Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. AN INTERESTED OBSERVER OF AN IMPORTANT ACTION. "Balak saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites." The thing was worth observing in itself, that this great host of people, coming with but little notice, having no land of its own, no visible basis of operations, no military renown, should yet have crushed into ruin such powerful kings as Sihon and Og. It was not merely the conquest of one army by another; there was something decisive and very significant about the conquest. Just as in profane history some battles, such as Marathon and Salamis, Waterloo and Trafalgar, stand out like towering mountains because of the great issues connected with them, so these victories of Israel over Sihon and Og are for all generations of God's people to consider. Balak of course was interested as a neighbour, but we, living thousands of miles from the scene of these events, and thousands of years after them, should be not less interested. They concern us just as much as they concerned Balak. Distant as they are from us in time, they have to do very practically with our interests and the yet unaccomplished purposes of the ever-living God. We are too observant of trifles, the gossip of the passing day, the mere froth on the waves of time. The thing also pressed for notice. The Amorites were Moab's neighbours, and Moab had been conquered by them. If Israel then had conquered the conqueror, there was need for prompt action. So long as Israel was far away, wandering in the wilderness, with no aim in its course that could be ascertained, - that course aimless rather, so far as others could make out, - there was no feeling of alarm. But now, with Israel in its very borders, Moab feels it must do something. Yet the pressure was not of the right sort. Moab was driven to consider its position not because of dangers within, not because of idolatry and unrighteousness (chapter 25), nor that it might become a pure and noble-minded nation, but because of the selfish fear that another people close to its territory might prove hostile and destructive. Thus we allow considerations to press on us which should not have the slightest force. Where our minds should be well-nigh indifferent they are yielding and sensitive; and where they should be yielding and sensitive, indifference too often possesses them, When Jesus fed the multitude, the action pressed for notice not because the multitude appreciated the spiritual significance of the action, but they eat of the loaves and were filled. Balak did well when he noticed the victories of Israel, but very ill when he noticed them simply as bearing on the safety of his kingdom.
II. THE CONSEQUENT DISQUIETUDE OF MOAB. The Amorites had conquered Moab, but Israel had conquered the Amorites. The presumption then was that Israel, having the power, would as a matter of course advance to treat Moab in the same fashion; just as an Alexander or Napoleon goes from one conquered territory to conquer the next; just as a fire spreads from one burning house to its neighbour. It was therefore excusable for Moab to be sore afraid; but though excusable, it was not reasonable. The alarm came from knowledge of some things, mixed with ignorance of things more important. The alarm then was groundless. General as that alarm was, Moab had really nothing to fear. Its way of reasoning was utterly erroneous. If Moab had known the internal history of Israel half as well as it knew the present external appearance and recent triumphs, it would not have been alarmed because of the children of Israel, and because they were many. The children of Israel had been commanded to cherish other purposes than those of conquering Moab, and the mind of their leader was occupied with things far nobler than military success. Besides, as God had remembered the kinship of Israel and Edom, so he remembered that of Israel and Moab (Deuteronomy 2:9). Moab was afraid of the people because they were many. What a revelation of their craven and abject spirit in the past he would have had if he had seen them threatening to stone Caleb and Joshua (chapter 14). And though they were many, he would have seen that all their numbers availed nothing for success when God was not with them (Numbers 14:40-45).
III. MOAB'S CONCLUSION WITH REGARD TO HIS OWN RESOURCES. He could no more resist Israel than the grass of the field resist the mouth of the ox. This expresses his complete distrust of his own resources, and was a prudent conclusion, even if humiliating, as far as it went, and always supposing that Israel wished to play the part of the ox. The fall of Sihon had taught nothing to Og, the self-confident giant, but the fall of Sihon, and next the fall of Og, had taught Moab this at least, that in the battlefield he could do nothing against Israel. If a man refuses to go in the right path, it is not, therefore, a matter of little consequence which of the wrong paths he chooses. One may take him swiftly in the dark to the precipice; another, also downward, may afford more time and occasions for retrieval. It was a wrong, blind, useless course to send for Balaam, but at all events it was not so immediately destructive, as to rush recklessly into the field of battle against Israel. - Y.
I. BALAAM'S LOFTY POSITION AND PRIVILEGES.
II. THE SECRET OF BALAAM'S HUMILIATING FALL.
(1) He had a knowledge of the true God. Among the heathens of Mesopotamia he retains a knowledge of the God revealed "from the creation of the world." (Compare the cases of Melchizedec and Job.) He was like the evening star, showing in which direction the sun of truth had set (Romans 1:21), and reflecting some of its light. His knowledge may be illustrated by his lofty utterances respecting God and his people; e.g., chapter Numbers 23:10, 19; and according to some interpreters, Numbers 6:8.
(2) He enjoyed the gift of inspiration by God. Though there were no Scriptures, God was not left without witnesses, and among them was Balaam "the prophet" (2 Peter 2:16). He expected Divine communications, and was not disappointed. No wonder then that
(3) he enjoyed wide-spread fame. It extended hundreds of miles away, to Moab and Midian, whence more than once an embassy crossed the desert with such flattering words as those in verse 6. Yet we know that Balaam was a bad man who came to a bad end. Thus we have lessons of warning for ourselves, who have a fuller knowledge of God than Balaam, and may enjoy gifts, if not as brilliant, yet more useful than his. All of these may avail nothing for our salvation, but may be perverted to the worst ends. Illustrations: - Hymenoeus and Alexander, the companions of St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:19, 20); Judas, the apostle of Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 7:21-23; Matthew 11:23; 1 Corinthians 13:1, 2).
II. Balaam's name mentioned in the New Testament only three times, and each time it is covered with reproach (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14). His root sin was the ancient, inveterate vice of human nature, selfishness. He knew God, but did not love him, for "he loved the wages of unrighteousness." He did not follow the Divine voice, but "followed after" reward. God taught him sublime truths; he "taught Balak" base arts of seduction. His selfishness was shown in -
(1) Ambition. There was nothing of the self-forgetfulness of such prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, or Balaam's contemporary, Moses. He is esteemed as a great man, and he takes good care he shall be so esteemed. He knows divination has no power with God, but to magnify himself among the heathens of Moab, he resorts to it. He constantly aspires to the "very great honour" to which Balak offers to promote him (cf. Psalm 131:1-3; Jeremiah 45:5).
(2) Covetousness. He would be rich, and therefore fell into temptation, &c. (1 Timothy 6:9; 2 Peter 2:15). His words were fair (verse 18), yet suspicious, like those of a venal voter boasting his incorruptibility. Balaam coveted the offered honour and wealth. How could be gain them while God was keeping him back? Two ways were possible. He might get God to change his mind. He wanted to get permission from God to do what was at present a sin. He might have known from the first, as he says (Numbers 23:19). But he struggles to conquer God, as though the fact was not that God cannot change, but that God will not change. Hence his repeated changes of place and new sacrifices. At length it was clear that this way was closed against him. He is constrained to bless Israel again and again. At the close of the narrative (Numbers 24:10-24) he seems to be taking his place boldly as an ally of the people of God. But it was only a temporary impulse, not a true conversion. Greedy for the wages of unrighteousness, he allies himself with hell. ("Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.") What a contrast between his fair promises (verse 18) and this wicked deed l The reason is that in trying to "bend" God he was miserably perverting himself (like a weak tool used to move a great weight), while seeking permission to sin he was growing less sensitive to sin (see next Homily). Learn then from the fall of this great and gifted prophet to what a depth of infamy selfishness, that mother of sins, and its offspring, ambition and covetousness, may lead us. Warned by the selfishness of Balaam, may we copy the unselfishness of Christ (Romans 15:3; Philippians 2:3-8). - P.
I. A TESTIMONY TO THE POWER OF RELIGION. Balak cannot find sufficient resources in nature, therefore he seeks above nature. When men, who in their selfishness and unspirituality are furthest from God, find themselves in extremity, it is then precisely that they are seen turning to a power higher than their own (1 Samuel 28). Man has a clinging nature, and if he cannot lay hold of the truth as it is in Jesus, he must find some substitute. Balak did not know God as Moses knew him; he knew nothing of his spiritual perfections and holy purposes. But still he recognized the God of Israel as really existent, as a mighty potentate; he felt that Balaam had some power with him; and thus even in his ignorance he believes. It is a long, long way to pure atheism, and surely it must be a dreary and difficult one. May not the question be fairly raised whether there are any consistent atheists, those whose practice agrees even approximately with their theory? There are men without God in the world, i.e., lacking conscious and happy connection with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; but even so they may bear testimony unthinkingly to their need of him. The witnesses to the power of religion are not only many, but of all sorts, giving testimony often when they least suspect it.
II. A TESTIMONY TO THE EMPTINESS OF IDOLATRY. Balak had a god of his own, probably more than one, and doubtless he would have felt very uncomfortable in omitting the worship of them; but he did not trust in his gods. He may have sacrificed to them on this very occasion with great profusion and scrupulosity, but he did not trust them. Though they were near at hand, he felt more hope from Balaam far away; and yet if there was any good in his gods, this was the very time to prove it and receive it. There is a Nemesis for all idolatry. The idols of Moab were put to shame before the God of Israel, and that by the very man who was bound to be their champion. It does not need always for a Dagon to fall in the presence of the ark. There are other ways of dishonouring idols than casting them to the moles and the bats. They may have shame written across their brows, even while they stand on the pedestal of honour. Thus we see also an exposure of formalism. Balak's great need strips the mask off his religion, and underneath we see, not living organs, but dead machinery. And bear in mind, formalism in serving the true God is just as certain to come to shame as formalism in serving an idol. The principle is the same, Whatever deity be formally acknowledged.
III. AFTER ALL, THE RESORT TO BALAAM WAS A VERY PRECARIOUS ONE, even supposing Balaam had all the power with which Balak credited him. For Pethor was a long way off, and the dreaded, victorious Israelites were close at hand. Balaam did not live in the next street. While you are sending from Land's End for the celebrated London physician, the patient's life is steadily ebbing away. That is no sufficient help in our supreme necessities which has to be brought over land and sea. "Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead). The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart" (Romans 10:6-8). Go into thy closet; retreat into the seclusion and security of thine own heart, and meet the mighty Guide and Helper there. The God of Israel went about with his people. Jesus did not say, "Wheresoever I am, there my people are to gather together," but, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
"God attributes to place IV. A MAN MAY BE IGNORANT OF THINGS LYING NEAREST HIM AND UNSPEAKABLY IMPORTANT, while he abounds in useless knowledge of things far away. Balak knew not the needs of his own heart, the real power of Israel, the disposition of Israel's God to him, the possibilities of friendship which lay within those tents on which he looked with so much apprehension. But somehow he had got to know concerning Balaam in far-away Pethor. How much useless, deceiving, pretentious knowledge we may accumulate with infinite labour, and at the time feeling great certainty, of its value. "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." It is of great moment in a world where so much is to be known, and yet so little can he acquired, not to miss acquiring the right things. Said Dr. Arnold, "If one might wish for impossibilities, I might then wish that my children might be well versed in physical science, but in due subordination to the fullness and freshness of their knowledge on moral subjects. This, however, I believe cannot be; and physical science, if studied at all, seems too great to be studied ἐν παρεργῳ, Wherefore, rather than have it the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament." Thus also the great discoverer Faraday in his old age - "My worldly faculties are slipping away, day by day. Happy is it for all of us that the true good lies not in them. As they ebb, may they leave us as little children, trusting in the Father of mercies and accepting his unspeakable gift!" V. THE MESSAGE WAS VERY FLATTERING TO BALAAM. Kings have much to do with courtiers, and all the delicate preparations of flattery must be well known to them. Balak made Balaam to understand that it was not for a trifle he had summoned him, for a service that could be rendered by a second-rate soothsayer. The people he so dreaded had come out from Egypt, that home of strength in those days, that populous and wealthy land, and by no means lacking in reputed wise men, sorcerers and magicians. They had come in great numbers: "behold, they cover the face of the earth;" and they were in close proximity and apparently settled condition: "they abide over against me." There is the willing confession by Balak of his own inability, and his evident faith in Balaam's power to cast a fatal paralysis over all the energy of Israel. Now all this must have been very pleasant for Balaam to hear, sweeter maybe than the jingle of the rewards of divination. Thus did the temptation to Balaam, already only too open to temptation, begin. His carnal mind was appealed to in many ways. The rewards of divination were only a part of the expected wages of unrighteousness. "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18). VI. BALAK HAD MORE FAITH IN FALSEHOOD THAN ISRAEL FOR A LONG TIME HAD shows TOWARDS TRUTH. The conduct of Balak in sending so far, in casting the fortunes of his kingdom with such simplicity on what was utterly false, should put us to shame, who have the opportunity of resorting at all times to well ascertained and established truth. Balak had only a Balaam to seek, such an ignoble and double- minded man as appears in the sequel; not a Moses, who could have told him truly, not only how the blessing and the curse really come, but how to secure the one and escape the other. - Y.
IV. A MAN MAY BE IGNORANT OF THINGS LYING NEAREST HIM AND UNSPEAKABLY IMPORTANT, while he abounds in useless knowledge of things far away. Balak knew not the needs of his own heart, the real power of Israel, the disposition of Israel's God to him, the possibilities of friendship which lay within those tents on which he looked with so much apprehension. But somehow he had got to know concerning Balaam in far-away Pethor. How much useless, deceiving, pretentious knowledge we may accumulate with infinite labour, and at the time feeling great certainty, of its value. "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." It is of great moment in a world where so much is to be known, and yet so little can he acquired, not to miss acquiring the right things. Said Dr. Arnold, "If one might wish for impossibilities, I might then wish that my children might be well versed in physical science, but in due subordination to the fullness and freshness of their knowledge on moral subjects. This, however, I believe cannot be; and physical science, if studied at all, seems too great to be studied ἐν παρεργῳ, Wherefore, rather than have it the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament." Thus also the great discoverer Faraday in his old age - "My worldly faculties are slipping away, day by day. Happy is it for all of us that the true good lies not in them. As they ebb, may they leave us as little children, trusting in the Father of mercies and accepting his unspeakable gift!"
V. THE MESSAGE WAS VERY FLATTERING TO BALAAM. Kings have much to do with courtiers, and all the delicate preparations of flattery must be well known to them. Balak made Balaam to understand that it was not for a trifle he had summoned him, for a service that could be rendered by a second-rate soothsayer. The people he so dreaded had come out from Egypt, that home of strength in those days, that populous and wealthy land, and by no means lacking in reputed wise men, sorcerers and magicians. They had come in great numbers: "behold, they cover the face of the earth;" and they were in close proximity and apparently settled condition: "they abide over against me." There is the willing confession by Balak of his own inability, and his evident faith in Balaam's power to cast a fatal paralysis over all the energy of Israel. Now all this must have been very pleasant for Balaam to hear, sweeter maybe than the jingle of the rewards of divination. Thus did the temptation to Balaam, already only too open to temptation, begin. His carnal mind was appealed to in many ways. The rewards of divination were only a part of the expected wages of unrighteousness. "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).
VI. BALAK HAD MORE FAITH IN FALSEHOOD THAN ISRAEL FOR A LONG TIME HAD shows TOWARDS TRUTH. The conduct of Balak in sending so far, in casting the fortunes of his kingdom with such simplicity on what was utterly false, should put us to shame, who have the opportunity of resorting at all times to well ascertained and established truth. Balak had only a Balaam to seek, such an ignoble and double- minded man as appears in the sequel; not a Moses, who could have told him truly, not only how the blessing and the curse really come, but how to secure the one and escape the other. - Y.
I. BALAK'S NOTION OF WHAT WOULD BE MOST ACCEPTABLE TO BALAAM. It is all a matter of money, Balak thinks. "Every man has his price," and the poor man who cannot pay it must go to the wall. Not that we are to suppose Balaam a specially greedy man, but it has been the mark of false religions and all corruptions of the true service of God that priests and prophets have been greedy after money. They promise spiritual things and make large demands for carnal things; the more they get the more they promise, and the more they get the more they want. "The priests teach for hire, and the prophets divine for money" (Micah 3:11). Simon Magus must have known well the greed of his tribe when he offered money to Simon Peter. It is the mark of a true bishop that he is not greedy of filthy lucre (1 Timothy 3:3). Jesus sent forth his disciples to make a free gift in healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, and casting out devils. "Freely ye have received, freely give." "He, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isaiah 55:1).
II. BALAAM'S RECEPTION OF THE MESSENGERS. He cannot give a prompt answer. We are certainly very much in the dark concerning Balaam's past life and present position. If he knew anything of Israel's true character and God's purpose concerning Israel, then, of course, there was not the smallest excuse for delay. But even supposing him ignorant in this respect, was there any excuse for delay to an upright man? Did not Balak's wish at once suggest the answer an upright man would have given? Blessing and cursing are great realities, not mere priestly fictions (Deuteronomy 27, 28), but they can never become mere matters of money. "The curse causeless shall not come." tie who deserves blessing cannot be cursed, nor he who deserves cursing, blessed. God's sovereignty, mysterious enough in its operations, is never arbitrary. An upright man would have felt it was no use pretending to consult God with a bribe in his hand. The bribe vitiated the spirit of his prayer, and prevented a proper reception of the answer. There are certain propositions which upright men do not need to sleep or deliberate over. The answer should follow the request like the instantaneous rebound of a ball. Balak did not send asking advice in general terms, or that Balaam should do the best he could, but he pointed out a certain, well-defined road which no upright man could possibly take. If we acquit the prophet of dishonesty and evasion in this plea of delay, we can only do it by convicting hint of great darkness in his own spirit and great ignorance of God.
III. THE INTERPOSITION OF GOD. God does not seem to have waited for any request from Balaam. While the prophet is considering all the honour and emolument that may come to him out of this affair, God comes to him with the prompt and sobering question, "What men are these with thee?" All the depths of this question we cannot penetrate, but at all events it was enough to prepare the prophet, one would think, for an unfavourable answer. And may we not also assume that it was expressive of a desire to extricate him when he had only taken one or two steps into temptation? As to Balak's request, God settles everything with a brief, a very brief, but sufficient utterance: "The people are blessed." And blessed beyond all doubt they had been of late, not in word only, but in deed. Note that God does not send any message of reassurance to Balak. There is guidance for Balaam, security for Israel, but for Balak only blank denial. If Balak had come in the right spirit to Balaam, and Balaam in the right spirit to God, then the messengers might have gone back cheerful, and welcome to their expectant master. But what begins badly ends worse. He who sets himself in opposition to God's people cannot expect to hear comfortable words from God. If we are to hear such words, we must approach him in the right spirit. We must not seek good for ourselves by a selfish infringement on the good of others. It was one thing for Israel, under the leadership of God, to attack the wicked Amorites; quite another for Moab, on a mere peradventure, to attack Israel.
IV. BALAAM'S ANSWER TO THE MESSENGERS. He does not repeat what the Lord said; thus advancing further in the revelation of his corrupt heart. Why not have told them plainly these words: "Thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed"? Simply because it was not pleasant to say such words with the flattering message of Balak still tickling his ears. It was not true then that whom he blessed was blessed, and whom he cursed was cursed; but to have told Moab so would have been to publish his humiliation far and wide, and hurt his repute as a great soothsayer. Yet how much better it would have been for Balaam as a man, and a man who had been brought in some respects so near to God, if he had told the whole truth. It would perhaps have saved a second embassy to him. Men are looking to the main chance even when among the solemn things of God, and fresh from hearing his voice. Balaam first of all, in speaking to God, omits from the message of Balak, saying nothing of his own reputation in the eyes of the Moabitish king, suspecting very shrewdly that this would be offensive to God. Then he omits again in his answer to the messengers, and, to make all complete, they omit still more in their report to Balak. There is nothing in their word to show that God had said anything in the matter. This is what is called diplomacy; not telling a lie, but only leaving out something of the truth, as being' of no practical importance. It is a great blessing that there are Scriptures for us all to read. Philosophers and preachers may leave out part of the truth, or colour and distort it to suit their own prejudices, but they cannot get over the written word. Out of their own mouths they may be contradicted when they read one thing out of the Scriptures and say another as the fruit of their own lips. - Y.
1. When the first embassy came, his knowledge of God and of Israel's history should probably have led to a decisive refusal. But if we assume that he needed direction, it is clear that the rewards of divination made him anxious to go. Not that he had a desire to curse Israel; he would just as soon have blessed them for reward. Yet he had no intention then to disobey. If a prophet could have shown him that evening his future career, he might have shrunk in loathing from the self that was to be. The will of God is declared (verse 12), and the struggle between conscience and covetousness begins. At first conscience prevails, but the form of refusal (verse 13) indicates double-mindedness. In contrast to Joseph (Genesis 39:9), Balaam lays himself open to fresh temptations. If we give Satan a hesitating "No," instead of a "Get thee behind me," he will understand that we would like to sin, but dare not, and will try us with more honourable embassies and costlier gifts.
2. The ambassadors leave, but lingering regrets keep the fire of covetousness smouldering in Balaam's heart. It flames up afresh on the arrival of the second embassy (verses 16, 17). Fair professions (verse 18) reveal his weakness, for what "more" (verse 19) could he want God to say unless it was to give him permission to sin? God gives him leave not to sin, but to go. (Illustrate this act by similar Divine proceedings: e.g., allowing the Israelites, under protest, to elect a king; a wild youth receiving reluctantly permission to carry out his determination to go to sea.)
3. Balaam went, and God is angry, not because he went, but because he went with a wicked purpose. When he found the ways of transgressors hard, and offers to return (verse 34), God knows that he would only carry his body back to Pethor, and leave his heart hankering after the rewards of Balak. May we not suppose that if he had shown real repentance in the future, and heartily entered into the Divine purposes: though he lost Balak's rewards, he would have received God's blessing? But he ran greedily after reward, and found, as sinners still find, under God's providence, that it is hard to retrace false steps. Therefore, "enter not," &c. (Proverbs 4:15).
4. Balaam meets with a flattering reception, yet renews his good professions (verse 38). He means them, for he still hopes to gain God's consent to his purpose. His use of enchantments to impose on the heathen is one sign of unconscientiousness. His first attempt to curse is a failure (Numbers 23:7-10), but the struggle with conscience and God is not abandoned. ("No sun or star so bright," &c., Keble's 'Christian Year,' Second Sunday after Easter.) Three times he persists in this "madness," trying to change or circumvent the will of God. At length he seems to give up the struggle, but is probably only "making a virtue of a necessity;" at the best it is but a passing impulse, followed by a relapse, and by the infamous act by which he clutched his wages and brought God's curse on Israel (chapter 25). He thus shows that he has renounced God, has entered thoroughly into Balak's schemes, and even outstripped him in wickedness. His perverted conscience does not keep him even from such unutterable baseness. His triumph is brief, and his "end is destruction" (chapter 31:8; Psalm 34:21). Learn from this the guilt and danger of resisting and thus corrupting conscience. (Explain process of this corruption, and note natural analogies to a conscience dulled by persistence in sin.) To try and bribe conscience is like seeking permission to sin. (Illustrate by story of Glaucus inquiring at the oracle of Delphi whether he might keep stolen money - Herodotus, 6:86.) Conscience, like a railway signal-lamp, is intended to warn against danger or direct in the path of safety. If through negligence the lamp is put out or shows a wrong light, the consequences may be fatal (Isaiah 5:20; Matthew 6:23). A healthy conscience accuses of sin and warns of danger only that it may be a minister to lead us to Christ. - P.
I. HEATHEN FAITH IN THE UNSEEN. Balak in the extremity of his fear sends beyond the limits of his own people, into distant Mesopotamia, to secure the help of one supposed to be endowed with supernatural gifts, in special relation to the invisible powers, able to "curse and to bless" (verse 6). A striking illustration of that blind instinct of human nature by virtue of which it believes ever in the interposition of Deity in the world's affairs. All idolatrous rites, oracles, divinations, incantations, sacerdotal benedictions and maledictions, rest ultimately on this basis. It is this makes the sway of the priest and the supposed "prophet of the Invisible" so mighty in every land and age. Christianity teaches us to lay hold on the substantial truth that underlies these distorted forms of superstition. It enlightens this blind instinct; reveals the righteous "God that judgeth in the earth;" leads humanity to Him who is at once its "Prophet, Priest, and King."
II. THE WITNESS FOR GOD THAT MAY BE FOUND IN THE SOUL OF A DEPRAVED MAN, even of one whose inward dispositions and whole habit of life are most opposed to his will. Balaam practiced an art that was "an abomination unto the Lord" (Deuteronomy 18:12), and his way was altogether "perverse" (verse 32), and yet God was near to him. God spoke to him, and put the spirit of prophecy into his heart, and a word into his mouth. He "heard the words and saw the vision of the Almighty." Whether his knowledge of God was the result of dim traditions of a purer faith handed down from his forefathers, or of influences that had spread in his own time into the land of his birth, we at least see how scattered rays of Divine light then penetrated the deep darkness of heathendom. So now God is often nearer to men than we or they themselves suppose. He does not leave himself without a witness, even in the most ignorant and vile. The light in them is never totally extinguished. They have their gleams of higher thought, their touches of nobler, purer feeling. Conscience rebukes their practical perversity, and the Spirit strives with them to lead them into a better way. When God is absolutely silent in a man's soul, all hope of guiding him by outward persuasions into the path of righteousness is gone.
III. THE PROSTITUTION OF NOBLE POWERS TO BASE USES. Here is a man whose widespread fame was the result, probably, to a great extent of real genius. His native capacity - mental insight, influence over men, poetic gift - was the secret of this fame. Like Simon Magus, he "bewitched the people," so that they all "gave heed to him, from the least unto the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God." But these extraordinary powers are perverted to the furtherance of an unhallowed cause; he makes them the servants of his own base ambition and desire for gain. "He loved the wages of unrighteousness." It was in his heart to obey the behest of Balak and secure the offered prize. There is a tone of disappointment in the words, "The Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you." He lets "I dare not" wait upon "I would." And notwithstanding all his poetic inspiration and his passing raptures of devout and pious feeling,
"Yet in the prophet's soul the dreams of avarice stay." How full is all human history of examples of the waste of noble faculties, the prostitution to evil uses of God-given powers! The darkest deeds have ever been done and the deepest miseries inflicted on the world by those who were most fitted by nature to yield effective service to the cause of truth and righteousness, and to confer blessings on mankind. And it is generally some one base affection - the lust of the flesh, self-love, avarice, an imperious will, &c. - that turns the rich tide of their life in a false direction. As the spreading sails of a ship only hasten its destruction when the helm fails, so is it with the noblest faculties of a man when he has lost the guidance of a righteous purpose. IV. THE DIVINE RESTRAINT OF MAN'S LIBERTY TO DO EVIL. "And God said, Thou shalt not go with them," &c. The spell of a higher Power is over him. In a sense contrary to that of Paul the Apostle, he "cannot do the thing that he would." So are wicked men often made to feel that there is after all a will stronger than their will; that, free as they seem to be, some invisible hand is holding them in check, limiting their range of action, thwarting their purposes, compelling them to do the very thing they would fain avoid, turning their curses into blessings, so that in the end they serve the cause they meant to destroy. The hope of the world lies in the absolute mastery of the Will that is "holy, and just, and good" over all conceivable opposing forms of human and Satanic power. - W.
IV. THE DIVINE RESTRAINT OF MAN'S LIBERTY TO DO EVIL. "And God said, Thou shalt not go with them," &c. The spell of a higher Power is over him. In a sense contrary to that of Paul the Apostle, he "cannot do the thing that he would." So are wicked men often made to feel that there is after all a will stronger than their will; that, free as they seem to be, some invisible hand is holding them in check, limiting their range of action, thwarting their purposes, compelling them to do the very thing they would fain avoid, turning their curses into blessings, so that in the end they serve the cause they meant to destroy. The hope of the world lies in the absolute mastery of the Will that is "holy, and just, and good" over all conceivable opposing forms of human and Satanic power. - W.
Luke 4:6, 7). Though at first the tempter may be resisted, and may depart "for a season" (cf. verse 14), yet his solicitations may be renewed in a more alluring form than at first, with this appeal, "Let nothing," &c. (verse 16). Neither
(1) conscience. Away with childish scruples in a man of the world who has to see to his own interests. Nor
(2) considerations of mercy to others. Balaam was required to curse and, if possible, ruin a nation that had done him no harm. Selfishness is bidden to make any sacrifice at its shrine. E.g., ambitious rulers, dishonest traders or trustees, heartless seducers. Nor
(3) the will of God; for who can be sure whether God has really revealed his will, or will enforce it (Genesis 3:1-5). Nor
(4) the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in dying that he might save from the ruin of sin; for though you sin, grace will abound. Nor
(5) the fear of judgment; for after all the threats of judgment may be old wives' fables, or you may make all right before you die. Thus speaks the tempter, bidding us make riches and honour "the prize of our calling," and overleap or break down every barrier that God has set up to hinder us from ruining ourselves and others. (Illustrate from the case of Judas, and the barriers he broke through at the call of Satan, and contrast the impregnability of Jesus Christ when offered the wealth and honour of the world.) Christ himself, the motives supplied by his cross when applied by his Spirit, are the greatest hindrances to keep us from yielding to the tempter. - P.
I. THE RESULT OF MUTILATED ANSWERS.
1. As concerns Balak. Balaam does not tell the first messengers all that God had spoken to him; they do not tell Balak all that Balaam had spoken to them. The consequence is that he comes to a wrong conclusion, and really he had no information by which to come to a right one. His thoughts on the subject may be supposed to have run thus: - "All the difficulty lies with Balaam. He took the night to think the matter over, and concluded it was not worth his while on such poor considerations to undertake so serious a journey. My messengers and rewards have not sufficiently impressed him with the rank of Moab." In Balak's mind it is all a question of degree, and so he sends more princes, and more honourable than before. And possibly, if these had been unsuccessful, as a last resort he would have gone himself. Thus poor Balak, in the quagmire of misunderstanding already, was led still deeper into it. The great end was to get Balaam's curse into operation, and there was nothing to shake his faith in the possibility of this end being gained. Between God and Balak there were interposed a self-seeking Balaam, and, to say the least, messengers who were careless, if nothing more. Ours is a more secure position. We come to God through a Christ, not through a Balaam; enlightened by a Spirit who teaches us the proper needs of sinful men, and shows us our real danger.
2. As concerns Balaam. Whether he thought that by his first answer he had finally disposed of the request, or wanted time to consider if it should be preferred again, we cannot make sure. His first answer had to be given very much on the spur of the moment. If it had been a truthful answer, one not only with the lips, but with the whole countenance, and the whole man speaking all God had said, he would not have been troubled again. But now he has to deal with more princes, and more honourable than before. He sees precisely why they have been sent, and as he listens to their urgent and obsequious words and comprehensive promises, he understands exactly what is expected of him. His proper answer even now was to say that he could not go on any consideration. But there was no spirit and courage of repentance in him. His reply, with all its seeming emphasis, is very evasive and ambiguous. It looks strong to say, "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold," and to speak of God as "the Lord my God," but after all he leaves the messengers in the dark as to what the word of the Lord was, though he knew it well. He pretends that it is needful to wait another night for what the Lord might say. This time it is a mere pretence, beyond any doubt. Perhaps he reckons that he will have nothing to do but wait till the morning, and then repeat to the second messengers what he had said to the first. How startled then he must have been, not only to get another revelation of God, but a totally different direction! And yet, when we consider, we see that he could not get the same answer as before. Balaam does not stand where he did at the time of the previous answer. He is a worse man; he has yielded to temptation from which God would have preserved him, and now, with open and greedy heart, he is in the midst of greater temptation still. He had daringly neglected God's previous word, and would assuredly neglect it again if he got the opportunity. Why then should God repeat the word? Balaam will still suppress the fact that he cannot curse Israel, seeing they are blessed. What was the needful word yesterday may become useless today. The possible of one hour becomes the impossible of the next. Jesus says, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation;" but that does not prevent him saying very soon afterwards, "Sleep on now and take your rest.... Rise, let us be going." The father has not changed because the child whom he commands in one way today he commands in another tomorrow. Different actions outwardly may reveal the same character and advance the same purpose. The appearance of contradiction in God's dealing arises from our hasty thinking, not because there is any reality corresponding to the appearance. God was speaking, as we more and more clearly see, both for the real good of Balaam and the safety and blessedness of his own people.
II. THE WORLD'S CONFIDENCE IN THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF ITS REWARDS. The world never has any doubt but what it can make its possessions fascinating to every man, and appeal successfully to his affections and sympathies. Weak as the world is, it never loses its self-confidence. Though Balak's throne is in peril, he brags of the honours he can confer on Balaam; and when he sends the second message, he does not change the considerations, but simply increases them to the utmost. So, to take the other side, the world is equally confident in the terrifying power of its penalties. Nebuchadnezzar, sorely troubled about his forgotten dream, does not for all that forget to play the despot. He menaces the astrologers, threatening them with a dreadful death, in right royal style. It must be acknowledged also that the result only too often shows that the confidence is justified. We cannot guard too carefully against the world, alike in its attractions and its threats; and he does this best who is filled with a purer love and a worthier fear than anything in the world can inspire.
III. BALAK'S ALARM SAD NOT BEEN LOST NOR LESSENED BY THE LAPSE OF TIME. "These Israelites are not going to steal away my suspicions by their quietude. The less they look my way, the more sure I am they mean ultimate mischief." And yet what was Israel doing all this time of going to Balaam and returning and going again? Why, while Balak is in all this fret and stir, Israel is steadily preparing for the promised land. Whatever God's enemies may do in plot and counsel, let it not hinder our advance. Enemies outside cannot hinder, if only we, whom God has called and guided, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us. - Y.
I. WE MUST LOOK NOT ONLY AT THE LETTER OF GOD'S COMMANDS, BUT THE SPIRIT OF THEM. a If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them" (verse 20). "God's anger was kindled because he went" (verse 22). It has been said indeed that God was angry not because he went, but with something that happened on the journey; and to support this view grammatical considerations are urged, from the participle being used instead of the finite verb ('Keil and Delitzsch on the Pentateuch,' 3:168. Clark's Translations). It is further urged, as a consequence of this construction, that the encounter with the angel took place not at the outset of the journey, but rather towards its close. All this may be true, but there is no distinct affirmation of it in the narrative and it is not necessary to assume it for reconciling purposes. There is no difficulty in admitting that God was displeased with Balaam because he went at all. We must not go by words simply. There is something, even in communications between men, which cannot be put into words. And just as the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered, so there are communications of the answering God which can be put in no human tongue. The obedient heart will distinguish between the permissive and the imperative, between the concession to human Weakness and the call to holy duty. Those who want to be right with God, to attend to his will rather than their own desires, will never lift a permission into a command Our interpretations of God's words are a searching test of our spiritual state. How many jump at them to excuse self-indulgence, but conveniently ignore equally prominent words that call for self-denial. The word telling Balaam that he might go to Balak was not like the call to Abram to get out of his country and away from his kindred to a land which the Lord would show him; nor like the sending of Moses to Pharaoh, and Jonah to Nineveh,
II. BALAAM WAS GOING ON THIS EXPEDITION EVIDENTLY FULL OF THE DESIRES OF HIS OWN HEART. All, so far as he could see, was pointing in the way he wanted. He could plead God's permission, which was a very comfortable, not to say a necessary, beginning to one who was a prophet. As he rode along, his heart filled with expectation of the future - riches, honours, fame, power - an ample share in the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. God's permission may have seemed to the infatuated man a clear indication of further favours. If he allowed Balaam to have his own way in one thing, why not in others? Thus he had in view the possibility of exercising an extraordinary power, one that would make him famed and dreaded far and wide. It is something to make a man's heart swell when he can wield the immense forces of nature, say in the strength of a disciplined army, or of some huge steam-engine. But Balaam had in view the possibility of wielding forces above nature, cursing Israel so that its strength might utterly melt away. What wonder God was angry with him, seeing he had desires in his heart which could only be satisfied by accomplishing the ruin of the chosen race! Not that he deliberately desired their destruction; but selfishness in its blind absorption destroys with little scruple all that comes in its way. There is some parallel between Balaam and Paul, all the more striking because it extends only a little way. Paul set out for Damascus, like Balaam for Moab, his fanatical heart brimful of darling projects. Hence in both instances we see special, extraordinary, and unfailing methods adopted to check the men and bring them to consideration. Men who are m the ordinary paths of sin may be dealt with by ordinary methods, peculiar indeed to each individual, yet never rising above the ordinary experiences of humanity. But Balaam and Paul, being extraordinary transgressors, were dealt with by extraordinary methods. We do not expect sinners to be met by angels now, or to hear human speech from brute beasts. Still we may have this much in common with Balaam and Paul, that we may be so absorbed in our own things, so utterly careless of God, Christ, salvation, and eternity, as to require sharp, sudden, accumulated agencies to stir up our attention. It takes a great deal to bring some men to themselves.
III. THE PROCESS ADOPTED TO MAKE BALAAM FULLY CONSCIOUS OF THE WRATH OF GOD.
1. The presence of an angel in front. Why an angel? Why not communicate with Balaam as before? The answer is that Balaam did not appreciate such communications. He heard them indeed, but they did not lay hold of his conscience, they did not secure his obedience, they did not even make him think seriously of his danger. Hence the appearance of a visible sign in the angel - one who should equally speak the word of God and be seen as he spoke. We know that persons were greatly terrified and impressed by the visits of angels (Judges 13). Men can go about the world delighting in sin, unconscious that all the time they are in the presence of God himself, but let them see what seems an apparition from another world, and they tremble like the aspen. The disciples in their earlier, carnal-hearted days were not much affected by the holiness and spiritual beauty of their Master's life; but what an impression he made when they saw him walking on the sea! They thought it was an apparition. So soon as Balaam perceived the presence of the angel it brought him up at once. "He bowed down his head, and fell fiat on his face." God makes use of visible agents to prepare results in the sphere of the invisible. And not only did an angel appear, but he was right in front, signifying that he was there to meet with Balaam. He had also his sword drawn. There was significance in meeting a messenger bearing a sword, but the drawing of the sword, even without a single word spoken, was the clearest possible intimation of opposition. The way of transgressors may be hard in more senses than one. How many persevere in the ways of sin in spite of urgent, repeated warnings and entreaties, everything short of physical force, from those who love and pity them! Such at all events cannot say that no one has cared for their souls.
2. The extraordinary means by which God made Balaam to notice the angel. Balaam would not attend to the warnings of an invisible God presented to the eye within, therefore a visible angel was sent to appeal through the eye without to the eye within. But though the angel was in front with the drawn sword, Balaam did not see him. How then shall he be made to see him? God, as his custom is, takes the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. He opens the mouth of the prophet's ass. Ridiculous I say the men who will have no miracles, no admission of the supernatural; and ludicrous as well as ridiculous, seeing that it is an ass, of all animals, which is chosen to speak. But that is only because we associate Balaam with the despised and buffeted animal which the word "ass" recalls to us. We may be sure that a man of Balaam's dignity would have a beast to carry him such as became his dignity. And as to the absurdity of an animal uttering human speech, it is no harder to believe that God should here have opened the mouth of the ass, than that he should afterwards have opened the mouth of Balaam, being such a man as he was, to utter glorious predictions concerning the people whom it was in his heart to curse. If we were allowed to think of things as being either easy or difficult to God, we might say that it was more difficult for him to control the mouth of a carnal-minded man like Balaam than the mouth of a brute beast. It is not pretended that he changed the intellect and gave the ass human thoughts along with human speech. The words were the words of a man, but the thoughts were the thoughts of an ass. Balaam himself was not astonished to hear it speak. He was too much exasperated with the strange stubbornness of an animal hitherto so docile and serviceable, to notice the still stranger power with which it had been so suddenly endowed. Observe, again, how naturally all leads up to the speaking of the ass. The ass is not brought specially on the scene, as the angel was. Balaam saddles the ass, and takes the road on it in his customary way. At first there is nothing miraculous. The ass sees the angel, and turns aside into the field; there is nothing strange in that. Coming to the path of the vineyards, and still seeing the angel, it crushes Balaam's foot against the wall; there is nothing strange in that. Still advancing into the narrow place, and still seeing the angel, it sinks to the ground; there is nothing strange in that. The ass was in a strait before and behind, on the right side and on the left. Thus its speaking is prepared for as a climax. Accept the statement that the ass spoke, and all the previous narrative leads beautifully up to it. Deny the statement, and the chief virtue of the narrative is lost.
3. Let us not fail to notice this instance of the lower creation recognizing God's messenger. The question of course suggests itself, Who was this angel? one of the unnamed host, or the Son of God himself in his old covenant guise? If the latter, then he who while in human flesh signified his will to the stormy sea might well signify his warning presence to the ass. Not that the ass knew the angel as a human being could; but even as the lower creation is sensible in its own way of the presence of man, so the ass might be sensible in its own way of the presence of the angel. We argue concerning the lower animals far more from ignorance and carelessly-accepted tradition than from real and discerning knowledge. We know positively nothing as to what sort of consciousness underlies the phenomena of their existence. We know wherein they are not like us, but what they are in themselves we cannot know.
4. Every Balaam has his ass, i.e., every man who has the spirit and conduct of Balaam in him may expect to be pulled up at last in like manner. What God made the ass to his master, that God makes their consciences to many. For a long time the ass had only been of ordinary and commonly accepted use. Balaam had ridden on it ever since it was his, a long time we may conclude, and doubtless rejoiced in having so convenient and trustworthy a servant. And thus many find their consciences as little troublesome, as constantly agreeable, as the ass was to Balaam. Some sort of conscience they must have, but it amounts to nothing more than taking care to keep a reputation for honesty and respectability. They find such a conscience useful in its way, just as Balaam found his ass when out on soothsaying business. But even as the ass sees the angel, so conscience begins to waken to nobler uses. One gets out of the little world of mere give and take, business customs and local habits. Something suggests that we are in the wrong road, pulls us up for a moment, tries to turn us aside. In reality God is beginning to close with us for our own good. At first there is latitude, opportunity of evasion. We go a little further, and God comes closer. Onward still! and at last the soul cannot escape. Blessed is that man, blessed in his opportunity at all events, whose conscience, once the humble instrument of his baser self, is thoroughly roused so that it will not allow him further with its consent in his chosen and accustomed way. The crisis comes, and the question is, "Will you from the heart obey the Divine command, come in subjection to the angel of God, or go on greedily in the way of unrighteousness, which you have been so clearly shown is also the way of destruction?"
IV. THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE PROCESS IS SUCCESSFUL.
1. Balaam is enlightened at last, but after all only partially enlightened. At last, and only when forced to it, does he become aware of the angel's presence. And now he is quick enough and humble enough to recognize that presence, but not with the quickness and humility of a full repentance. The Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, even as he opened the eyes of the ass, but the opening left his disposition and wishes unchanged, even as it left the ass-nature unchanged. He saw the angel, the drawn sword, his danger at the moment, and the danger he had been in before; but his folly, his duplicity, his covetousness, his spiritual danger he did not see. Then when his eyes were opened, and at the same time his ears unstopped, the angel goes on to speak to him such words as might bring him to a right state of mind. Nothing was left undone that could be done. The angel shows him plainly in what danger he had been from the first swerving of the ass, and how the ass was perhaps more aware of the master's danger and solicitous for his safety than was the master himself. Nothing but the sagacity and fidelity of the ass had saved his life. The ass was more faithful to its master than the master had been to God.
2. Hence, the enlightenment being partial, the confession is inadequate, indeed worthless. "I have sinned." There are no more complaints against the ass; there is no extenuation with the lip; so far all is satisfactory. What is said is all right so far as it goes. The mischief is in what is left unsaid, because unthought. Balaam should have asked himself, "How is it that though my ass saw the angel, I did not?" His confession was lacking in that he did not say, "I have sinned because my heart has not been right. I have sinned in going on an expedition to glorify and enrich myself. I will turn back at once." The only thing of real use and worth in God's sight is a voluntary turning from the ways of sin. When the younger son came to himself, he did not say, "I will go back to my father if he wishes me to go, if he will not let me stop where I am," but definitely, "I will arise and go," &c. Therefore, in spite of the angel's presence, the drawn sword, the thrice intimation through the ass, in spite of all the words to make all plain, Balaam goes on. He may indeed plead God's permission, but this plea will avail him nothing. For himself it matters little now, seeing he is not one whit changed in heart, whether he goes forward or backward; any path that he takes is downward. If he returns to Pethor, it will not be to a life of true repentance. He is the same low-minded man wherever he is, and it matters little to himself whether he is destroyed in Pethor or in Moab. Let him then go forward into Moab, so that in his further descent and ultimate destruction he may at the same time be used for the glory of God. Even if he refuses a willing obedience, God may get gain out of him by an unwilling one. - Y.
I. His CRUEL ANGER. His rough treatment of the dumb ass is marked with reprobation. It was both itself evil and the symptom of a hidden evil.
1. We may believe that the secret unrest of his conscience had a great deal to do with this outburst of anger. Note the subtle connection that often exists between certain unusual phases of conduct and the hidden workings of the heart. Jonah's anger at the withering of the gourd was but one of the signs of his general want of sympathy with the Divine procedure. Balaam, perhaps, was not a cruel man, but the sense of wrong within and the feeling that he was doing wrong betrayed itself even in this form of behaviour. Conscience made him a coward, and cowardice is always cruel. If it had not been for the "madness" of his passion, he might have judged, as a diviner, that the unwillingness of the beast to pursue her journey counseled him to return; but when a man's heart is not right with God, resentment is often roused against that which is meant to turn him into a better way. "Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth?" (Galatians 4:16).
2. It illustrates the sad subjection of the inferior creatures to the curse of moral evil. "The creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly." "The whole creation groaneth," &c. We think it strange that the dumb ass should "speak with man's voice and rebuke the prophet's madness," but, to the ear that can hear it, such a voice is continually going forth from all the innocent creatures that suffer the cruel consequences of man's abuse. Well may St. Paul represent them as "waiting with earnest expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19, 22).
II. HIS BLIND INFATUATION. It is deeply significant that he should not have seen the angel. Even the poor dumb creature that he rode saw more than he did. It was his moral perversity, the frenzy of his carnal ambition, that was the true cause of the dullness of his spiritual vision. Note -
1. Sin blinds men to the things that it is most needful for them to apprehend and know. Mental blindness often, not always, has a moral cause. "This people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing," &c. (Matthew 13:15). The highest spiritual truths, realities of the spirit world, tokens of the Divine presence and working, eternal moral laws, sacred responsibilities of life, &c. - all these are darkly hidden from him whose heart is "thoroughly set in him to do evil."
2. Even animal instinct is a safer guide than the moral sense of a bad man. It effectually warns of danger, and prompts to the pursuit of the good nature requires. It is to the animal a sufficient law. But when the "spirit in man, the inspiration of the Almighty that giveth him understanding," the sovereignty of reason and conscience, is overborne by base fleshly lust, man sinks lower than the brutes that perish. Their obedience to the law of their being puts him to shame. Though they "speak not with man's voice," their silent wisdom "rebukes him for his iniquity." "If the light that is in thee be darkness," &c. (Matthew 6:23).
III. HIS HELPLESSNESS. This is seen -
1. In his abject submission. "He bowed down his head, and fell fiat on his face," saying, "I have sinned;" "now, therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again." He must have known from the beginning that his obstinate self-will was displeasing to God, but now that the consequences of it stare him in the face he is filled with alarm. There are those who grieve over their sin only when it is found out. It is not the evil itself they dread, but only its discovery and punishment. Fear often makes men repent and reform when there is no genuine abhorrence of wrong-doing.
2. In the Divine compulsion under which he is placed to pursue his journey. "Go with the men," &c. He would fain draw back, but it is too late now; he must do the work and bear the testimony that God has determined for him. When men are bent upon that which is evil, God often allows them to become entangled in circumstances of danger from which there is no escape, that "they may eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices" (Proverbs 1:31). - W.
I. THE WRONG DONE TO THE CREATURES
II. THE EFFECTS ON OURSELVES.
1. They are our inferiors, therefore magnanimity and sympathy should protect them.
2. They are often helpless to defend themselves; cruelty is then unutterably mean.
3. Some of these animals are part of our property, and of great value to us, though absolutely within our power.
4. If they are not "wont to do so" when they provoke us, some good reason may exist which we should seek to discover. Therefore -
5. When tempted to harshness, short of cruelty, it is our duty to consider whether they need it, and in this sense deserve it. For -
6. Past misconduct of ourselves or of others may have occasioned their present obstinacy, through timidity or some other cause.
7. Animals suffer too much already, directly or indirectly, through men's sins (war, famines, &c.) without the addition of gratuitous cruelties.
8. No future life for them is revealed, so that we have the more reason for not making them miserable in this life.
1. It fosters a despotic habit of mind, as though might and right were identical.
2. It hardens the heart and tends to nurture cruelty to men as well as brutes. E.g., the child Nero delighting in killing flies.
3. It still further alienates us from the mind of Christ, the character of "the Father of mercies."
I. BALAK'S SOLICITUDE TO CONCILIATE BALAAM AND SHOW HIM HONOUR. Balak does not yet know what unhealed wounds may be in the prophet's pride, or whether that pride has been sufficiently pleased by the dignity of the second deputation and the extent of the promises it has made. He does all he can, therefore, to minister to Balaam's vanity. The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. They will leave nothing undone to gain their ends; they will creep to reach them, if they cannot reach them standing erect. Balak goes to meet the prophet at the utmost border of his land. It is a dangerous thing to offend the powerful ones of this world; they must be kept in good humour. How different from the spirit in which God would have us approach him or any one whom he may send! If he sends to bless us, it is because of our need; he is not a man, that he should be kept in a favourable disposition by our flatteries and fawnings. We need to remember this. Cornelius had a sincere desire to serve God, but very mistaken apprehensions in some respects of what God required, seeing how he fell before Peter's feet and worshipped him. Let us take heed lest in our anxiety to offer God what we think he wants we are found utterly insensible as to what he really wants. We cannot be too solicitous to please God, if only we are doing it according to his will; we cannot be too solicitous to conciliate men, if only we are doing it for their good. There is nothing degrading or unmanly, nothing that compels cringing or obsequiousness, in the service of God. When we bow before the grandees and plutocrats of the world and watch their wishes as a dog the eyes of its master, then we are reptiles, not men. We must be all things to all men only when it will save them, not simply to advantage ourselves.
II. BALAAM AND BALAK MEET, IN SPITE OF ALL THE HINDRANCES PUT IN THE WAY. Balak of course has his own notion of these hindrances; he thinks they lay in Balaam's waiting for a sufficient inducement; and very likely he congratulates himself on his insight, his knowledge of the world, his pertinacity, his choice of agents, and of the right sort of bait to attract Balaam. Yet after all Balak had not the slightest idea of what great hindrances he had overcome. If he had known of God's interferences, he might have been prouder than ever; that is, if the knowledge of these interferences had not changed his pride to alarm. Balak's earnest sending had been more potent and fascinating than, in his greeting to Balaam, he unwittingly supposed. It had outweighed the direct commands of God, the mission of the angel, the influence of a very peculiar miracle and a very narrow escape from death. How much there must have been in Balaam's greedy heart to draw him on when even mighty and unusual obstacles like these could only stay him for a moment! Balak drew him because in his heart there was something to be drawn; and they came together as streams that, rising miles apart, and winding much through intervening lands, yet meet at last because each pursues its natural course. All the obstacles put in our way to perdition will not save us if we are bent on the carnal attractions to be found in that way. Drawing is a mutual thing. There was nothing in Balaam's heart to be drawn towards God. The hugest magnet will do no more than the least to attract another body to it unless in that body there is something to be attracted.
III. THE MEETING, AFTER ALL, DOES NOT SEEM A SATISFACTORY ONE. One would have thought that, after overcoming so many hindrances, these two kindred spirits would have met each other with cordial congratulations. But instead of this being so, Balak must show himself a little hurt with what he thinks Balaam's want of confidence in his word and prerogative as king. And though Balaam's difficulty has not lain in these things, he cannot explain the misunderstanding; he has to hear that word "wherefore" as if he heard it not. "Lo, I am come unto thee." that must be sufficient. And as to Balak's expectations, he can only fall back upon the old misleading generalities; he cannot meet the king with the open, eager, joyous countenance of one who sees success within his grasp. Balak, he sees, has more confidence in him than he can possibly have in himself, considering the strange things he has experienced since he set out on his journey. It is not even the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip that he has to prepare for. It is not the probability of success with the possibility of failure, but the strong probability of failure with just the possibility of success. "Have I now any power at all to say anything? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak." Not that we are to suppose Balak was unduly taken aback by such a want of ardour and sympathy in Balaam. Very likely he thought it was nothing more than a proper professional deference to Jehovah, and that in the event all would be right; just as men say "God willing" and "please God" when they are in the midst of schemes where God's will and pleasure are never thought of at all. - Y.
I. THE NECESSARY PREPARATIONS.
1. The sacrifices. Balak and Balaam, however different their thoughts in other respects, were agreed as to the necessity of the sacrifices, if the desired curse were to be put in the prophet's mouth. And so there was abundance of sacrificing. Balak first makes spontaneous offerings, and then such as were specified by Balaam. They felt that God was not to be approached in an irregular way or with empty hands. As Balak thought of Balaam, so he thought of God. The prophet was to be bought with riches and honours, and God was to be bought with sacrifices of slain beasts. Here then is this common element in the practice of two men so different in other respects. It is in Aram and Moab alike. The tradition of Abel's accepted offering has come down far and wide, so that both men are found feeling that such sacrifices were in some way acceptable to God. But the faith and spirit of Abel could not be transmitted along with the knowledge of his outward act. These men did not understand that these sacrifices were worthless in themselves. God is a Spirit, and cannot eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats. Shedding of blood was for the remission of sins, and these men neither felt sin, confessed it, nor desired the removal of it.
2. The sight of the people to be cursed. The king took the prophet into the high places of Baal, that he might see the utmost part of the people. Very likely Balak himself had not seldom stood there, and gone down again each time more alarmed than ever. Balaam must now see these dreadful people, to satisfy himself that it was neither a trifling nor a needless work he had been called to do; to see how close at hand they were, and to be impressed with the necessity of making the curse potent, speedy, and sure. Added to which, Balak probably believed that, for the curse to operate, Balaam's eyes must rest on the people. Lane in his 'Modern Egyptians' tells us how dreaded is the evil eye. Here then Balaam looked on these people in something of their wide extent. What an opportunity for better thoughts if the spirit that brings them had been in his heart! How he might have said, "Have I been called then to blast this mighty host, who have now lain so long in such close neighbourhood to Balak, yet harmed him not?"
3. The prophet has his own special preparations. While Balak attends to the sacrifices, Balaam retires to his secret enchantments (Numbers 24:1) in some high, solitary place. God did choose that his servants should go into such places to meet with him alone, but how differently Balaam looks here from Moses going up into Sinai, or Elijah when he went his day's journey into the wilderness, or Ezekiel when he heard the Lord say, "Arise, go forth into the plain, and I will there talk to thee" (Ezekiel 3:22); above all, from Jesus, in those solitary, refreshing, blessed hours of which we have some hints in the Gospels! How far this retirement was sincere, how far it was meant to deceive Balak, and how far it was mere habit, we cannot tell. The conscience that is welt-nigh dead to practical righteousness, to justice, compassion, and truth, may yet be in an everlasting fidget with superstitious fear.
II. THE UNEXPECTED RESULT.
1. To Balaam. The whole of what happened may not have been unexpected. The meeting with God he certainly would be prepared for. He had met with God only too often of late, and not at all to his peace of mind and the furtherance of his wishes. We may conclude that God allowed him to go through with his enchantments, else he would hardly have gone to repeat them a second time (cf. Numbers 23:15 and Numbers 24:1). And perhaps the very fact that there was no interruption to his enchantments may have lifted his mind in hope that God was at last going to be propitious. If so it was but higher exaltation in order to deeper abasement. God meets with him, puts a word in his mouth, and commands him thus to speak with Balak. Are we to understand that by having the word put into his mouth, Balaam there and then had all the prophecy clearly before his mind, so that he could consider every word he had presently to utter? Possibly so. And it is possible also that as he went back to Balak he considered how he could trim this prophecy, as previously he had trimmed the commands of God. And now comes something for which, with all his assertions of only being able to speak the word God put in his mouth, Balaam was probably quite unprepared. He gets no chance of exerting his skill to trim and soften down unacceptable words. God assumes per-feet control of those rebellious, lying lips. God, who opened the mouth of an ass and made it utter human speech, now opens the mouth of one whose heart was ready to deceive and curse, and makes that mouth to utter truth and blessing.
2. To Balak. The words of the prophecy must have been utterly unexpected by him. He had counted with all confidence on getting what he wanted. Not a shadow of doubt had crossed his mind as to Balaam's power to curse and his own power to buy that power. Hardly a more impressive instance could be found of a man given over to strong delusion, to believe a lie. Counting on the curse as both attainable and efficacious, he now finds to his amazement, horror, and perplexity that Balaam cannot even speak the words of cursing; for doubtless when the Lord took possession of Balaam's mouth he took possession also of eyes, expression, tone, gesture, so that there would be no incongruity between the words and the way in which they were uttered.
III. THE PROPHECY ITSELF.
1. A clear statement of how these two men come to be standing together. Balak brings Balaam all this long way in order to curse Jacob and defy Israel. The object of all these messages and these smoking sacrifices is stated in naked and brief simplicity. There is no reference to motives, inducements, difficulties. The simple historical fact is given without any note or comment; the request of Balaam mentioned, in order that it may be clearly contrasted with the reason why it is refused.
2. Balaam is forced into a humiliating confession. What he had so long concealed, as dangerous to his reputation, he must now publish from the high places of Baal. And notice that he confines himself to saying that the required curse and defiance are impracticable. No more is put into his mouth than he is able truthfully to say. Glorious as this prophecy is, one might imagine it being made more glorious still by the mingling with it of a penitent, candid confession of wrong-doing. He might have said, "Balak hath brought me," &c., and surely God would not have sealed his lips if it had been in his heart to add, "I bitterly repent that I came." He might have said, "How can I curse whom God hath not cursed? and indeed I discovered this long ago, but pride and policy kept the discovery confined within my own breast." And so we see how, while God kept Bahrain from uttering falsehood, and forced him to utter sufficient truth, yet Balaam the man remained the same. He says no more than he is obliged to say, but it is quite enough; with his own lips he publishes his incapacity to the world.
3. The very place of speaking becomes subservient to the purpose of God. We may presume that Balak well knew he was taking Balaam to the most favourable view-point. It was thought to be the best place for cursing, and from what Balaam now sees and says it would seem to be a very fit place for blessing.
4. And now, as Balaam looks from the top of the rocks and from the hills, what does he see? He may have been struck even already, and at that distance, and before he began the prophecy, with the outward peculiarities of Israel. Some peculiarities of Israel could only be known by a close and detailed inspection; others, e.g., the arrangement of the camp around the tabernacle, were best known by a sort of bird's-eye view. An intimate knowledge of London is only to be gained by going from street to street and building to building, but one thus gaining a very intimate knowledge of London would yet be without such an impression of it as is to be got from the top of St. Paul's. As Balaam looks down from the tops of the rocks he sees enough for the present purposes of God. He sees enough to indicate the separation and the vast numerical force of Israel. It was not needful here to speak of more. The immediate purpose of the prophecy was served if it deterred Balak from further folly. A great deal more might have been said of Israel, and was said afterwards. In one sense this was an introductory prophecy, followed up by fuller revelations in later ones; in another sense it stands by itself. The others would not have been spoken if the first had proved sufficient. Passing over the concluding wish of Balaam, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!" which demands to be considered by itself, we note -
5. The state of suspense in which the prophecy leaves Balak as to his own position. It would have been so easy to introduce a reassuring word - one which, if it did not actually take away Balak's alarm, would at all events have been fitted to do so. But the king's request had something so peremptory and dictatorial about it that God's answer is confined to a refusal. He might have explained that Israel was now busy with its own internal affairs, and would soon, according to his purpose, cross Jordan, and that in the mean time, if Balak would show himself friendly, there was nothing in Israel to make it his foe. But Balak had so acted that the great thing to be done was to impress him with a deep sense of the strength and security of Israel. If we prefer unreasonable and arrogant requests, we must expect to receive answers which, if we were uneasy before, will leave us more uneasy still. God must go on speaking and acting so as to shake the ground under all selfishness. - Y.