Matthew Poole's Commentary
And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams.Balak and Balsam sacrifice: God meets him, and he blesses Israel, Numbers 23:1-10. Balak is troubled: they go to another place to curse them: they sacrifice again: Balaam consults God, who meets him, and he again blesses Israel, Numbers 23:11-21. They go to a third place, and sacrifice again, Numbers 23:27-30.
The altars were either,
1. To Baal, in whose high places this was done and to whom alone Balak used to sacrifice. Or rather,
2. To the true God, otherwise he would not have mentioned it to God as an argument why he should grant his requests, as he doth Numbers 23:4. And though Balak was averse from God and his worship, yet he would be easily overruled by Balaam, who doubtless told him that it was in vain to make an address to any other than the God of Israel, who alone was able either to bless or curse them, as he pleased. And therefore when Balaam lost his design this way he tried it another way with greater success, but still used to the same method, in provoking their own God to destroy the Israelites, Num 25. But though he direct his sacrifices to the right object, he chooseth a wrong place, and, to comply with Balak’s desire, makes use of the high places of Baal for this end, and mingles his own superstitions with the worship of God, in erecting divers altars, according to the manner of heathens and idolators, 2 Kings 18:22 Isaiah 17:8 Jeremiah 11:13 Hosea 8:11 10:1 12:11; whereas God appointed and holy men used but one altar, though many sacrifices were to be offered upon it, Genesis 8:20 Exodus 17:15 24:4. Seven was the solemn and usual number in sacrifices, 1 Chronicles 15:26 2 Chronicles 29:21 Job 42:8.
And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram.Balak by procuring them and Balaam by offering them; through in ancient times kings’ were priests also, and so might perform a priestly work, as this was.
And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go: peradventure the LORD will come to meet me: and whatsoever he sheweth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place.By thy burnt-offering; as in God’s presence, as one that offers thyself its well as thy sacrifices to obtain his favour. I will go to some solitary and convenient place, where I may by my enchantments prevail with God to appear to me, and to answer thy and my desires in cursing this people.
Whatsoever he showeth me, i.e. reveals to me, either by word or sign.
To an high place; or, into the plain, as that word properly signifies, for he was now in a high place, Numbers 22:4. But this is not material, it was doubtless some solitary place, where he might use some gestures and ceremonies which he would not have others see, and where he might more reasonably expect to meet with God; for both good and evil spirits most commonly appeared to persons in such places.
And God met Balaam: and he said unto him, I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram.God met Balaam, not to comply with Balaam’s charms, nor to gratify, but to oppose, his wicked desires, and to fierce him against his own inclination and interest to utter the following words.
A bullock and a ram, which I pray thee accept, and give me leave to curse thy people, as their abundant wickedness deserves.
And the LORD put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak.He suggested what he should say, even those words, Numbers 23:8-10.
And he returned unto him, and, lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab.No text from Poole on this verse.
And 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.He took up, to wit, into his mouth; he expressed or spoke.
His parable, i.e. his oracular and prophetical speech; which he calls a parable, because of the weightiness of the matter, and the majesty and smartness of the expressions which is usual in parables.
From Aram; from Aram, Naharaim, or Mesopotamia, Deu 23:4. See Genesis 10:22. Aram lay
towards the mountains of the east: the east was infamous for charmers or soothsayers, Isaiah 2:6.
Jacob; the posterity of Jacob, i.e. Israel, as it here follows.
How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?God hath not cursed, but blessed Israel, and therefore it is a vain and ridiculous attempt for me to curse them in spite of God.
For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.From the top of the rocks, upon which I now stand, I see the people, according to thy desire, Numbers 22:41, but cannot improve that sight to the end for which thou didst design it, to wit, to curse them. This people are of a distinct kind from others, God’s peculiar people, separated from all other nations, as in religion and laws, also in Divine protection; and therefore my enchantments cannot have that power against them which they have against other persons and people. See Exodus 19:5 Leviticus 20:21,26.
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!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.
And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.No text from Poole on this verse.
And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the LORD hath put in my mouth?I speak not these words by my own choice, but by the constraint of a higher power, which I cannot resist.
And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them: thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence.He thought the sight of the people necessary both to excite Balaam’s passions, and to strengthen and direct his conjurations; but he would now have him see but a part of the people, and not all, because the sight of all of them might dismay and discourage him, and, as it did before, raise his fancy to an admiration of the multitude and of the felicity of the people, Numbers 23:9,10.
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.Zophim, a place so called from the spies and watches which were kept there. Pisgah, a high hill in the land of Moab, so called Deu 3:27 34:1.
And he said unto Balak, Stand here by thy burnt offering, while I meet the LORD yonder.To consult him, and to receive an answer from him, if peradventure those renewed sacrifices will melt him into some compliance with our desires.
And the LORD met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Go again unto Balak, and say thus.See Poole "Numbers 23:4", and See Poole on "Numbers 22:35".
And when he came to him, behold, he stood by his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath the LORD spoken?No text from Poole on this verse.
And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor:Rise up: this word implies, either,
1. The reverence wherewith he should hear and receive God’s message, as Eglon did, Judges 3:20, which might have been probable, if Balak had been now sitting, as Ehud there was; but he was standing, Numbers 23:15: or rather,
2. The diligent attention required; Rouse up thyself, and carefully mind what I say.
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?That he should lie, i.e. break his faith and promises made to his people for their preservation and benediction.
That he should repent, . e. change his counsels or purposes; which men do, either because they are not able to execute them, or because they are better informed and their minds changed by some unexpected occurrent, or by their lusts and passions, none of which have place in God. And therefore I plainly see that all our endeavours and repeated sacrifices are to no purpose, and can make no impression in God, nor induce him to curse those whom he hath purposed, and solemnly and frequently promised, to bless.
Shall he not do it? Is he like a man that oft speaks and promises what he either never intends, or cannot or will not perform?
Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.Or, I have received a blessing, to wit, a sentence of blessing, which God hath put into my mind and mouth, and which I cannot forbear to utter. Heb. I have received to bless. The infinitive put for the noun, as is frequent.
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.He, i.e. God, understood Numbers 23:20, and expressed Numbers 23:19,
hath not or doth not
behold or see iniquity or perverseness, i.e. any sin, in Jacob or
Israel; which cannot be meant of a simple seeing or knowing of him, for so God did see and observe, yea, and chastise their sins, as is manifest, Exodus 32:9 Deu 9:13; but of such a sight of their sins as should provoke God utterly to forsake and curse and destroy them, which was Balak’s desire, and Balaam’s hope and design. For as Balaam knew that none but Israel’s God could curse or destroy Israel, so he knew that nothing but their sin could move him so to do; and therefore he took a right, though wicked, course afterwards to tempt them to sin, and thereby to expose them to ruin, Num 25. And Balaam had now hoped that God was incensed against Israel for their sins, and therefore would be prevailed with to give them up to the curse and spoil. But, saith he, I was mistaken, I see God hath a singular favour to this people, and though he sees and punisheth sin in other persons and people with utter destruction, as he hath now done in Sihon and Og and the Amorites, yet he will not do so with Israel; he winks at their sins, forgets and forgives them, and will not punish them as their iniquities deserve. In this sense God is said not to see sins, as elsewhere he is said to forget them, Isaiah 43:25 Jeremiah 31:34, and to cover them, Psalm 32:1, which keeps them out of sight, and so out of mind; and to blot them out, Psalm 51:1,9, and to cast them behind his back, Isaiah 38:17, or into the depth of the sea, Micah 7:19, in which cases they cannot be seen nor read. And men are oft said not to know or see those sins in their children or others, which they do not take notice of so as to punish them. And this sense best agrees with the context; God hath decreed and promised to bless this people, and he hath blessed them, and I cannot reverse it, Numbers 23:20, and he will not reverse it, though provoked to do so by their sins, which he will take no notice of. Others thus, He hath not beheld, as hitherto he hath not, so for the future he will not behold, i.e. so as to approve it, as that word is oft used, as Genesis 7:1 Isaiah 66:2 Habakkuk 1:13, or so as to suffer it, injury against Jacob, &c. For aven, here rendered iniquity, is oft used in that sense, as Job 5:6,7 Pr 12:21 22:8. And the other word, amal, rendered perverseness, oft notes vexation and trouble, as Job 5:6,7 Psa 25:17 36:4; and the particle beth, rendered in, is oft used for against, as Exodus 14:25 20:16 Numbers 12:1. So the sense is, God will not see them wronged or ruined by any of their adversaries, whereof the following words may be a good reason, for God is with him, &c. The Lord his God is with him, i.e. he hath a favour for this people, and will defend and save them. So the phrase of God’s being with a person or people signifies, as Judges 6:13 Psalm 46:7 Isaiah 8:10.
The shout of a king is among them, i.e. such joyful and triumphant shouts as those wherewith a people congratulate the approach and presence of their king when he appears among them upon some solemn occasion, or when he returns from battle with victory and spoils. The expression implies God’s being their King and Ruler, and their abundant security and just confidence in him as such. And here is an allusion to the silver trumpets which were made by God’s command, and used upon great solemnities, in which God their King was present in a special manner, Numbers 10:9 Joshua 6:16,20 1 Samuel 4:5 2 Chronicles 13:12.
God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.God brought them out of Egypt, to wit, by a strong hand, and in spite of all their enemies, and therefore it is in vain to seek or hope to overcome them.
1. God, last mentioned. But so the comparison is mean and unbecoming. Or rather,
2. Israel, whom God brought out of Egypt; such change of numbers being very common in the Hebrew language. The sense is, Israel is not now what he was in Egypt, a poor, weak, dispirited, unarmed people, but high, and strong, and invincible. The great strength and fierceness of a unicorn is celebrated in Scripture, Numbers 24:8 Deu 33:17 Job 39:9 Psalm 22:21 92:10. But whether it be a unicorn, or a rhinoceros, or a strong and fierce kind of wild goat, which is here called reem, it is not needful here to determine.
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!I find by experience and serious consideration that all mine and thine endeavours to enchant Israel are in vain, being frustrated by their omnipotent God. I can do thee no service by my art against them.
According to this time; not only in succeeding times and ages, of which he speaks, Numbers 24:17, &c., but even now, in this time and age, and so forward.
What hath God wrought!, i.e. how wonderful and glorious are those works which God is now about to do for Israel, by drying up Jordan, by subduing the Canaanites, &c.! These things will be matter of discourse and admiration to all ages.
Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.As a lion rouseth up himself to fight, or to go out to the prey; so shall Israel stir up themselves to warlike attempts against all their enemies, as occasion shall offer itself.
He shall not lie down, i.e. not rest or cease from fighting and pursuing.
And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all.No text from Poole on this verse.
But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that the LORD speaketh, that I must do?No text from Poole on this verse.
And Balak said unto Balaam, Come, I pray thee, I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence.No text from Poole on this verse.
And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon.Peor, a high place called Beth-peor, Deu 3:29, i.e. the house or temple of Peer, because there they worshipped Baal-peor.
And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams.No text from Poole on this verse.
And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.No text from Poole on this verse.