corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22



Verses 13-21


‘And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you.… And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.’

Numbers 22:13-21

Balaam is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible; and it is a special feature of the Bible that it exhibits real living human characters. If ever you come to read the sacred books of other religions—for example, the Koran, which is the Bible, as you know, of the great Mohammedan faith—you will find plenty of moral and ceremonial rules, nay, a good many precepts which you will do well to incorporate in your own Christianity; but you will not be passing, as it were, though a portrait gallery of living men and women, whom you know well. Yet there is certainly no means so efficacious of teaching spiritual or moral truth as by example.

It is the divine mode to teach by example; and, bearing this in mind, as the result of many instances, let me ask, What is the lesson of Balaam’s life?

I. Now, when the messengers of Balak came to Balaam and asked him to do something which he knew to be wrong, he said, ‘No, I cannot go with you.’—That seems at first a very noble answer. But you know there is a way of saying No which means Yes, and I am much afraid that that was Balaam’s way. If you look a man in the face and say I won’t, that is one thing: but it is another thing (is it not?) if you halt and hesitate, and let your ‘No’ come stammering out as if you were ashamed of it. Balaam began by wanting to please God. He said, and probably he was at least half honest in saying, ‘If Balak would give me his house full of gold and silver, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, my God, to do less or more.’ Yet he wanted to please himself at the same time. He asked God again if he might not go. He kept trying to curse the people, although he could not; and when he could not curse them, he tempted them to sin. What was the good of his saying, ‘Let me die the death of the righteous,’ when the only possible way of dying as the righteous die (and this is a lesson which belongs to you as much as to him) is to live as the righteous live? And so he went from good to bad, and from bad to worse, until, as St. Peter says, he became a perpetual instance of the ruin wrought in a highly-gifted human soul by ‘loving’ not God only, but ‘the wages of unrighteousness.’

II. Now, what was Balaam’s prime mistake?—I think it was this, that he trifled with his conscience. At first, when the princes of Moab asked him to go with them, he knew perfectly well that it was wrong. Probably, if he had spoken out like a man, they would never have asked him again. But he began saying to himself, ‘What a pity that I should lose all this money! Might not I go? Might not I just try again if God will let me go? What does it matter, if it is a little wrong? How do I know that anything worse will ever come of it?’ Ah! but this is just what it is so fatal to say. God speaks once to the human soul, and speaks loudly; but if you disobey His voice, it soon sinks to a whisper.

Follow your conscience, and it shall lead you to God. Believe me, the only way to get more spiritual light is to live according to the light you have. It may only be a light that breaks athwart the darkness; make the most of it, and some day you shall have more. There may be hereafter only one duty which is clear to you, only one friend or kinsman whom you can help, only one boy whom you can keep from evil, only one piece of work which you alone can do. Well, do that. Try to accomplish that one object. Try to save just that one human soul. Gradually, it may be after many a day, the clouds will break. You will know more of God’s will. He will seem nearer to you. His voice will sound more clearly in your soul. You shall enter into that divine peace which the world may neither give nor take away.

—Bishop Welldon.


(1) ‘The story is told in the most vivid terms. The hesitation of Balaam, the struggle between covetousness and the fear of Jehovah, the tardy consent, the warning that came from the mouth of the ass, the sight of the angel by the way, are impressively described. No less so is the reception he met in Moab. He is met by the king and is hurried to the slopes of the mountain from which he may look on the camp of Israel. Seven sacrifices smoke on seven altars, but when the word comes to the soothsayer it is a word of blessing and not a curse. He is brought by the disappointed king to the top of Pisgah and to the summit of Peor. More abundant sacrifices are offered up. But the oracles are more decidedly than before oracles of blessing, till at last Balak, in despair, asked him to refrain equally from blessing and from cursing.’

(2) ‘For the sake of a handful of paltry dross he sold his eternal jewel to the enemy of man, and he earned the dreadful twofold epitaph which the New Testament inscribes with ceremonious reprobation upon his name. One epitaph is “Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.” The other is “Balaam who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.” Life is a very serious thing, even for triflers. “The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law, but thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!”’

(3) ‘Keble finely describes Balaam:

“Oh! for a sculptor’s hand,

That thou might’st take thy stand,

Thy wild hair floating on the eastern breeze,

Thy tranced yet open gaze

Fixed on the desert haze,

As one who deep in heaven some airy pageant sees.

In outline dim and vast

Their fearful shadows cast;

The giant forms of empire on their way

To ruin: one by one

They tower and are gone,

Yet in the Prophet’s soul the dreams of avarice stay.

Nor sun nor star so bright

In all the world of light,

That they should draw to heaven his downward eye;

He hears th’ Almighty’s word,

He sees the angel’s sword,

Yet low upon the earth his heart and treasure lie.’

Verses 20-22


‘And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do,’ etc.

Numbers 22:20-22

In the story of Balaam we have a seeming contradiction. God said, ‘If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them,’ and yet ‘God’s anger was kindled because he went.’ How can these things be?

I. When God sent this message to Balaam, it was not the first time that Balaam had sought an answer from God on this very subject of whether he should go or not.—Something had made him fear to go and speak the bitter curse till he had learned the pleasure of God. His wishes may well be supposed to have been all in one direction; his conscience alone restrained him. In the night came a message from God: ‘Thou shalt not go.’ But Balaam persuaded himself that what was wrong yesterday might be right to-day, and that what was God’s will at one time might not be God’s will at another. God answered the fool according to his folly, and as the wretched man had dared to think of tampering with God, God rewarded him (if we may use the word) by tampering with him. God suffered him to ‘believe a lie.’ The lie was but the reflection of the wishes that were lording it in the heart of Balaam, and to these wishes God for a time gave him over.

II. Men are doing precisely as Balaam did every day.—Temptation to self-aggrandisement of various kinds comes before us; the only condition is a course of action about the lawfulness of which we are in doubt. We look to see if for some little swerving from the rigorous path of virtue some excuse may not be found. We ask for guidance, perchance with a divided heart, and then, if God speaks to us at all, it is a voice which speaks to a conscience that has become confused and a judgment that has suffered itself to be dispirited, and though the voice may seem to be the voice of God, it is indeed only a lie.


‘Honest men do not make loud protestations of their honesty; brave men do not insist on their bravery; over-loud proclaiming of innocence is suggestive of guilt; and the seer, by his answer, shows his mind is running on such things as silver and gold. A clever caricaturist to-day would hit off the situation by a sketch of a waiter, humbly protesting, “I can’t take it, sir,” all the while keeping his back to the notice, “No gratuities allowed.” Balaam’s answer is really equivalent to, “Very sorry, but I dare not do it”; and his request that they should tarry a night, betrays the hope that God may be got to change His purpose. “That I may know what the Lord will say unto me more.” This is the first downward step. He trifles with his plain duty. Instead of returning a decided “No,” he says he will think the matter over. But in matters of duty, second thoughts are not best; but first. “Considering a duty is often only explaining it away; deliberation is often only dishonesty.” When God speaks plainly, ours is to obey at once. Eve stood and argued when she should have shut her ears and run.’

Verse 38


‘The word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.’

Numbers 22:38

The first and most general account of Balaam would be this: that he was a very eminent person in his age and country, that he was courted and gained by the enemies of Israel, that he promoted a wicked cause in a very wicked way, that he counselled the Moabites to employ their women as a means of seducing the chosen people into idolatry, and that he fell in battle in the war which ensued. Yet when we look into Balaam’s history closely, we shall find points of character which may well interest those who do not consider his beginning and his end.

I. He was blessed with God’s especial favour. Not only had he the grant of inspiration and the knowledge of God’s will and an insight into the truths of morality clear and enlarged such as we Christians cannot surpass, but he was even admitted to conscious intercourse with God, such as we Christians have not.

II. Balaam was, in the ordinary sense of the word, a very conscientious man. He prayed before taking a new step. He strictly obeyed the commands of God. He said and he did, he acted according to his professions. He showed no inconsistency in word or deed.

III. The strange thing is that while he so spoke and acted, he seemed as in one sense to be in God’s favour, so in another and higher to be under His displeasure. Balaam obeyed God from a sense of its being right to do so, but not from a desire to please Him, not from fear and love. His endeavour was, not to please God, but to please self without displeasing God, to pursue his own ends as far as was consistent with his duty. Hence he was not content with ascertaining God’s will; he attempted to change it. His asking twice was tempting God. As a punishment God gave him leave to ally himself with His enemies and take part against His people.

IV. The following reflections are suggested by the history of Balaam: (1) We see how little we can depend in judging of right and wrong on the apparent excellence and high character of individuals. (2) We sin without being aware of it, yet wrath is abroad and in our paths. (3) When we have begun an evil course, we cannot retrace our steps. (4) God gives us warnings now and then, but does not repeat them. Balaam’s sin consisted in not acting on what was told him once for all.


‘Even when we have started on our perverse road the angel of the Lord stands to resist us and turn us back; we may not at first detect his form and uplifted sword, but they are there. In His love, God makes the way of transgressors hard, and hedges up their way with thorns. It was a true word that Balaam spoke, but it was spoken in the wrong place. He was off God’s plan. Nevertheless it is true that we can only speak with power those words which God puts into our lips.’


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Numbers 22:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology