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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged
Numbers 24

 

 

Verse 1

And when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness.

When Balaam saw - i:e., was convinced, from the oracular announcements formerly made to the patriarchs, of which he had heard, combined with his own present experience.

To seek for , [ liqra't (Hebrew #7125) n


Verse 2

And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.

Balaam lifted up his eyes - a Hebrew phrase for earnest observation, used even when the spectator was looking down.

And he saw Israel abiding , [ shokeen (Hebrew #7931)] - encamped. The spot from which the weird seer of Mesopotamia, with the king of Moab and the sheikhs of Midian, were now surveying the hosts of Israel, was not now a distant one, as "the high places," the bare hill on the top of the rocks," or the cultivated "field" of Zophim on "the top of Pisgah," but "from the top of Peor" - the eminence that commanded a wide prospect of the Arabah. (See this view graphically described, Drew's 'Scripture Lands,' p. 96; Stanley's 'Sinai and Palestine,' pp. 130, 293, 315.)

According to their tribes - i:e., in the orderly distribution of the camp, (Numbers 2:1-34.)

The Spirit of God came upon him. Before the regular ministry of the prophets was instituted, God made use of various persons as the instruments through whom He revealed His will; and Balaam was one of these (Deuteronomy 23:5).


Verse 3

And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:

Balaam the son of Beor hath said -

`Balaam the son of Beor prophesies, And the man, unclosed of (as to) the eye prophesies: The hearer of the words of God, Who sees a vision of the Almighty, Lying (in sleep), but with eyes unveiled:

How beautiful are thy tents, O Jacob! And thy tabernacles (habitations), O Israel! Like valleys are they extended,

Like gardens along a river, Like lign aloes, which Yahweh planted, Like cedars beside waters. Waters shall flow from his buckets,

And his seed is in many waters, And his king shall be higher than Agag, And his kingdom shall be exalted. God leading him forth from Egypt,

His is like the speed of the reem: He shall devour nations, his enemies, And shall craunch their bones, And shake his arrows (in their blood). He couches, he lies down like a lion. And like a lioness: who shall rouse him Blessed be he who blesseth thee! And cursed be he who curseth thee!'

Balaam the son of Beor hath said, [ n


Verse 4

He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:

Which heard the words of God , [ 'imreey (Hebrew #561) 'Eel (Hebrew #410)] - a poetical term. [ D


Verse 5

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! - a fine burst of admiration, expressed in highly poetical strains. All travelers describe the beauty which the circular range of Bedouin tents imparts to the desert. How magnificent, then, must have been the view, as seen from the heights of Abarim, of the immense camp of Israel extended over the subjacent plains.

And thy tabernacles, O Israel! [ Mishk


Verse 6

As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.

As the valleys are they spread forth , [ kinchaaliym (Hebrew #5158)] - as brooks or water-courses from the mountains.

As gardens by the river's side. The vegetable and floral productions in the East flourish best in gardens situated in the neighbourhood of a running stream, where they can be watered by artificial rills, or even be refreshed by the moist spray wafted by the breeze (cf. Isaiah 58:11).

As the trees of lign aloes, which the Lord hath planted. The reference is to trees which, stately in appearance and flourishing in vigorous productiveness, grew spontaneously, without the appliances of human art or culture (cf. Psalms 104:16). ['Achaaliym-plural, an aromatic shrub, Aquilaria agallocha, sweet-scented aloe, common in various parts of Eastern Asia, and familiar to Balaam as growing luxuriantly on the banks of his native Euphrates, the conical form of the tree suggesting an apt resemblance to a tent.] 'The words, "the river," with the aromatic plants, and the cedars on the waterside (cf. Ezekiel 31:4) (neither of these images being drawn from the scene before him), show that he was thinking of his own country' (Stanley's 'Sinai and Palestine.' p. 293). The redundant imagery in this verse depicts the origin, rapid progress, and prosperity of Israel.


Verse 7

He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.

He shall pour the water out of his buckets - literally, the waters shall flow from his buckets. Dual, two buckets-namely, of a water-carrier-indicating the plenty and prosperity of a well-watered country.

And his seed shall be in many waters - i:e., his posterity shall be numerous. The image is borrowed from the luxuriant growth of plants in well-watered places (cf. Isaiah 44:4). Le Clerc and Lowth render the clause, fluet aqua ex ejus ramis-`water shall flow from his branches. Gesenius, Rosenmuller, Furst ('Handbuch,' p.

707), and Bunsen ('Bibelwerk'), following Jerome, consider "waters" in this passage as used in a sense too indelicate for modern taste to mention. The procreation of children is often metaphorically indicated by waters, fountains, cisterns, etc. (Psalms 68:26; Proverbs 5:15; Proverbs 5:18; Proverbs 9:17; Isaiah 48:1). The Septuagint gives a somewhat similar interpretation, exeleusetai anthroopos ek tou spermatos autou kai kurieusei ethnoon polloon.

His king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. The Septuagint and the Samaritan His king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. The Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch have Gog instead of Agag, but on no good critical authority. Agag was the regal title of the Amalekite rulers, who, from their presiding over the most puissant of the desert tribes, are selected as representing all the rest; and the purport of the prophecy is, that when the power of Israel should be fully developed, it would be superior to that of all the surrounding nations. The reference to a future kingdom in Israel was founded on the promises made to the patriarchs (see the note at Genesis 49:10). This kingdom attained its predicted eminence in the reigns of David and Solomon, and yet only foreshadowed the still more 'exalted kingdom' of the Messiah, which should be raised absolutely above all the world-kingdoms, and be all-powerful in the earth.


Verse 8

God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn - (see the note at Numbers 23:22.)

He shall eat up ... - Israel, in a course of continuous conquests, shall devour the nations, their enemies - i:e., pagan nations, without specification of any; 'and shall craunch their bones' - i:e., by trampling, in the truculent style of ancient victors, upon the necks of their fallen foes; and 'shall shake his arrows (in their blood') (Ps. ); or, as some old commentators interpret the words 'and with his arrows he shall crush them' (Gesenius). [Septuagint, kai tais bolisin autou katatoxeusin echthron.]


Verse 9

He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.

As a lion ... [ ka'ariy (Hebrew #738), from 'aaraah (Hebrew #717), to pull] - a tearer in pieces; used here and in Numbers 23:24 as a symbol of strength and courage. [The word occurs four times in the Hebrew Scriptures-namely, in this passage, as in Numbers 23:24, with pathach; and in Psalms 22:17, as in Isaiah 38:13, with qamets, making kaa'


Verse 10

And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.

Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together. The 'smiting of the hands together' is, among Oriental people, an indication of the most violent rage (see Ezekiel 21:17; Ezekiel 22:13) and ignominious dismissal.


Verse 11

Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the LORD hath kept thee back from honour.

Therefore now flee thou to thy place - (see the note at Numbers 22:5).

The Lord hath kept thee back from honour - i:e., from the splendid rewards I intended to bestow on thee. It was an infidel sneer at Yahweh; and the meaning is: Since thou hast preferred His mandates to my wishes and interests, from that quarter thou must expect thy recompense.


Verse 12-13

And Balaam said unto Balak, Spake I not also to thy messengers which thou sentest unto me, saying,

No JFB commentary on these verses.


Verse 14

And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.

Come ... and I will advertise thee , [ 'iy`aats


Verse 15-16

And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:

(See the note on the word "said," Numbers 23:7) The repetition of the prefatory formula in these words imparts a character of solemn importance to the prophecy about to be uttered.


Verse 17

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.

I shall see him ... - "Him," used collectively for "Israel." This passage exhibits a striking view of the subjective visions of the prophets. While they are frequently represented as receiving verbal communications and favoured with signs, here Balaam seems to have had the actual scene brought before his mental eye. The form of the tense indicates a present sight rather than a prediction of the future.

A Star - not a literal material star. Some, indeed, think that Balaam here predicts the appearance of the meteor which was seen by the magi at the birth of Christ; but that did not come out of Jacob; and the human actions predicated of this star are totally inapplicable to what guided the wise men. A "star" is a symbol of splendid dignity and power, and hence, is used in the prophetic writings to denote a prince or illustrious ruler (Ezekiel 32:7; Daniel 8:10; Joel 2:10); and it appears very appropriate in the mouth of Balaam, who came from Mesopotamia, the land of astrology.

A Sceptre (Genesis 49:10). The Jews universally interpreted this prophecy as pointing to a victorious king of their nation-typically, and in a secondary sense, fulfilled in David (2 Samuel 8:2; 2 Samuel 8:14; 1 Chronicles 18:13), but chiefly, and in the highest degree, realized in the Messiah (Zechariah 9:10; Obadiah 1:21).

Dr. Warburton thinks that while the two metaphors employed by Balaam are, from common and popular use, readily understood to signify a prince or ruler, the latter, "a star," had further a secret and mystical import. 'A star in the Egyptian hieroglyphics denoted God; and that hieroglyphic writings very much influenced the Eastern languages is well known. Thus, God, in reproving the Israelites for their idolatry at the time of the exodus, says (Amos 5:26), "Ye have borne the star of your god which ye made to yourselves." "The star of your god is a sublime figure to signify the image of your god. Hence, we conclude, that the metaphor here used by Balaam of "a star" was of that abstruse, mysterious kind, and so to be understood; consequently it related only to Christ, the Son of God.'

But whether the "Star out of Jacob" symbolized the Israelite kingdom in general, or an individual king, David, or Christ, the spiritual king of Israel, a vast interval existed between the date of this prediction and the earliest accomplishment of it. How surprising to hear of the star and sceptre of the Messiah from the lips of one who came from Aram and the mountains of the East; and what a striking evidence does this afford of a fact which the cases of Abimelech, Pharaoh, etc., prove, that in early times, before the dispensation of Moses, God was pleased to reveal His purposes of mercy, as well as of judgment, through the instrumentality of persons in various nations!

And shall smite the corners of Moab , [ pa'ateey (Hebrew #6285), dual, the two sides, p


Verse 18

And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly.

And Edom shall be a possession. Seir, which is used in the parallelism, corresponds with Edom. According to the reading in the English version, Seir should be a possession for his enemies, i:e., in the opinion of some writers, of Edom; but that is erroneous, because Seir had in the Mosaic age been long the settled residence of Esau's descendants.

The latter clause, "Israel shall do valiantly," clearly determines who were to become the possessors [The Septuagint interprets it correctly ho echthros autou - i:e., Israel.] The prediction was historically verified in the time of Saul (1 Samuel 14:47), of David (2 Samuel 8:14; 1 Kings 11:15-16; 1 Chronicles 18:12), and of Solomon (1 Kings 9:26). But this view does not exhaust the prophecy; because Balaam represents the result of conquest over both Moab and Edom as an absolute and permanent possession; and hence, although the Edomites did for a time recover their independence (2 Kings 8:20), and make partial reprisals upon Judah (2 Chronicles 28:17), we find the prophets, while proclaiming their gross idolatries, denouncing their consequent doom in the most solemn and fearful terms (Isaiah 34:5; Jeremiah 49:7-22; Lamentations 4:21-22; Ezekiel 25:12-14; Ezekiel 35:15; Obad.; Malachi 1:2-4 : cf. Josephus, 'Antiquities,' b. 10:, ch. 9:, sec. 7; also b. 13:, ch. 9:, sec. 1; ch. 15:, sec. 4).

And Israel shall do valiantly , [ `oseh (Hebrew #6213) chaayil (Hebrew #2428)] (cf. Ps. ; 108:14; 118:15-16 ). But this clause was evidently designed to exhibit the state of Israel in victorious ascendency, when 'Edom should be a possession;' and the translation, therefore, should be, 'and Israel shall acquire power or wealth'-a sense in which Hengstenberg has shown the words are used (Deuteronomy 8:17-18; Ruth 4:11; Proverbs 31:29; Ezekiel 28:4).


Verse 19

Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.

Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion , [ w


Verse 20

And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.

Amalek was the first of the nations. There is scriptural evidence that this people had an independent existence in the time of Abraham (Genesis 14:7), and that they had a permanent settlement south of mount Seir, toward Shur (1 Samuel 15:7; 1 Samuel 27:8) - i:e., on the east of Wady Ghurundel. Philo ('Life of Moses') ascribes to them a Phoenician origin, (cf. 1 Chronicles 4:42-43, and 'Herodotus,' b. 7:, ch. 89:) It is called "the first of nations," not certainly as being foremost in their attack upon Israel; but [as gowyim (Hebrew #1471) means pagan nations] the Amalekites were the first of contemporary pagan people, probably in point of antiquity, certainly of power (cf. Numbers 24:7; Amos 6:1). Since the course of the prophecy is southward, Balaam could not actually 'look upon Amalek,' whose situation was too distant in the Sinaitic peninsula; he could do it only with eyes opened - i:e., mentally.

But his latter end shall be that he perish forever. The Amalekites were at that time in the full enjoyment of national vigour and prosperity; but Balaam foresees their doom. They could not escape the vengeance which their unprovoked attack upon God's chosen people merited; and hence, although they appeared on a certain occasion (Numbers 14:45) to gain a partial victory over Israel, yet their overthrow was commanded, and the Israelites were made the executioners of the divine sentence (see the note at 1 Samuel 15:1).


Verse 21

And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock.

And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable , [ ha-Qeeyniy (Hebrew #7017) (cf. Genesis 15:19; Judges 4:14; Judges 4:17); ha-Qiyniym (Hebrew #7017) (1 Chronicles 2:55); Qeeyniy (Hebrew #7017) (1 Samuel 27:10); and Qaayin (Hebrew #7014) (Numbers 24:22; Judges 4:11)]. In all these varied forms this Gentile name occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is evident that the people here referred to were not the Kenite tribe of Midianites, with the phylarch of which Moses was connected by family ties; because that branch continued always on terms of the most friendly alliance with Israel (1 Chronicles 2:55); whereas it was the enemies of Israel against whom the prophetic utterances of Balaam were directed.

Moreover, their tents were pitched at that time near the Israelite encampment on the plains of Moab; and if they did not actually join in the measures taken for the overthrow of Jericho, they were immediately subsequent to that event located near the city of palm-trees (Judges 1:16), whence, migrating to the north of Canaan, they chose a pastoral circuit for themselves on the spacious plains lying upon the Kishon.

In very different circumstances were the Kenites whose doom was predicted by Balaam. They inhabited the wild mountainous region south of Palestine, extending along the west side of the Arebah and on both shores of the Gulf of Akabah. They were an old Canaanite tribe; because, whatever was their origin, they had acquired a local habitation and a name as one of the numerous tribes in that land which was promised to Abraham's posterity (Genesis 15:19); and they are mentioned by Balaam next after Amalek, from their relative position to that tribe, on the border of whose settlement they dwelt, and with whom they are described as closely associated in a league of hostile opposition to Israel (Numbers 14:25; Numbers 14:43; Numbers 14:45; 1 Samuel 15:6; 1 Samuel 27:10; 1 Samuel 30:29). In accordance with these statements, their settlement is described by Procopius as embracing Petra and the adjacent territory.

Balaam "looked" on them. In surveying the regions to the south of Moab, he may have turned significantly from Edom in a direction westward to Amalek and the Kenites. But the phrase, "looked on the Kenites," must be taken in the sense not of actual sight, but of prophetic vision, which it bears (Numbers 24:20); because their distant mountain-land could not be visible from the summit of Peor.

Strong is thy dwelling-place [ 'eeytaan (Hebrew #386) mowshaabekaa (Hebrew #4186)] - perpetuity is thy habitation (Gesenius).

And thou puttest thy nest in a rock , [ w


Verse 22

Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive.

Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted. The primary meaning of the verb [ baa`ar (Hebrew #1197)] is to eat up, to consume; and Gesenius ('Lex.,' sub voce) assigns it various significations in the Piel conj., No. 2, to cause to burn, to consume; and No. 3, to take away, to remove, to destroy. In either of these acceptations he considers the word may be taken in this clause; because he renders it, 'the Kenites shall be driven out, destroyed.' Hengstenberg takes it in both of these senses, applying it to the Canaanite tribes generally, which were represented by the Kenites-the first of those tribes whose hostility was displayed against Israel (Numbers 14:25; Numbers 14:43; Numbers 14:45), and whose destruction or expulsion from Canaan the latter were the agents of Providence in accomplishing-at first by the war of invasion under Joshua, and gradually during their subsequent occupation of the land.

Until Asshur shall carry thee away captive. The party addressed Hengstenberg considers, with Calvin, to be Israel, and supports this opinion on these two grounds:

(1) Because it seems an exceedingly harsh and forced construction for the Kenite to be, in the beginning of the sentence, spoken of in the third person, and at the close abruptly addressed in the second; and,

(2) Because to exhibit the prosperity and ascendant influence of Israel was the main object of Balaam's prophecies; and it seems to have been the purpose of the inspiring Spirit to show, by an incidental mention of a great calamity, that this prosperity would not be pure and uninterrupted;

(3) Because it is in accordance with the style of these prophecies for Balaam to address Israel directly (cf. Numbers 24:5; Numbers 24:9, last clause).

Kurtz opposes the views of Hengstenberg respecting the national existence of the Kenites:

(1) Because their name does not occur in the genealogical table of nations in the age of Moses; and,

(2) Also because they are not mentioned in any list of the population whom the Israelites destroyed.

He infers, therefore, that although they had for a time the name and locality of a separate tribe in Canaan, they had gradually sunk, until they had lost their independence; and as Jethro, who was a Kenite (Judges 1:16), is called a Midianite (Numbers 10:29), and "priest of Midian" (Exodus 3:1), the Kenites had become incorporated with the larger tribe of the Midianites, and the people were called indifferently by the one name or the other. The reason why the name Kenite is preferred in this passage is on account of the play upon the words already referred to.

But that the Midianites were really the people whose doom, under that appellation, was denounced, is, in the opinion of Kurtz, placed beyond a doubt by the fact, that from their league with Moab in hiring Balaam (Numbers 22:7), and their diabolical scheme of seduction (Numbers 25:1-18), they were prominent among the enemies of Israel on whom the arm of retributive justice should fall. "The Kenite shall be wasted" is literally, 'the Kenite shall be for a burning' - i:e., as Kurtz interprets the passage, 'the home of the Kenites (Midianites) shall be destroyed, but they themselves shall be carried away captive.

It is true, there is no historical account of the Midianites being carried away captive by Asshur; but they are only mentioned once subsequently to their overthrow by Gideon (Isaiah 60:6). There is no improbability, therefore, in the supposition that they were carried into captivity by the Assyrians. This interpretation we adopt as the correct one, both because Balaam was divinely constrained to bless Israel, not to curse him (as an allusion to the Babylonian captivity would have been), and because, although in the three previous prophecies Balaam dealt exclusively in eulogies upon Israel, this fourth prediction was uttered with the express design to 'advertise Balak what this people would do to his people in the latter days!'

Sir H. Rawlinson supports this view; but he proposes a new reading, which, though merely conjectural, we subjoin. [ 'Eeytaan (Hebrew #386), usually rendered firmness, strength (Genesis 49:24), or perpetuity (Exodus 14:27), he takes as a proper name-`Ethan, or Yatnan,' a maritime city south of Phoenicia, which formed the extreme limit of the Assyrian territory toward Egypt, the Rhinocolura of the Greeks; and the whole passage, viewed in this light, will read thus; 'Thy dwelling is Ethan (Yatnan), and thou puttest thy nest in Sela (Petra);' for the transportation of the Kenites to Assyria from this quarter, which is foretold in the next verse, is duly related in the inscriptions.]


Verse 23

And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!

And he took up his parable, and said. [The Septuagint introduces this by: Kai idoon ton Oog , 'and when he looked on Og.']

Alas! who shall live when God doeth this? [ Miy (Hebrew #4310) yich


Verse 24

And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever.

Ships shall come from the coast of Chittim [ miyad (Hebrew #3027) Kitiym (Hebrew #3794)] - from the side (quarter) of Chittim; i:e., Cyprus, without indicating the particular country from which this naval expedition should come. Gesenius, indeed, asserts that Chittim is sometimes used by the sacred writers in a wider sense. to denote the islands of the Mediterranean, especially in the northern parts, including Greece and Italy. But Hengstenberg has satisfactorily shown that this extended acceptation of the term was introduced in a much later age (see 'Balaam,' p. 500). But Cyprus was the great emporium, the commercial mart, the medium of contact between the East and West; and in this respect alone it is made here to represent the occidental countries.

And shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber. [ 'Ashuwr (Hebrew #804) denotes sometimes the land (Genesis 2:4; Genesis 25:18; 2 Kings 15:29; 2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 18:1; Isaiah 7:18; Hosea 7:11; Hosea 9:3; Hosea 10:6; Micah 5:6; Zephaniah 2:13; Zechariah 10:10), and at other times the people (Isaiah 19:23; Isaiah 23:13; Isaiah 30:31; Isaiah 31:8; Psalms 83:9; Ezekiel 27:23; Ezekiel 32:22; Hosea 14:4) of Assyria.] "Eber." The proper interpretation of this word has occasioned much discussion (see the notes at Genesis 10:21; Genesis 14:13). Little assistance in ending to a right conclusion is afforded by the ancient versions, which differ greatly. [The Septuagint renders the verse thus: Kai exeleusetai ek cheiroon Kitiaioon kai kakoosousin Assour kai kakoosousin Ebraious, kai autoi homothumadon apolountai, 'And he shall come forth from the hands of Cittiaeans, and they shall afflict the Assyrians, and shall afflict the Hebrews, and themselves shall perish together.' The Vulgate translates it: 'Venient in trieribus de Italia, superabunt Assyrios vastabuntque Hebraeos,' 'They shall come in triremes from Italy; they shall vanquish the Assyrians, and devastate the Hebrews,' etc.] The Arabic and Syriac versions have 'the Hebrews' also. Such a rendering, however, is totally inconsistent with the design of this prophecy, which was to announce the overthrow or the punishment, not of Israel, but solely of the nations hostile to Israel. The Samaritan version retains Heber. The Targum exhibit a greater discrepancy in this matter even than the versions; but they coincide in not identifying Eber with 'the Hebrews'; because the Targum of Jonathan says, 'all the children of Eber;' that of Onkelos, 'beyond the Euphrates;' and that of Jerusalem, 'all the children of the region beyond the Euphrates.'

Rosenmuller ('Scholia,' in loco) considers the word Eber to be in parallelism with Asshur. But the application of the verb, "afflict," to both Asshur and Eber presents an objection to their being regarded as synonymous. The latter word is rather an extension of the meaning of the former; because, taking it to be the preposition 'beyond,' used as a noun, it is elliptical, denoting the country 'beyond' the river; and thus, as the first portion of the prophecy pointed to the destruction of the enemies of Israel in the eastern desert, the latter portion will refer to all the trans-Euphratean nations-including, along with Assyria, Chaldea, Babylonia, and Persia, all the inferior tribes which had combined with them in the oppression and captivity of God's people.

Every intelligent and unblessed mind must perceive in these brief but most significant words a prediction of the overthrow of the gigantic pagan despotisms of Asia-the Assyrian and Babylonian empires-by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and by the Romans. The announcement of those mighty political revolutions at so remote a period-wound up by the specific declaration that 'ships, via Cyprus, should convey European troops for the subversion of the imperial power of Asia'-`made 1450 BC, half a millennium before Homer, and some 700 years before the foundation of Rome' (Stanley, 'Jewish Church,' p. 192) - was unquestionably far beyond the horizon of the speaker's hopes and fears. The allegation that these prophetic utterances of Balaam were poetical compositions produced in a later age, and in fact contain vaticinia post eventus, is refuted by internal as well as external evidence. For, while the words which refer to Asshur (Numbers 24:22) represent that empire as pursuing a victorious career, those (Numbers 24:24) describe the overthrow of that power and the other great monarchies of Asia; so that the date of these prophecies, on the hypothesis referred to, would be fixed toward the close of, or subsequent to, the Babylonian captivity. But the comparision of the Hebrew monarch with Agag (Numbers 24:7) points to a much earlier period; because after the destruction of the Amalekites by Saul (1 Samuel 15:1-35), there would have been an obvious impropriety in any speaker or writer contrasting the power and splendour of one ruler with those of another who had long been extinct.

Besides, there is extraneous proof of the early date of Balaam's prophecies, furnished by the references made to them in the writings of the prophets who preceded the captivities (Jeremiah 48:4-6; Obadiah 1:13; Obadiah 1:17; Micah 6:5). Assuming, then, that these predictions were uttered at the time and in the circumstances described in the sacred narrative, it admits of no question whether such a prophecy was the result of human sagacity or divine knowledge. The conclusion irresistibly forced upon the reflective reader is, that it originated in a prescience supernaturally imparted by God.

The doom of all the nations named is predicted in terms of which history demonstrates the exact truth. But this remarkable prophecy extends far beyond the overthrow of the historic people specifically mentioned. It has a Messianic reference; and in the smiting of Moab, in the possession of Edom, in the destruction of Amalek, of the Kenites, Assyria, and other pagan nations, which maintained an attitude of hostility to Israel, we see typified the destruction of all the enemies of God's people, and the final establishment of a righteous kingdom.


Verse 25

And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place: and Balak also went his way.

Balaam ... returned to his place - i:e., to his habitation or home (cf. Numbers 7:14) in Mesopotamia. Though he set out, however, on a homeward journey, he did not continue in that direction, but turned aside, leaving the Moabite territory; not to the Israelite camp, as Hengstenberg assumes-a vain, uusupported conjecture-but to the contiguous pasture land of the Midianites (cf. Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22). The historian has contented himself with simply intimating the fact of Balaam's departure; for the principal, or rather the sole reason for the introduction of this episode, was to put upon record that the prophet, who had been summoned to curse, was constrained to bless, Israel. That record having been made, it was of no importance to chronicle the subsequent movements of the Mesopotamian seer; and, accordingly, it is only from an incidental notice in a later portion of the history we learn that he had gone to tamper with the Midianites.

The explanation of the singular movement seems to be, that through the overpowering impulses of his master passion, he still indulged a hope of securing the expected reward; and believing that Yahweh was a local deity like others, he imagined, now that he was beyond the boundaries of Moab, he would be entirely free from the mental constraint that had compelled him in that country to act contrary to his interests and intentions. The engrossing influence of ambition and avarice extinguished the impression of the remarkable prophecies he had recently delivered; and with a view of pandering still to the wishes of his anxious employers, he planned a villanous scheme, of such a description as he well knew would, by severing the relations of Israel to Yahweh, change the destiny of that people. 'Had the details of his achievements in Midian been given, as those in Moab are given, they might have been as numerous, as important, and as interesting (Blunt's 'Undesigned Coincidences,' p. 87).

The character of Balaam, marked by so many inconsistencies, and continually oscillating between antagonistic principles-a professed servant of the true God, and at the same time a self-sold slave of the devil-declaring his fixed resolution to act in accordance with the divine will as revealed to him, yet secretly resolved to pursue an opposite course-praying as a man of ardent piety, and yet groveling in the dust of the world-is a moral enigma which has puzzled some of the greatest minds satisfactorily to unriddle.

One grand subject of discussion, both in ancient and modern times, has been whether he was a real prophet, one of the ancient magi, or merely a sagacious and artful diviner. Some, founding on the expression, "soothsayer," which occurs in Joshua (Joshua 13:22; cf. Josephus, 'Antiquities.' b, 4:, ch. 6:, sec. 2; Philo, 'Life of Moses,' sec. 48), have maintained that he was an infamous, unprincipled sorcerer, whose whole power consisted in magic and in maledictions. A second class have held the opinion that he only pretended to consult the Lord, because he was an idolater, and possessed no gifts beyond that of a far-seeing sagacity and calculating prudence; while a third class have admitted that he knew the true God, erected altars to his honour, and was a real prophet, though corrupted by avarice. There is truth in each one of these views; but it is only the combination of all of them that, furnishing a key to open the latent principles of Balaam's character, can lead to a just estimate of this extraordinary personage.

Born a pagan, or perhaps bred in some corrupt form of the patriarchal religion (cf. Genesis 31:30), he had been brought to believe in the being and character of Yahweh; but his knowledge of the true God was greatly mixed up with the ignorance and errors of superstition. He was susceptible of pious feelings, and acknowledged God to a certain extent in his practice; but any good principles he had imbibed were apt to be forgotten or overborne by the predominance of sordid passions. Endowed with supernatural inspiration, which enabled him to reveal the purposes of Divine Providence, as connected with Israel, he degraded his prophetic gift by the supposed necessity of courting the afflatus by the preparatory rites of augury, and, like Simon Magus in the beginning of the New Testament age, thought "to make a gain of godliness." 'There were certainly in Balaam the elements of the knowledge and fear of the Lord, which he had acquired by earnest study of the divine procedure toward Israel; but he had stopped with the elements-it had never come to a fundamental conversion with him: there certainly were conferred upon him single clear flashes of light by the Spirit of God; But this prophetic gift appears throughout not as a comprehensive and certain one' (Hengstenberg, 'Balaam,' p. 346).

'Balaam was a pagan soothsayer and a prophet of Yahweh at the same time. The course of his history shows us clearly enough where it was that the obstacle lay; in other words, how it was that, after Balaam had recognized Yahweh as the true and supreme God, and notwithstanding the fact that Yahweh did not fail to make Himself known in word and power, he did not entirely lay aside his pagan incantations, and give himself up to the worship of Yahweh. The cause was not primarily an intellectual one, nor did it arise from any disqualification for the calling of a genuine prophet of Yahweh. It was altogether moral, and lay entirely in the will. Hitherto Balaam had practiced magic as a trade. When he became convinced that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was stronger than the gods of all the other nations, he turned to Him, probably in the hope that by this means he would be able to secure more striking results and still larger gains.

Thus, Balaam carried into his new phase of life a pagan state of mind, which inevitably prevented him from being more firmly established or making further progress in his fellowship with Yahweh, so long as it remained unconquered. We must not imagine, however, that his aims and endeavours were divested of nobler and loftier motives; because, had this been the case, Yahweh would have hardly suffered Himself to be found of him, or have replied to his inquiries. And the manner in which he was met by Yahweh was not without effect upon the spirit and heart, the mind and will of the magician' (Kurtz, 'History of the Old Covenant,' 3:,

p. 393). He is represented in Scripture at one time as "a soothsayer," at another as "a prophet" (2 Peter 2:15); and his fame, from his relations to God, must have been great, when the king of Moab twice sent across the Assyrian desert urgent invitations to solicit the benefit of his valued services in the valley of the Jordan. With regard to his prophetic utterances, his mind at the time must have been raised by the Spirit of God to a lofty state of ecstatic fervour; for more clear, more vigorous, more sublime predictions than those which he delivered are scarcely to be found in the sacred volume; and in perusing these predictions, even through the medium of a translation, the reader is hurried along with admiration of the fine conceptions, the powerful imagination, and the richly poetic diction by which they are distinguished.

By whatever means the knowledge of these utterances was communicated to Israel-whether, as Hengstenberg supposes, by Balaam himself, during a supposed visit to the Israelite camp, or, as others conjecture, through the Midianites, who intermingled with the people of God-they were recorded by Moses under the superintending guidance of the Spirit who had inspired them; and there can be no doubt that these lays of the Mesopotamian sage, taking a strong hold of the memories of the Israelites, as well as of the Moabite and Midianite chiefs in whose hearing they were pronounced, would be a great means of inspiriting the one in prospect of invading Canaan, and of creating among those pagan people the expectation of a glorious King who was to arise in Israel.

This latter consideration tends to remove one of the greatest difficulties respecting the enlistment of Balaam's services in predicting the glory of Messiah's kingdom. This is an isolated case-the only known instance of a Gentile being endowed with prophetic gifts; and hence, we may conclude that there was some important reason for so remarkable an exception. And this conclusion is strengthened by the consideration that it was to Gentiles that his prophecies were addressed, though they were afterward inserted in the sacred annals. It was by the revelations made to Balaam that gleams of divine light burst on the darkened nations of the pagan world; and more especially it is to them we are to trace that general expectation which prevailed for centuries prior to the advent of Christ, all over the East, relative to the appearance of an exalted and glorious personage.

This expectation was realized at the commencement of the New Testament era, when magi, under the guidance of a miraculous meteor in the heavens, arrived in Jerusalem, and inquired where was He who was born King of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-23); because they had seen His star in the East. This was an obvious allusion to the beautiful words of Balaam - "There shall come a Star out of Jacob:" and thus did Yahweh, by employing Balaam, who was not of the seed of Abraham, to foretell future events, not only display His sovereignty, but with divine wisdom prepare the nations, in some measure, for the advent of Messiah, as well as for enjoying the blessings of His reign, (see Josephus, 'Antiquities,' b. 4:, ch. 6:, secs. 12 and 13; Origen, 'Contra Cels.,' lib. 1:, sec. 160: also 'In Numeros Hom.,' 13:, sec. 7; Eusebius, 'Demonst. Evang.,' lib. 9:, sec. 1; Warburton's 'Divine Legation.' b. 4:, sec. 4; Saurin's 'Discours Historiques,' tom. 2:, disc. 64; Newton, 'On the Prophecies,' disser. 5:; Hengstenberg and Kurtz, as already referred to; Ewald's 'Geschichte,' vol. 2:, p. 277; Grandpierre, 'Essais sur le Pentateugue,' 23:; Stanley's 'Jewish Church,' Lect. 8:; 'Minutiae of Prophecy and the Minutiae of Fulfilment,' by Rev. F. Tilney Bassett; Moses Stuart, 'On Daniel,' p. 346; Boyle, 'On Daniel,' p. 367, note; Pusey, 'On Daniel,' preface, pp. 7: and 11:)

 


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Bibliography Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 24:4". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jfu/numbers-24.html. 1871-8.

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Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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