Numbers 24
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
This passage marks the period at which Balaam becomes finally convinced that it is vain for him to attempt to satisfy Balak, or to carry out the baser promptings of his own heart. He confesses his defeat. gives up his enchantments, "sets his face towards the wilderness" where the camp of Israel lay, and utters the words that God puts into his mouth. But still his spirit is not subdued, for, as we learn from verse 14, instead of casting in his lot, as he might have done, with the chosen nation, he resolves in spite of all to go back to his own people and his old ways. Combining these two features of his case, we see how a man may "approve the right and follow the wrong." It affords a striking example of

(1) true convictions followed by

(2) a false and fatal determination.

I. TRUE CONVICTIONS. Though it was by the constraint of a higher Power that Balaam uttered these words of benediction, we must regard them also as being, to a great extent, the result of his own intuitions, symptoms of the struggling of better thought and feeling within him. He was not the mere senseless medium of the spirit of prophecy. Unwillingly, but not altogether unwittingly, was he made the organ of a Divine inspiration. A bad man may utter words that are good and true, and may often be compelled by the force of outward testimony, or of the inward witness of his own conscience, to do honour to that in others which condemns himself. There are chiefly three characteristics here which find their higher counterpart in the spiritual Israel, and which her enemies, like Balaam, have often been constrained to confess.

1. Beauty. How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! Rich valleys, stuffing gardens, lign-aloes and cedars planted beside the water-courses, are, to the poetic imagination of the seer, the fitting images of their goodly array. But what is the beauty that captivates the eye compared with that which appeals to the sensibility of the soul? All outward forms of loveliness are but the shadow and reflection of the Diviner beauties of holiness, the spiritual glory of truth, purity, goodness - the "adorning of the hidden man of the heart in that which is not corruptible." The richest Oriental imagery can but feebly represent the changing phases of this beauty. And many a man has felt the charm of it, and yet been utterly destitute of that sympathy of spirit that would move him to make it his own. It compels his admiration, but does not win his love.

2. World-wide fruitfulness. "He shall pour the water out of his buckets," &c. - the image of abundant, far-reaching beneficence. The promise to Abraham was fulfilled: "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 22:16, 17). The benefits the seed of Abraham conferred upon the human race did but foreshadow those of Christianity. It is the "light of the world," the "salt of the earth," carrying the stream of a new life over all lands, diffusing a healing influence through all the waters. Its adversaries know this, and are often constrained in spite of themselves to acknowledge it. They are themselves living witnesses to its truth, for they owe to Christianity the very culture, the spiritual force, the social advantages, the literary facilities, &e, that they turn as weapons against it.

3. Victorious power. The triumphant way in which God led forth his people out of Egypt was prophetic of the power that should always overshadow them and dwell among them; often a latent, slumbering strength like that of a crouching or sleeping lion, but irresistible when once it rouses itself to withstand their foes. Such power dwells ever in the redeemed Church. "God is in the midst of her," &c. (Psalm 46:5). "The weapons of our warfare," &c. (2 Corinthians 10:4). Nothing so strong and invincible as truth and goodness. The light must triumph over the darkness. The kingdom of Christ is a "kingdom that cannot be moved," and many a man whose heart has had no kind of sympathy with the cause of that kingdom has been unable to suppress the secret conviction that it will surely win its way, till it shall have vanquished all its enemies and covered the face of the whole earth.

II. A FALSE AND FATAL DETERMINATION. "And now, behold, I go unto my people" (verse 14). He returns to his former ways, plunges again into the darkness and foulness of idolatrous Mesopotamia, having first, it would appear, counseled Balak as to how he might corrupt with carnal fascinations the people whom it was vain for him to "curse" (see chapter Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14), and at last is slain with the sword among the Midianites (chapter 31:8; Joshua 13:22). Learn -

1. How powerless are the clearest perceptions of the truth in the ease of one whose heart is thoroughly set in him to do evil. There are those who "hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). "They profess that they know God, but in works they deny him" (Titus 1:16).

2. How there is often a deeper fall into the degradation of sin when such an one has been uplifted for a while by the vision and the dream of a better life. "The last state of that man is worse than the first" (Matthew 12:45). "For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness," &c. (2 Peter 2:21, 22). - W.

He sees now clearly that there is no chance of prevailing over Israel by means of a curse, and that any further appeal to the prophet would only bring words more galling to his pride and more menacing to his position, if indeed such words could be found. Considerations of policy and prudence need no longer restrain him in speaking out all his mind to the prophet.


1. An outbreak of selfish wrath. Balaam indeed did not deserve much sympathy, seeing how he had played into Balak's hands from the very beginning. But if he had deserved sympathy ever so much, he would not have met with it. Balak has eyes, heart, and recollection for nothing but his own disappointment. He has no real sympathetic regard for Balaam, no consideration for one who is far from home, and whose professional reputation all around will be sadly damaged by this failure on a critical occasion. Wicked men in the hour of disaster show small consideration for their accomplices. Those in whose hearts the temptation of some great reward for evil-doing is beginning to prevail should consider that if they fail they will meet with scant mercy or excuse. When the Balaks of the world get a Balaam into their bands, they look on him just as a tool. If the tool does its work as they want it, well and good; keep it carefully for further use; but if it turns out a failure, fling it without more ado on the dunghill. Balak acts here towards Balaam just as he might be expected to act.

2. He lays the whole blame on Balaam. He does not consider that the evil purposes of his own heart must needs be frustrated. Three prophecies, full of solemn and weighty matter, uttered in his hearing, have not made him in the slightest degree conscious of the folly and iniquity of his project. He sees indeed that the project must fail, but is blind as a bat to the real reason of the failure. All that he has heard concerning Jehovah, his character, his past dealings with Israel, and his purposes for them, has not impressed him one whit, save with the fact that somehow, he cannot get his own way. His curse project has ended in a huge, humiliating, exasperating failure, and Balaam must bear the blame of it. Wicked men cannot be got to give Heaven credit for all its timely and irresistible interferences with their darling schemes. The fault in Balak's angry eye rested with Balaam, and with him alone. "The Lord hath kept thee back from honour." A true word indeed, but not applicable in the way in which Balak intended it. The Lord had kept Balaam back from honour, but not from the paltry honour which Balak would have conferred on him. The lesson for us is, that whenever any selfish plan of ours fails, we should not, like this blind, besotted king, go laying blame elsewhere, as if it would exonerate ourselves. Balaam of course was to blame, grievously to blame, a great deal more than Balak, seeing he sinned against greater light. But we must not let the grievous and conspicuous faults of others cast our own into the shade. We are at the best very poor judges of the transgressions of our fellow-men. When we fail in anything, it is far the wisest, kindest, and most profitable course to give diligent heed to such causes of failure as are in our own heart. Whatever disappointments may come to us in life, we shall never fail in anything of real importance if only we keep our own hearts right with God.

II. BALAK'S VAIN ATTEMPT TO GET PROMPT RIDDANCE OF THE PROPHET. He thinks it is enough to say, "Stop." But as he was not able to make Balaam speak what he wanted and when he wanted, so neither is he able to make Balaam cease when the Lord's message is on his lips. God opened Balaam's mouth, and it is not for Balak to close it. Before Balak is left, his impotence shall be manifested in the completest possible way. He had been the thoughtless and unwitting means of turning on the stream of glorious prophecy, and now he finds he cannot stop that stream at will. Jehovah did not seek this occasion, but when it is furnished he deems it well to avail himself of it to the full. And now Balak finds that, whether he will or not, he must listen to the doom of his own people, expressly and clearly announced. Learn that when you begin the headstrong course of making everything on earth - and perhaps, after Balak's fashion, in heaven as well - subservient to self, you cannot stop whenever the consequences begin to get troublesome. Balak said, "Let my will be done, not because it is right, but because it is mine," and he was not contented with a refusal, once or even twice. He must have it a third time, and then he finds that the choice is no longer under his control. Let us choose wisely while we are able to choose. - Y.

The final prophecy, unsolicited by Balak, which indeed he would have been glad to stop, goes far beyond the concerns of his kingdom and his reign. It stretches over an ever-widening extent of space and time. As long as there is any Moab kind of nation to be destroyed, Israel must continue to prevail'. The kingdoms of this world not only will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, but no other conclusion is easily conceivable. The power by which Israel conquers one enemy enables it to conquer all; and the disposition which leads it against one enemy must lead it against all. It will again and again be attacked, and must defend where it is attacked. It must expand by the ever-strengthening life within. The more it grows, the more room it will require, until at last the kingdoms of the world become its own. Notice -

I. THE ADVANCE IN THIS PROPHECY UPON THE PRECEDING ONE, AS SHOWN BY THE DIFFERENT FIGURE EMPLOYED. The lion destroys, and that most effectually, but he can do nothing more than destroy. The horse or the ox will draw the cart, and thus serve constructive purposes. Even the tiniest bird can build its compact and symmetrical nest, but the lion can do nothing save destroy. You may cage it and curb its savage propensities a little, but it is not tamed; the lion-nature is there, and the smallest taste of blood will cause it to burst forth in all its fury. The lion being thus a destroyer, and nothing but a destroyer, it is needful to present Israel as able to do more - able to destroy in order that there may be room for the construction of something more worthy to endure. It does not become God to stay the current of prophecy with a menace of dreadful destruction as the last word, and so he makes Balaam to speak of the star and the scepter. The lion, as it rages about, can make a solitude; it can take away wickedness by taking away all wicked men; but a solitude is not a kingdom. The true kingdom of God is only gained when he gets willing hearts. The destruction which is spoken of with such energy and almost fierceness of illustration is for the purpose of completely taking away the evil out of human society, so that only the good may remain to serve and glorify the Maker of mankind.

II. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STAR, AS INDICATING THE METHOD IN WHICH GOD WILL WORK TO CONQUER EVIL AND ESTABLISH GOOD. The star, it is said, is mentioned here as the symbol of governing power, according to the astrological notions of antiquity. It is further said that the joining of the scepter with the star shows that authority and supremacy are the main things to be indicated by the mention of the star. Certainly the prophecy is full of the idea of supremacy and authority; but if this idea was the only thing to be considered, the mention of the scepter would be enough. The star is a symbol of power, but it is also a symbol of many great realities besides. Let us ask not only why the scepter is joined with the star, but why the star is joined with the scepter. The very first thing that a star indicates is light. God will establish his rule by sending the Star out of Jacob to rise in the darkness. Christ, the fulfillment of the star, has come a light into the world, a rival to-existent lights, and destined to outshine them all. He is a light ever protesting against the darkness, not comprehended by it, not swallowed up and lost in it. Rejoice in this, that the Star out of Jacob is inaccessible to the meddling of those who hate its inconvenient revelations. Christ comes to destroy, and at the same time to construct by letting light in upon all dark, idolatrous chambers and all self-deceiving hearts. The light is from him who knows what is in man, his wickedness, his weakness, and his wants. He brings reality where others only bring appearance. He brings truth where they, even in their very sincerity, bring error. There is no room for a Balaam in his kingdom. The Demas who makes a few steps within soon retreats from a light far too trying for the darkness of his heart. Notice, further, that the light of the star is in some respects more significant of the work of Christ than would be the light of the sun. We must have a figure which will keep before us both the light and the darkness. To us, individually, Christ may be as the sun (and may he be!), filling our hearts with light. We know, alas, that he is far from being a sun to many. Their light is still darkness, but the Star of Bethlehem shines in the firmament, waiting for the hour when in humility they may betake themselves to it. After all the search for truth, and whatever knowledge may be gained, there is still the sense of incompleteness; the knowledge stops with the intellect; it does not find its way to enlighten and comfort the whole heart. We can by no means dispense with the Star out of Jacob, the Star that shines from every page of the Scriptures.

III. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SCEPTRE, AS INDICATING THE REALITY OF THE DOMINION. The scepter is that of Christ's truth, wielded with all the power of God's Holy Spirit. We must have much assurance, not only of the illumination that comes from Christ, but of the consequent actual illumination in accepting human hearts. We must ever be ready in our approaches to God to say, "Thine is the kingdom and the power. Thine is not only the rightful authority, but also the actual authority." What is a more offensive sight than a merely nominal submission to Christ? How soon it becomes evident to the discerning eye that there is an utter want of harmony! Those who are really Christ's subjects soon justify their loyalty by the commotion they make among the accepted customs and traditions of the world. There is a sense in which they may covet often to hear the word, "They that have turned the world upside down have come hither also." As we read the acts of the Apostles, we feel that there was not only a new teaching being diffused among men, but, above all things, a new power. It was not only fresh thought they brought to men, but a new and gladdening life.

IV. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MANY NATIONS REFERRED TO, AS INDICATING THE EXTENT AND COMPLETENESS OF THE DOMINION. The details connected with each nation have of course their peculiar significance, but the significance of the details is not quite so clear as that of the great common element which runs through them all. All the details point forward to a time when the Star out of Jacob shall outshine the star out of every other nation, when the Scepter out of Israel shall break every other scepter. The kingdoms of the world are to fall - the kingdoms of mammon, of pleasure, of unbelief in Christ, of science falsely so called, of rationalism, of atheism, of individual self-assertion. These are kingdoms that now stretch their authority far and wide, in all continents, and in all ranks of men, and many are subjects of more than one of the kingdoms. In the kingdoms of this world it is largely true that there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female. The Star out of Jacob then has a large work to do in subduing and transforming the many and mighty kingdoms of this world. And all the glorious burden of prophecy heaves and swells with the emphatic assurance that he will do it. The day is to come when we shall all learn that to be king over one's own nature is more than to sway the most populous and wealthy territory among men. Then indeed will the description," King of kings, and Lord of lords," fully apply, when God in Christ Jesus reigns over kings and lords such as these. The cry concerning man will no longer be,

"Lord of himself, that heritage of woe!"

but, lord of a heritage reclaimed, purified, and made docile by the work of Jesus as he inspires in the breast every loving, righteous, and truthful motive. - Y.

Balaam appears before us here as one who "seeing, sees not. His "eyes are open," but he has no real vision of the eternal truth of things. He has a "knowledge of the Most High," but not that which consists in living sympathy with his character and will and law. He recognizes the blessedness of the ransomed people, but has no personal share in that blessedness. He discerns the bright visions of the future, the rising of Jacob's Star, the gleam of the royal Scepter that shall rule the world, the coming of the world's redeeming Lord, but he sees him only from afar. Not "now," not "nigh," does he behold him; not with a vivid, quickening, self-appropriating consciousness; not as the light, the hope, the life, the eternal joy of his own soul. It is a moral portraiture, a type of spiritual condition and personal character, with which we are only too familiar. The faith of many is thus destitute of efficient saving power. "It is dead, being alone." Their religious perceptions are thus divorced from religious life. They have just such a formal, ideal acquaintance with God, without any of that immediate personal fellowship with hint which renews their moral nature after his likeness. They walk in the embrace of his presence, but their "eyes are holden that they should not know him." So near is He, and yet so far; so clearly revealed, and yet so darkly hidden; so familiar, and yet so strange.

I. This is seen in THE INSENSIBILITY OF MEN TO THE DIVINER MEANING OF NATURE. The material universe exists for spiritual ends. God has surrounded his intelligent creatures with all the affluence and glory of it in order to reveal himself to them and attract their thought and affection to himself. "The invisible things of him from the beginning of the world are clearly seen," &c. (Romans 1:20). But how dead are men often to Divine impressions! They hear no voice and feel no influence from God coming to them through his works. They know none but the lower uses of nature, and never dream of entering through it into communion with Him who inspires it with the energy of his presence. Tribes whose life is nursed and cradled in the fairest regions of the earth are often mentally the darkest and morally the most depraved. The worst forms of heathenism have been found in those parts of the world where the Creator has most lavished the tokens of his glorious beneficence. The sweet associations of rural and pastoral life in a Christian land like ours are connected less than we should expect them to be with quickness of spiritual perception and tenderness of spiritual sensibility. Stranger still that men whose souls are most keenly alive to all the beauty of the world, and with whom it is an all-absorbing passion to search out its wonders and drink in its poetic inspirations, should fail, as they so often do, to discern in it a living God. Physical science is to many as a gorgeous veil that darkly hides him. rather than the glass through which the beams of his glory fall upon them, the radiant pathway by which they climb up to his throne. Their eyes are wondrously "open;" they have a "knowledge of the Most High" in the forms and modes of his working such as few attain to; "visions of the Almighty" in the glorious heavens above and the teeming earth beneath pass continually before them, and yet they see and feel and know him not. How different such a case from that of Job: "O that I knew where I might find him!" &c. (Job 23:1-10). There you have the passionate outbreathing of a soul that is hungering and thirsting after a God that "hideth himself." Here you have God urging, pressing upon men the signals and proofs of his presence without effect. There is no blindness darker and sadder than that of those who boast that their "eyes are open," and yet, in a glorious world like this, can find no living God.

II. It is seen in THE INDISPOSITION OF MEN TO RECOGNISE THE VOICE OF GOD IN HOLY SCRIPTURE. To know that the Bible is a revelation of truth from God, and to know God as he reveals himself in the Bible, are two widely different things. There are those to whom revelation is as a Divine voice uttered long ago, but "not now;" a voice coming down to them through the ages as in distant echo, but not instant and near. To them these old records may be sacred, venerable, worthy to be preserved and defended, but in no sense are they a channel of direct personal communication between the living God and our living souls; "inspired" once, but not instinct with the spirit of inspiration now. No wonder the word is powerless and fruitless under such conditions. It is of no use to tell men that the Scriptures are "inspired" if they don't feel God to be in them. dealing as a personal Spirit with their spirits to draw them into fellowship with himself. A new kind of consciousness is awakened, a new order of effects produced, when once a man begins to feel that the written word is the living voice of God to his own soul. He cannot despise it then. It carries with it an authority that needs no extraneous authority to support it - the true "demonstration of the Spirit." Apart from this, the soul in presence of all these Divine revelations is like one under the influence of some powerful anaesthetic, receiving impressions on the outward sense of all that is going on around him, but conscious of nothing. The "eyes are open," but there is no living, spiritual realization. "They seeing, see not, and hearing, hear not, neither do they understand" (Matthew 13:13; John 12:40; 2 Corinthians 4:3, 4).

III. It is seen in THE PURELY IDEAL RELATION IN WHICH MEN TOO OFTEN STAND TOWARDS CHRIST. By multitudes Christ is seen, as it were, "afar off." He is to them but as the vision of a dream, a vague, distant abstraction, a mere historic figure, the central actor in a tragical historic drama. They have never entered into any kind of personal relation with him, have never bowed before him in heart-broken penitence, adoring wonder, childlike trustfulness, grateful, self-surrendering love. "Virtue" has never gone forth out of him to heal the disease of their souls, because they have not yet "touched him." There is a wide distinction between the knowledge that comes by mere hearsay and that which comes by personal converse, between a distant vision and the living "touch." Though faith be in great part blind and unintelligent, yet if there is the quick sensibility of life in it, it is better than all the clear, unclouded vision of an eye that is no real inlet to the soul. There is a future manifestation of Christ. "Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him" (Revelation 1:7). What shall be the relation in which we stand towards him then? There are those whose eyes will then be opened as they never were before. Shall it be only to have them closed again in everlasting night, "consumed with the brightness of his appearing"? You must be in living fellowship with Christ now if you would look with joy upon him when he comes in his "power and great glory." - W.

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