If I was asked for any proof that the story of Balaam, as I find it in the Bible, is a true story, I should lay my hand on this one only -- and that is, the deep knowledge of human nature which is shown in it.
The character of Balaam is so perfectly natural, and yet of a kind so very difficult to unravel and explain, that if the story was invented by man, as poems or novels are, it must have been invented very late indeed in the history of the Jews; at a time when they had grown to be a far more civilised people, far more experienced in the cunning tricks of the human heart than they were, as far as we can see from the Bible, before the Babylonish captivity. But it was NOT invented late; for no Jew in these later times would have thought of making Balaam a heathen, to be a prophet of God, or a believer in the true God at all. The later Jews took up the notion that God spoke to and cared for the Jews only, and that all other nations were accursed.
There is no reason, therefore, against simply believing the story as it stands. It seems a very ancient story indeed, suiting exactly in its smallest details the place where Moses, or whoever wrote the Book of Numbers, has put it.
We, in these days, are accustomed to draw a sharp line between the good and the bad, the converted and the unconverted, the children of God and the children of this world, those who have God's Spirit and those who have not, which we find nowhere in Scripture; and therefore when we read of such a man as Balaam we cannot understand him. He is a bad man, but yet he is a prophet. How can that be? He knows the true God. More, he has the Spirit of God in him, and thereby utters deep and wonderful prophecies; and yet he is a bad man and a rogue. How can that be?
The puzzle, my friends, is one of our own making. If, instead of taking up doctrines out of books, we will use our own eyes and ears and common sense, and look honestly at this world as it is, and men and women as they are, we shall find nothing unnatural or strange in Balaam; we shall find him very like a good many people whom we know; very like -- nay, probably, too like -- ourselves in some particulars.
Now bear in mind, first, that Balaam is no impostor or magician. He is a wise man, and a prophet of God. God really speaks to him, and really inspires him.
And bear in mind, too, that Balaam's inspiration did not merely open his mouth to say wonderful words which he did not understand, but opened his heart to say righteous and wise things which he did understand.
'Remember,' says the prophet Micah, 'O my people, what Balak, king of Moab, consulted, and what Balaam, the son of Beor, answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal, that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord. Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 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.' Why, what deeper or wiser words are there in the whole Old Testament? This man Balaam had seen down into the deepest depths of all morality, unto the deepest depths of all religion. The man who knew that, knew more than ninety-nine in a hundred do even in a Christian country now, and more than nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine in a million knew in those days. Let no one, after that speech, doubt that Balaam was indeed a prophet of the Lord; and yet he was a bad man, and came deservedly to a bad end.
So much easier, my friends, is it to know what is right than to do what is right.
What then was wrong in Balaam?
This, that he was double-minded. He wished to serve God. True. But he wished to serve himself by serving God, as too many do in all times.
That was what was wrong with him -- self-seeking; and the Bible story brings out that self-seeking with a delicacy, a keenness, and a perfect knowledge of human nature, which ought to teach us some of the secrets of our own hearts. Watch how Balaam, as a matter of course, inquires of the Lord whether he may go, and refuses, seemingly at first honestly.
Then how the temptation grows on him; how, when he feels tempted, he fights against it in fine-sounding professions, just because he feels that he is going to yield to it. Then how he begins to tempt God, by asking him again, in hopes that God may have changed his mind. Then when he has his foolish wish granted he goes. Then when the terrible warning comes to him that he is on the wrong road, that God's wrath is gone out against him, and his angel ready to destroy him, he is full still of hollow professions of obedience, instead of casting himself utterly upon God's mercy, and confessing his sin, and entreating pardon.
Then how, instead of being frightened at God's letting him have his way, he is emboldened by it to tempt God more and more, and begins offering bullocks and rams on altars, first in this place and then in that, in hopes still that GOD may change his mind, and let him curse Israel; in hopes that God may be like one of the idols of the heathen, who could (so the heathen thought) be coaxed and flattered round by sacrifices to do whatever their worshippers wished.
Then, when he finds that all is of no use; that he must not curse Israel, and must not earn Balak's silver and gold, he is forced to be an honest man in spite of himself; and therefore he makes the best of his disappointment by taking mighty credit to himself for being honest, while he wishes all the while he might have been allowed to have been dishonest. Oh, if all this is not poor human nature, drawn by the pen of a truly inspired writer, what is it?
Moreover, it is curious to watch how as Balaam is forced step by step to be an honest man, so step by step he rises. A weight falls off his mind and heart, and the Spirit of God comes upon him.
He feels for once that he must speak his mind, that he must obey God. As he looks down from off the mountain top, and sees the vast encampment of the Israelites spread over the vale below, for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see, all ordered, disciplined, arranged according to their tribes, the Spirit of God comes upon him, and he gives way to it and speaks.
The sight of that magnificent array wakens up in him the thought of how divine is older, how strong is order, how order is the life and root of a nation, and how much more, when that order is the order of God.
'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. His king shall be higher than Agag,' and all his wild Amalekite hordes. He will be a true nation, civilized, ordered, loyal and united, for God is teaching him.
Who can resist such a nation as that? 'God has brought him out of Egypt. He has the strength of an unicorn.' 'I shall see him,' he says, '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 when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, 'Amalek was the first of the nation; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.' And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, 'Strong is thy dwelling-place, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock. Nevertheless, the Kenite shall be wasted, till Asshur shall carry thee away captive.' 'Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!'
And then, beyond all, after all the Canaanites and other Syrian races have been destroyed, he sees, dimly and afar off, another destruction still.
In his home in the far east the fame of the ships of Chittim has reached him; the fame of the new people, the sea-roving heroes of the Greeks, of whom old Homer sang; the handsomest, cunningest, most daring of mankind, who are spreading their little trading colonies along all the isles and shores, as we now are spreading ours over the world. Those ships of Chittim, too, have a great and glorious future before them. Some day or other they will come and afflict Asshur, the great empire of the East, out of which Balaam probably came; and afflict Eber too, the kingdom of the Jews, and they too shall perish for ever.
Dimly he sees it, for it is very far away. But that it will come he sees; and beyond that all is dark. He has said his say; he has spoken the whole truth for once. Balak's house full of silver and gold would not have bought him off and stopped his mouth when such awful thoughts crowded on his mind. So he returns to his place -- to do what?
If he cannot earn Balak's gold by cursing Israel, he can do it by giving him cunning and politic advice. He advises Balak to make friends with the Israelites and mix them up with his people by enticing them to the feasts of his idols, at which the women threw themselves away in shameful profligacy, after the custom of the heathens of these parts.
In the next chapter we read how Moses, and Phinehas, Aaron's grandson, put down those filthy abominations with a high hand; and how Balaam's detestable plot, instead of making peace, makes war; and in chapter xxxi. you read the terrible destruction of the whole nation of the Midianites, and among it this one short and terrible hint: 'Balaam also, the son of Beor, they slew with the sword.'
But what may we learn from this ugly story?
Recollect what I said at first, that we should find Balaam too like many people now-a-days; perhaps too like ourselves.
Too like indeed. For never were men more tempted to sin as Balaam did than in these days, when religion is all the fashion, and pays a man, and helps him on in life; when, indeed, a man cannot expect to succeed without professing some sort of religion or other.
Thereby comes a terrible temptation to many men. I do not mean to hypocrites, but to really well-meaning men. They like religion. They wish to be good; they have the feeling of devotion. They pray, they read their Bibles, they are attentive to services and to sermons, and are more or less pious people. But soon -- too soon -- they find that their piety is profitable. Their business increases. Their credit increases. They are trusted and respected; their advice is asked and taken. They gain power over their fellow-men. What a fine thing it is, they think, to be pious!
Then creeps in the love of the world; the love of money, or power, or admiration; and they begin to value religion because it helps them to get on in the world. They begin more and more to love Piety not for its own sake, but for the sake of what it brings; not because it pleases God, but because it pleases the world; not because it enables them to help their fellow-men, but because it enables them to help themselves.
So they get double-minded, unstable, inconsistent, as St. James says, in all their ways; trying to serve God and Mammon at once. Trying to do good -- as long as doing good does not hurt them in the world's eyes; but longing oftener and oftener to do wrong, if only God would not be angry. Then comes on Balaam's frame of mind, 'If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord.'
Oh no. They would not do a wrong thing for the world -- only they must be quite sure first that it is wrong. Has God really forbidden it? Why should they not take care of their interest? Why should they not get on in the world? So they begin, like Balaam, to tempt God, to see how far they can go; to see if God has forbidden this and that mean, or cowardly, or covetous, or ambitious deed. So they soon settle for themselves what God has forbidden and what he has not; and their rule of life becomes this -- that whatsoever is safe and whatsoever is profitable is pretty sure to be right; and after that no wonder if, like Balaam, they indulge themselves in every sort of sin, provided only it is respectable, and does not hurt them in the world's eyes.
And all the while they keep up their religion. Ay, they are often more attentive than ever to religion, because their consciences pinch them at times, and have to be silenced and drugged by continual church-goings and chapel-goings, and readings and prayings, in order that they may be able to say to themselves with Balaam, 'Thus saith Balaam, he who heard the word of God, and had the knowledge of the Most High.'
So they say to themselves, 'I must be right. How religious I am; how fond of sermons, and of church services, and church restorations, and missionary meetings, and charitable institutions, and everything that is good and pious. I MUST be right with God.' Deceiving their ownselves, and saying to themselves, 'I am rich and increased with goods, I have need of nothing,' and not knowing that they are wretched, and miserable, and blind, and naked.
Would God that such people, of whom there are too many, would take St. John's warning and buy of the Lord gold tried in the fire -- the true gold of honesty -- that they may be truly rich, and anoint their eyes with eye-salve that they may see themselves for once as they are.
But what does this story teach us concerning God? For remember, as I tell you every Sunday, that each fresh story in the Pentateuch reveals to us something fresh about the character of God. What does Balaam's story reveal? Balaam himself tells us in the text, 'God is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that he should repent. Hath he said, and shall he not do it?'
Yes. Fancy not that any wishes or prayers of yours can persuade God to alter his everlasting laws of right and wrong. If he has commanded a thing, he has commanded it because it is according to his everlasting laws, which cannot change, because they are made in his eternal image and likeness. Therefore if God has commanded you a thing, DO IT heartily, fully, without arguing or complaining. If you begin arguing with God's law, excusing yourself from it, inventing reasons why YOU need not obey it in this particular instance, though every one else ought, then you will end, like Balaam, in disobeying the law, and it will grind you to powder.
But if you obey God's law honestly, with a single eye and a whole heart, you will find in it a blessing, and peace, and strength, and everlasting life.