Numbers 23:10
Great Texts of the Bible
The Death to Die

Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!—Numbers 23:10.

1. The Israelites were now, after long wandering in the wilderness, on the point of taking possession of the Promised Land. Arrived on its verge, their numbers and their discipline, strengthened and consolidated by nearly forty years of hardship in the desert, struck terror into the heart of Balak, king of Moab. So he sent off messengers, chosen from among his princes, to Balaam; the distance at which Balaam lived, at Pethor on the Euphrates, serving to indicate the wide reputation he enjoyed as a powerful magician or sorcerer. These envoys were to persuade him to come and curse Israel, in the expectation that his malediction would destroy them. Balaam was nothing loth, yet before he went he would see what God might say to him. God appeared to him at night in vision, and told him that he must not go with the messengers, that he must not curse the people, for that they were blessed. Balaam obeyed; but instead of communicating to the messengers God’s reply in full, he abridged it by merely telling them that God refused to give him leave to go with them. He did not tell them that God had emphatically declared that he should not curse the people, for that they were blessed. The Moabite princes, having received God’s message from Balaam in this garbled form, garbled it themselves still further in repeating it to Balak. Instead of saying to him that God refused Balaam leave to come, they merely said, “Balaam refuseth to come.” Probably they thought that the God who refused him leave was only his own avarice and greed of gain. So, at least, Balak seems to have thought, for, instead of being discouraged, he only sent a second embassy of higher rank, with richer gifts, who should say, “Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me: for I will promote thee unto very great honour, and will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come, therefore, I pray thee, and curse me this people.”

The spirit of avarice, awakened by the first embassy, had now got full possession of Balaam; and, therefore, though he made the most pompous protestations of his entire fidelity to God, and of the utter impossibility of saying or doing anything but what God commanded or permitted, he wound up with the lame conclusion that they should stay with him another night, to see what the Lord would say unto him more; in other words, to see whether God might not change His mind, like some weak mortal, and permit His prophet to pronounce a gainful curse upon His people. So God, who answers fools after their folly, who, in the strong language of the 18th Psalm, “with the perverse shows himself perverse,” in other words, whose voice, speaking through the conscience, may always be altered and vitiated by a persevering determination to attend only to what we like—God permitted him to go with the messengers if they came to call him. Balaam made no further delay. He rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass and went with the men. But he was sternly warned, and he determined for his own safety’s sake to say nothing except what God should say to him. Still, strange to say, he fancied that by magical rites and sacrifices, in which the mystic number seven was twice repeated, he might prevail on God to change His mind. Thrice did he make the presumptuous attempt, and thrice was he obliged, instead of curses, to pour forth blessings. So he had violated his conscience to no purpose; he had made nothing by his wicked journey; the Lord had kept him from honour, as Balak told him with bitter mockery; he had lost the promise of the life to come, without gaining anything for the life that now is; he went back to his distant home ungraced and unrewarded.

2. As he uttered this prayer Balaam was among the mountain-peaks of Moab, and before him lay a deeply impressive scene. In the far distance in front of him were the hills of Ephraim and Judah, with numerous openings that gave glimpses of fertile plains and smiling valleys. Still nearer was the plain through which the sacred Jordan rolled—a plain some six or seven miles broad. Immediately below him lay the eastern hillside, covered in part by a long belt of acacia groves. Among these groves he could see thousands of tents belonging to the Hebrew wanderers—the chosen of the Lord. In vain had he striven to draw down the displeasure of the Almighty upon them, and, now that he thought of their special religious knowledge, and spiritual advantages, he regarded them as “righteous,” and felt constrained to give sincere utterance to his deepest wish: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!”

The text occurs in the first of the prophecies or oracles uttered by Balaam. His eye ranges over “the utmost part of the people.” Accordingly, after the repetition of the declaration that he cannot curse or defy, except at the bidding of the Lord, the leading idea which expresses itself is the idea of their vast multitude, dwelling apart from the nations, in “numbers numberless” as the sand on the seashore.

Numbers 23:7-10.—“And he took up his parable, and said—

From Aram hath Balak brought me,

The king of Moab from the mountains of the East.

Come, curse me Jacob,

And come, defy Israel.

How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?

And how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied?

For from the top of the rocks I see him,

And from the hills I behold him:

Lo, it is a people that dwell alone,

And shall not be reckoned among the nations.

Who can count the dust of Jacob,

Or number the fourth part of Israel?

Let me die the death of the righteous,

And let my last end be like his!”

The parable, as a whole, is as simple as it is forcible. The only point which needs explanation is the connection with the context of the celebrated aspiration of the last couplet—suddenly introducing the conception of the blessing of righteousness after the mere contemplation of multitude and strength. That connection is probably to be found in the allusions made in the previous couplets to the separation of the people from all others, and the comparison of them to the “dust” or sand. It is hardly possible not to trace in these, signs of some knowledge, in itself most probable, of the great promises to Abraham (Genesis 22:17) and to his descendants: “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore.” These are the “righteous ones.” To them is fulfilled, in special fulness, that general promise of offspring from generation to generation, which ancient faith believed to be given to all the righteous. “Thou shalt know also that thy seed shall be great; and thine offspring as the grass of the field” (Job 5:25); “His seed shall be mighty upon earth; the generation of the upright shall be blessed” (Psalm 112:2). Hence the aspiration of Balaam is that he may die as they died, full of years and honour—their last hour lighted up by the promise of seed as the stars of heaven—sure that the same blessing of God, under which they had lived, would deepen and widen out into the greatness of a magnificent future.1 [Note: A. Barry, Parables of the Old Testament, 227.]

3. The literal translation of the text is, “Let my soul (or my life) die the death of righteous men, and let my future be like that of one of them.” The future, or last end (as our translation gives it) is a very general expression, and may mean anything that comes after. The authors of the old Greek version of the Seventy thought that the prophet meant his posterity, and have so rendered the word. But Balaam, it is to be feared, was too complete an egotist to have taken even that first step out of the abject selfishness which makes a man care for his posterity more than for himself. The common traditional interpretation of the passage is the truest. The selfish, worldly prophet did actually desire for a moment that, when he died, he might die the death of righteous men, and that whatever there be that follows death might be for him such as it was for them.

Let us consider—

I.  The Righteous.

  II.  Balaam.

  III.  The Death of the Righteous.

  IV.  The Death of Balaam.


The Righteous

1. It is necessary to observe particularly what Balaam understood by righteous. And he himself is introduced in the Book of Micah as explaining it; if by righteous is meant good, as to be sure it is. “O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal.” From the mention of Shittim it is manifest that it is this very story which is here referred to, though another part of it, the account of which is not now extant. “Remember what Balaam answered, that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord”; i.e. the righteousness which God will accept. Balak demands, “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Balaam answers him, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” Here is a good man expressly characterized, as distinct from a dishonest and a superstitious man. No words can more strongly exclude dishonesty and falseness of heart than doing justice and loving mercy, and both these, as well as walking humbly with God, are put in opposition to those ceremonial methods of recommendation which Balak hoped might have served the turn. It thus appears what he meant by “the righteous,” whose death he desired to die.

He serves his country best

Who lives pure life and doeth righteous deed,

And walks straight paths, however others stray,

And leaves his sons as uttermost bequest

A stainless record which all men may read.

This is the better way.

No drop but serves the slowly lifting tide;

No dew but has an errand to some flower;

No smallest star but sheds some helpful ray,

And, man by man, each helping all the rest,

Makes the firm bulwark of the country’s power.

There is no better way.

2. It would be felt to be a prayer universally applicable, were it not for one doubt: “There is none righteous; no, not one.… All have sinned and come short of the glory of God!” It is true that Balaam would feel no such difficulty. To him it was quite sufficient to be able to believe that some of the Jews conscientiously lived up to the rich heritage of truth they had received. That was sufficient to constitute them “righteous” in his view. But still the difficulty remains, that if we know that nobody is righteous the prayer becomes an empty mockery. But St. Paul himself supplies a cheering reply to this problem in the very chapter from which the above passage is quoted (Romans 3:2-22): “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested; … even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus unto all and upon all them that believe.” Wesley puts the matter very plainly in his twentieth sermon: “Inherent righteousness is not the ground of our acceptance with God, but the fruit of it, and is therefore not identical with the imputed righteousness of Christ, but is consequent upon it.”

On Sundays we have attended the Welsh service in the morning, which we could easily follow, and the English in the afternoon. As there are four services in the day, the English sermon generally falls to some clergyman passing through, and they do not always fare well in consequence; for instance, ten days ago an old canon of Manchester, who preached, recommended us to keep regularly a journal for entering all our good and all our bad actions, and to take care to keep the balance on the side of the former, as we should then feel very comfortable on our death-beds.1 [Note: Life and Letters of Fenton J. A. Hort, i. 86.]

3. To Balaam’s mind, however, as the context shows, the term “the righteous” had a special application. He meant “the righteous people,” as they called themselves, the chosen nation. “Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” They were, indeed, a chosen people—highly favoured of God to receive the revelations of His Spirit, and called to be “Jehovah’s servant,” for ministering the knowledge of His love and truth to all the world. But even in the mind of the writer of this story they must have been distinguished rather by the possession of a purer faith, a greater knowledge—at least in some higher minds—of what was pleasing to God both in worship and practice, than by their diligence in acting accordingly. This, at least, was the righteousness on which they prided themselves in later days, as in the days of St. Paul—on their supposed nearness to God, from His clearer revelation of Himself to them. We may well doubt the justness of this their own valuation of themselves, when we remember our Lord’s declaration in the Gospel, that the servant, who knew not his lord’s will, and did it not, shall be beaten with few stripes; but he, that knew it, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. For, unto whom much is given, of him shall much be required.



1. The judgment which we form of the character of Balaam is one of unmitigated condemnation. We know and say that he was a false prophet and a bad man. This is however, doubtless, because we come to the consideration of his history having already prejudged his case. St. Peter, St. Jude, and St. John have passed sentence upon him. And so we read the history of Balaam, familiar with these passages, and colouring all with them. But assuredly this is not the sentence we should have pronounced if we had been left to ourselves, but one much less severe. Repulsive as Balaam’s character is when it is seen at a distance, when it is seen near it has much in it that is human, like our own, inviting compassion—even admiration; there are traits of firmness, conscientiousness, nobleness. He offers to retrace his steps as soon as he perceives that he is doing wrong. He asks guidance of God before he will undertake a journey: “And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me.” He professes—and in earnest—“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.” He prays to die the death of the righteous, and that his last end may be like his. Yet the inspired judgment of his character, as a whole, stands recorded as one of unmeasured severity.

2. “The object we now have before us,” says Butler, in a famous passage, “is the most astonishing in the world: a very wicked man, under a deep sense of God and religion, persisting still in his wickedness, and preferring the wages of unrighteousness, even when he had before him a lively view of death, and that approaching period of his days which should deprive him of all those advantages for which he was prostituting himself; and likewise a prospect, whether certain or uncertain, of a future state of retribution: all this joined with an explicit ardent wish, that, when he was to leave this world he might be in the condition of a righteous man. Good God, what inconsistency, what perplexity is here! With what different views of things, with what contradictory principles of action, must such a mind be torn and distracted! It was not unthinking carelessness, by which he ran on headlong in vice and folly, without ever making a stand to ask himself what he was doing; no; he acted upon the cool motives of interest and advantage. Neither was he totally hard and callous to impressions of religion, what we call abandoned; for he absolutely refused to curse Israel. When reason assumes her place, when convinced of his duty, when he owns and feels and is actually under the influence of, the Divine authority; whilst he is carrying on his views to the grave, the end of all temporal greatness; under this sense of things, with the better character and more desirable state present—full before him—in his thoughts, in his wishes, voluntarily to choose the worst—what fatality is here! Or how otherwise can such a character be explained? And yet, strange as it may appear, it is not altogether an uncommon one: nay, with some small alterations, and put a little lower, it is applicable to a very considerable part of the world. For if the reasonable choice be seen and acknowledged, and yet men make the unreasonable one, is not this the same contradiction, that very inconsistency, which appeared so unaccountable?”1 [Note: Butler, Sermons, 97.]

“Now and then,” says Peter Rosegger, “I take my soul out from its cage. I smooth its wings and brush away the dust. Then I throw it up, to see how high it can go. It flies up above the housetop, it circles round and round. It settles on a neighbouring tree. It looks up, but the sky is so far. It looks down, the earth is so near. It is hard to soar, it is easy to descend; and so in a little time my soul comes fluttering down to me, and creeps into its cage again. My hope is in the Holy Dove, the Spirit of God Himself, that comes down to earth and bears my soul upon its wings to heaven.”

3. The story of Balaam may be entitled “a drama of the ruin of conscience.” We are introduced to him at the crisis of his life. What had gone before we do not know, although we see clearly manifested in him, on the one hand, the tyranny of a strong besetting sin and, on the other, the helpfulness and strength of religious principle. He is evidently in the habit of seeking guidance from God, of listening to and obeying the voice of conscience. The message of Balak, with its offer of silver, and gold, and honours, is the turning-point of his life. The struggle between conscience and his besetting sin is most dramatically portrayed; it is a tragedy, ending in the defeat of conscience, in the ruin of character, probably in the loss of a soul.

We often see two individuals in the same family, brothers perhaps, inheriting from the same parentage, brought up under the same environment, and living together until some great decision has to be made by each. The one decides for right, for God; and his life afterwards, while it is not free from struggle, and has its imperfections, is a steady progress upward. The other brother yields to the temptation, and though he makes, from time to time, efforts to recover himself, yet they seem to be unavailing, and he falls lower and lower until, perhaps, becoming hopeless and despairing, he gives up the fight. What made the difference between the two at the moment of trial? It was the life which had gone before: in the one, a life of fidelity to principle, to conscience, even in small matters; in the other, a life of carelessness about little things, as though they were too unimportant to be made matters of principle. In the first the will gradually became stronger and stronger to resist temptation, and so was able to make the right decision at the crisis of life; in the other the will had been weakened by many little acts of self-indulgence, so that when the great demand was made upon it, it could not rise up to meet the temptation, it yielded and never again recovered. The whole principle is summed up in our Lord’s words, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”1 [Note: A. G. Mortimer.]

The smallest thing thou canst accomplish well,

The smallest ill. ’Tis only little things

Make up the present day, make up all days,

Make up thy life. Do thou not therefore wait,

Keeping thy wisdom and thy honesty,

Till great things come with trumpet-heraldings!1 [Note: A Layman’s Breviary.]

4. What were the motives which led to the perversion of conscience in Balaam? There are two opposite motives which sway men. Some, like Simon Magus, will give gold to be admired and wondered at; some will barter honour for gold. In Balaam the two are blended. We see the desire at once for honour and for wealth; wealth, perhaps, as being another means of ensuring reputation. And so have we seen many begin and end in our own day—begin with a high-minded courage which flatters none; speaking truth, even unpalatable truth; but when this advocacy of truth brings, as it brought to Balaam, men to consult them, and they rise in the world and become men of consideration, then by degrees the love of truth is superseded, and passes into a love of influence. Or they begin with a generous indifference to wealth—simple, austere; by degrees they find the society of the rich leading them from extravagance to extravagance, till at last, high intellectual and spiritual powers become the servile instruments of appropriating gold. The world sees the sad spectacle of the man of science and the man of God waiting at the doors of princes, or cringing before the public for promotion and admiration.

The garlands wither on your brow;

Then boast no more your mighty deeds;

Upon death’s purple altar now,

See, where the victor-victim bleeds;

Your head must come

To the cold tomb:

Only the actions of the just

Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.2 [Note: James Shirley.]


The Death of the Righteous

1. There are many ways in which men go out of the world. Some withdraw in carelessness and indifference, some in heaviness and fear, some without hope or expectation, some with a mere wish to make an end of physical discomfort, some hardened in frigid stoicism, and some in a maze of dreams, saying to themselves, Peace, Peace, when there is no peace. There is another manner of departure which leads all the rest in dignity and beauty. It is the death of the righteous—joy with peace; a trust in God that rests on strong foundations; a heart confiding in a covenant promise which it knows to be certain and sure; perfect submission to the will which is evermore a will of love; resignation of self and all into those hands which come forth through the gathering darkness; sacrificial surrender gladly paying the debt due to sin;—these signs mark the death of the righteous. And to all this, since Christ came, are to be added the presence of the Saviour, the thought that He has gone that way before us and knows every step of the path, the conviction that to die is gain, the assurance that the Lord shall raise us up at the Last Day, and that whosoever liveth and believeth in Him shall never die.

At end of Love, at end of Life,

At end of Hope, at end of Strife,

At end of all we cling to so—

The sun is setting—must we go?

At dawn of Love, at dawn of Life,

At dawn of Peace that follows Strife,

At dawn of all we long for so—

The sun is rising—let us go!1 [Note: Louise Chandler Moulton.]

2. There was but One in this world to whom could fitly be applied the title of “the Righteous,” our Lord Jesus Christ Himself; and when we pray, “Let me die the death of the righteous!” it is like saying, “Let me die as my Master died, let my last end be like His.”

(1) First, we observe that our Blessed Lord sets before us a new view of death. If on the one hand it is gloomy, if it tells us that death is the dire penalty, the necessary penance of sin, yet on the other hand it is not without brightness, for it tells us that death is the paying of the debt of sin, and is therefore the entrance into the land of everlasting life, that it is the gate of heaven itself.

“Rise,” said the Master, “come unto the feast.”

She heard the call, and rose with willing feet;

But thinking it not otherwise than meet

For such a bidding to put on her best,

She is gone from us for a few short hours

Into her bridal closet, there to wait

For the unfolding of the palace gate

That gives her entrance to the blissful bowers.

We have not seen her yet, though we have been

Full often to her chamber door, and oft

Have listen’d underneath the postern green,

And laid fresh flowers, and whispered short and soft,

For she hath made no answer, and the day

From the clear west is fading fast away.

(2) Next, we notice that our Lord teaches us how to prepare for death—that is, for a good death: “Right dear in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Our Lord teaches how to prepare that our death may be like “the death of his saints,” precious in the sight of God. The fundamental principle surely is this, that none can die the death of the righteous who are not trying to live the life of the righteous. Our Lord’s death teaches us, first, that we must follow His life. We cannot face death with the calmness, with the joy with which He faced it, “Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame,” unless our life has been an attempt to follow Him—has been the life of the righteous.

Those who have crushed out their higher aspirations, and lived a mere careless worldly life—without a thought of the Unseen Hand which was guiding them, without a reference to the Will of the Lord of their conscience, without any desire to be conformed to the image of His Son—will have little power or courage to grasp that Unseen Hand, and rest their souls upon it, when the senses are failing. Faith, affiance, trust, in the Unseen is not a single act: it is a habit of soul, generated by many acts, by constant acting. The “life of the righteous” is a life of faith. Without faith, without a belief, a trust, in God, how can the soul stand upright in the midst of life’s storms, or stand firm against its “manifold temptations”? Even when explicit faith may have been lost or overshadowed for a time, what is every act of virtuous self-denial but a homage to the Unseen? The “righteous” then—the faithful—are “blessed in their death,” with the same blessedness which they enjoyed in their lifetime. There is no other possible. Infinite as is the Mercy of our God, and Great as is His Power, He cannot make the Past not to have been: and, remember, we are making it now that which it will be for ever.

The strong light which the teachings of Jesus have thrown on the Law of God, revealing its deep spiritual requirements—and not His words only, but His life and His death—have given us a standard which must, if it is realized, introduce penitence into our lives, not as a mere outward form or occasional service, or as a kind of composition for our offences, but as the spirit of our daily life—as the true temper of those who see their own baseness, selfishness, and coldness, in the light of God’s pardoning, paternal Love. This repentance—a continual daily turning to God—will make the last, the inevitably remorseful last look at life from the dying pillow, less bitter, less intolerable, even for those who will have much in themselves, in their own course, to regret. But, if deferred till then, with what anguish will it come? Yes! penitence is needful—not to propitiate an angry God—not as the attitude of a slave, who crouches creeping to avert the uplifted lash—but because it is the right, the truly human, feeling for those who see their own inward faults and the transgressions of their lives. And but little indeed does any one know of the comfort and relief of such repentance, who would dream of putting it off till all opportunity was over of obeying the gracious words—“Go and sin no more!”1 [Note: J. W. Colenso.]

3. Balaam envied the prospects of the dying Hebrew; but when we consider the blessedness of those who die “in the Lord,” we feel that his old prayer is truer than ever. The earliest recorded example is that of St. Stephen. At his trial his enemies gnashed upon him with their teeth, but his Friend in heaven brought instant help.

A minister of the gospel died at the early age of thirty-seven. Some days before the end, his wife asked him how he was, and he replied that he felt very ill, “but unspeakably happy in my dear Lord Jesus.” The last day he lived, his wife repeated the familiar lines from Dr. Watts—

“Jesus can make a dying bed

Feel soft as downy pillows are.”

The dying man replied, “Yes, He can. He does. I feel it.”2 [Note: J. A. Clapperton.]

On the thirtieth of January, 1646, Father Anne de Nouë set out from Three Rivers to go to the fort built by the French at the mouth of the river Richelieu, where he was to say mass and hear confessions. De Nouë was sixty-three years old, and had come to Canada in 1625. As an indifferent memory disabled him from mastering the Indian languages, he devoted himself to the spiritual charge of the French, and of the Indians about the forts within reach of an interpreter. For the rest, he attended the sick, and in times of scarcity fished in the river, or dug roots in the woods for the subsistence of his flock. In short, though sprung from a noble family of Champagne, he shrank from no toil, however humble, to which his idea of duty or his vow of obedience called him. The old missionary had for companions two soldiers and a Huron Indian. They wandered from their course, and at evening encamped on the shore of the island of St. Ignace. At daybreak parties went out to search. The two soldiers were readily found, but they looked in vain for the missionary. All day they were ranging the ice, firing their guns and shouting; but to no avail, and they returned disconsolate. There was a converted Indian, whom the French called Charles, at the fort, one of four who were spending the winter there. On the next morning, the second of February, he and one of his companions, together with Baron, a French soldier, resumed the search; and, guided by the slight depressions in the snow which had fallen on the wanderer’s footprints, the quick-eyed savages traced him through all his windings, found his camp by the shore of the island, and thence followed him beyond the fort. He had passed near without discovering it—perhaps weakness had dimmed his sight—stopped to rest at a point a league above, and thence made his way about three leagues farther. Here they found him. He had dug a circular excavation in the snow, and was kneeling in it on the earth. His head was bare, his eyes open and turned upwards, and his hands clasped on his breast. His hat and his snow-shoes lay at his side. The body was leaning slightly forward, resting against the bank of snow before it, and frozen to the hardness of marble. Thus, in an act of kindness and charity, died the first martyr of the Canadian mission.1 [Note: Francis Parkman, The Jesuits in North America, ii. 75.]

Oh, safe for evermore,

With never a weird to dree:

Is any burden sore

When one’s beloved goes free?

Come pain, come woe to me,

My well-beloved goes free!

You are so far away,

And yet have come so near:

On many a heavy day

I think of you, my dear,

Safe in your shelter there,

Christ’s hand upon your hair.1 [Note: Katharine Tynan Hinkson.]


The Death of Balaam

1. “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” Was ever prayer more beautiful than this? Was ever answer to prayer sadder? Falstaff “babbling o’ green fields,” the old backslider trying to grope his way in the dark to the green pasture of the 23rd Psalm, is a less tragic sight than Balaam’s headless form huddled among the heap of Midian’s dead.

2. Foiled in his attempt to procure a curse on Israel by means of sacrifices and incantations, Balaam, as we are told in the Apocalypse, tried to effect his end by indirect and yet more devilish means. Purity of mind and body, and freedom from idolatry, were the very conditions on which Israel enjoyed the Divine favour. If they could be tempted to anything at variance with these, their doom was sealed. So reasoned the prophet, and applying his very knowledge of God to the service of the devil, he taught Balak his vile secret. If he could seduce the Israelites to commit fornication, and to join in the unhallowed sacrifices of the lewd god of Peor, they might still be ruined. The 25th chapter of Numbers shows the partial success of this infernal artifice. And when we take it in connexion with the brief notice in a subsequent passage, that in warring with Moab they slew Balaam also, the son of Beor, with the sword, we are driven to suppose that, after returning home to Pethor unsuccessful in the first instance, Balaam had actually gone back to Balak, to induce him to try seduction on those against whom magic had been powerless; that he had awaited there the issue of his vile suggestions, and had at length died in arms, fighting against the nation whose only offence against him had been that God had not allowed him to pronounce a lucrative curse upon them. And this was the end of the man who had said, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” In all history there is no more signal instance of the literal fulfilment of the most fearful imprecation that ever was conceived or uttered: “Let his prayer be turned into sin!”

There was a noble soul that strove to become the man, but; another soul, light, vain, and lustful, throve meanwhile; and in the reaction that followed the great scene upon the hills, it sprang forward at the head of its train of passions and overthrew the man of God in Balaam, “and Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword.” “Lust dwells hard by hate.” The soul that had now become the man naturally hated the people of the law, and so he sank swiftly from sin to sin, till he was found at last among the heathen dead.1 [Note: J. M. Gibbon.]

3. What are the lessons of the death of Balaam? Chiefly these two: First, that no man should expect to die the death of the righteous who does not live the life of the righteous; and, second, that wishes, however earnest, do not necessarily bring the thing wished for.

(1) Why should any one expect to come to a good death who will not lead a good life? This world is not governed by chance, or fate, or caprice. Surely there is a Righteous Ruler among us; and He rules by just and equitable laws. More than this may we say: that there is a unity or a oneness, in the various parts of God’s world, of such a kind, that, by looking at what is in one place, we can tell what must be in another. “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” The Lord was speaking of trees and shrubs and plants; in reality He was talking, in a figure, about the souls and the lives of men. If the life has been hard, sharp, and angry, and such that a bramble-bush is its proper emblem; if a man has permitted his sins, like thick weeds, to choke the seed of spiritual life, what sense is there in looking for mellowness, and fruitage, and pleasant, profitable things in him when the summer is past and the autumn days are come?

(2) Balaam wished that he might die the death of the righteous. And in every such wish some things are implied the presence of which is better than their absence. There is first a knowledge of good. The man who so speaks knows something at least (as Balaam said) of the knowledge of the Most High. Again, the honest utterance of such a wish implies that, as there is knowledge in the understanding, so is there also life in the conscience. And yet how far was his wish from being fulfilled. Balaam knew well that he who would die the death of the righteous must first be righteous—must first have lived the life of the righteous. Conscious, as in his inmost soul he must have been, that he was at present far from that righteousness, that the whole bent of his heart was evil, that he was under the dominion of one overmastering passion which alone and of itself was turning all his religion into practical hypocrisy, he should have set himself with determined resolution to unravel this web of deceit, to retrace his crooked steps, to seek that straight and narrow way from which he had so long and so obstinately wandered, to lay afresh the very foundations of his spiritual being, and become that which heretofore he had been satisfied to seem. He knew well that the distinction between the last end of the righteous and of the wicked is no arbitrary difference, but the equitable, the natural result of a long course of voluntary acts. To wish for the death, without resolving to live the life, of the righteous, is to dream of an effect without a cause, of a harvest without a seed-time.

4. As for death-bed repentances, or late conversions, about which it would seem that no one could speak with too great caution, or too severe a reserve, men talk of them with a boldness which is effrontery. Who knows anything about the worth of such changes? Are they really changes? If he who at his last hour calls on God and professes repentance and faith, were to recover, who can say that he would not forget it all, and straightway go back to his old ways? Men have done so in a thousand cases: would they not always do so? Is it repentance to cease from sinning only when the power of sinning has gone? Is it not a mockery to style it repentance, when it is not the man who forsakes his sins, but his sins that forsake the man? What is that conversion which a man professes, when the nerves are unstrung, the frame prostrated, the mind enfeebled, the functions in disorder, the power to think, meditate, and pray reduced to a minimum by restlessness, fever, and pain? Whatever may come of this in another world, one thing is certain: The Gospel, rightly understood, holds out no hope to delay. God promises pardon to the penitent, but not a morrow to the procrastinator; and as for those theories which make void the simple teachings of Christ, and promise to show us full ripe clusters of grapes on the bitter bramble and luscious figs on the thistle, they are but inventions of men. Reason and revelation have but one voice: both warn against rash boasting, in cases where the life has not been that which a Christian man ought to live. The solitary instance in Scripture of a dying sinner’s repentance shakes not the weight of the general argument. Our Lord, on His cross, pardoned one of the two that hung beside Him; nay, He said, “To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” But the case stands alone. One such man was pardoned, that we might hope: one such only, lest we should presume. God showed His power; but He also at once withdrew and hid His hand, lest men should make a rule of an exception and boldly continue in sin.


Alford (H.), Quebec Chapel Sermons, iii. 218.

Barry (A.), The Parables of the Old Testament, 226.

Bellew (J. C. M.), Sermons, iii. 311.

Bonar (H.), Family Sermons, 408.

Butler (G.), Sermons in Cheltenham College Chapel, 35.

Butler (J.), Sermons, ed. Bernard, 92.

Clapperton (J. A.), in The Divine Artist, 137.

Colenso (J. W.), Natal Sermons, 2nd Ser., 171.

Eyton (R.), The True Life, 334.

Gibbon (J. M.), in Men of the Old Testament (Cain-David), 173.

Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, 2nd Ser., 17.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, 371.

Mortimer (A. G.), Lenten Preaching, 159.

Mortimer (A. G.), Studies in Holy Scripture, 71.

Munger (T. T.), The Appeal to Life, 109.

Reichel (C. P.), Sermons, 27.

Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, 4th Ser., 42.

Skrine (J. H.), Sermons to Pastors and Masters, 23.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xiii. No. 746.

Church of England Pulpit, xxxix. 241 (Rawstorne).

Church Pulpit Year Book, i. (1904) 85 (Mortimer).

Churchman’s Pulpit, Third Sunday after Easter, viii. 99 (Dix), 101 (Vaughan).

Clergyman’s Magazine, viii. 218 (Leathes); xii. 221 (Lillingston); 3rd Ser., viii. 222 (Proctor).

Homiletic Review, xix. 568; xxxii. 44 (Merrill).

Plain Sermons by Contributors to the “Tracts for the Times,” iv. 63 [No. 100].

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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