CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY NOTES
Num . To seek for enchantments. See Notes on Num 23:3; Num 23:23.
He set his face toward the wilderness, i.e., towards the plains of Moab, where the Israelites were encamped.
Num . Saw Israel abiding, &c. Keil and Del.: "He saw Israel encamping according to its tribes."
The Spirit of God came upon him. "The impression made upon him by the sight of the tribes of Israel, served as the subjective preparation for the reception of the Spirit of God to inspire him. Of both the earlier utterances it is stated that ‘Jehovah put a word into his mouth' (Num ; Num 23:16); but of this third it is affirmed that ‘the Spirit of God came over him.' The former were communicated to him, where he went out for a Divine revelation, without his being thrown into an ecstatic state; he heard the voice of God within him telling him what he was to say. But this time, like the prophets in their prophesyings, he was placed by the Spirit of God in a state of ecstatic sight; so that, with his eyes closed as in clairvoyance, he saw the substance of the revelation from God with his inward mental eye, which had been opened by the Spirit of God."—Keil and Del.
Num . Whose eyes are open. Margin: "Who had his eyes shut, but now opened." Dr. A. Clarke takes the latter view: "I believe the original שׁתם, shethum, should be translated shut, not open; for in the next verse, where the opening of the eyes is mentioned, a widely different word is used כַלה, galah, which signifies to open or reveal. At first the eyes of Balaam were shut, and so closely too that he could not see the angel who withstood him, till God opened his eyes; nor could he see the gracious intentions of God towards Israel, till the eyes of his understanding were opened by the power of the Divine Spirit".
שְׁתֻם הָעַיִן, "with closed eye. שָׁתַם does not mean to open, a meaning in support of which only one passage of the Mishnah can be adduced, but to close, like סָתַם in Dan, and שָׂתַם in Lam 3:8, with the שׁ softened into ס or שׂ ‘Balaam describes himself as the man with closed eye with reference to his state of ecstasy, in which the closing of the outer senses went hand in hand with the opening of the inner' (Hengstenberg). The cessation of all perception by means of the outer senses, so far as self-conscious reflection is concerned, was a feature that was common to both the vision and the dream, the two forms in which the prophetic gift manifested itself (Num 12:6), and followed from the very nature of the inward intuition. In the case of prophets whose spiritual life was far advanced, inspiration might take place without any closing of the outward senses. But upon men like Balaam, whose inner religious life was still very impure and undeveloped, the Spirit of God could only operate by closing their outward senses to impressions from the lower earthly world, and raising them up to visions of the higher and spiritual world"—Keil and Del.
Fuerst however renders שְׁתֻם הָעַיִן, "opened of eye, i.e., with opened eye." So also the Speaker's Comm. et al.
Num . Falling, &c. Omit the "into a trance" of the A.V. Keil and Del. translate, "Falling down and with opened eyes." Balaam fell beneath the power of the Spirit of God, who came upon him (comp. 1Sa 19:24). In this way the eyes of his spirit were opened.
Num . He shall pour the water, &c. Or, "Water will flow out of his buckets." Or, "He shall stream with water out of his buckets." An image of great prosperity; an abundant supply of water being essential to fertility and prosperity in the burning East. "The nation is personified as a man carrying two pails overflowing with water."
His seed, i.e., posterity.
"By many waters," a metaphor indicative of rich blessings, particularly in this place, that of a numerous posterity.
Agag, a title common to all the Amalekite kings, as Pharaoh was to those of Egypt. "The reason for mentioning the king of the Amalekites was, that he was selected as the impersonation of the enmity of the world against the kingdom of God, which culminated in the kings of the heathen; the Amalekites having been the first heathen tribe that attacked the Israelites on their journey to Canaan (Exo )"—Keil and Del.
His king.… his kingdom. "The king of Israel, whose greatness was celebrated by Balaam, was neither the Messiah exclusively, nor the earthly kingdom without the Messiah, but the kingdom of Israel that was established by David, and was exalted in the Messiah into an everlasting kingdom, the enemies of which would all be made its footstool (Psalms 2, 110)."—Ibid.
Num . See Num 23:22.
Num . See Num 23:24.
Num . Jehovah hath kept thee back from honour. "A bitter and impious sarcasm."—A. Clarke, LL.D.
Num . Advertise thee. Keil and Del.: "‘Tell thee advisedly.' … An announcement which includes advice."
Num . A Star, &c. "In all the typical language of Scripture stars are symbols of lordship and authority, ecclesiastical or civil. Thus a star is the symbol of the highest dominion of all: ‘There shall come a Star out of Jacob;' and the actual birth of Him whom Balaam prophesied of here, is announced by a star (Mat 2:2; cf. Isa 14:12)."—R. C. Trench, D.D.
A Sceptre, &c. (comp. Gen ).
The corners of Moab. Rather, "the two sides of Moab," "equivalent to Moab on both sides, from one end to the other."
Destroy all the children of Sheth. Speaker's Comm.: "Overthrow the sons of tumult." Keil and Del.: "‘Destroy all the sons of confusion,' by which the Moabites are to be understood as being men of wild, warlike confusion."
Num . Edom shall be a possession, &c. "Whilst Edom falls, Israel will acquire power" (comp. 2Sa 8:14; 1Ch 18:11-13; Oba 1:17 sqq.
Num . He that shall have dominion, i.e., the ruler foretold as Star and Sceptre. "The Star and Sceptre of the prophecy, like the ‘Sceptre' and ‘Lawgiver' of Gen 49:10, point naturally rather to a line of princes than to an individual; or rather are emblems of the kingdom of Israel generally. Thus the victories of David and his successors, generation after generation, over Edom and Moab, are unquestionably recurring and progressive accomplishments of what Balaam foretold; but after all of them the prophecy yet reaches forward to some further and culminating accomplishment; and that too in ‘the latter days' (Num 24:14), the ordinary prophetic designation for the time of the Messiah (cf. Dan 10:14).
"To a Christian, the connection between the Star and Sceptre of Balaam, and the Star of the King of the Jews, which the wise men saw (Mat ), is self-evident. As they were ‘wise men from the east,' so was Balaam also a ‘wise man from the east' (cf. Num 23:7); and the tradition that they were, if not descendants, yet fellow countrymen, of Balaam, and occupied in pursuits kindred to his, is probable enough."—Speaker's Comm.
Destroy him that remaineth, &c. "The phrase tersely describes a conqueror who first defeats his enemies in battle, and then hunts out the fugitives till he has cut off all of every place (cf. 1Ki )."—Ibid.
Num . Amalek was the first, &c., i.e., pre-eminent amongst the states or nations which Balaam then had in view of his mind's eye. The sense given by the marginal rendering is doubtful.
Num . The Kenites. "A tribe or nation whose history is strangely interwoven with that of the chosen people. Their origin is hidden from us. But we may fairly infer that they were a branch of the larger nation of Midian—from the fact that Jethro, the father of Moses's wife, who in the records of Exodus (see Num 2:15-16; Num 4:19, &c.), is represented as dwelling in the land of Midian, and as priest or prince of that nation, is in the narrative of Judges (Num 1:16; Num 4:11), as distinctly said to have been a Kenite. As Midianites, they were therefore descended immediately from Abraham by his wife Keturah, and in this relationship and their connexion with Moses we find the key to their continued alliance with Israel."—Bible Dict.
Num . The Kenite. Heb.: Kain. The Speaker's Comm. says that Kain is "the name of the Kenites abode." Keil and Del.: "Kain, the tribe-father, is used poetically for the Kenite, the tribe of which he was the founder." And Fuerst regards it as the name of the tribe. A more faithful rendering of this verse is, "For Kain shall not be destroyed until Asshur shall carry him away captive." It is a promise of long-continued safety to the Kenites.
Num . Alas, who shall live, &c. "The words, ‘Woe, who will live,' point to the fearfulness of the following judgment, which went deep to the heart of the seer, because it would fall upon the sons of his own people. The meaning is, ‘Who will preserve his life in the universal catastrophe that is coming!' (Hengstenberg.)"—Keil and Del.
Num . Chittim, "i.e. Cyprus, the nearest of the western islands, the only one visible from Palestine, and so the representative to Balaam and to Israel of all those unknown western regions across the Mediterranean Sea, from which were at length to come the conquerors of the mighty empires of the East (cf. Isa 23:1; Isa 23:12; Jer 2:10)."—Speaker's Comm.
Eber, "i.e., not as Vulg. and LXX, ‘the Hebrews,' but generally the descendants of Shem."—Ibid.
He also, "i.e., the conqueror of Asshur and Eber, who should come across the sea."—Ibid.
BALAAM'S THIRD PARABLE: THE GLORY OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD
This paragraph contains two main divisions:
I. The preparation of the prophet to declare the divine will (Num ).
1. Balaam renounces the search for auguries. "And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments." The sacrifices were offered as at former times, but Balaam goes no more apart to look for auguries. He seems to have despaired of accomplishing the desire of Balak by any exercise of his art.
2. He beholds the encampment of Israel. "He set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel encamping according to their tribes." He seems to have gazed on the imposing spectacle beneath him, and to have allowed it freely to influence him. Its order, unity, vastness, and might, seem to have deeply impressed him. And the impression produced by that sight "served as the subjective preparation for the reception of the Spirit of God to inspire him."
3. He is inspired by the Holy Spirit. "And the Spirit of God came upon him" (see Critical and Explanatory Notes on Num ). He had, as Attersoll remarks, "the Holy Spirit, but not the spirit of holiness; for wheresoever He worketh He is holy, but He doth not always work holiness and sanctification, which evermore accompany salvation." Balaam was inspired to utter the Divine message; but his heart was perverse and corrupt, &c.
4. He hears Divine words and sees Divine visions. "And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man with closed eye hath said: he hath said which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling down and with opened eyes" (see Critical and Explanatory Notes on Num ). The senses of Balaam now seem to be closed to external impressions, and, for the time being, the Spirit of God has the mastery of his nature, and by voice and by vision reveals the will of God to him. Thus the Lord prepared him for the declaration of His holy will. Do not these words of Balaam display his egotism and pride in his own privileges and power? Keil and Del. hold that they do not. "This introduction to his prophecy is not an utterance of bossting vanity; but, as Calvin correctly observes, ‘the whole preface has no other tendency than to prove that he was a true prophet of God, and had received the blessing which he uttered from a celestial oracle.'" We are unable to take this view of his preface. To us it "savours very much of pride and vain glory, taking all the praise of this prophecy to himself, and magnifying himself as one of the cabinet-council of heaven. Paul speaks with humility of his visions and revelations (2Co 12:1); but Balaam speaks of his with pride." (a)
II. The declaration by the prophet of Israel's glory (Num ).
The blessing here pronounced is in its substance very similar to those in the preceding chapter. Balaam declares—
1. Their beautiful appearance (Num ). Here are three ideas
(1) Beauty. The beauty of order. "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob; thy tabernacles, O Israel!" (b) And the beauty of culture and fertility. "As the valleys are spread forth, as gardens by the river's side." To the mind's eye of the seer, the dwellings of Israel in Canaan spread themselves abroad with the loveliness of fertile valleys, and even as gardens along the banks of a river, "which are still more lovely than the grassy and flowery valleys" (comp. Deu ). (c)
(2) Fragrance. "As the trees of lign aloes, which the Lord hath planted." "The aloe, imported from China and the far distant east, furnished to the ancients one of the most fragrant and precious spices (cf. Psa ), ‘All thy garments smell of myrrh, aloes, and cassia' (Pro 7:17).'" So the reputation of Israel should be fragrant. Their character and condition should produce a delightful impression upon their neighbours.
(3) Majesty. "As cedar trees beside the waters." "The noblest of trees branching forth in the fairest of situations; an image of majestic beauty." The beauty of Israel is set forth in a somewhat similar manner in Hos ; Hos 14:7. "The righteous is more excellent than his neighbour." "The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold." The truly godly man is beautiful in his principles and spirit, in his character and conduct. "The beauty of the Lord our God is upon" him.
2. Their prosperous condition. Two aspects of prosperity are probably presented by the prophet:—
(1) A fertile soil. "He shall pour the water out of his buckets" (see Critical and Explanatory Notes).
(2) A numerous posterity. "His seed shall be in many waters." Abundant and unfailing prosperity and increase are thus proclaimed as the portion of Israel. And very remarkable was their prosperity at all times when they were faithful to the Lord; and their increase was wonderful.
3. Their exalted position. "And his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted" (see Critical and Explanatory Notes). The glories of the kingdom of Israel were to far exceed those of their heathen neighbours. We may perhaps find the fulfilment of this prediction in the prosperity and power of the kingdom during the latter part of the reign of David and the greater part of that of his successor. But its most splendid fulfilment is to be looked for in the spiritual kingdom of the Messiah.
4. Their conquering power. This is exhibited in several aspects—
(1) Their great strength. This is seen in what God had done for them. "God leads him forth out of Egypt." And in their present condition. "He hath as it were the strength of a wild bull." The people were strong because God was with them as their leader, &c. (see on chap Num ).
(2) Their great conquests. "He shall eat up the nations his enemies, and break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows." The words point to the complete victory of Israel over their enemies, and their enrichment by means of such conquests. (d)
(3) Their great security. "He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up?" "They were to overcome their foes thoroughly, that none of them would venture to rise up against them again." The prophet's words present a striking picture of assured security. Who shall dare to arouse a sleeping lion? During a great part of the reign of David, and during that of Solomon, Israel was thus secure. When His people are faithful to Him, God guarantees their safety. "The work of righteousness shall be peace," &c. (Isa ). (e).
(4) Their great influence, as a blessing to their friends, and as a bane to their enemies. "Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee." For this cause, let Balak and all their enemies take warning. God makes His people's cause His own. "He that toucheth you toucheth the apple of His eye." "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me." "Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou Me?"
Here is encouragement to the people of God and to their friends. Here is warning to their enemies.
(a) From first to last one thing appears uppermost in this history—Balaam's self; the honour of Balaam as a true prophet—therefore he will not lie; the wealth of Balaam—therefore the Israelites must be sacrificed. Nay more, even in this sublimest vision his egotism breaks out. In the sight of God's Israel he cries, "Let me die the death of the righteous:" in anticipation of the glories of the Eternal Advent, "I shall behold Him, but not nigh." He sees the vision of a Kingdom, a Church, a chosen people, a triumph of righteousness. In such anticipations, the nobler prophets broke out into strains in which their own personality was forgotten. Moses, when he thought that God would destroy His people, prays in agony—"Yet now, if I hou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book." Paul speaks in impassioned words—"I have continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites." But Balaam's chief feeling seems to be, "How will all this advance me? And the magnificence of the prophecy is thus marred by a chord of melancholy and diseased egotism. Not for one moment—even in those moments when uninspired men gladly forget themselves; men who have devoted themselves to a monarchy, or dreamed of a republic in sublime self-abnegation—can Balaam forget himself in God's cause.—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
(b) A church is not a load of bricks, remember: it is a house builded together. A church is not a bundle of cuttings in the gardener's band: it is a vine, of which we are the branches. The true church is an organised whole; and life true spiritual life, wherever it is paramount in the Church, without rules and rubrics, is quite sure to create order and arrangement. Order without life reminds us of the rows of graves in a cemetery, all numbered and entered in the register: order with life reminds us of the long lines of fruit trees in Italy, festooned with fruitful vines. Sunday-school teachers, bear ye the banner of the folded lamb; sick visitors, follow the ensign of the open hand; preachers, rally to the token of the uplifted brazen serpent; and all of you, according to your sacred calling, gather to the name of Jesus, armed for the war.—C. H. Spurgeon.
(c) One flower is very sweet. I smell its perfume. But I walk into some vast conservatories, into some gentleman's garden, acres in extent, and there are beds of flowers, the blue and scarlet, and yellow. I see the verbena, the calceolaria, and the geranium, and many others, all in order, and in ranks Oh, how glorious this is! Those undulating lawns, those well-trimmed hedges, those trees so daintily kept, all growing in such luxuriance. One flower is sweet, but a garden! a garden! who can tell how sweet this is! So, one glorified saint is one of God's flowers, but a glorious Church is Christ's garden.—Ibid.
(d) Every age produces a new crop of heretics and infidels. Just as the current of the times may run, so doth the stream of infidelity change its direction. We have lived long enough, some of us, to see three or four species of atheists and deists rise and die, for they are short-lived, an ephemeral generation. We have seen the Church attacked by weapons borrowed from geology, ethnology, and anatomy, and then from the schools of criticism fierce warriors have issued, but she survives all her antagonists. She has been as ailed from almost every quarter, but the fears that tarry in the Church to-day are blown to the wind to-morrow; yea, the Church has been enriched by the attacks, for her divines have set to work to study the points that were dubious, to strengthen the walls that seemed a little weak, and so her towers have been strengthened, and her bulwarks consolidated.—Ibid.
(e) As temporal and earthly governments become more secular, restricting their province to the physical well-being and the external relationships of mankind, there will be felt, amongst all who live a life intellectual and spiritual, the deeper need for the existence of a society and communion more truly corresponding to the higher and proper social nature of man than is possible in monarchies or republics, guilds or clubs. There is no danger of the world learning to do without the Church, or of the Church ceasing to exert a mighty influence over the world. The human rules and customs and creeds of the Churches may be modified; but the Church itself must remain: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Sooner shall the flames of love sink into the ashes of oblivion, and the stream of human thought pause in its eternal flow, than the Church of Christ shall cease to engage the warmest affections, to attract and employ the highest intelligence, and to enlist in her service and consecrate with her blessing the noblest energies of man.—J. R. Thomson, M.A.
THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD
We had thought of going to the New Testament for a text, and taking one of Paul's splendid and comprehensive addresses; but we recollected how much more powerful the confessions of an adversary are than the testimony of a friend. Christianity has in every age gained more from the reluctant tributes of homage extorted from the lips of enemies than from the loftiest efforts of its friends. The admissions of infidels in favour of the happiness and security of a religious life, and the regrets of worldly and irreligious men, say more on behalf of the real value of the Gospel to perishing man than all the labours of divines and all the boasted learning of the schools.
Besides, we have another advantage in the text. The testimony of Balaam will weigh more with many men than that of Moses, or Isaiah, or Paul. Paul gained great advantage with the philosophers of Athens by quoting their own authorities—"As certain also of your own poets have said." And here we address intelligent and worldly men in the words of one of their own number—"As one of your own prophets hath said." Balaam was a man of unquestionable genius, whose convictions were in favour of religion, as yours may be; but his heart was against it. He was a lover of this present world; he was quite enchanted with the smiles and flatteries of royalty, and had an open heart and an oily palm to receive the base bribes which the world could bestow. He was quite bent upon rising in the world, determined that nothing should stop him; he had no small opinion of his own pretentions, his genius, his knowledge, his acquaintance with Divine things, of which, as a practised worldling, he knew the full marketable value; and is in fact quite eloquent in portraying his own exalted advantages,—"The man whose eyes are open hath said," &c. Then he went as far as ever he could in opposing conscience—the voice of the Angel—the drawn sword—God. He was bent upon the thing from first to last: to curse he came; to curse he was determined. When God forbade him to curse by his prophecies, he cursed by his counsels; and actually died in arms against the Church of God. Now, this is the man from whom you are to receive a lecture on the advantages of religion. Mark the blessedness of the righteous as it appears to the eye of worldly and irreligious men. In proof of this happiness we appeal—
I. To the reluctant testimony of the men of this world. They express—
1. Their envy of the happiness of the righteous. "Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel." He came prepossessed against them; yet broke out in their favour,—"How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob," &c. An acknowledgment that they have nothing to compare with the privileges of the people of God. They secretly bend to a religion of more comfortable promise.
2. The utter futility of all opposition against the righteous. "Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee."
II. To the nature of the blessings which religion brings.
1. The anxiety it relieves. Doubt and uncertainty, fear and guilt; the disorder and restlessness of spirit.
2. The blessings it reveals. The counsels of Deity laid open; the scheme of redemption unveiled; pardon and peace; certainty of Divine favour; guidance of Divine providence, &c.
3. The progressive advancement in holiness and devotion. Moral triumphs over self, the world, and sin. They "shall be higher than Agag."
4. The exalted objects of hope it reveals. "There shall come a Star," &c.
III. To the actual experience of good men in every age. They have proved that religion gilds prosperity—soothes adversity—softens death, &c.
IV. To the avowed design of Divine dispensations.
This is to bless men. Act .—Samuel Thodey.
BALAK'S ANGER AND BALAAM'S APOLOGY
I. The anger of Balak.
"And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together," &c. See here—
1. His bitter disappointment. "Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times." All his efforts and hopes had ended in this. His distinguished embassies and tempting offers to the prophet, his numerous victims and repeated sacrifices to God, his earnest expectations of ultimately having the Israelites cursed, have issued in a triple declaration of their rich and exalted blessedness. Intense and deep was his mortification.
2. His severe rebuke of Balaam. "Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour," &c. What a humiliation for a man of Balaam's genius and gifts and "proud pretensions," to be thus addressed! What a reversal of his cherished purposes and desires as to the issue of this enterprise! Yet, surely Balaam deserved this rebuke. He had pitifully humiliated himself long before Balak uttered his scornful and angry rebuke.
3. His impious reflection against God. "Lo, the Lord hath kept thee back from honour." In these words "the irony with which Balak scoffs at Balaam's confidence in Jehovah is unmistakable;" and their profanity is great.
II. The apology of Balaam.
1. His vaunted honesty. "And Balaam said unto Balak, Spake I not also to thy messengers which thou sentest unto me, saying, If Balak would give me," &c. This statement was true in the letter, but utterly false in spirit. Balaam's whole line of conduct was calculated to encourage in Balak the belief that he would probably succeed in cursing Israel. Balaam's boast of his honesty implies a consciousness of his weakness, if not of his failure in that quality. "Brave men do not vaunt their courage, nor honourable men their honesty, nor do the truly noble boast of high birth. All who understand the human heart perceive a secret sense of weakness in these loud boasts of immaculate purity." (a)
2. The impotence of man when opposed to God. "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do good or bad of mine own mind." "He hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it." Sennacherib would have destroyed Jerusalem, but the Lord said unto him, "I will put My hook in thy nose, and My bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way which thou comest." Satan himself in his hostility against the people of God cannot go beyond the permission of God, as we see from Job ; Job 2:6. "Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee; the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain."
3. The sovereignty of God. Balak and Balaam could not frustrate His purposes. His supremacy is real and effectual. Quaintly and truly says Trapp, "God lets out the tedder to wicked men for a time, and then calls them back with shame enough to their task; lets them have the ball on the foot till they come almost to the goal, and then defeats them of their great hopes; as he did this sinful couple. Balak had not his will, nor Balaam his wages; God fooled them both, pulling the morsel out of their mouths, that they had well-nigh devoured." "The Lord reigneth."
Before Balaam takes his departure from Balak he declares unto him still further the blessedness of Israel and their relations in the future to neighbouring nations. "And now, behold, I go unto my people; come, I will advertise thee," &c. Some expositors are of opinion that this refers to the diabolical counsel of Balaam spoken of in Num ; and Rev 2:14. We reject this opinion for three reasons:—
(1) No such counsel is recorded or even further referred to here.
(2) The statement of the prophet in this verse is directly opposed to this opinion. He advertises Balak what Israel would do to the Moabites, not what the Moabites should do to Israel.
(3) The advertisement he is about to make to Balak points on to the distant future. The events were to take place "in the latter days," or "at the end of the days," an expression which cannot possibly apply to transactions which took place almost immediately afterward.
III. The lessons to be deduced from this part of the history.
1. That human nature is deeply selfish. The selfishness of Balaam has been conspicuous throughout; and now that of Balak is clearly revealed. Formerly, when he hoped to gain his ends by means of Balaam's powers, he was lavish in his courtesies and compliments to him; but now he sees that this hope was vain, he utters to him words of scornful and stinging rebuke. (b)
2. That evil enterprises have painful issues. This enterprise has brought to Balak loss, bitter disappointment, and sore annoyance; and to Balaam disappointment equally bitter, painful humiliation, and heavy guilt. God frustrates the designs of his enemies. Even when in the beginning evil courses seem pleasant and prosperous, the end thereof will be wretched and perhaps ruinous. "There is a way that seemeth right," &c. (Pro ). (c)
3. That sin is utterly impolitic. Balaam brought upon himself the scorn of Balak, guilt of conscience, and the anger of God, for "the wages of unrighteousness," which he failed to obtain. Sin is extreme folly. The sinner is the greatest fool. (d)
4. That worldliness is utterly incompatible with obedience to God. Balaam tried to harmonize them, and miserably failed in the attempt. He succeeded in neither his worldly nor his religious aims. He did not obtain "the rewards of divination;" he incurred the righteous anger of the Lord God. "Ye cannot serve God and mammon."
(a) We observe here perfect veracity with utter want of truth. Balaam was veracious. He will not deceive Balak. And yet there was utter truthlessness of heart. Balaam will not utter what is not true; but he will blind himself so that he may not see the truth, and so speak a lie, believing it to be the truth. He will only speak the tiling he feels; but he is not careful to feel all that is true. He goes to another place, where the whole truth may not force itself upon his mind—to a hill where he shall not see the whole of Israel: from hill to hill for the chance of getting to a place where the truth may disappear. But there stands the stubborn fact—Israel is blessed; and he will look at the fact in every way, to see if he cannot get it into a position where it shall be seen no longer. Ostrich like!
Such a character is not so uncommon as, perhaps, we think. There is many a lucrative business which involves misery and wrong to those who are employed in it The man would be too benevolent to put the gold in his purse if he knew of the misery. But he takes care not to know. There is many a dishonourable thing done at an election, and the principal takes care not to inquire. Many an oppression is exercised on a tenantry, and the landlord receives his rent, and asks no questions. Or there is some situation which depends upon the holding of certain religions opinions, and the candidate has a suspicion that if he were to examine, he could not conscientiously profess these opinions, and perchance he takes care not to examine.
There are men who would not play false, and yet would wrongly win. There are men who would not lie, and yet who would bribe a poor man to support a cause which he believes in his soul to be false. There are men who would resent at the sword's point the charge of dishonour, who would yet for selfish gratification entice the weak into sin, and damn body and soul in hell. There are men who would be shocked at being called traitors, who in time of war will yet make a fortune by selling arms to their country's foes. There are men respectable and respected, who give liberally, and support religious societies, and go to church, and would not take God's name in vain, who have made wealth, in some trade of opium or spirits, out of the wreck of innumerable human lives. Balaam is one of the accursed spirits now, but he did no more than these are doing.—F. W. Robertson, M. A.
(4) Remember with yourself how gloriously Balaam was welcomed and entertained when he came, and lay it to these words now. Is not the case much altered? So ever was it, and ever will it be in this false world. Men have their drifts and ends, when they give grace and countenance to men; they shoot at a mark, which if they may hit by your means, you shall be a white son still, and all shall be well while you serve their purposes. But if once you fail, and prefer conscience and honesty before their desire, truth before falsehood, and God before the devil; then hands be smitten together, the foot stamps, the brow frowns, the countenance and heart are changed. Great things were intended to us in favour and love, but now all is lost, we must fly to our place, and be packing. And who hath kept us from honour but God? The fault must be laid upon Him. This to many falleth out most unjustly; but here to Balaam it was due, whose heart was tainted with desire of wicked gain, and so lost both God and his gain. An example to worldly minds if God have any portion in them.—Babington.
Was there ever a man that was more moral and cultured than Lord Chesterfield? and was there ever a man that was more exquisitely selfish than he? Men whose tendencies incline them to the world, come to see that if they act from motives of economy, it is best for them to go through life with such and such graces and proprieties. They are persuaded that it is the most profitable way to go through life. On that ground they are moral; but that leaves oat some of the essential elements of character. It is not conscience that controls them; it is not faith; it is not hope; it is not spiritual purity; it is not aspiration; it is not rectitude in any shape; it is only a refined form of selfishness. A man may be a thoroughly moral man outwardly, and a thoroughly immoral man inwardly.—H. W. Beecher.
(c) It is ill with thee, sinner, because thy joys all hang upon a thread. Let life's thread be cut, and where are thy merriments? Thy dainty music and thy costly cups, the mirth that flashes from thy wanton eye, and the jollity of thy thoughtless soul, where will these be when death, with bony hand, shall come and touch thy heart, and make it cease its beating? It is ill with you, because when these joys are over you have no more to come. You have one bright chapter in the story, but ah! the never-ending chapter, it is woe, woe, woe, from the beginning to the end: the woe of death, and after death the judgment, and after judgment the woe of condemnation, and then that woe that rolleth onward for ever—eternal woe, never coming to a pause, never knowing an alleviation—C. H. Spurgeon.
(d) Be not like the foolish drunkard who, staggering home one night, saw his candle lit for him. "Two candles," said he, for his drunkenness made him see double; "I will blow out one;" and, as he blew it out, in a moment he was in the dark Many a man sees double through the drunkenness of sin—he thinks he has one life to sow his wild oats in, and then the last part of life in which to turn to God: so, like a fool, he blows out the only candle that he has, and in the dark he will have to lie down forever.—Ibid.
BALAAM'S FOURTH PARABLE: THE STAR AND THE SCEPTRE OF ISRAEL
The introduction to this prophecy (Num ) corresponds with that which the seer used before (Num 24:3-4), and which we have already noticed.
The predictions recorded in Num were partially fulfilled in the reign of David (comp. 2Sa 8:2; 2Sa 8:14; 1Ki 11:15-16; Psa 60:8). But it is historically certain that they were not fully accomplished in the reign of David or any of his successors. The Star that shall come out of Jacob, and the Sceptre that shall rise out of Israel, as Canon Liddon observes, "is something more than an anticipation of the reign of David: it manifestly points to the glory and power of a Higher Royalty." (a)
It appears to us quite certain that the prophecy applies to Christ and His Kingdom. It sets before us—
I. The glory of the Messiah as a King.
"There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel." Attersoll thus interprets the symbol of the Star: "He is called by this name—First, because He is the fountain of all salvation and comfort; Secondly, to teach that all men by nature walk in darkness, and in the shadow of death; Thirdly, because He will give those that are His, the light of knowledge in this life, and the light of perfect glory in the life to come." We are not sure that the figure warrants all this. But our Lord spake of Himself as "The bright and morning Star" (Rev ), and He is frequently spoken of in the Scriptures as the great Light for the moral darkness of the world (Luk 1:78-79; Luk 2:32; Joh 1:4-9; Joh 8:12; 2Pe 1:19). (b)
But the principal idea seems to be the glory of Christ as the Sovereign of His people. He is, as M. Stuart (on Rev ) says, "a King all resplendent and glorious, like to the morning star (comp. 2Sa 21:17; Isa 14:12; Num 24:17; Dan 12:3). It is the splendour and beauty of the morning star which makes it here an object of comparison with the splendour of the King of Zion." His royal glory is not material, but moral. It consists in such things as these—
1. The benevolence and sublimity of the objects for which He reigns. He reigns to save and bless men, &c.
2. The righteousness of His laws. These are "holy and just and good."
3. The wisdom of His methods. He governs not by force or coercion, but by persuasion and inspiration.
4. The character and privileges of His subjects. They are upright and holy in character. They have the exalted privileges of sons of God here, and shall have eternal blessedness and glory hereafter. The glory of this King is set forth in language of splendid eloquence and power in Psalms 77.
II. The extent of the Messiah's conquests.
1. He shall vanquish all His enemies. "He shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the sons of confusion; … and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city" "Edom and Moab are named by Balaam, as they are also by the prophets (of., e.g., Isa ), not for their own sake merely, but as representatives of the heathen nations (goyeem, cf. Num 24:8), who were hostile to the theocracy. As Jacob then figures as a constant type of the Kingdom of Messiah in the prophets, so too do Edom and Moab of the enemies of that Kingdom; and in the threatened ruin of Edom and Moab is indicated the eventual destruction of all that resist the Kingdom of God in its power." But how will the King destroy the rebellious foes of His Kingdom? May we not reply, by transforming them into loyal subjects. An enemy is never so completely and gloriously destroyed as when he is converted into a true friend. But if any will not be vanquished by the kindness of the King, they will be broken by His power. "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron," &c. (Psa 2:8-12). (c)
2. He shall take to Himself all the possessions of His vanquished enemies. "And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies." All treasures and possessions shall surely be ultimately surrendered to Christ the King. The possessors of wealth and of power, the sons of science and the sons of song, the gifted and the beautiful, all will lay their treasures at His feet (comp. Psa ; Psa 72:15).
III. The prosperity of the Messiah's subjects.
"And Israel shall do valiantly." "Whilst Edom falls, Israel will acquire power." The Church of the living God, supported from on high, has bravely repelled the assaults of all its enemies, and has come forth from every conflict, not only victorious, but with increased courage and strength for future battles.
When Christ shall again appear, and every eye shall see Him, how shall we behold Him?—with joy as our Saviour and King?—or, how? (d)
(a) Upon whom did the seer look when from the summit of Peor he beheld afar a mysterious personage, and gave as His heraldry the sceptre and the star? This can be none other than He who arose splendid in the midst of universal night—a night of ignorance; a night of guilt—as "a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of His people Israel;" this can be none other than He by whose coming the shadows of ceremonial institutions were dispersed, and who gave to the world the "means of grace and the hope of glory;" this can be none other than He whose setting was in blood, but that blood the purifier of a polluted earth, the purchase of such irradiations from the heaven which is above as shall finally deepen into a sky without a cloud, a day without a night; this can be none other than He who has been invested with all power in heaven and earth, who must reign till He hath put all His enemies under His feet, and whose dominion is to be established upon the wreck of all human sovereignty; and this is He—we know Him, though spoken of in parables, and shadowed by mystic imagery; He came out of Jacob, He rose out of Israel; for "to the Jews as concerning the flesh Christ came who is over all, God blessed for ever." And if it were Christ's day upon which Abraham rejoicingly gazed when looking from the summit of Moriah down the long perspective of many generations, it was Christ's day which was beheld by Balaam, when from Peor's top he discerned, amid the mighty darkness of futurity, a single luminary, the harbinger of morning. If it were Christ of whom the dying Jacob foretold when he spoke of the sceptre departing from Judah, that Shiloh might appear; it was of Christ that Balaam pronounced when he predicted that out of the very people whose sovereignty was then to be destroyed, should arise a sceptre before which even Moab must bow; and Balaam might or might not be aware who the Being was of whom he said, "I shall see Him, but not now; I shall behold Him, but not nigh." But we who live in the dawning of that day for which prophets and righteous men longed—we who see advances already made towards the glorious consummation when Jesus as "King of kings and Lord of lords" shall reign triumphant over every nation and tribe and tongue,—we know the Personage whose bright emblazonry was shown to the seer on the vast gloom of future time, and we fall before the "one Mediator between God and man" as the "Star that should come out of Jacob, and the Sceptre that should rise out of Israel."—Henry Melville, B.D.
(b) Are there reasons to be given why a star should be selected when the Saviour is to be figuratively described? We reply at once—that everything which has to do with light may be fitly taken as an image of Christ. There is nothing which so fitly represents the moral condition of the world when Christ appeared on earth, as darkness. "Darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people;" and since Christ came to diffuse the knowledge of truth—in other words, to scatter this darkness—His office cannot be better represented than when he is exhibited under figures derived from the nature and the agency of light. But yet you may say, why describe Him as a star—a star which shines with comparatively faint lustre, and which does little towards radiating a benighted creation? Why not rather take the sun as His emblem—the sun which "cometh forth in his strength as a bridegroom from his chamber;" before which the shadows of the night immediately flee, and which pours lavishly its glorious radiance over earth, sea, and sky? Certainly it would seem at first sight, as though the sun were a more appropriate emblem of Christ than a star; and accordingly, whilst you may often hear Christians speaking of their Saviour as the "Sun of righteousness," you will hardly ever hear them speak of Him as the bright and morning star. They have indeed scriptural warrant in calling Him the "Sun of righteousness," seeing that the words occur in the prophecy of Malachi, and evidently are used of the Redeemer. But this is the single passage in which the emblem of the Sun is employed; whilst that of the star is not of unfrequent occurrence. And if you examine attentively the passage in Malachi, you will find cause to think that it refers specially to a yet future time: for the prophet has just been speaking of that day of the Lord which seems in scripture to denote the second advent of Christ; and it is after describing the fearful desolation which that day will bring upon the wicked, that he is commissioned to say for the comfort of the godly—"But unto you that fear My name, shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in His wings" The title—"Sun of righteousness," as thus given to Christ, would appear to mark with how much fuller and more glorious manifestations the Saviour will show Himself upon His return to this earth, than are vouchsafed to us under the present dispensation. He will be a sun to His Church throughout the millennial and heavenly states; but He is only as a star till those states shall come. The night is yet upon us and around us, though that night may be far spent, and the day may be at hand. "We see only through a glass darkly," as we can "know but in part." Still it is no longer the starless night which it was ere the Redeemer brought life and immortality to light by His gospel. A Star—a morning Star has crossed the horizon, and a tempest-tossed world, in danger of everlasting shipwreck, may steer itself by the light of that Star to the haven where it would be, and where there is to be no more night, though no more sun. And thus, if an emblem is to be found which shall at one and the same time pourtray the Saviour as the source of moral illumination to the world, and yet show that this illumination is that of the dawn, rather than that of the noon-tide, such an emblem must be a star—a morning star, rather than that of the great luminary of the heavens. Christianity, as set up in the world is but in its twilight; the night is still unbroken over a vast portion of our globe; and even where revelation has been received and rejoiced in, we must rather speak of streaks like those on the eastern sky, whose gold and purple prophecy of morning, rather than those rich full lustres which flood creation when the sun has reached the zenith. On every account, therefore—on account of what He is to the world, and on account of what (as yet, at least) He is not—is our Redeemer aptly figured by the emblem which He applied to Himself—the emblem of our text—the emblem of the bright and morning star.—Ibid.
(c) The sign of the Son of Man is yet to be seen in the heavens, where it was beheld by Balaam, from the summit of Peor. I know not what that sign shall be; perhaps again the star—fearful meteor!—like that which hung over the fated Jerusalem, boding its destruction; perhaps again the sceptre—brilliant constellation!—burning with majesty and betokening the extinction of all meaner royalty; perhaps the Cross as it appeared to the Roman's eye, when he was taught to know the God of battles, and to place Christianity upon the throne of the Cæsars. But whatever the sign, the Being whose emblazonry it exhibits, shall come to deal out a long delayed vengeance on tribes that have refused to walk in His light and submit to His rule. "Associate yourselves, O ye people," saith Isaiah, "and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear all ye of far countries; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces." Yes! Edom, and Moab, and Seir, and Sheth, literally the foes of Israel in earlier days, and figuratively those enemies of the Church who shall league for its overthrow at the time of the end—against you shall that Mighty One arise, whose type in the person of David trampled down the nations who first bore your names. And, therefore, do we feel that the future was indeed giving up its secrets to Balaam, as he stood upon Peor, with Israel encamped in the valley beneath. We place ourselves at his side. What seeth he? Dim and mystic things are coming up to his view; a lonely yet a splendid star is rising out of Jacob, and from Israel is proceeding a sceptre, but it looks not like that which a mortal king wields. What mean these hieroglyphics? Whose is this strange yet beautiful heraldry? The answer is easy. Yonder star is the image of Christ, the enlightener of the world; and yonder sceptre is His, for the whole world shall do Him homage. Yes, you say, but ere Christ can shine upon the nations and reign gloriously over them, there is to be battle, and tumult, and earthquake, and destruction. Prophecy is express on this, that there will be a great banding of the powers of earth against "the Lord and His Christ," and these powers must be beaten down ere the reign of righteousness can begin. Beholdest thou, O Seer, aught in the distance which seems to tell thee of foes met and overthrown by Him who hath for His sign the sceptre and the star? We pause for our answer, that we may be certified that it is indeed the Christ on whom the seer looks; and we feel that the prediction is complete when the prophet exclaims, "He shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession; Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies."—Ibid.
(d) It has been said by some commentators, that the words of our text have reference to his own final doom, as though Balaam was made aware that he should be banished from the presence of the Being whose coming he was commissioned to predict—"I shall see Him, but not now; I shall behold Him, but not nigh." He shall be compelled to look on the Mediator; every eye shall see Him; but in place of being allowed to approach Him, he shall be amongst those who will be bidden to depart. Oh! behold Him now by faith as "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world." Then, when He shall come in power and great majesty, you shall behold Him, not at a distance, as a stranger, but nigh to you as a deliverer, an advocate, a friend. The "Star" shall light up "the valley of the shadow of death;" the "Sceptre" shall be extended to you in token of favour and acceptance; though as with a rod of iron He breaks in pieces the hosts of the wicked.—Ibid.
CHRIST THE STAR SPOKEN OF BY BALAAM
It has pleased God on various occasions to make known His will to persons of a very unworthy character; and to show that His ways and thoughts are not regulated by the vain maxims of human wisdom. He proclaimed to Ahaz the conception of our Emmanuel in the womb of a virgin. To Nebuchadnezzar He revealed the successive destruction of the four great monarchies, and the erection of the Messiah's kingdom on the ruin of them all. Thus, in the passage before us, we are informed that He declared to Balaam not only His purposes respecting Israel and the nations that surrounded them, but the advent of that glorious Person, who, as a star should enlighten, and as a prince should govern, the whole world.
I. The introduction to the prophecy.
1. It seems very strongly to characterize the person who delivered it. When prophecies have been delivered by pious men, they have either been introduced with a plain declaration, "Thus saith the Lord;" or the prefatory observations have been calculated to exalt and glorify God. But Balaam's prediction is ushered in with a pompous exhibition of his own attainments, intended, as it should seem, to wrest from Balak that respect and honour which he had failed to procure by his preceding prophecies.
2. It shows us how much knowledge we may possess, while yet we are utterly destitute of converting grace. The most highly favoured of God's servants, from the beginning of the world, had not delivered a clearer prophecy of Christ than that which was uttered by Balaam on this occasion. Yet where shall we find a baser character than Balaam's? Having considerable knowledge of the true God, he still continues to use enchantments as a magician. He was so covetous that he preferred "the wages of unrighteousness" to every consideration, either of duty to God or of love to man (2Pe ). His hypocrisy was conspicuous from first to last; for in the midst of all his high professions of regard to the will and word of God, he laboured to the utmost to counteract the designs of God and to reverse His decrees. More murderous purposes never were entertained in the heart of man; for it was his most earnest desire to curse all the people of God, and to consign them over to destruction by the sword of their enemies. His last act especially was truly diabolical: when he found he could not prevail to destroy their bodies, he taught their enemies how to tempt them and to destroy their souls (Rev 2:14). After comparing his character with his professions and attainments in divine knowledge, what shall we say? Let us never value ourselves on any discoveries of divine truth, unless we have suitable affections and a correspondent practice (1Co 13:1-3; Mat 7:22-23).
II. The prophecy itself.
1. In its primary sense it must be understood in reference to David. The immediate intention of Balaam was to inform Balak what the Israelites should "do to his people in the latter days." Accordingly he declares that one, like a star for brightness, should arise from among the Jews at a distant period, to sway the Jewish sceptre, and to destroy the Kingdoms of Edom and Moab. This was fulfilled in David (2Sa ; 2Sa 8:14; Psa 60:8; 1Ki 11:15-16).
2. But there can be no doubt of its ultimately referring to Christ Himself. He is called in Scripture "the Daystar," "the bright and morning star;" nor did ever any one arise with splendour comparable to His. He too sat upon the throne of His father David, and exercised unlimited dominion. The children of Edom and Moab may be justly considered as representing the enemies of His Church and People. These He subdues and will finally destroy. "He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet." … HIM then did Balaam see, as Abraham also had seen four hundred years before; but not, alas! with Abraham's joyful hope.
1. Should not WE then rejoice who have seen this prophecy accomplished? The star is risen, &c. We have only to yield ourselves up to Jesus, and we shall enjoy all the peace and glory of His Kingdom. Let us improve our privileges: let us pray that this "Daystar may arise in our hearts:" and let this Monarch so captivate our souls, as to lead us to a willing and unreserved obedience.
2. Should we not be thankful too that we have One engaged to vanquish all our enemies? This is the work and office of the Lord Jesus; nor will He ever fail in the execution of it. The Promised Land is before us, and in vain shall our enemies conspire against us. "Be strong and very courageous." Let the weakest rejoice in a confident expectation of victory; for "God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent."—C. Simeon, M.A.
BALAAM'S FINAL PARABLES: NATIONAL REVOLUTIONS
These prophetic parables teach—
I. That national revolutions exhibit the instability of earthly greatness and temporal power.
See this in the destruction of the Amalekites, which was commenced under Saul and completed under Hezekiah (1 Samuel 15; 1Sa ; 1Sa 30:1-19; 1Ch 4:43). The Kenites, too, though for a long time secure, were at length oppressed and carried into captivity by the Assyrians. Assyria and Eber also, descendants of Shem, were conquered by powers from the (to Balaam) unknown western regions. And finally these western powers "shall perish for ever." The greatest and mightiest empires of ancient days have passed away. All earthly things are transient. (a)
II. That national revolutions manifest the principles of Divine retribution.
In the revolutions predicted by Balaam we have clear and striking illustrations of the great truth that the Divine retribution corresponds to human character and conduct. The Amalekites were a warlike people; and by battles they were destroyed. "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword." Again, we see that empires obtained by conquest shall be lost by conquest. By force the Assyrian empire had chiefly been formed, and by force it passed away. We have another illustration of this retributive law in the history of the Kenites. They had been kind to Israel (Exodus 18); Moses had promised them that they should share in the goodness of God to Israel (chap Num ); Balaam here predicts for them long continued safety; and, as a matter of fact, they shared the fortunes of the Israelites until the captivity of the ten tribes. As v. Hofmann observes: "Kain, which had left its inaccessible mountain home in Horeb, enclosed as it was by the desert, to join a people who were only wandering in search of a home, by that very act really placed its nest upon a still safer rock." They had aided Israel, and in turn, they were aided by Israel. In the revolutions of history the kindnesses which have been shown to the cause and people of God are remembered and recompensed by Him. "Whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in My Name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward." Thus these historical revolutions teach us that, "With what measure we mete, it shall be measured to us again"; and, "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," &c. (b)
III. That national revolutions are ordered by God.
"God doeth this" (Num ). "Whoever are the instruments, He is the supreme director." "The Lord bringeth low, and lifteth up," &c. (1Sa 2:7-8). "That bringeth the princes to nothing; He maketh the judges of the earth as vanity," &c. (Isa 40:23-24). "Thus saith the Lord God; Remove the diadem, and take off the crown," &c. (Eze 21:26-27). (c)
1. The great duty and interest of nations to seek for and to embody truth and righteousness in their governments, institutions, &c. Pro ; Pro 25:5; Pro 29:14; Isa 60:12.
2. The duty and interest of all men to set their "affections on things above, not on things on the earth." The latter are mutable and transient, the former are immutable and permanent. Truth, holiness, love, are abiding things; seek after these. (d)
(a) Earthly inheritances are but of brief continuance. The possession of them is limited and uncertain. To every one, they are but at most for term of life. As one of the kings of Spain answered to one of his courtiers, who, thinking to please his master, wished that kings were immortal: "If that had been, said he, "I should never have reigned."—Leighton.
All earthly things last and endure but for a season; men are mortal, riches are uncertain, favour is vanity, honour is changeable, treasures are transitory, pleasures are unstable, profits are corruptible, friends are fading, and oftentimes turn to be enemies: only the treasures of heaven, the favour of God, the pleasures of eternal glory, the riches of the world to come, are immortal, and never decay.—Attersoll.
(b) God's rewards and God's punishments are all natural. Distinguish between arbitrary and natural. Death is an arbitrary punishment for forgery: it might be changed for transportation. It is not naturally connected. It depends upon the will of the law-maker. But trembling nerves are the direct and natural results of intemperance. They are in the order of nature the results of wrong-doing. The man reaps what he has sown. Similarly in rewards. If God gave riches in return for humbleness, that would be an arbitrary connection. He did give such a reward to Solomon But when He gives Life Eternal, meaning by Life Eternal not duration of existence, but heavenly quality of existence, it is all natural. The seed sown in the ground contains in itself the future harvest. The harvest is but the development of the germ of life in the seed. A holy act strengthens the inward holiness. It is a seed of life growing into more life. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap." He that sows much, thereby becomes more conformed to God than he was before—in heart and spirit. That is his reward and harvest. And just as among the apostles, there was one whose spirit, attuned to love, made him emphatically the disciple whom Jesus loved, so shall there be some who, by previous discipline of the Holy Ghost, shall have more of His mind, and understand more of His love, and drink deeper of His joy than others. They that have sowed bountifully.—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
For another illustration on this point, see p. 89.
(c) God increaseth the nations and destroyeth them. He enlargeth the nations and straiteneth them again. We see only the intermediate agents, we are prone to forget that God is the Creator and Controller as well of the moral as of physical volcanoes, and, consequently, are led to imagine, in the day of panic, that sovereignty is engulfed in confusion, and that the garments of battle are the shroud of government. It is thus that the devoutest of us may not unfrequently alarm ourselves into temporary Atheism, and hasten for refuge to the mud-fortresses of mechanical power, when we should fly straight to the pavilion of God. "The Lord reigneth," &c. His throne is established of old; He is from everlasting. Kings are His servants, princes are His menials, the universe in His footstool, and heaven itself but a flash of His benignant eye.
We shall have but a shallow knowledge of history if we study it merely in the faint light reflected by victorious thrones, or by the troubled glare of oft-recurring battles. God is the central fact in all history. Growing nations are but his expanding smile, dwindling empires are but His darkening frown. Nebuchadnezzar was only the menial servant of the Most High when he built the "great Babylon" which he idolized, and all the conquerors of proud Chaldea, from Cyrus to Tamerlane, were the hirelings of the Infinite King. The Ptolemies and the Pharaohs of Egypt held their lease of power from the Most High: and the pompous march of the Cæsars was but as the dance of the ephemera over the summer stream. "He bringeth the princes to nothing," &c. (Isa ). Can it be right, or wise, to ignore His existence when we open the archives of history? Can he have a true conception of the magnitude and grandeur of the landscape who has examined it only by the feeble glimmer of a wasting rushlight? Foolish man! Even an atom would not reveal its beauties in such a mocking light; how much less, then, the mountain, wood, and stream of nature's palaces. No, no! The sun must reveal it. And so with history: let the Sun of heaven blaze upon it, and every pinnacle becomes a glorified purpose—every want kindles into sublime significance—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(d) Oh, that I could pour in upon the young the majesty and sanctity of living for the invisible; that is to say, for honour, and truth, and fidelity! Oh, that I could make you feel how essentially brittle, how friable, how perishable, are all material sources of strength! God is the centre of life, and spiritual realities are the only things that will endure. Stone and iron, and silver and gold, and timber, and cities, and nations, and outward things, are but pictures, painted soon to fade away; while truth and love, and fidelity, and purity, shall last for ever and for ever.—H. W. Beecher.
DEATH, THE CROWN OF LIFE
"Alas, who shall live when God doeth this?"
Our text may be considered either as a plaint, a sigh, or a song—a dirge winding to a march. There are, in reality, three questions interlinked in this passage. It is a question of studious curiosity. What kind of a race will then inhabit the earth! Men are naturally inquisitive to know who are to be their successors. Why not? They are to be the heirs in turn of our heritage; the tenants who are to move in as we move out; to enjoy our repairs, and to do, in turn, their own repairing, for those who shall follow them.
Who are they? The question deepens into a sigh. Here we go! just as we begin to take in the meaning of things about us; scarce sooner found than lost. Death! what is it? It must be a mystery full of meaning. It seems as natural as to be born. Has Heaven hid the happiness of death, that man may dare to live? And what is life? It is not so much one grand event as a conjunction of grand events. All are more or less alive to the activities that surround them. All are more or less sensitive to the links that unite us to coming time.
The future is full of suggestion. The poet loves to forecast it for its own sake, and fill the atmosphere with sunshine, or with shade, as suits his fancy best. The poet is an artist too. He paints for us the landscape of the future, and interprets to our strange surprise the distant scenes embodied there. The philosopher listens eagerly for hints that shall confirm his airy schemes and idle speculations. The statesman is zealously intent on discovering the wedge that shall cleave the knots of craggy policies. The saint is anxious to learn of God and Heaven, and solve the awful mystery of our being.
But what of that which is to transpire long after all these are past? What will go on here when I am gone? Some one will tread the path that I am treading! Some one will saunter in the grove where I now linger!… Some one will cry out with unutterable longing, as we now cry, "Alas, who shall live when God doeth this?"
We are baffled at the grave. We put our eyes close to the bars, but we cannot see. Death is the crown of life; and yet it is not the triumph of man over time, but of time over man.… Do lasting slumbers hold us? Is there no more of us when we are gone? Oh! the melancholy ring of those words—"When I am gone!" I admit it is a solemn thing to die. It is a dread passage; and what may happen after it? There is an eternity to this side the grave; the world shall be moving on when I am gone—and shall I then be put out for ever? The emphasis is on this wise—this world as it is to be. Where are those who, in the times past, have been dreaming of rapid propulsion as they plodded slowly on? Where are those whose genius had almost wrested from nature the longed-for secret, but died without the sight? Know they now of swift-going ships and dashing railway trains that traverse mountain and valley like things of life? Where are those who dreamed of messages borne on the wings of the wind? Do they read the swift-flying signals from telegraph wires, leaving the winds lagging languidly behind? Verily, what hath God wrought! Yet these are but the meagre preliminaries to what shall be. When the reduplicated forces of the earth shall be put under command; when man shall sit in plumed victory over the opposing energies of nature; when the sword shall be beaten into a ploughshare, and the spear into a pruning hook; when health shall mantle the cheek, and happiness shall festoon the fireside; when man shall keep faith with his fellow-man, and worship and adore his Maker. "Alas, who shall live when God doeth this?" Shall I live then? The thought gladdens, but it maddens as well. The scepticism that would console me with the thought that death is but a momentary pang; that I shall sleep in death's dateless night; that all these struggles shall have come to their rest; ah! this scepticism is but a miserable comforter after all. I cry out and complain with all the sadness of my rational nature. I am full of longing to know when this world shall have been finished; then, where shall I be?
When geology shall cease to tamper with the rock; when disease shall be no longer necessary; when Death shall lie on his death-bed; "Alas! who shall live when God doeth this?" The Great Omnipotent does not weary. Every age becomes impatient; but His doings, as well as His revelation, assure us that with Him "a thousand years are as one day." … When we have fought our brave round, the Great Captain will order us to the rear and bring up fresh recruits. But what of the battle? Shall we know nothing of its sequel? "Alas! who shall live when God doeth this?" It is a question of sublime importance to us.
It is voiced in another shape—"If a man die, shall he live again?" God has provided a way by which His people may be released, and yet view this earth in all its perfect beauty and glory. The resurrection solves this mighty problem. All who labour shall see the reward of their labour. Every husband man whose time is due to toil shall be gladdened by the sight of the harvest. The sower shall be partaker of the fruit. "I heard a voice from heaven," &c. (Rev ). God works in the shadow of time. Even while we sleep he toils on; His agencies are ever on the alert.
Presently time shall have halted from its confused scramble, and God's finished workmanship shall have been taken from the loom, and the tapestry shall be revealed in all its beauty and perfectibility—the pattern will be complete. Then shall we learn that when we die we do not die out; that death is not death; that to die is not to die, but to blossom into life. We say good night to earth, but not good-bye. And all this we shall know when sin has perished; when death is dead; when tears are dried; when earth is immortal—we may then be alive, and never die again. Blessed reality close at hand! Shall we, every one, live when God doeth this?—H. S. Carpenter, D.D. (Abridged from The Christian World Pulpit)
THE PARTING OF BALAAM AND BALAK
Instead of "Balaam returned to his place," it is better to translate, "turned towards his place." "That he really returned home is not implied in the words themselves; and the question, whether he did so, must be determined from other circumstances. In the further course of the history, we learn that Balaam went to the Midianites, and advised them to seduce the Israelites to unfaithfulness to Jehovah, by tempting them to join in the worship of Peor (Num ). He was still with them at the time when the Israelites engaged in the war of vengeance against that people, and was slain by the Israelites along with the five princes of Midian (Num 31:8; Jos 13:22). At the time when he fell into the hands of the Israelites, he no doubt made a full communication to the Israelitish general, or to Phinehas, who accompanied the army as priest, concerning his blessings and prophecies, probably in the hope of saving his life, though he failed to accomplish his end." Such is the opinion of Keil and Del. Hengstenberg, however, suggests "that after Balaam's departure from Balak, he took his way into the camp of the Israelites, and there made known his prophecies to Moses, or to the elders of Israel, in the hope of obtaining from them the reward which Balak had withheld, and that it was not till after his failure to obtain full satisfaction to his ambition and covetousness here that he went to the Midianites, to avenge himself upon the Israelites, by the proposals that he made to them."
I. Balaam and Balak parted, having utterly failed in their designs.
Balak had not obtained what he desired. His repeated sacrifices to Jehovah, his tempting offers of large rewards and splendid honours to Balaam, and all his other efforts, had proved fruitless and vain: Israel was not cursed but repeatedly and richly blessed. Balaam, too, had not obtained what he so eagerly longed for. He had found himself utterly unable to curse the chosen people, and had not gained "the rewards of divination." The coveted wealth and honours, for which he had risked and dared so much, he had not secured. The prophet and the king were both bitterly disappointed and vexed; and during all their plottings and endeavours to curse them, the Israelites were peacefully and securely encamped in the neighbouring plains.
Learn: the devices and deeds of the wicked against the cause and people of God are ever foiled by Him. He that keepeth Israel can neither be surprised, nor circumvented, nor overpowered (Psalms 131). (a)
II. They parted with characters considerably modified by their association with each other.
The solicitations and temptations of Balak had influenced the character of Balaam; and the character and conduct of Balaam had exercised no slight influence upon Balak. What was the result of these influences? We know that the character of Balaam had sadly deteriorated since the first embassage from Balak had visited him; he had also incurred the wrath of God by reason of his sins; and he went forward to deeper and more diabolical wickedness, and to a doom of appalling darkness. And it is impossible to conclude that Balak was not injured by the influence of Balaam. His heinous designs had been encouraged, his hopes allowed and then blighted, and his temper irritated and embittered by the seer. They had mutually influenced each other for evil; they parted worse men than they were when first they met.
Learn: that in our associations with our fellowmen we are ever exerting a most important influence upon their character and destiny. We meet and part; but in our intercourse we have contributed something to the development of each other's character either for good or for evil. We shall never be the same beings as we should have been if we had never met. (b)
III. They parted, but not for ever.
Balaam and Balak will meet again. They will both see Him of whom Balaam prophesied, "They shall see Him, but not now: they shall behold Him, but not nigh." "Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him." Then, if not before, these two who parted upon Peor will meet again; and then each of them will receive the justretribution of his character and conduct.
Learn.—That those who have been associated in this present life will meet again in the great hereafter. Tempter and tempted, oppressor and oppressed, companions in evil designs and deeds, and companions in noble aims and enterprises, all will meet again.
Let the thought of that future meeting have its due weight in regulating our present associations. (c)
(a) Sooner would God forget some planets that He had hurled into the firmament than forget the feeblest of His saints. "Behold, I have graven thee on the palms of My hands, thy walls are continually before Me." "The very hairs of your head are numbered." "As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people." God has pledged His power on our behalf. He has sworn by His existence that we are dear to Him through the infinite merits of His Son. Who shall tell the limits of our security? If God keeps all worlds in motion—if the eyes of the universe are directed to Him for help—if all things are under His benignant control, we may content ourselves in the plenitude of our safety. Say not, brother, that thy solitude is hidden from God, or that in the time of affliction. He will forget thee; perish the thought! The mother may forget her sucking child; but God will hold thee in everlasting remembrance; for "the Lord taketh pleasure in His people" (Psa ). God looks at the individual, not at the aggregate. The Christian cannot be lost in the world's crowd. The Koh-i-noor may be taken for a piece of valueless glass, but the Christian gem cannot be mistaken of God. They who love God shall be accounted jewels in "that day." Each is a part of the whole, and unity must be perfected in heaven.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(b) No human being can come into this world without increasing or diminishing the sum total of human happiness, not only of the present, but of every subsequent age of humanity. No one can detach himself from this connection. There is no sequestered spot in the universe, no dark niche along the disk of non-existence, to which he can retreat from his relations to others, where he can withdraw the influence of his existence upon the moral destiny of the world. Everywhere his presence or absence will be felt. Everywhere he will have companions, who will be better or worse for his influence.
It is an old saying, and one of fearful and fathomless import, that we are here forming characters for eternity. Forming characters!—whose? our own? or others? Both; and in that momentous fact lie the peril and responsibility of our existence. Who is sufficient for the thought! thousands of my fellow-beings will yearly, and till years shall end, enter eternity with characters differing from those they would have carried thither had I never lived. The sunlight of that world will reveal my finger-marks in their primary formations, and in all their successive strata of thought and life. And they too will form other characters for eternity, until the influence of my existence shall be diffused through all the future generations of this world, and through all that shall be future to a certain point in the world to come. As the little silvery, circular ripple, set in motion by the falling pebble, expands from its inch of radius to the whole compass of the pool; so there is not a child, not an infant Moses placed, however softly, in his bulrush ark upon the sea of time, whose existence does not stir a ripple, gyrating outwards and on, until it shall have moved across and spanned the whole ocean of God's eternity, stirring even the river of life, and the fountains at which His tall angels drink.—Elihu Burritt.
(c) It is said that among the high Alps at certain seasons the traveller is told to proceed very quietly, for on the steep slopes overhead the snow bangs so evenly balanced that the sound of a voice or the report of a gun may destroy the equilibrium, and bring down an immense avalanche, that will overwhelm everything in ruin in its downward course. And so about our way there may be a soul in the very crisis of its moral history, trembling between life and death, and a mere touch or shadow may determine its destiny. A young lady who was deeply impressed with the truth, and was ready, under a conviction of sin, to ask, "What must I do to be saved?" had all her solemn impressions dissipated by the unseemly jesting and laughter of a member of the Church by her side as she passed out of the sanctuary. Her irreverent and worldly spirit cast a shadow on that young lady "not far from the kingdom of God." How important that we should always and everywhere walk worthy of our high calling as Christians! Let us remember that we are always casting the shadow of our real life upon some one; that somebody is following us as John followed Peter into the sepulchre. Happy if, when all the influences of life flow back and meet at the judgment, we can lift up clean hands and spotless robes, and say, "I am free from the blood of all men!" Happy then, to hear even one soul saying to us out of the great multitude, that, following the shadow of our Christian life and devotion, he found Jesus and heaven.—Dr. Storr.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 24". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week after Epiphany