back with blessed satisfaction to a long life, rich ‘in traces of the beneficent, forgiving, delivering, and saving grace of God’; he could comfort himself with the delightful hope of living on in his children, and his children’s children, and in them of participating in the future fulfilment of the Divine promises of grace; and lastly, when dying in possession of the love and grace of God, he could depart hence with the joyful confidence of being gathered to his fathers in Sheol (Genesis 25:8).”
Thus the ungodly bear testimony to the excellence of the lot of the people of God by desiring to share their blessedness. “Their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges.” There is but one way of enjoying their privileges, and that is by possessing their character. To “die the death of the righteous,” we must live the life of the righteous. (e)
Is this blessedness ours? Are we truly of the number of God’s spiritual Israel? By faith in Christ every man may become a member of the “chosen generation,” and the “holy nation.” “They which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.”
(a) I read a story the other day of some Russians crossing wide plains studded over here and there with forests. The villages were ten or a dozen miles from each other, and the wolves were out, and the horses were rushing forward madly, and the travellers could hear the baying of the wolves behind them; and though the horses tore along with all speed, yet the wolves were fast behind, and they only escaped, as we say, “by the skin of their teeth,” managing just to get inside some but that stood in the road, and to shut-to the door. Then they could hear the wolves leap on the roof; they could hear them dash against the sides of the hut; they could hear them gnawing at the door, and howling, and making all sorts of dismal noises; but the travellers were safe, because they had entered by the door, and the door was shut. Now, when a man gets in Christ, he can hear, as it were, the devils howling like wolves, all fierce and hungry for him; and his own sins, like wolves, are seeking to drag him down to destruction. But he has got in to Christ, and that is such a shelter that all the devils in the world, if they were to come at once, could not start a single beam of the eternal refuge: it must stand fast, though earth and heaven should pass away.—C. H. Spurgeon.
For additional illustrations on the Security of the People of God, see pp. 105, 154.
(b) It is our duty to flee from all ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to have no fellowship with the ungodly, nor with the unfruitful works of darkness. This indeed is “pure religion and undefiled, to keep ourselves unspotted from the world.” This the Apostle Paul urgeth, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. We know that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. One rotten sheep infecteth a whole flock. One leper spreadeth the disease further, to the hurt of sundry other. Now there is no leaven like to the leaven of sin (1 Corinthians 5:6); no infection comparable to the infection of sin; no leprosy so deadly and dangerous as the contagion of sin, which bringeth danger and destruction to soul and body. Therefore we must not join ourselves with the ungodly, seeing that we are an holy people to the Lord our God. He hath chosen us to be a precious people unto Himself above other people that are upon the earth. We “are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood,” &c. (1 Peter 2:9). Seeing we are washed from the corruptions of the flesh, let us not defile ourselves again; seeing we are called out of the world, let us not return into the world; and seeing we are freed from the thralldom of sin, let us not sell ourselves again to our own lusts, which fight against the soul. We cannot come near an infections disease without danger of infection. We cannot touch pitch without danger to be defiled with it.—W. Attersoll.
For another illustration on Separation from the world, see p. 94.
(c) The Lord’s Church is bigger than any church that men’s hands ever formed. There is no wall that can contain the Church of God on earth, and there is no sect line that can reach round it. The Lord’s garment is large enough to cover all sects, and to leave room for nations to camp under it besides.—H. W. Beecher.
“Lo! a great multitude of all nations, and people, and kindred, and tongues.” The purpose of the Lord is fixed! Idols he shall utterly abolish! The march of Christianity may have been slow and impeded, but the truth shall yet prosper and prevail; and faith, guided by the sure word of prophecy, may even now behold the wild children of the desert, the wanderers, whose hand is against every man, and every man’s hand against them, the slaves of bloody rites, the victims of fearful delusions, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in their right mind, and made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light. O glorious society, which shall thus be gathered from all ages, and all ranks, and all countries! There is beauty in diversity! There is majesty in combination! I kindle at the thought of there being a great multitude in heaven; I kindle the more at that of this multitude being drawn from every nation, every tribe, and every tongue. What a throng to join in! What a company with which to associate and enter into fellowship! The righteous of past days, of the present, and the future—those who under the earlier dispensations caught faint glimpses of the star of Bethlehem—they who, possessing but a few brief notices of traditional religion, followed after God, and proved that He never left Himself without witnesses—Jews, who deciphered the types, and gave substance to the shadows of the law—Gentiles, on whom shone in all its effulgence the light of the Gospel—the mighty gathering of that splendid season when “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters do cover the sea.” What a multitude through which to move! with which to make acquaintance! with which to hold converse!—H. Melville, B.D.
For another illustration on the immense numbers of the people of God, see p. 175.
(d) When society claps hands to the cry, “O felix!” “Oh, lucky fellow!” “Oh, rare success!” it is the fortunate circumstances of a man’s lot of which society is thinking. It is the blessedness of having a great deal of money, of being always comfortable, of being environed with what may minister to pleasure, and able always to command what one desires; it is the blessedness of condition which society crowns with its beatitudes, and to which men pay the tribute of envying it. Alas for this blessedness, which is outside the man; the blessedness of circumstance, and accident, and transient condition; the blessedness which Time’s scythe mows down like grass to be cast into the oven! Not condition does Jesus bless, but character. He counts no earthly state enviable, least of all a state of unbroken ease. But the happy man is the good man. What a man is in himself, not where he is, nor how he lives, nor how much he has, but what a man is, is the ground of his blessedness.—J. O. Dykes, M.A., D.D.
(e) Many in these days desire the death of the righteous, but they never regard their life; they desire their end, but they will not walk in their way; they are willing to end with them, but not to begin with them; they catch for the crown, but will not come to the cross; they would taste the sweet, but they cannot abide the sweat. If we will live with Christ for ever, we must here die with Him for a season; if we will reign with Him in heaven, we must first suffer with Him on earth (2 Timothy 2:11-12); we can never die comfortably unless we be careful to live unblameably.—W. Attersoll.
THE VISION FROM THE BOOKS
“From the top of the rocks I see him.”
It was of Israel and Israel’s glory that the false seer of Pethor spoke. He stood upon the top of Moab’s barren rocks, and gazed down on the happy nation whom God had delivered from Egypt, had brought through the desert, and was about to lead into the land flowing with milk and honey. It was with wonder, perhaps with envy too, that Balaam looked on the goodly tents beneath him.
So from these desert lands, and these desert hills, we gaze upon the Church on her way to Canaan, about to be settled in the blessed land and holy city. And when we gaze, what do we see?
I. The ruggedness of the land of our present sojourn.
It is the region of hostility as well as barrenness. This is not our rest. These dark mountains are not our home. We may pitch our tents among them for a season, or climb to the top to gaze around us, but they are no dwelling place for us. We may look upon Canaan from Pisgah, but Pisgah will not do for a home. Nebo lies hard by Pisgah, and Nebo tells of death, not of life—mortality is here. This is the land, not of Israel, but of Moab; and its gods are Baal, not Jehovah. We could not abide here.
II. The glorious land.
Afar off just now, but still visible, still beautiful. It is the Paradise of God; it is the new Jerusalem; the city which hath foundations; the new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. The vision gives us a wondrous contrast between what we are and what we shall be, making us long for the day of entrance.
III. A people delivered from a present evil world.
Once in bondage, now free; once groaning under oppression, now in the service of a heavenly Master, and heirs of the world to come; the Red Sea crossed, and now between them and their persecutors an iron wall. Forgiven and redeemed; with their backs on Egypt, and their faces to Jerusalem. “A people saved by the Lord.”
IV. A people sustained by Jehovah himself.
Theirs is the hidden manna, the water from the smitten rock. Jehovah feeds them; Jehovah gives them the living water. It is not man but God who cares for them. All that they have they owe to Him who has delivered them. They feed on angel’s food; nay, better, the very bread of God; on Him whose flesh is meat indeed, whose blood is drink indeed.
V. A pilgrim band.
They are strangers on the earth; this is not their home; here is not their city. Their loins are girt, and their staff is in their hand, and they are hastening onward. No sitting down; no taking ease; no folding of their hands. Forward, still forward, is their watchword! Theirs is a pilgrimage, not a pleasure tour. They must not tarry.
VI. A people bought with a price.
Their ransom has been blood; and they are not their own. Another life has gone for theirs. They have been plucked from death and the grave, because Another has died and risen for them. To that Other they belong—not to themselves, nor the flesh, nor the world.
VII. A people loved with an infinite love.
The banner that is over them is love. The song they sing is love, “Unto Him that loved us.” It is a love which passeth knowledge; a love without bound or end; a love eternal and divine. All around and above them is love—the love of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They are the monuments of love; the witnesses of love—free love, forgiving love, redeeming love; love beyond that which angels know—a love which constrains them, purifies them, urges them forward, gladdens all their way.
VIII. A people preparing to pass over to the goodly land.
It is within sight; a few days, perhaps less, will bring them over. Their journey is nearly done. Their toil and weariness will soon be exchanged for rest and glory. And “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” “From the top of the rocks” they can see Jerusalem, and Olivet, and Bethlehem; and get glimpses of the whole outstretched land. It is a land of plenty, where they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; it is a land of light, where there is no night; a land of blessing, where there is no curse; a land of gladness, where sorrow comes not; a summer land, where the frosts of winter chill not; a calm sunny land, where storms vex not, and shadows fall not; a land of health, where the inhabitant shall not say, “I am sick;” a land of peace, where the war-trumpet never sounds; a land of life, where corruption and mortality enter not, where death and the grave are unknown; a land of union, where broken ties are all reknit, and broken hearts all healed (Revelation 7:17). There Jesus reigns; there we reign with him.—H. BONAR, D.D. From Light and Truth.
THE TESTIMONY OF THE IRRELIGIOUS TO THE VALUE OF RELIGION
The character and example of good men are influential after death. They shine upon us like stars upon the deep—to guide us onward—to allure us upward. They who have turned many to righteousness are not only blessed in their own time, but they shine as stars for ever;—monuments of the greatness of the human mind and of the power of religion, they awaken in the bosoms of others the sparks of kindred excellence.
The works of the wicked do not perish with them. They live as beacons. “The censers of the sinners against their own souls” were to be preserved as a memorial against them (Numbers 16:38). A mercy if their memory could quite perish, if their evil deeds could perish.
Balaam of this order: held up to perpetual infamy. A man of fine talents—even of prophetic illumination.
I. Remarks upon this exclamation as coming from the lips of such a man.
A man of talent, genius, acquirements, great influence over the minds of others; but not truly religious.
1. That solemn thoughts of death and judgment may often occupy, though to little purpose, the minds of irreligious men. They cannot hide from themselves the thoughts of mortality, nor the responsibility that follows it.
In the history of man, the last solved problem always produces a new one to solve. Three stages in the history of man—his birth—conversion—death.
We have an existence beyond death. Greatest men have died young. Alexander 33, Raffaelle 30. The most pious attain elements of better nature and disposition.
After death no change—“my last end.” Everything fixed at death, and for ever. This is the world of change, and of great and mighty possibilities. But when the ultimatum of life is over, all stand one unvaried, fixed, eternal character and destiny.
2. That irreligious men are often constrained to bear a reluctant testimony in favour of religion, and against themselves. God’s love to His people is wonderful to their very enemies. “Who can count?” &c. So struck with the sight of their privileges, blessings, tents, goodly array, Balaam forgot to curse, was compelled to bless, and for once in his life to pray. Bad men envy the security and comfort of the righteous. “How many hired servants,” &c. They know the worth of religion by its loss. Perhaps that offender never lived who has not occasionally sighed to possess the mercies and blessings of the righteous. The system of irreligion that will do for health will not do for sickness. Speculations which amuse in life will not support in death.
3. That men cheat themselves with the fallacy of wishing to die by a religion by which they are not willing to live. This man calculated wisely for his dying hour; he ought to have calculated as wisely for his living ones. We must live by faith if we would die by it.
4. That none go as far from God as those who fly in the face of their own convictions. Balaam gave counsel black as the pit whence it sprung (comp. chap. 25, and Revelation 2:14).
II. Remarks upon this exclamation as replete with instruction to the people of God.
1. Let this testimony confirm you in attachment to the religion you profess. Proof that it is no cunning fable: it “is a faithful saying.” “Wisdom is justified,” &c. Cling with tenacity. Take the ground they give. Yield not to the claims of infidelity.
2. Let it prompt to the cultivation of this righteousness.
3. Let it lighten life of its cares, and death of its terrors.
4. Let it prompt with compassion for irreligious men.—Samuel Thodey.
THE DEATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS
The text refers to—
I. A character that we must define—“the righteous.”
None are such by nature; none are such by mere education, or parental discipline; none are such by self-exertion. This character is divine, and therefore of God. It includes—
1. Justification. By which, through faith in the Lord Jesus, we are constituted righteous, and dealt with as such (Isaiah 45:25; Romans 3:26).
2. Regeneration. Born from above; born of God; “partakers of the Divine nature.” This is the “new man;” the holy nature which the children of God possess (John 3:3, seq.; Colossians 3:10).
3. Sanctification; or the progress of the new man in holiness; the spiritual growth and advancement of the Divine life. This includes also the consecration of the heart to the service and glory of God. An increasing conformity to the holy image of the blessed God (2 Corinthians 3:18).
4. Practical obedience; or righteousness of life. This is the great evidence of righteousness of heart. The fruit testifies that the tree is made good; the stream, that the fountain has become pure. He only is righteous who doeth righteousness. Those who “have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Him,” following His example, treading in His imitable footsteps. (Romans 6:22).
II. An event that we must illustrate—“the death of the righteous.”
Even the righteous must die. The righteous of all ages, except Enoch and Elijah, have died. “It is appointed unto men,” &c. But the righteous die—
1. Under the immediate direction of God. The wicked often die prematurely—by their own hands; by the hands of the executioner; by the power of sin producing disease; by the judgments of God. But the righteous, in life, in sickness, in old age, are the especial objects of the Divine care. They are in His hand; and “precious in His sight is the death of His saints.” When their work is done He calls them home. When they are meet for glory, he receives them to Himself.
2. In a state of gracious security. They die in covenant with God; with an interest in Christ; the subjects of the indwelling Spirit; heirs of glory. “Die in the Lord.” “Death is theirs.” Not an enemy to destroy; but a messenger to conduct them to their better home. Death cannot separate the saint from Jesus. The righteous often die—
3. In ecstasy and triumph; have “an abundant entrance ministered unto them,” &c. Thus died Stephen, with the vision of glory before his eyes. Hearken to the apostle, “I have fought a good fight,” &c. So thousands and myriads. Death has been victory. “O death, where is thy sting?” &c. Thus Payson: “The battle is fought, and the victory is won.” The righteous always at death—
4. Enter upon a life of immortality. They are intimately present with the Lord. To die is gain, immediate, consummate, eternal gain. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” &c. Death is the gate of life.—the vestibule of glory.
III. A desire that must be regulated.
“Let me die,” &c. It is a very proper desire. Should be the desire of every human being. But it will be fruitless unless it is regulated—
1. By a personal regard to the character of the righteous. The character and the death are united; they cannot be separated. We cannot die their death if we are wicked, impenitent, merely moral, or only professors of righteousness. We must attain the spirit and principle of the righteous.
2. By a preparation for dying. This, by the righteous, cannot be forgotten. He therefore acts and prays and believes in reference to this solemn want. He is anxious to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man; to have the lamp and the oil, the title and the meetness. This is the only desire of any value.
3. By a constant deference to the Divine will. The righteous cannot suggest anything as to the mode, the place, or the circumstances of dying. They say, “My times are in Thy hand.” They regard present duties and privileges, and leave all that concerns the act of dying in the Lord’s hands, “All the days of my appointed time,” &c. With God are the issues both of death and life.
1. The subject of the text is solemn. Dying is always a momentous thing, a great crisis in man’s history, &c.
2. What is your prospect respecting death? I ask, not what you wish, but what is the well-grounded prospect?
3. How different is the death of the wicked to that of the righteous! Dark; the beginning of sorrows, &c. Oh! avoid this.—Jabez Burns, D.D.
HOW TO DIE WELL
I. How do the righteous die?
1. In the favour of God.
2. In the love of Christ.
4. Fitted for heaven.
II. How may we die this death?
2. Turn to God.
3. Believe on Christ.
4. Live righteously.—W. W. Wythe.
PERSISTENCE IN THE PURSUIT OF A SINFUL PURPOSE
In these verses there are several important topics for illustration and application.
I. A wicked persistence in the pursuit of an evil purpose.
Both Balaam and Balak knew that God had prohibited the cursing of Israel (see Numbers 23:8 and Numbers 22:12); yet Balak is determined to have them cursed if possible. Notwithstanding that Balaam had blessed instead of cursing them, Balak will have him make another attempt, and under somewhat different conditions. “Balak said unto him, come, I pray thee, with me unto another place,” &c. (Numbers 23:13). And Balaam, urged on by his cursed hunger for “the rewards of divination,” is willing to serve Balak in this if he possibly can. This power of persistence in the pursuit of an object, if it had been worthily directed, might have led to great good; but in this case it is daringly and wickedly perverted. (a)
II. A mischievous error as to man’s power to curse his fellow-man.
Balak thought that if Balaam’s point of view were changed, and he saw but a small portion of the camp of Israel, he would then be able to curse them. Hence he “said unto him, come, I pray thee, with me unto another place,” &c. (Numbers 23:13-14). Balak was in error in this (see p. 424). And this error is a mischievous one. It has made men the dupes and the victims of witchcraft and priestcraft; it has hindered healthy mental and spiritual development, and been a prolific cause of many and great evils. (b)
III. A grievous error as to the nature of the Divine Being.
Balaam and Balak seem to have thought that God might be induced to change His mind, by their sacrifices. For the second time they “built seven altars, and offered a bullock and a ram upon every altar.” They regarded Him as a being who might be bribed by their gifts, or prevailed upon by their importunities. The language of God, by the Psalmist, is applicable to them: “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether as Thyself.” How dishonouring to God is such a view of His nature! In certain forms this error survives to this day, and that in Christendom. (c)
IV. An illustration of the communication of the message of God to an ungodly man.
Balaam “said unto Balak, stand here by the burnt offering, while I meet the Lord yonder. And the Lord met Balaam,” &c. (Numbers 23:15-16).
1. God has access to the minds of wicked men. Pharaoh (Genesis 41:1-36), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:0), Balaam, iv. are examples. (d)
2. God can use wicked men for the accomplishment of His own purposes. In this way He used Balaam. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee,” &c.
V. An illustration of the attention with which Divine communications should be received.
“And when he came to him, behold, he stood by his burnt offering, &c. (Numbers 23:17-18). Balak was standing by his burnt offering, yet Balaam said to him, “Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor.” It was a summons to thoughtful and earnest attention to the Word of God, which he was about to speak to him. Not with listless ear and lethargic mind should Divine messages be heard, but with eager attention and thoughtful consideration. (e)
(a) There are single acts of sin, and continued or repeated acts of sin; sins committed after convictions, promises, and resolutions. Now there is not so much of guilt in a single act of sin, as there is in a continued and repeated course of sin, called (Deuteronomy 29:19) “adding drunkenness to thirst,” and (Isaiah 30:1) “adding sin to sin.” For as it is in numbering, so it is in sinning; if the first figure be 1, the second is 10, the third 100, the fourth 1000, and every addition makes a greater multiplication. O, what a dreadful reckoning will there be hereafter for the consciences of poor sinners!—Flavel.
(b) When the confessor of Louis XIV. said, “With my God in my hand and my king at my knee, I am greater than any monarch on the earth,” he gave utterance to no idle boast. He only expressed, somewhat more epigrammatically, what every priest would claim in his soberest moments. In his Catéchisme de la Perséverance, Gaume says, “The priest, mighty as God can, in one moment, snatch the sinner from hell, and render him worthy of Paradise, and from a slave of the devil make him a son of Abraham, and God Himself is bound to adhere to the judgment of the priest. The sentence of the priest precedes: God has only to sign it.” Such are the well-known assumptions of Rome.—Literary World.
When John Knox began the work of reform in Glasgow, the idea prevailed that if a heretic should but touch the great bell in the church there, he would be struck dead instantly. He accepted the test on condition that the bell should be lowered into the street. He declared that it should either kill him, or he it. Then he stood over it, anathematized the church of Rome, the pope, and the wicked priests. The superstitious crowd looked in vain to see the bold heretic fall dead. Instead, men armed with hammers, at Knox’s order, broke the bell into fragments. Thus a great imposture was detected, Romanism defeated, and Protestantism established.—Dict. of Illust.
For another illustration on Superstition see pp. 425, 426
(c) For an illustration on this point see p. 447.
(d) For illustrations on this point see pp. 426, 427.
(e) Let no man allow himself to neglect the hearing of the Word, or hear it in a careless or irreverent manner, under the pretence of his having an opportunity of reading it in private; since the public ministry possesses with regard to its tendency to excite the attention and interest the heart, many unquestionable advantages. Besides, such a pretence will generally be found to be hollow and disingenuous. If you observe a person habitually inattentive under an awakening, searching ministry, follow him into his retirement, and, it may be confidently predicted, you will seldom see the Bible in his hands; or, if he overcome his aversion to religion so far as occasionally to peruse a chapter, it will be in the same spirit in which he hears: he will satisfy himself with having completed his task, “and go his way and straightway forget what manner of man he was.” If the general course of the world were as favourable to religion as it is the contrary; if an intercourse with mankind were a school of piety, the state of such persons would be less hopeless, and there would be a greater probability of their being gained without the Word: but while everything around us conspires to render the mind earthly and sensual, and the world is continually moulding and transforming its votaries, the situation of such as attend the means of grace in a careless manner, is unspeakably dangerous, since they are continually exposing themselves to influences which corrupt, while they render themselves inaccessible to such as are of a salutary operation. What can be expected but the death of that patient who takes a course which is continually inflaming his disease, while he despises and neglects the remedy? When we see men attentive under the ministry of the Word, and evidently anxious to comprehend its truths, we cannot but entertain hopes of their salvation; for “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”—Robert Hall, A.M.
Hear the Word with attention. Not to listen with attention is the same thing as to have ears which hear not, and eyes which see not. While you are hearing, whatever trains of thought of a foreign and extraneous nature obtrude themselves, should be resolutely repelled. In the power of fixing the attention, the most precious of the intellectual habits, mankind differ greatly, but every man possesses some, and it will increase the more it is exerted. He who exercises no discipline over himself in this respect, acquires such a volatility of mind, such a vagrancy of imagination, as dooms him to be the sport of every mental vanity: it is impossible such a man should attain to true wisdom. If we cultivate, on the contrary, a habit of attention, it will become natural, thought will strike its roots deep, and we shall, by degrees, experience no difficulty in following the track of the longest connected discourse. As we find it easy to attend to what interests the heart, and the thoughts naturally follow the course of the affections, the best antidote to habitual inattention to religious instruction is the love of the truth. “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” and to hear it attentively will be a pleasure, not a task.—Ibid.
BALAAM’S SECOND PARABLE: THE CONSTITUENTS AND THE IRREVERSIBLENESS OF THE BLESSEDNESS OF ISRAEL
I. The constituents of the blessedness of Israel.
Balaam pronounced the Israelites blessed because of—
1. Their covenant relation with God. “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen distress in Israel.” See Critical and Explanatory Notes on this verse. God cannot curse His chosen people. He must bless them with His favour and with all covenant blessings. So long as they do not utterly forsake Him He will protect and bless them. (a)
2. The presence of God with them. “The Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them.” Here are two ideas:—
(1) God was present with them as their King. The government of Israel was a theocracy. Jehovah Himself was their sovereign.
(2) His presence produced exultation. “The shout of a King” is the jubilant celebration by Israel of the presence of Jehovah in their midst as their King. His presence was a guarantee of success in their great enterprise, of victory over their enemies, &c. God is still with His people as their King and their God. (b)
3. The doings of God for them. “God brought them out of Egypt.” Keil and Del. translate: “God brings them out of Egypt;” and remark that “the participle is not used for the preterite, but designates the leading out as still going on, and lasting till the introduction into Canaan.” Looked at in this light, the clause before us refers to the whole of God’s doings for them, by means of which they were led forth from Egypt, and ultimately brought into the Promised Land. It includes:—
(1) Emancipation from Egypt.
(2) Direction in their journeys.
(3) Protection from their enemies.
(4) Provision in the wilderness.
(5) Possession of Canaan. And in this Christian dispensation God works graciously and gloriously in and for His people. He delivers from a bondage far worse than that of Israel in Egypt, &c.
4. The revelation of His will to them. “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,” &c. (Numbers 23:23). Margin: “in Jacob.” See the translation and note by Keil and Del. in Critical and Explanatory Notes. We take the verse to mean that the art of the soothsayer was not practised amongst the Israelites; but God Himself, by means of His own appointment, and in due season, revealed to them His own designs and doings. He communicated with them through the high priest by means of the Urim and Thummim; He spake by Moses, and afterwards by the Prophets and the sacred poets. “We have a more sure word of prophecy.” The teachings of Christ and His apostles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are granted to the spiritual Israel in this age.
5. The victorious power He bestows upon them. “He hath as it were the strength of a buffalo,” or a wild bull. “Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.” Because Jehovah was with them as their King and Leader, they went forward with the strength of a wild ox—an indomitable animal, and terrible by reason of its horns (comp. Deuteronomy 33:17; Psalms 22:21). And when they arose to battle they would not retreat until they had obtained complete victory. They would conquer their enemies, and take possession of the Promised Land. Let Balak, then, be warned, and abandon the vain hope of vanquishing this victorious and blessed people. And God’s spiritual Israel shall conquer all their spiritual enemies, and take possession of that inheritance of which Canaan, even at best, was but a poor type. “We are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us.”
II. The irreversibleness of the blessedness of Israel.
The blessedness of the people of God cannot be reversed because—
1. It rests upon the unchangeableness of God. “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent,” &c. (c)
2. It is beyond the power of their enemies. “Behold, I have received to bless: and He hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.” All the sacrifices which Balak the king could offer, and all the arts which Balaam the soothsayer could exercise, would not turn aside the blessing of God from His people. No power either in earth or in hell can effectually curse those whom God hath blessed.
1. Are we members of the spiritual Israel of God?
2. Let us, then, be faithful to our covenant engagements, and rejoice in our privileges.
3. Let those who are aliens from the spiritual Israel believe in Christ Jesus and share its blessedness (Ephesians 2:12).
(a) The new covenant exacts not of us, as a necessary condition, the perfection of obedience, but the sincerity of obedience; an uprightness in our intention, not an unspottedness in our action; an integrity in our aims, and an industry in our compliance with Divine precepts: “Walk before Me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1), i.e., sincere. What is hearty in our actions, is accepted; and what is defective, is overlooked, and not charged upon us, because of the obedience and righteousness of our Surety. The first covenant rejected all our services after sin; the services of a person under sentence of death, are but dead services: this accepts our imperfect services, after faith in it; that administered no strength to obey, but supposed it; this supposeth our inability to obey, and confers some strength for it: “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes” (Ezekiel 36:27). Again, in regard of the promises: the old covenant had good, but the new hath “better promises” (Hebrews 8:6), of justification after guilt, and sanctification after filth, and glorification at last of the whole man. In the first, there was provision against guilt, but none for the removal of it; provision against filth, but none for the cleansing of it; promise of happiness implied, but not so great a one as that “life and immortality” in heaven, “brought to light by the Gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Life indeed was implied to be promised upon his standing, but not so glorious an immortality disclosed, to be reserved for him, if he stood. As it is a covenant of better promises, so a covenant of sweeter comforts; comforts more choice, and comforts more durable; an “everlasting consolation and a good hope” are the fruits of “grace,” i.e. the covenant of grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16). In the whole there is such a love disclosed, as cannot be expressed; the Apostle leaves it to every man’s mind to conceive it, if he could, “What manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 John 3:1). It instates as in such a manner of the love of God as He bears to His Son the image of His Person (John 17:23): “That the world may know that Thou hast loved them, as Thou hast loved Me.”—Charnocke.
(b) As He gave the blood of His Son to seal the covenant, so He gave Himself as the blessing of the covenant: “He is not ashamed to be called their God” (Hebrews 11:16). He is not only our God, but our God as He is the God of Christ: He is not ashamed to be our propriety, and Christ is not ashamed to own His people in a partnership with Him in this propriety (John 20:17), “I ascend to My God, and your God.” This, of God’s being our God, is the quintessence of the covenant, the soul of all the promises; in this He hath promised, whatsoever is infinite in Him, whatsoever is the glory and ornament of His nature, for our use; not a part of Him, or one single perfection, but the whole vigour and strength of all.… Thus, God’s being ours, is more than if all heaven and earth were ours besides; it is more than if we were fully our own, and at our own dispose; it makes “all things that God hath ours” (1 Corinthians 3:22); and, therefore, not only all things that He hath created, but all things that He can create; not only all things that He hath contrived, but all things that he can contrive; for in being ours, His power is ours, His possible power as well as His active power; His power, whereby He can effect more than He hath done, and His wisdom, whereby He can contrive more than He hath done; so that if there were need of employing His power to create many worlds for our good, He would not stick at it, for if He did, He would not be our God, in the extent of His nature, as the promise intimates.—Ibid.
For additional illustrations of the Blessedness of the People of God, see pp. 154, 346, 347.
(c) Independent of all possible beings and events, Jehovah sits at the head of the universe, unchanged, and incapable of change, amid all the successions, tossings and tumults, by which it is agitated. When empires are overthrown, or angels fall; when suns are extinguished, and systems return to their original nothing: He is equally impassive and unmoved as when sparrows expire, or the hair falls from our heads. Nothing can happen, nothing can be done beyond His expectation, or without His permission. Nothing can frustrate His designs, and nothing disappoint or vary His purposes. All things, beside Him, change, and fluctuate without ceasing. Events exist and vanish. Beings rise and expire. But His own existence, the thoughts which He entertains, the desires which He admits, the purposes which He forms, are “the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.” Throughout the coming vast of eternity also, and the boundless tracts of immensity, He sees with serene complacency His own perfect purposes daily and invariably advancing, with a regular fulfilment, towards their absolute completion. In its own place, in its own time, and in its own manner, each exists in exact obedience to His order, and in exact accordance with His choice; nothing lingers, nothing hastens; but His counsel exactly stands, and all His pleasure will be precisely accomplished.—Timothy Dwight, D.D.
“What makes you think that God will never forsake them that trust in Him?” was asked of an aged Christian. “Because He has promised,” was the reply. “And what makes you think that He will keep His word?” “Because He never yet broke it.” Here is encouragement for us all! Here is cause to cry aloud, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” The past declares God’s faithfulness, the present confirms it, and the future will only make more clear His fidelity and truth.—Anon.
THE UNCHANGEABLENESS OF JEHOVAH
To unfold the full meaning of these words, we observe—
I. Some men think that God will lie.
God has told us, with strong and repeated asseverations, that “we must be born again” (John 3:7); but this is totally disbelieved by—
1. The profane. They persuade themselves that such strictness in religion, as is implied in the new birth, is not necessary; and that they shall go to heaven in their own way.
2. The self-righteous. These consider regeneration as a dream of weak enthusiasts; and are satisfied with the “form of godliness, without” ever experiencing “the power” of it.
3. The hypocritical professors of religion. These, having changed their creed, together with their outward conduct, fancy themselves Christians, notwithstanding their faith neither “overcomes the world,” nor “works by love,” nor “purifies their hearts.”
That all these persons think God will lie, is evident beyond a doubt; for if they really believed that old things must pass away and all things become new (2 Corinthians 5:17), before they can enter into the kingdom of heaven, they would feel concerned to know whether any such change had taken place in them; nor would they be satisfied till they had a Scriptural evidence that they were indeed “new creatures in Christ Jesus.” But as this is in no respect the case with them, it is manifest that they do not believe the record of God, and, consequently, however harsh the expression may seem, they make God a liar (1 John 5:10).
II. Others fear He may lie.
This is common with persons—
1. Under conviction of sin. When men are deeply convinced of sin, they find it exceedingly difficult to rest simply on the promises of the Gospel; such as John 6:37; Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 55:1. This appears too good to be true: they cannot conceive how God should “justify the ungodly” (Romans 4:5), and therefore they seek to become godly first, in order that they may be justified: and if they cannot bring some price in their hands, they keep back, and give themselves over to desponding fears.
2. Under temptation or desertion. God has declared that He will not suffer His people to be tempted above what they are able to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). But when they come into temptation, they are apt to say, as David, “I shall one day perish,” &c. (1 Samuel 27:1). They see no way for their escape, and therefore they fear that the very next wave will overwhelm them utterly. If God at such seasons hide His face from them, they conclude, “there is no hope;” they think “His mercy clean gone for ever,” &c. (Psalms 77:7-9), notwithstanding God has so frequently and so expressly declared, that He will never leave them nor forsake them.
Now these person:) do not, like the ungodly, deliberately think that God will lie; but they have many fears lest He should; if it were not so, they would take God at His word, and stay themselves on Him when they are in darkness (Isaiah 50:10).
III. But God neither will nor can lie.
1. He will not lie.
(1) Let us hear the testimonies of those who have tried Him. Moses (Deuteronomy 32:4); Joshua (Joshua 23:14), Samuel (1 Samuel 15:29).
(2) Let us attend to God’s own assertions and appeal. Isaiah 5:4; Isaiah 49:19. Would He ever venture to speak thus strongly on His own behalf, if His creatures could make good their accusations against Him?
(3) Let us look to matter of fact. He threatened to punish the angels if they should prove disobedient: He denounced a curse on Adam if he should eat of the forbidden tree; He threatened to destroy the whole world with a deluge; to overwhelm Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone; and to scatter His once chosen people over the face of the whole earth. See now whether he has forborne to execute any of these threatenings. He also promised to send His only, dear Son to die for sinners; and to make Him great among the Gentiles, while His own nation should almost universally reject Him. Have either of these promises been forgotten? Or, if such promises and such threatenings have received their accomplishment, is there any reason to doubt respecting any others that are yet unfulfilled? Are not His past actions so many types and pledges of what He will hereafter perform? (2 Peter 2:4-9; Jude 1:7.)
2. He cannot lie. Truth is as essential to the Divine nature as goodness, wisdom, power, or any other attribute; so that He can as easily cease to be good, or wise, or powerful, as He can suffer one jot or tittle of His word to fail. If for one moment He could divest Himself of truth, He would cease to be deserving of all confidence or affection. Let it only be said of any man—“he is great and wise and generous, but no dependence can be placed on his word,” would he not on the whole be deemed a contemptible character? How then would Jehovah be degraded, if any such infirmity could be laid to His charge! “God cannot lie” (Titus 1:2); “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13); “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). It is God’s honour that He neither will nor can lie.
1. How vain are the expectations of unconverted men! Men, whatever may be their state, persuade themselves that they shall be happy when they die. But how delusive must be that hope, which is built upon the expectation that God will prove Himself a liar! Let us lay aside all such delusive hopes, &c.
2. How groundless are the fears of the converted! There is a holy fear that is highly desirable for every one, however eminent, however established. But there is a tormenting, slavish fear that arises from unbelief, and which greatly retards our progress in the Divine life. Now we ask, Does this fear arise from an apprehension of our own unfaithfulness, or of God’s? If it be God’s faithfulness that we doubt, let us know that His “gifts and callings are without repentance” (Romans 11:29, with the words following the text), and that where He hath begun a good work, He will perfect it unto the day of Christ (Philippians 1:6). If, on the other hand, we suspect our own faithfulness, let us recollect on whom our faithfulness depends (2 Corinthians 3:5; Zechariah 4:6). God has promised not only that He will not depart from us, but that He will put His fear in our hearts, so that we shall not depart from Him (Jeremiah 32:39-40).
Let us then “set to our seal that God is true” (John 3:33). Let us commit ourselves to Him, knowing Whom we have believed (2 Timothy 1:12), and assured that while we stand on the foundation of His Word, we are immoveably secure (2 Timothy 2:19).—C. Simeon, M.A.
THE VERACITY OF GOD
Remarks on the character of Balaam, and the circumstances that led to the utterance of his prophecy.
I. Here is a purpose pre-supposed.
1. He saw Israel as the objects of the Divine protection, so that all the devices of their enemies were rendered vain.
2. The blessedness of their prosperity, in the face of all opposition.
3. The blessedness of their prosperity, in the tokens of the Divine presence and power with which they were accompanied.
II. The ground of this stability asserted.
1. God Himself is unchangeable.
2. He is so in His will and purpose.
3. There is no cause why God should alter. Three causes of change of mind in man not applicable to God:—
(1) Want of foreknowledge.
(2) Natural instability.
(3) Want of power.
1. The perpetual obligation of religion.
2. Reproof of the inconstancy of man.
3. It directs us where alone we may safely put our trust.
4. It teaches patience under His providences.
5. An awful warning to sinners.—Anon.
GOD’S BLESSING IRREVERSIBLE
The text is connected with three illustrious orders of persons: Balak, king of Moab; Balaam, the wicked prophet; and the Israelites, who were journeying to the Land of Promise. Balak hated the Israelites, and was anxious to bring evil, &c. Balaam hired himself to curse them; but God frustrated his evil design, and out of the lips hired to curse, God pronounced a blessing. Here is the wicked prophet’s confession, “He hath blessed,” &c.
I. God’s people are blessed of Him.
So it was with Israel of old. God blessed them by wonderful deliverances, and countless tokens of his favour. His compassionate eye was on them in Egypt; His arm led them out; His bounty supplied their wants; His presence guided—shielded them, &c. God has now His Israel in the world: all the spiritual seed of Abraham; all those who have believed in the Messiah; all who are travelling to a better country. On these His blessing rests. “He hath blessed”—
1. With pardoning mercy.
2. With delivering grace,
3. With spiritual supplies.
4. With all needful good.
Now this applies to every age of the world—to every true Israelite. II. His blessing cannot be reversed.
1. Wicked men would, but cannot.
2. Satan would, but cannot.
3. God does not desire to do so, and therefore will not.
We may reject the blessing—backslide from God; but His “gifts and calling are without repentance.”
1. Are we His people?
2. Then we have His blessing.
3. And this is all-sufficient.—Jabes Burns, D.D.
THE STABILITY OF THB CHURCH, AND THE SECURITY OF BELIEVERS
We cannot but admire the endowments of this bold, bad man: we envy him the privilege he enjoyed of beholding the visions of the Almighty, and being favoured with His express communications; we look with astonishment at the perseverance which he manifested, worthy of a better cause; and we may allow ourselves to be charmed with his eloquence and edified by his prophetic anticipations. But when we have done this, there remains an awful contrast of warning; gloomy shades darken and deform a picture, some of the features of which appear clothed in the beauty and brightness of heaven. We see the loftiest qualifications of which human nature can boast—genius, literature, a great name, and even prophetical skill, devoted to the most execrable purposes, employed in direct opposition to God and His Church, and finally recoiling upon their possessor and drowning his soul in perdition. Like many in our own day, Balaam Fees the good, but prefers the evil; he pursues the world, and turns his back upon God, in spite of the appearance of the Angel, the remonstrance of conscience, and the immediate voice of Heaven; he makes religion the cloak of the most ambitious purposes; he numbers himself with those who “love the wages of unrighteousness,” and upon whose tombs God Himself has written the epitaph,—“Wandering stars, to whom is reserved,” &c.
I. The stability of the church is distinctly asserted.
What was true 3,000 years ago, is not worthy of less credit and less attention now. The times are changed, but the men are not. There is now as certain a combination against the Church of the Living God, as there was when Balaam took up his parable, and Balak listened for the curse upon Israel. But while the enemies remain the same, the promise remains unchanged. Every age has heard the cry, “Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel.” But then every age has heard the language, “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,” &c. What a confession is this of Balaam! how humiliating to himself, how instructive to us! Trace the particulars.
1. The most base and desperate measures have always been used against the church. Balaam evidently avows that the mean arts of divination and enchantment had been used. He acknowledges, in fact, that the church’s enemies could not meet her in the open field. Curses are the last resource of cowards—a confession of weakness. And so it has always been. Infidelity is not ashamed to use poisoned weapons—to stoop to the meanest devices to harass a cause which it is always ashamed to face. Some men have so great a hatred to the cause of Christ, that they will condescend to seek help from hell itself rather than fail. Hence every stratagem is employed; all the arts of calumny, and wickedness, and falsehood, are put in requisition to prevent the progress of truth and poison the mind against it. How weak that cause must be which stoops to such wretched devices! and how triumphant and glorious must that religion be, which, though unarmed, can defy them all! “The rains descended.… and it fell not,” &c.
2. These attach are utterly fruitless and vain. “There is no enchantment against Jacob,” &c. The enemies of the truth, however loudly they may boast at the onset, have always retired in confusion, and for the most part in despair. It is like shooting arrows against the sun: they return upon the heads of those who aimed them, while the sun pursues its glorious way uninjured and undisturbed. It is like attempting to stem the ocean with a bulrush: you may perish in the attempt, but you cannot hope to succeed. Let those who hate the truth, consider by whom that truth is supported—how long that truth has stood—how often it has been assailed, and how certain the overthrow of its enemies. Like Job’s leviathan, “the sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold,” &c. “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?” &c. “If this counsel or this work be of man, it will come to nought,” &c. (Acts 5:38-39).
3. The source of Israel’s safety is directly ascribed to God. “What hath God wrought!” The world is right in its estimate of the feebleness of the Church of Christ in herself. We wonder not at their boasts, their soorn. We wonder not to hear them say, “What do these feeble Jews?” We know she is a bruised reed; but we also know that she is strong in the strength of Another. It is delightful to hear from an enemy—
(1) the faithfulness of God advanced as the security of the church (Numbers 23:19).
(2) The impotency of his own arts acknowledged. “I cannot reverse it” (Numbers 23:20).
(3) The mercy of God asserted as the comfort of His people (Numbers 23:21).
(4) The records of antiquity explored to confirm the position (Numbers 23:22). Futurity opened up as disclosing their triumphs (Numbers 23:24).
How is all this confirmed by the history of that very moment! Israel was resting in his tents, ignorant of the plotting of Balak and the prophecy of Balaam. Moses knew nothing of it while all this mischief was going on. But God is both a sure and a secret friend. He restrains countless evils of which we know nothing. “He that keepeth thee will not slumber,” &c.
4 The season of our greatest dangers becomes the date of our noblest triumphs “According to this time it shall be said of Jacob,” &c. God delays till the hour of extremity.
5. Our best blessings are frequently pronounced by our worst enemies. How cheering is it to observe this—the enemies with one breath pronouncing our stability, with the next their own overthrow. “There shall come a star out of Jacob,” &c. A volume might be filled with the confessions of the enemy. “Their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges.”
II. The security of believers follows on the same principles.
They are exposed to similar attacks. The world tries its enchantments. False friends and real enemies endeavour to hinder,—watch for our halting, &c. Satan tempts, opposes, &c.
The same promises are our supports. Condescend to learn of an enemy. God’s simple word was enough for Balaam. Apply it to our experiences in life, to death.—Samuel Thodey.
BALAAM’S DECLARATION OF ISRAEL’S SECURITY
How true is the text of Israel of old. No evil spirit of enchantment could affect them. No spirit of divination injure them. The magicians of Egypt could mimic Moses, but only in adding to the misery of the Egyptians; but neither earth nor hell can injure those who trust in the Lord; “for He is their help and shield.”
Applying our text to the Church of God in general, consider—
I. The important truth affirmed.
“Surely there is no enchantment,” &c. We enter not into the discussion how far men may have had power to enchant, to divine, or to curse others. But we abide by the text, that there is no such thing against the cause and people of God. Hell is opposed to the cause of God, and united with it are the wicked powers of earth. They have the disposition, the will, the purpose, and may make the attempt to injure the Church; but their efforts must fail, their plots must be frustrated, their attacks must be powerless. Yet sometimes they have been allowed to harass and vex and torture the people of God. Sometimes they have apparently succeeded and triumphed; but really and eventually, they must be frustrated. “Surely there is no enchantment,” &c. Now the certainty of this may be inferred—
1. Because the counsels of God are more than sufficient to baffle the designs and plots of hell. We would not array human skill and tact against the wiles and stratagems of the devil. But the security of the Church depends on the counsels of God—on the influence and wisdom of the Most High. He knows how to frustrate the devices of evil; and how to deliver those who trust in his name. Hell has no covering before Him. He is the watcher and keeper of Israel, and He neither slumbers nor sleeps.
2. Because the power of Jehovah is ever effectual in resisting the attacks of the enemies of His people. Divine wisdom and omniscience are united with resistless power. His mandate gave being to the universe. “He spake, and it was.” All created power is mere impotency before Him. How then can the power of evil ruin the Church, and overthrow the cause of the Eternal?
3. Because Divine goodness is more than enough to counteract the malevolence of the Church’s foes. The wisdom and power of God are combined with immeasurable love. The interests of the Church are those of God’s heart. His people are as the apple of His eye. He has covenanted with them to sustain, to keep, to preserve, to deliver, to glorify.
4. The resources of God are more than adequate to render all the means of the Church’s enemies abortive. The enemy can combine various elements of evil. The craft, subtlety, and power of fallen legions—the wealth and influence of the world—the fashions of the earth, &c. And all these have successively been employed. But all resources are Jehovah’s. The angels of His presence, the stars of heaven, the sun, and the moon, storms and winds, and tempests, earthquakes, pestilence, and famine. Ho often makes the wrath of man to praise Him. On these grounds we may say, “Surely there is no enchantment,” &c.
II. The triumphant exclamation uttered.
“According to this time it shall be said,” &c. Observe:
1. What is to be said. “What hath God wrought!” All deliverances, &c., are to be traced up to God. Agency may be observed; but God only praised. God alone is to have the glory, as He has had the real work of delivering His people.
(1) This is to keep up our dependence on God.
(2) To inspire with admiration and praise.
(3) To keep human nature in its right place. Not what Moses, or Joshua, or Gideon, or David, or the apostles, or the martyrs, or the reformers, or Wesley, or Whitfield; but “what God hath wrought.” There is a tendency to lose sight of God, or to make Him secondary. But it ought ever to be, “What hath God wrought!”
2. Who are to say it. Sometimes even enemies have said it. Balak was forced to see it, and the covetous prophet to speak it.
(1) But it should be said especially by the ministers of the Gospel. They are to draw attention to the doings of Jehovah—to “speak of the glory of His kingdom, and talk of His power,” &c.
(2) It should be said by all the pious. Parents to their children. Teachers to their pupils. Christians to one another. Thus the Psalmist, Psalms 77:11, &c., Isaiah 12:4, &c.
3. When it should be said.
(1) In times of depression as a means of encouragement.
(2) In times of great exertion as an incitement to perseverance.
(3) In times of great success, to give tone to our exultings.
(4) It will be reiterated in the world of the beatified for ever. Then they will see in one beautiful series the doings of God,—behold the golden chain entire, &c.
1. Our text may apply to many as to their Christian experience before God. Remember all the way God hath led you, &c. What great things He hath done for you.
2. May it not apply to this Christian Church and congregation? What hath God wrought here for you, in you, by you? &c.
3. Let God ever be exalted by His Church and people for the blessings they enjoy, and all the good done in them, and by them.—Jabex Burns, D.D.
THE BLESSING OF GOD, AND THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT WHICH IT DEMANDS
(Numbers 23:23, latter portion.)
“According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!”
The text directs us to—
I. The source of effectual blessing.
It directs us to the Deity, in His essential character; in His active character; and in His relative character. And what is the interference we wish? Various. Sometimes—
1. Deliverance—from danger internal and external—“enchantment.”
2. Blessing. “I have received commandment to bless,” &c.
3. Forbearance. “He hath not beheld iniquity,” &c.
4. Stability. “The Lord his God is with him.”
5. Complete success.
II. The time from which His interposition is remarked.
“According to this time it shall be said.” The time of—
2. Renewed devotion.
3. Peculiar providential arrangement.
4. Earnest and decisive spirit of prayer.
III. The acknowledgment it demands.
“It shall be said, What hath God wrought!”
1. Acknowledgment is implied and expected. “God wrought.”
2. It is spontaneously offered. “It shall be said.”
3. It is a personal and explicit token. “Jacob and Israel.”
4. It is to be recorded and gratefully renewed. “According to this time it shall be said,” &c.—Samuel Thodey.
See Critical and Explanatory Notes on Numbers 23:25, and Homiletical remarks on Numbers 23:11-12.
See Critical and Explanatory Notes and Homiletical remarks on Numbers 23:1-2; Numbers 23:13-14, and Explanatory Note on Numbers 23:28.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 23". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26