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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Numbers 23





Balak offers sacrifices according to the orders of Balaam; who, by the impulse of God, prophesies in favour of the Israelites.

Before Christ 1452.

Verse 1

Numbers 23:1. Build me here seven altars, &c.— That is, say some, in honour of that God who had consecrated the number seven by ceasing from his works of creation on the seventh day. That Balaam sacrificed to Jehovah, the true God, there can be no question; but Psalmanazar's reasons why he erected seven altars seem the most probable. He observes, that the kind and number of victims here mentioned is not only enjoined by the Mosaic law upon various occasions, but also to Job's three friends, by way of atonement for their trespass. Job 42:8. But as to this number of altars, we no where read of any such, nor indeed of any more than one at a time, either under the patriarchal or Mosaic dispensation. A greater number was not compatible with the notion of one Supreme Being, whom Balaam professed to worship; but if he reared them to seven planets, which were esteemed the greatest and most powerful of all the subordinate deities, as we have great reason to suppose he did, because that kind of theology had been some time in vogue in Egypt, and spread itself in all those parts;—then it is plain, that he applied to them in that manner only as to the most powerful mediators, to render a Supreme Deity propitious to his wishes. See on the foregoing chapter, Second Principle, page 576. What makes this interpretation the more probable, is, that upon his meeting with God at the conclusion of the first of those grand ceremonies, he addresses him in these terms, I have prepared seven altars, and offered upon each of them a bullock and a ram, Numbers 23:4 but does not in either part mention the word to thee, as He would of course have done, had these altars been designedly reared, or the victims been offered to him; so that he means no more, according to the theology then reigning, than this: "I have invoked, by the usual rites, the seven planets, or inferior deities, to whom thou hast committed the government of the world, to interpose their mediation with thee, on the behalf of Moab and Midian." What confirms this interpretation the more, is, that after Balaam has declared the tenor of the divine answer, in terms the most opposite to Balak's wishes, that monarch does not desire him to apply himself to some other inferior deities, there being little reason to hope that these should prove more successful than the former; but only desires him to repeat the same sacrifices to them from some other eminence, (Numbers 23:13.) which might prove more favourable than this: to which we may add, that the last two trials are performed at the desire of, and in compliance with, the superstitious king, and not by the prophet's advice or choice, who could not but certainly conclude, from the express tenor of the first divine answer, the impossibility of obtaining a reversion of it. However, as this worship and invocation of the planets was one of the main branches of heathen idolatry, against which God had so solemnly declared his displeasure, and done so many wonders both in Egypt and other places to extirpate it out of the minds of those infatuated nations, we may reasonably rank it among the unlawful means which Balaam made use of upon this occasion, and which Moses mentions under the name of divinations, or enchantments. See chap. Numbers 24:1. Others he might, and probably did use, which Moses has given us no further account of, than where he tells us, that when Balaam found, at the third trial, that God was determined to bless Israel, he went not as at other times to seek for them; but set his face towards the wilderness: i.e. towards the Israelitish host; and, having received the divine impulse, delivered his third blessing on them, in more emphatical and magnificent terms than he had done at the two former; till Balak, quite out of patience at his expressing himself in so high and extraordinary a manner, at once silenced and dismissed him with contempt and disgrace; ch. Numbers 24:10.

Numbers 23:2. Balak and Balaam offered on every altar Kings in ancient times were priests also, whereof we have a striking example in Melchisedeck; see Genesis 14:18. So that Balak might be priest of the Moabites as well as king, and thus officiate with Balaam in the sacerdotal functions; though some have thought that he did no more than barely present the sacrifices to be offered by Balaam for him and his people.

Verse 3

Numbers 23:3. Stand by thy burnt-offering By which he means not any particular offering, but the whole sacrifice offered on the seven altars. And I will go, says Balaam, i.e. I will retire into solitude and silence to meet the Lord, Numbers 23:15. (see the note on chap. Numbers 24:1.) peradventure the Lord will come to meet me: from which it is inferred, that it was customary in those early times for prophets and other pious persons, after performing the sacred rites, to retire into some solitary place to wait for an answer from God. And therefore Balaam speaks of God's meeting with him, or communicating his mind to him, as a thing which might now probably happen to him, as it seems to have been done upon other occasions. Accordingly, he went into an high place; but as he was in a high place already, some are for rendering it, he went into a valley, or, as our margin renders it, he went solitary, i.e. into the most retired part of the grove, which those high places were seldom without, and where he expected to receive the oracle from God; but the original word שׁפי shephi, signifies a high craggy, place: see Isaiah 13:2. Jeremiah 3:2 and it is most probable that Balaam ascended into a higher part of these mountains, for the greater solemnity of his meeting with Jehovah. Mr. Le Clerc founds a conjecture upon this passage, peradventure the Lord, &c. that the angels appeared sometimes to those who offered sacrifices, and that such apparitions gave occasion to the famous doctrine of the heathens, of the evocation of the deities; which Jamblichus has thoroughly treated of in his book on the Mysteries of the Egyptians. Our readers may meet with an extract from that book, in the treatise of father Mourgues, intitled, A Theological Plan of Pythagorism. This celebrated Jesuit has there fully discussed all the questions concerning this pretended evocation of the gods. See Saurin, Dissert. 64.

Verse 5

Numbers 23:5. The Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth Jehovah, in the original; which abundantly proves Balaam to have been a prophet of the true God. Concerning the word parable in the 7th verse, see the note on chap. Numbers 21:27.

Verse 9

Numbers 23:9. For from the top of the rocks I see him, &c.— That is, from the top of the rocks on which he then stood: this, and the next expression, may relate not only to the present view he had of the camp of the Israelites, but to their future settlement in Canaan, wherein they were represented to his "mind's eye" as dwelling securely under the protection of the Almighty. The people shall dwell alone, says Hebrews 1.e. separated from other nations by peculiar laws, religion, and manners; and how could Balaam, says Bishop Newton, upon a distant view only of the people, whom he had never seen or known before, have discovered the genius and manners, not only of the people then living, but of their posterity to the latest generations? What renders it more extraordinary is, the singularity of the character; that they should differ from all the people in the world, and should dwell by themselves among the nations without mixing and incorporating with any. The time too when this is affirmed increases the wonder, it being before the people were well known in the world; before their religion and government were established, and even before they had obtained a settlement any where. But yet, that the character was fully verified in the event, not only all history testifies, but we have even ocular demonstration at this day. The Jews in their religion and laws, their rites and ceremonies, their manners and customs, were so totally different from all other nations, that they had little intercourse or communion with them. An eminent author (see the Divine Legation, book 2: sec. 6 b. 5: sec. 2.) hath shewn, that there was a general inter-community among the gods of Paganism; but no such thing was allowed between the God of Israel and the gods of other nations: there was to be no fellowship between God and Belial, though there might be between Belial and Dagon; hence the Jews were branded for their inhumanity and unsociableness; and they generally hated, as they were hated by, the rest of mankind. Other nations, the conquerors and the conquered, have often associated, and united as one body under the same laws; but the Jews, in their captivities, have commonly been more bigoted to their own religion, and more tenacious of their own rites and customs, than at other times; and even now, while they are dispersed among all nations, they yet live distinct and separate from all, trading only with others, but eating, marrying, and conversing among themselves. We see, therefore, how exactly and wonderfully Balaam characterised the whole race, from the first to the last, when he said, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. See Dissert. on Prophecies, p. 123.

Verse 10

Numbers 23:10. Who can count the dust of Jacob? &c.— God promised to Abraham, first, that his posterity should inherit the land of Canaan; and secondly, that they should be as numerous as the dust of the earth, Genesis 13:15-16. Balaam confirms this double promise: the first part in the preceding verse, the second in this; where he speaks of the prodigious multiplication of the people. These words may regard the present state of the Israelites; but they principally respect the future. The LXX well express the meaning of this place in their translation: Who can count the seed of Jacob? The number of the fourth part of Israel refers to the division of Israel into the four camps; so that the meaning is,—How vast must be the number of this people, when one of their camps is so numerous as to be almost past reckoning! What we render, and the number of the fourth part, Houbigant renders, and can number the multitude.

Let my last end be like his These words may be rendered, let my posterity be like his; and so the LXX have it. The Gemara on this place strongly recommends the above interpretation: "May I die neither by a violent nor immature death, which was peculiarly promised to those Israelites who kept the law." Bishop Sherlock also understands the words in this sense, as referring to temporal posterity. But Houbigant is of opinion, that the words have a much higher sense. He supposes the righteous to mean, not the contumacious Israelites, but those whom that people figured out; and that the parable of Balaam is of the same kind with the parables of our Saviour. Balaam wishes, says he, so to survive his fate, as they will do who shall die the death of the just; signifying, by this with, the future immortality of the just, an immortality to be desired by all mortals. It is a good remark which a commentator makes upon the text, that all mankind have a desire after happiness and the reward of virtue; but few have resolution to withstand the temptations of vice, and maintain their integrity against the allurements of worldly honours, riches, or sensual pleasures. "Just so," says Epictetus, "many would be conquerors at the Olympic games, many philosophers like Socrates, though they have no inclination to submit to the previous and necessary steps. He that would win the crown must contend."

"Oh let me die his death!" all Nature cries. "Then live his life,"—all Nature falters there. YOUNG, Night V.

REFLECTIONS.—To engage God on his side, Balaam prepares his sacrifices; and Balak, at his command, offers. Hereupon, 1. He retires with an expectation of meeting with God; and though the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, yet, for purposes of his own glory, he will give him his answer. Balaam, on God's appearance, boasts of the charge he had been at in the sacrifices, and seems to expect such an answer as corresponded to his wishes; but God confounded his desires, and made him the unwilling prophet of Israel's glory and Moab's confusion. Note; (1.) They who think to make God a debtor by their services, will be deeply disappointed; the curse of pride on the services of the self-righteous will be heavier than the curse of sin on the careless. (2.) God will meet those who wait on him in his ways with an answer of peace, and put a word in their mouth of blessing and comfort. 2. His return to Balak, who stood by his sacrifice. He was not weary of waiting in so bad a cause; and shall not we, much more, always pray and never faint? Balak is now big with expectation, but how confounded with Balaam's message! His parable, or prophetic word, confirms Israel's blessedness. Note; Balaam is struck with their appearance, and bursts forth into an admiration of their happiness. They are confessedly a people separated from God, under the divine guidance, and distinguished, by their honourable peculiarity, from all the nations around them. God's are a peculiar people, distinguished by a holy separation from the world, in all their ways, and designed to dwell with him in his heavenly land of bliss and glory. He expresses his astonishment at their multitude, countless as the dust of the plain where they appeared; yea the fourth part of them, a squadron only of their hosts, appears innumerable: so remarkably were the promises to Abraham fulfilled, even by the confession of their enemies. Note; When all God's spiritual Israel are collected at the last great day, they will be a more glorious host, which no man can number. Fain would he have his lot in death with righteous Israel, nor wishes a greater portion than that his last end might be like theirs. Vain wish! succeeded by no efforts, and dying as it dropped from his tongue. Note; (1.) The death of the righteous is desirable, not dreadful: at their absence from the body they will be admitted to the presence of their Lord. (2.) Many wish their end who do not like their way; but these are inseparable. We must be companions with them in our lives, if in our deaths we would not be divided. Highly provoked at the unexpected disappointment, the king of Moab, with rage, reproaches the prophet; while Balaam urges, in his defence, the necessity under which he acted, and owns the over-ruling power of the Almighty God. Note; (1.) God will make men know that the heavens rule. (2.) Kings rage in vain against the Lord, and against his anointed.

Verse 13

Numbers 23:13. Balak said,—Come—with me unto another place Balak seems to believe, that the sight of such a numerous people had an effect upon the prophet; and therefore he wishes him now to pass to another place, that he might see only a part of them: whence it seems probable, that they conceived it necessary to have some part at least of the devoted people in view, in order to give effect to their imprecations; as we observed on Numbers 22:41 of the former chapter.

Verse 14

Numbers 23:14. The field of Zophim to the top of Pisgah Zophim, signifies watchmen; and the field of Zophim seems to have been a plain on the top of the mountain, where watchmen were placed in order to give a signal upon the approach of enemies. See Isaiah 21:11; Isaiah 52:8. Pisgah was a very high mountain in the country of Moab, from some parts of which almost the whole extent of Canaan might be seen. Deuteronomy 3:27. But Balak, it appears, brought Balaam to that side of it where he could not see much of the camp of Israel. Spencer supposes, that in this place were the obelisks on which they placed the images of the tutelar gods of their country. De Leg. Heb. lib. ii. c. 22.

Verse 18

Numbers 23:18. Rise up, Balak, and hear, &c.— The repetitions are of the most noble and sublime kind; and this introduction to his discourse, full of fire and grandeur, was truly worthy of a prophet actually charged to pronounce the oracles of a God, in whose presence kings and nations themselves are nothing. Balaam could not demand of Balak an attention full of respect for the oracles of God with more dignity.

Verse 19

Numbers 23:19. God is not a man The prophet is here compelled, in the strongest manner, to proclaim his own folly, and the vain expectation of the king of Moab; asserting, that it is not to be imagined that the high God is subject to the uncertain humours and fluctuating passions of weak mortals; or that he can be induced by sacrifices, by prayers, or by any other means, to break his word, or falsify his promise. Respecting God's repenting, see the note on Genesis 6:6. They must be extremely dull who are insensible to the sublimity of this passage.

Verse 21

Numbers 23:21. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, &c.— One shall not behold affliction in Jacob, nor see vexation in Israel. Waterland. Houbigant renders this, I shall not see iniquity, &c. The words will certainly bear the interpretation which Dr. Waterland has given them, and which some of the versions countenance. That our translation cannot be right, is evident from the character of the Israelites, prone to all kinds of wickedness, and to idolatry in particular: so that those interpreters who would understand the passage as referring to idolatry cannot be followed. Of this number is the Vulgate, which renders the passage, There is no idol in Jacob, nor is there any image seen in Israel. Le Clerc, with the LXX, and Dr. Waterland, renders it, No one sees trouble in Jacob, nor distress in Israel, i.e. they are and shall be a prosperous and happy people; a sufficient reason for which is assigned in the next clause; namely, that the Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a King is among them: i.e. they are under the special and immediate protection of Jehovah, their peculiar king and governor; in which words we have an immediate reference to the theocracy. The learned Gataker, in his Diatrib. Ang. gives nearly the same interpretation; and so does Dr. Wall, in his notes.

Verse 22

Numbers 23:22. God brought them out of Egypt; he hath, &c.— The alteration of the numbers in our translation renders the meaning sometimes perplexed. It would be better to read the foregoing verse as above; and the present, God brought them out of Egypt; their strength is as the strength of the unicorn. Concerning the unicorn, see the note on the 8th verse of the next chapter. The first clause, God brought them out of Egypt, is applied by St. Matthew to Jesus Christ. See Matthew 2:15.

Verse 23

Numbers 23:23. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, &c.— Here the prophet bursts forth in a noble rapture, and declares to Balak, and the nobles around, that all their impious machinations were in vain against a people whom the Lord had determined to bless. So in Proverbs, ch. Numbers 21:30 it is said, There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor council against the Lord. Houbigant renders the last clause, In its time it shall be told, what the God of Jacob and Israel may do, or be about to do. This verse seems in the Hebrew to depend upon the foregoing; They have, as it were, the strength of the unicorn; because כי, ki, there is no enchantment, &c. In due time it shall be told to Jacob, and Israel, what the Lord is about to do: and, most probably, the next verse refers to that which the people were to do by the assistance of God; that is, to achieve the complete conquest of Canaan: but concerning which we refer to the similar passage in the next chapter, 8th and 9th verses. The ingenious reader need not be informed, that these prophecies of Balaam, like the other pieces of ancient poetry in Scripture, are written in alternate metre. See Dr. Lowth's Praelect. Poet. 4. 41. 20. 206. &c. 4to. The version which we have followed, puts us in mind of a noble saying of Epictetus, (considering him as a Heathen,) quoted by Mr. Saurin. "The croaking of the raven does not concern me; suppose it forebodes that I should lose something; one of the members of my body, if you please: what then? is it not always in my own power to be an honest man? ravens have no influence over my virtue."

REFLECTIONS.—Not discouraged by one disappointment, this restless enemy of God's people renews his attempts against them, hoping that another place and sacrifice might be more successful, and that he might prevail against a part of the hosts of Israel, if not against the whole. Balaam, as before, goes to meet the Lord, and returns to answer Balak's inquiry with a message yet more confounding. They who persist in the ways of sin, will surely find every successive day repeated and bitterer disappointments. Balaam summons the King's solemn attention; for who dares trifle when God is speaking by his servants? 1. He pronounces the will of God. Israel is secure in the divine faithfulness, and the object of the divine regard. 2. He declares their power irresistible. Since God is for them and with them, opposition is vain. Note; It is our comfort to think, amidst every attack of our spiritual enemies, that the everlasting arms of the omnipotent God are under us. 3. He foretels the ravages they should make among the nations, like a great lion amidst the defenceless flocks; so that their foes in amazement, and themselves in triumph, shall cry, "What hath God wrought!" Note; (1.) God's wonders of grace will, to eternity, be the matter of his people's triumphant songs. (2.) Where Jesus our King is in the midst of us, we shall assuredly go on—conquering and to conquer. 4. He owns the vanity of his own enchantments, and the fruitlessness of every other person's attempt. Even the enemies of God's people shall at last be made to confess their impotence to hurt them. Vicisti Galilaee.

Verse 27

Numbers 23:27. I will bring thee unto another place As the Syrians imagined that some gods were powerful in the hills, who could do nothing in the plains, 1 Kings 20:23; 1 Kings 20:28 so it seems there was such a conceit at this time in these countries, that some gods had more power on one hill than on another. The idea of local deities was very general. Thus Balak might imagine that his God had hitherto been withheld by the gods of Israel from granting his desire, but might be more powerful in another place. Low as were the conceptions of these idolaters respecting their deities, do we not see the same style prevail in the Romish Church, where much more virtue is attributed to some images of the Blessed Virgin, than to others? for which reason devotees flock in greater numbers to the places where such images are found.

Verse 28

Numbers 23:28. Unto the top of Peor Which was the most famous high place in all the country of Moab; and where, Selden conjectures, Baal had a temple, and was thence called Baal-peor; just as Jupiter, worshipped at Olympus, was called Jupiter Olympius. See Deuteronomy 34:6.

REFLECTIONS.—Balak is now quite dispirited with his attempts. Fain would he compound the matter, that Balaam shall neither bless nor curse, whilst he owns the impulse he is under, which he is unable to controul. God's counsel shall stand, notwithstanding the devices of man; and he will make the enemies of his people, however unwilling, know that he has loved them. Once more the King is earnest to make trial, and Balaam as desirous to gain the wages of unrighteousness; the place chosen is sacred to Baal, the sacrifices repeated, and there he would fain hope at least something may be done. Note; The devil always labours to prop up the sinking hopes of sinners, and leads them from one refuge of lies to another till their ruin is completed.


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 23:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 11th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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