Numbers 23:10
Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(10) Who can count the dust of Jacob?—These words point back to the promise made to Abraham: “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth,” &c. (Genesis 13:16).

And the number of the fourth part of Israel.—The Israelites were divided into four great encampments (Numbers 2). It is probable that Balaam could only see one of these encampments from Bamoth-Baal (Numbers 22:41); but see below on Numbers 23:13.

The death of the righteous.—The Hebrew word yesharim (upright, or righteous) is applied to Israel because God, who is just and right (Deuteronomy 32:4). had chosen His people to be a Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 33:5; Deuteronomy 33:26)—a holy and peculiar people, following after righteousness and judgment. The end of Balaam (Numbers 31:8) presented a strange contrast to his prayer, and showed that even the prayer of the wicked is abomination in the sight of the Lord. (See Proverbs 28:9.)

Numbers

AN UNFULFILLED DESIRE

Numbers 23:10
. - Numbers 31:8.

Ponder these two pictures. Take the first scene. A prophet, who knows God and His will, is standing on the mountain top, and as he looks down over the valley beneath him, with its acacia-trees and swift river, there spread the tents of Israel. He sees them, and knows that they are ‘a people whom the Lord hath blessed.’ Brought there to curse, ‘he blesses them altogether’; and as he gazes upon their ordered ranks and sees somewhat of the wondrous future that lay before them, his mind is filled with the thought of all the blessedness of that righteous nation, and the sigh of longing comes to his lips, ‘May I be with them in life and death; may I have no higher honour, no calmer end, than to lie down and die as one of the chosen people, with memories of a divine hand that has protected me all through the past, and quiet hopes of the same hand holding me up in the great darkness!’ A devout aspiration, a worthy desire!

Look at the other picture. Midian has seduced Israel to idolatry and its constant companion, sensual sin. The old lawgiver has for his last achievement to punish the idolater. ‘Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites, afterwards thou shalt be gathered to thy people.’ So each tribe gives its contingent to the fight, and under the fierce and prompt Phinehas, whose javelin had already smitten one of the chief offenders, they go forth. Fire and sword, devastation and victory, mark their track. The princes of Midian fall before the swift rush of the desert-born invaders. And-sad, strange company!-among them is the ‘man who saw the vision of the Almighty, and knew the knowledge of the Most High’ ! he who had taught Moab the purest lessons of morality, and Midian, alas! the practice of the vilest profligacy; he who saw from afar ‘the sceptre arise out of Israel and the Star from Jacob’; he who longed to ‘die the death of the righteous’ ! The onset of the avenging host, with the ‘shout of a king’ in their midst; the terror of the flight, the riot of havoc and bloodshed, and, finally, the quick thrust of the sharp Israelite sword in some strong hand, and the grey hairs all dabbled with his blood-these were what the man came to who had once breathed the honest desire, ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his’ !

I. There is surely a solemn lesson for us all here-as touching the danger of mere vague religious desires and convictions which we do not allow to determine our conduct.

Balaam had evidently much knowledge. Look at these points-

{a} His knowledge of the covenant-name of God.

{b} His knowledge of a pure morality and a spiritual worship far beyond sacrificial notions, and in some respects higher than the then Old Testament standpoint.

{c} The knowledge {which is implied in the text} of a future state, which had gone far into the background, even if it had not been altogether lost, among the Israelites. Is it not remarkable that the religious ideas of this man were in advance of Israel’s at this time; that there seems to have lingered among these ‘outsiders’ more of a pure faith than in Israel itself?

What a lesson here as to the souls led by God and enlightened by Him beyond the pale of Judaism!

But all this knowledge, of what use was it to Balaam? He knows about God: does he seek to serve Him? He preaches morality to Moab, and he teaches Midian to ‘teach the children of Israel to commit fornication.’ He knows something of the blessedness of a ‘righteous man’ s’ death, and perhaps sees faintly the shining gates beyond-but how does it all end? What a gulf between knowledge and life!

What is the use of correct ideas about God? They may be the foundations of holy thoughts, and they are meant to be so. I am not setting up emotion above principle, or fancying that there can be religion without theology; but for what are all our thoughts about God given us?

{a} That they may influence our hearts.

{b} That they may subdue our wills.

{c} That they may mould our practical life.

If they do not do that-then what do they do?

They constitute a positive hindrance-like the dead lava-blocks that choke the mouth of a crater, or the two deposits on the bottom of a boiler, soot outside and crust inside, which keep the fire from getting at the water. They have lost their power because they are so familiar. They are weakened by not being practised. The very organs of intelligence are, as it were, ossified. Self-complacency lays hold on the possession of these ideas and shields itself against all appeals with the fact of possessing them. Many a man mistakes, in his own case, the knowledge of the truth for obedience to the truth. All this is seen in everyday life, and with reference to all manner of convictions, but it is most apparent and most fatal about Christian truth. I appeal to the many who hear and know all about ‘the word,’ What more is needed? That you should do what you know {‘Be not hearers only’}; that you should yield your whole being to Christ, the living Word.

II. Balaam is an example of convictions which remain inefficacious.

It was not without some sense of his own character, and some forebodings of what was possibly brooding over him, that he uttered these words of the text. But they were transitory emotions, and they passed away.

I suppose that every man who hears the gospel proclaimed is, at some time or other, conscious of dawning thoughts which, if followed, would lead him to decision for Christ. I suppose that every man among us is conscious of thoughts visiting him many a time when he least expects them, which, if honestly obeyed, would work an entire revolution in his life.

I do not wish to speak as if unbelieving men were the only people who were unfaithful to their consciences, but rather to deal with what is a besetting sin of us all, though it reaches its highest aggravation in reference to the gospel.

Such stings of conviction come to us all, but how are they deadened?

{a} By simple neglect. Pay no attention to them; do not do anything in consequence, and they will gradually disappear. The voice unheard will cease to speak. Non-obedience to conscience will in the end almost throttle conscience.

{b} By angry rejection.

{c} By busy occupation with the outer world.

{d} By sinful occupation with it.

Then consider that such dealing with our convictions leaves us far worse men than before, and if continued will end in utter insensibility.

What should we do with such convictions? Reverently follow them. And in so doing they will grow and increase, and lead us at last to God and peace.

Special application of all this to our attitude towards Christian truth.

III. Balaam is an instance of wishes that are never fulfilled.

He wished to die ‘as the righteous.’ How did he die? miserably; and why?

{1} Because his wish was deficient in character.

It was one among a great many, feeble and not predominant, occasioned by circumstances, and so fading when these disappeared. Like many men’s relation to the gospel who would like to be Christians, and are not. These vagrant wishes are nothing; mere ‘catspaws’ of wind, not a breeze. They are not real, even while they last, and so they come to nothing.

{2} Because it was partially wrong in its object.

He was willing to die the death, but not to live the life, of the righteous; like many men who would be very glad to ‘go to heaven when they die,’ but who will not be Christians while they live.

Now, God forbid that I should say that his wish was wrong! But only it was not enough. Such a wish led to no action.

Now, God hears the faintest wish; He does not require that we should will strongly, but He does require that we should desire, and that we should act according to our desires.

Let the close be a brief picture of a righteous death. And oh! if you feel that it is blessed, then let that desire lead you to Christ, and all will be well. Remember that Bunyan saw a byway to hell at the door of the celestial city. Remember how Balaam ended, and stands gibbeted in the New Testament as an evil man, and the type of false teachers. Finally, beware of knowledge which is not operative in conduct, of convictions which are neglected and pass away, of vague desires which come to nought.Numbers 23:10. Who can count the dust of Jacob? — Who can count a people which is like the dust of the earth for number? Thus was God’s promise to Abraham. (Genesis 13:16.) I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth, already fulfilled. The number of the fourth part of Israel — Referring, probably, to the division of Israel into four camps, which lay now in his view, as if he had said, How vast is the number of this people, when even one of their camps is so numerous as to be almost past reckoning! Of the righteous — Of this righteous and holy people. The sense is, they are not only happy above other nations in this life, and therefore in vain should I curse them, but they have this peculiar privilege, that they are happy after death: their happiness begins where the happiness of other people ends; and therefore I heartily wish that my soul may have its portion with theirs when I die. Was not God now striving with him, not only for the sake of Israel, but of his own soul? And had he not probably some forebodings of his own coming to an untimely end, as he really did afterward, being slain with the five kings of Midian by the sword of Israel? Alas! what did this wish, however sincere and passionate, signify while he was pursuing his covetous and ambitious designs, and seeking the wages of unrighteousness? And what will a similar desire in any of us avail, unless we break off every known sin, by repentance toward God, and sincerely turn to him in heart and life, by a faith in Christ, which worketh by love, and is of the operation of his Spirit? That we may die the death of the righteous, we must live his life; and in order thereto must win Christ, as the apostle’s expression is, (Php 3:8-9,) and be found in him, not having our own righteousness, but that which is through faith in Christ — Being hereby both justified and regenerated, and made practically obedient to God’s holy law.23:1-10 With the camps of Israel full in view, Balaam ordered seven altars to be built, and a bullock and a ram to be offered on each. Oh the sottishness of superstition, to imagine that God will be at man's beck! The curse is turned into a blessing, by the overruling power of God, in love to Israel. God designed to serve his own glory by Balaam, and therefore met him. If God put a word into the mouth of Balaam, who would have defied God and Israel, surely he will not be wanting to those who desire to glorify God, and to edify his people; it shall be given what they should speak. He who opened the mouth of the ass, caused the mouth of this wicked man to speak words as contrary to the desire of his heart, as those of the ass were to the powers of the brute. The miracle was as great in the one case as in the other. Balaam pronounces Israel safe. He owns he could do no more than God suffered him to do. He pronounces them happy in their distinction from the rest of the nations. Happy in their numbers, which made them both honourable and formidable. Happy in their last end. Death is the end of all men; even the righteous must die, and it is good for us to think of this with regard to ourselves, as Balaam does here, speaking of his own death. He pronounces the righteous truly blessed, not only while they live, but when they die; which makes their death even more desirable than life itself. But there are many who desire to die the death of the righteous, but do not endeavour to live the life of the righteous; gladly would they have an end like theirs, but not a way like theirs. They would be saints in heaven, but not saints on earth. This saying of Balaam's is only a wish, not a prayer; it is a vain wish, being only a wish for the end, without any care for the means. Many seek to quiet their consciences with the promise of future amendment, or take up with some false hope, while they neglect the only way of salvation, by which a sinner can be righteous before God.The fourth part of Israel - i. e., each one of the four camps, into which the host of Israel was divided (see Numbers 2), seemed to swarm with innumerable multitudes. Possibly Balaam could only see one camp. Balaam bears testimony in this verse to the fulfillment of the promises in Genesis 13:16; Genesis 28:14.

The righteous - i. e., the ancestors of Israel, who "died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off" Hebrews 11:13. With their histories Balaam was familiar, particularly with that of Abraham, "the righteous man" whom God had "raised up from the east (and) called to His foot" Isaiah 41:2.

Let my last end be like his - Render rather, "last estate," for the reference is not so much to the act of death, as to all that followed upon it - to the future, in which the name and influence of the deceased person would be perpetuated.

10. Who can count the dust of Jacob?—an Oriental hyperbole for a very populous nation, as Jacob's posterity was promised to be (Ge 13:16; 28:14).

the number of the fourth part of Israel—that is, the camp consisted of four divisions; every one of these parts was formidable in numbers.

Let me die the death of the righteous—Hebrew, "of Jeshurun"; or, the Israelites. The meaning is: they are a people happy, above all others, not only in life, but at death, from their knowledge of the true God, and their hope through His grace. Balaam is a representative of a large class in the world, who express a wish for the blessedness which Christ has promised to His people but are averse to imitate the mind that was in Him.

The dust of Jacob, i.e. the numberless people of Jacob or Israel, who, according to God’s promise; Genesis 13:16 28:14, are now become as the dust of the earth.

Of the fourth part of Israel, i.e. of one of the camps of Israel; for they were divided into four camps, Num 2, which Balaam from this height could easily discover; much less can any man number all their host.

Of the righteous, i.e. of his righteous and holy people, the Israelites, called Jehesurun, Deu 32:15, which word signifies upright or righteous. The sense is, they are not only happy above other nations in this life, as I have said, and therefore in vain should I curse them, but they have this peculiar privilege, that they are happy after death; their happiness begins where the happiness of other people ends; and therefore I heartily wish that my soul may have its portion with theirs when I die. But it was a vain wish; for as he would not live as God’s people did, so he died by the sword, as others of God’s enemies did, Numbers 31:8 Joshua 13:22.

My last end, i.e. my death, as the word is used. Or, my posterity, as this Hebrew word signifies, Psalm 119:13 Daniel 11:4 Amos 4:2. And as the covenant and blessing of God given to Abraham did reach to his posterity, so this might not be unknown to Balaam, which might give him occasion for this wish. Or, my reward, as the word is taken, Proverbs 23:18 24:20. But the first sense seems the most true, because it agrees best with the usage of Scripture to repeat the same thing in other words, and this includes the third sense, to wit, the reward, which is here supposed to follow death; and for posterity, it doth not appear that he had any, or, if he had, that he was so very solicitous for them; or that he knew the tenor of God’s covenant with Abraham and his posterity. Nay, he rather seems to have had some hope of ruining Abraham’s posterity, which he attempted both here and afterwards. Who can count, the dust of Jacob,.... The people of Israel, their posterity so called, not because of their original, the dust of the earth, but because of their numbers, being as numerous as the dust of the earth, or sand of the sea, as it was promised they should be, Genesis 28:14 and which is here confirmed by the prophecy of Balaam:

and the number of the fourth part of Israel; one of the four camps of Israel, as the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan; for this people was divided into four camps, under so many standards, which were those of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan, see Numbers 2:1, and one of them is represented by Balaam as so numerous, as not to be counted, or should be so, see Hosea 1:10. The spiritual Israel of God, though comparatively few, are in themselves, and will be when all together, a great number, which no man can number, Revelation 7:9,

let me die the death of the righteous; which are among them, as Jarchi, among the Israelites; for they were not all righteous, nor are any, of themselves, or by their own works, but by the righteousness of Christ: or the death of the upright ones (a); such as are upright in heart and life, who have right spirits renewed in them, and walk uprightly according to the rule of the divine word; such as are Israelites indeed, in whom there is no guile; the word used is pretty near, in sound and signification, to Jeshurun, one of the names of Israel, Deuteronomy 32:15, the Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem render it,"the death of the true ones,''who are truly righteous and upright, truly gracious persons; who have the truth of grace, and the root of the matter in them: these die as well as others, yet their death is different from others, not in the thing itself, but in the concomitants and consequences of it; they die in the Lord, in union to him, in faith of him, in hope of eternal life by him, and their death is precious to him; and in consequence of this they are carried by angels to glory at death are immediately in heaven with Christ, and it will be well with them to all eternity. Balaam had some notion of this; and though he did not care to live the life of such, he wished to die their death, or that he might be as happy at death as they; by which he bears a testimony to the immortality of the soul, to a future state after death, and to an eternal life and happiness to be enjoyed by good men:

and let my last end be like his; which is a phrase expressive of much the same thing as before: death is the end of a man in this world; and the end of a righteous man in it is peace, rest, salvation, and eternal life, or is what follows upon it, and he then enters into: some render it, "my reward" (b), which comes to much the same sense, the above being the righteous man's reward, not in a way of debt, but grace; others render the word, "my posterity" (c); but it is not certain Balaam had any, and if he had, his concern seems to be more for himself than for them.

(a) rectorum, Pagninus, Montanus, Piscator. (b) see Proverbs 24.20. (c) Sept.

Who can count the {f} dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me {g} die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!

(f) The infinite multitude, as the dust of the earth.

(g) The fear of God's judgment caused him to wish to be joined to the household of Abraham: thus the wicked have their consciences wounded when they consider God's judgments.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
10. Or number the fourth part of Israel] involves a necessary emendation, the Heb. text (represented in R.V. marg.) being scarcely translateable.

For ‘the fourth part’ (רֹבַע) some would read ‘the myriads’ (רִבְבֹת), or perhaps, as LXX. suggests, ‘the multitude of the people of Israel’ (רֹב עַם י״).

Let me die] lit. may my soul, or my life, die.

the death of the upright ones] The plural adjective refers to Israel who are ideally considered as a nation of upright men. The singular pronoun at the end of the verse refers to the nation as a single whole.

There is no reference in the final words to a future life; it is a poetical parallel to the preceding clause. Balaam prays that the close of his life may be the peaceful end enjoyed by good men.Verse 10. - The fourth part of Israel. אֶת־רבַע is so rendered by the Targums, as alluding to the four great camps into which the host was divided. The Septuagint has δήμους, apparently from an incorrect reading. The Samaritan and the older versions, followed by the Vulgate, render it "progeny,'" but this meaning is conjectural, and there seems no sufficient reason to depart from the common translation. Let me die the death of the righteous. The word "righteous" is in the plural (יְשָׁרִים, δικαίων): it may refer either to the Israelites as a holy nation, living and dying in the favour of God; or to the patriarchs, such as Abraham, the promises made to whom, in faith of which they died, were already so gloriously fulfilled. If the former reference was intended, Balaam must have had a much fuller and happier knowledge of "life and immortality" than the Israelites themselves, to whom death was dreadful, all the more that it ended a life protected and blessed by God (cf. e.g., Psalm 88:10-12; Isaiah 38:18, 19). It is hardly credible that so singular an anticipation of purely Christian feeling should really be found in the mouth of a prophet of that day, for it is clear that the words, however much inspired, did express the actual emotion of Balaam at the moment. It is therefore more consistent with the facts and probabilities of the case to suppose that Balaam referred to righteous Abraham (cf. Isaiah 41:2) and his immediate descendants, and wished that when he came to die he might have as sure a hope as they had enjoyed that God would bless and multiply their seed, and make their name to be glorious in the earth. Let my last end be like his. אַחַרִית (last end) is the same word translated "latter days" and "latter end" in Numbers 24:14, 20. It means the last state of a people or of a man as represented in his offspring; the sense is not incorrectly expressed by the Septuagint, γένοιτο τὸ σπέρμα μου ὡς τὸ σπέρμα τούτων. "And God came to meet Balaam," who thought it necessary, as a true hariolus, to call the attention of God to the altars which had been built for Him, and the sacrifices that had been offered upon them. And God made known His will to him, though not in a natural sign of doubtful signification. He put a very distinct and unmistakeable word into his mouth, and commanded him to make it known to the king.
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