Numbers 23
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The word "parable" is used here in a somewhat peculiar sense. It is not, as in the New Testament, a fictitious narrative embodying and enforcing some moral truth, but a "dark saying," a mystic prophecy cast in the form of figurative poetic language, a prophecy that partakes of the nature of allegory. In these ecstatic utterances the impulse of Balaam's better nature overmasters his more sordid passion, and a true prophetic spirit from God takes the place of the false Satanic spirit of heathen divination. The thoughts respecting Israel to which Balaam gives utterance in this first parable are deeply true of the redeemed people of God in every age.

I. THEIR SPECIAL PRIVILEGE AS OBJECTS OF THE DIVINE FAVOUR. "How shall I curse," &c. Balak had faith in Balaam's incantations. "I wot that he whom thou blessest," &c. (Numbers 22:6). But he himself knew well that there was an arbitrament of human interests and destinies infinitely higher than his. God has absolute sovereignty for good or ill over all our human conditions. There is no real blessing where his benediction does not rest, nor need any curse be dreaded by those who live beneath his smile. "If God be for us," &c. (Romans 8:31). No alternative so momentous as this - the favour or the disfavour of God. Note, respecting the Divine favour, that -

1. It is determined by spiritual character. Not an arbitrary, capricious bestowment. It is for us to supply the conditions. We must "be reconciled to God" if we would know the benediction of his smile. God is "for" those who are for him. The cloud in which his glory dwells gives light to those who are. in. spiritual accord with him, but is darkness and confusion to his foes.

2. It is neither indicated nor disproved by the outward experiences of life. External conditions are no criterion of the state of the soul and its Divine relations. The wicked may "have all that heart can wish" of the good of this life, and their very "prosperity may slay them ;" while it is often true that "whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth" with sorest tribulations, and those tribulations "work out for them a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." We judge very falsely if we suppose that spiritual experiences must needs be reflected in outward conditions.

3. It is the source of the purest joy of which the soul of a man is capable. This is true blessedness - to walk consciously in the light of God's countenance. "His favour is life," his loving kindness "better than life." This was the pure joy of the well-beloved Son - the abiding sense of the Father's approval. Have this joy in you, and you may defy the disturbing influences of life and the bitterest maledictions of a hostile world.

II. THEIR SEPARATENESS. "Lo, the people shall dwell alone," &c. (verse 9). The Jews were an elect people ("Ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people" - Exodus 19:5), chosen and separated, not as monopolizing the Divine regard, but as the instruments of a Divine purpose. They were called to be witnesses for God among the nations, - the majesty of his Being, the sanctity of his claims, the method of his government, &c., - and to be the channels of boundless blessing to the world. The same grand distinction belongs to all whom Christ has redeemed from among men. "Ye are a chosen generation," &c. (1 Peter 2:9). He says to all his followers, "Ye are not of the world," &c. (John 15:19; John 17:16, 17). This separation is -

1. Not circumstantial, but moral; lying not in the renunciation of any human interest or the rending of any natural human tie, but in distinctive qualities of spiritual character and life. In moral elevation and spiritual dignity only are they called to "dwell alone."

2. Not for the world's deprivation, but for its benefit Not to withdraw from it powers that might better be consecrated to its service, but to bring to bear upon it, in the cause of righteousness, an energy higher and diviner than its own.

III. THEIR MULTIPLICITY. "Who can count the dust," &c. The promise given to Abraham is gloriously fulfilled in God's spiritual Israel. "Thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth," &c. (Genesis 28:14). This indicates at once the grandeur of the Divine purpose and the diffusive power of the Divine life in men. On both these grounds their numbers will surely multiply till they "cover the face of all the earth." Little as we may be able to forecast the future, we know that the question, "Are there few that be saved?" will find its triumphant answer in "the great multitude which no man can number, of all nations," &c. (Revelation 7:9).

IV. THE BLESSEDNESS OF THEIR END. "Let me die the death," &c. We gather from this not only Balaam's faith in the intrinsic worth of righteousness, but also in the happy issue to which a righteous life in this world must lead as regards the life to come. Why this wish if he had no faith in a glorious immortality and in righteousness as the path to it? There is an instinct in the soul even of a bad man that leads to this conclusion, and his secret convictions and wishes will often bear witness to a diviner good of which his whole moral life is the practical denial. You must be numbered with the righteous now if you would find your place with them hereafter, and live their life if you would die their death. - W.

God's "defiance" the signal of destruction; God's "curse," fatal. But if protected from these we are safe, for "the curse causeless cannot come." We are safe from -

1. Malicious designs. E.g., Balaam's wish to curse; the plot of the Jews to stone Paul at Iconium (Acts 14:5), and to assassinate him at Jerusalem (Acts 23.).

2. Words of execration. E.g., Shimei (2 Samuel 16); the blasphemies spoken against Christ, and the libels uttered against his people (Matthew 10:24-26).

3. Witchcraft and divination. In reply to all such foolish fears let it suffice to say, "I believe in God" (Isaiah 8:13, 14: 1 Peter 3:13).

4. Assaults and all violence. E.g., the various attempts to seize or kill Jesus Christ when "his hour was not yet come." When the hour for suffering "as a Christian is come," let him glorify God "(1 Peter 4:12-16). Such calamities are not "curses" from God, and God can change all other curses into blessings, as in the case of Balaam (Deuteronomy 23:5).

5. Every kind of persecution (Romans 8:35-39). The devil's curse is a telum imbelle; his defiance an empty threat. The objects of God's care are invincible, if not invulnerable (Isaiah 54:17). - P.

This certainly appears an extraordinary wish when we bear in mind the position and character of the man who uttered it. Any one taking these words on his lips, and thereby making them his own, would inevitably direct our attention to his life, and compel us to consider what he might be doing to make the wish a reality. From the time of his first entrance on the scene Balaam unconsciously reveals his character. He could not by any stretch of the word be described as a good man; the whole narrative is little but an illustration of his duplicity, selfishness, vanity, greed of gain and glory, and utter disregard of the plain commandments of God. The position of Balaam at this particular time is also to be remembered. He has been called to curse, twice pressed to make a long journey for this special purpose; he has offered sacrifices and sought enchantments to secure it; and yet he not only fails to curse, but, more than that, is compelled to bless; and, last of all, to crown the reversal of what had been so carefully prepared for, he is heard expressing an emphatic wish that he himself might be found among this blessed people.

I. CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT THESE WORDS OF BALAAM DISCONNECTED FROM ALL THEIR ORIGINAL CIRCUMSTANCES. Consider them as placed before some one who knew neither the character nor position of Balaam as the speaker, nor the position of Israel as the nation referred to. Let him know simply that these words were spoken once upon a time, and ask him to imagine for himself the scene in which they might be fitly spoken. Whither then would his thought be turned? Would it not be to some aged believer, gradually sinking to rest, with the experience that as the outward man decayed, the inward man was renewed from day to day, and with the conviction that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord; looking forward from time into eternity, according to the familiar illustration, as being "but a going from one room into another." Such would be the view suggested by the term "righteous," and the person expressing the wish would seem to be some studious, susceptible observer, with frequent opportunities for observation, who had been impressed by the reality and the superlative worth of the experience on which he had gazed. Then let such a one as we have supposed be confronted with these original circumstances. How perplexed he would be when told that the words were spoken by such a man as Balaam appears in the narrative, and of a people that had done such things as are recorded in the Book of Numbers! These words, looked at in a particular light, might be taken as indicating deep spiritual convictions and earnest, faithful life on the part of whoever speaks them. But we are bound to look at them now in the light of Balaam's character, and in the light also of Israel's past career.

II. CONSIDER THE ACTUAL EXTENT OF BALAAM'S WISH. He wishes to die the death of the righteous. Do not be misled by the prominence of the word "righteous" into supposing that for its own sake Balaam cared about righteousness. It was not righteousness that he desired, but what he saw to be the pleasant, enviable effects of righteousness. He cared nothing about the cause if only he could get the effects. He loved the vine because it produced grapes, and the fig-tree because it produced figs, but if he could have got grapes from thorns and figs from thistles, he would have loved thorns and thistles just as well. We have God revealing to an ungodly man as much as an ungodly man can perceive of the blessedness of the righteous. Balaam was entirely out of sympathy with the purposes of God. He showed by the best of all evidence that he would have nothing to do with righteousness as a state of heart, habit of conduct, and standard in all dealings with God and men. But though Balaam did not appreciate the need of righteousness, he did appreciate happiness, and that very warmly, in his own carnal way. He saw in Israel everything a man could desire. To have Balaam uttering this wish was as emphatic a way as any God could have taken to show Balak his favour to Israel. Not only from the top of the rocks does the prophet see the separated and multitudinous people, which in itself was enough to drive Balak to unfavourable inferences, but so desirable does the state of the people appear, that Balaam cannot help wishing it were his own. God had told him at first "the people are blessed," and now, as soon as he sees them, God also makes the greatness of the blessedness sufficiently manifest even to his carnal and obscured heart.

III. THUS WE SEE THE DEEP IMPRESSION WHICH THE BLESSED LIFE OF GOD'S PEOPLE IS CAPABLE OF MAKING ON THE UNGODLY. Those who as yet have no sympathy with righteousness may have a keen desire for security, joy, and peace, and a keen perception of the fact that these somehow belong to real believers in Christ. It is a characteristic of the Scriptures, and a very notable and important one, that many of the appeals found in it are to what seem comparatively low motives. Has it not indeed been made a charge against Christian ethics that they make so much of rewards and punishments? But surely this is the very wisdom of God to draw men by inducements suitable to their low and miserable state, to promise joy to the joyless, peace to the distracted, security to the fearful, life to the dying. Certainly Christ the Saviour can do nothing for us as long as we remain impenitent, unbelieving, and unreconciled, but in his mercy he speaks first of all in the most general and sympathetic terms concerning our needs. The most comprehensive invitation the Saviour ever gave runs thus: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Not a word there of conviction of sin, wrath of God, need of righteousness, need of saving faith! Is it by accident that the first psalm begins with a reference to happiness? The sermon on the mount starts with this as the very beginning of Christ's teaching: "Men are unhappy; how can they find and keep blessedness, real happiness?" Suppose a man who has no experimental knowledge of the saving power of Christ, reading through the promises of the New Testament and the actual experiences therein recorded; suppose him to see that if words count for anything, godliness is indeed profitable for the life that now is. Would it be anything strange for such a man to say, "If righteousness brings such effects as these, then let me die the death of the righteous"? Appealing to high motives alone would be all very well if those appealed to were unfallen spirits or perfected saints; but men being what they are, God does not esteem it too great a condescension to draw them to himself by the promise of blessedness, high, peculiar, rich, and lasting.

IV. GOD GIVES HERE THROUGH BALAAM A CLEAR INDICATION OF HOW THIS DESIRABLE BLESSEDNESS COMES. Israel is not only the happy people, but the righteous people. Righteousness brings the happiness, and is the condition and the guarantee of its continuance. Wherever there is righteousness there is an ever-living and ever-fruitful cause of blessedness. The presence of this righteousness as essential is still more clearly indicated in the next prophecy: "God hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob." That is the great difference between Israel and Moab. Moab is not without its possessions and treasures, its carnal satisfactions; Moab has much that it thinks worth fighting for; it has honours and rewards to offer Balaam such as have brought him all this way to utter, if he can, a curse against Israel. But Moab is not righteous, and the sight of its happiness will never provoke such a wish as Balaam's here.

V. THIS BRINGS US TO CONSIDER THE PECULIAR WAY IN WHICH THE WISH IS EXPRESSED. "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!" This is as comprehensive a way as was possible at the time of stating the blessedness of the righteous. Life and immortality were not yet brought to light. To die the death of the righteous was a very emphatic way of indicating the present life of the righteous in all its possible extent. No matter how long that life may stretch, it is one to be desired. "The righteous goes on as far as I can see him," Balaam seems to say, "and comes to no harm." The blessedness of God's people, if only they observe the requisite conditions, is a continuous, unbroken experience: not an alternation of oases and deserts. The fluctuations in that blessedness, the flowing and ebbing tides, come from defects in ourselves. Where there is the fullness of faith, prayer, and humility there surely will be the fullness of blessedness also. Then also, when we consider what Christ has shown us by his own experience of what lies beyond death; when we consider his own personal triumph, and the definite, unhesitating way in which a blessed resurrection is assured to his followers, and an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, we see a great prophetic importance in this particular mode of expression: "Let me die the death. Balaam's wish in the very form of it, so peculiar, and we may even say at first so startling, expressed far more than he had any possible conception of. Death stands crowning with one hand the temporal life of the righteous, and with the other opening to him the pure fullness of eternity.

VI. It is very important to notice that by the reference to Israel as the righteous AN UNERRING INDICATION IS GIVEN AS TO WHERE RIGHTEOUSNESS IS TO BE FOUND. Not they who call themselves righteous, but whom God calls righteous, are the people whose death one may desire to die. The true Israelite is he who fulfils the law and the prophets, as he is called to do and made competent to do by the fullness of that Holy Spirit which is given to every one who asks for him. "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." There is a worthless and deceiving righteousness which excludes from the kingdom of heaven, though the scribes and Pharisees, its possessors, make much of it. There is also a righteousness to be hungered and thirsted after (Matthew 5). We must be careful in this matter, lest we spend money for that which is not bread, and labour for that which satisfieth not (Isaiah 55:2). God hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, for where he beholds iniquity the seed of Jacob is assuredly absent. Those who have learned the corruption and deception, the necessary ignorance and incapacity, of the unrenewed heart, and thereby been impelled to seek and enabled to find renewal, life and light from on high, and holy principles and purposes for their future course, they are the righteous. Israel born of the flesh exists but as the type. We must not limit our view by him. "Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matthew 3:9). - Y.

Balaam has cursed where he was expected to bless, he has said things very hard to listen to and keep presence of mind, but Balak has not by any means lost faith in Balaam and his resources. He rather takes the blame to himself than to Balaam. If there be wrath in his heart with the speaker, who, instead of cursing Israel, has blessed it altogether, he manages to conceal the wrath. He cannot afford to quarrel with Balaam, the only known resource he has. He suggests, therefore, as the great cause of failure that the place of cursing has been badly chosen. Remove the cause, and the effect will disappear. Let the prophet come away from the top of the rocks to where his mind will not be filled with the presence of this bewildering multitude; and Balaam, whatever his private thoughts, consents to the experiment. It is the way of the blind, deluded world; all reasons for failure are accepted and acted on save the right one. Balak cannot yet see, will not see for a while, perhaps will never really see, that there is no place on earth where such requests can be granted. He is showing himself now, as Balaam had done before, unsatisfied with the first intimation. Balaam had been told plainly at the very first that Israel was blessed, yet here he is dabbling in superstitions, in enchantments and divinations, with no clear perception of the nature and character of God. Thus, all the narrative through, we see what egregious and scarcely credible blunders men make when they are left to themselves to make discoveries of God. What a proof that revelation in all the large extent of its Scriptural fullness is absolutely indispensable! God must not only give us the truth concerning himself, and the proper relation of men to him, but must also open our hearts and our eyes, and give us light whereby we may see the truth already given. How constantly we should remember the inevitable ignorance of those to whom gospel truth, light, and perceptive power have not yet penetrated! Take pity on them and help them - such darkened minds - as you think of Balak stumbling from one blunder to another, from one discredited resource to another, from one disappointment to another, only to find at last that all his schemes are vanity. And now we advance to consider the second prophecy. It is not only spoken in Balak's hearing, but is a direct appeal to himself. We are to imagine Balak standing with strained and eager look, already full of excitement and expectation, before ever a word is spoken. But this is not enough; he must be solemnly exhorted to attention. Things are about to be said directly concerning you, and it may be that when you have heard them, and allowed them to have full effect on your mind, you will cease from these foolish attacks on the established purpose and counsel of Jehovah. That this call upon Balak for attention was not a superfluous one is shown by the fact, that after hearing the prophecy he nevertheless made a third attempt, modified indeed, but still such as to show that he had not taken in the prophecy to anything like its full extent. We know how the Scriptures abound in expressions of which "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear," and "Verily, verily, I say unto you," are representative. Such expressions do not make truth any truer, but they do throw on us a great responsibility, and involve us in unquestionable blame for neglect of the things which belong to our salvation.

I. THE PROPHECY BEGINS BY CORRECTING BALAK'S FATAL MISAPPREHENSIONS CONCERNING GOD. Balak having failed the first time he tried Balaam, succeeded the second; having failed the first time he tries Jehovah, it is natural for him to think he may succeed the second. Hitherto he has known only the idols of Moab, and these of course only in such aspects as the priests presented them. As the priests were, so were the gods; and Balak, having experienced Balaam's final compliance, might excusably argue from Balaam to that Being whom he took to be Balaam's God. And now there falls out of a holier sphere some unexpected and much-needed knowledge for poor Balak, whose chief experience had been of equivocating, vacillating, unstable men. "God is not what you think him to he; he is true and steadfast, neither changing his purposes nor failing in them." Notice the way in which this all-important statement is put. God puts himself in contrast with his fallen, unfaithful, and disgraced creature, man. "God is not a man;" and, as if to emphasize this matter, he speaks the word of truth concerning his own truth through lying lips. "Men change their minds, and therefore break their words; they lie because they repent." What a hint then for us all to change from deceitful hearts to sincere ones, from lying lips to truthful ones, from vain purposes that must some day be relinquished, engendered as they are in our own selfishness and folly, to such purposes as are inspired by the unchanging God himself! Changing thus, we shall get into a state partaking somewhat of God's own steadfastness; or, rather, the only change will be from good to better and better to best. Man may become such that it shall no longer be his reproach that he lies, either carelessly, ignorantly, or maliciously, and repents, playing the weathercock to every wind that blows. God, we may be sure, desires the day to come when, instead of finding in man this awful and humiliating contrast to himself, he will rather be able to say, "Man is now true, clear from all belief in lies, from all deception and evasion, and steadfast in all the ways of righteousness, holiness, and love.

II. THE PROPHECY GOES ON TO REVEAL STILL MORE OF ISRAEL'S STRENGTH. The unchangeable God, having purposed to bless Israel, must go on blessing them. lie does it in word continually through the great official channel (Numbers 6:22-27), and now it is Balaam's lot (strange expositor of the Divine goodness!) to show clearly that the blessing of God is anything but a nominal or a secondary one. Much has been done to show this in the first prophecy, but a great deal more is done in the second. God has not only put Israel by themselves and made them into this vast multitude, which was a great deal to do, for Jacob's posterity is likened to the dust in number; but now through Balaam he shows quality as well as quantity. The people are not only separated outwardly and visibly, but separated still more by some great peculiarity in their inward life. Their vast numbers are but the most easily perceptible result of the vigorous, abundant vitality within. When Balaam got his first glance from the top of the rocks he saw the most obvious fruit of Israel's peculiar relation to God. Now in the second survey he comes as it were nearer, and sees the root and trunk and branches, the sap and substance whence these fruits take their origin.

1. There is the righteousness of the people. God, who searches into all secrets, and to whom the darkness and the light are both alike, has beheld no iniquity in Jacob, no wrong in Israel; that is to say, putting the thing plainly, there was no iniquity in Jacob. And though it seems a strange thing to say, considering God's late dealings with the people, we feel at once that it must not only be true, but very important, or it would not be put so prominently forward. God looks upon the ideal Israel which lies yet undeveloped in the midst of all the unbelief and carnality of the present generation. Though at the present moment any dozen Israelites might be as debased as any dozen Moabites, yet in Israel there was a seed of holiness, a sure beginning of the perfect and the blessed, which was not to be found anywhere in Moab. God, bear in mind, sees what we cannot see. God is not a man, that he should lie; neither is he a man that his eye should be stopped by the surface and first appearance of things. Jesus sought a solid ground for the future of his saving work in the world, and he found it not amidst the world's wisdom, but where we assuredly should never have looked - among the stumbling, ignorant disciples whom he gathered in Galilee. Looking with other eyes than men, and where proud men never look, he finds what they never find.

2. There is the presence of God with them, and that not only as God, but as King. "When you attack Israel, O Balak, you attack the kingdom of God. You, the king of Moab, appeal to the King of Israel to curse his own people." His sanctuary is also his throne, and where he is worshipped, there he also rules. Every act of worship is also an expression of loyalty. Balak described Israel as a people come out of Egypt (chapter 22:5); he is now to learn that they came because they were brought; because that very God brought them whose curse he had so laboriously and patiently sought to invoke. "Does it stand to reason, O Balak, that God can have brought them so far now to leave them for the sake of your sacrifices and Balaam's enchantments?" Thus also we may gather that as God in all the fullness of his being, Father, Son, and Spirit, has so long given his indubitable presence to his Church, he will assuredly for this very reason continue it to the end. God indeed looks on that Church in its actual coldness, indolence, and carnality, - and the Israel of God to-day is quite as far away from the fullness of its privileges, the perfection of its faith, and the exactness of its service as was Israel in the wilderness, - but he regards the ideal still. It is through the believers in Christ alone, the spiritual children of the faithful Abraham, that the nations are to be truly blessed. The ideal believer is the ideal man. Where the faithful and true God finds germs of faithfulness and truth in man, there he will abide and never depart.

3. There is strength for all required service and toil. "He hath as it were the strength of the unicorn (or buffalo). "Much increase is by the strength of the ox" (Proverbs 14:4), but an animal stronger even than the ordinary ox is needed to set forth the extent of Israel's advantages. We may take it that the figure here is intended to set forth strength pure and simple. Israel will have power to do whatever the course of events nay bring to be done. It is strong to do God's work as long as it is left to the peaceful pursuit of that work, and it is also strong to make a complete defense whenever it may be attacked. "Rouse Israel by your attacks, and the force that has hitherto been used for internal progress will become a wall against you; and not only so, but you nay be swept away in the rush of the roused and maddened unicorn." There is thus a warning to Balak not to provoke. It is when the Church has been provoked by persecution that her true strength has been shown to the world. What a mockery of this world's boasted resources, when all its persuasions, cajoleries, threats, and torments have failed to shake the faith of humble believers! It can burn, but it cannot convert. It is marvelous, the strength, energy, and patience which God has bestowed on some of his servants. Paul toiling on among infirmities and persecutions is a proverb; but, to come nearer home, consider John Wesley, hardly ever out of the saddle except when he was in the pulpit, amply furnished for all the weariness of travel and the work of incessant preaching till long past his eightieth year; and in matters of defense so wonderfully strengthened with the strength of the unicorn that he passed unharmed through all physical perils and social opposition. It is one of the most remarkable of all his remarkable experiences that he could say in his seventy-fourth year, "I have traveled all roads by day and by night these forty years, and never was interrupted yet."

4. God gives his people certain, authoritative, regular knowledge as to his will and favour. He does not leave them to auguries and divination. These things indeed were not only useless, but forbidden (Leviticus 19:26). Whatever he has to say he says through appointed and recognized channels, and confirms and illustrates it by suitable acts. There was place and need for lawgivers, prophets, and priests in Israel, but no room for men like Balaam, augurs, magicians, and priestcraft in general. Enchantments and divination had been the mainstay of Balak's hope, and though Balaam's experience may have prevented him from trusting so fully in them, he nevertheless considered them a very important element in propitiating Jehovah. Man's ways of reaching God are all vanity. God himself has to come down and lay a way very clearly marked and strictly prescribed. In that way, and in that alone, there is certainty and sufficiency of knowledge, safety, and blessedness of life. "The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide" (Psalm 37:31).

III. THE PROPHECY CLOSES BY INDICATING HOW THERE WILL BE IN ISRAEL THE SPIRIT OF DESTRUCTION AND THE STRENGTH TO DESTROY. Israel has not only the strength of the buffalo, but the spirit and propensities of the lion. This is the first intimation of threatening. The prophecy closes with, as it were, a growl and menace from the lion of the tribe of Judah. Up to this time God has told Balak to go round about Zion and tell the towers thereof, and mark well her bulwarks (Psalm 48:12, 13), that he might see how God's ideal people are invulnerable to all enemies. But now the defensive is suddenly turned into the offensive. Israel is a lion. We know from the frequent references to the lion in the Old Testament that this figure must have been a very impressive one to Balak. In Isaiah's prophecy concerning Moab we find these words: "I will bring lions upon him that escapeth of Moab" (Isaiah 15:9). The roar, the spring, the resistless attack, the sudden and complete collapse of the victim, all rise to our minds the moment this majestic animal is mentioned. The idea of defense scarcely enters into our minds in connection with the lion. His resources are those of attack. What shall Balak do if he has to meet a foe whose strength is that of the unicorn, and whose ardour is that of the lion? The figure, remember, is suitable to the occasion. There is a time to compare the people of God to the sheep whom the shepherd leads out and in, and gathers within the protecting fold, but there is also a time to compare them to the restless lion, seeking for his prey, and not lying down till he drinks its blood. The Church of Christ is a destroying institution, and this part of its work must not be concealed and softened down to suit the prejudices of the world. The claws of the lion must not be clipped when it is dealing with vested interests and established iniquities. As it is not the way of the lion to make compromises with its prey, so neither must we make compromises with any evil. We have nothing to do with evil, save, in the name of the God of righteousness, to destroy it as soon as we can. Nor need there be any fear of carrying the comparison too far. He who has taken in the meaning of those words, "Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves," will well understand how to be ardent, enthusiastic, uncompromising, almost fierce and lion-like, against monster evils, yet at the same time gentle as the lamb, pitiful as God himself, towards the men whose hearts have been hardened and their consciences blinded by the way in which their temporal interests have become intimately mixed with wrong. Wilberforce was one of the most gentle, affectionate, and considerate of men, always on the alert to say a word or write a letter for the spiritual good of others, yet his greatest work took the form of destroying evil. For many long years he had to look in the sight of the world a combatant more than anything else. When the slave trade was abolished in 1807 it is reported of him that he asked his friend Thornton, "What shall we abolish next?" a playful question, of course, but capable of a very serious meaning. No sooner does one great evil vanish from the scene than another becomes conspicuous. Evil seems continually growing as well as good. It is perhaps not without significance that so many associations clamouring for the attention of good and patriotic men have in the names of them such words as these: "abolition," "repression," "prevention." It must needs be so, even to the end. The devil well knows how to make the selfish interests of one half the world dependent on the sufferings and miseries of the other half. - Y.

Two truths are suggested in contrast.


1. They repent, i.e., they change their mind, frequently, hastily, because of ignorance, or short-sightedness, or prejudice, or narrow-mindedness. Picture a man, fickle, irresolute, and therefore "unstable" (James 1:8). When he does not repent it may be a sign of obstinacy rather than of laudable firmness (Jeremiah 8:6).

2. They lie. Children of Satan (John 8:44), often trained from childhood in ways of falsehood (Psalm 58:3), they help to undermine the foundations of society (Isaiah 59:13-15), and to tempt truthful men to universal distrust (Psalm 116:11). Such men are apt to think that God is like themselves, changeable and unfaithful. They project an image of themselves, like idolaters, and call it God (Psalm 115:8). E.g., Balak (verses 13, 27), and Balaam himself at first (Numbers 22:8, 19).

II. IT IS "IMPOSSIBLE FOR GOD TO LIE." Some of God's threats and promises are conditional, though in form they may seem absolute. E.g., Numbers 14:11, 12; Ezekiel 33:12-20. But others are fixed and absolute. We see this in -

1. Threats. E.g., exclusion of Hebrews from Canaan (chapter 14:20-22); Saul's loss of the kingdom (1 Samuel 15:22-29); exclusion of the impure from heaven (Hebrews 12:14; Revelation 21:27). Hence learn the folly of those who hope that God may change his mind, while theirs is unchanged; that God may repent instead of themselves. (Illustrate from Simon Magus, who desired to escape God's wrath while he gave no hint of abandoning his sins - Acts 8:24.)

2. Promises. E.g.,

(1) To Abraham, hundreds of years before (Genesis 12:1-3). Therefore Balaam says, verses 19, 20. So we may trace the effects of the promise down to the latest of the Old Testament prophets (Malachi 3:6) and the greatest of the Christian apostles (Romans 11:28, 29).

(2) To believers in Christ. Because with God there is "no variableness," &c., therefore we have "strong consolation," &c. (Hebrews 6:18, 19; James 1:17), and hope of the fullness of "eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised," &c. (Matthew 24:35; Titus 1:2).

(3) To suppliants who claim God's promises. God can as soon cease to exist as refuse to "make good" any promise claimed with faith through Jesus Christ our Lord. - P.

We may look upon Balaam here as representing the Satanic powers that have ever been plotting and working against the kingdom of God among men, and as the unwilling prophet of their ultimate defeat. The spell of a higher Power is over him, and he cannot do the thing that he would. Looking down from "the high places of Baal" upon the tents of Israel spread Out over the plain beneath, he is constrained in spite of himself to utter only predictions of good. His magic arts are utterly baffled in presence of the Divinity that overshadows that strange people. It is a picture of what is going on through all the ages. In the triumphant host approaching the borders of the land of promise we see the ransomed Church moving on to its glorious destination, its heavenly rest; the kingdom that Christ has founded among men consummating itself, "covering the face of the whole earth." And in the failure of his enchantments we see the impotence of the devices of the powers of darkness to arrest its progress. The Satanic working has assumed different forms.

I. PERSECUTION. The followers of Christ soon verified his prophetic word: "In the world ye shall have tribulation." The infant Church was nursed and cradled in the storms. It no sooner began to put forth its new-born energies than it found the forces of earth and hell arrayed against it. But what was the result? The first outbreak of hostility only brought to the minds of those feeble men, with a meaning undiscovered before, the triumphant words (Psalm 2), "Why do the heathen rage," &c. It drove them nearer to the Divine Fountain of strength. It made them doubly bold (Acts 4:23, 30). Scattered abroad, they ':went everywhere preaching the word, and the hand of the Lord was with them." A prophecy was thus given of the way in which persecution would always serve the cause it meant to destroy, and God would "make the wrath of man to praise him." Ecclesiastical authority has leagued itself with the tyrannous powers of the world in this repressive work. The sanctions of religion have been invoked for the destruction of the truth. But ever to the same issue. Whatever form it takes, the persecuting spirit is always essentially Satanic; there is nothing Divine in it. And it always defeats its own end. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The fire that has swept over the field, consuming the growth of one year, has only enriched it and made it more prolific the next. The kingdom of Christ has rooted itself in the earth, and its Divine energies have been developed by reason of the storms that have raged against it. Not only has "no weapon formed against it prospered," but the weapon has generally recoiled on the head of him who wielded it. The Satanic enchantments have been foiled just when they seemed to reach the climax of their success, and the curses of a hostile world have turned to blessings.

II. CORRUPTING INFLUENCES WITHIN THE PALE OF THE CHURCH ITSELF. Christianity has suffered far more from foes within than ever it did from foes without. Christ has been wounded most "in the house of Ms friends." Read the history of the first three or four centuries of the Christian era if you would know to what an extent the hand of man may mar the fair and glorious work of God. They tell how Christian doctrine, worship, polity, social life gradually lost their original simplicity and purity. The traditions of Judaism, heathen philosophies and mythologies, the fascinations of a vain world, the basest impulses of our nature, all played their part in the corrupting process. The human element overbore and thrust aside the Divine, till it seemed as if Satan, baffled in the use of the extraneous persecuting powers, were about to triumph by the subtler forces of corruption and decay. But God has never left his Church to itself any more than to the will of its adversaries. In the darkest times and under the most desperate conditions the leaven of a higher life has been secretly working. Nothing is more wonderful than the way in which the interests of Christ's kingdom have been preserved, not only in spite of, but often through, the instrumentality of events and institutions that in themselves were contrary to its spirit and its laws. What are many of our modern agitations but the struggles of the religious life to east off the fetters that long have bound it, to shake itself from the dust of ages, symptoms of the vis vitoe by which nature throws off disease. Even the retrograde movements that sometimes alarm us will be found by and by to have conspired to the same end. And when the Church shall "awake, and put on her beautiful garments" of simple truth and love and power, when "the Spirit is poured out upon her from on high," then shall it be seen how utterly even these subtler Satanic "enchantments" have failed to arrest her progress towards the dominion of the earth.

III. THE ASSAULTS OF UNBELIEF. The intellectual force of the world in some of its most princely and commanding forms has ever set itself in deadly antagonism to the Church of Christ. Far be it from us to say that all who hold or teach anti-Christian doctrine are consciously inspired by the spirit of evil. But beneath the fairest aspects of aggressive unbelief we discern the Satanic aim to darken the glory that shines from heaven on human souls. It is given to "the mystery of iniquity" to pervert the genius, the learning, even the very mental integrity and honest purpose of men to its own false uses. But have these forces of unbelief ever gained a substantial victory? One would suppose, from what is often said on their side, that they were victorious along the whole line. Is it really so? Is there any one stronghold of revealed truth that they have stormed and taken? In all the battles that have been fought on the field of Christian doctrine, has any ground really been lost? Have any of the "standards" fallen? Is Christianity in any sense a defeated or even damaged cause? Nay, we rather believe that "the foolishness of God is wiser than men," and "the weakness of God is stronger than men." The camp of Israel need fear no hostile "enchantment," for "the Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them." - W.

Numbers 23:27-24:14


1. With regard to Balak. After hearing the second prophecy, and especially its menacing conclusion, he is naturally much irritated. It is bad enough to have been disappointed even once, but kings like worse to have threatening added to disappointment, and at first Balak makes as if he would have nothing more said on the subject, one way or another. If Balaam cannot curse the people, neither shall he bless them. But becoming a little calmer, Balak determines to try a third time, and from a still different place; so little did he need the solemn assertion of God's unchangeable purposes to which his attention had been specially called. The conduct of Balak is a warning to us to keep our hearts right at all times with regard to the reception of Divine truth. Truths stated very clearly and emphatically, and in critical circumstances, may yet be utterly neglected. That which is necessary to be known will, we may be quite sure, have a clearness corresponding to the necessity. However clear and simple statements are in themselves, they must needs be as idle breath if we refuse to give humble and diligent attention to them.

2. With regard to Balaam. He no longer goes out seeking for enchantments, although be still clings to the inevitable sacrifices. This forsaking of the enchantments and clinging to the sacrifices, is it not a sort of testimony out of the very depths and obscurities of heathenism that God cannot be approached without something in the way of vicarious suffering? Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel. It had taken him a long time and caused him a great deal of trouble to see this, and yet the sequel proves (Numbers 31:8, 16) that, after all, seeing, he did not perceive, and hearing, he did not understand. Nevertheless, at this time he saw sufficient to convince him how vain were Balak's hopes of a curse from Jehovah. If Israel was to be overthrown, it was not in that way. Observe that in uttering this prophecy Balaam is thrown into a higher state of receptivity than before. When Balak refused to be satisfied with the first prophecy, he got a second one, specially addressed to himself, and fuller; more indicative of Israel's resources, varied, ample, and unfailing as they were for every possible need. But now he does not so much get a prophecy fuller in itself; it is rather a clearer proof that Balaam is indeed employed by God as a prophet. He is thrown into an ecstatic state, His eyes are closed to the outward world, but the mind's eye is opened, and a picture, first beautiful, and then terrible, is presented to his vision. We see from this how much God can do in controlling the powers of carnal and unsympathizing men. God not only puts his own words into Balaam's lying lips, but he makes him see such visions as were customarily confined to men who were spiritually fit for them. Balaam doubtless, looking away into the distance of time from the present encampment of Israel in Moab to their future life in Canaan, would rather have seen ruin, confusion, and desolation - something to rejoice the heart of his employer, and bring to himself the promised rewards. But he could only see what God showed him. If then God held this ungodly Balaam in such control, what may not his power be over those who submit to him with all their hearts? There is a sort of proportion in the matter. As the unwilling Balaam is to the completely submissive believer, so what God did to Balaam is to what God will do for such a believer. The more you give to God for working on, the more, by consequence, he will give to you in return. Yield yourselves to God, that he may not only work through you by his mighty power, but in you and for you according to the purpose of his love and the riches of his grace. The sad reflection is that Balaam allowed himself to be an evidence of the power, but not the grace; allowed God's blessings to go through him, yet, in spite of his own expressed wish, made no attempt to keep blessings for himself.

II. THE PROPHECY ITSELF. Here are set before us two pictures, as it were, a beautiful one and a terrible one. Picture the first. A spectator in an ordinary state of mind, looking down with his natural vision on the Israelite camp, sees long ranges of tents, set in four divisions, and at a reverent distance from the tabernacle in the midst of them. The people dwelt "not in stately palaces, but in coarse and homely tents, and those, no doubt, sadly weather-beaten." But Balaam in his ecstasy, when the Spirit of God came upon him, looked upon a more attractive and respiring scene. What he gazed upon at first was indeed these rows of tents, but, just as if in a dissolving view, they faded away before his eyes, and in place of them, valleys, gardens by the river-side, aloes of Jehovah's planting, and cedars beside the waters were spread out before him. Everything is suggestive of quiet, steady prosperity, of fruitfulness, peace, and beauty. This is the internal life of the Church of Christ, when his people are living to the extent of their privileges. This is the difference between the external appearance and the inward life and experience, Just at that moment when the lot of the Christian looks least attractive to the casual and uninstructed glance, it may be rich in all the great elements of true blessedness. The position of the Christian in this world is not seldom like that of the kernel within the shell: outside, the rough, repulsive, unpromising shell; inside, the precious kernel, with "the promise and potency" in it of a tree like that from which it was taken. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10). And thus it is here. It was not possible for Balaam to describe the blessed circumstances of Israel in direct language. He had to fall back on the comparison to certain visible things, such things as would raise in the mind of a dweller in Moab or Canaan, or anywhere round about, a picture of the highest satisfaction and success. Picture the second. The first picture is beautiful, and very beautiful; it is Eden raised in the waste wilderness. The second picture is terrible, and very terrible; yet what else could be expected? If Balak will go on presumptuously defying the sacred and beloved people of God, undeterred by the menaces to which he has already listened, then those menaces must be repeated with all the force and thoroughness of expression that can be thrown into them. The sudden transition from such a peaceful, beautiful scene as goes before heightens the effect, and probably was meant to do so. On one side is Israel engaged in tilling, the garden, the work to which man was set apart in the first days of innocence, watering his far-spread crops and enjoying his fragrant aloes and his cedars; on the other side is Israel the Destroyer, emphatically the Destroyer. The qualities of no one animal, however destructive, are sufficiently expressive to set him forth. Fierce, furious, strong, resistless as the lion is, the lion by himself is not enough to show forth Israel, and you must add the unicorn; and there you are invited to gaze on this unicorn-lion, strong in power, thorough in execution, leaving not one of his enemies unsubdued and undestroyed. Let Balak well understand that Israel, under the good hand of God, is climbing to the highest eminence among the nations. The repetition of the references to the unicorn and the lion shows how important the references are, and how needful it is to let the mind of the Christian dwell encouragingly on them. Balak sets forth the intolerant and suspicious spirit of the world in all its kingdoms; and the world does not heed prophecies; it does not take them to heart, else it would cease to be the world. These prophecies, though they were first spoken by a Balaam and listened to by a Balak, were meant in due course to reach, guide, assure, and comfort Israel. If there are times when we are tempted to fear the world, with its designs, its resources, and the might of its fascinating spirit, then we shall do well to recollect that, by a double and enlarged assurance, God reckons his Church to have the strength of the unicorn and the spirit of the lion, utterly to subdue and destroy all those kingdoms of the world which, to keep up the figure, are considered as the natural prey of the Church. - Y.

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