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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Numbers 22

 

 

Verses 1-41

Balaam"s Vision of the Church

Numbers 22-24

Let Israel, as gathered within sight of Moab, be regarded as representing the Church of the living God: let Balak, king of Moab, be regarded as representing all the forces which encounter the Church of the living God with suspicion or hostility: let Balaam be regarded as the prophet of the Lord standing between the Church and the kingdoms of heathenism, and declaring the divine purpose, and dwelling in sacred and rapturous eloquence upon the condition, the forces, and the destiny, of the Church of Christ. Such are the conditions which are now before us:—Israel the Church, Balak heathenism and every manner of hostility, Balaam the voice of Heaven, the prophet of God. Such being the picture, what are the doctrines which underlie it and breathe through it and appeal to our confidence and imagination? First of all, the Church is represented as being "blessed." We read,—"And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed" ( Numbers 22:12). To repeat that word is best to explain it. Some words refuse to pass into other terms, for they are themselves their best expositors;—blessed is one of those words. We are not taught that Israel was in a state of momentary enjoyment—passing through some transient experience of gladness; but Israel is represented as sealed with a divine benediction: Israel is blessed—not merely to be blessed, or reserved for blessing; but through eternity is blessed—set in sureness in the divine covenant, created and made a people by the divine knowledge and purpose and love. Here is no small contention as between momentary complacency and momentary hostility: we are in the eternal region, we are standing amid the august certainties of divine purpose, recognition and determination. The Church Isaiah , therefore, blessed—sealed, gathered around the Lord, set in his sight,—an inheritance, a possession, a sanctuary. That the Church does not rise to the glory of its election according to the divine purpose has no bearing whatever upon the argument. All things are in process; nothing is yet finished. Is it a temple?—the walls are being put up. Is it a tree?—the tree is yet in process of growing, and we Know nothing yet of its magnitude or its fruitfulness. Is it a character?—time is required, and we must read destiny—not in immediate appearances, but in the divine decree and in the inspired revelation. A man is not in reality what he appears to be at any given moment: man is as to possibility what he is in the divine thought. Until we have seen that thought in clearest realisation, it little becomes us to sneer at the meanest specimen of human nature, or to mock the handiwork of God. Let this stand: that there is a family, a Church, an institution—describe it by any name—which is "blessed";—in other words, there is a spot on the earth on which the divine complacency rests like a Sabbath-light; we may well consider our relation to that place; it would not be unbecoming even the dignity of reason to ask what its own relation is to that sacred and ever-blessed position.

This being the case, the negative seems to become the positive when we read that the Church of the living God is beyond the power of human cursing. Said Balaam,—"How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?" That is a great principle. Balaam might use the words of cursing, but there would be no anathema in his impotent speech. The curse of man cannot get within the sanctuary of God. The Church is hidden within the pavilion of the Most High: the Church is beyond "the strife of tongues": the curses are all outside noises—like the wings of night-birds beating against the eternal granite. "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper";—the weapon shall be formed, the weapon shall be lifted up, the weapon shall apparently come down; but it shall miss thee, and cut nothing but the vacant air. Unless we have some such confidence as this, we shall be the sport of every rumour, exposed to every wild alarm, without peace: in the whole week there will be no Sabbath day, after the day"s tumult there will be no time of repose: the house will be open to the encroachment of every evil. We must, therefore, stand in great principles, and take refuge in the sanctuary of divine and revealed appointments. You cannot injure the really good man: you may throw many stones at him, but you will never strike him; much speech may be levelled against him, but the speech will be without point. A good man is the Lord"s jewel; a soul in harmony with the Christian purpose is a soul hidden in the security of God"s almightiness. That we do not realise this is to our shame and not to the discredit of the inspired testimony. When a Christian is in alarm, he is doing more injury to the Christian cause than can be done by any outside assailants; when the good man interrupts his prayer by some expression of fear or doubt, he is doing more to invalidate every argument for the sufficiency of prayer than can be done by the most penetrating intellectual criticism or by the most audacious unbelief. Our religion is nothing if it does not make us feel our security and turn that security into a temple of living and daily praise. It still lies, therefore, with the believer to injure his cause, to bring discredit upon God"s temple, and to expose the Eternal Father to human suspicion. Let us beware of this, lest the enemies of God should be found in his own household.

Is there not something in the condition of the Church that might excite—shall we call it?—the envy—the religious envy of the world? Read chapter Numbers 23:10"Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel?" The Church grows upon the attentive vision; at first it does not seem to be what it really Isaiah , but as the prophet looks the little one becomes a thousand and the small nation becomes a great empire, and those who were of little account from a physical point of view rise into immeasurable proportions of force and possibilities of service. The Church is—let us repeat—what God sees it to be: God sees it to be the power of the world, the light to illuminate it, the salt to preserve it, the city to be as a beacon in relation to it. The Lord has said that the Church shall overcome all opposition. The time in which it is about to do this Isaiah , by our reckoning, very long—so long, that our poor patience almost expires and our faith sharpens itself into an almost doubtful inquiry, saying,—O Lord! how long?—the wicked are robust, evil-minded men are many in number, and virtue seems to be cast out upon the street and to be exposed to a very precarious fortune—O Lord! how long? It is a natural question, full of reasonableness from a merely human point of view, and it never can be suppressed except by that increase cf faith which makes our life superior to the death-principle that is in us—that fills us with a sense of already-realised immortality. Balaam saw Israel to be an innumerable host. Numbers played a great part in the imagination of the Eastern mind, and the Lord, touching the imagination of Balak along the only accessible lines, makes Balaam speak about the great host. Why, the dust of it could not be counted; no reckoning could sum up the fourth part of Israel; and as the numbers increased and came down in threatening countless multitudes upon the imagination of Balak, he was staggered by the vision of the majesty of Israel. That is the view we must take of the case. Let God number his Church. He teaches us by all these allusions that numbering is impossible on our part. We do but vex ourselves by taking the statistics of the Church: only God can take them, and he so represents them as to dazzle the imagination—to throw our power of reckoning into absolute despair. From the beginning, he spoke thus about numbers: he would never entrust us with the exact numerical secret; when he told one man how many children he should have, he said,—More than the stars, more than the sands upon the sea-shore,—innumerable. God"s arithmetic is not a pronounceable quantity; it touches the imagination and excites the wonder, until imagination and wonder consent in their intellectual impotence to fall down like white-robed worshippers and say,—Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, thou Father in heaven!

According to Balaam, the Church is named in an unchangeable decree: "God is not a Prayer of Manasseh , that he should lie; neither the son of Prayer of Manasseh , that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" ( Numbers 23:19). This is not a God that can be changed by temptation or whose decrees can be varied by circumstances. We do not surprise him by our sin. He does not alter the will because the younger son has gone away contrary to his expectation: when he made the will he foresaw the apostasy. There is nothing omitted from the divine reckoning. He saw the sin before he called me his child; he knew every time the arm of rebellion would be lifted and every time the voice of unbelief would challenge the integrity of his promises. The will overrides all these things: the Testator foresaw them, and the covenant was made in view of them. Herein is comfort, but not licence; herein is a great security, but no permission to tempt the living God. The view which the divine eye took of the whole situation was a complete view; reckoning up all sides, all forces, all possibilities and issues, the decree went forth, that out of this human nature, come whence it may—straight from God"s hands, in one form or the other, it must have come—this human nature shall be the temple of the living God, and out of those human eyes shall gleam the fire of divinity. If we believed anything short of this, our testimony would not be worth delivering—at best, it would be but a happy conjecture, or a fanciful possibility, wanting in lines of solidity, and in characteristics of certainty—wanting in the absoluteness which alone can give a steadiness of position to the human will and the destiny of the human career. Were all these covenants, arrangements and promises open to mere criticism of a verbal kind, we should have no inheritance—we should be but beggars to the last, living upon appearances and exhausting the unsubstantial fortune of illusory hopes; but our Christian position Isaiah ,—God is unchangeable, the covenant is unalterable, the good man is the accepted of God, and the almightiness of God is pledged to see the good man through river, sea, wilderness, and the battle, being God"s, can only end in one way.

According to Balaam"s vision of the Church, Israel is guiltless and royal. This is proved by chapter Numbers 23:21"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them."

Herein is the mystery of love. Already we begin to see the meaning of the marvellous expression—"Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel"—whilst, from the human point of view, he has never seen anything else. The whole history up to this point has been on the part of Israel or Jacob a disclosure of meanness, selfishness, complaining, perfidy, and perverseness. Both the statements are perfectly true. They may not be open to the cheap reconciliation of mere verbal adjustment, but they are strictly in harmony with the great central line which unites and consolidates the universe. God does not judge in great and final senses by the detailed slips, losses, mistakes, misadventures, follies, and sins of his people;—what a life would be God"s eternity could it be vexed by these details! We are lacking in the divine charity which sees the "man" within the "sinner"—which sees behind the iniquity the divine seed. We are lacking in the divine benevolence which distinguishes between the action of the hand—which sometimes does not express the motion of the will—and the inward and set purpose of the sanctified soul. We count ourselves clever if we can trip one another up in discrepancies of speech, in small or great shortcomings,—if we can but record a heavy score against some brother, as to a lapse here and a mistake there, and some evil deed yonder. God does not measure the man or Church according to that standard and method: he sees the purpose, he reads the soul, and he sees that nowhere is there a redder blush of shame for anything evil which the hand has done than in the soul of the man who has been convicted as the trespasser. So there are two views to be taken of the Church—the small view, the magisterial criticism, the estimate which is formed by the ingenuity that is most successful in fault-finding; or the view which is taken by God"s purpose, by divine charity, by eternal election and decree. God"s purpose is to have the uttermost parts of the earth for an inheritance and a possession; and already the earth may be called his:—"The earth is the Lord"s, and the fulness thereof"—not looked at here and now and within given lines—so looked at it is the devil"s earth, it is ripped and seamed by ten thousand times ten thousand graves;—little children"s bones are rotting in it, bad men are building their thrones and palaces upon it. The devil"s hunting-ground is this earth within a narrow or limited point of view; but in the divine purpose, in the great outcome of things, this earth is verdant as the upper paradise, pure as spotless snow,—a sanctuary of the Lord; all lands and languages, all seas, all thrones, all powers, are baptized in the Triune Name, and the whole earth is a worthy annexe of God"s own heaven. Take any other view, and you become at once unsettled, unsteady, depleted of all enrichment arising from confidence and hope and promise. This is the true view, for it is the view given in the Scriptures of God.

Balaam recognises the operation of a miracle in all this. He describes Israel as a supreme miracle of God. He says,—"... according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!" ( Numbers 23:23). Thus the Church becomes the uppermost miracle. From the first it did not seem such workmanship was possible: the material was rough, the conditions were impracticable,—everything seemed to be as different as possible from the grace and purpose of Heaven; but years passed on, and the generations and the ages, and still the mighty Worker continued with patient love to carry forward his purpose, and already chaos seems to be taking shape, already some notes harmonious are heard through all the harsh discord, already there is the outlining of a horizon radiant with the silver of rising day, already God seems to be subduing, overruling, controlling, and establishing things; and looking further on the prophet says,—"According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!"—how wondrous the transformation; how sublime the moral majesty; how gracious the complete deliverance! That, again, is our standing ground. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." It is not within our little ability to establish the divine kingdom upon the earth; but God will bring in an everlasting kingdom: he "will overturn, overturn, overturn,... until he come whose right it is." So we wait on in patience—patience often sorely troubled, patience that is vexed by many a question from the hostile side: men say,—"Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation"—not seeing the invisible Hand, not having that sharp vision which perceives the rectification of lines so fibrous and so delicate, not knowing that God"s transformation is being worked from the interior; that it is not a case of external painting but a case of spiritual regeneration, and according to the majesty of the subject within whose life this mystery is to be accomplished is the time which even God requires for the outworking and consummation of his miracle.

Then Balaam paints a picture—such a picture as would appeal to the Eastern imagination. He compares Jacob and Israel to the most beautiful of all spectacles; he says,—"How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! 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. 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" ( Numbers 24:5-7). Why speak so much about streams and rivers and waters?—because nothing appealed so vividly to the Oriental imagination. To have plenty of water was to be rich in the days of Balaam and in the country of Balak. So Balaam, taught by the Lord to speak the music of truth and of heaven, speaks of Jacob and Israel as being "valleys" where the water rolled, "as gardens by the river"s side, as the trees of lign aloes... and as cedar trees beside the waters." In other parts of the Old Testament those same cedar trees are spoken of with the rapture of poetry:—they put out their dark roots towards the river, they suck up the streams, and they report the success of the root in the far-spreading branches which seem to have lifted themselves up to the very clouds of heaven. Every country has its own standards of success, its own signs of prosperity, its own symbols which most vividly appeal to the imagination of the inhabitants; and water constituted the great object of admiration and of thankfulness in the Eastern mind. And then the King that was coming was to be "higher than Agag" ( Numbers 22:7). The word "Agag" means "high"; the word "Agag" is the name of the Amalekite kings, as "Pharaoh" was the name of the kings of Egypt, and "Abimelech" the name of the kings of the Philistines; so Agag is not any one personal king but the you or I of the Amalekite nation; and when Balak and his hosts looked upon their mighty Agag, Balaam said,—He is a child compared with the coming King—a mere infant of days compared with the crowned One of Jacob; when He comes whose right it is to reign, all other kings and princes will acknowledge his right, and fall down before him, and pay their crowns as tribute to his majesty.

This, then, is the position of the Church of Christ. We believe a great future is in store for the Church. Were we to look at the Church within given lines, we should say,—Great is its poverty, very questionable its intellectual standpoint; a very troubled community is the Church—vexing itself by divers theologies and conceptions and theories and speculations. But we must not look at the question in that way. Call for the Lord"s prophet: let "the man whose eyes are open" be called to stand on the hills of Moab, and his speech will be:—

Prayer

Almighty God, the way to thee is a broad way. We may come boldly to a throne of grace. The access which thy Son has wrought out for us is a great access. We will approach thee by the way which he has marked out. So we advance without fear, and can even venture to lift up our eyes unto heaven. At the very moment when we smite upon our breast, we have confidence in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. We think we could now bear to look upon the shaded glory of the Lord of hosts. We have been with Jesus, and have learned of him. At first we were afraid of the great fire, saying, Behold, it burns like an oven, and is hot as the wrath of justice. But now we know thee. God is love. Thou dost wait to be gracious, thou dost live for thy creation. We feel as if thou thyself wert praying for us in the very act of answering our petition. Thou dost make our prayer for us; it is the inditing of thy Holy Spirit in the heart. It is a speech we never invented, but which we receive and adopt as the good gift of God, relieving our heart as it does of the pressure of its pain and expressing happily all the desire of its necessity. Thou dost teach us how to pray. Thou wouldest have us praying always and never faint. Help us, then, to pray without ceasing, as we live without ceasing. We live whilst we sleep, we live in our unconsciousness; the life still keeps beating on ready for the morning of expectation and service and sacrifice. So may we pray in our very unconsciousness—yea, when we do not know we are praying in form and in set petition. May our life so acquire the sacred habit of the upward look and the heavenly expectation that without a word we may mightily cry unto the Father-Heart. We bless thee that we have experience of this kind. We are ashamed of our words: they are wings that cannot fly far; our souls must of themselves, in all the speechlessness of enraptured love, seek thee, find thee, and hold long and sweet communion with thee. We would live and move and have our being in God. This prayer thou dost never deny. Thou dost keep wealth from us, and prosperity, and renown, and riches, and honour, and ease; these things thou dost drive away with a sharp wind; but never didst thou say No to the soul that longed to be purer, to the heart that desired to be cleansed. May we find great answers to our petitions. They are addressed to thee in the appointed way, they are sealed with the name of Christ; every syllable is sprinkled with the blood of reconciliation; we say nothing out of our own name, or because of our own invention; we speak the Lord"s prayer in the Lord"s name, and we are sure of the Lord"s answer. We cannot tell thee what thou dost not know; yet thou dost love to hear us talk; thou delightest in the speech of man; there is something in it which we ourselves cannot hear; thou art carried back to thine own eternity. Even in our poor attempts to speak thou hearest a music which no other ear can detect in the utterances of man. What is that music? Is it a cry of pain? Is it the note of a voice of one who is lost in a wild night and cannot tell the east from the west, or where the sweet home lies warm with hospitable welcomes? Thou knowest there is divinity in it—a strange pulsing of the eternal music. When we speak thus to thee, in the name of Jesus, our music becomes a mighty prayer, and thine answer encompasses the heavens like a cloud too rich with blessing for the very heavens to contain. Lead us on. We do not know where the grave Isaiah , nor do we care. It may be one foot off, or many a mile away, hidden among the years that are yet to be numbered by tens and twenties. Whether it is already dug, or is not to be dug for many a day, what care we? Being in Christ we cannot die; rooted in the Life Eternal, death can but touch the outer frame. We ourselves are already in heaven. Amen.


Verses 22-35

Balaam Stopped By an Angel

Numbers 22:22-35

One of the most pious and profound commentators has suggested that all this was seen in a vision; in other words, the narrative may be taken as Balaam"s report of a very marvellous dream. Any suggestion will do when men want to get rid of the supernatural. Under such circumstances, the very indifferent man may become an important personage. Anything that will rid us of lines beyond our own personal experience, and give us a sense of comfortable snugness within four visible points, will be received with gratitude by the natural heart. We like insulation. We are pleased with a clock that we can see, every tick of which we can hear, and every indication of which we can read. But the clock is not the time. The time is invisible, impalpable, in many regards incalculable; quite a ghost, a very solemn thing, always talking, and yet talking in a way that is not always clearly apprehended or understood. People like to be comfortable, and nobody can be comfortable with the supernatural who is not in harmony with it. If a certain miracle has not been wrought in the soul, the supernatural becomes a kind of ghost, a spectral presence, an uncanny possibility in the life, and had better be got rid of; and when the mind wants such riddance, any suggestion that will aid in that direction is received with effusive thankfulness. In this instance, we had better, perhaps, in the first place, endeavour to find out what are those things in the story which do lie within the limit of our own experience—an experience which we are in danger of exaggerating into a kind of instinct and claim of infallibility. First of all, therefore, instead of troubling the mind with vexing questions which never can be settled, let us collect the lessons which are obviously within the circle of our own observation and experience; after that, we may be in a position to look at certain miraculous aspects and ascertain their import and their divine intention.

It lies quite within our experience that we do get our own way, and yet have a sense of burning and judgment, of opposition and anger all the time. Balaam was invited to go to Balak"s country and he said,—No. He said No with some emphasis. He was a man of fine impulse, an« his first impulse was generally healthy and strong in a right direction. Instead of giving a hesitant No he gave a bold round thunderous NO! Then Balak tried again; he also believed in importunity. He doubled the bribe,—nay, he may have multiplied the bribe by ten. He sent more honourable princes; men who in their own country were accustomed to command, and they assumed the obeisant attitude with great grace and humility. Balaam said,—No. But all the thunder had gone out of that No; it was a No which a mean man might have said. However—he said—I will pray about it, I will consult the Lord—when he need not have consulted the Lord at all. Men forget that there is a time when they need not ask the Lord any questions. Never trouble the Lord to know whether you cannot do just a little wrong; he is not to be called upon in relation to business of that kind. He does not pray who palters with moral distinctions, who wants to make compromises, who is anxious to find some little crevice or opening through which he can pass into the land of his own desire. Whimpering hypocrite! miserable miscreant! thou wilt pray in order to get leave to go in the direction pleasant to the imagination or profitable to the pocket and call it prayer!—wilt consult the oracle, wilt look to heaven, wilt inquire diligently in the Scriptures, wilt endeavour to find out some sign indicating what God means thee to do, whilst before thou didst pray thou hadst fashioned the answer. It was a mocker"s religion. Balaam got his own way so far. The Lord has a method of his own in this particular. Providence does shape itself curiously in some instances. The voice said to him,—Go!—you want to go; you have made up your secret mind to go,—go; only the word that I bid thee speak, that shalt thou say; and Balak, who sent for an ally, shall find himself confronted with a missionary. These things lie quite obviously within our own experience. We need not describe them at all as theological; we have seen this in a score of instances,—perhaps, in some instances, we ourselves have been the chief actors and sufferers. So far then we are upon the line of experience.

Men are stopped in certain courses without being able to tell the reason why. That also is matter of experience. The wind seems to be a wall before us; the road looks quite open, and yet we can make no progress in it. Our eyes deceive us, because surely this is a highway—the king"s broad road—and yet, scheme as we may, promise what we may, we can make no progress along that road. If an army met us, we could run home, and say,—Lo! a host beset us, and we have fled before the furious opposition. But there is no army. If some beast of prey had rushed out from the hedge, we could have turned back and explained to our comrades in life that we were stopped by a threatening beast. But there is no such difficulty on the road that is at all visible to us. We lift up our hand, and say we will go in this direction, oppose us what may,—and there is nothing to strike at. Again and again do we say,—How is this?—we came the first two miles easily, pleasantly, as if galloping over a flowery land at bright summer time, and we said in our hearts,—This journey will be a right pleasant one all through; and suddenly we can go no farther. This is matter of experience. Let us constantly say to ourselves: We cannot account for the impossibility of progress. The business stands still;—we have risen at the same hour in the morning, carried out the usual arrangements, been apparently on the alert all the time; and yet not one inch farther are we permitted to go. Suppose we have no God, no altar, no Church limitations, no ghostly ministry exerting itself upon our life and frightening us with superstition and spectre—we are healthy reasoners, downright robust rationalists,—men who can take things up and set them down, square-headed men,—yet there is the fact, that even we—such able-bodied rationalists, such healthy souls that any society would insure us on the slightest inquiry—there we are, puzzled, mystified, perplexed, distracted. We will not use theological terms: we fall back upon the second grade of language; still there remains the substantial and abiding fact, that progress along this road is impossible. So far, this story affords no ground of serious difficulty, even to the reason and the mind in its soberest mood.

It also lies within the region of experience that men are rebuked by dumb animals. That is odd; but it is true. The whole Scripture is charged with that statement, and so charged with it as to amount to a practical philosophy in daily life:—"But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee"—"The stork in heaven knoweth her appointed times"—"The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master"s crib"—"Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." Dumb creatures are continually teaching us. They keep law with wondrous obedience. The poorest brutes are really very faithful to the rude legislation under which they live. If men could only be as drunk as a beast, they would never go far from the paths of sobriety. It is a foul slander upon the beast for a man to set himself beside it and say that he is as oblivious of law, as negligent of divine intention, as the brute that perishes. In temperance, in acceptance of discipline, in docility, I know not any beast that is ever used by man that may not teach some men, very distinctly, helpful and useful lessons. That the beast does not speak is the very smallest and poorest objection that can be taken to the teaching. It is putting speech in a false position, it is altogether altering the relations and perspective of things. What is speech? How is speech delivered? Is speech confined to the tongue? We must define the word speech, if we are to enter into the particulars of a controversy which can never be settled. But we cannot allow rude definitions to be given as if they were philosophical. There is the substantial fact, that the beasts of the field do teach us, rebuke us, humble us; and that they do not do all this through the medium of articulate speech—as that term is understood by us,—is a frivolous objection, and ought not to be taken account of in any court in which the presiding disposition is to find out substantial and eternal truths. So far, I see nothing in the story to disturb the sobriety of experience.

Then, again, it does lie within our cognition that men do blame second causes for want of success. Balaam blamed the ass. That is what we are always doing. There is nothing exceptional in this conduct of the soothsayer. We want to get on—it is the beast that will not go. Who ever thought that an angel was confronting him—that a distinct ghostly purpose was against him? Who ever imagined that Hebrews , a rationalist with a healthy digestion, was stopped on his course by some beneficent providence? He naturally feels that he ought not to have been stopped; he is a healthy-minded Prayer of Manasseh , there is no nonsense about him,—a practical Prayer of Manasseh , shrewd, with eyes well-set in his head and that can see one colour in its distinction from another—an eye skilled in proportion and distance and expression; he ought not to have been stopped. Yet he is arrested. He blames his surroundings, his assistants, his colleagues, his "stupid partner," his "reluctant people." He would have been miles ahead—he might have been back by this time, but he was stopped by second causes. How much nobler the health of the man who says,—I am but of yesterday, and know nothing; I cannot tell what a day may bring forth; it is good to be disappointed; it is beneficial for my soul"s health not to have my own way always; I wanted to go along this road, and to go at a very quick rate, but I am mysteriously arrested, and I cannot move through an invisible wall; but God built it—I fall down before it as before an altar, and thank God for the stoppage! To some men, that appears to be the true reasoning. They have such self-distrust—they have seen the consequences of leaning to their own judgment so frequently, they have tested life at so many points and find what a mystery it is—that at last they have come to say,—We see nothing as it really is; we know nothing as it really is; we are in the hands of the divine Father;—not our will but thine be done. To some imaginations, that appears to be fanaticism; to others—not altogether ridiculous in mental capacity, nor altogether unworthy of credit—really genuinely-learned and cultivated men—it seems to be the finest rationalism, the noblest sobriety, the most substantial conviction.

Does it not also lie within the range of our experience that men do want to get back sometimes but are driven forward? Did not Balaam want to return when he said, "If it displease thee, I will get me back again"? We cannot. Life is not a little trick, measurable by such terms. A man cannot make a fool of himself, and instantly turn round as if nothing had happened; we cannot drive a nail into a tree and take it out without leaving a wound behind. It does not lie within the range of our arm—pontiffs though we be in the shabby church of reason—to break the vessel of glass, and put it together again as if it had never been dashed to pieces. This is not in harmony with the mystery of the universe as we know it. This proposition of Balaam"s is the ridiculous imagination of men who suppose that they can sin against God and say,—Now we will turn back; we will not do it again; we have blasphemed God—now we will go to church. To get that sophism out of the human mind is the difficulty of God. It appears so easy to commit a sin, and then to say we are sorry that we committed it, and to go back home as if nothing had been done. What has been done? The universe has been dishonoured; the snowy purity of God has been stained; the great creation in all its harmonies has been shocked and distressed with a great pain. We ought not to infer anything to the disadvantage of God from such a method of providence. It means that we are more than we thought ourselves to be. Conduct is of greater consequence than we imagine. Humanity is a sublime mystery, as well as God; and there is no way backward, unless it be in consent with the Mind that constructed and that rules creation. Balaam would go back and remain at Pethor as if he had never left his native village; but the Lord said,—No; go forward;—only now be the representative of holy truth to the heathen king.

But there is a difficulty about the dumb ass rebuking the perverse prophet? So there is. I would be dismayed by it if I were not overwhelmed by greater miracles still. This has come to be but a small thing—a very momentary wonder, a riddle which a child might guess,—as compared with more astounding circumstances. A more wonderful thing than that an ass should speak is that a man should forget God. If you challenge me to the consideration of both the subjects, and take them in the order of their importance, in proportion as I am a sound reasoner and in a healthy condition of conscience and imagination, I cannot hesitate which to assign the overwhelming importance. That a man should forget deliverances—that a man should be delivered from the jaws of the lion and the bear and should forget the deliverance—that is a more astounding circumstance than that all the beasts of the field should open their mouths in articulate and impressive eloquence. Why do we vex our little selves with little questions, instead of exciting our greater selves by greater problems? The miracle that astounds the Lord is that we should have forgotten that he had nourished and brought up children and that they should have rebelled against him. We—childish, foolish, vain,—are busy with little puzzles in the history of miracles, whilst the infinite impeachment is uttered by all the thunders of the universe, that we have forgotten God, turned away from the fountain of waters, and have hewn out to ourselves cisterns—broken cisterns—that could hold no water. Riddle-loving, easily tickled and amused, excited by miracles of the smallest quantity and the feeblest quality, we are wondering if the ass did speak to Balaam; whilst all the angels of God might stand appalled in looking on any sinful man who ever lifted his hand against the majesty of Heaven. There are historical miracles, there are miracles of a physical and material kind, there are mysteries to which we have no immediate answer; but there are other mysteries which involve destiny, and to these miracles we think it best to address ourselves in the first instance. The miracles of a physical and historical kind may admit of postponement as to their consideration; but that men should have forgotten God, and insulted law, and done unrighteously,—these are mysteries which must not be delayed in their explanation and settlement.

So we come again and again to the great practical inquiry,—Being on the wrong road, how shall we get back? There is no answer in man. If Balaam could have retraced his steps, put up his ass in the stable and gone about his business as if nothing had occurred, it would have been but a paper universe. That he could not do Song of Solomon , that he was under the pressure of mightier forces, indicates that the universe is itself a tragedy, and that the explanation of every character, every incident, and every flush of colour, must be left for another time, when the light is stronger and the duration is assured. Meanwhile, we can pray, we can look up, we can say, each for himself,—"I have sinned."

Prayer

Almighty God, receive us everyone in the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, we humbly beseech thee. There is room in thine heart for every one; thou dost miss the least. Teach us the minuteness of thy care that we may give to thee the keeping of our whole life, reserving nothing for our own regard, but delivering the whole space of life, great and small, to the rule and blessing of Heaven. We will do nothing without thee; though the temptation be strong to arise and move on and begin the battle and seize the gate, yet will we stand still until we are sure of thy bidding to move. Thou hast made one star differ from another star in glory; thou hast set one man above another; thou hast made one life the ruler of many lives. The distribution is entirely in God"s hands; we would accept it and adore the sovereignty which it represents. But thou hast a place for every one: thou hast omitted nothing from thy reckoning; to every man thou sayest,—Why stand ye idle in the marketplace? thou wilt find a position for every life. We bless thee for this confidence; it delivers us from care; it helps us patiently to wait. Thou hast marked our life by many a sign we cannot mistake. It is thy life: it was thy life before it was ours; it is only ours because it is thine. Thou dost close the door upon us suddenly and open another door that we did not know to be in existence; thou takest away from us our staff and thou puttest into our hand a still stronger one. We cannot tell what thou doest. Thou sendest winter in the midst of summer, and a glow of heavenly light amid the clouds that darken the heavens. Thy will be done evermore. As for our sin, if it is not always present to us, it is always in our heart, a reckoning to be settled, a guilt to be pardoned; but if the sin is there, behold, the Cross of Christ is still within the vision of our faith, and the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin. We will not fall into despair: we will not turn our imagination into the plague of our life; but looking to the heavens and to thy revelation in the Holy Book and to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, even in the deep pit we will take heart again and our hope shall be strong in God. Let a morning light be in our hearts; let a. gracious blessing make us glad; may the Spirit of the Living One destroy all death within us and make us now joyous and rich with the assurance of immortality. Amen.


Verse 37

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Am I not able to promote thee to honour?"Numbers 22:37

Balak had no other inspiration than worldly honour to offer.—He could not understand any man being unmoved by such an offer.—Herein Balak fitly represents the spirit of the whole world.—Who can resist gold? or distinction? or influence? or a throne? The whole spirit of this temptation culminated in the attempt of the devil to win the homage of Jesus Christ by offering him the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.—The world is making this very speech to every young man today.—This, too, is the speech which many a man is addressing to the woman who is unworthy of his love.—He will give her a name, a social status, and abundance of domestic comfort; he addresses no appeal to the companionship of the heart, the masonry of the mind, the desire for mutual growth in all sacred life and power.—The man who can accept a bribe for his service proves that he will oppose that very service if a higher bribe be offered.—He who will accept a bribe will give one.—He who will tell lies for you will also tell lies to you.—The spirit of Balak was reproduced in Simon Magus.—He offered the apostles money if they would give unto him the Holy Ghost.—There is no relation between material gifts and spiritual powers. They belong to different spheres.—Even when material treasure is offered in recognition of spiritual benefit it must cover itself with contempt in the presence of the majesty it seeks to recognise.—Ministers ought not to be bought for money.—The poet should not abandon his harp because the money-spender is not listening to him.—The princes of this world are never so thoroughly humbled as by the citizens of heaven.—Alexander could do nothing for Diogenes.—Abram would receive nothing from the King of Sodom, lest the king should put a wrong construction upon the deed.—The living water is to be had without money and without price.

—True honour cometh from God only.

"Them that honour me I will honour."—To receive honour from men is to blind the understanding, and shut out the true judgment.—"How can ye believe which receive honour from one another?"—If we are in quest of spiritual light and security we must bring a broken and a contrite heart, a spirit bowed down with humbleness, and a self-disposing soul.—"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 22:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/numbers-22.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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