Give a general outline of the history. See Bishop Butler's great sermon.
I. How much knowledge and love of good there may be in a bad man.
Balaam was a prophet:
(a) He knew something of the divine character,
(b) He knew what righteousness was (Micah v.8).
(c) He knew of a future state, and longed for 'the last end of the righteous.'
He would not break the law of God, and curse by word of mouth:
But yet for all that he wanted to curse. He wanted to do the wrong thing, and that made him bad. And when he durst not do it in one way, he did it in another.
So he is a picture of the universal blending and mixture that there is even in bad men.
It is not knowledge that makes a man good.
It is not aspirations after righteousness. These dwell more or less in all souls.
It is not desire 'to go to heaven' -- everybody has that desire.
Perfectly vicious men are devils. There is always the blending.
Many of us are trusting to these vagrant wishes, but my friends, it is not what a man would sometimes like, but what the whole set and tenor of his life tends towards, that makes him. There may be plenty of backwater eddies and cross-currents in the sea, but the tide goes on all the same.
'All these fancies and their whole array
'Let no man deceive you; he that doeth righteousness is righteous.'
Do not trust your convictions; they are powerless in the fight.
II. How men may deceive themselves about their condition, or the self-illusions and compromises of sin.
These convictions will never, by themselves, keep a man from evil, but they may lead men to try to compromise, just as Balaam did. He would go, but he would not, for the life of him, curse; and he evidently thought that he was a hero in firmness and a martyr to duty.
He would not curse in words, but he did it in another way -- by means of Baal-peor.
So we find men making compromises between duty and inclination; keeping the letter and breaking the spirit; obeying in some respects and indemnifying themselves for their obedience by their disobedience in others; very devout, attentive to all religious observances, and yet sinning on. And we find such men playing tricks upon themselves, and really deluding themselves into the idea that they are very good men!
This is the great characteristic of sin, its deceitfulness. It always comes as an 'angel of light,' like some of those weird stories in which we read about a strange guest at a banquet who discloses a skeleton below the wedding garment!
'Father of lies.' 'Nihil imbecillius denudato diabolo.' The more one sins, the less capable he becomes of discerning evil. Conscience becomes sophisticated, and it is always possible to refine away its judgments.
'By reason of use have their senses exercised to discern.' 'Take heed lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.'
III. The absurdity and unreasonableness of unrighteousness.
We look at Balaam, and think, how could a man purpose anything so foolish as to go on seeking for an opportunity to break a law which he knew to be irrevocable!
Yet what did he do but what every sinner does?
All sin is the breach of law which at the very moment of breaking is known to be imperative.
All sin is thus the overbearing of conscience, or the sophistication of conscience, and all sin is the incurring voluntarily of consequences which at the moment are or might be known to be certain, and far overbalancing any fancied 'wages of unrighteousness.'
Thus all sin is the overbearing of reason or the sophisticating of reason by passion. Men know the absurdity of sin, and yet men will go on sinning. 'A rogue is a roundabout fool.' All wrongdoing is a mighty blunder. It is only righteousness which is congruous with a man's reason, with a man's conscience, with a man's highest happiness. 'The fear of the Lord,' that is wisdom.
IV. The wages of unrighteousness.
How Balaam's experiment ended -- his death. He tried to make the 'best of both worlds,' so he ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds, and this was how it ended, as it always does, as it always will. How death ends all the illusions, sternly breaks down all the compromises, reveals all the absurdities!
Men are one thing or the other. Learn, then, the lesson that no gifts, no talents, no convictions, no aspirations will avail.
Let this sad figure which looks out upon us with grey streaming hair and uplifted hands from beside the altar on Pisgah speak to us.
How near the haven it is possible to be cast away! Like Bunyan's way to hell from near the gate of the celestial city.
Balaam said, 'Let me die the death of the righteous!' and his death was thus: -- 'Balaam they slew with the sword,' and his epitaph is 'Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness,' got them, and perished!