Woe to them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward…
This short Epistle is chiefly directed against false teachers who were endeavouring to introduce pestilent doctrines into the Church, and to lead away its members from truth and godliness. It appears as though the apostle here tracked them through three different stages of guilt — "the way of Cain," "the error of Balaam," and "the gainsaying of Core."
I. THE WAY OF CAIN. The apostle is not to be supposed here as referring to the atrocious act of slaying his brother. Whensoever reason is set up above revelation, whether the one be altogether rejected to make way for the other, or its statements reduced and modified that they may not exceed the other, then is there an imitation of "the way of Cain." And if there be what approaches at least very closely to a rejection of Scripture, may it not be contended that men have taken the first step in a course, of which utter destruction is the probable termination? It was not at once that Cain became a murderer; but when he had adopted his deistical creed, he had brought himself into the position of one whom Satan might attack with incalculable advantage, and we marvel not that, when fierce jealousy was excited, he raised his hand against his brother. And thus with those who follow him in setting up reason as a standard, by which all proof should be measured; they have no security, no defence against the setting light by all their better convictions, till they have confounded all moral distinctions and persuaded themselves into the most unlawful practices.
II. THE ERROR OF BALAAM. It is evident that covetousness was a ruling passion with these troublers of the Church; the apostle expressly says that it was "for reward" that they "ran greedily after the error of Balaam," so that their imitation of the prophet, who wished to curse Israel but was constrained to bless, must have been in the love of the wages of unrighteousness. Balaam knew what was right; Balaam knew the future consequence of what was wrong; but, swayed by present interest, he determined on doing the wrong, and sought only that, whilst doing it, he might by some equivocation keep his conscience at ease; he was not ignorant, he was not insensible, but he was bent on securing a present advantage, and his whole concern was that in doing this he might not fly openly in the face of an explicit command. And is this a rare or unusual case? What! does not the world swarm with men who are thoroughly conscious that they can gain what they wish only through disobeying God, who are not moved by this consciousness to the resisting the desire, but who look about to subterfuges and palliations, that they may secure what they long for, and yet have some apology to cloak the disobedience? Is it unusual to find an individual who, with his moral eyesight in a great degree opened to the nature and consequence of his conduct, resolves on persisting in that conduct in hope of obtaining a favourite object, but who all the while attempts some process of self-deceit, that he may hide the offence he knows he is committing?
III. THE GAINSAYING OF CORE. This appears to be given as the final stage of depravity, the reaching which is the reaching destruction: "they perished in the gainsaying of Core." It was a gainsaying which was directed alike against the throne and the altar. And the two are commonly combined. We say not that an irreligious man must be also a disloyal; but we affirm that a disloyal is almost always an irreligious. We know not how it can be otherwise. We know not how a good Christian can fail to be a good subject, "submitting himself to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake." For our own part we will never believe that loyalty is merely an acquired principle, drilled into men by education and fostered by custom. We are persuaded, on the contrary, that we are born with a reverence of authority, that God placed it in us as a part of that moral cordage by which He would have society knit together. Whether or no they admire his personal character, whether or no they approve the acts of his government, most men, we are convinced, tacitly acknowledge the sacredness of a king, and are moved by awe of the office to manifest devotion to him who holds it. We regard the enthusiasm thus simultaneously called forth as expressive of a kind of irrepressible consciousness that a king is, in some sense, the vicegerent of Deity, as proving what we might almost call an innate persuasion that there is a majesty in him who wears a crown, which it is a species of sacrilege to refuse to acknowledge. The unbidding acclamations of a peasantry pass with us as echoes of a voice which is speaking irresistibly in their breasts, proclaiming that it is by God that princes reign, and that whom He delegates the world should honour. And if we may thus contend that loyalty is a natural sentiment, we aggravate most grievously the sin of disobedience to all those precepts of Scripture that set themselves against the gainsaying of authority. And who shall marvel that "the gainsaying of Core," inasmuch as it proved an utter contempt of all instituted authority, both in civil and spiritual things, provoked signally the anger of God? It is given as the description of the last stage of enormity. The man who could join this gainsaying must have thrown off all fear of his Maker; for how otherwise could he take part in a league whose professed object it was to strip of power the persons of Divine appointment and to give to the meanest of the people that right of officiating with which one order could prove themselves exclusively entrusted? Thus it was with these seducers in the days of St. Jude. They had gone in "the way of Cain," and run "after the error of Balaam"; but there was a great obstacle to their schemes; the authority of the apostles or of their appointed successors was held in reverence in the Church, and was directly opposed to their proceedings. Sooner or later they would have to undertake the overthrow of this authority, and thus add imitation of Core to that of Cain and of Balaam. But God would at length interpose, and, having suffered them to fill up the measure of their iniquities, would visit them with the weight of His indignation. They should work their own ruin. And thus would it come to pass that they who had to describe their career would have to follow up the announcement that "they had gone in the way of Cain, and run greedily after the error of Balaam for reward," by an account at once of a crime and its punishment — "and they perished in the gainsaying of Core."
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core.