Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams.XXIII.
(1) Build me here seven altars.—The patriarchs of old, as their pious descendants after the giving of the Law, never erected more than one altar in one place. A plurality of altars was the badge of idolatry. Hengsten-berg adduces several instances in proof that the ancients were accustomed to have recourse to sacrifice and conjuration in order to avert calamity and produce prosperity. (History of Balaam and his Prophecies, p. 392.) The number seven was regarded as significant among the Greeks and Romans, as well as among the Israelites.
And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram.(2) And Balak and Balaam offered.—It is more probable that Balak, as a king, performed priestly functions than that Balaam performed them alone. (See Note on Numbers 22:40.)
And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go: peradventure the LORD will come to meet me: and whatsoever he sheweth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place.(3) To an high place.—Rather, to a bare or barren height The heathen augurs were accustomed to choose elevated places for their auspices with an extensive prospect, especially the barren summits of mountains.
And the LORD put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak.(5) The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth.—“God, who had opened the mouth of the ass,” says Bishop Wordsworth, in loc., “in a manner contrary to her nature, now opens Balaam’s mouth in a manner contrary to his own will.”
For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.(9) For from the top of the rocks I see him . . . —From the summit of the rocky mountain on which Balak had erected his seven altars, Balaam, according to one interpretation (see Numbers 22:41, and Note), had a full view of the outstretched camps of Israel.
Lo, the people shall dwell alone . . . —Better, Lo, it is a people that dwelleth alone, and that is not numbered, &c. In the fact that the host of Israel dwelt by itself in a separate encampment, Balaam discerned a type of the essential separation of Israel from the surrounding nations. When Israel adopted the ways of the heathen nations it speedily lost its external independence. Hengstenberg observes upon the last clause of this verse as follows:—“How truly Balaam said that Israel ‘did not reckon itself with the heathen’ appears from the fact that while all the powerful empires of the ancient world—the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and others—have utterly perished, Israel (which even under the Old Covenant was rescued from so many dangers that threatened its entire destruction, particularly in being brought back from exile) flourishes anew in the Church of the New Covenant, and continues also to exist in that part of it which, though at present rejected, is destined to restoration at a future period.” (History of Balaam, &c., p. 409.)
Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!(10) Who can count the dust of Jacob?—These words point back to the promise made to Abraham: “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth,” &c. (Genesis 13:16).
And the number of the fourth part of Israel.—The Israelites were divided into four great encampments (Numbers 2). It is probable that Balaam could only see one of these encampments from Bamoth-Baal (Numbers 22:41); but see below on Numbers 23:13.
The death of the righteous.—The Hebrew word yesharim (upright, or righteous) is applied to Israel because God, who is just and right (Deuteronomy 32:4). had chosen His people to be a Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 33:5; Deuteronomy 33:26)—a holy and peculiar people, following after righteousness and judgment. The end of Balaam (Numbers 31:8) presented a strange contrast to his prayer, and showed that even the prayer of the wicked is abomination in the sight of the Lord. (See Proverbs 28:9.)
And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.(11) Thou hast blessed them altogether.—Hebrew, Thou hast blessed, to bless: an emphatic mode of stating that Balaam had continued to give utterance to nothing but blessings.
And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them: thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence.(13) Thou shalt see but the utmost part of them . . . —If this rendering be correct, it strongly confirms that interpretation of Numbers 22:41 according to which Balaam saw the whole host of Israel from Bamoth-Baal. The words may, however, be rendered thus: Thou seest (i.e., here) but the utmost part of them, and thou dost not see them all. If the interpretation of Numbers 22:41 is adopted, which restricts the view from Bamoth-Baal to the extremity of the host of Israel, the meaning of this verse would seem to be that if Balaam could obtain a full view of the entire army he would not only perceive the ground which existed for Balak’s alarm, but would be induced to put forth more strenuous efforts to deliver him from so formidable an invasion. On the other hand, if that interpretation of Numbers 22:41 be adopted, which implies that from Bamoth-Baal Balaam had a view of the whole of the host of Israel from one extremity of their camps to the other, the meaning of this verse would be that although the sight of so vast and orderly a mass produced so powerful an effect upon Balaam that he was unable to utter the curses which he had desired to pronounce upon Israel, such an effect would not be equally likely to be produced if only a portion of the camps was visible at the same time.
And he brought him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.(14) The field of Zophim.—i.e., of watchers. Tne spot seems to be identified with that from which Moses afterwards surveyed the promised land (Deuteronomy 3:27), and which is described in Deuteronomy 34:1 as “the mountain of Nebo,” or Mount Nebo. It is possible, however, that Pisgah may have had more than one of such summits.
And when he came to him, behold, he stood by his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath the LORD spoken?(17) What hath the Lord spoken?—Balak here speaks of God under the name Jehovah.
God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?(19) Neither the son of man, that he should repent.—The adoption of these words, with slight variation, by Samuel (1Samuel 15:29) affords evidence of his familiarity with this portion of the Pentateuch.
He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.(21) He hath not beheld iniquity . . . —The same combination of the words aven (iniquity, or injustice) and amal (perverseness, or, rather, suffering or grievance) occurs in Habakkuk 1:3.
The shout of a king.—The word which is rendered shout (teruah) is the same which occurs in Leviticus 23:24, and which is there rendered blowing of trumpets. (Comp. Joshua 6:5; Joshua 6:20, where the same word is rendered shout as here.)
God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.(22) God brought them out of Egypt.—Literally, is bringing them. The use of the participle denotes the continuance of the action. He who brought them forth out of Egypt was still conducting them on their march. There is an obvious allusion in these words to those of Balak in Numbers 22:5 : “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt.” Seeing that the people did not come out of Egypt in obedience to their own caprice, but under Divine guidance, it was vain for Balak to resist them on their course, seeing that to contend with them was to contend against God.
The strength of an unicorn.—Better, of a buffalo. (Comp. Deuteronomy 33:17—a passage closely resembling the present—from which it appears that the reem had more than one horn.)
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!(23) Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob . . . —The verse may be rendered as follows: For there is no augury in Jacob, and there is no divina-Hon in Israel. At the (set) time it is told to Jacob and to Israel what God hath done (or, doth). The ordinary meaning of the words nahash (omen, or augury) and kesem (soothsaying, or divination), the use of the same preposition in Numbers 23:21 which is there rendered in, and more especially the second clause of the verse, seem to decide the meaning of the former clause to be as it is here given. The Israelites had no need of augury and divination, seeing that God revealed to them His acts. His counsel, and His will. “What is here affirmed of Israel,” says Hengstenberg, “applies to the Church of all ages, and also to every individual believer. The Church of God knows from His own Word what God does, and what it has to do in consequence. The wisdom of this world resembles augury and divination. The Church of God, which is in possession of His word, has no need of it.” (History of Balaam and his Prophecies, p. 441).
Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.(24) As a great lion.—Better, as a lioness. (Comp. Genesis 49:9.) Balaam transfers to the whole nation that which Jacob had prophesied of Judah.
And Balak said unto Balaam, Come, I pray thee, I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence.(27) Peradventure it will please God . . . —Here Balak makes mention of God as Elohim. He appears to be satisfied that Balaam was hindered by God from uttering the curses which he desired him to pronounce upon Israel (comp. Numbers 24:11). Or the words may have been spoken ironically (comp. Numbers 24:11, and Note).
And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon.(28) Unto the top of Peor.—Mount Peor was one peak of the northern part of the mountains of Abarim. It was nearer than the other heights to the camp of the Israelites. It looked toward, or over the face of Jeshimon, i.e., the waste (or, desert). See Numbers 21:20.