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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical
Numbers 23



Verses 11-24


Numbers 23:11-24

11And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether 12 And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord hath put in my mouth? 13And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them: thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence.

14And he brought him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah,[FN3] and built seven altars, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar 15 And he said unto 16 Balak, Stand here by thy burnt offering, while I meet the LORD yonder. And the Lord met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Go again unto Balak, and say thus 17 And when he came to him, behold, he stood by his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath the Lord spoken?

18And he took up his parable, and said,

Rise up, Balak, and hear;

Hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor;

19 God is not a man that he should lie;

Neither the son of man that he should repent;

Hath he said—and shall he not do it?

Or hath he spoken—and shall he not make it good?

20 Behold, I have received commandment to bless.

And he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.

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.

22 God brought them out of Egypt;

He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

23 Surely there is no enchantment against[FN4] Jacob,

Neither is there any divination against Israel:

According to this time it shall be said of Jacob

And of Israel, What hath God wrought!

24 Behold, the people shall rise Up as a great lion,

And lift up himself as a young lion:

He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey

And drink the blood of the slain.


[ Numbers 23:11. בֵּרַכתָּ בָרֵךְ Thou hast blessed to bless. Thou hast blessed only and continually.—A. G.]

[ Numbers 23:13. אֶפֶם קָצֵתוּ—correctly rendered the utmost part—not as Including the whole, but, as the following clause shows, a small part, the mere stragglers of the camp, as it were.—A. G.]

[ Numbers 23:14. Zophim, or watchers, or spies.—A. G.]

[ Numbers 23:15. Here—yonder. כּהֹ, so—thus. The sense is not local. It is the manner.—A. G.]

[Num 23:19. Heb. cause it to stand.—A. G.]

[ Numbers 23:20. Literally: I have taken, received to bless. How he had received it, the word does not explain. The word, however, was put in his mouth, and hence our version correctly supplies commandment.—A. G.]

[ Numbers 23:21. Heb. trouble, sorrow, suffering, generally as the result of sin.—A. G.]

[ Numbers 23:22. The participle מוֹצִיאָם designates the bringing out as still incomplete and going forward.—A. G.]

[ Numbers 23:23. In both cases it is in, not against. Auguries and divinations are not practised in Israel. They had the immediate revelation.—A. G.]


1. Balak’s dissatisfaction and his renewed attempt. He thinks already that in the words of Balaam he hears the utterance of the most definite and positive blessing. Balaam appeals to his absolute dependence. Jehovah put the words in his mouth. But now the blinded and superstitious king conceives the idea that he has made a mistake in the position to which he had led the prophet. He had placed him at first where he could see only a part of the camp. It now appears to him that even this was too much. Come thou with me to another place, the end of the end of them (only the extreme, meagre part of them) thou shalt see, and shalt not see them all. Keil takes just the opposite view. Balak, he says, “led the seer to the field of the watchers that he might now see the entire people.” He explains the words “thou shalt not see them all,” as referring to the view from Bamoth-Baal. But the changed position for the third saying, where he first overlooked the whole camp of Israel, lies against this view. The full description of the second position leads also to the rejection of Keil’s view. Kurtz’s theory also, that the utmost part denotes the whole, is to be rejected. The phrase “end of the end” is by no means an “intolerable tautology,” but a very expressive description. The field of the watchers is clearly an elevated plateau upon Pisgah from which watchers made their observations; but that does not determine whether the watchers were soldiers, bird-augurs, or astrologers; nor does it inform us whether this place was the peak Nebo upon Pisgah, or a field of Moab upon the heights of Pisgah. The near lying valley regions are often invisible from lofty summits concealed by wooded ridges and the lower peaks. In any case the design of Balak is clear, that Balaam should see as little as possible of the camp of Israel. Balak must bring again his great sacrifice. I will go to meet yonder, viz., the manifestation of God. [I will go and meet “is a technical term here for going out for auguries or for a divine Revelation,” Keil. The term is not local, but expresses the purpose for which he went.—A. G.]. [Hirsch has an ingenious and striking explanation of the places chosen by Balak—Baal, Zophim, Peor—as indicating in his mind the three great potencies which decide the weal or woe of nations, through each of which he hopes to secure the curse of Balaam and the ruin of his foes. First Baal, the physical or material, then the field of seers and watchers, the intellectual, and then Peor, the moral. He would see how richly they were endowed, or through what avenues in these respects their ruin could be accomplished.—A. G.]

2. The blessing. Now he begins his blessing with an address to Balak. He must rise up as if to receive the command of a king; nor is it a mark of distinction directly, a term of majesty and glory when he addresses him as the Son of Zippor. With his first word he reproves the thought of Balak that God might perhaps take back His word. This lies entirely beyond the power of Balaam. So also with the declaration I have received to bless; he (God) hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it.—Now also he speaks positively of blessing, and of the entire failure of the purpose to curse. The blessing branches into the following parts: 1. Israel’s blessed condition spiritually. No iniquity is discovered in Jacob, and (therefore) no trouble or affliction in Israel.—Hence there are no points to which the curse can attach itself. [This applies not to individuals in their moral character, as if they were faultless in the sight of God, but to the people in their calling and in their covenant relation to God.—A. G.]. 2. Israel is the people of God. Jehovah is with him as his God. He Himself is the King, whose trumpet note sounds among them3. Hence his way is one in which God leads him. God has brought him out of Egypt, and thus he goes forward rapidly and with the irresistible power of the buffalo. [The Reem was probably some species of the wild ox, of great fierceness and of indomitable strength. See Art. Unicorn, Smith’s Bib. Dict.—A. G.]. 4. Therefore also Israel is secure against the unclean spirits of soothsaying and divination. On the contrary it was guided by the pure spirit of prophecy. The words sound as if Balaam uttered judgment upon his own equivocal position. [“The augury and the divination were the two means employed by the heathen for looking into futurity.” There was no call or place for them in Israel. It was not only secure against their arts, but they had no basis, no legitimate existence. According to the time, i.e., at the right time, in due time, it shall be said, God will reveal His will and purposes.—A. G.]. 5. Hence the lion-like character of the people; its mighty, terrible, irresistible power; its certain triumph over its foes. [Bible Com. “Beyond the camp Balaam’s eye would pass on to the bed of the Jordan. It was perhaps a lion coming up in his strength from the swelling of that stream ( Jeremiah 49:19) that indicated to him this similitude.”—A. G.].

Numbers 23:19. We have already spoken of the apparent repenting of God as a confirmation of His unchangeableness.

Numbers 23:21. We prefer not to regard God as the subject of הִבִּיט and רָאָה, but to take them as an indefinite form of the third person. [But see Hengst, p112, and comp. Habakkuk 1:3; Habakkuk 1:13.—A. G.] The cause of this glory of Israel is found in the fact that God is their King. As the mighty God (El) He leads them (continuously) out of Egypt. Ought any one to make the sinlessness of Israel the cause? תֹּועֶפֹת may express the rhythmic motion in the alternate leaps and pauses of the buffalo in its progress. [It denotes rather the stirring, restless, unwearied efforts with which the animal forces his way upwards.—A. G.].

Numbers 23:23. Their progress will be sure and constant, because they do not waver here and there under the delusions of magic arts, but march forward with confidence, instructed by the word of God, which shall be given them from time to time. They shall then know what great things the mighty God will do for them.

Numbers 23:24. The words of Judah’s blessing ( Genesis 49:9) transferred to the whole people.


FN#3 - Marg. the hill.

FN#4 - Marg. or in.

Verse 25


Numbers 23:25 to Numbers 24:9

25And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all 26 But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do?

27And Balak said unto Balaam, Come, I pray thee, I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence 28 And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon 29 And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams 30 And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.

Numbers 24:1.And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for[FN1] enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness 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.

3 And he took up his parable, and said,

Balaam the son of Beor hath said,

And the man whose eyes are[FN2] open hath said:

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:

5 How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob!

And thy tabernacles, O Israel!

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.

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.

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.

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.


[ Numbers 24:1. Heb. as time after time.—A. G.].

[ Numbers 24:3. נְאֻם a divine saying used ordinarily with Jehovah, found only here and Proverbs 30:1; 2 Samuel 23:1, with the genitive of the human bearer of the saying.—A. G.].

[ Numbers 24:3. Rather closed שָהַם like סָהָם to close, the שׁ being later softened into שׂ or ס. See Hengst, pp136–139, and the authorities quoted.—A. G.].

[ Numbers 24:4. Falling down—having his eyes open, i. e., the inward eye. The words are different from those in Numbers 24:3.—A. G.].

[ Numbers 24:7. The dual form: “personifying the nation as a man carrying two pails overflowing with water.”—A. G.]

[ Numbers 24:8. צָרְיו. Those who beset him round.—A. G.].

[ Numbers 24:8. The suffix in חִאָיו refers to Israel, and the verb is without an expressed object. Hirsch meets the difficulty by making the singular suffix refer to God, as His arrows, the arrows of God, Israel wounds.—A. G.].


Balak is betrayed into the greatest confusion, utters things which are self-contradictory—a usual result of such cunningly-laid schemes. At first he says: Thou shalt neither curse them nor bless them, i. e. keep silence with respect to them. But immediately another superstitious idea occurs to him. He had erred perhaps in only letting the “curser” see the extreme limits of the Israelitish camp. Possibly the result might be entirely different if he should overlook the whole camp at one time and in one view. Then perchance his alarm at the sight of this great swarming host would overwhelm him, and so lead him to pronounce the curse. He leads him therefore at once to the top of Mount Peor. This mountain lay nearest the camp of Israel, one of the peaks of the Abarim range and overlooking the whole plain. It was probably not far from the city Beth-Peor. [It was north from Pisgah, and nearly opposite Jericho, six Roman miles higher than Libbias. The locality is important in connection with the prophetic utterances which follow, See Smith’s Bib. Dict, Art. Balaam, Stanley’s Hist. of Jewish Church, p213–217. “Behind him lay the vast expanse of desert extending to the shores of his native Assyrian river. On his left were the red mountains of Edom and Seir; opposite were the dwelling-places of the Kenite, in the rocky fastnesses of Engedi; further still was the dim outline of the Arabian wilderness, where ruled the then powerful tribe of Amalek; immediately below him lay the vast encampment of Israel, amongst the Acacia groves of Abel-Shittim—like the water-courses of the mountains—like the hanging gardens beside his own river Euphrates with their aromatic shrubs and their wide-spreading cedars. Beyond them, on the western side of Jordan, rose the hills of Palestine, with glimpses through their valleys of ancient cities towering on their crested heights. And beyond all, though he could not see it with his bodily vision, he knew well that there rolled the deep waters of the great sea, with the Isles of Greece, the Isle of Chittim—a world of which the first beginnings of life were just stirring, of which the very name here first breaks upon our ears.”—A. G.] The same costly sacrifice must be offered again. It could only have been in an ironical temper that Balaam, after his previous utterances, could start upon this new attempt or make these requisitions for it.

He knows now definitely the will of Jehovah, and does not go as before to meet or seek auguries, but turns his back directly towards the wilderness, and surveys the whole people of Israel encamped there. Then the Spirit of God came upon him in a new and higher way. The words are no longer put into his mouth, and uttered under constraint and legal fear; he speaks out now in his ecstatic condition winged words, although we cannot say that they came from the heart. [“He no longer attempted by any magic art to control the purpose of God, but became the organ which God used in the communication of His will. He spake now in the spirit of prophecy” Hirsch. “It was not the mere sight of the ordered camp which formed the subjective preparation for receiving the Spirit of God, but the sight in connection with the previous living conviction that Israel was the blessed people of God.” Hengstenberg.—A. G.]

Numbers 24:3-4. He begins with a description of his new higher and more exalted state. From his very opening words Balaam himself is conscious for the time of prophetic powers. From Balaam the son of Beor he has become the man who has his inward prophetic eyes opened, since he has passed now into prophetic ecstacy. He first heard the words of (the mighty) God—as hearing usually precedes vision in the miraculous revelation—and then saw the vision (face) of the Almighty, but was so overpowered that he fell down (as Saul, 1 Samuel 19:24; Daniel, Daniel 10:9; the Seer in the Apocalypse, Revelation 1; and as generally the prophets were prostrated in their calling); but with the fall, his spiritual eyes were unveiled, so that he can now make known the divine sayings. [Keil: “He calls his prediction a divine saying, a נְאֻם, for the purpose of designating it as a divine revelation received from the Spirit of God.” The falling to the ground was not necessarily or even generally an attendant upon the prophetic state and calling. There seems to be an intimation in the phrase, is Saul also among the prophets? that this condition was common. But that is a slight basis upon which to build a theory of the prophetic state. It is only in cases like Balaam and Saul, when the Spirit finds an alien condition of will and heart, that His coming is attended by these marks of violence, as if they were overcome and thrown down by a hostile power. As Hengstenberg well says, we are not justified in inferring from these cases that this was the condition with all the prophets. We could scarcely conceive it to have occurred with Samuel, as with Saul. To those whose ordinary states are pervaded by the Spirit He comes as to His own. The falling with David, Ezekiel,, John, are not parallel; for in their case it was the splendor and glory of the manifestation which led them to prostrate themselves in reverence and fear. Whose eyes are open, not with the margin: who had his eyes shut, but now open, referring in both cases to his inward eye, but with most modern commentators, as now shut or closed. It is descriptive of his present ecstatic state. His bodily eyes and senses are closed to the external world, while his inner eye is open to the visions which the Spirit gave. The contrast between the third and fourth verses in the original favors this interpretation. It does not follow, however, that every prophet in his prophetic condition, had his bodily eyes closed, or the senses, as it were, suspended, “so far as self-conscious reflection is concerned.” With men like Balaam, whose inner eye was darkened by lusts and passions, it seems necessary; but with those who were spiritually-minded, who were not sunken in the world of the senses and of self, it was not necessary, and probably did not occur.—A. G.] But here again the blessing is richer in its pathetic form than in its contents. The figures used are massed, and sometimes obscure. We meet again not only the image of the swift-rushing buffalo, but of the lion in a modified form. He describes the goodly and splendid appearance of the tent-city, which may be regarded as an unconscious type of the theocracy or the church ( Numbers 24:5-6). In the next place he describes the glorious development of this people ( Numbers 24:7). Then thirdly he celebrates its power—and indeed its destructive power over the heathen ( Numbers 24:8-9). Only a faint glimmer of hope for the nations shines through the closing words: Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.

Numbers 24:5. How goodly are thy tents, etc.—The word is typically significant, not only in reference to the theocracy, but to the Christian Church. [It is Israel which comes before his mental vision—“the people in its higher nature, in its relation to God,” and therefore all who are Israel, down to the most distant ages.—A. G.]

Numbers 24:6. From the dwellings to the land. Well-watered valleys spread themselves out in beautiful pictures, and to these the still more beautiful gardens by the river side. The conception of the aloe-groves breathing out their fragrance, and the cedar trees standing in their strength by the water courses, leads us away from the ordinary beauties of nature, to a higher paradisaic nature and culture. As an unconscious typical word, it foretells the Canaan to come, and the wider and succeeding glorification of the earth. [Bible Com. The aloe imported from China and the far distant east furnished to the ancients one of the most fragrant and precious of spices. Comp. Psalm 45:48. “All thy garments smell of myrrh, aloes and cassia,” Psalm 7:17. The images of the prophecy seem to have a basis or ground partly in the scene which lay before his natural eyes before the trance—the camp with its wide surroundings, and partly in those with which he was familiar along the banks of his own Euphrates.—A. G.]

Numbers 24:7. The people are presented under the image of a water carrier, whose two buckets (the dual form) which he carries, are overflowing with water. [He shall pour the water.—He shall not only prosper, have abundance of water, as water was so essential to all fertility, but he shall pour from his overflowing buckets, he shall distribute to others out of his fullness of blessings. In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed, Genesis 12:3.—A. G.] His seed, i. e., his progeny (not his sowing corn, as Bunsen), shall be in many waters, i. e., shall spread itself abroad, be cheered with great and varied blessing. His king shall be higher than Agag, i. e., the kings of his ancient enemies, the Amalekites, who were called Agag (the fiery). [Agag seems to have been the common name of the kings of the Amalekites, as Pharaoh of the kings of Egypt, and Abimelech of the kings of the Philistines. And Hengstenberg has shown clearly, from the immediate context, in which Balaam speaks only in general terms of the good which should come to Israel, and from the relation which this third saying has to those which precede it, and that which follows, forming as it were a middle member in the whole prophetic utterance, a transition from the general and ideal, to the particular or individual, that we cannot suppose a reference to any individual king as the Agag overthrown by Saul, 1 Samuel 15:8. It is only in the fourth saying, and even then in a general way, that he passes on to an individual application of the predictions to particular hostile nations. This is still further confirmed by the fact that his king is not any particular king, as Saul or David, nor even the Messiah exclusively, but his king generally, i.e., the king whom Israel should receive. His king here is equivalent to the kingdom which should be exalted—in and through which the power of Israel should be fully developed and established over all enemies. There is too an historical reason why the Amalekite kingdom should appear here as the representative of the enmity of the world to the kingdom of God (see Exodus 17:8). And they were still probably among the most mighty of Israel’s foes, which was not the case at the time of Saul. There is no valid ground therefore for the supposition that this passage indicates a later origin of the book of Numbers. On the contrary, it may be fairly urged as showing how deeply the idea of the kingdom lies imbedded in all conceptions of the people of God as a power in the world, as showing that it is not an idea of late growth, but one with which the people of God, and even Balaam was familiar.—A. G.] His kingdom shall be exalted, i. e., raise itself by its activity, vigor and growth. In the words his king he indicates the establishment of a royal dynasty in Israel, but that the kings of the Amalekites (and not Edom, Assyria, Babylon) are chosen as the type of heathen enmity proves the antiquity of the narrative. The singular greatness of the people corresponds to the singular greatness of the king. There is no verbal and conscious prophecy of the Messiah here (Keil: “The king was neither the Messiah exclusively, nor the earthly kingdom without the Messiah”); for with the conception of the ideal Messiah, which unfolds itself later, out of the natural and generic Messiah, the conception of salvation as extending to all assumes a definite form. The words, however, in a typical sense have an unmistakable significance: the great people of God with its great king overcoming and towering above all heathen kingdoms and kings. [Hengstenberg: “for as Israel only attains the complete realization of its idea in the erection of the kingdom, so the kingdom reaches completely its destination only, with the appearance of the Messiah. In Him first the king of Israel is truly higher than Agag, the representative of the hostile world-power.”—A. G.]

Numbers 24:8. The repeated reference to Egypt and the Exodus appears to be designed to bring out more vividly the contrast between this poor race of liberated slaves, and its destruction of the heathen nations as its enemies. We explain the latter and difficult clauses thus: he will crush (not gnaw) the bones of his enemies, and then break his own arrows, because the instruments of warfare have become useless. (See Isaiah 2:4.) It is a strange order surely to say that he will first gnaw the bones of his enemies, and then pierce them with his arrows. We would rather account for the change from the plural to the singular thus: as he will crush the hostile nations, so he will break his (the enemies’) arrows. [Keil renders: “he shall dash them in pieces with his arrows,” making the enemies the object of the verb. The violent alterations in the text suggested by J. D. Michaelis and Knobel are unnecessary. The order may be, from the crushing defeat of Israel’s enemies, to the instruments by which it is secured, arrows standing for the weapons of war. Hirsch: “And as the arrows of God, Israel wounds,” i.e., Israel is the weapon in the hand of God in His warfare with His malignant foes, the enemies of the dominion of His moral law upon the earth, and it is only as the arrow of God that Israel has victorious power over the nations.”—A. G.]

The figure of the lion has a deeper significance than in Numbers 23:22. There the lion goes in search of his prey; he has not yet lain down; here he appears as a triumphant lion, who has lain down in his majesty, and will injure no more. As to the typical meaning underlying this prediction of the kingdom of Israel conquering and destroying all heathen power, see Psalm 2, 110; Isaiah 9, 11; Daniel 2:34-35.

Num 24:9. Comp. Gen 12:3; Gen 27:29; Gen 49:9; Mat 10:40-42.

The last words must lead to a rupture between Balak and Balaam, for their application to themselves, and their opposite purposes, was apparent. Balaam as the blesser felt himself blessed; and since Balak still wished to curse Israel, he was pursued already by the curse. [The future history will scarcely justify the supposition that Balaam felt himself blessed. He was conscious that he did not bless with the heart; it was not a blessing he desired which he utters, and hence he could not feel that he himself was heir to the blessing.—A. G.]


FN#1 - Marg. To the meeting of enchantments.

FN#2 - Marg. who had his eyes shut but now opened.


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Bibliography Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 23:4". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.

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Thursday, June 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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