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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 24

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



In this chapter the wonderful episode of Balaam as a public soothsayer comes to an end. Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God he predicts the prosperity of Israel, for which he is angrily dismissed by Balak. Yet he persists in prophesying of the Star of Jacob and the overthrow of certain nations, Israel’s enemies.


(1.) At this point, where Balaam disappears from the public stage on which he has figured so conspicuously as a prophet, it is proper to note the marvellous contradictions combined in his character, which has been portrayed in the last three chapters with that fineness of touch which has rendered it an instructive study for the critical theologians and refined moralists of the most recent ages of the Church. Bishop Butler, in his admirable sermon on Balaam, regards him as a striking embodiment and illustration of that self-deception which persuades the wicked man in every case that the sin which he commits may be brought within the sanctions of conscience and the approval of God’s revealed will.

(2.) Dr. Newman, of Oxford, has drawn an admonitory lesson from this character by delineating “the dark shade cast over a noble course by standing always on the ladder of advancement, and by the suspense of a worldly ambition never satisfied.” Dr. Arnold presents this great soothsayer as a striking type of a class of men by no means extinct in our times, in whom the purest forms of religious belief and the loftiest ideals of moral rectitude (Micah 6:5-8) are combined with a life immeasurably below them.

Verse 1

ISRAEL’S HAPPINESS, Numbers 24:1-4.

1. Enchantments Auguries. See Numbers 23:3; Numbers 23:15; Numbers 23:23, notes.

Toward the wilderness The plains of Moab, where Israel was encamped. Chap. Numbers 22:1.

Verse 2

2. The Spirit of God came upon him The inlet of God into the soul is through the truth as a medium. The orderly aspect of the Hebrew camp encircling the tabernacle the abode of Jehovah signalized by the cloudy pillar, awakened faith in the mind of Balaam; not, indeed, a personal and saving trust in Jehovah, but a realization of the truth of his claims and of Israel’s election. This faith prepared Balaam for the incoming of the inspiring Spirit. This is not said of his two former speeches, which were put into his mouth without his being thrown into a state of ecstasy; but this utterance resembles the predictions of true prophets: the inner ear is opened to hear the voice of God, and the spiritual eye, purged by the Spirit of God, sees the substance of the revelation.

Verse 3

3. Parable See Numbers 23:7, note.

Whose eyes are open Thus, says Furst, the Syriac and several rabbins read; but Keil, the Vulgate, the Revised Version, and others say that the Hebrew means whose eyes are closed, that is, seeing only with the inner eye. The Seventy say the man who truly sees. “Balaam describes himself as the man with closed eyes 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.

Verse 4

4. Falling He was thrown to the ground by the Spirit of God descending mightily upon him. This whole introduction tends to prove that during the time of this inspiration “he was a true prophet of God, and had received the blessing which he uttered from a celestial oracle.” Calvin.

Verse 5

5. How goodly Beauteous, delightful, profitable, and enduring.

Thy tents In the Greek, houses. The Church is called the tents of Jacob (Malachi 2:12) and the tents of Judah. Zechariah 12:7.

Tabernacles Both the public abode of Jehovah and the private dwellings of the people surrounding it, symbolizing the communion of the Church with Christ and with one another.

O Israel A name suggestive of princeliness. Genesis 32:28.

Verses 5-14

THE THIRD PROPHECY, Numbers 24:5-14.

This consists, first, of Balaam’s conception of the glorious prosperity of Israel, and, secondly, of his view of the power of the people a terror to their foes.

Verse 6

6. As the valleys Well watered by brooks.

As gardens Still more lovely than the verdant and flowery valleys.

Lignaloes Aloe-trees abound in Eastern Asia. On account of their fragrance they are highly prized for the preparation of incense and unguents. See John 19:39. Although this tree is rare in Chaldea or Syria, it is reasonable to suppose it was known to Balaam or he would scarcely have mentioned it as he does.

The Lord hath planted Extraordinary trees are described as “the trees of Jehovah.” See Psalms 104:16.

Verse 7

7. His buckets Israel is poetically portrayed as a water-carrier with two overflowing pails, such as irrigated Balaam’s native soil with water carried from the Euphrates. In the burning East an abundance of water is a large element of personal happiness and of national prosperity. Water is often used in the Bible as a symbol of spiritual blessing, especially in Isaiah 12:3; Isaiah 35:6-8; Isaiah 41:17-18; Isaiah 43:19-20; Isaiah 44:3-4; Isaiah 49:10; Isaiah 55:1; Isaiah 58:11.

Seed… in many waters His children shall either enjoy copious waters literally, (Deuteronomy 8:7,) or they shall dwell among many peoples, figuratively expressed by waters, Psalms 144:7; Revelation 17:15.

King… higher than Agag Agag was an hereditary title of the chieftains of Amalek, as elsewhere was and is Caesar and Czar. The word signifies high, or in the Arabic, fiery. At this time Amalek was at the zenith of power and glory. Numbers 24:20. The prediction is, that this glory shall pale before the splendour of some future king of Israel. This was fulfilled in Solomon, though Saul irrecoverably crushed Amalek and captured Agag. 1 Samuel 15:8. Extreme typologists refer this prediction to Christ. John 1:49; John 12:13-15; comp. Psalms 89:27-28.

His kingdom The kingdom of the Messiah. Jerusalem Targum.

Verse 8

8. Unicorn This comparison is only an amplification of that in chap. xxiii, 22. See note.

Eat up the nations Destroy them. As an illustration take the seven nations of Canaan. Numbers 14:9; Deuteronomy 7:1. So all nations shall be utterly wasted or conquered by spiritual Israel. Isaiah 60:12.

Break their bones Literally, unmarrow their fat bones weakening them beyond recovery.

Arrows The chief missiles of ancient war. They are figurative of the piercing words of inspiration. Psalms 45:5; Psalms 64:4.

Verse 9

9. He couched This is Jacob’s blessing upon Judah, the ancestor of Jesus Christ, the lion of his tribe, predicting his final triumph over the world. Genesis 49:9; John 16:33, notes.

Who shall stir him up None. Hence his victory and peace will be lasting.

Blessed… blesseth The conclusion of Isaac’s blessing upon Jacob, Genesis 27:29, and of Jehovah’s upon Abraham. Genesis 12:3. Thus God shows that he keeps in mind his own promises, puts honour upon words spoken centuries before, and shows Balak the immutability of his purposes.

Cursed God so identifies himself with his people that he punishes malevolence toward them as a wrong to himself. Matthew 25:41-45.

Verse 10

10. He smote his hands together This gesture indicates a strong contempt for the soothsayer. Job 27:23; Lamentations 2:15.

Verse 11

11. Now flee Away with you immediately! Here is no threat, but rather disgust. Balaam did not obey. Numbers 31:8.

The Lord hath kept thee back A piece of stinging irony, scoffing at Balaam’s trust in Jehovah.

Honour Promised in Numbers 22:17.

Verse 12

12. Spake I not Balaam shows that his conduct has been consistent from the beginning of his relations to Balak by quoting his response to the second embassy. See Numbers 22:18, note.

Verse 14

14. I will advertise thee Tell thee advisedly. Balaam here shows that he is conscious of a true prophetic vision.

In the latter days Literally, at the end of the days. Not some indefinite future, but the beginning of the last future, the Messianic age from its commencement to its consummation. Genesis 49:1, note.

Verses 15-24

THE FOURTH PROPHECY, Numbers 24:15-24.

In these prophecies there is a gradual unfolding of the divine purposes respecting Israel and his foes. In the first, there is a denial of any ability to curse those blessed of Jehovah. In the second, it becomes certain that Israel will triumph over all his enemies. In the third, the positive side of Israel’s future appears, his prosperity is vividly portrayed, and all who bless him are pronounced blessed, and his cursers are cursed. In the fourth, the names of the hostile nations to be conquered by Israel in the future are recorded, with the prediction of his prosperity even to the most distant ages. It is divided into four distinct parts, each beginning with the words, “And he uttered his prophecy and said,” which precede each of the seven prophecies, in all corresponding to the seven altars and seven victims. Since this number indicates perfection, we are taught that Balaam made a perfect trial of his skill before his failure was acknowledged.

Verse 17

17. I shall see him Rather, I see, the Hebrew future tense being used for the present. The star and sceptre are designated by the pronoun him, which is often written before its noun. Maimonides interprets this of the Messiah, whose victory all the ancient victories foreshadow.

But not now Not as a present object, but in spirit in the last days. Numbers 24:14, note.

A star… a sceptre This passage was understood by the ancient Jews to refer to the Messiah either exclusively or with a secondary reference to David. Hence the Chaldee and both the Targums Onkelos and Jonathan-“When a king shall arise out of Jacob, and Messiah shall be anointed out of Israel.” The pseudo-Messiahs of the time of Adrian took from this prophecy the surname Bar Chochab, “son of the star;” and on this account received the homage of the Jews. Most of the church fathers and early interpreters referred it to Messiah, who came signalized by a star. See Genesis 49:10; Matthew 2:2, notes.

The corners of Moab Or, on every side from end to end. It is said that this cannot refer to the Messiah because Moab had disappeared when Christ came. But this objection rests on a misconception of the spirit of the whole passage. Its object is to announce what Israel shall do in the last days. The specific nations mentioned in this prophecy are typical of all the enemies of God and of his people. As long as there are foes to the Church of God there will be Moabites. But their power is broken, and they are doomed to destruction.

All the children of Sheth Sons of tumult, (Jeremiah 48:45,) a fitting designation of all wicked men, of whom the wild and warlike Edomites, Moabites, and Amalekites are types. Jewish authorities render this all the sons of Seth, that is, all mankind. But the human race is always called after Adam, and not after Seth.

Verse 18

18. Edom… a possession As predicted in Genesis 25:23, and fulfilled in 2 Samuel 8:14. As a kindred nation Edom might have had permanent peace with Israel, who was forbidden to war with them (Deuteronomy 2:4-5;) but their bitter hostility to God’s people caused their overthrow, which David began and his greater Son will finish in the “end of the days.” Psalms 110:0. Edom, after various insurrections, (1 Kings 11:14-22; 2 Kings 8:20; 2Ki 14:7 ; 2 Kings 14:22, note; 2 Chronicles 28:17; Ezekiel 36:5; Obadiah 1:10; Obadiah 1:13; 1Ma 5:3 ; 1Ma 5:65 ; 2Ma 10:15 ; 2Ma 12:33 ,) was at last conquered by John Hyrcanus 129 B.C., and forced to submit to circumcision and to be merged in the Jewish state, there to rule in the persons of Antipater and the Herods till the overthrow of the Romans.

Seir The mountain home of Esau. Genesis 36:8-9.

Israel shall do valiantly Quoted by David after the conquest of Edom, Psalms 60:12.

Verse 19

19. He that shall have dominion The same ruler as is symbolized by the Star and Sceptre. Numbers 24:17, note.

Him that remaineth Thus producing the utter destruction of the people.

Verse 20

20. Amalek was the first of the nations Not (as the Chaldee) in age, power, and renown, but as the first of the Gentiles that came into conflict against Israel as the people of God. Exodus 17:8-13. These first fruits of the wicked nations, like Jericho, the first Canaanite city, were devoted to destruction. Exodus 17:14-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19; 1 Samuel 15:3-7.

Verse 21

21. The Kenites The marriage kindred of Moses. Genesis 15:19; Exodus xviii; Judges 1:16, note.

Nest The Hebrew ken, nest, is a play upon the word Kenite. Their abode was lasting, because it was laid upon the rock of Jehovah’s promise, their original dwelling-place being amid the mountains of Horeb, the scene of their nomad life. Exodus 2:15; Exodus 3:1, note.

Verse 22

22. Nevertheless the Kenite Hebrew, Kain. The sentence should be translated “for Kain shall not be exterminated until Asshur,” etc. It is here signified that they will dwell by Israel undisturbed till Asshur, the Assyrians, shall desolate the whole land, and lead Israel and their wards, the Kenites, into captivity. Not only original Assyria is here intended but Babylonia and Persia, which spread over the same territory. Ezra 6:22. Balaam did not foretell Israel’s captivity in Babylon, because this was a transitory, disciplinary judgment, and not an extinction of nationality, as in the case of the Kenites.

Verses 23-24

23, 24. Alas, who shall live The woe touches the heart of Balaam because his own Mesopotamia is involved in the fearful judgment. See Numbers 22:5.

Chittim Signifies (1) the island of Cyprus, (Isaiah 23:1;) (2) the Chittim islands, denoting the islands and coasts of the West, (Jeremiah 2:10;) and (3) Macedonia and Italy. Daniel 11:30. Keil seems to combine all these meanings, since all the Western ships took Cyprus in their way. “The nations that would come across the sea from the side of Cyprus to humble Asshur are not mentioned by name, because this lay beyond the range of Baalam’s vision.”

Eber The Seventy and Vulgate, Hebrews. Evidently all the posterity of Eber through Abraham.

He also shall perish forever The conquering power from the West. Daniel 7:26. “The judgment of history even upon the imperial powers of the West, and the final victory of the King of the kingdom of God were proclaimed, though in fading outlines, more than a thousand years before the events themselves.” Tholuck. “So it came to pass when the ships of Cyprus, of Greece, of Europe, then just seen in the horizon of human hopes and fears, did at last, under the Macedonian conqueror, turn the tide of Eastern invasion backward; and Asshur and Babylon and Persia, no less than the wild hordes of the desert, perished forever from the earth.” Stanley.

Verse 25

25. Balaam… returned to his place Not to Mesopotamia. Literally, he turned toward his own place. This he never reached. Having privately advised Balak to ensnare Israel into idolatry and its vices by the blandishments of the women of Moab and Amalek, (Numbers 31:16,) he lingered in the vicinity to see the result of his wicked counsel, and was slain in battle when Jehovah, avenging the Israelites, ordered them to war against Midian. Numbers 31:8. Hengstenberg suggests that Balaam, smarting under the indignity of his summary dismissal by Balak, went into the camp of Israel, rehearsed to Moses his prophecies in hope of a reward, was coolly treated, and, goaded on by disappointed ambition and covetousness, went to the Midianites, and counselled the seduction of Israel to whoredom and idolatry.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 24". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-24.html. 1874-1909.
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