Let Me Die the Death of the Righteous
Numbers 23:10
Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous…

This certainly appears an extraordinary wish when we bear in mind the position and character of the man who uttered it. Any one taking these words on his lips, and thereby making them his own, would inevitably direct our attention to his life, and compel us to consider what he might be doing to make the wish a reality. From the time of his first entrance on the scene Balaam unconsciously reveals his character. He could not by any stretch of the word be described as a good man; the whole narrative is little but an illustration of his duplicity, selfishness, vanity, greed of gain and glory, and utter disregard of the plain commandments of God. The position of Balaam at this particular time is also to be remembered. He has been called to curse, twice pressed to make a long journey for this special purpose; he has offered sacrifices and sought enchantments to secure it; and yet he not only fails to curse, but, more than that, is compelled to bless; and, last of all, to crown the reversal of what had been so carefully prepared for, he is heard expressing an emphatic wish that he himself might be found among this blessed people.

I. CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT THESE WORDS OF BALAAM DISCONNECTED FROM ALL THEIR ORIGINAL CIRCUMSTANCES. Consider them as placed before some one who knew neither the character nor position of Balaam as the speaker, nor the position of Israel as the nation referred to. Let him know simply that these words were spoken once upon a time, and ask him to imagine for himself the scene in which they might be fitly spoken. Whither then would his thought be turned? Would it not be to some aged believer, gradually sinking to rest, with the experience that as the outward man decayed, the inward man was renewed from day to day, and with the conviction that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord; looking forward from time into eternity, according to the familiar illustration, as being "but a going from one room into another." Such would be the view suggested by the term "righteous," and the person expressing the wish would seem to be some studious, susceptible observer, with frequent opportunities for observation, who had been impressed by the reality and the superlative worth of the experience on which he had gazed. Then let such a one as we have supposed be confronted with these original circumstances. How perplexed he would be when told that the words were spoken by such a man as Balaam appears in the narrative, and of a people that had done such things as are recorded in the Book of Numbers! These words, looked at in a particular light, might be taken as indicating deep spiritual convictions and earnest, faithful life on the part of whoever speaks them. But we are bound to look at them now in the light of Balaam's character, and in the light also of Israel's past career.

II. CONSIDER THE ACTUAL EXTENT OF BALAAM'S WISH. He wishes to die the death of the righteous. Do not be misled by the prominence of the word "righteous" into supposing that for its own sake Balaam cared about righteousness. It was not righteousness that he desired, but what he saw to be the pleasant, enviable effects of righteousness. He cared nothing about the cause if only he could get the effects. He loved the vine because it produced grapes, and the fig-tree because it produced figs, but if he could have got grapes from thorns and figs from thistles, he would have loved thorns and thistles just as well. We have God revealing to an ungodly man as much as an ungodly man can perceive of the blessedness of the righteous. Balaam was entirely out of sympathy with the purposes of God. He showed by the best of all evidence that he would have nothing to do with righteousness as a state of heart, habit of conduct, and standard in all dealings with God and men. But though Balaam did not appreciate the need of righteousness, he did appreciate happiness, and that very warmly, in his own carnal way. He saw in Israel everything a man could desire. To have Balaam uttering this wish was as emphatic a way as any God could have taken to show Balak his favour to Israel. Not only from the top of the rocks does the prophet see the separated and multitudinous people, which in itself was enough to drive Balak to unfavourable inferences, but so desirable does the state of the people appear, that Balaam cannot help wishing it were his own. God had told him at first "the people are blessed," and now, as soon as he sees them, God also makes the greatness of the blessedness sufficiently manifest even to his carnal and obscured heart.

III. THUS WE SEE THE DEEP IMPRESSION WHICH THE BLESSED LIFE OF GOD'S PEOPLE IS CAPABLE OF MAKING ON THE UNGODLY. Those who as yet have no sympathy with righteousness may have a keen desire for security, joy, and peace, and a keen perception of the fact that these somehow belong to real believers in Christ. It is a characteristic of the Scriptures, and a very notable and important one, that many of the appeals found in it are to what seem comparatively low motives. Has it not indeed been made a charge against Christian ethics that they make so much of rewards and punishments? But surely this is the very wisdom of God to draw men by inducements suitable to their low and miserable state, to promise joy to the joyless, peace to the distracted, security to the fearful, life to the dying. Certainly Christ the Saviour can do nothing for us as long as we remain impenitent, unbelieving, and unreconciled, but in his mercy he speaks first of all in the most general and sympathetic terms concerning our needs. The most comprehensive invitation the Saviour ever gave runs thus: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Not a word there of conviction of sin, wrath of God, need of righteousness, need of saving faith! Is it by accident that the first psalm begins with a reference to happiness? The sermon on the mount starts with this as the very beginning of Christ's teaching: "Men are unhappy; how can they find and keep blessedness, real happiness?" Suppose a man who has no experimental knowledge of the saving power of Christ, reading through the promises of the New Testament and the actual experiences therein recorded; suppose him to see that if words count for anything, godliness is indeed profitable for the life that now is. Would it be anything strange for such a man to say, "If righteousness brings such effects as these, then let me die the death of the righteous"? Appealing to high motives alone would be all very well if those appealed to were unfallen spirits or perfected saints; but men being what they are, God does not esteem it too great a condescension to draw them to himself by the promise of blessedness, high, peculiar, rich, and lasting.

IV. GOD GIVES HERE THROUGH BALAAM A CLEAR INDICATION OF HOW THIS DESIRABLE BLESSEDNESS COMES. Israel is not only the happy people, but the righteous people. Righteousness brings the happiness, and is the condition and the guarantee of its continuance. Wherever there is righteousness there is an ever-living and ever-fruitful cause of blessedness. The presence of this righteousness as essential is still more clearly indicated in the next prophecy: "God hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob." That is the great difference between Israel and Moab. Moab is not without its possessions and treasures, its carnal satisfactions; Moab has much that it thinks worth fighting for; it has honours and rewards to offer Balaam such as have brought him all this way to utter, if he can, a curse against Israel. But Moab is not righteous, and the sight of its happiness will never provoke such a wish as Balaam's here.

V. THIS BRINGS US TO CONSIDER THE PECULIAR WAY IN WHICH THE WISH IS EXPRESSED. "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!" This is as comprehensive a way as was possible at the time of stating the blessedness of the righteous. Life and immortality were not yet brought to light. To die the death of the righteous was a very emphatic way of indicating the present life of the righteous in all its possible extent. No matter how long that life may stretch, it is one to be desired. "The righteous goes on as far as I can see him," Balaam seems to say, "and comes to no harm." The blessedness of God's people, if only they observe the requisite conditions, is a continuous, unbroken experience: not an alternation of oases and deserts. The fluctuations in that blessedness, the flowing and ebbing tides, come from defects in ourselves. Where there is the fullness of faith, prayer, and humility there surely will be the fullness of blessedness also. Then also, when we consider what Christ has shown us by his own experience of what lies beyond death; when we consider his own personal triumph, and the definite, unhesitating way in which a blessed resurrection is assured to his followers, and an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, we see a great prophetic importance in this particular mode of expression: "Let me die the death. Balaam's wish in the very form of it, so peculiar, and we may even say at first so startling, expressed far more than he had any possible conception of. Death stands crowning with one hand the temporal life of the righteous, and with the other opening to him the pure fullness of eternity.

VI. It is very important to notice that by the reference to Israel as the righteous AN UNERRING INDICATION IS GIVEN AS TO WHERE RIGHTEOUSNESS IS TO BE FOUND. Not they who call themselves righteous, but whom God calls righteous, are the people whose death one may desire to die. The true Israelite is he who fulfils the law and the prophets, as he is called to do and made competent to do by the fullness of that Holy Spirit which is given to every one who asks for him. "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." There is a worthless and deceiving righteousness which excludes from the kingdom of heaven, though the scribes and Pharisees, its possessors, make much of it. There is also a righteousness to be hungered and thirsted after (Matthew 5). We must be careful in this matter, lest we spend money for that which is not bread, and labour for that which satisfieth not (Isaiah 55:2). God hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, for where he beholds iniquity the seed of Jacob is assuredly absent. Those who have learned the corruption and deception, the necessary ignorance and incapacity, of the unrenewed heart, and thereby been impelled to seek and enabled to find renewal, life and light from on high, and holy principles and purposes for their future course, they are the righteous. Israel born of the flesh exists but as the type. We must not limit our view by him. "Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matthew 3:9). - Y.

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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!

WEB: Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous! Let my last end be like his!"

How Good a Thing it is to Die the Death of the Righteous
Top of Page
Top of Page