James Gray - Concise Bible Commentary
And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.Numbers 22:1-24:25
BALAAM AND HIS PROPHECIES
THE HISTORICAL SETTING (Numbers 22)
In what neighborhood are the Israelites now camped (Numbers 22:1)? Where is this located? Who was the king of this people (Numbers 22:4)? What effect on him was wrought by Israel’s victories over his neighbors (Numbers 22:2-4)? What plan of defense other than war does he adopt (Numbers 22:5-6)?
Balaam’s History and Character
Balaam is a mystery. He comes from Mesopotamia where the knowledge of the true God lingered after it had been lost in the other parts of the known world. He is one of the group containing Melchisedec and Job, who testified that although Jehovah was now revealing Himself peculiarly to the Hebrews, yet He had not left Himself without witnesses in the other nations.
Not only Balaam’s history but His character is a mystery, some thinking him a saint, and others a charlatan. Probably he was between the two, worshipping God ostensibly and yet serving himself where the temptation was strong, as it seems to have been in this case.
Examine Numbers 22:13 as an illustration where his answer conceals the reason for the divine prohibition while it shows a willingness to go if only he could get permission.
When that permission is obtained (Numbers 22:20), it is an instance where God gave up a man to his own lust without approving it (Numbers 22:22), while he proposed to overrule the wrong desire for the furtherance of His own will. It is one thing to serve God and another to willingly serve Him. For the ultimate fate of Balaam, compare Numbers 31:8, and for inspired comments on his character, 2 Peter 2:16 and Judges 1:11.
The Dumb Donkey Speaks
Some say that verses 22-35 represent merely a version and not an actual occurrence, but this seems inadmissible in the middle of a plain history. That the ass may have been uttering sounds like a parrot, without understanding them is probable, but the tenor of Peter’s language strengthens the conviction that we are dealing with an external act.
But why does not the prophet show astonishment at the phenomenon? He may have done so, without record of it being made, or the lack of it may be explained by the engrossment of his mind with the prospect of gain, for Peter speaks of “the madness of the prophet.”
THE DISAPPOINTED KING (Numbers 23)
Balak prepared these altars and offered these sacrifices (Numbers 23:1-3) in honor of Baal, the god of his country, but in whose honor did Balaam intend them (Numbers 23:4)? And yet how is his superstition mingled with the true worship? Compare 2 Kings 18:22; Isaiah 17:8; Jeremiah 11:13; Hosea 8:11.
How does the prophet express the truth that no charms or demoniacal power can avail against God’s purposes (Numbers 23:8)? How does Numbers 23:9, last part, harmonize with what we have learned about Israel previously? (Compare Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 20:24 and Deuteronomy 33:28.) How does the prophecy show not only Israel’s separateness but greatness (Numbers 23:10)? Recall Genesis 13:16; Genesis 38:14.
When Balaam says, “Let me die the death of the righteous,” he is still referring to Israel. The Hebrew word for righteous is jeshurun, another name for the Israelites. And the prophet’s meaning is that as they were blessed above others, not only in life but in death, because of their knowledge of the true God, he desired to have a part with them. But his desire was not very strong. He represents a large class in the world who wish for the salvation of Christ, and yet never accept it by receiving and confessing Him.
God’s Unchangeable Grace
In the second prophecy (Numbers 23:18-24), how is the unchangeable purpose of God’s grace expressed (Numbers 23:19)? Compare how this principle in Israel’s case still maintains, and applies to believers on Jesus Christ in this dispensation. The following will aid: 1 Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; Romans 11:29; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 13:8; Jam 1:17.
How does verse 21 show that this divine purpose toward Israel is one of grace? Does it say that there was no iniquity in Israel, or simply that God
took no cognizance of it? But does His non-cognizance of it mean that He never chastised Israel for it? On the contrary, we have seen Him chastising Israel continually as she has provoked it. What then do these words mean?
They mean that God neither has seen, nor shall see any iniquity in Israel that shall cause Him to change His original promise to Abraham and discard them as a nation from the place of privilege He has intended for them. This promise to Abraham is based on His original promise of the redemption of man in Genesis 3:15. This promise is unalterable, and depends not on man’s goodness, but on God’s truth and honor and grace. That is not to say that it has no effect on human character, and that mankind never will become good as the result of it, but only that its source is heavenly love and not earthly conduct (John 6:37-40; Romans 4:4-8; Romans 8:28-39; Ephesians 2:1-10; 1 Peter 1:3-9; 1 John 5:9-13).
THE GREAT PROPHECY (Numbers 24)
At what conviction has the prophet now arrived, and with what effect on his conduct (Numbers 24:1)? What was the feeling in his heart, do you suppose? Look at Deuteronomy 23:5 for an answer. One wonders why God should use such a man as a prophet of good for His people, but before He ordained a regular line of prophets, He was pleased to reveal His will instrumentally through various persons.
Christians are sometimes solicitous to be anointed for service, as though that were the highest or only fruit of the new life. But while not disparaging the aim but encouraging it in its proper place, let us be humbled by the thought that God can get service out of bad as well as good men when He pleases. There is a higher aim for the Christian, and that is to “walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing” (Colossians 1:10). When one is doing that he is not likely to come short in service.
The prophecy of Balaam is arranged as poetry in the Revised Version. The redundant imagery of Numbers 24:5-7 depicts the humble origin, rapid progress and great prosperity of Israel.
With what king and kingdom is Israel compared (Numbers 24:7)? The Amalekites are meant, the most powerful of the desert tribes, a common title for whose kings was “Agag,” like “Pharaoh” or “Caesar.”
What does Balaam say of the future of Israel (Numbers 24:8)? With what effect on Balak (Numbers 24:10-11)? How does the next prophecy particularize (Numbers 24:14)? Who do you suppose is the ultimate fulfillment of the word “him” in Numbers 24:17? It may mean the nation of Israel, but doubtless it is identical with the star and the sceptre of the same verse, whose application is Christ. That is not to say that the prophet knew this, but only that the event proves it. He only saw some great one coming out of Israel, not knowing whom, but we know whom in the light of the New Testament. (Compare to Genesis 49:10; Psalms 110; Matthew 2:2.) Of course, David was an approximate fulfillment of the words, and did the things referred to in verses 17 and 18, but in the com-pletest sense the reference is to Christ, and especially at His second coming (Isaiah 59:20; Romans 11:25-29).
What other national fate is predicted as well as Amalek (Numbers 24:21)? What great nation would ultimately deport the Kenites (Numbers 24:22)? What ultimately would be its history (Numbers 24:24)? “Chittim” or “Kittim” is an earlier name for Greece and some of the other western lands bordering on the Mediterranean, particularly Italy. What finally would become of the conqueror of Assyria (Numbers 24:24)? For some of the fulfillments of these prophecies, compare Exodus 17:14; 1 Samuel 15:1; Jdg 1:16; Jdg 4:11; Jdg 4:16-17; 2 Kings 15:29; and Daniel 2:36-45; Daniel 5:7-8. The Assyrians were overthrown by the Greeks under Alexander and his successors, and afterwards by the Romans who conquered the Greeks. The Romans, however, are yet to be overthrown with the son of perdition at their head, by the second coming of Christ to set up His kingdom on the earth through restored Israel. Some of these things we shall learn more about later on, but in the meantime what a sweep there is in this vision of Balaam! Little did he know the meaning of it all!
1. With what group of men may Balaam be classed and why?
2. What is your impression of his character?
3. What two ways are there of serving God?
4. What shows the unusual incident of the ass historical?
5. What is the explanation of Numbers 23:21?
6. What is a higher aim for a saint than merely service?
7. Give the common title of the kings of Amalek.
8. Apply the words of Numbers 24:17 and tell why.
9. What territory is defined by Chittim?
10. What is the sweep of Balaam’s prophecy?