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Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae
Numbers 22



Verse 18-19



Numbers 22:18-19. And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more. Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more.

THE study of human nature is ever profitable. Much insight into it may be gained from history; much from converse with the world; much from the examination of our own hearts. But that which we acquire from a perusal of the Holy Scriptures is the most clear and certain, because we have all the circumstances in one view before our eyes, and have infallible information respecting the motives and principles by which the different agents were influenced. The character of Balaam is peculiarly instructive. He was a man eminent as a soothsayer: and it was supposed that he could influence the fate, not of individuals only, but of nations, by his sentence of blessing or malediction. Persons of his description were frequently employed by kings at the commencement of a war, to devote their enemies to destruction: and, among the Romans, an officer was appointed particularly to that office. This man was applied to by Balak, the king of Moab, to come and curse Israel; who, as they feared, would vanquish them all, as easily “as an ox licketh up the grass.” This message gave occasion to Balaam to display what was in his heart. We propose to shew you,

I. The inconsistency of Balaam’s character—

That we may have a more distinct view of his character, we shall notice the contrariety which there was,

1. Between his sentiments and desires—

[The desires of man by nature are altogether earthly and sensual: but when light breaks in upon his mind, and he is made to see in a measure the evil of such desires, a conflict begins within him. It is in this state that multitudes go on: they see the better path, and approve it in their minds; but they cannot, will not, follow it: there are some gratifications which they know not how to forego, and some interests which they cannot prevail upon themselves to give up; and hence they proceed in a painful opposition to the dictates of their own consciences, being habitually self-convicted and self-condemned. They “hate the light,” and, as the Scripture strongly expresses it, “rebel against the light.”

Such was the state of Balaam. His views of divine truth were very enlarged, when we consider the age and country in which he lived. He had a considerable knowledge of God and his perfections; yea, of Christ also, together with the kingdom which he should establish upon earth [Note: Numbers 24:17-19.]. He was acquainted with the nature of truly spiritual religion [Note: Micah 6:6-8.]; and saw, not only the certainty of a future state, but the certainty, that, in that state, there would be an inconceivable difference between the righteous and the wicked. But still he was a covetous and ambitious man: and as soon as a prospect of gratifying his evil propensities was opened to him, he bore down the better convictions of his own mind, and determinately set himself to do evil.]

2. Between his professions and conduct—

[Who that had heard all the fine speeches which he made respecting his determination to adhere to the will of God, even though he should be able to gain “an house full of silver and gold” by disobeying it; and his pious advice to Balak, “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God;” who that had seen him apparently so fearful of stirring a step, or speaking a word, without the divine counsel and direction, would not have conceived him to be a pious character? Yet from beginning to the end his conduct was a continued course of horrible impiety. After he had once consulted God, and had received from him a determined answer that “he should not go with the messengers, and that he should not curse Israel, for that they were, and should be, blessed;” what had he to do, but to dismiss the messengers with a plain, full, determined answer? When the second company of ambassadors came, he should not have listened to them a moment; but should have been as peremptory in his answer to them as to the former. His second application for direction was only an insult to the Divine Majesty, and a spreading of a net for his own feet. God, seeing how bent he was upon the attainment of his own ends, (the acquisition of wealth and honour,) no more interposed with authority to prevent him, but on certain conditions gave him a permission to go. No sooner was a conditional permission given, than Balaam, without waiting for the conditions, set out upon his journey. God, in mercy to him, interposed by a miracle to obstruct his way; and caused a dumb ass to reprove him [Note: ver. 22–34 with 2 Peter 2:16.]: but even this produced nothing more than a momentary conviction of his sin, which however he was still determined to persist in: and, having obtained from the angel, what he construed into a permission to proceed, but which was rather a declaration that the ends of his journey should be defeated; (for that he should not be permitted to speak any thing which was not put into his mouth by God himself;) onward he goes, and addresses himself to his impious work with activity and perseverance. In all his renewed endeavours to curse Israel, he found himself constrained to bless them, insomuch that Balak, furiously enraged against him, dismissed him without any of the riches or honours which he had so eagerly sought after. Now, it might be hoped, that Balaam at last should see his error, and humble himself for his iniquity. But, instead of this, he devised a plan whereby that people, who could not be subdued by arms, might be beguiled into sin, and thereby subjected to the displeasure of their Almighty Protector. He advised Balak to make use of the Midianitish women, first to allure them to fornication, and then to draw them to idolatry; and by this means to destroy the souls of those, whom he could not otherwise injure [Note: Compare Numbers 31:16 with Revelation 2:14.]. Now compare this with all his professions of reverence for God, of regard for holiness, and of a desire after everlasting happiness; and what an astonishing inconsistency will appear!

But, in truth, though his circumstances were peculiar, his state is common. Many, many are the people, who, amidst high professions of regard for religion, are as much actuated by love of wealth and honour as ever Balaam was; and, if they can only obtain their own ends, are as little scrupulous as he about the means. Such are they who resemble the ancient Pharisees, on the one hand; and such also are the descendants of Judas and of Demas, on the other hand. Such characters abounded even in the apostolic age [Note: See 2 Peter 2:14-15 with Revelation 3:1 and former part of ver. 9.]: and we must not wonder, if they be to be found also in the present day [Note: Ezekiel 33:31.].]

In the course of this history, whilst we mark the inconsistency of Balaam, we cannot but notice also,

II. The consequences resulting from it—

Let us attend to those which resulted,

1. To his employers—

[Balak had raised his expectations high, and had hoped to derive great advantage from the aid of Balaam: “I know that he whom thou blessest, is blessed; and he whom thou cursest, is cursed.” But, after all his expense and trouble, he found that he had trusted to a broken reed; and was constrained to dismiss with indignation the man, whom he had so anxiously endeavoured to interest in his favour.

What a picture does this afford us of the disappointment too often generated in the minds of men by hypocritical professors! One perhaps, having heard of the religious principles of such or such a servant, promises himself the highest satisfaction in connexion with him: but finds him, after all, conceited, idle, deceitful, disobedient. Another deals with such or such a tradesman, in expectation that he shall find in him the integrity suited to his religious professions: but soon learns, that others, who know nothing of religion, are more honourable, and more to be depended on, than he. Another contracts a matrimonial alliance, from the presumption, that the person’s sentiments will have a suitable influence on his conduct: but learns afterwards, by bitter experience, that asperities of temper, and imprudences of conduct, even such as any moral person would be ashamed of, are too often cloked under a garb of religion, and gratified, to the utter subversion of domestic happiness. Need we say, what a stab such conduct gives to religion, or what a stumbling-block it lays in the way of the ungodly? Truly, through such persons “the way of truth is evil spoken of,” the prejudices of thousands are confirmed, and the name of our God and Saviour is blasphemed.]

2. To Israel—

[Though the enchantments of Balaam were unavailing, his diabolical advice was but too successful: the Israelites, unable to resist the allurements of the Midianitish women, were betrayed into an unlawful commerce with them; and thus fell into the snare which Balak had laid for them, and brought upon themselves the heavy displeasure of their God.

And are not hypocritical professors a snare to many? Do they not, either, by a spirit of disputation, turn weak believers “from the simplicity of the Gospel;” or, by a spirit of licentiousness, (which they call liberty,) induce them to violate their own consciences? Multitudes of such professsors there have been, and yet are, in the Christian Church; nor will it ever be known till the day of judgment, how many “weak brethren, for whom Christ died, have perished” through their means [Note: 1 Corinthians 8:9-12.].]

3. To himself—

[It might have been hoped, that after having been constrained to bless Israel, and thus to lose “the rewards of divination” which he coveted, he would have seen “his error,” and repented of it. But this is very rarely the lot of those, who proceed for any time in a wilful opposition to the convictions of their own minds: they generally become “seared in their consciences,” and hardened in their sins. Thus it was with Balaam. Though foiled for the present in his hopes of gain, he would not relinquish his pursuit of it, but still continued among the Midianites, and soon afterwards was involved in their destruction [Note: Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22.].

What a lesson does this teach us! What a prospect does it afford to all who yield themselves to the dominion of an unhallowed appetite! How vain his wish to have “his end like that of the righteous,” when he would not resemble them in his life! And truly, if we follow his steps, we shall, like him, perish miserably at last among the enemies of God.]

Learn then from this history,

1. The danger of indulging any besetting sin—

[The sin of Balaam was covetousness: and we see how it hurried him from one iniquity to another, till it brought him finally to destruction, both of body and soul. Nor is this an uncommon case. There is scarcely any principle more common, or more destructive, than a desire after wealth and preferment. “The love of money,” says the Apostle, “is the root of all evil: and many, by coveting after it, have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows [Note: 1 Timothy 6:9-10.].” The facility with which men deceive themselves in relation to this principle, renders it peculiarly dangerous. It scarcely ever appears in any other light than as a venial, at least, if not a commendable, quality. It is likely that Balaam himself did not see the extent of his own iniquity: he probably conceived himself to be solicitous only to know and do the will of God. But an inspired Apostle says of him, that “he loved the wages of unrighteousness,” and “ran greedily after error for reward.” Beware then, Brethren, lest, whilst ye think yourselves only prudent and discreet, God himself should “choose your delusions,” “give you up to a reprobate mind,” impute the same as sin unto you, and assign you your doom amongst his enemies. Whatever excites in you even a wish to violate the commands of God, will, if not restrained and mortified, assuredly “drown you in destruction and perdition.”]

2. The necessity of acting conformably with our principles and professions—

[Happy would it have been for Balaam, if he had so done! But of what use was his knowledge of God, whom he did not fear; or his views of Christ, whom he did not love? Of what benefit was his knowledge of men’s duty, when he would not practise it; or his persuasion of a future judgment, for which he made no exertions to prepare? These things served only to enhance his guilt, and to aggravate his condemnation. Thus will it be with us: “it were better never to have known any thing of the way of righteousness, than to” oppose it, or “depart from it.” “The servant that knew his Lord’s will and did it not, shall be beaten with more stripes, than the servant who sinned through ignorance.” I would earnestly entreat you therefore, Brethren, to walk according to the light which you possess. Do not, like Balaam, “imprison the truth in unrighteousness:” do not “profess that you know God, and at the same time in your works deny him:” but rather be yourselves examples unto others, that they may in you behold the sanctifying efficacy of your faith, and the excellency of that religion you profess.]

Verse 31



Numbers 22:31. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

THE ministry of angels is frequently asserted both in the Old and New Testament: but, because it is not seen, it is scarcely believed amongst us. Nevertheless, there is not any doctrine more fully established than this; nor scarcely any more clearly exemplified. We need only look to the passage before us; and there we see an angel deputed to intercept Balaam in his way to Midian, and to stop him in his career of wickedness. Whether the angel were the Son of God himself, “the Angel of the Covenant,” with whom Jacob afterwards wrestled [Note: Hosea 12:3-5.], we will not absolutely determine: but the context seems to countenance the idea that it was [Note: See ver. 32, 35. “perverse before me”—“the word that I shall speak.”]. At all events he had the appearance of an angel, and acted in the capacity of a messenger from heaven. For a considerable time Balaam did not see him; though the beast on which he rode, both saw, and endeavoured to avoid him. The whole story is so singular, that some have represented it as a vision. But, whilst that mode of accounting for the circumstances renders them not at all less miraculous than the more obvious interpretation, (for a divine agency would be as necessary in that case, as in the other,) it directly opposes the assertions of the historian, and the testimony of an inspired Apostle [Note: 2 Peter 2:16.]. We can have no doubt but that the facts happened as they are, related: and, that we may present them before you in a more easy manner, we will call your attention to some observations founded upon them.

I. God often mercifully interposes to obstruct sinners in their ways—

[Balaam, though he professed to be acting by the divine appointment, was in reality going in opposition to the will of God. The permission which had been granted him conditionally, he had construed as unconditional; and when God had declared that Israel should be blessed, Balaam was going with a desire and purpose to curse them. God, to awaken him to a sense of his wickedness, sent an angel to stop him in his way, and to make known to him the evil of his conduct.

It is thus that God often interposes to arrest the progress of sinners, and prevent the commission of iniquity. We say not, that he often proceeds precisely in this way: he has a great variety of ways in which he carries this gracious purpose into execution. Elihu, in his address to Job, directly affirms, that God does interpose, and in a variety of ways too, for this gracious end [Note: Job 33:14-17.]: and the Scriptures universally attest the truth of his remark. Sometimes God endeavours to divert men from their purpose by a dream, (as Pilate, by a dream of his wife [Note: Matthew 27:19.];) sometimes by a vision, (as Saul, in his way to Damascus [Note: Acts 9:3-4.];) sometimes by a judgment, (as Jeroboam, when he stretched out his hand against the man of God [Note: 1 Kings 13:4.];) sometimes by a human monitor, (as David, by Abigail [Note: 1 Samuel 25:32-33.];) and sometimes by an unforeseen occurrence, (as Saul, when having encompassed David with his army, was called away from him by a sudden invasion of the Philistines [Note: 1 Samuel 23:28.].) We cannot enumerate, nor indeed conceive, the infinite variety of methods by which God withstands sinners; but all of us, on reflection, must acknowledge both the reality and frequency of his interpositions.

How often has it happened that the thief, the robber, the housebreaker, and the murderer, have been deterred from their purpose by the approach of some unexpected person, or by some suggestion of their own minds! How often have persons under a strong temptation to gratify their lusts, been kept from the actual commission of fornication or adultery by some little occurrence, some noise, some apprehension, some qualm of conscience, which God, in mercy to their souls, has sent to interrupt them! How many unhappy females have been kept from destroying their infant children, either before or after their birth, by some considerations widely different from the fear of sin! It is a well-known fact, that many people, but for such restraints as these, would have even destroyed their own lives: and perhaps, of the many who actually do commit suicide, there is scarcely one, who has not been repeatedly diverted from his purpose, before he could find it in his heart to carry it into execution. So common are the interpositions of God for the prevention of sin, and the rescue of those who would commit it! But,]

II. His most signal interpositions often excite only the wrath of those for whose benefit they are sent—

[Thrice was Balaam interrupted in his course. The first time, his ass turned aside into a field, to avoid the angel; the next time, he ran up against a wall; and the third time, having no other method of avoiding him left, he fell down: and at each time Balaam’s anger was kindled; and at last it rose to such a height, that even the strange phenomenon of the ass speaking, as with a human voice, and expostulating with him, was not sufficient to arrest his attention: his only reply was, that he wished for a sword that he might kill her. Had he known at the time what danger he was exposed to, and what obligations he owed to his beast for that very conduct which so incensed him, he would have seen, that he had reason for unbounded thankfulness, where he thought that he had the greatest reason to complain.

And is it not thus oftentimes with us? If nothing had been revealed to us respecting the deliverance of Balaam, we should have thought him fully justified in his anger: and, because we do not see the particular mercies which God vouchsafes to us, we think ourselves justified in raging against the means and instruments that he employs. There are a thousand things which we call accidents, on which the greatest events depend. Evils might have come to us, or blessings might have been lost, if some circumstance, which at the time we deemed most unfortunate, had not taken place: nor can any but God himself conceive the extent to which we are indebted to him for things, which at the time excited our grief and indignation.

On this subject, I must leave every one to consult his own experience. But there is one view of it which will come home to the hearts of all. How often, when God has sent a guardian angel, a friend or minister, to instruct and warn us, have his reproofs kindled resentment, rather than gratitude, in our minds! and how many of us now see reason to be thankful for warnings which once excited our displeasure, whilst others have been eternally ruined by continuing to disregard them! Think only of the ministry of Christ and his Apostles, and of the different states of those who rejected or received their testimony, and this part of our subject will need no further comment. Moreover,]

III. Those interpositions which are acknowledged to have been sent in mercy, produce, for the most part, a very transient effect—

[Balaam, when his eyes were opened, and he was informed that he had narrowly escaped death, acknowledged his sin, and professed a readiness to return. But it is observable, that his very confession touches only on the supposed guilt of attempting to proceed in opposition to the angel, and not on the real guilt of going with a disposition and purpose directly opposed to the known will of God. So far from being humbled for this offence, he was glad at any rate to gain a renewed permission to prosecute his vile designs. Nor did he afterwards reflect, or repent him of his evil ways; but persisted in them, till vengeance overtook him, and he perished amongst the enemies of God.

Thus have we at times been made sensible of our danger. Some great calamity has overtaken us, or disease has brought us to the gates of death. Then we have acknowledged our sins, and professed a willingness to forsake them. But no sooner have the impediments been removed, than “our goodness has proved as the morning dew; and as the early cloud it has passed away.” Thus it was with Pharaoh, when God, by many successive judgments, strove to overcome his obstinacy: and thus it was with Saul, when David repeatedly spared his life. The judgments and mercies of God affected both of them for a moment, so that they confessed their sins: but the effect was transient, and they perished under an accumulated weight of guilt. O that it may not be so with us! O that we may not any longer resemble the rebellious Israelites [Note: Psalms 78:34-37.]; lest, like them, we exhaust the patience of our God, and provoke him to “swear in his wrath that we shall never enter into his rest!”]


1. Those who are bent on their evil ways—

[Covetousness is a common, and destructive sin: and many are guilty of it, whilst they seem unconscious of any great evil. They are decidedly guilty of it, who prefer the prosecution of their interests to the will of God and the welfare of his people. Let such offenders know then, that God and his Angel stand before them with a fiery sword; and that, for ought they know, the very next step they take may transmit them to the presence of an angry God. Methinks the brute creation that obey their will, would, if their mouths were opened, rebuke their disobedience, more pointedly than ever Balaam’s ass rebuked him [Note: Isaiah 1:2-3; Jeremiah 8:5-7.]. See, Brethren, how Solomon describes your state [Note: Ecclesiastes 9:3.]! see how he warns you of your end [Note: Proverbs 29:1.]! O beg of God, that he would never give you his permission to proceed, but contend with you effectually, till he has gained his point! If once “he give you up,” and say, “Let him alone [Note: Psalms 81:11-12; Hosea 4:17.],” it were better for you that you had never been born.]

2. Those who desire to return from them—

[Whatever have been the means of stopping your career, be thankful for it: falls or bruises, such as Balaam had, are mercies when sent for such an end. Bear in mind what your conduct has been [Note: Isaiah 57:17.], and be humbled on account of it in dust and ashes. Bear in mind too that you will assuredly “return, like the dog to his vomit,” if Almighty God do not keep you by his grace. But he has promised to his people to “hedge up their way with thorns, and to build a wall against them, that they may not find their former ways [Note: Hosea 2:6-7.]:” entreat him earnestly to do this for you; and to “keep you by his own power through faith unto salvation.”]


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Bibliography Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Numbers 22:4". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. 1832.

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Thursday, December 5th, 2019
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