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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 23



Verse 13


‘And 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.’

Numbers 23:13

Many of you will recall the story from which these words are taken, and the striking picture which it draws. The Israelites are travelling through the desert. They are approaching the domain of Balak, king of Moab. Balak is frightened, and sends for the Mesopotamian wizard, Balaam, and bids him curse the dangerous intruders. But Balaam, filled with a higher spirit than he understands, blesses instead of cursing. Again the effort is made, and the disappointment follows in another place. And then it is that there occurs to the monarch the idea which is recorded in the text. Perhaps if the prophet did not see the whole host in its multitude the curse would come more readily. ‘Let us stand where we can only see a part of them,’ he says. ‘Peradventure thou canst curse me them from thence.’

It was a vain expedient. The blessing came still pouring forth more richly than before. Why should it not? It was not the quantity but the quality of Israel which drew the blessing. It was not because there were so many of them, but because they were set on lofty purposes and carried in their bosom mighty spiritual issues, that God took care of them and made them strong. It was a hopeless hope of Balak. And it was like a child. It was the transparent self-cheat of infancy. So children play with themselves and one another, saying, ‘Let us see only a part and make believe that that is all.’

I. It is a beautiful and noble faith when a man believes in the absolute truth, unfound, unfindable perhaps by man, and yet surely existent behind and at the heart of everything. It is a terrible thing when a man ceases to believe in it, and ceases to seek for it. He sinks out of the highest delight and purity. For him the great glory of life is gone. Petty and selfish economies sweep in and overwhelm him. Not what is true, but what will tell for the advantage of something which he thinks valuable, becomes the object of his search. He questions everything, as the lawyer questions a witness, in the interest of a cause. Then comes the Balak folly. Then the man shuts his eyes to everything which will not tell upon his side. Then he refuses to look upon the whole of things, and sees only the portion which will minister to his passion or his spite.

II. Upon the dark places of partial vision I know that I should never find the great Seer of human life, who is Christ. Christ saw all life in God. That means that He saw life in its completeness. No being ever saw the evil and misery as He beheld it. He saw sin with all the intensity of holiness. But nobody ever has dared call Jesus Christ a pessimist. He saw the end from the beginning. He saw the depth from the surface. He saw the light from the darkness. He saw the whole from the parts. Therefore He could not despair. There was no curse of life upon His lips. Infinite pity! A pity that has folded itself around the world’s torn and bleeding heart like a benediction ever since—but no curse! And who are we, with our little feeble rage and petulance, flinging our testy curses where the Lord’s blessing descended like the love of God? Oh, if you ever find yourself cursing life, get your New Testament and read what Jesus said looking down on Jerusalem from the height of the Mount of Olives, looking down on man from the measureless height of the Cross!

III. I must do little more than allude to the one other application of our truth which is in my mind; but I must not let you go without alluding to it. It is the saddest and most terrible of all. I am thinking of the desperation and bitterness which come with the sight of pain without the sight of the higher consequences and results of pain. It is the old tragedy of the Book of Job, and of the books of thousands of tortured lives. ‘Curse God and die’ seems sometimes to be the only outcome of it all. Perhaps, nay almost certainly, there are some to whom it seems so this morning. It is the only outcome of it all, if the pain you feel or see is all. But if the whole of a man’s life from its beginning to its endless end, from its surface in to its inmost heart, is capable of being taken into account, then that desperate outcome is not the only one. There is a blessing and a thankfulness which may overcome and drown the curse. Suppose that, looking at pain, and with the curse just growing into shape upon your lips, a great hand takes you up and lifts you. And as you rise your vision widens. And slowly education grows into your view, surrounding pain, and drawing out its sense of cruelty, and crowding in upon it its own sense of love and purpose. Then, in the larger vision, must not the curse perish? And if the lips are not strong enough to open into thankfulness, at least the eyes, still full of pity, may wait in peace.

This is the fear we have to-day. The sense of human pain grows stronger all the time. And it sometimes seems as if the sense of purpose and education grew weaker in a multitude of souls. It is the heart of man taken, Balaam-like, to a place whence it can see the part and not the whole; and who that listens does not hear the muttering of the curse? Where is the help, first for your soul, then for the whole great world? Not in saying that pain is not pain, not in shutting the eyes to the part which is so awfully manifest, but seeing, in insisting upon seeing, the whole.

‘To feel, although no tongue can prove,

That every cloud that spreads above,

And veileth love, itself is love.’

Bishop Phillips Brooks.


‘Even the flaming sword of the angel of Jehovah failed to turn this man from his own destruction. He cringes, indeed. He says, “If it displeases Thee I will turn back again”; yet his base desire overcomes even his fear of God. He goes his own way. He stands at last on the mountains of Moab with the camp of Israel in view. And now his judgment begins. As he is about to drink it, the cup of earthly gain is dashed from his lips. He speaks, not what he would but what he must, not the money-boughten curse, but the God-inspired blessing. Scarcely anything in Scripture is more full of power and beauty. Yet his heart is not in it. Three times he changes his place, and offers fresh sacrifices in the hope that his lips may be permitted to utter cursing instead of blessing.

He watch’d till knowledge came

Upon his soul like flame,

Not of those magic fires at random caught;

But true prophetic light

Flashed o’er him high and bright,

Flashed once and died away, and left his darkened thought.

And can he choose but fear

Who feels his God so near,

That when he fain would curse, his powerless tongue

In blessing only moves?

Alas! the world he loves

Too close around his heart her tangled veil hath flung.

How easily the world flings its tangled veil about us all! And escape from it is hard. Repentance for almost any other sin is easier than for the sin of the selfish abuse of God-given powers or abilities. The tragedy of the way of Balaam is oft repeated in many lives. When he found himself foiled, his mercenary curses turned to profitless blessings; in his disappointment he turns to base revenge, he casts off God, openly takes part with his enemies and perishes miserably.

Sceptre and Star Divine!

Who in Thine inmost shrine,

Hast made us worshippers, O claim Thine own;

More than Thy seers we know,

O teach our love to grow

Up to Thy heavenly light and reap what Thou hast sown.’

Verse 26


‘But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do?’

Numbers 23:26

I. With all the favourable traits which may be noticed in the character of Balaam, the features of his besetting sin are plainly marked.—The power of money over Him seems to have been known, and so when he refused to come, Balak hoped to overcome his scruples by the bribe of great promotion. And the prophet’s conduct well justified these expectations. He feared God so far that he dared not rebel directly against His will; but he was so much in love with the world’s gauds and honours and wealth, that he was ever trying to humour his conscience to bend the line of right to the line of seeming interest. He thought to secure this world and the next; he lost both: he had too much truth to secure the rewards of Balak; he had too little truth to escape the wrath of God.

II. The lesson to be learned from such a character is surely plain for us.—Balaam’s character is that of the half-hearted Christian. He makes a partial and unwilling sacrifice. He is, like Balaam, an uncertain, irresolute, wavering man, with many better principles and feelings, but with an undergrowth of evil which he will not utterly root out.

III. From the history of Balaam we learn: (1) the importance to each one of us of being indeed earnest Christians, of giving to God our hearts and our affections; (2) the importance of striving to subdue wholly every separate sin to which we are tempted; (3) the great need we have of seeking earnestly from God the gift of a sincere heart.

Bishop S. Wilberforce.


‘Note the subtilty of the temptation which overcame him. There was the dream of avarice; but still more of power and ambition. Balak touched a powerful chord when he said (ver. 17), “I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me.” To leave his narrow sphere by the Euphrates, to become the first man in a powerful people, to be courted and respected and to have the opportunity—who knows but even this may have entered his plan—of raising this people to a knowledge of the true God—these were some of the plausible reflections by which plain duty became distorted. And no doubt Balaam went, saying oft to himself, “Only the word that the Lord gives unto me will I speak, neither more or less.” So when a young person begins even to turn over in his mind the alternative to plain duty, he soon finds many specious arguments. He will go with this set of evil companions. Who knows but he may even elevate their tone—and so conscience is honeyed over with fine resolves. But the fact remains. “God’s anger was kindled because he went.”’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Numbers 23:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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