Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness.XXIV.
(1) He set his face toward the wilderness.—i.e., towards the place where the Israelites were encamped on the steppes of Moab.
And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.(2) Abiding in his tents . . . —i.e., encamped according to the order prescribed for the respective tribes. The cognate noun is rendered tabernacles in Numbers 24:5.
And the spirit of God came upon him.—In regard to the two former utterances, it is said that Jehovah put a word in the mouth of Balaam (Numbers 23:5; Numbers 23:15). In the present case the Spirit of God came upon (or, over) him. The same expression is used of the messengers of Saul (1Samuel 19:20), and of Saul himself (Ibid, Numbers 24:23). The prophecy of Caiaphas (John 11:15) affords another instance of the sovereign power of the Spirit as displayed through the medium of wicked men.
And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:(3) Balaam the son of Beor hath said.—The Hebrew word (neum) is imperfectly rendered by hath said. It is the word which is commonly used in the prophetical books of Scripture to denote a Divine saying, and is rarely used when a human author is named. It occurs in the Pentateuch only in Genesis 22:16, Numbers 14:28, and in this chapter, where it is found in Numbers 24:3-4; Numbers 24:15-16.
The man whose eyes are open.—There is great diversity of opinion respecting the meaning of the word which is here rendered open, and which, as it is here written, occurs in no other place. If shatham is identified with satham, it means to close, not to open. The meaning, however, of this verse is sufficiently explained by that which follows, whichever rendering of the word shethum is adopted. Balaam appears to have been thrown into an ecstatic state, as was Saul, and as were many of the ancient prophets; and whilst the eye of the outer senses was closed, the eye of the inner senses was preternaturally opened.
He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:(4) Falling into a trance, but having his eyes open.—Better, falling (upon his face), and having his eyes opened. The physical effect produced upon Balaam appears to have been the same as that which was produced upon Saul (1Samuel 19:24), upon Ezekiel (Num. i 28), upon Daniel (Num. viii, 17. 18). and upon St. John (Revelation 1:17). The word which is here rendered “open” (gelui) is a different word from that which is so rendered in Numbers 24:2, and is frequently used in reference to Divine communications and spiritual intuition. There may be a reference to the events which befel Balaam on his journey (Numbers 22:31).
As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.(6) As gardens by the river’s side.—It is probable that the allusion may be to the Euphrates, although the definite article is not prefixed to the word nahar (river) in the Hebrew. (Comp. Isaiah 7:20.)
As cedar trees beside the waters.-The difference between cedars which grow beside running water which their roots can reach, and the ordinary type of cedars which throw out their strength in lateral branches is illustrated in Ezekiel 31:3-4, where the proud Assyrian is compared to a cedar having “his top among the thick boughs” (or, the clouds), which “the waters made great.” (Comp. Psalm 1:3; Psalm 92:12.)
He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.(7) He shall pour the water out of his buckets.—Better, Water shall flow from his buckets; or, he shall flow with water from his buckets. The nation is personified as a man carrying two buckets full of water, which was the type and leading source of blessing and prosperity in the East. This is a beautiful image, as Bishop Wordsworth has observed, of the true Israel “pouring out the living waters of salvation, the pure streams of the Spirit, and making the wilderness of the world to rejoice and be glad.”
His seed shall be in many waters.—This may mean that Israel should inhabit Canaan—“a land of brooks of water” (Deuteronomy 8:7; Deuteronomy 11:11); or it may mean that, like seed sown and trees planted by the waters (Isaiah 32:20; Isaiah 44:4, Isa_65:22-23), they should inherit the richest blessings.
His king shall be higher than Agag . . .-Agag appears to have been the title (nomen dignitatis) of the Amalekite kings, as Pharaoh of the Egyptian and Abimelech of the Philistine kings. The reference does not seem to be to any particular king, but to the kingdom which should hereafter be established in Israel—to the kings, generally, which should come out of the loins of Abraham (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 35:11).
God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.(8) God brought him forth out of Egypt.—(Comp. Numbers 23:22, and Note.)
He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.(9) He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion.—The Hebrew labi (great lion) should be rendered “a lioness,” as in Numbers 23:24. The image of a lion connects this verse with the preceding verse: “he shall eat up the nations.” (See Note on Numbers 23:24.)
Blessed is he that blesseth thee . . . —Compare the original blessing which was pronounced upon Abraham by the Lord (Genesis 12:3), and which was afterwards adopted by Isaac in the blessing which he pronounced upon Jacob (Genesis 27:29).
And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.(10) And he smote his hands together.—The smiting the hands was a token of strong feeling, whether of scorn, of indignation, or of despair. (Comp. Job 27:23; Lamentations 2:15.)
Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the LORD hath kept thee back from honour.(11) The Lord hath kept thee back from honour.—These words may have been spoken ironically, or Balak may have been convinced of the supernatural influence under which the words of Balaam were uttered. (See Numbers 23:27, and Note.)
If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the LORD saith, that will I speak?(13) I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord.—Hebrew, the mouth of the Lord: the same expression which is used in Numbers 22:18, where the Authorised Version has “the word of the Lord.”
And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.(14) I go unto my people.—Such was, probably, the intention of Balaam when he spoke these words. The account of the death of Balaam, however, shows that he still lingered amongst the Moabites.
I will advertise thee . . . —The word which is here employed generally means to advise. The announcement which Balaam made to Balak virtually included advice, inasmuch as it foretold the supremacy of Israel over all their foes, and, consequently, implied the folly of opposition to their progress. It does not appear whether it was or was not at this time that Balaam “taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication” (Revelation 2:14). In any case, there does not appear to be any reference to such advice in this verse, although it is inserted in the Targum of Palestine in this place.
In the latter days.—Literally, in the end of the days. (See Genesis 49:1, where the same expression occurs, and Note.) The prophecy which follows refers exclusively to the future; and it is divided into four parts by the recurrence of the words “He took up his parable” at Numbers 24:15; Numbers 24:20-21; Numbers 24:23.
He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:(16) Which heard . . . and knew.—Better, which heareth . . . and knoweth.
Which saw.—Better, he seeth.
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.(17) I shall see him . . . —Better, I see him (or, it), but not now; I behold him (or, it), but not nigh. The reference cannot be to Israel, whose armies were encamped before the eyes of Balaam. His words must be understood as having reference to One whom he beheld with the eyes of his mind, not with his bodily sight. This is obvious from the words which follow. Balaam beholds in vision a Star and a Sceptre, not as having already appeared, but as about to appear in the future.
There shall come a Star out of Jacob . . . —Literally, There hath come forth a Star out of Jacob, &c. The verb is in the prophetic past or historic tense of prophecy, denoting the certainty of the event predicted. (Comp. Jude 1:14 : “Behold the Lord cometh”—literally, came.) If there is any ambiguity in the first symbol it is removed in the second. A star is a fitting image of an illustrious king or ruler, and the mention of the sceptre in the words which follow (comp. Genesis 49:10) shows that it is so employed in the present instance. The Targum of Onkelos is as follows:—“When the King shall arise out of Jacob, and the Messiah shall be anointed from Israel.” The Targum of Palestine reads thus:—“A King is to arise from the house of Jacob, and a Redeemer and Ruler from the house of Israel.” Ibn Ezra interprets these words of David, but he says that many interpret them of the Messiah. It seems to have been with reference to this prophecy that the pretender to the title of the Messiah in the days of the Emperor Adrian took the name of Bar-cochab, or Bar-cochba (the son of a star). The words of the Magi, “We have seen his star in the East” (Matthew 2:2), appear to have reference to this prophecy.
And shall smite the corners of Moab.—Or, the two sides of Moab. The prophecy was partially, or typically, fulfilled in the time of David (2Samuel 8:2). Moab and Edom represented symbolically the enemies of Christ and of His Church, and as such will eventually be subdued by the King of kings. (Comp. Psalm 60:8.)
And destroy all the children of Sheth.—Better, and destroy (or, break down; comp, Isaiah 22:5) all the sons of tumult. Such appears to be the most probable rendering of these words according to the present Hebrew text. It has been conjectured, however, that the word which is rendered “destroy” (karkar) should be read kodkod (crown of the head), as in the parallel passage of Jeremiah 48:45, in which case the clause may be rendered, And the crown of the head of all the sons of tumult.
And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly.(18) And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also . . . —Better, And Edom shall be a possession, and Seir shall be a possession, for his enemies (i.e., the enemies of Israel, or, rather, of the Ruler who was to rise out of Israel). The Hebrew word (oyebaiv) which is rendered “his enemies” appears to stand in apposition to Edom and Seir, as the word zaraiv (his enemies, or adversaries) in Numbers 24:8 to “the nations.” Edom was the name of the people, Seir of the country. (See Genesis 32:3.) The prophecy received its primary accomplishment in the time of David (2Samuel 8:14), but the ultimate accomplishment is to be found in the person and work of Christ (Isaiah 63:1-4).
Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.(19) He that shall have dominion.—The reference is explained in Psalm 72:8, “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth,” where the same verb occurs which is in both places rendered in the Authorised Version “shall have dominion.”
And shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.—Or, and He shall destroy the remnant from the cities. The city, which is in the singular number here as in Psalm 72:16, may be used collectively to denote cities generally, though some have understood the reference to be to the city of Jerusalem. But the reference seems to be rather to the chief city, or the cities generally, of Edom. (Comp. Obad., Numbers 24:18, where the same word occurs which is here rendered “him that remaineth,” and which is there rendered “any remaining.”)
And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.(20) And when he looked on Amalek . . . —From the. mountain of Peor, on which Balaam then stood, he had a view of the country of the Amalekites, which lay to the south of the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:29; Genesis 36:12).
Amalek was the first of the nations.—The ancestor of the Amalekites was Eliphaz, the son of Esau (Genesis 36:12). It has been supposed that the Amalekites separated themselves at a very early period from the rest of the Edomites. The word reshith, which is here rendered “first,” may denote priority in rank, but more frequently denotes priority in time. The corresponding word in the second clause of the verse, aharith (latter end), may be thought to denote that the reference is to time, not to rank. On the other hand, the reference in Numbers 24:7 to the kings of the Amalekites may be urged in favour of the reference to rank. Some understand the allusion to be to the fact that the Amalekites were the first nation which attacked Israel when they had come out of Egypt (Exodus 17:8). It is possible, however, that there may be a reference both to time and to rank. (Comp. Amos 6:1.)
But his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.—Or, come to destruction. More literally, But his latter end shall be even to one perishing—i.e., he shall come to the position of one who is perishing. The destruction of the Amalekites began in the reign of Saul (1Samuel 14:48; 1Samuel 15:7), was continued by David (1Samuel 27:8; 1Samuel 30:17; 2Samuel 8:12), and was completed by Hezekiah (1Chronicles 4:42-43).
And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock.(21-22) And he looked on the Kenites . . . —According to the ordinary interpretation of these verses the continuous destruction of the Kenites is foretold until the Israelites should be taken captive by the Assyrians. The Kenites are included amongst the tribes whose country Abraham’s descendants were to possess (Genesis 15:19). A portion of this tribe, however (for there is no evidence that the Canaanitish and the Midianitish Kenites had a different origin), joined the Israelites, and settled on the southern border of Judah (Judges 1:16). If the Authorised Version of these verses be adopted, it is reasonable to conclude that the Kenites to whom Balaam’s prophecy referred must have been included amongst the enemies of Israel, whose destruction, in common with their other foes, is here predicted. It is obvious that this interpretation is open to two serious objections:—(1) that the natural reference of the words “carry thee away captive” is to the Kenites, not to the Israelites; and (2) that as the later history, as well as the Book of Numbers, makes mention only of those Kenites who allied themselves with the Israelites, we should naturally expect that in accordance with the promise which was given to Hobab by Moses (Numbers 10:29), the Kenites should be distinguished from the enemies of Israel, and be exempted from the destruction with which they were threatened. Another rendering of Numbers 24:22, and one which appears to be more agreeable to the context in which it stands, is the following:—“For surely the Kenites shall not be destroyed until Asshur shall carry thee into captivity.” This version has the support of the Targum of Palestine and other authorities. It is true that there is no express record of the fulfilment of this prophecy, but it is not probable that the Assyrians spared the Kenites who were settled amongst the Israelites; and we know from Jeremiah 35:11 that after the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar, the Rechabites, who were of the Kenite race (1Chronicles 2:55), came to Jerusalem for fear of the armies of the Chaldeans and Syrians. If Asshur denotes in this place the Assyrians in the later acceptation of the term, it must be remembered that one branch of the Kenites settled in Naphtali, near Kadesh (Judges 4:11). Asshur, however, appears to be used in a wider sense, so as to include all the nations which proceeded from it (see Numbers 24:24). Even the Persian king is called, as Keil has observed, King of Asshur (Ezra 6:22). If this interpretation of the text be received, the antithesis between the doom of the Amalekites and the deliverance of the Kenites exactly corresponds to the attitude assumed by those tribes respectively in regard to Israel.
And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!(23) When God doeth this.—These words may be rendered, since (or, from the time that) God sets (or, determines) it (or, this)—quando faciet ista Deus (Vulgate); or, because God determines it (or, this).
And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever.(24) And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim.—The Chittim (or, Kittim) are said to have migrated from Phœnicia to Cyprus, and there founded the city of Citium, the modern Chitti. (See Josephus, “Antiq.” i.6, 1.) The name probably applies to the islands and coasts of the Mediterranean generally. The rendering of the Vulgate is Venient in trieribus de Italiâ; and in Daniel 11:30, which is obviously founded upon this verse, the Vulgate identifies the Kittim with the Romans.
And shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber.—Some understand by Eber the Hebrews only. The word, however, appears to be used in a wider signification, as comprising “all the children of Eber” (Genesis 10:21). Perhaps the word Asshur may here be used to denote the Eastern Shemites, and Eber the Western Shemites.
And he also shall perish for ever—i.e., the victorious power which was to afflict Asshur and Eber. “The overthrow of this last power of the world,” says Keil, in loc., “concerning which the prophet Daniel was the first to receive and proclaim new revelations, belongs ‘to the end of the days,’ in which the star out of Jacob is to rise upon Israel as ‘a bright morning-star’” (Revelation 22:16). There is no evidence as to the manner in which Balaam’s prophecies came into the hands of the Israelites. It is possible that he may have communicated them to Moses, in the expectation of receiving from him the reward which he had failed to obtain from Balak, or, if captured, in the hope of thereby saving his life.
And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place: and Balak also went his way.(25) And returned to his place.—Balaam probably set out with the intention of returning home. He. turned towards his place. The sequel shows that he remained amongst the Midianites, and perished with them.