"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 first born for my transgression; the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? -- He hath shewed thee, 0 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?"
As mankind are endowed with reason, and profess to be governed by it, their revolts from God are practical criminations of him: Therefore his expostulations with his people of old, when they forsook him and followed other gods -- "What iniquity have your fathers found in me? O my people what have I done unto thee? And wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me." *
* Jeremiah ii.5. Micah vi.3.
Israel as a people were going away from God, and he condescended to reason with them, and show them their ingratitude and baseness. To this end, he reminded them of his past care of them, and kindness to them, as a nation, from the time of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt -- "I brought thee out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee from the house of servants" -- After just glancing at that deliverance, he passes over the wonders wrought for them at the red sea, and in the wilderness, and their numerous rebellions, while he was leading them as a flock, and supplying their wants by a series of miracles, and enlarges on an event which took place on the borders of Canaan, the attempts made by Balak, the king of Moab, to prevail with him to leave his people and go over to him, and help him against them, and his faithfulness to Israel on that occasion -- "O my people, remember now what Balak, king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam, the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord." *
* Numbers xxii. &c.
Balak's consultations, or inquiries, are contained in the two last verses of our text: Balaam's answer in the third. In Balak's inquiries we see the ideas which he entertained of God, and of the service which he supposed would be acceptable to Him, and engage, him to forsake his people, and deliver him from his fears on their account. Balaam's answer corrects Balak's mistakes, and discovers surprizingly just apprehensions of the true God, and true religion, though depravity prevailed, and caused him to counteract his convictions, by advising Balak to measures directly opposed to his sense of duty.
To open and explain this subject is the design of the following discourse.
It may be proper to premise that Israel did not make war either on Moab or Ammon. Those nations were descended from Lot, and Moses was forbidden to molest them in possession of the lands which God had given them. Moab might have had peace, and the friendship of Israel, but refused it, and joined the confederacy against them. When the tribes of Israel reached the borders of Moab, which lay in their way to Canaan, Balak and his people were intimidated by their numbers, and by their martial appearance. They did not therefore, sue for peace, but resolved to neglect no measures to subdue and conquer them.
It was an ancient custom among the heathen at their entrance on a war, to devote the enemy to destruction, and solicit their gods to forsake them. Balak thought this a matter of importance before he entered into a war with Israel. This ceremony was commonly performed by the priests, or ministers of religion. How this had been to Moab we are not informed; but on occasion before us, the affrighted sovereign of that people, sent to some distance for Balaam, a famous soothsayer or diviner, of whose prevalence with the powers above he had a high opinion, to be the agent in this business.
Balaam was really a remarkable person; few more so occur in history. Few others had more knowledge of the true God, or juster ideas of the service which he requires of mankind. But his character will be developed in the sequel.
This renowned soothsayer refused at first to listen to the invitation of the king of Moab, assigning a sufficient reason for his refusal -- "The Lord refuseth to give me leave" -- but when a second embassy arrived, more numerous and move honorable, and with the proffer of great honors and rewards, his ambition and covetousness were inflamed, and he resolved from that moment to secure them. The first seems to have been only a common embassy, and to have carried only the usual rewards of divination. We know what followed. Balaam sinned in asking a second time for liberty to go and curse Israel, when God had once refused him, and told him that they were blessed. He asked, however, and was in judgment permitted to go, but only to act agreeably to divine direction which would be given on the spot; but he went, determined to secure the wages of unrighteousness. Seeing his design, God met him in the way, and by a strange and miraculous communication and warning, made him afraid to curse his people, and even compelled him to bless them altogether. But to come to our subject,
I. We are to consider Balak's inquiries. -- Wherewith shall I come before the Lord?
Balak had so deep a sense of the danger which threatened him, that he was ready to bring the most costly sacrifices, if they would avail to render propitious the God who had wrought such wonders in Egypt and in the wilderness for the salvation of his people. He would offer all the cattle, and all the oil of his kingdom, thousands of ram, and ten thousands of rivers of oil! Yea, he would even offer his first born, the heir of his crown! Would not refute the dearest of his offspring to atone for his sin, and bring over the God of Israel to be his God, in the time of his distress!
Such were his proposals. We may observe in them several mistakes respecting the service of God, or the homage which is acceptable to him; mistakes not uncommon among men. As,
First a supposition that sins may be atoned and mankind allowed to continue in them, if they will come up to the price. The country of Moab abounded with flocks, particularly with sheep; * it abounded also with oil; and Balak supposed that the divine favor might be obtained by sacrifices of this kind -- by a profusion of them -- thousands of ram, and ten thousands of rivers of oil. He knew himself a sinner -- he knew that he had taken part against the God of Israel; had served other gods, who were his rivals. But now he saw his need of the divine favor and he wished to purchase it -- at any price, to purchase it. He was ready to pay for his sins; only waited to know the price, and he would make the payment!
* 2 Kings iii.4.
Not a word do we hear of his parting with his sins and returning back by repentance.
Few left to the light of nature seem to have conceived the necessity of repentance, in order to obtain the divine favor. For their sins, they must somehow, make atonement, and they would then be forgiven, though they continued to commit them! Mankind have entertained different ideas of what was necessary to make atonement. The more common idea hath been, that it was to be done by sacrifice; however they came by that idea. It probably derived by tradition from the first family of our race. But there seems to have been a general mistake respecting the design of sacrifice. By those devoid of revelation, it hath not been considered as pointing to a divine sacrifice, but as having in itself an atoning virtue. So it seems to have been viewed by this Moabitish prince.
Another mistake respecting sacrifices, which hath been common in the world, is this -- That their value depends on their cost to the offerer. This was a mistake of Balak. If common offerings, and the usual number of victims would not procure the divine favor and atone for his sins, he would offer more, and more costly ones -- thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil! Such a profusion of sacrifices, of the same kind, or partly so, with those offered by Israel, so many more they were able, coming out of the wilderness, to offer, he hoped would prevail to detach from them their God, and buy him so to be his friend!
But if not, if these were too little, he would sacrifice his offspring! Give his first born for his transgression -- the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul! A sacrifice much more costly, much more painful, than that of all earthly treasure! Surely such an offering must prevail!
Similar conclusions have not been very uncommon! The homage offered up to God hath been estimated by its cost to the offerer! A circumstance which adds nothing to its value. The value of what is done for God depends on its conformity to his orders. That its cost to the offerer enhances its value, in the divine estimation, supposes him to be pleased with the sufferings of his creatures, and delighted with their sorrows, than which, nothing is farther from truth. "God grieveth not willingly -- Judgment is his strange work." Were it otherwise, the more reluctant the offerer, the more acceptable would be the offering: But God loves a cheerful giver; yea, he is so pleased with this disposition, that he accepts and rewards it, where ability is wanting to carry it into action. "If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted." *
* 2 Corinthians viii.12.
The sacrifices of old derived all their value from the sacrifice of Christ, to which they pointed. God had determined, when and how they would be offered. Additions to the number, or cost, added nothing to their value, but had a contrary effect, spoiled and rendered them unavailing. Human victims, the most costly, and therefore supposed by the heathen, to be the most efficacious, were so far from having power with God to draw down his blessing, that they most certainly drew his curse on all who offered them. This was one of the sins of the Canaanites, which above all others, availed to bring the divine judgments upon them. And when Israel fell into the same sin, it kindled the wrath of God against them to their destruction. This was the sin of Manasseh, "which God would not pardon."
Balak first proposed other sacrifices -- a profusion of them; but if they were not sufficient to atone for his sins and procure the friendship of Jehovah, seems to have thought that the sacrifice of his first born must avail!
Such were his blunders respecting the nature of that religion which would render him acceptable to the true God. He seems not once to have thought of repentance; or if he did, he made no offer of it -- did not once propose "crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts." He chose rather to sacrifice all the treasures of his kingdom, and all the members of his family, than part with his sins and become holy in heart and life.
Such is the temper of depravity. The servants of sin are sooner persuaded to make any other sacrifice than that of their lusts and corruptions. And many foolishly flatter themselves that other sacrifices will avail to procure the divine favor -- that holiness of heart and life are not indispensibly requisite, but that something beside may be substituted in its stead. Countless examples of this folly meet us in history, and even in the history only catholic church of Christ!
Thus did Balak mistake the nature of true religion, and consider it as consisting in that which was foreign, yea, repugnant to its nature. Such were his proposals which he spread before Balaam, and of which he required his opinion. Let us hear then the answer of the Sage.
Balaam was better instructed: He appears to have understood the nature of true religion, and clearly points it out to Balak, though he neglected himself to conform to it. He hath shewed thee, 0 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?
There is scarcely a better definition of true religion to be found in the bible.
He hath shewed thee, 0 man, what is good. -- From Balak's inquiry we should be ready to conclude that he was ignorant of God and religion -- that he supposed that God preferred sacrifice to justice and mercy -- that sacrifice would supply their place and render them of no account. Balaam tells him that he had been better instructed; though we know not where, or how. He hath shewed thee, what is good; and he appeals to Balak whether this was not the case -- What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, &c.
To do justly -- There is no true religion where justice is not received as a foundation principle. "I the Lord love judgment; I hate robbery for burnt offerings; and I will direct their work in truth." * Fraudulent people may pretend to religion; may make many and long prayer, but their religion is of no avail; their sacrifices are an abomination. + Witness the scribes and pharisees, who received the greater damnation.
* Isaiah l xi.8. + Isaiah i.10. &c.
The next characteristic trait here given of the good man, is the love of mercy. What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy?
There is something particularly to be observed in the language here used -- love mercy. -- It may not be in every one's power to shew mercy; but every man may, and every good man does love mercy. To "feed the hungry and clothe the naked," are acts of mercy, but not in the power of all men. Some are, themselves wholly dependent on the mercy of others for their own support.
Justice often restrains and sets bounds to the exercise of mercy. The judge may be grieved for the malefactor, and wish that he could shew mercy to him, but find himself obliged to condemn him and suffer justice to take its course. The debts which a person hath contracted may require all his goods, or all his necessities do not require. In such cases he is under obligation to shut the hand of charity, even against the proper objects of it. We have no right to defraud some, that we may shew mercy to others. Justice is a prior duty. We are tied up to the discharge of it -- are bound to do justly; whereas it is only required that we love mercy. The love of mercy will dispose us to shew mercy, where we have ability to do it without violating justice. Yea, it will cause us to do it with pleasure, rendering us like God, who "delights in mercy."
Acts of mercy may proceed from other principles beside the love of mercy, but these do not answer to the divine requirement. In the view of him who sees the heart they are not characteristic of renovation, or a heart right with God.
The third particular here mentioned as constituting the finishing part of the good man's character, is humility -- that he walks humbly with, his God -- that he is sensible of his imperfection, and of his need of mercy from God. This always makes a part of the good man's character.
The good man, while he is just to all, and while kind and benevolent, and disposed to do good to all, as he hath opportunity and ability, retains a sense of his defects, of his remaining depravity -- that he but too often deviates from his own principles -- that in every thing he comes short of his duty. Therefore doth he confess himself "an unprofitable servant" -- that he lays God under no obligation -- yea, that he lives on mercy -- that all the good things which he receives, are unmerited, the gifts of divine grace -- that was mercy denied him, and "the reward of his hands given to him, it would be ill with him" -- he should be undone forever.
Such is the character drawn by the Eastern soothsayer in the last verse of our text: And it is the perfect character of a child of God, in this state of imperfection, trial, and improvement, where he is pressing on towards that perfection which he never attains till he "puts off the body, and is clothed on with his house which is from heaven." Then "the spirits of just men are made perfect," and not till then.
"The spirits of just men" -- The words are expressive, plainly implying that none who allow themselves in injustice are the children of God -- that all the saints will eventually be found, to be "Israelites indeed in whom there is no guile."
Thus did Balaam instruct Balak, or remind him of what God required. Balak did not regard him. He could not be persuaded to make such sacrifices as these. He would give all the treasures of his kingdom, and even the fruit of his body, to procure the favor of God; but to sacrifice his corruptions, and put on the temper of a saint! -- These were hard requirements -- he must be excused! Therefore did he dismiss his instructor, who hitherto had "spoken only the word which God had put into his mouth" -- and went away though he went sorrowing!
The same is the temper of too many others. We may do much which God requires, may even go beyond and do much which he doth not require, and yet be nothing in religion. There must be the spirit and temper of true religion. There can be no commutation -- Nothing will be accepted as a substitute. We must do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, or have no part in him. Nothing without it will be accepted; not even "giving the body to be burned."
People may also have a good speculative acquaintance with religion and yet remain devoid of it. Such cases sometimes occur. Such an one occurred in him who spake so well in our text. Balaam appears to have had a perfect knowledge of the nature of religion; to have understood what it was and wherein it consisted. He was sensible also of the importance of being found at last to have lived under the influence of it. Therefore when looking forward to the period of his dissolution did he utter that earnest wish or prayer -- "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his." Yet he was not a good man! his knowledge resided in his head: It never reached his heart. "He loved the wages of unrighteousness;" lived and died under the government of depravity and wickedness! He dared not indeed to go in direct opposition to the letter of the divine command -- dared not curse Israel with his lips, though he longed to do it, and wished the curse to fall upon them, while he was blessing them and forefilling their future greatness. But he dared privately to advise Balak "to cast a stumbling block before them" -- To send among them the women of Moab, and seduce them to uncleanness and idolatry, in order to bring the curse of heaven upon them! His advice was followed and partly succeeded! Not to procure a victory for Moab, but to bring the judgments of God upon Israel; twenty four thousands of whom fell by the pestilence which was sent to punish "their sin the matter of Peor." And more tragical events would probably have followed, had not Phinebas stood up and executed vengeance on some of the principal offenders, and thus turned away the anger of the Lord from his offending people.*
* Numbers xv. and xxi.16.
* * * * *
Who can contemplate these things without astonishment! Who consider the character and conduct of Balaam and not be amazed! That a man so instructed respecting the divine character, the nature of religion, and the consequences which will follow human conduct here, should dare to set himself deliberately to evade the divine law, as wicked and artful men do human laws, surprises and confounds us! Yet so it certainly was in the case before us!
We are not left ignorant of the consequences: To him the "end of those things was death," eternal death, for he died in rebellion against God. And he seems to have anticipated the event; when speaking of the divine being, the true God and Redeemer, he breaks out into that language -- "I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh."
We can form no judgment of a person's moral state by his speculative knowledge of God and religion. Knowledge in divine things is important; on many accounts it is so; but it does not ensure goodness of heart, without which we cannot be saved; we may have "all knowledge," yet perish in our sins. So it happened to Balaam, and probably to others beside him. "If ye know these things happy are ye, if ye do them."
But we are chiefly concerned at home -- to know our own state. Do we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? If these are found upon us, happy are we; but if any of them are habitually wanting to us, we "are yet in our sins, and the wrath of God abideth on us."
If any are disposed to inquire with Balak, Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Let them attend to the answer given by Balaam -- if we add, reliance on divine grace in Christ no better answer can be given.
How far those of old were let into the gospel way of salvation we know not. Balaam expressed the temper of a child of God. Whoever possessed that temper relied on divine mercy, while endeavoring to fulfil all righteousness. Such would refer themselves to divine grace; and surely God would not be wanting to them. He might lead them by a way which they understood not; "but would bring them to their desired haven, and unto God their exceeding joy. Their labor would not be in vain in the Lord."
Dependence on divine mercy is still our duty. Though favored with gospel light, many things are yet hidden from us. Let us therefore do justly love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and he will guide us through the darkness, and bring us through to the rest which he hath prepared for those who love and serve, and trust him here. For these there is no commutation. Knowledge the most perfect; faith the most miraculous; and sacrifices the most costly, would all be of no avail. God hath shewn us what is good, and what he requires. May we hear and obey. Amen.