The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.Balaam
Balaam comes into the narrative most suddenly;—but he will never go out of it again. Other men have come into the Bible story quite as suddenly; but they have only remained for a time. Balaam will never disappear: we shall read of him when we come to the Book of the Revelation of John the Divine. There are some historical presences you can never get rid of. It is useless to quibble and question. The same mystery occurs in our own life. Some persons, having been once seen, they are seen for ever. You cannot get away from the image or the influence, or forget the magical touch of hand or mind or ear; they turn up in the last chapter of your life Bible. You cannot tell whence they come: their origin is as great a mystery as is the origin of Melchisedek; they come into your life-lines as quickly and abruptly as came Elijah the Tishbite; and they take up their residence with you, subtly colouring every thought, and secretly and mightily turning speech into new accents and unsuspected expressions, full of significance, and revealing that significance in ever-surprising ways and tones. Why sit down and look at the story of Balaam as though it were something that occurred once for all? It occurs every day. God teaches by surprise. He sets the stranger in our life, and while we are wondering, he turns our wonder into some sublimer mystery. Who would have a life foursquare, in the sense of limitation, visible boundary, tangible beginning and ending? Who would not rather be in the world as if he had been in some other world, and as if he were moving on to some larger world? We lose power when we lose mystery. Let us not chaffer about words. If the spirit of mystery is in a man, the spirit of worship is in him; and if the spirit of worship is in him, it may detail itself into beliefs, and actions, and services, which are accounted right, and whose rightness will be proved by their beneficence. Balaam comes as suddenly as Melchisedek, as unexpectedly as Elijah; but we shall find him at the very last an instructive historical character. He is called Balaam the son of Beor, and he is located at Pethor on the river Euphrates. At that time the king of Moab was called Balak, and when Balak saw how Israel had destroyed the Amorites, he said,—Fighting is out of the question; if we have to come to battle, we may as well surrender before we begin; the numbers are overwhelming. "Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel" (Numbers 22:3). Balak said,—"Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field" (Numbers 22:4). You can hear the lick and the crunch, and be present at the destruction. It was a day of fear and much sorrow in Moab. What, then, was to be done? Herein came the wisdom of Balak. He also lives to the end of life's chapter, for to the end of that chapter we shall find the touch of superstition in the human mind. Balak would have recourse to supernatural help. He had heard of Balaam the soothsayer of Pethor—a man of divination, a person who had power to bless and to curse—the Simon Magus of his day; so he took advantage of his superstition, and thought to sow the air with curses which would work where his little sword could not reach. That is not a mean thought. Call it perversion, or superstition, you do not touch the inner and vital mystery of the case. The great agonies of life are not to be explained by calling them perversions, or labelling them superstitions, or denouncing them as nightmares or dreams: they are there. Man must obey voices which are not always articulate and reportable as to words and tones. It may be more superstitious to deny the supernatural than to affirm it Never forget the cant that is talked against cant. Do not believe that they are the heavenly, pure, brilliant souls who have no Church, no religion, no altar,—who live under the dome of their own hats and walk on the marble of their own boots. Whose prophets, pray, are they? They must be accounted for, as well as the Melchisedeks, the Balaams, and Elijahs of old time. What is their history? Where have they made their mark? What marvels of beneficence have they performed? Or do they only live in the very doubtful region of sneering at other people's piety? Balak's was a great thought. We do not adopt its form, but we should perhaps do unwisely to reject its spirit and intent. Balak said,—Numbers are against us; if it is to be a mere contention of army against army, Moab will be destroyed at once; the thing to be done—if it can be done—is to enlist the service and action of the supernatural. Quite right. We say so now. If that can be done, any other thing that can be done is contemptible in comparison. All the little inventions and tricks and arts of man, in arranging and rearranging and adjusting and adapting, are beneath contempt compared with the discovery of the spring of life, the spring of thought. If one could read the heart of man and understand his thought afar off, that—if possible—would throw all other acquisitions into the shade, and reduce them to puerility and nothingness. If it cannot be done, still the audacious imagination that it might be done is a force that might play a very beneficent part in human thinking and human service: it might ennoble the mind, it might create a holy impatience with all little and transitory things, it might enlarge the soul's whole outlook, and constrain all life into an attitude of prayer and expectation. That, indeed, is prayer. The words are not the prayer. Herein we make the continual blunder of supposing that the sentences are the prayer. As well say the body is the man; as well say the house is the tenant. The prayer is in the sentences—wrapped up in them; a spirit impatient with the sentences, frowning upon them because so empty, so short, so inadequate. Prayer is the very mystery of breathing. Balak's thought, therefore,—let us say again and again—was an anticipation of the greatest of all thoughts, namely, that the spiritual is mightier than the material. The man who lays down that proposition commits no crime against reason. Suppose it to have entered into some man's mind—altogether apart from what is known in Christian countries as revelation—that a thought is mightier than an arm. It is a sublime conception, whoever conceived it in his own imagination. The man seems to be going upon the right line; he is not a man to be jeered at. He suggests that "knowledge is power." Take down the sentence; write it in a book; on hearing it, we feel as if we might be ready to die for its exposition and vindication. Some bold man has said—let us suppose,—Could we get at the Ruling Spirit of the universe and enlist that Spirit upon any given side of a controversy, that would be the winning side. Now you say so, we feel the possible wisdom of the reasoning;—nay, more, of course it must be so. Your argument is, that were it possible—about which we do not dogmatise—were it possible to get hold of the Force, whatever it be, that made all things, that holds all things, that rules all things—that would be getting hold of omnipotence and securing the soul within the walls of a sanctuary that cannot be violated. Yes, we admit it, if—. But that if does not destroy the reasoning; that if does not turn the reasoner into a mere dreamer, or sentimentalist, or fanatic; he stands behind his if as a great man. To have driven up to that if is some progress in human thinking. Better die behind that if, with great tears of disappointment in your eyes, than live the narrow, superficial, selfish life. It would seem to be a mile nearer home. It would seem as if any spirit that may be behind things must answer the reverent audacity that says to the universe,—This is not all: I fling it from me, and hope. "Such a thought," the heart says, "cannot be turned to disappointment; it must evoke any fire of Deity that may be burning behind the visible stars." The idea has occurred to Balak that if he can enlist the services of a man who is a spell-binder—a man who can curse or bless, if he can enlist the supernatural on his side, then Israel may be ten times as many as Israel is, yet they shall be but a multitude of grasshoppers. Balak in his superstition is not a man to be smiled upon as if he had committed some act of harmless lunacy.
So Balak sent for Balaam, who made answer that he would not go. By-and-by, Balak sent other princes more honourable still, with offers of promotion and honour and abundant wages. Balaam said he would ask God. He asked God, and angered him by so doing. Some second prayers are worse than superstitions. So God said,—"If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them"—take thine own way; no secondary use shall be made of me, but go—"yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do" (Numbers 22:20). "God's anger was kindled" against Balaam. "And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side" (Numbers 22:22-24).
When Balak heard of Balaam's arrival he was glad. Gold went for nothing, now the soothsayer had come. Riches were as water poured forth. In those days the supernatural went for something in the marketplace. It is the cheapest of all things now. Ideas are without value; religious thoughts are mere breath. But Balaam remembered that he was only to speak what God told him; so he began to play the priest. He would have altars put up. "He took up his parable, and said, Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel" (Numbers 23:7);—and he would have altars put up and sacrifices rendered; and the answer was,—No, Israel cannot be cursed. So Balak took him to another point of view, where, perhaps, the multitude looked greater or did not look so great. "And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor" (Numbers 23:18); and again the people were to rise like a lion, and lift up themselves as a young lion; and the people were not to lie down until they had eaten of the prey and drunk of the blood of the slain. Well, then,—Balak said—if that be the case, this thou must do for me, neutralise thyself: be nothing: act as if thou hadst not come at all—"Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all" (Numbers 23:25). But Balaam said,—No; you cannot treat God's messengers in that way; as a matter of fact, they are here: you have to account for them being here, and to reckon with them whilst they are here. We cannot quiet things by ignoring them. By simply writing UNKNOWABLE across the heavens, we really do not exclude supernatural or immeasurable forces. The ribbon is too narrow to shut out the whole heaven; it is but a little strip; it looks contemptible against the infinite arch. We do not exclude God by denying him, nor by saying that we do not know him, or that he cannot be known. We cannot neutralise God, so as to make him neither the one thing nor the other. So Balaam was the greatest mystery Balak had to deal with. It is the same with the Bible—God's supernatural Book. It will not lie where we want it to lie: it has a way of getting up through the dust that gathers upon it and shaking itself, and making its pages felt. It will open at the wrong place;—would it open at some catalogue of names, it might be tolerated, but it opens at hot places, where white thrones are and severe judgments, and where scales are tried and measuring wands are tested. It will speak to the soul about the wrong-doing that never came to anything, and the wicked thought that would have burned the heavens and scattered dishonour upon the throne of God.
"Would to Heaven"—Balak said, in effect—"I could get rid of this man!" He took Balaam to another point of view, and Balaam "set his face toward the wilderness, and took up his parable," and sang a sweet and noble song:—"How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee." Balak made a bad bargain that day. He had added to his troubles instead of diminishing them. If we invite Christ into the house merely to do our bidding, he will burn the house and he will burn the host that invited him to break bread. We cannot trifle with these mysteries. The Gospel is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death; the truth is a stone to be fallen upon, or it is a stone which will fall upon those who invoke it. We cannot get rid of these spiritual presences and influences. We seem to do so for a time—I admit it. We are so broad in physical dimensions, so healthy in physical functions, so radiant in physical life, so successful, too, in the marketplace; we walk over the course, and bring back the prize; we smile with gracious contempt upon unsuccessful persons, who are labouring all day and bringing back nothing but a handful of wind; we name them by sneering names; we use them as typical instances whereby to excite our own laughter and the laughter of other men. Why, we could not do with a God under those conditions. But all human life is not enclosed within such limited boundaries. Not in any one mood can we determine these great questions. Life, in its sum-total, with all its variations, rapid changes, and increasing responsibilities, must be taken into account.
Balak would gladly have parted with Balaam, but he could not get rid of him; and Balak was wroth. It became a king to become angry. "And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the Lord hath kept thee back from honour" (Numbers 24:10-11). And Balaam spake a great speech to Balak: he said,—Is this not precisely what I said to the king's messengers? Did I not say, "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the Lord saith, that will I speak"? (Numbers 24:13)—now I will tell that which I see. And then came the parable of the man whose eyes are open:—"And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city" (Numbers 24:15-19). Then the parable is continued, Balaam looking Balak full in the face; and last of all "Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way" (Numbers 24:25). You cannot carve your God into any shape that will please your fancy. You cannot send for any true faith and bribe it to speak your blessings or your cursings.
Balaam was a man of noble sentiments. Look at some of his words, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!" (Numbers 23:10). And again:—"God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent" (Numbers 23:19). And again: "I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh" (Numbers 24:17). Then take the grand word he spake to Balak as reported in the prophecies of Micah. Say, did ever man preach a nobler sermon than this: "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God"? (Micah 6:8). Who can amend that speech? Who can refine that gold? Who dares touch that lily with his mean paint? Who taught Balaam that great speech? We sometimes say we find scattered up and down in ancient literature morals as beautiful as any we find in the Bible. Possibly so. Who wrote them? Whence did they come? Is God the God of one corner of the creation? Is God a parochial Deity? Is there not a spirit in man—universal man—and doth not the Spirit of the Most High give him understanding? Wherever there is a line of beauty, God wrote it; wherever there is a sentiment which is charged with the spirit of beneficence, that may be claimed as a good gift of God. The Apostle Paul never uttered a nobler sentiment than is uttered by Balaam, as reported in the prophecies of Micah. This is the Sermon upon the Mount in anticipation. That is the vicious Church, built on the wrong foundation, aiming at the wrong heaven, which does not recognise in every literature and in every nation all that is good, noble, wise, prophetic.
Balaam's convictions and wishes disagreed sometimes. Therein he was most human. He knew he ought not to go, yet he wished to go. He would ask the second time; he would doubt his own convictions, or he would adjust them according to the shape and temper of circumstances. Wherever he came from, he claims herein to be quite a near neighbour of ours. Doubts may exist as to the exact relation of Pethor to the river upon which it was built, but there can be no doubt whatever of the blood relationship between Balaam and our own age. Speaking impulsively from the centre of his convictions, he said,—No!—nothing shall tempt me to go; you speak of gold and silver—if Balak were to give me his house full of gold and silver, I would not go; I am the Lord's servant, and the Lord's work alone will I do. Then the thought occurred to him—a second message coming, borne by more honourable princes,—Perhaps I might go and obtain this wealth and honour, and still do my duty. He is on the downward road now. A man who thinks to do forbidden things and spend the bounty for the advantage of the Church is lost; there is no power in him that can overcome the gravitation that sucks him downward. He says,—I will bring back all Balak's gold and silver and add a transept to the church or another course of marble to the altar. He will never return. God will not have his house so patched and bungled; nor does he want Balak's gold for the finishing of his sanctuary. A nobler spirit was Abram, who said to the King of Sodom,—No, "lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich." Thus do we poison our consciences, pervert our judgment, hold a veil before our eyes; thus do we attempt to look up to heaven and clutch the advantages of earth. This cannot be done; the whole spiritual gravitation is against it; the law of the Lord is against it. This miracle of evil he never permits his creatures to perform.
Dr. Cunningham Geikie says:—"The whole story is intensely Oriental and primeval. The first deputation is dismissed in obedience to a divine warning: but, so far as we know, "the wages of unrighteousness" which Balaam "loved," are carefully retained. A second embassy of nobler messengers, carrying richer gifts, succeeds. He does not at once dismiss them, as God had required, but presses for permission to go with them, which at last is granted. He would fain earn the wealth and honour apparently in his grasp, yet knows that when the prophetic afflatus comes on him he can only utter what it prompts. With a feigned religiousness, he protests that if Balak were to give him his house full of silver and gold, he could not go beyond the word of Jehovah his God, to do less or more, but he also bids them wait overnight to see if he may not, after all, be allowed to go with them. If his ignoble wish to be allowed to curse an unoffending nation be gratified, he has the wealth he craves: if it be refused, he can appeal to his words as proof of his being only the mouthpiece of God. That he should have been allowed to go with Balak's messenger, was only the permission given every man to act as a free agent, and in no way altered the divine command, that he should bless and not curse. Yet he goes, as if, perchance, at liberty to do either, and lets Balak deceive himself by false hopes, when the will of God has been already decisively made known."
Dr. Samuel Cox says:—"One of the sins brought home to Balaam with extraordinary force and bitterness in the New Testament Scriptures is his venality. And it is impossible to study his career, and to note his ardent love and admiration of righteousness, yet not be struck with surprise and shame at discovering that he loved the wages of unrighteousness, and was capable of prostituting his rare and eminent gifts for hire. Still, do we not find this same strange and pitiful combination of piety and covetousness in Jacob, who was surnamed Israel, 'the Prince with God,' and from whom the whole seed of Abraham have derived their name, and perhaps something more than their name? No candid student of his history can deny that, even from the first, Jacob showed a singular appreciation of spiritual things, a singular ambition for spiritual primacy and honour. Nor can any man who accepts the Bible record of him doubt that dreams and visions of the most ravishing beauty, pregnant with the most profound spiritual intention and promise, were vouchsafed him; or that, at least when he blessed his sons from his dying bed, his eyes were opened to behold things that were to befall them and their children years and centuries after he himself had been gathered to his fathers. Even the oracles of Balaam do not surpass the long series of dooms and benedictions which Jacob was then moved to utter. Yet what was his whole life but, on the one side, a constant endeavour to enrich or secure himself at the cost of others, by superior craft or superior force; and, on the other side, a divine discipline by which that worldly and grasping spirit was chastened out of him, in order that his genius for religion might have free play?
"And, again, who can deny that this love of money, this covetousness which is idolatry, this selfish and grasping spirit, is of all sins that which always has been, and is, most common and prevalent in the Church, and even among sincerely religious men? It clothes itself with respectability as with a garment, and walks often unrebuked, often flattered even and admired, in almost every assembly of the saints. How many of us are there who, if we love righteousness, also hanker after the wages of unrighteousness, after the opulence, the gratifications, the success which can only come to us through a selfish and worldly, i.e., a sinful life! No transgression is more common than this among spiritual men, though none is more fatal to the spiritual life, since none renders a man more impervious to the rebukes of conscience or the warnings of the Word and Spirit of God.
"Or take that other and grosser crime which we have seen brought home to Balaam, the sensuality that made the foul device by which the early innocence of Israel was debauched, familiar, or at best not impossible to him. Is it difficult to find a parallel to that? It would not be fair, though many would think it fair, to cite the example of David's well-known sin; for no sin was ever more deeply repented than his, as few have been more terribly avenged. But think of Solomon; think of the beauty and promise of his youth. Recall his choice of a wise and understanding heart above all the luxuries of wealth and all the flatteries of power. Read his wonderful prayer when he dedicated himself and all the resources of his kingdom to the service of Jehovah, and invoked a blessing on all who at any time and from any place should turn to the Temple and call on the name of the Lord. And then remember that this most religious king, this great prophet who 'spake three thousand proverbs and whose psalms were a thousand and five,' to whose heart God gave a largeness like that of the sea, sank into the very sin of sensual idolatry with which Balaam betrayed Israel, suffering his wives and concubines to turn away his heart from the Lord his God, till at last he fell from his harem into his grave, an unloved tyrant, a jaded voluptuary, and probably a believer whose faith was shot through and through with a pessimistic scepticism."
Balaam's Manœ Uvres
Balaam's was a manoeuvring life: very truthful, and yet very false; very godly, and yet very worldly;—a most composite and self-contradictory life; still a most human life. Balaam never breaks away from the brotherhood of the race in any of his inconsistencies. When he is very good, there are men living to-day who are just as good as Balaam was; when he is very bad, it would not be difficult to confront him with men who are quite his equals in wrong-doing; when he is both good and bad almost at the same moment, he does not separate himself from the common experience of the race. He was always arranging, adjusting, endeavouring to meet one thing by another, and to set off one thing over against another. It was a kind of gamester-life—full of subtle calculation, touched with a sort of wonder which becomes almost religious, and steeped in a superstition which reduces many of the actions of life to a state of moral mystery wholly beyond ordinary human comprehension.
In the first instance, he poses as a very pious man. So we read: "And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak" (Numbers 22:38). We may take these words as equivalent to saying,—I am a very pious man; nothing in myself, wholly destitute of intellectual vigour and brightness, and laying no pretension to any conspicuous altitude of a personal kind; I am simply an instrument: I am a mere machine; thou hast sent for me, but in sending for me thou hast but brought to thy side a trumpet through which God must deliver his own message. There was self-consciousness about his piety: he knew that he was a most religious man. We may be too well acquainted with our own religiousness; it may form quite a large object on which our vision is fixed in a kind of trance and adoration. Were we more pious, we should be less conscious of our piety. When we really pray, with all the fulness of divine inspiration, keeping strictly to our necessity, and yet allowing the soul full play as to spiritual communion with God, when the exercise is closed we cannot tell what we have said in mere words: our speech will run to this effect,—Whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell; I saw things without shape, I heard voices without articulation, I felt upon me the ministry of light; and as to all the influence exerted upon my soul, that must report itself in the nobleness and beneficence of my life. Self-conscious piety is often impious. We should know more about Christ and less about ourselves. Yet in any endeavour to avoid self-consciousness, we certainly fall into it. Self-consciousness is not to be escaped by effort, as directed against itself: it is only to be absolutely escaped by growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by such enlargement of faith and multiplication of religious resources as shall cause us to be more occupied with divine things than with our own immediate and measurable relation to them. When we are filled with God, we shall be emptied of ourselves. But let no man judge his brother herein. Some are too keen in finding in others self-regard, self-conceit, and self-consciousness; and refinement vulgarises itself when it fixes upon the vulgarity of other people.
Then Balaam represented, consistently with this first view of his character, a most ostentatious religion. Having come to the field of action, he begins demonstratively. He would have everything done upon an ample scale. The Oriental mind itself shall be satisfied with the gorgeousness of the theatre within which the little magic is to be wrought. So, in the opening of Numbers 23, we read,—"And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams." Balak did as Balaam had spoken; Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram. In the same chapter we read,—"And he brought him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar" (Numbers 23:14). Again, we read: "And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams" (Numbers 23:29). There was to be no mistake about the preparation. The scaffolding was to portend a magnificent erection. All this lay at an immeasurable distance from the divine purpose and the divine simplicity. This was conjuring: these were the little tricks of a well-paid priest; these were accommodations to the Pagan mind. When we leave simplicity, we leave power. When we build after the fashion of earthly architecture, we forget that the true Builder is God, who builds invisibly but builds for eternity. The prophecy which we are called upon to represent to the age is not a prophecy of demonstration, or show, or spectacle. Balaam wandered from the first principles with which God had charged his soul. Nothing was said in the original instructions about building altars and slaying bullocks and rams. Word was given to Balaam, but instead of thundering that word at the very first and never changing it and repeating it until it deafened the very men who heard it, because of its resonance and majesty, Balaam betook himself to altar-building and to the keeping of perfect numbers—to the insistance of seven, so that everything might be complete in an outward and mechanical way. Balaam should have made shorter work of it. He had a message to deliver, and the message seemed to be kept back until all the pomp and demonstration had played Its little part before the astonished gaze of the king and princes of Moab. That very same thing may be done now. It is possible now to put the Gospel last, and to leave it but small space for its expression. We may elbow out the message by doing things which are but introductory at best, and some of which were never prescribed by directing Heaven. What we want is the message, the great speech, the mighty judgment, the holy revelation. What does God say? What does the Lord require of us? To that inquiry there should be instantaneous, emphatic, and persuasive reply.
Still, consistently with the first and second positions thus discovered in his character, we find upon further inquiry that Balaam displays a highly poetical and sentimental religion. Six times we read the words,—"And he took up his parable." He spake like an oracle. The parables are marked by nobleness of thought, grandeur and massiveness of expression. There is genuine poetry in the utterances of Balaam; but, so far, the religion which Balaam represents is of a poetic and sentimental and histrionic character. The age needs more than parable. We may be so poetical as to convey a wrong impression as to the message we have to deliver. Poetry has its place. Parable was an instrument well-worked by the divine hand of Jesus Christ himself; but the moral purpose of the parable was never hidden: the meaning of the message was vividly written upon its whole face. The age wants direct speech. There is a kind of poetry that is harmless: it is delightful to the ear, it flows through the organ of hearing and leaves no impress behind; those who hear it say—How lovely! how beautiful! how exceedingly pathetic!—but the whole impression is only for a moment, and never goes in the direction of rousing men to action, to sacrifice, to complete and costly obedience. Balak did not want all these altars and all these parables,—why does Balaam resort to them? Because he did not accept and realise the policy of God. A clear policy would have rendered all altars and parables unnecessary. We should have fewer apologies for our Christian service if we had a distincter conviction of its divine inspiration and absolute human necessity. Why try to decorate our message of judgment? Why these vain endeavours to paint the commandments of God? If we begin to decorate and adorn and garnish and parabolise, so as to miss the point, let us take care lest all this persiflage be so much reckoned against us in the final judgment. The altars were many, the parables were grand, the courtesy, as between prophet and king, was a courtesy perfect in dignity and in grace; but where is the message? It may be right to fold the sword in velvet, but let us beware lest we so. enclose the sword in velvet, as practically to deprive it of edge. Beauty we will never exclude, parable we must always welcome as highly illustrative of the truth: we can never forget that parable has been used for the representation of the kingdom of God; but let us, at the same time, beware lest the beauty of the parable should conceal the righteousness of the kingdom, and the splendour and exquisiteness of the decoration should hide in fatal darkness the tremendous Cross of Christ. Balaam was not sent forth to make poems for the Moabites: he was sent forth with one clear errand, and that he ought to have delivered instantly, and not have resorted to conjuring tricks, and to the small devices of a calculating magician.
Balaam represents but too vividly those who build many altars but build no character. How possible it is to be always near the Church without being really in it! How possible it is to preach about the Gospel without preaching it! This is the infinite danger of all spiritual service. We may be so wearied by things external and visible as to suppose we have rendered the sacrifice, when we have only kindled the coals. The altar is not built for coal-burning but for man-burning. The fire of coals is merely an instrument—part of a process,—but the leaping flame is an impious irony, if it be left to burn itself out without consuming the human will and the human self-idolatry. It would be easy to say, watching Balaam in all his course,—How particular he is to build altars!—he will insist upon the perfect number; truly, he is a most exact and religious man in all his appointments; even the number must be right, and the beasts must be fit for sacrifice. It is easy to be mechanically right. There is no drain upon a man's life in getting out programmes of service and outlines of effort. It is easy to build the altar and to run away from it; it is not difficult to build an altar and burn a beast upon it. The difficulty is to go to God's altar—an altar built by God's hands, burning with God's fire, and to lie down upon it with the grace of absolute self-surrender.
Is Balaam far from any one of us in the peculiarity of his character which displayed itself in keeping up an open correspondence with heathen persons? He never quite closed the correspondence: even when he refused to go he would have the way open for renewed communications. He might have sent a message to which Balak dare not have replied; but he did not. He would rather seem to have said,—Who knows what may come of this?—we had better not foreclose all communication; in the meantime, I must stand upon my dignity as a wizard or prophet: I must send a message indicating that my services are not to be cheaply or easily engaged; I will say clearly that God will not permit me to go, but I can so say it as to suggest the idea that perhaps even God's commandment may be trimmed and modified; we never can tell what may occur: I will, therefore, give such an answer as will not shut up the correspondence. Is that ancient history? Are not men in precisely that position to-day, in relation to many old associations or tempting opportunities or half-abandoned habits? They know the right, but they cannot speak it with a final emphasis. They are not untruthful, nor are they unfaithful in a degree which involves final apostasy or which ought to be visited by minor excommunication on the part of the Church; still they are in a mood which, being expressed in words, signifies that even yet something may come from the Moabite quarter that may be turned to account,—it will be better, therefore, not to repel with too severe an answer; let the appeal be renewed, or come under some modified form, and then we will see what can be done. Such action is what we have termed a manœuvre—a work of the hand, a clever manipulation; it is not righteous in its soul; the fire may have singed the outside and given a kind of sacrificial colouring to the man, but it has not burned the inner core and wrought in the soul the miracle of burning out the evil spirit. It is possible to be on the right side hesitantly. It is easy to be so far committed to the Church as to be able on occasions to shake off the connection and "deny the soft impeachment." We are prone to say, when the answer will suit the company,—We often attend the church; we are pleased to be there; attendance upon the service is a season of refreshment and edification. And when it will suit the company we can modify that assertion: we can represent ourselves as being occasionally there, and as having had our wonder partially excited concerning the service; and we can talk truth and tell lies; we can stand back in a manner which, though not chargeable with visible apostasy, means, in the soul of it, treachery towards God. We have nothing to do with Moab; Christ has no companionship with Belial; light never enters into partnership with darkness. "Ye cannot serve God and Mammon."
Balaam is as one of us when we regard him as not clearly perceiving the motive by which he is actually impelled. Our motives are not always clear to our own minds; or we can so trifle with the motive as to vary its expression and modify its claim and suppress its inspiration. We lose sight of the motive in the operation of secondary causes, and these secondary causes we endeavour so to manipulate as to represent the real purpose of life. There are a thousand ways of lying; even falsehood may be turned into a fine art. Balaam did not perhaps fully know his own mind in this matter; and sometimes we have to be revealed to ourselves by others; and the apostolic pen was inspired to write the real motive which urged Balaam forward in his remarkable career. In one suggestive sentence we have the explanation. Balaam is described in the New Testament as a man who "loved the wages of unrighteousness." He did not know it. It does not become us to charge him with this perfidy in any broad and vulgar sense. Balaam was not a bad man through and through; he was marked by many noble features; there comes out again and again in his whole speech a distinct and valiant courage;—but he "loved the wages of unrighteousness." He did not altogether long for them, yet he did not resist the bribe; he wanted to be good, but he heard the chink of Balak's gold; he loved preaching, he was a born preacher—but a spark, and his soul flamed into poetry and noble rhetoric—but he heard of promotion and honour and dignity, and what amounted almost to the kingship of Moab: for Balak said,—All that thou biddest me do, I will do. It was a fierce temptation; it was a terrific agony. To stand beside a king, to move the springs of the royal mind, to dictate imperial policies, to curse invaders and repel encroachments, to have gold as the dust of the ground and honours like showers of rain, and to stand there firm, impeccable, resistant to every appeal—to be in a far of! country without a friend, and yet to be as good as we might now be in our own blessed homes—who could expect it? When we condemn Balaam, we condemn human nature; when we praise any feature in his character, we praise the grace that wrought that mystery in his soul.
Almighty God, thy Church thou hast redeemed with blood. Thou wilt keep thy Church in eternal security. The foundation of the Lord standeth sure, having this seal,—The Lord knoweth them that are his. We can hide nothing from thee. The smallest of thy children is still thine. They shall be mine in that day when I number up my jewels, saith the Lord. Thou dost not lose any jewel. God cannot lose anything. Hold thou us up, and we shall be safe. Show us that we may lose ourselves: that if we are sons of perdition we are sons of waste, and even Christ's wounded hand cannot save us from ruin. Establish us in the confidence of thy Fatherhood; and may we not live in it as in a doctrine only, but exhibit it in daily trust, in noble spiritual sacrifice, in continual and beneficent industry. Thus shall the Lord's seal be confirmed by our loyalty, and no man shall curse what God the Lord hath blessed. We stand in thy blessing: thy benediction is our heaven, thy smile our perpetual light. This is our joy; and this holy confidence brings amongst us the shout of a king, so that all thy princes are greater than Agag, and the smallest of thy children is more than the kings of the earth. Fill us with holy delight; drive away all temptation and evil importunity, and extinguish every baleful fire; let our bodies be the temples of the Holy Ghost; may our souls be inspired, and our whole hearts know the mystery and the joy of sacrifice. Thou regardest us according to our need. Thou art twice Father to some. Thou art the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to us who are in Christ thou art Father; but to those who have no father on earth and are yet children redeemed thou art Father upon Father: thy Fatherliness rises into the passion and mystery of love. This is our confidence and our delight and our sure hope. The Lord regard those who are in peculiar circumstances of loneliness, or pain, or fear, or weakness; spread the table of poverty, and make the one loaf into many; draw water for those who are thirsty, and may it be unto them as the wine of heaven; make the bed of affliction, soften the pillow of pain; send into the hearts of the people a spirit of love and generosity and beneficence; and may we know that life is only noble as it gives, and lives in others, and delights in spreading sunshine and joy. Let the Book of the Lord be a flame of fire in the night-time and a pillar of cloud in the day season; in our right hand may there be a rod, in our left hand a staff. Thy rod and thy staff shall comfort us, and the valley of the shadow of death shall have in it no evil or darkness because of the Lord's presence. Help us to sing again loudly, sweetly, lovingly; and whilst we tarry in God's house, may we feel the nearness of the Lord's hand. Amen.
Balaam's Vision of the Church
Let Israel, as gathered within sight of Moab, be regarded as representing the Church of the living God: let Balak, king of Moab, be regarded as representing all the forces which encounter the Church of the living God with suspicion or hostility: let Balaam be regarded as the prophet of the Lord standing between the Church and the kingdoms of heathenism, and declaring the divine purpose, and dwelling in sacred and rapturous eloquence upon the condition, the forces, and the destiny, of the Church of Christ. Such are the conditions which are now before us:—Israel the Church, Balak heathenism and every manner of hostility, Balaam the voice of Heaven, the prophet of God. Such being the picture, what are the doctrines which underlie it and breathe through it and appeal to our confidence and imagination? First of all, the Church is represented as being "blessed." We read,—"And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed" (Numbers 22:12). To repeat that word is best to explain it. Some words refuse to pass into other terms, for they are themselves their best expositors;—blessed is one of those words. We are not taught that Israel was in a state of momentary enjoyment—passing through some transient experience of gladness; but Israel is represented as sealed with a divine benediction: Israel is blessed—not merely to be blessed, or reserved for blessing; but through eternity is blessed—set in sureness in the divine covenant, created and made a people by the divine knowledge and purpose and love. Here is no small contention as between momentary complacency and momentary hostility: we are in the eternal region, we are standing amid the august certainties of divine purpose, recognition and determination. The Church is, therefore, blessed—sealed, gathered around the Lord, set in his sight,—an inheritance, a possession, a sanctuary. That the Church does not rise to the glory of its election according to the divine purpose has no bearing whatever upon the argument. All things are in process; nothing is yet finished. Is it a temple?—the walls are being put up. Is it a tree?—the tree is yet in process of growing, and we Know nothing yet of its magnitude or its fruitfulness. Is it a character?—time is required, and we must read destiny—not in immediate appearances, but in the divine decree and in the inspired revelation. A man is not in reality what he appears to be at any given moment: man is as to possibility what he is in the divine thought. Until we have seen that thought in clearest realisation, it little becomes us to sneer at the meanest specimen of human nature, or to mock the handiwork of God. Let this stand: that there is a family, a Church, an institution—describe it by any name—which is "blessed";—in other words, there is a spot on the earth on which the divine complacency rests like a Sabbath-light; we may well consider our relation to that place; it would not be unbecoming even the dignity of reason to ask what its own relation is to that sacred and ever-blessed position.
This being the case, the negative seems to become the positive when we read that the Church of the living God is beyond the power of human cursing. Said Balaam,—"How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?" That is a great principle. Balaam might use the words of cursing, but there would be no anathema in his impotent speech. The curse of man cannot get within the sanctuary of God. The Church is hidden within the pavilion of the Most High: the Church is beyond "the strife of tongues": the curses are all outside noises—like the wings of night-birds beating against the eternal granite. "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper";—the weapon shall be formed, the weapon shall be lifted up, the weapon shall apparently come down; but it shall miss thee, and cut nothing but the vacant air. Unless we have some such confidence as this, we shall be the sport of every rumour, exposed to every wild alarm, without peace: in the whole week there will be no Sabbath day, after the day's tumult there will be no time of repose: the house will be open to the encroachment of every evil. We must, therefore, stand in great principles, and take refuge in the sanctuary of divine and revealed appointments. You cannot injure the really good man: you may throw many stones at him, but you will never strike him; much speech may be levelled against him, but the speech will be without point. A good man is the Lord's jewel; a soul in harmony with the Christian purpose is a soul hidden in the security of God's almightiness. That we do not realise this is to our shame and not to the discredit of the inspired testimony. When a Christian is in alarm, he is doing more injury to the Christian cause than can be done by any outside assailants; when the good man interrupts his prayer by some expression of fear or doubt, he is doing more to invalidate every argument for the sufficiency of prayer than can be done by the most penetrating intellectual criticism or by the most audacious unbelief. Our religion is nothing if it does not make us feel our security and turn that security into a temple of living and daily praise. It still lies, therefore, with the believer to injure his cause, to bring discredit upon God's temple, and to expose the Eternal Father to human suspicion. Let us beware of this, lest the enemies of God should be found in his own household.
Is there not something in the condition of the Church that might excite—shall we call it?—the envy—the religious envy of the world? Read chapter Numbers 23:10—"Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel?" The Church grows upon the attentive vision; at first it does not seem to be what it really is, but as the prophet looks the little one becomes a thousand and the small nation becomes a great empire, and those who were of little account from a physical point of view rise into immeasurable proportions of force and possibilities of service. The Church is—let us repeat—what God sees it to be: God sees it to be the power of the world, the light to illuminate it, the salt to preserve it, the city to be as a beacon in relation to it. The Lord has said that the Church shall overcome all opposition. The time in which it is about to do this is, by our reckoning, very long—so long, that our poor patience almost expires and our faith sharpens itself into an almost doubtful inquiry, saying,—O Lord! how long?—the wicked are robust, evil-minded men are many in number, and virtue seems to be cast out upon the street and to be exposed to a very precarious fortune—O Lord! how long? It is a natural question, full of reasonableness from a merely human point of view, and it never can be suppressed except by that increase cf faith which makes our life superior to the death-principle that is in us—that fills us with a sense of already-realised immortality. Balaam saw Israel to be an innumerable host. Numbers played a great part in the imagination of the Eastern mind, and the Lord, touching the imagination of Balak along the only accessible lines, makes Balaam speak about the great host. Why, the dust of it could not be counted; no reckoning could sum up the fourth part of Israel; and as the numbers increased and came down in threatening countless multitudes upon the imagination of Balak, he was staggered by the vision of the majesty of Israel. That is the view we must take of the case. Let God number his Church. He teaches us by all these allusions that numbering is impossible on our part. We do but vex ourselves by taking the statistics of the Church: only God can take them, and he so represents them as to dazzle the imagination—to throw our power of reckoning into absolute despair. From the beginning, he spoke thus about numbers: he would never entrust us with the exact numerical secret; when he told one man how many children he should have, he said,—More than the stars, more than the sands upon the sea-shore,—innumerable. God's arithmetic is not a pronounceable quantity; it touches the imagination and excites the wonder, until imagination and wonder consent in their intellectual impotence to fall down like white-robed worshippers and say,—Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, thou Father in heaven!
According to Balaam, the Church is named in an unchangeable decree: "God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" (Numbers 23:19). This is not a God that can be changed by temptation or whose decrees can be varied by circumstances. We do not surprise him by our sin. He does not alter the will because the younger son has gone away contrary to his expectation: when he made the will he foresaw the apostasy. There is nothing omitted from the divine reckoning. He saw the sin before he called me his child; he knew every time the arm of rebellion would be lifted and every time the voice of unbelief would challenge the integrity of his promises. The will overrides all these things: the Testator foresaw them, and the covenant was made in view of them. Herein is comfort, but not licence; herein is a great security, but no permission to tempt the living God. The view which the divine eye took of the whole situation was a complete view; reckoning up all sides, all forces, all possibilities and issues, the decree went forth, that out of this human nature, come whence it may—straight from God's hands, in one form or the other, it must have come—this human nature shall be the temple of the living God, and out of those human eyes shall gleam the fire of divinity. If we believed anything short of this, our testimony would not be worth delivering—at best, it would be but a happy conjecture, or a fanciful possibility, wanting in lines of solidity, and in characteristics of certainty—wanting in the absoluteness which alone can give a steadiness of position to the human will and the destiny of the human career. Were all these covenants, arrangements and promises open to mere criticism of a verbal kind, we should have no inheritance—we should be but beggars to the last, living upon appearances and exhausting the unsubstantial fortune of illusory hopes; but our Christian position is,—God is unchangeable, the covenant is unalterable, the good man is the accepted of God, and the almightiness of God is pledged to see the good man through river, sea, wilderness, and the battle, being God's, can only end in one way.
According to Balaam's vision of the Church, Israel is guiltless and royal. This is proved by chapter Numbers 23:21—"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them."
Herein is the mystery of love. Already we begin to see the meaning of the marvellous expression—"Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel"—whilst, from the human point of view, he has never seen anything else. The whole history up to this point has been on the part of Israel or Jacob a disclosure of meanness, selfishness, complaining, perfidy, and perverseness. Both the statements are perfectly true. They may not be open to the cheap reconciliation of mere verbal adjustment, but they are strictly in harmony with the great central line which unites and consolidates the universe. God does not judge in great and final senses by the detailed slips, losses, mistakes, misadventures, follies, and sins of his people;—what a life would be God's eternity could it be vexed by these details! We are lacking in the divine charity which sees the "man" within the "sinner"—which sees behind the iniquity the divine seed. We are lacking in the divine benevolence which distinguishes between the action of the hand—which sometimes does not express the motion of the will—and the inward and set purpose of the sanctified soul. We count ourselves clever if we can trip one another up in discrepancies of speech, in small or great shortcomings,—if we can but record a heavy score against some brother, as to a lapse here and a mistake there, and some evil deed yonder. God does not measure the man or Church according to that standard and method: he sees the purpose, he reads the soul, and he sees that nowhere is there a redder blush of shame for anything evil which the hand has done than in the soul of the man who has been convicted as the trespasser. So there are two views to be taken of the Church—the small view, the magisterial criticism, the estimate which is formed by the ingenuity that is most successful in fault-finding; or the view which is taken by God's purpose, by divine charity, by eternal election and decree. God's purpose is to have the uttermost parts of the earth for an inheritance and a possession; and already the earth may be called his:—"The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof"—not looked at here and now and within given lines—so looked at it is the devil's earth, it is ripped and seamed by ten thousand times ten thousand graves;—little children's bones are rotting in it, bad men are building their thrones and palaces upon it. The devil's hunting-ground is this earth within a narrow or limited point of view; but in the divine purpose, in the great outcome of things, this earth is verdant as the upper paradise, pure as spotless snow,—a sanctuary of the Lord; all lands and languages, all seas, all thrones, all powers, are baptized in the Triune Name, and the whole earth is a worthy annexe of God's own heaven. Take any other view, and you become at once unsettled, unsteady, depleted of all enrichment arising from confidence and hope and promise. This is the true view, for it is the view given in the Scriptures of God.
Balaam recognises the operation of a miracle in all this. He describes Israel as a supreme miracle of God. He says,—"... according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!" (Numbers 23:23). Thus the Church becomes the uppermost miracle. From the first it did not seem such workmanship was possible: the material was rough, the conditions were impracticable,—everything seemed to be as different as possible from the grace and purpose of Heaven; but years passed on, and the generations and the ages, and still the mighty Worker continued with patient love to carry forward his purpose, and already chaos seems to be taking shape, already some notes harmonious are heard through all the harsh discord, already there is the outlining of a horizon radiant with the silver of rising day, already God seems to be subduing, overruling, controlling, and establishing things; and looking further on the prophet says,—"According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!"—how wondrous the transformation; how sublime the moral majesty; how gracious the complete deliverance! That, again, is our standing ground. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." It is not within our little ability to establish the divine kingdom upon the earth; but God will bring in an everlasting kingdom: he "will overturn, overturn, overturn,... until he come whose right it is." So we wait on in patience—patience often sorely troubled, patience that is vexed by many a question from the hostile side: men say,—"Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation"—not seeing the invisible Hand, not having that sharp vision which perceives the rectification of lines so fibrous and so delicate, not knowing that God's transformation is being worked from the interior; that it is not a case of external painting but a case of spiritual regeneration, and according to the majesty of the subject within whose life this mystery is to be accomplished is the time which even God requires for the outworking and consummation of his miracle.
Then Balaam paints a picture—such a picture as would appeal to the Eastern imagination. He compares Jacob and Israel to the most beautiful of all spectacles; he says,—"How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted" (Numbers 24:5-7). Why speak so much about streams and rivers and waters?—because nothing appealed so vividly to the Oriental imagination. To have plenty of water was to be rich in the days of Balaam and in the country of Balak. So Balaam, taught by the Lord to speak the music of truth and of heaven, speaks of Jacob and Israel as being "valleys" where the water rolled, "as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes... and as cedar trees beside the waters." In other parts of the Old Testament those same cedar trees are spoken of with the rapture of poetry:—they put out their dark roots towards the river, they suck up the streams, and they report the success of the root in the far-spreading branches which seem to have lifted themselves up to the very clouds of heaven. Every country has its own standards of success, its own signs of prosperity, its own symbols which most vividly appeal to the imagination of the inhabitants; and water constituted the great object of admiration and of thankfulness in the Eastern mind. And then the King that was coming was to be "higher than Agag" (Numbers 22:7). The word "Agag" means "high"; the word "Agag" is the name of the Amalekite kings, as "Pharaoh" was the name of the kings of Egypt, and "Abimelech" the name of the kings of the Philistines; so Agag is not any one personal king but the you or I of the Amalekite nation; and when Balak and his hosts looked upon their mighty Agag, Balaam said,—He is a child compared with the coming King—a mere infant of days compared with the crowned One of Jacob; when He comes whose right it is to reign, all other kings and princes will acknowledge his right, and fall down before him, and pay their crowns as tribute to his majesty.
This, then, is the position of the Church of Christ. We believe a great future is in store for the Church. Were we to look at the Church within given lines, we should say,—Great is its poverty, very questionable its intellectual standpoint; a very troubled community is the Church—vexing itself by divers theologies and conceptions and theories and speculations. But we must not look at the question in that way. Call for the Lord's prophet: let "the man whose eyes are open" be called to stand on the hills of Moab, and his speech will be:—
Almighty God, the way to thee is a broad way. We may come boldly to a throne of grace. The access which thy Son has wrought out for us is a great access. We will approach thee by the way which he has marked out. So we advance without fear, and can even venture to lift up our eyes unto heaven. At the very moment when we smite upon our breast, we have confidence in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. We think we could now bear to look upon the shaded glory of the Lord of hosts. We have been with Jesus, and have learned of him. At first we were afraid of the great fire, saying, Behold, it burns like an oven, and is hot as the wrath of justice. But now we know thee. God is love. Thou dost wait to be gracious, thou dost live for thy creation. We feel as if thou thyself wert praying for us in the very act of answering our petition. Thou dost make our prayer for us; it is the inditing of thy Holy Spirit in the heart. It is a speech we never invented, but which we receive and adopt as the good gift of God, relieving our heart as it does of the pressure of its pain and expressing happily all the desire of its necessity. Thou dost teach us how to pray. Thou wouldest have us praying always and never faint. Help us, then, to pray without ceasing, as we live without ceasing. We live whilst we sleep, we live in our unconsciousness; the life still keeps beating on ready for the morning of expectation and service and sacrifice. So may we pray in our very unconsciousness—yea, when we do not know we are praying in form and in set petition. May our life so acquire the sacred habit of the upward look and the heavenly expectation that without a word we may mightily cry unto the Father-Heart. We bless thee that we have experience of this kind. We are ashamed of our words: they are wings that cannot fly far; our souls must of themselves, in all the speechlessness of enraptured love, seek thee, find thee, and hold long and sweet communion with thee. We would live and move and have our being in God. This prayer thou dost never deny. Thou dost keep wealth from us, and prosperity, and renown, and riches, and honour, and ease; these things thou dost drive away with a sharp wind; but never didst thou say No to the soul that longed to be purer, to the heart that desired to be cleansed. May we find great answers to our petitions. They are addressed to thee in the appointed way, they are sealed with the name of Christ; every syllable is sprinkled with the blood of reconciliation; we say nothing out of our own name, or because of our own invention; we speak the Lord's prayer in the Lord's name, and we are sure of the Lord's answer. We cannot tell thee what thou dost not know; yet thou dost love to hear us talk; thou delightest in the speech of man; there is something in it which we ourselves cannot hear; thou art carried back to thine own eternity. Even in our poor attempts to speak thou hearest a music which no other ear can detect in the utterances of man. What is that music? Is it a cry of pain? Is it the note of a voice of one who is lost in a wild night and cannot tell the east from the west, or where the sweet home lies warm with hospitable welcomes? Thou knowest there is divinity in it—a strange pulsing of the eternal music. When we speak thus to thee, in the name of Jesus, our music becomes a mighty prayer, and thine answer encompasses the heavens like a cloud too rich with blessing for the very heavens to contain. Lead us on. We do not know where the grave is, nor do we care. It may be one foot off, or many a mile away, hidden among the years that are yet to be numbered by tens and twenties. Whether it is already dug, or is not to be dug for many a day, what care we? Being in Christ we cannot die; rooted in the Life Eternal, death can but touch the outer frame. We ourselves are already in heaven. Amen.
And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.Balaam Stopped By an Angel
One of the most pious and profound commentators has suggested that all this was seen in a vision; in other words, the narrative may be taken as Balaam's report of a very marvellous dream. Any suggestion will do when men want to get rid of the supernatural. Under such circumstances, the very indifferent man may become an important personage. Anything that will rid us of lines beyond our own personal experience, and give us a sense of comfortable snugness within four visible points, will be received with gratitude by the natural heart. We like insulation. We are pleased with a clock that we can see, every tick of which we can hear, and every indication of which we can read. But the clock is not the time. The time is invisible, impalpable, in many regards incalculable; quite a ghost, a very solemn thing, always talking, and yet talking in a way that is not always clearly apprehended or understood. People like to be comfortable, and nobody can be comfortable with the supernatural who is not in harmony with it. If a certain miracle has not been wrought in the soul, the supernatural becomes a kind of ghost, a spectral presence, an uncanny possibility in the life, and had better be got rid of; and when the mind wants such riddance, any suggestion that will aid in that direction is received with effusive thankfulness. In this instance, we had better, perhaps, in the first place, endeavour to find out what are those things in the story which do lie within the limit of our own experience—an experience which we are in danger of exaggerating into a kind of instinct and claim of infallibility. First of all, therefore, instead of troubling the mind with vexing questions which never can be settled, let us collect the lessons which are obviously within the circle of our own observation and experience; after that, we may be in a position to look at certain miraculous aspects and ascertain their import and their divine intention.
It lies quite within our experience that we do get our own way, and yet have a sense of burning and judgment, of opposition and anger all the time. Balaam was invited to go to Balak's country and he said,—No. He said No with some emphasis. He was a man of fine impulse, an« his first impulse was generally healthy and strong in a right direction. Instead of giving a hesitant No he gave a bold round thunderous NO! Then Balak tried again; he also believed in importunity. He doubled the bribe,—nay, he may have multiplied the bribe by ten. He sent more honourable princes; men who in their own country were accustomed to command, and they assumed the obeisant attitude with great grace and humility. Balaam said,—No. But all the thunder had gone out of that No; it was a No which a mean man might have said. However—he said—I will pray about it, I will consult the Lord—when he need not have consulted the Lord at all. Men forget that there is a time when they need not ask the Lord any questions. Never trouble the Lord to know whether you cannot do just a little wrong; he is not to be called upon in relation to business of that kind. He does not pray who palters with moral distinctions, who wants to make compromises, who is anxious to find some little crevice or opening through which he can pass into the land of his own desire. Whimpering hypocrite! miserable miscreant! thou wilt pray in order to get leave to go in the direction pleasant to the imagination or profitable to the pocket and call it prayer!—wilt consult the oracle, wilt look to heaven, wilt inquire diligently in the Scriptures, wilt endeavour to find out some sign indicating what God means thee to do, whilst before thou didst pray thou hadst fashioned the answer. It was a mocker's religion. Balaam got his own way so far. The Lord has a method of his own in this particular. Providence does shape itself curiously in some instances. The voice said to him,—Go!—you want to go; you have made up your secret mind to go,—go; only the word that I bid thee speak, that shalt thou say; and Balak, who sent for an ally, shall find himself confronted with a missionary. These things lie quite obviously within our own experience. We need not describe them at all as theological; we have seen this in a score of instances,—perhaps, in some instances, we ourselves have been the chief actors and sufferers. So far then we are upon the line of experience.
Men are stopped in certain courses without being able to tell the reason why. That also is matter of experience. The wind seems to be a wall before us; the road looks quite open, and yet we can make no progress in it. Our eyes deceive us, because surely this is a highway—the king's broad road—and yet, scheme as we may, promise what we may, we can make no progress along that road. If an army met us, we could run home, and say,—Lo! a host beset us, and we have fled before the furious opposition. But there is no army. If some beast of prey had rushed out from the hedge, we could have turned back and explained to our comrades in life that we were stopped by a threatening beast. But there is no such difficulty on the road that is at all visible to us. We lift up our hand, and say we will go in this direction, oppose us what may,—and there is nothing to strike at. Again and again do we say,—How is this?—we came the first two miles easily, pleasantly, as if galloping over a flowery land at bright summer time, and we said in our hearts,—This journey will be a right pleasant one all through; and suddenly we can go no farther. This is matter of experience. Let us constantly say to ourselves: We cannot account for the impossibility of progress. The business stands still;—we have risen at the same hour in the morning, carried out the usual arrangements, been apparently on the alert all the time; and yet not one inch farther are we permitted to go. Suppose we have no God, no altar, no Church limitations, no ghostly ministry exerting itself upon our life and frightening us with superstition and spectre—we are healthy reasoners, downright robust rationalists,—men who can take things up and set them down, square-headed men,—yet there is the fact, that even we—such able-bodied rationalists, such healthy souls that any society would insure us on the slightest inquiry—there we are, puzzled, mystified, perplexed, distracted. We will not use theological terms: we fall back upon the second grade of language; still there remains the substantial and abiding fact, that progress along this road is impossible. So far, this story affords no ground of serious difficulty, even to the reason and the mind in its soberest mood.
It also lies within the region of experience that men are rebuked by dumb animals. That is odd; but it is true. The whole Scripture is charged with that statement, and so charged with it as to amount to a practical philosophy in daily life:—"But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee"—"The stork in heaven knoweth her appointed times"—"The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib"—"Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." Dumb creatures are continually teaching us. They keep law with wondrous obedience. The poorest brutes are really very faithful to the rude legislation under which they live. If men could only be as drunk as a beast, they would never go far from the paths of sobriety. It is a foul slander upon the beast for a man to set himself beside it and say that he is as oblivious of law, as negligent of divine intention, as the brute that perishes. In temperance, in acceptance of discipline, in docility, I know not any beast that is ever used by man that may not teach some men, very distinctly, helpful and useful lessons. That the beast does not speak is the very smallest and poorest objection that can be taken to the teaching. It is putting speech in a false position, it is altogether altering the relations and perspective of things. What is speech? How is speech delivered? Is speech confined to the tongue? We must define the word speech, if we are to enter into the particulars of a controversy which can never be settled. But we cannot allow rude definitions to be given as if they were philosophical. There is the substantial fact, that the beasts of the field do teach us, rebuke us, humble us; and that they do not do all this through the medium of articulate speech—as that term is understood by us,—is a frivolous objection, and ought not to be taken account of in any court in which the presiding disposition is to find out substantial and eternal truths. So far, I see nothing in the story to disturb the sobriety of experience.
Then, again, it does lie within our cognition that men do blame second causes for want of success. Balaam blamed the ass. That is what we are always doing. There is nothing exceptional in this conduct of the soothsayer. We want to get on—it is the beast that will not go. Who ever thought that an angel was confronting him—that a distinct ghostly purpose was against him? Who ever imagined that he, a rationalist with a healthy digestion, was stopped on his course by some beneficent providence? He naturally feels that he ought not to have been stopped; he is a healthy-minded man, there is no nonsense about him,—a practical man, shrewd, with eyes well-set in his head and that can see one colour in its distinction from another—an eye skilled in proportion and distance and expression; he ought not to have been stopped. Yet he is arrested. He blames his surroundings, his assistants, his colleagues, his "stupid partner," his "reluctant people." He would have been miles ahead—he might have been back by this time, but he was stopped by second causes. How much nobler the health of the man who says,—I am but of yesterday, and know nothing; I cannot tell what a day may bring forth; it is good to be disappointed; it is beneficial for my soul's health not to have my own way always; I wanted to go along this road, and to go at a very quick rate, but I am mysteriously arrested, and I cannot move through an invisible wall; but God built it—I fall down before it as before an altar, and thank God for the stoppage! To some men, that appears to be the true reasoning. They have such self-distrust—they have seen the consequences of leaning to their own judgment so frequently, they have tested life at so many points and find what a mystery it is—that at last they have come to say,—We see nothing as it really is; we know nothing as it really is; we are in the hands of the divine Father;—not our will but thine be done. To some imaginations, that appears to be fanaticism; to others—not altogether ridiculous in mental capacity, nor altogether unworthy of credit—really genuinely-learned and cultivated men—it seems to be the finest rationalism, the noblest sobriety, the most substantial conviction.
Does it not also lie within the range of our experience that men do want to get back sometimes but are driven forward? Did not Balaam want to return when he said, "If it displease thee, I will get me back again"? We cannot. Life is not a little trick, measurable by such terms. A man cannot make a fool of himself, and instantly turn round as if nothing had happened; we cannot drive a nail into a tree and take it out without leaving a wound behind. It does not lie within the range of our arm—pontiffs though we be in the shabby church of reason—to break the vessel of glass, and put it together again as if it had never been dashed to pieces. This is not in harmony with the mystery of the universe as we know it. This proposition of Balaam's is the ridiculous imagination of men who suppose that they can sin against God and say,—Now we will turn back; we will not do it again; we have blasphemed God—now we will go to church. To get that sophism out of the human mind is the difficulty of God. It appears so easy to commit a sin, and then to say we are sorry that we committed it, and to go back home as if nothing had been done. What has been done? The universe has been dishonoured; the snowy purity of God has been stained; the great creation in all its harmonies has been shocked and distressed with a great pain. We ought not to infer anything to the disadvantage of God from such a method of providence. It means that we are more than we thought ourselves to be. Conduct is of greater consequence than we imagine. Humanity is a sublime mystery, as well as God; and there is no way backward, unless it be in consent with the Mind that constructed and that rules creation. Balaam would go back and remain at Pethor as if he had never left his native village; but the Lord said,—No; go forward;—only now be the representative of holy truth to the heathen king.
But there is a difficulty about the dumb ass rebuking the perverse prophet? So there is. I would be dismayed by it if I were not overwhelmed by greater miracles still. This has come to be but a small thing—a very momentary wonder, a riddle which a child might guess,—as compared with more astounding circumstances. A more wonderful thing than that an ass should speak is that a man should forget God. If you challenge me to the consideration of both the subjects, and take them in the order of their importance, in proportion as I am a sound reasoner and in a healthy condition of conscience and imagination, I cannot hesitate which to assign the overwhelming importance. That a man should forget deliverances—that a man should be delivered from the jaws of the lion and the bear and should forget the deliverance—that is a more astounding circumstance than that all the beasts of the field should open their mouths in articulate and impressive eloquence. Why do we vex our little selves with little questions, instead of exciting our greater selves by greater problems? The miracle that astounds the Lord is that we should have forgotten that he had nourished and brought up children and that they should have rebelled against him. We—childish, foolish, vain,—are busy with little puzzles in the history of miracles, whilst the infinite impeachment is uttered by all the thunders of the universe, that we have forgotten God, turned away from the fountain of waters, and have hewn out to ourselves cisterns—broken cisterns—that could hold no water. Riddle-loving, easily tickled and amused, excited by miracles of the smallest quantity and the feeblest quality, we are wondering if the ass did speak to Balaam; whilst all the angels of God might stand appalled in looking on any sinful man who ever lifted his hand against the majesty of Heaven. There are historical miracles, there are miracles of a physical and material kind, there are mysteries to which we have no immediate answer; but there are other mysteries which involve destiny, and to these miracles we think it best to address ourselves in the first instance. The miracles of a physical and historical kind may admit of postponement as to their consideration; but that men should have forgotten God, and insulted law, and done unrighteously,—these are mysteries which must not be delayed in their explanation and settlement.
So we come again and again to the great practical inquiry,—Being on the wrong road, how shall we get back? There is no answer in man. If Balaam could have retraced his steps, put up his ass in the stable and gone about his business as if nothing had occurred, it would have been but a paper universe. That he could not do so, that he was under the pressure of mightier forces, indicates that the universe is itself a tragedy, and that the explanation of every character, every incident, and every flush of colour, must be left for another time, when the light is stronger and the duration is assured. Meanwhile, we can pray, we can look up, we can say, each for himself,—"I have sinned."
Almighty God, receive us everyone in the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, we humbly beseech thee. There is room in thine heart for every one; thou dost miss the least. Teach us the minuteness of thy care that we may give to thee the keeping of our whole life, reserving nothing for our own regard, but delivering the whole space of life, great and small, to the rule and blessing of Heaven. We will do nothing without thee; though the temptation be strong to arise and move on and begin the battle and seize the gate, yet will we stand still until we are sure of thy bidding to move. Thou hast made one star differ from another star in glory; thou hast set one man above another; thou hast made one life the ruler of many lives. The distribution is entirely in God's hands; we would accept it and adore the sovereignty which it represents. But thou hast a place for every one: thou hast omitted nothing from thy reckoning; to every man thou sayest,—Why stand ye idle in the marketplace? thou wilt find a position for every life. We bless thee for this confidence; it delivers us from care; it helps us patiently to wait. Thou hast marked our life by many a sign we cannot mistake. It is thy life: it was thy life before it was ours; it is only ours because it is thine. Thou dost close the door upon us suddenly and open another door that we did not know to be in existence; thou takest away from us our staff and thou puttest into our hand a still stronger one. We cannot tell what thou doest. Thou sendest winter in the midst of summer, and a glow of heavenly light amid the clouds that darken the heavens. Thy will be done evermore. As for our sin, if it is not always present to us, it is always in our heart, a reckoning to be settled, a guilt to be pardoned; but if the sin is there, behold, the Cross of Christ is still within the vision of our faith, and the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin. We will not fall into despair: we will not turn our imagination into the plague of our life; but looking to the heavens and to thy revelation in the Holy Book and to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, even in the deep pit we will take heart again and our hope shall be strong in God. Let a morning light be in our hearts; let a. gracious blessing make us glad; may the Spirit of the Living One destroy all death within us and make us now joyous and rich with the assurance of immortality. Amen.
And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee? wherefore camest thou not unto me? am I not able indeed to promote thee to honour?"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Am I not able to promote thee to honour?"—Numbers 22:37
Balak had no other inspiration than worldly honour to offer.—He could not understand any man being unmoved by such an offer.—Herein Balak fitly represents the spirit of the whole world.—Who can resist gold? or distinction? or influence? or a throne? The whole spirit of this temptation culminated in the attempt of the devil to win the homage of Jesus Christ by offering him the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.—The world is making this very speech to every young man today.—This, too, is the speech which many a man is addressing to the woman who is unworthy of his love.—He will give her a name, a social status, and abundance of domestic comfort; he addresses no appeal to the companionship of the heart, the masonry of the mind, the desire for mutual growth in all sacred life and power.—The man who can accept a bribe for his service proves that he will oppose that very service if a higher bribe be offered.—He who will accept a bribe will give one.—He who will tell lies for you will also tell lies to you.—The spirit of Balak was reproduced in Simon Magus.—He offered the apostles money if they would give unto him the Holy Ghost.—There is no relation between material gifts and spiritual powers. They belong to different spheres.—Even when material treasure is offered in recognition of spiritual benefit it must cover itself with contempt in the presence of the majesty it seeks to recognise.—Ministers ought not to be bought for money.—The poet should not abandon his harp because the money-spender is not listening to him.—The princes of this world are never so thoroughly humbled as by the citizens of heaven.—Alexander could do nothing for Diogenes.—Abram would receive nothing from the King of Sodom, lest the king should put a wrong construction upon the deed.—The living water is to be had without money and without price.
—True honour cometh from God only.
—"Them that honour me I will honour."—To receive honour from men is to blind the understanding, and shut out the true judgment.—"How can ye believe which receive honour from one another?"—If we are in quest of spiritual light and security we must bring a broken and a contrite heart, a spirit bowed down with humbleness, and a self-disposing soul.—"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."