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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Numbers 23

A.M. 2552. B.C. 1452.

Balaam’s first attempt to curse Israel turned into a blessing, Numbers 23:1-10 . His second attempt with like success, Numbers 23:11-24 . The preparation for a third attempt, Numbers 23:25-30 .

Verse 1

Numbers 23:1. Build me seven altars To the true God, otherwise he would not have mentioned it to God as an argument why he should grant his requests, as he does, Numbers 23:4. And though Balak was averse from God and his worship, yet he would be easily overruled by Balaam, who doubtless told him that it was in vain to make an address to any other than the God of Israel, who alone was able either to bless or curse them, as he pleased. Seven This being the usual number in the more solemn and important sacrifices, even among those worshippers of the true God who were not of the seed of Abraham, nor favoured with a written revelation, Job 42:8. Perhaps it was intended to show that they worshipped Him who had in a manner consecrated the number seven, by ceasing from his works of creation on the seventh day. It may not be improper to notice here how much the number seven is regarded in the sacred writings. The blood of atonement was to be sprinkled seven times before the mercy-seat, Leviticus 16:14; the consecrating oil was to be sprinkled seven times upon the altar, Leviticus 8:11; the leper was to be sprinkled seven times, and seven days were appointed for his cleansing, Leviticus 14:7-9; seven days were to be employed in consecrating the priests, (Leviticus 8:35,) and for purifying the unclean, Leviticus 12:2; Numbers 19:19; seven times Naaman washed in Jordan, 2 Kings 5:10; 2 Kings 5:14; seven days Jericho was besieged, and seven priests with seven trumpets blew, and the walls fell down, Joshua 6:0.; seven priests blew trumpets before the ark when David brought it home, 1 Chronicles 15:24; every seventh day was a sabbath; the seventh year a year of rest; and seven times seven years brought the jubilee. The principal events that should befall the world and the church, from the time of the banishment of St. John to the isle of Patmos, in the reign of Domitian, (A.D. 96,) to the consummation of all things, are comprehended in that wonderful book of prophecy termed the Revelation, by St. John, under the emblems of seven seals of a book opened, seven trumpets sounded by seven angels, and seven vials poured out also by seven angels. Now what more solid reason can be assigned for this peculiar regard shown by God himself to the number seven, than that it was intended to hold him forth to mankind as that Jehovah who had created the world in six days, and by resting on the seventh, had consecrated that number, and rendered it in some sense sacred to all nations and ages?

Verse 3

Numbers 23:3. Stand by thy burnt-offering As in God’s presence; as one that offers himself, as well as his sacrifices, to obtain God’s favour. I will go To some solitary and convenient place, where I may prevail with God to appear to me. From this passage it is inferred, that in those early times it was customary for prophets, and other pious persons, after performing the sacred rites, to retire into some solitary place, there to wait for an answer from God. Whatsoever he showeth me Reveals to me, either by word or sign. He went to a high place Some, considering that he was already in a high place, would render it, He went into the plain, or valley. But it must be observed the original word שׁפי , shephi, from שׁפה shephah, eminere, eminens, excelsum esse, properly means, a high and rocky place. See Hebrew, Isaiah 13:2; Jeremiah 3:2. And, no doubt, Balaam ascended into a higher part of the mountain, for the greater convenience of retirement, and beholding Israel, as he says, (Numbers 23:9,) From the top of the rocks I see him.

Verse 7

Numbers 23:7. His parable That is, his oracular and prophetical speech; which he calls a parable, because of the weightiness of the matter, and the liveliness of the expressions which is usual in parables. Jacob The posterity of Jacob.

Verse 9

Numbers 23:9. From the hills I behold him The hills on which he then stood. This and the former expression may relate not only to the present view he had of the camp of Israel, but to their future settlement in Canaan; wherein they were represented to the eye of his mind, as dwelling securely under the protection of the Almighty.

The people shall dwell alone Separated from other nations by peculiar laws, religion, and manners. See on Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 20:24-26; Exodus 3:8. By which means they had so little communication with the Gentiles, that they were called an unsociable people, and thought to have an enmity to the rest of the world, as we may read in Diodorus Siculus, Tacitus, and others.

And here we may reflect with the greatest admiration upon what Balaam said on this occasion; and be convinced that he was indeed under the influence of that Spirit to whom all things are known, at all times, from the beginning to the end. For how could he otherwise, as Bishop Newton properly argues, “upon a distant view only of a people whom he had never seen or known before, have discovered the genius and manners, not only of the people then living, but of their posterity to the latest generations? What renders it more extraordinary is, the singularity of the character, that they should differ from all the people in the world, and should dwell by themselves among the nations, without mixing and incorporating with any. The time too when this was affirmed increases the wonder, it being before the people were well known in the world, before their religion and government were established, and even before they had obtained a settlement anywhere; but yet that the character was fully verified in the event, not only all history testifies, but we have even ocular demonstration at this day. The Jews, in their religion and laws, their rites and ceremonies, their manners and customs, were so totally different from all other nations, that they had little intercourse or communication with them. An eminent author hath shown that there was a general intercommunity among the gods of paganism; but no such thing was allowed between the God of Israel and the gods of the nations. There was to be no fellowship between God and Belial, though there might be between Belial and Dagon. And hence the Jews were branded for their inhumanity and unsociableness; and they as generally hated, as they were hated by, the rest of mankind. Other nations, the conquerors and the conquered, have often associated and united, as one body, under the same laws; but the Jews, in their captivities, have commonly been more bigoted to their own religion, and more tenacious of their own rites and ceremonies, than at other times. And even now, while they are dispersed among all nations, they yet live distinct and separate from all, trading only with others, but eating, marrying, and conversing chiefly among themselves. We see, therefore, how exactly and wonderfully Balaam characterized the whole race, from the first to the last, when he said, Lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.”

Verse 10

Numbers 23:10. Who can count the dust of Jacob? Who can count a people which is like the dust of the earth for number? Thus was God’s promise to Abraham. (Genesis 13:16.) I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth, already fulfilled. The number of the fourth part of Israel Referring, probably, to the division of Israel into four camps, which lay now in his view, as if he had said, How vast is the number of this people, when even one of their camps is so numerous as to be almost past reckoning! Of the righteous Of this righteous and holy people. The sense is, they are not only happy above other nations in this life, and therefore in vain should I curse them, but they have this peculiar privilege, that they are happy after death: their happiness begins where the happiness of other people ends; and therefore I heartily wish that my soul may have its portion with theirs when I die. Was not God now striving with him, not only for the sake of Israel, but of his own soul? And had he not probably some forebodings of his own coming to an untimely end, as he really did afterward, being slain with the five kings of Midian by the sword of Israel? Alas! what did this wish, however sincere and passionate, signify while he was pursuing his covetous and ambitious designs, and seeking the wages of unrighteousness? And what will a similar desire in any of us avail, unless we break off every known sin, by repentance toward God, and sincerely turn to him in heart and life, by a faith in Christ, which worketh by love, and is of the operation of his Spirit? That we may die the death of the righteous, we must live his life; and in order thereto must win Christ, as the apostle’s expression is, (Philippians 3:8-9,) and be found in him, not having our own righteousness, but that which is through faith in Christ Being hereby both justified and regenerated, and made practically obedient to God’s holy law.

Verses 12-13

Numbers 23:12-13. Must I not Ought I not? Is it not my duty? Canst thou blame me for it? Thou shalt not see them all Perhaps he thought the sight of all of them might discourage him, or, as it did before, raise his fancy to an admiration of the multitude and felicity of the people.

Verse 15

Numbers 23:15. While I meet the Lord To consult him and receive an answer from him, if peradventure these renewed sacrifices will prevail with him to comply with our desires.

Verse 18

Numbers 23:18. Rise up, Balak In these words Balaam calls on the king to receive the message of the great God with reverence and diligent attention; as if he had said, Rouse up thyself and carefully mind what I say.

Verse 19

Numbers 23:19. That he should lie Break his promise made to his people for their preservation and benediction. Neither the son of man that he should repent Change his counsels or purposes, as men change theirs, either because they are not able to execute them, or because they are better informed, or their minds are changed by some unexpected occurrence, or by their passions, none of which things have place in God. When the inspired writers speak of God’s repenting, as Jeremiah 18:8, and Amos 7:3-6, they are to be understood as speaking figuratively, and adapting their language to our apprehensions. They only mean that God changes the course of his providence toward mankind, according as he sees a change in their dispositions and actions. See note on Genesis 6:6.

Verse 21

Numbers 23:21. Iniquity in Jacob Not such as in the Canaanites: such as he will punish with a curse, with utter destruction. The Lord is with him He hath a favour for this people, and will defend and save them. The shout of a king That is, such joyful and triumphant shouts as those wherewith a people congratulate the approach and presence of their king, when he appears among them upon some solemn occasion, or when he returns from battle with victory. This expression implies God’s being their King and Ruler, and their abundant security and confidence in him.

Verse 22

Numbers 23:22. Out of Egypt Namely, by a strong hand, and in spite of all their enemies, and therefore it is in vain to seek or hope to overcome them. He hath the strength of a unicorn He, Israel, whom God brought out of Egypt, such change of numbers being very common in the Hebrew language. The sense is, Israel is not now what he was in Egypt, a poor, weak, dispirited, unarmed people, but high, and strong, and invincible. The only difficulty is, what creature is here meant by ראם , reem, which we translate unicorn. Bochart, who is followed by Le Clerc, Patrick, and others, is of opinion that it is a kind of mountain goat, or wild goat, of a very tall size, well known in Arabia. Others, with the learned Scheuchzer, suppose the rhinoceros to be meant, concerning one species of which, the unicorn is, Buffon informs us in his Natural History, that its length, from the extremity of the muzzle to the origin of the tail, is at least twelve feet, and the circumference of the body nearly the same. Of one of this species, sent to London from Bengal in the year 1739, Dr. Parsons observes, “The vivacity and promptitude of his movements led me to think that he is altogether unconquerable, and that he could easily overtake any man who should offend him.” See Ency. Brit. It seems very probable this is the animal here alluded to, and in Num 23:8 of the next chapter.

Verse 23

Numbers 23:23. No enchantment against Jacob Nor against any that truly believe in Christ! What hath God wrought! How wonderful and glorious are those works which God is now about to do for Israel! These things will be a matter of discourse and admiration to all ages.

Verse 24

Numbers 23:24. As a great lion As a lion rouseth up himself to fight, or to go out to the prey, so shall Israel stir up themselves to warlike attempts against their enemies. He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey They shall not lay down their arms until they have made an entire conquest of their enemies; just as the lion, risen up to pursue his prey, doth not usually lie down till he hath taken that prey, and drunk the blood of the beasts he has slain. The prophecy seems to have a peculiar respect to the conquest of the Canaanites. This was the condition of Israel at present, and during the days of Joshua and David. But alas! their sins and follies often so enfeebled them that they themselves became an easy prey to their enemies! And there is no truth more plain or more incontestable than this, that piety and virtue are at once the strength and glory of a nation, and that ungodliness and vice are the surest and saddest presages of the ruin of any people.

Verse 28

Numbers 23:28. Unto the top of Peor The most famous high-place in all the country of Moab, where, as Seiden conjectures, Baal had a temple, called Beth-peor, or the house of Peor, (Deuteronomy 3:29,) and was therefore named Baal-peor. Balak seems to have chosen this place in hope that, being the residence, as he fancied, of Baal, the god of Moab, the God of Israel would not or could not come thither to hinder the operation; or that, being a place acceptable to his god, it must be so to Jehovah, and that there he would be induced to favour their designs. Such are the idle conceits that foolish men have of the living and true God, and so vain are their imaginations concerning him! Thus the Syrians fancied Jehovah to be the God of the hills, but not of the valleys, (1 Kings 20:28,) as if he were more powerful in one place than he is in every place! Here they repeat their expensive sacrifice of seven bullocks and seven rams, upon seven altars, although they had no promise on which to build their hopes of success. And shall we, who have many and faithful promises, from Him who cannot lie, that the vision at the end shall speak, not persevere to ask that we may receive the divine favour and blessing, and to seek that we may find them? Shall we not continue instant in prayer, without weariness or fainting, and by a patient continuance in well-doing, seek glory, honour, and immortality?

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Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 23". Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/numbers-23.html. 1857.