Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.Numbers 22
'Carlyle,' says Mr. Herbert Paul in his Life of Froude (pp. 312-313), 'was in truth one of the noblest men that ever lived. His faults were all on the surface. His virtues were those that lie at the foundation of our being. For the common objects of vulgar ambition he had a scorn too deep for words. He never sought, and he did not greatly value, the praise of men. He had a message to deliver, in which he profoundly believed, and he could no more go beyond it, or fall short of it, than Balaam when he was tempted by Balak.... Popularity was not his aim. His aim was to tell people what was for their good, whether they would bear or whether they would forbear.'
Let us point out two chief lessons that there are for ourselves in Balaam's history.
I. Beware of tampering with conscience. In all questions of doubt and difficulty use yourselves to consult the living oracle, the Tabernacle of witness which God has set within you, however enticing the bait may be by which Satan, or Satan's agents, the world, and the flesh would seduce you—seek to lead you astray. However great the promises that Balak may make of earthly honour and reward, put it back with a resolute hand and steadfast denial; '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'.
II. Row vain are good wishes when separated from good actions.
Balaam's famous wish, 'Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his,' is a wish that finds an echo in every heart. It is but right that we should so pray and wish, but we must do more than wish and pray, or else the wish in itself will profit us nothing—profit us no more than it profited Balaam, for in spite of his good and pious wish, he died a miserable and untimely death. To have our wish fulfilled, we must first live (God helping us) the life of His servant, live as those who have been redeemed of the Lord; live soberly, live righteously, live godly; walk in all His statutes and ordinances, live in His faith and fear.
III. Trust not to mere good wishes, or to utterance of warm, excited feelings, to secure to yourselves a truly happy, a truly blessed death. 'Awake to righteousness and sin not,' 'the sting of death is sin,' sin never forsaken, never repented of, persisted in to the end. Till that sting be done away, there can be no peace, no good ground of hope for the dying man. You know how alone that sting can be removed, you say with me 'thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ'.
—R. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons (3rd Series), p. 109.
The Story of Balaam
Balaam is one of those extraordinary characters that we meet with in Holy Writ, who flash across the page of Scriptural history and we know no more about them. He is referred to both in the Old and the New Testament, but nothing certain is stated regarding his past history, nor have we any of those details which we should be so glad to know regarding this most interesting person. He was a prophet of the Lord, and as we read his history, so graphic, so clear, we feel absolutely sure that it is a true account, a true history of a true person, because it reveals to us one of those mysteries of human life so hard to explain, and yet not so very remote from our own experience.
I. Balaam's Temptation.—We see, in spite of the privileged position which he held, that he had a very strong temptation. He was susceptible to one temptation above others—the temptation of covetousness, and, yielding to that temptation, he betrayed away all the privilege which he had enjoyed as the chosen servant of God, and ended his life fighting against the people of God. Balak sent to Balaam. What does Balaam do? He asks the will of God—Is it my duty to go with these men? And the answer comes clear: 'Thou shalt not go with them'. And Balaam told the messengers: 'No, I cannot go'. But the temptation came a second time, for Balak sent messengers more honourable. He repeated the invitation and offered larger rewards than those which had been offered by the first messengers. Balaam knows perfectly well what he has to do. He knows what the answer of God has been. He says, 'If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord'. Whatever temptation Balak could hold out, nothing should tempt him to move to the right or to the left beyond the will of God.
II. Balaam's Fall.—But he does not stop there. He is very anxious to go and he begins to trifle with his conscience, to see whether, after all, he cannot reconcile what he wants to do with the will of God. He bids the messengers 'tarry... this night'. Yet he had received his answer, and was convinced of the will of God; but he said, I will have another try, it will bring me such a great advantage. Is there not another way by which I can do what I want to do without disobeying the command of God? The messengers stay another night, and God allows him to go, but, nevertheless, He says: 'The word which I shall say unto thee, that thou shalt speak'. He is delighted with the result of his second inquiry, in the face of what God had told him in the first instance; and what is the result? The angel of God appears to him to turn him back. He receives the awful warning. And the angel of the Lord said unto him in effect, 'If thou hadst not turned back, I would have smitten thee to the earth'. Now he sees his mistake, but he does not tear the desire from his heart. 'If it displease thee, I turn'—but why not in the first instance? He had gone to God and got his answer. He is given permission to go and he goes, but he is only able to speak the words which God puts into his mouth. Having trifled with his conscience, in the end he does not hesitate to risk the souls of a whole nation in order that he may get what he wants. And so he falls, fighting on the side of God's enemies.
III. Balaam a Warning to Us.—What a sad history it is! Balaam's aspiration, 'Let me die the death of the righteous,' is that of every one of us; but, like him, we forget that if we are to die the death of the righteous we must live the life of the righteous.
References.—XXII. 18,19.—A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, part ii. p. 372. XXII. 20.—M. G. Glazebrook, Prospice, p. 48. XXII. 20-22.—A. Jessopp, Norwich School Sermons, p. 149.
Balaam's 'I Have Sinned'
Balaam's 'I have sinned' was of a very different character from Pharaoh's. Pharaoh's was the confession, under terror, of a very hard heart: Balaam's heart—at least at this point—was anything but a hard one. See the exact position of Balaam. On his lips, 'I have sinned'; probably in his heart a condemning sense that he was wrong; a conviction that he had made a great mistake; but his passions high-wrought; a resolute will and purpose in direct antagonism to the known will of God; one sin, all the while, tightly grasped; and a worldly, covetous affection in the ascendant! This was Balaam, as he went out at Pethor that early morning, through the vineyards of the city. Reduce the picture to the scale of ordinary life, and it is the life of many.
I. An Emotional Repentance. —There is an acknowledgment of sin, under sorrow, which often clothes itself in very strong expressions, even to tears, and which is little else than a passion. It is not altogether an hypocrisy. At the moment, it is sincere, very earnest. But it is an emotion—only an emotion. It goes with many other emotions, some good and some bad. It is one of the developments of an ecstatic temperament. The person who has it is very affectionate; capable of great and loving deeds. And the repentance, in the moment of compunction, takes the shape of the mould of the man's natural disposition. It is rapid—inflated—short!
II. But Without Love.—Need I say, there is no real love to God in it? There is no true sense of sin. There is no relation to Christ. It does not go on to action. It ranges, with other feelings, in the mind, which are just as strongly wrong. It is only the necessary vent of the heat of an ardent spirit, when anything happens to awaken it to a brief solemnity, or to send the toss of its thoughts to death, to eternity, to God; a natural sentiment, clothing itself in a religious dress.
III. One Sin held Back.—I have known a person, whose wonder and regret was that his penitence never seemed to deepen or increase; yet he said, and said often, and said truly, 'I have sinned'. The reason was, he never put the 'I have sinned,' upon the right thing. He said it about his sins generally, or he said it about some particular sin; but, all the while, there was another sin behind, about which he did not say it. That sin he willingly forgot—he connived at it—he allowed it! All the rest he was willing to give up, but not that And that was his sin. And that sin, reserved and in the background, poisoned and deadened the repentance of all other sins! The 'I have sinned' fell to the ground impotent—like a withered blossom. That was Balaam—and that may be you!
References.—XXII. 34.—J. Vaughan, Sermons Preached in Christ Church, Brighton (7th Series), p. 78. F. W. Farrar, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. 1895, pp. 312, 321. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 113.
The Preacher and His Message
Whether the extraordinary and scarcely explicable character who thus expressed himself used this language with intelligence, sincerity, and resolution, or vaguely and insincerely, may be questioned; but it cannot be questioned that in themselves these words utter a high, sacred, and noble purpose. It was a prophet's profession, and the proof of Balaam's prophetical office is this, that his solemn utterances corresponded with the profession he herein made.
I. It is God's to Give the Word.
(a) This is obviously true with reference to inspiration, to the 'living oracles' of God. The great lawgiver Moses, the inspired chroniclers, the majestic prophets of the Hebrews—all received the word from heaven. Their formula was this, 'Thus saith the Lord'.
(b) It is true of every reverent and faithful teacher of religion. Such a teacher does not ask, 'Is this doctrine acceptable to human nature?' but, 'Is it of the Lord?' To put human fancies and speculations in the place of teaching divinely authorized is not the part of the Lord's servant and prophet Such a one looks up; asks for a communication, a message; honours the God of truth and wisdom by seeking light and the vision from Heaven.
II. It is Man's to Speak the Word.—High is the honour, precious the privilege, the Creator bestows upon human nature in making man the vehicle to convey Divine truth to his fellow-man. The prophet, the teacher sent from God, echoes the voice which has reached him from above, reflects the sacred light which has shone upon his soul. This vocation he is bound to fulfil with scrupulous care and unremitting diligence. No consideration of his own selfish interests, no regard for the prejudices, no desire for the favour of those who receive his message, should induce him to deviate from his path, to betray his trust. The word 'put into his mouth' he is bound to utter fearlessly and yet with sympathy and affection, with authority and yet with persuasiveness.
(a) The preacher learns from his language the dignity and responsibility of his vocation.
(b) The hearer of the Divine Word learns that he is not at liberty to neglect or to refuse a message which is not from man, but from God Himself.
And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.
And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.
And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.
He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:
Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.
And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Balaam, and spake unto him the words of Balak.
And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the LORD shall speak unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.
And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?
And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,
Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.
And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.
And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.
And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.
And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me:
For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.
And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, 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.
Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto me more.
And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.
And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:
And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.
And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.
And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him unto a city of Moab, which is in the border of Arnon, which is in the utmost coast.
And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee? wherefore camest thou not unto me? am I not able indeed to promote thee to honour?
And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.
And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto Kirjathhuzoth.
And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.