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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 24

 

 

Verse 1

TOWARD THE WILDERNESS

‘And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness.’

Numbers 24:1

In Balaam we have a man who, while his audacity and superstition are monstrous, still has a strong fear of Almighty God upon him, a determination not to disobey Him openly, a hope that at last he may be found on God’s side. But it was with him as it is with others who deceive themselves and perform a juggler’s trick with their own soul. First they wish to have their own way in life, and then have it blessed by God as if it were His way. Next they cease to think it impossible to elude or deceive even God. We see here a man beseeching God to allow him to do what He had twice and thrice forbidden him to do. God punished him by letting him take his own course. And it is after his example that all will be lost who from a high standing fall into wickedness. Take these three points:—

I. If Balaam was lost, it was through himself that he was lost.—God gave him both an earnest desire to be saved and the knowledge how to be saved. Yet he is a lost man already when he comes before us. He was lost because he did not follow out his wish into action, and because he did not use the knowledge which he had.

II. What was the means he took for his own destruction, when he had both the wish and the knowledge to be saved?—Exactly that which offers itself to us as very natural—an attempt to combine the service of God and the service of the world. He wished to stand well with the Lord God, but he also wished to have a brilliant alliance with and a strong influence over one of the principal personages of his time.

III. Even the disobedient prophet prophesied of Christ; even the disobedient boy serves Christ’s will.—Both do it without meaning it; therefore they have no reward. But they cannot choose, but serve Him one way or another.

—Archbishop Benson.

Illustration

(1) ‘The truth is always the same, whether it be seen by a bad man or a good, just as a landscape is. Balaam had his times of illumination, when he saw into the heart of things and pierced the veil of sense. Would that our lives more aptly realised these delineations! That we should be as gardens by the riverside, as lign-aloes planted by the Lord, as cedar trees beside the waters, whilst rivers of water flowed forth from us!’

(2) ‘This is a very common habit, strange though it may seem. People try to make God and Satan to agree.

I daresay there is hardly one amongst us who has not attempted it, not perhaps openly and unreservedly as Balaam did, but who has tried to make God agree with his or her own will and desires, while those desires have been implanted by Satan. We do the thing not so intelligibly as Balaam, but as truly we try to retain some object or will that we know is contrary to the Word of God, and then to make God agree with us, but we cannot do it; thus Balaam had to cease his enchantments. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” God’s will is to bless without any sorrow added to it. The blessing of the Lord maketh rich, His blessing of salvation in Christ shuts out sorrow.

Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel abiding in their tents, and he opened his mouth and took up his parable, and spoke of himself as “the man whose eyes are open.” His eyes were opened at last, he had not the dimness of sight resulting from enchantments; he had before spoken truth, but his thoughts had not gone with his words; he had been speaking with his eyes closed, so that he could not see the vision though he was obliged to utter it. Now that his eyes were open, he was aware of the circumstances in which he was, and the God with whom he was dealing. He speaks of having “heard the words of God,” and “seen the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open.”’


Verse 11

MAN PROPOSES: GOD DISPOSES

‘Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, to, the Lord hath kept thee back from honour.’

Numbers 24:11

Balaam, it need hardly be said, was a very eminent, he was even an extraordinary, man. He lived largely among the wild race of the Midianites, but he had gifts and powers which, so far as we know, were entirely unshared by those among whom he dwelt.

I. (1) He was a careful observer of contemporary events; he was a man of trained political sagacity. (2) He was in possession of a truth which, quite apart from its awful and intrinsic value, gave purpose and meaning to a human life: he believed in one God. (3) He was endowed in a high degree with the gift of supernatural prophecy. Of this gift his closing words to Balak afford one remarkable specimen. His prediction of the star and sceptre that were to arise out of Jacob is not fully satisfied by the conquests of David, of Omri, of John Hyrcanus; it points to the spiritual empire of Jesus Christ. Balaam was in one age what Melchisedek had been in another, and Job in a third—an organ of truth beyond the frontiers of the kingdom of truth.

II. With gifts like these, Balaam was naturally a person of great public consideration.—Balak, the king of Moab, seems to have looked upon him as a very powerful wizard. Balak’s view of Balaam illustrates the way in which in all ages statesmen are apt to look upon religion and its representatives. They see in it only one of the great forces which modify or control human life, and they desire, by whatever means, to enlist it on the side of the policy or the government which they for the moment represent.

III. The real character of Balaam was a very mixed one.—On the one hand, he was a man with a clear idea of duty, based on a certain knowledge of God; on the other, we find that his notion of duty was clearly not what he could discover to be God’s will, but only what God would not allow him to ignore. It was a minimising rule of duty.

IV. There are two or three considerations which the history suggests: (1) The ministry of grace and truth to others may be quite independent of the personal character of the minister. (2) It is possible to know a great deal about truth, to make sacrifices for it, to be kept back from honour out of deference to its requirements, and yet to be at heart disloyal to it. (3) The only true safeguard against such a fate as Balaam’s is the love of God.

Canon Liddon.

Illustration

(1) ‘An embassy waited on Balaam from Balak, the king of the Moabites, with presents and proffered honours, but at first he refused to come. He knew enough of Jehovah’s will for that, and is an example of one having a real prophetic gift, which he misused to his own ruin. He allowed himself to be persuaded, being influenced by those bribes which the New Testament calls “the wages of unrighteousness.” His history is a warning against hesitation and delay in obeying the first dictates of conscience.’

(2) ‘“The Lord hath kept thee back from honour.” This is the language of earth and earthliness, addressed continually to those who would go Heavenward. “This you might have been—and that you might have done—this you will forfeit, that you will lose—your religion mars your success, blights your prospects, conceals your advantages;—but for this, you might be distinguished, admired, beloved—does God thus deprive His friends of honour?”

This is the language—but oh, believe it not! Especially let those, who have yet not made the trial, believe it not. For it makes the young to falter in their choice, and leads to a dangerous equivocation between the world and God, trying to please both for fear of what may follow on a more determined course: and thus in fact deprives them of the honour and the bliss, above all that earth can offer, which awaits a settled habit of piety and devotion. Of what value are the honours and distinctions of the world, to one who knows them scarcely worth the having? Of what value its admiration and applause, when we have learned to consider them the meed of iniquity rather than of merit? The child of God does in fact not want these things or value them. He does not know them to be honour; but very generally looks upon them as a danger, a temptation, and a snare—meretricious ornaments at best, unworthy to mix with the brighter jewels of his crown. He feels no greater for their possession, and no meaner for the want of them.’


Verse 17

PIOUS TALK AND UNHOLY CONDUCT

‘I shall see Him, but not now: I shall behold Him, but not nigh.’

Numbers 24:17

These words were spoken by the prophet Balaam, and they were inspired words put into his mouth by God Almighty when he went forth to curse but stayed to bless. There is no character in the whole of Scripture that is more thrillingly human than this character of the prophet Balaam. There was Balak, the king, and there stood this man inspired of God. He had come to curse, but he dared not. What a strange mixture of a man was this! There was a great struggle going on in that man’s bosom—a struggle between right and wrong, a struggle between selfishness and duty, a struggle between conscience and covetousness. That struggle has gone on all along the ages. It goes on now in every town—shall I say in every home?

When Balaam went out to meet Balak, the king, he had determined in his heart to curse that people. But picture him upon that mountain-top, that wild-looking man, with blazing eyes, with a face lit up, as it were, with the very light of God; see him there, standing upon that mountain, gazing upon the hosts of the Lord. All in a moment his eyes were opened, as he himself said. We can imagine what it was he saw as he looked back on the past. But he saw more than that. In that Egyptian darkness, in that time of the most awful evil, in that time of sin, he saw that star that rose in the East glittering in the heavens, shedding its dazzling ray upon the earth. He saw the sceptre which had departed from Jacob returning in the hand of the Son of Man. ‘I shall see Him,’ he said, ‘but not now: I shall behold Him, but not nigh.’ As he uttered that prophetic word he little thought what it was he said. It was true that he would see Him. All eyes shall see Him; yours will see Him, mine will see Him, even the eyes of those that pierced Him will see Him—see Him sitting on the throne of glory. But how many of us will, like Balaam, see Him, but not nigh?

And now, as we draw aside from this unwilling prophet, who utters a blessing in every word of which was breathed a curse, what lessons are there? God help us to learn some of the lessons! How many Balaams are there in this congregation, think you? how many are there who choose the evil when they know the good? But there is one thing that you can all learn, and that you all must learn, if you are to do any good, and that is—

I. It is an awful danger to trifle with your conscience, that conscience which whispers to you words from the Holy Spirit of God. Balaam knew what was right, and yet he chose to do wrong. How many are there here who know what is right, and yet choose to do wrong? I say how many are there who, knowing what is right, yet deliberately, in the face of that knowledge, go and choose the evil? We know that things are either right or wrong instinctively. God has implanted that knowledge in us. We know; in a moment it dawns upon us. We know; God has given us the power. Oh, how useless any excuse will be in that great day of judgment when God adds up our account! God will say: ‘You knew; I gave you the power.’ Balaam had the power; he knew. We are, men and women, curious creatures. When you talk to a man about his sin, he will belittle the sin, and say: ‘It is not as bad as it looks.’ Even though it were as black as it could possibly be he would say: ‘There are plenty of people who do the same.’ What an awful thing to say! There are plenty of people who do the same, plenty of people to populate hell itself, plenty of people who, knowing the good, choose the evil. But does that make any difference to you? You who know what the evil is, yet you deliberately choose it. Does that make any difference to you? You say: ‘I ought to do a certain thing; yes, I ought to.’ We argue with you. We come to you, and we say: ‘Oh, for the Saviour’s sake, turn from your evil ways; leave the sin that enthralls you, that casts such a blot upon your soul.’ You say: ‘I ought,’ and the very first opportunity you get you go and do the same thing. Do not say you do not. You do; God knows you do, you know you do. Knowing the good, yet, deliberately, with your eyes open, even like Balaam, you have chosen the evil.

II. Another thing that Balaam teaches us is this—that you must not make a bargain with God, make a compromise with the Lord Most High.—He will not have it. No compromise will do with Him. That is just our religion; we want to serve God a little and ourselves a great deal. You ask a man to do something which will give him trouble. If he has not got his excuses ready-made he will make them quick enough. Oh, our religion is such a half-and-half thing!

III. Again, there is another thing that we ought to learn, and that is—that we ought never to neglect a plain duty for the sake of earthly gain.—All too often a man says: ‘How much shall I get by doing so-and-so?’ He never says: ‘What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ or ‘What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ These are the questions for business men.

IV. And there is just another lesson that Balaam teaches us—that religious talk is not religion.—You may talk goody-goody for a week, but you may be as far from the kingdom of Heaven as the devil himself. No; Balaam was a good talker. There never was a better, but he is not in the kingdom of Heaven. He said: ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!’ He died the enemy of God and of God’s people. We must do something more in this world of ours than talk. You men of business know quite well that talk will not earn you a penny. It will not go any distance, and the man who talks you despise. Then why should talk do for religion? It too often does. If we are to die the death of the righteous, we must live the life of the righteous. Actions, not words; lives, not professions; that is what God wants, and if you give Him that, if you give Him lives and leave the professions to take a back seat, then I say that yours will be that portion in the inheritance of God which He promised to all His beloved.

Illustration

(1) ‘The Messianic prophecy of the Star (Numbers 24:16-19), which makes the fourth and most important of the “parables” spoken by Balaam when the Lord “put a word in his mouth,” may be literally translated thus:—

He hath said who hears the words of God,

And knows the knowledge of the Most High;

Who sees the vision of the Almighty,

Fallen down (i.e. under the power of the prophetic inspiration),

but having his eyes open,

I see him, but not now!

I behold him, but not nigh!

There has come a Star out of Jacob,

And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel,

And smite the two sides of Moab,

And undermine all the sons of tumult.

And Edom shall be a possession,

And Seir, his enemies, shall be a possession,

But Israel does valiantly (or, acquires power).

And let One rule out of Jacob

And destroy the survivor out of the city!’

(2) ‘If we look down the dark and slippery steps of his degradation, we can trace them through temptation faintly resisted to temptation yielded to, and remorse stifled, and warnings resisted, and penal blindness inflicted, and sin willingly chosen, and sin let alone, until the seer of the vision of the Almighty becomes the tempter to the infamies of Baal Peor. But the very central lesson of his career is the power of a besetting sin.

“In outline dim and vast

Their fearful shadows cast

The giant forms of empires on their way

To ruin: one by one

They tower, and they are gone;—

Yet, in the prophet’s soul, the dreams of avarice stay.”

This was the little canker, the little poison drop, which blighted the whole life of what might otherwise have been a magnificent and enlightened soul. For the sake of a handful of paltry dross he imperilled his eternal happiness, and earned the dreadful twofold epitaph which the New Testament inscribes upon his tomb.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Numbers 24:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/numbers-24.html. 1876.

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