The Biblical Illustrator
Balak . . . sent messengers unto Balaam.
Balak’s first application to Balaam; or, man and supernatural
I. Men in difficulty seeking supernatural help. “It was supposed that prophets and sorcerers had a power to curse persons and places so as to frustrate their counsels, enervate their strength, and fill them with dismay.”
1. There is a measure of truth in this. Men have had power granted them to curse others (Genesis 9:25; Joshua 6:26; 2 Kings 2:24). It is probable that Balaam had this power.
2. There is much error in the views under consideration. No man can curse those whom God hath blessed.
II. Man conscious of supernatural powers and of his subjection to divine authority in the use of them. Balaam was certainly not altogether an impostor. “In his career,” says Dean Stanley, “is seen that recognition of Divine inspiration outside the chosen people which the narrowness of modern times has be n so eager to deny, but which the Scriptures are always ready to acknowledge, and, by acknowledging, admit within the pale of the teachers of the Universal Church the higher spirits of every age and of every nation.” But notice--
1. His consciousness of great powers.
2. His consciousness of subjection to God in the use of his powers.
3. His sin against God.
III. Man receiving a supernatural visitation.
1. God’s access to man’s mind.
2. God’s interest in man’s life.
3. God’s authority over man’s life.
IV. Man dealing unfaithfully with a Divine communication. Balaam belonged to that still numerous class who theoretically know God, and who actually do fear Him, but whose love and fear of God are not the governing principles of their minds. They are convinced, but not converted. They would serve God, but they must serve mammon also; and in the strife between the two contending influences their lives are made bitter, and their death is perilous.
V. Men dealing unfaithfully as messengers. Learn--
1. The Divine communications have never been limited to any one people, or country, or age.
2. Great goodness is not always associated with great gifts. “The illumination of the mind is by no means necessarily associated with the conversion of the heart.”
3. Great gifts involve great responsibility and grave peril.
4. The temptation to covetousness is of great subtlety and strength, and assails even the most gifted natures (Luke 12:15-21). (W. Jones.)
Balak’s motives in sending for Balaam
The first motive is fear, yet in Deuteronomy
2. God forbade them to meddle with Moab, and thereupon they, were driven to compass about to their great trouble. But this is the just judgment of God upon them that have not their peace made with Him, to be vexed in their minds with unnecessary fears (Leviticus 26:36; Deuteronomy 28:65, &c.). You see how small a noise will startle thieves and other malefactors. Whereupon it is said, Oh, wickedness, ever fearful. These are they that tremble at every crack of thunder. Their conscience is a continual scourge to them. The fear of the Lord is strength to the upright man, but fear shall be for the workers of iniquity, saith Solomon.
2. The second motive is envy. They were their kindred, and they should have rejoiced, turned to them, and by common prayer sought the appeasing of God. But bitter envy seeing God’s favour to them, and mighty power among them, desireth rather their overthrow and confusion. They are motes in their eyes, rather than comforts to their hearts.
3. A third motive was suspicion. Balak, king of the Moabites, suspecteth this and that, according to his own fancy, and these imaginations and suspicions are as grand truths to him, making him cast this way and that to meet, with imagined danger, and among other ways to resolve of sending for the soothsayer, or sorcerer, Balaam. Oh, suspicion, what a mischief is it amongst men! Every man thinks his suspicion to be knowledge or little less. How many can you name that have given place to suspicion, and have not given place to error? Yet it hurteth no man more than him that hath it, whose inwards it tormenteth, whose sleep it driveth away, whose body it alters, and consumeth the heart to very powder in the end.
4. A fourth motive to this sending for Balaam was Satan’s subtlety working in Balak to take that course: for it may be observed often, that when Satan seeth open fury will not serve, then he directeth to wiles and guiles, piecing out the lion’s skin that is too short with the fox’s tail. (Bp. Babington.)
Balak and Balaam
The Israelites, toughened physically and morally by their long sojourn in the desert, and now well consolidated into a nation, are beginning to emerge from their southern retreat, and to betray their designs upon the regions bordering on the Jordan. They have met and defeated the desert tribes, and are now threatening Moab, which lies in their way. Balak, king of Moab, undertakes the defence of his territory, and, like a wise general, studies and adopts the tactics of his successful enemy. He has learned that the Israelites are led by Moses, a prophet of Jehovah, and that his prayers in the battle against Amalek secured the victory. He will see what of the same sort he can do on his side. Hundreds of miles away, near the head waters of the Euphrates, there lived another prophet of Jehovah, whose reputation filled the whole region. It does not concern us whether his gifts were on one side or the other of the line called supernatural; whether his sagacity was merely extraordinary or was clarified by special, Divine light. It is enough for us that he was great, keen and lofty in his vision, comprehensive in his judgment, that he had a high sense of his prophetic function, and was at first a man of integrity. Balak sends for him. The Israelites have a prophet; he will have a prophet. He sees in the battles hitherto fought a weight not belonging to the battalions, a spiritual force that won the victory; he will employ that force on his side. Moses is a prophet of Jehovah; his prophet also shall be Jehovah’s. A. very shrewd man is this Balak. Holding to the Oriental custom of devoting an enemy to destruction before battle, he will match his enemy even in this respect as nearly as possible. That a prophet should be found outside the Hebrew nation is simply an indication that God has witnesses in all nations; it denies the theory that would confine all light and inspiration to one chosen people. That Balaam comes from the ancient home of Abraham hints the possibility of a still lingering monotheism in that region. Though so remote, he probably knew all about the Israelites: their history from the patriarchs down, their exodus from Egypt, their religion, their development under the guiding hand of Moses, their power in battle, and the resistless energy with which they were slowly moving up from the desert with their eyes on the rich slopes of Palestine, He doubtless knew that this was not only a migration of a detached people, such as was now often occurring in Asia, but a migration inspired by a religion somewhat in keeping with his own. These Israelites were not his enemies, and he could not readily be made to treat them as such. When the messengers of Balak come to him with their hands full of rewards, asking him to go and curse Israel, he weighs the matter well, devotes a whole night to it, carries it to God in the simplicity of a good conscience, and refuses to go. So far he seems a true man, acting from considerations of mingled wisdom and inspiration. The messengers retrace their long journey, but Balak sends again by more honourable men and doubtless with larger gifts. He is a shrewd man, and knows what sort of a thing is the human heart. He sends not only gifts, but promises of promotion to great honour, and all by the hands of princes--a triple temptation: flattery, riches, place. How often does any man resist their united voice? Often enough he resists one of them; flattery cannot seduce him, nor money buy him, nor ambition deflect him, but when all unite-flattery dropping its sweet words into the ear, gold glittering before the eye, and ambition weaving its crown before the imagination--who stands out against these when they unite to a definite end? They had their common way with Balaam, hut not at once. Such men do not go headlong and wholly over to the bad side in a moment. The undoing of a strong character is something like its upbuilding, a process of time and degree. (T. T. Munger.)
The seductive spirit of the world
The relative position of the world to the kingdom of God is substantially the same as that of Moab and Midian to Israel, now drawing near. The same enmity still remains in the world, in manifold forms; and it is the instinct of self-preservation which incites the world and its followers to do their utmost against the coming of God’s kingdom among them. When force would do no good, then they resort to cunning, or to caution, that they may oppose the progress of God’s cause among them in so far as it is possible; and natural enemies, such as Midian and Moab, frequently become sworn friends for a time, whenever it appears expedient to combine against the one whom both oppose. On every hand, the world looks out for allies, servants, friends; as Balak did to Balaam, she promises to bestow on you her favours and her wealth, if you but follow her behests, and make her will your own. If you refuse, as he did at the first, the world will not believe that you act but from principle--rather, she thinks that you regard self-interest; but she will give you large rewards when you but sell yourself to her. “All things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me”: so spake the prince of this world to Jesus; and at every turn he modifies his voice, but still to say the same thing, in the softest tone, to all Christ’s followers--nay, even to every one of His redeemed. What is it that you seek, insatiable heart--honour, or luxury, or gold? All these, if need be, may be had for almost nothing by the man whose conscience is not over scrupulous. This Balak also, like a true destroyer, rests not for an instant till he brings you where he will; and if the first attempt does not succeed, he makes a second, and a third. The world knows very well, like Balak, how to suit herself to circumstances when they change, and to attract some friends from every side. Nay, she can even, in her own time and way, be quite religious--that is, from mere policy, and ill-concealed self-interest; and if you like, she shows all possible respect for--forms. But, for your very life, ye who are striving for her praise and her reward, venture not to show that you really will obey God rather than any man! The world, if need be, will forgive you everything; but this it cannot possibly forgive--that you most earnestly believe God’s Word, and give obedience to what He requires. Scarce can you show, like Balaam, that you hesitate, because the truth is much too strong for you, ere favour from the world is quite withdrawn; your name appears no longer on the list of friends, but is consigned to deep oblivion; and all the more dishonour falls on you, the greater was the honour meant for you at first. You are a most unpleasant, useless man, and quite intractable; like Balaam, you are roughly pushed aside, and told, “The Lord hath kept thee back from honour”; and then the world, instead of her intended laurel-wreath, presents you with a crown of thorns. Her love, it now appears, was nothing but fine show--her flattery, deceit. To such a world--so selfish, false, malicious, just like Balak--should you make your heart a slave? (J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
Possible origin of the chronicle of Balaam
Every reader of this book must have observed that in Numbers 22:2-41; Numbers 23:1-30; Numbers 24:1-25 we have an episode complete in itself; and all the modern critics who have studied this Scripture concur, I believe, in the conclusion that, in this place, the author or compiler of the book has inserted one of those ancient, detached or detachable, documents of which we find so many in the Pentateuch. Where and how he got it is a question not easy to answer, if, indeed, answer be possible. But, from the comparatively favourable light in which the chronicle presents the facts of Balaam’s story, most of our best scholars conclude that in some way he derived it from Balaam himself. We are told (Numbers 31:8) that, together with five Midianite chiefs, Balaam was taken prisoner by the Israelites, and put to “a judicial death” after the battle had been fought and won. A judicial death implies some sort of trial. And what more natural than that Balaam should plead in his defence the inspirations he had received from Jehovah, and the long series of blessings he had pronounced on Israel when all his interests, and perhaps also all his inclinations, prompted him to curse them: Such defences, in the East, were commonly autobiographical. Even St. Paul, when called upon to plead before kings and governors, invariably told the story of his life as his best vindication. And if Balaam called upon to plead before Moses and the elders, told the story we now read in his chronicle--what a scene was there! What a revelation his words would convey to the leaders of Israel of the kindness of God their Saviour, of the scale on which His providence works, and of the mystery in which it is wrapped to mortal eyes! So, then, God had been working for them in the mountains of Moab, and in the heart of this great diviner from the East, and they knew it not! Knew it not? nay, perhaps were full of fear and distrust, doubting whether He Himself were able to deliver them from the perils by which they were encompassed! As Balaam unfolded his tale, how their hearts must have burned within them--burned with shame as well as with thanks fulness--as they heard of interposition on their behalf of which up till now they had been ignorant, and for which at the time perchance they had not ventured to hope! Balaam may well have thought that such a story as this would plead for him more effectually than any other defence he could make. And, no doubt, it did plead for him; for we all know that it is when our hearts have been touched by some unexpected mercy that they are most easily moved to pity and forgiveness: it might even have won him absolution but for that damning sin of which nothing is said here--the infamous counsel he gave to the daughters of Midian which had deprived Israel of four-and-twenty thousand of its most serviceable and precious lives. Even with that crime full in their memories, it must have cost Moses and the elders much, one thinks, to condemn to death the man who had told them such a story as this. (S. Cox, D. D.)
God came unto Balaam.--
In Balaam we have one of the most mysterious, in some respects one of the most puzzling, contradictory, and tragical of the characters of Holy Writ; withal one of the most instructive and interesting. He is complex; multiform in his mental and spiritual conformation, many-sided in his mental and spiritual manifestations. One man appears at one time; another and vastly different at another. You despair of catching and fixing the permanent man.
I. Let me first ask attention to some preliminary points which may be noted.
1. The materials on which our knowledge of him is based are chiefly contained in four passages of Scripture (Numbers 22:1-41; Numbers 23:1-30; Numbers 24:1-25.; Micah 6:5-8; 2 Peter 2:12-16; Numbers 31:1-54.).
2. I would next note the generosity, the magnanimity, of all these Scripture notices. The whole story is told with a fineness of touch, a magnanimous silence, or the merest hint concerning his grosser sin, a generous concealment of all aggravating circumstances. It is in the Bible, and, so far as Church histories are concerned, probably in the Bible alone, that we find not only justice, but generosity, towards defeated rivals, generous tributes to what is good, generous veilings of what is bad.
3. I would also call attention to the fact that there is free and full acknowledgment made of the reality and the sublimity of his inspiration. It is never denied: it is unequivocally owned. And this though Balaam was a heathen, one outside the visible Church; nay, not only outside of it, but arrayed against it.
4. Mark, too, the various opinions concerning this strange man held in different ages and by different authorities in the Church. The historian of the Jews, Josephus, styles him, in strongest language, “the first (best) of the prophets of the time”--ungrudgingly regarding him as a true prophet of the true God, but with a disposition ill adapted to meet temptation. Coming down to Christian writers, we find Ambrose and Augustine speaking of him as a magician and soothsayer, a prophet, indeed, but inspired of the devil; but we find Tertullian and Jerome, with greater and more Scriptural liberality, more favourably interpreting his position and the source of his endowments.
II. Let us now proceed to the analysis of the life and its story. Balaam would have protested against being called an enemy of God; would have insisted on being regarded as a friend. To every accuser he could have replied that he was obedient all through to God’s voice, that he did not go till God gave permission, and that he was careful to yield to the prophetic power that spoke through him; yet all through he was a force against God, an opponent of the purposes of grace, and on the side that could not be either for the glory of heaven or the gain of earth. And so there are men who would feel outraged if called thieves who will, all the same, sell an article for what it is not; who would deem you mad were you to accuse them of murder, yet will help a brother on to the death of his soul; who name the name of Christ, yet are forces for the meatiness and avarice, the uncharity and unchastity, which the law cannot reach, but which are as far from the mind of Christ as is the theft or the murder which the law can. (G. M. Grant, B. D.)
The character of Balaam
It is common to speak of Balaam as a wicked man, to censure him as utterly devoid of principle, as completely abandoned to the dominion of evil, especially of avarice. And we have the highest authority for regarding him as a wicked man: he loved the wages of unrighteousness. But when we conceive of Balaam as a wicked man simply, we have by no means a just conception of his real character. He was not under the entire dominion of any evil principle or habit whatever. There is in him a wonderful admixture of good and evil; a combination of elements the most opposite.
I. We see in Balaam a man of great mental endowments, of varied spiritual gifts, and of extraordinary illumination.
II. We see in Balaam great apparent deference to the Divine will, an anxious solicitude to know it, and to act according to it.
III. We have in Balaam a melancholy instance of an attempt to reconcile a sense of duty to a vicious inclination--to conform the unyielding rule of right to the designs of avarice. This is the instructive peculiarity of his character. He knew what was right, and for many reasons he was anxious to do it. His conscience would not allow him to act in direct opposition to the will of God; but, at the same time, his heart was not wholly in God’s service. Covetousness lay deep within him. How obvious the reflection that no man knows what he is until he is tried! During the hard frosts of winter it is impossible to tell what venomous insects, what noxious weeds or beautiful flowers are concealed in the earth; but let the genial showers and sunshine of spring come, and the weeds and the flowers will show themselves, and the venomous insects will come forth out of their hiding-places. So is it with men.
IV. Another remark, suggested by the character and history of Balaam, relates to the rapid and fearful progress of sin. So it was with Judas: he had not the slightest wish to injure his Lord; he wished only to obtain the thirty pieces of silver. So it has been with many ambitious monarchs: they have had no pleasure in the misery of their fellow-creatures; they have thought only of their own fame and power. So it has been with many zealous persecutors: they have no natural thirst for human blood; they have thought only of the establishment of their creed--the extension and honour of their Church. So it is with many in common life: they have no wish to injure others; but they wish to secure their own ends, and they do not hesitate to trample on those who stand in their way.
V. In the character and history of Balaam we have a striking illustration of the deceitfulness of the human heart. Men will neglect the moral, and yet will attend to the ceremonial, and on this ground will think themselves clear; they will commit the greater, and yet will hesitate to commit the less, and on this ground will pronounce themselves pure; they will violate the entire spirit of the Christian law, and yet will scrupulously observe the letter of some precept or precedent, and on this ground will pronounce themselves consistent Christians.
VI. The history of Balaam illustrates some very important principles of the Divine government. The present is a state of probation, but there is in it not a little that is retributive; and though God deals with us as a kited parent, there is often much that is judicial in His proceedings. We have a striking illustration of this in the history of Balaam. In his heart Balaam desired permission to go with the princes of Moab, because he coveted the wages of unrighteousness; and God gave him that permission. This was not an act of mercy, but of judgment. The history of Balaam illustrates another principle of the Divine government--that which is involved in the statement, “The way of transgressors is hard.” This is as much in mercy as in judgment. The history of Balaam also illustrates the solemn truth, that the “wages of sin is death.” “Balaam also, the son of Beer, they slew with the sword.” Whatever may be the result here, the ultimate end of such a course as that which we have endeavoured to describe must be destruction. (J. J. Davies.)
Balaam is one of those instances which meet us in Scripture of persons dwelling, to a certain extent, in the gloom of heathenish practices, while preserving at the same time a certain knowledge of the one true God. He was endowed with a greater than ordinary knowledge of God; he had the intuition of truth, and could see into the life of things; he was, in fact, a poet and a prophet. Moreover, he confessed that all these superior advantages were not his own, but derived from God, and were His gift. Thus, doubtless, he had won for himself among his contemporaries a high reputation not only for wisdom and knowledge, but also for sanctity. And although his sanctity comes to very little in the end, when his besetting sin overmastered him, yet it may be readily understood that, judged by the standards which prevailed among the heathen nomad tribe which sent for him to curse the nation of Israel, he would appear to be an eminently holy man, so much so that, as Balak said to him at their first interview, “I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and that he whom thou cursest is cursed.” But then, it may be asked, if Balaam was looked upon as a holy man and as a worshipper of Jehovah, how came Balak to send for him and to offer him vast rewards to curse the people of Jehovah? The answer is, that it was not uncommon among those heathen nations--nor is the practice even now unknown among pagan tribes--to offer sacrifices to the gods of the enemy to propitiate them to themselves. The ancient Romans repeatedly did this. Doubtless there were many professed enchanters and soothsayers in the land of Moab; but king Balak--perhaps having previously tried these without success--may have preferred sending five hundred miles for a renowned prophet who had the reputation of more than mortal wisdom and power, who was also a worshipper of Jehovah, and who might for that reason be all the more likely to propitiate His anger, or to turn Him against that strange people which had “come out of Egypt,” and now, marching with unearthly tokens along the desert, had pitched their tents within sight of the strongholds where Balak had his habitation. Consider now the first message which the renowned soothsayer received from the terrified king. Clearly he wished to go, and was disappointed and chagrined at being prevented. But why should he feel any disappointment? We might have been at a loss to know, had it not been for the ray of inspired light shed upon the whole narrative by a single line from the pen of the Apostle Peter. That apostle tells us that “he loved the wages of unrighteousness.” He did not particularly like the work, but he loved the wages. Like many another covetous soul, if he could have grasped the wages without doing the devil’s work, he would have preferred it; and he loved the wages so well that, although he at first refused to go, yet presently we find him venturing on the work for the sake of getting the pay.
1. Mark here, then, the first, the earliest effect of cherishing any besetting sin. It is that God is served reluctantly. Sin is looked at with a longing eye. The prohibition seems hard and unreasonable.
2. Mark now the second application made by Balak, in which the unhappy prophet, who has begun by grumbling at God’s will, is placed in further and severer temptation. I cannot but pity him here, as we pity many another poor slave who makes just one momentary effort to break off his chains. Or perhaps the speech with which he met the second deputation from Moab was artfully intended to enhance the value of subsequent compliance--we cannot certainly tell. But at all events he protests manfully: “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” So also Peter valiantly protested when his Master was about to be betrayed: “Though all men should deny Thee, though I should die with Thee, I will not deny Thee.” Yet within a few short hours Peter had denied his Master thrice; and within a few short hours Balaam was on his way to the borders of Moab. The difference between the two cases is that Peter at once went out, wept bitterly, and received forgiveness; whereas Balaam, having started on a career of covetousness, never retraced his steps, and is set forth to us in the lurid light portrayed by St. Jude, “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” We have seen that the first effect of besetting sin is that the Lord is served reluctantly. The next effect is that pretences are sought for its indulgence, or at least for putting ourselves in the way of it. The second time that God appears to Balaam there seems to be a permission to go, though coupled with a warning that he would say nothing but what the Lord should command. It by no means follows that because Balaam received a kind of permission to go, that his journey had the Divine approval. The Lord answers our prayers sometimes as He answered the prayers of Israel for a king, in His anger; nor is it easy for a greater curse to come upon a man than to be left to the gratification of his own selfish and sinful desires. Let us pray that God Almighty would cross our most cherished purposes, and defeat our darling projects, rather than suffer us in our own self-willed perverseness to enter upon a path in defiance of His holy will. St. Peter speaks of Balaam’s going with the princes of Moab as madness and iniquity: he “was rebuked for his iniquity; the dumb ass, speaking with man’s voice, forbade the madness of the prophet.” And is this the man who so boldly declared that he would not turn aside from the will of God one hair’s-breadth if Balak would give him his house full of silver and gold? Poor human nature! How little do even great men know themselves! How small the importance to be attached to mere profession! How are people likely to deceive themselves and to deceive others when speaking what is called their experience, but which is sometimes only a strong emotion of the moment, to be displaced or destroyed by the first attack of temptation! How often has it happened that those who make the loudest profession of their virtue, and of their love to the cause of God, are the first to succumb to covetousness or other besetting sin I And now the narrative, in opening before us a fresh scene, suggests at the same time a further view of the progress of a besetting sin. How striking is the circumstance that, although the ass, on three several occasions, saw the Angel with drawn sword standing in the way, Balaam saw Him not! God, says St. Augustine, had punished his cupidity, by according to him a permission conformable to his wicked inclination; and we see in him all the corruption of the human heart, and all the depravation of a will enslaved to a dominant lust. Other interpreters maintain that his permission to go was on the understood condition that he was not to curse Israel; and that it was because his heart, craving after the gold, was already wavering from this purpose, that the Angel of the Covenant accused him of perverseness, and having given him a striking and solemn warning, suffered him again to go forward. I confess that this view of the case commends itself to my own judgment.
3. But whichever view you adopt, the blindness of this perverse prophet is equally monitory. He appears before us a type of those well-instructed sinners whom every one except themselves sees to be running to their own ruin, blinded by the fascination of covetousness or some other master sin. After this Balaam is given up to his own heart’s lust--the last and most terrific result, in this life, of the indulgence of besetting sin. “Go with the men,” the Lord says to him, giving him up to his own heart’s lusts, which he followed to his destruction. “Go with the men”--when neither the first words of God who forbade him, nor the signs and dangers which met him by the way, could turn his heart or deliver him from his error, the Lord bids him to go on--as Jarchi, the Jew, well paraphrases the words--“Go with the men, for thy portion is with them, and thine end to perish out of the world.” (L. H. Wiseman.)
Balaam was certainly a heathen soothsayer and diviner (Joshua 13:22). But he was more than a mere soothsayer. He had certainly, for one thing, a very full knowledge of the character of God. Thus, he again and again employs, in speaking of God, that covenant name “Jehovah” (Numbers 22:8; Numbers 22:13; Numbers 22:18-19; Numbers 23:3; Numbers 23:8; Numbers 23:12; Numbers 23:21; Numbers 23:26; chap. 24:1, 6, 13), by which He was specially made known to Israel (Exodus 6:2-3). And such terms as, “the Lord my God” (Numbers 22:18); the “Almighty” (Numbers 24:4); “the most High” (Numbers 24:16), also occur in the course of his utterances, implying, by the variety of expression so easily adopted, a very much wider acquaintance with the Divine character than is commonly supposed to belong,to ordinary heathens. Nor was the knowledge which Balaam possessed of the character of God a merely verbal or speculative knowledge. It is manifest that he stood in certain intimate personal relations with Jehovah. He speaks of the Lord as “the Lord his God” (Numbers 22:18); and the whole tenor of his intercourse with Jehovah, on this occasion, implies a previous acquaintance with God--such an acquaintance with God, indeed, as almost presupposes previous immediate communications between God and himself. And it may have been, that his extraordinary reputation as a prophet had arisen from the fact that God had, from time to time, “put words into his mouth,” which he had spoken, and which had also come to pass. Nor is there wanting in the character of Balaam a certain tone of high religious feeling also. He has the profoundest reverence for the authority and word of God. The word that God putteth into his mouth, that will he speak! Nay, nor would he, though Balak should give him his house full of silver and gold, go beyond the word of the Lord, &c. Nor must we deny to Balaam a certain personal and spiritual sympathy with the truths he uttered in God’s name. (See Numbers 23:10; Numbers 24:23.) “He, too, is borne away, at least for a time, by the grandeur of the announcements he is making. There is that in him which reaches out with a true, although too transient, yearning after the coming triumphs of the people and kingdom of God.” We must not paint this portrait wholly black. An honest and a truthful man; an independent and (in a certain sense) high-minded man; a Godfearing and religious man: such is Balaam, the son of Beer, of Pethor, on one side of his character. And yet he is a bad man, despite his many virtues, and a man who finally perished miserably with the enemies of God’s people. A strange phenomenon, indeed, this Balaam! a heathen soothsayer and an inspired servant of the Lord; a man full of richest endowments, animated by many very noble impulses, uttering the most exalted sentiments; and yet a man whose heart was rotten at the core, whose life is only written as a warning against sin, whose death was an unmitigated tragedy.
I. We see here, in the fact of Balaam’s inspiration, although he was a heathen soothsayer, an evidence and witness to the wider relations that God holds with man than is sometimes supposed. The fact is, it hath pleased God, for His own most wise and gracious purposes, gradually and slowly to mature His final plan of mercy for the world in Jesus Christ; and, with a view to its completeness and maturity, to confine it, at the first, within restricted lines of influence. But it is a monstrous, heathen notion to suppose that all the while this final plan of mercy was in course of development, the great, wide world, without the parallels in which it moved, was utterly neglected and forsaken of its God. No! the world was also being educated, in its way, as well as the Church: educated on a humbler method, and with more “rudimentary” instruction, but educated; and educated of God. Two lines of culture, then, have been going on in the world, side by side, under the providential direction of the Most High God, and with a view to the ultimate salvation of the world. A primary and rudimentary culture, under what Paul calls the “elements of the world,” consisting of the ordinary course of Providence, with occasional interpositions of sovereign grace and special instances of inspiration; and a systematic and formal culture for a selected portion of the human family, under the written law of God, with constant interpositions of sovereign grace, and almost constant inspiration.
II. That, in dealing with men by His spirit, the Lord has regard to the moral and spiritual standpoint at which each man may be found. Balaam is a soothsayer, and yet he is inspired of God! Balaam seeks the Lord by means of enchantments, and yet the Lord does not refuse to come to him, but responds to his appeal again and again I But, then, it is to be considered that Balaam was a heathen, and that he had been brought up in the midst of the practice of divination, if he had not, indeed, inherited his position as a diviner from his father. It was plainly one thing for such a man as Balaam to employ enchantment, and quite another for an Israelite to do so. For to Israel, if I may so speak, was given a diviner augury--in God’s law, and in God’s presence in their midst; and so to them the use of all these heathen arts was absolutely interdicted (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). But, as the art of divination was the highest point to which the heathen world had been able to attain in their pursuit of the unseen, so God condescended to meet Balaam, at that special point of spiritual culture, that He might lead him thenceforth to higher forms of truth and nobler modes of worship.
III. How broad is the distinction between spiritual endowments and spiritual character. Balaam was both an inspired man, and also, at the same time, a very wicked man. He gave expression to the noblest sentiments, and yet performed the basest deeds. See, then, how little mere endowments, even of the highest kind, can do for us; how widely separated from each other are gifts and graces. The gifts which we receive from God are, in reality, no proper part of us, until we make them ours by a light use of them. And our character is measured, not so much by the number of talents we have received, as by the fidelity we have exhibited in the employment of the talents we have. It by no means follows because we have spiritual faculties that we are spiritual men. These faculties are given to us beforehand to aid our usefulness, if we become spiritual men, and in the hope, as one may say, that we shall become spiritual men. But, for all our gifts, we may still be “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” It is quite possible for divinely-bestowed gifts to miss their object and intention! (W. Roberts.)
I. In the first place observe that there is no time of man’s life wherein he may not be tempted, or may not be in danger of falling off from God and goodness; which should be an argument to us for constant care and watchfulness over ourselves. Even those whom God hath favoured in a very particular manner, and with heavenly gifts and graces, are no more secure than others, if they take not proportionable care.
II. Observe how dangerous a thing it is so much as to attend or listen to the charms of wealth and honour. For a gift will sometimes blind the wise, and a bribe will beguile their hearts. Balaam looked too much upon the golden presents, and was too sensibly struck with the sound of honour and preferments; which made him the less consider upon how slippery ground he stood, and how dangerous an affair that was to concern himself in.
III. Observe, that when God sees men leaning too far to ambitious or covetous desires, and not wise enough to take such gentle hints as might be sufficient to call them back, he then leaves them to pursue their own hearts’ lusts, and lets them follow their own imagination.
IV. Observe next, how foolish a part a man acts, and how he exposes himself to contempt and scorn, as well as danger, when he takes upon him to follow his own way and humour, and will not have God for his guide.
V. Observe, further, that when once willful men have run such lengths in opposition to the will of Heaven, God then gives them up to a reprobate mind, and lets them fall from one degree of wickedness to another. So it was in Balaam.
VI. One thing more we may observe from his history, which is this: that the Spirit of God may sometimes vouchsafe to come upon a very wicked man (so far as concerns the extraordinary gifts) without reforming or influencing the same man as to his life and morals, in the way of ordinary operation. These two things are very distinct, and may often be separate, as in Balaam at that time, and in Judas afterwards. (D. Waterland, D. D.)
I. The piety of Balaam.
1. The spiritual enlightenment of Balaam evinces his piety.
2. Balaam’s piety is seen in his distinctly recognising the supreme authority of the will of God.
3. The piety of Balaam was manifested in his obedience to the will of God.
II. The apostasy of Balaam.
1. The means through which Balaam was induced to apostatise must not be overlooked. He was enticed by worldly wealth and distinction. Principle is surrendered, honour lost, the soul itself bartered for the wages of unrighteousness. Such was “the error of Balaam.” And who knows not that by this very means multitudes have been seduced from their integrity, and lost for ever? Like the fabled Atalanta, while they were running well, the golden apple was thrown at their feet, tempting them; and stooping from their high principles to take it up, they have lost the race.
2. Mark the progress of Balaam’s apostasy. First, we notice the indulgence of evil desire--desire for gain and honour, which could only be obtained by wrongdoing; his heart goes after covetousness. Next he tampers with temptation. The reiterated overtures of Balak should have been indignantly rejected. Why are these ambassadors received even a second time? Why another and another audience granted to them? Alas! he is fascinated by the very means of his ruin: like a silly fish, he is playing about the bait. Then, how he struggles with conscience! Guard against the beginnings of evil. If the downward career of apostasy be once commenced, whither thou mayest be hurried, to what depths of degradation thou mayest fall, God only knows. Like the swine of the Gadarenes, thou mayest be driven onward, literally possessed by the devil, until plunged into the abyss below. Oh bow deeply have some fallen I from small beginnings degenerating to the darkest crimes--crimes which are a loathing and an abhorrence. “Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?”--but, as a quaint writer saith, “the dog did it.” We may start from the line of rectitude at a very small angle, the divergence becoming gradually wider and wider, till we are as far from righteousness as hell is from heaven.
3. Consider the checks which presented themselves in the way of Balaam’s apostasy, but which he obstinately resisted and overtrod. What pains the gracious Lord taketh to prevent our self-destruction I To the truth of this every backslider is witness. How powerful an obstacle is conscience, which ever and anon raiseth its voice, and will be heard, like the voice of the Lord which thundereth! Death, too, like a spectre from the invisible world, again and again obtrudes it elf on the apostate’s guilty soul. Dumb things have a voice to him that hath ears to hear, rebuking our madness.
4. Contemplate the issue of Balaam’s apostasy. It entailed immense mischief upon others. Through him thousands of the Lord’s people perished. At the same time his fall issued in woeful disappointment to himself. (J. Heaton.)
What men are these with thee?--
God’s interest in man’s companionships
This question was designed to awaken “the slumbering conscience of Balaam, to lead him to reflect upon the proposal which the men had made, and to break the force of his sinful inclination.” God addresses the same question to the young who are forming dangerous associations, to Christians who take pleasure in worldly society, &c. He urges this solemn inquiry
This inquiry indicates the Divine concern as to human companionships. We may regard this concern as--
I. An indication of the Divine solicitude for the well-being of man.
II. An indication of the importance of our companionships.
1. Our associates indicate our character. “A man is known by the company which he keeps.”
2. Our associates influence our character. “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.”
III. An indication of our responsibility to God for our companionships.
IV. An indication of the danger of dallying with temptation. (W. Jones.)
Evil company to be avoided
Flee unholy company as baneful to the power of godliness. Be but as careful for thy soul as thou wouldst be for thy body. Durst thou drink in the same cup, or sit in the same chair, with one that hath an infectious disease? And is not sin as catching a disease as the plague itself? Of all trades, it would not do well to have the collier and the fuller live together; what one cleanseth, the other will blacken and defile. Thou canst not be long among unholy ones but thou wilt hazard the defiling of thy soul, which the Holy Spirit hath made pure. (W. Gurnall.)
The Lord refuseth to give me leave.
Hesitating to do right
Whence this mingled petulance and feebleness? Plainly Balaam wants to go with the princes of Balak, and he is irritated that he cannot go; and so, first of all, he vents his spleen upon the men who were the innocent occasion of his disappointment. And yet, in the midst of all his anger, he cannot bring himself to utter such decisive words as shall foreclose for ever the prospects of advancement opened up to him by Balak. There can be no mistaking the spirit of this language. It is at once both insolent and hesitating; it is abrupt, and yet circuitous. There are deeply agitating influences at work upon the mind of him who, yesterday, a master of wise speech and full of graceful hospitality, can say to inoffensive guests, “Get you into your own land; for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you.” Here, then, we first catch sight of Balaam’s weakness and infirmity. The prospect of emolument in the discharge of his prophetic office had excited his cupidity. When he first saw the rewards of divination he was, perhaps, scarcely conscious of their influence upon his mind. So long as the question of his going with the men was undecided, he betrayed no agitation on the subject; but now that these rewards were passing out of his reach--now that he was absolutely forbidden to do anything that would secure them, a passionate desire to be possessed of them was stirred within his breast, and unmistakably betrayed itself in his behaviour towards the men to whom he had promised to communicate the answer of the Lord. (W. Roberts.)
If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them.
No contradiction between God’s two answers to Balaam
The first time God tells him not to go; the second time He bids him go, but is angry with him because he goes. What dues this contradiction mean? There is no meaning in it till we drop the external shell of the story, and look at the moral working of Balaam’s mind, when all becomes orderly and natural. There is here no contradiction. Between the first and second asking there is a change in his moral attitude. In the first he is docile and obedient, and the voice of conscience, which is the voice of God, prevails and decides his conduct. He enters into the second already half won by Balak, dislodged from his old sympathies, restless under the comparison between his old life and that laid open to him. When men revolve moral questions in such a temper, they commonly reach a decision that accords with their wish rather than with their conscience. Balaam has abandoned the field of simple duty--duty so plain that there is no need of second thoughts. It is clear enough that in no way could it be right to curse those whom God had blessed; this he well knows, and the spontaneous verdict of his conscience is God’s first answer But, brooding over the matter and sore pressed by temptation, he begins to contrive ways in which he may win the gifts and honours of Balak, and also remain an honest prophet. Here is his mistake. Duty is no longer a simple, imperative thing, but something that may be conjured with, a subordinate, unstable tool instead of an absolute law. Having thus blinded himself as to the nature of duty, there will no longer be any certainty in his moral operations; confusion of thought leads to confusion of action; in his own transformation he transforms God; he now hears God bidding him do what he desires to do. Still, at times, conscience revives, his judgment returns, and then he knows that God is angry with him for doing what he had brought himself to think he might rightly do. This is every-day experience put into this ancient story in a dramatic yet real way. When a man has thus trifled with himself and with his duty, God does indeed seem to say to him, “Go on in your chosen course.” He serves God in the externals of religion, but in business cheats and lies in what he calls business ways, and grinds the faces of the poor under some theory of competition, yet God prospers him; no hindering word comes to him from Providence or from the insulted Spirit of truth. It may be better, it may be, in a certain sense, the command of God, that one who starts on such a path shall follow it to the end, and find out by experience what he has rejected as an intuition. With the froward God shows Himself froward. To those who have pleasure in unrighteousness God sends a strong delusion that they should believe a lie. This is the concrete way of stating how the moral nature acts when it is led by double motives. It comes into bewilderment; it gets no true answers when it appeals to God; its own sophistries seem to it the voice of God. It can no longer tell the voice of God from its own voice. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” (T. T. Manger.)
God answers men as they wish
It is not unusual with God to grant, not only the desires of an holy and upright mind, but also our desires for inferior things, when the heart is set upon them in preference to Himself. For instance, a man is on his guard against the dangers of wealth and station; but by degrees he thinks whether he cannot obtain them lawfully, and by and by he is engaged in the pursuit, and in such a ease God gives the man usually that for which he craves. He seeks, he obtains; God seems to say, “Go on.” There is no greater danger than for God to answer a man according to the desires of his own heart; and therefore Job says, “If thou prepare thine heart, and stretch out thine hands towards Him; if iniquity be in thine hand, put it far away” (Job 11:14). And in Ezekiel God says, if a man comes to inquire of Him with idols in his heart, and setting the stumbling-block of his iniquity before his face, He will answer him according to his idols, he will be taken in his own heart. “If that prophet be deceived,” it is added in very remarkable words, “I the Lord have deceived him, and I will punish him” (Ezekiel 14:4-5; Ezekiel 14:9). But yet in this case God does not give us up altogether. As when Israel asked for a king, He gave indeed what they desired--but He expostulated, He warned, He sent them a token of His displeasure. So will He show us by His Providence that He is displeased with us; in the way that we go, His angel with the sword in his hand will meet us, i.e., some calamity, some accident, some grief, is sure to cross our way to remind us from God that the way that we are going is not the way of holiness or of peace. And these are all calls from God, not at all the less so because when a man’s eyes are blinded with worldly business and covetousness he does not see them to be such. (Isaac Williams, B. D.)
Balaam; or, spiritual influence, human and Divine
I. The influence of a bad man upon society.
1. A man’s influence in this world is no proof of his moral worth. The millions of all ages readily accede to the claims of the pretender, however lofty; and the more lofty the better, if the claimant can manage to keep his countenance while the admiring dupes look on.
2. Society, in relation to true intelligence and right sympathy, is in a very lamentable state. A true education, involving the harmonious unfolding of the feeling as well as knowing faculties of the soul, will make a man a “discerner of spirits.”
3. The high probability of a future retributive economy. Does not the mutual relation between empty pretenders and the ignorant victims of all ages predict a reckoning day, and cry out for a judgment?
II. The influence of the great God upon a bad man (Numbers 22:18).
1. God does exert a spiritual influence over the minds of bad men.
2. The spiritual influence He exerts over the minds of bad men is of a restraining character.
3. God’s restraining influence upon a bad man is for the good of society. (Homilist.)
Balak’s second application to Balaam; or, the decrease of resistance to evil
I. The repetition with increased force of the request of Balak to Balaam.
1. The embassage was more influential.
2. The message was more urgent.
3. The inducements were stronger.
Learn: that temptations which have been declined half-heartedly are presented again, and with greater force. The manner of Balaam’s dismissal of the former messengers prepared the way for a repetition of their mission.
II. The repetition under aggravating circumstances of guilty delay by Balaam.
1. He had been challenged by God as to the presence of the former messengers.
2. He had already been prohibited from complying with the request of Balak.
3. He himself felt arid plainly declared that he was bound by the word of the Lord in the matter.
III. The repetition of the Divine visit to Balaam.
1. The permission granted.
2. The condition enforced.
IV. The setting out of Balaam on the journey. (W. Jones.)
The character of Balaam
We take this to be the great crisis in Balaam’s life. We take this act, which to many appears so excellent, to be the first step in his downward course. It was not only the day of God’s power towards Israel, but a day of grace to Balaam; but, alas! he knew it not. The precious moment on which so much depended was lost; henceforth his downward course was rapid. He perished in the rejection of grace and mercy. There is a crisis in our histories as in Balaam’s, a time, perhaps a moment, on which our eternity depends. There may be nothing to mark it out as a great crisis at the time. The Spirit of God may strive with you, gently strive. There may be some conviction in your mind, and all may depend on your yielding up your heart to Christ, and acting upon that conviction at once. If you waver when you ought to act; wait for more light, when you have light enough; if you allow any second thought to come in to determine what you shall do, anything selfish or worldly, when you ought to act simply for God, then the Spirit may leave you; your day of grace, like Balaam’s, may pass by, or it may be some temptation which is presented to you. We do not mean any awful temptation, one which the world itself would counsel you to resist. It may be some offer which you would be deemed foolish in rejecting, something that the world thinks an advantage; and yet if you do give way to the temptation, oh, what unforeseen consequences may follow, step by step, with unerring certainty! Let it now be impressed upon your hearts what great and eternal consequences may depend upon one little act. Oh, be faithful to God, faithful in apparently little things, as well as in great. But we must go a step further and ask, “What was it that gave this bias to Balaam’s will, and led him still to inquire, when he ought to have felt, ‘God has revealed His will; it is enough. I will not move from my place’?” Scripture gives a complete answer to that question. It was a besetting sin, and we are told what it was. It was the sin of covetousness (2 Peter 3:15). There are two most solemn lessons which this ought to rivet on our hearts. First, we see the amazing power and awful effects of one besetting sin. We see how it perverts the will, how it keeps the heart from resting on the plain word of God--how it leads to neglect, yea, not even to know, the day of visitation--and how it hurries the soul onward, blinded and debased, to a point at which at first it would have shuddered. The other lesson is the deceitfulness of the human heart. Its wishes may be quite opposite to its most solemn professions; and at the very moment when it seems to be guided by the will of God it may be following some device or desire of its own. To what earnest self-inspection should this character lead us, lest our hearts, too, should be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin--lest, satisfied with a decided profession, we forget that God is the searcher of the heart, and that He deals and will deal with us, not according to what we profess to be, but according to what we are, according to the real state of our hearts. (G. Wagner.)
Perversion as shown in the character of Balaam
I. Perversion of great gifts.
1. By turning them to purposes of self-aggrandisement. Balak struck the keynote of his character when he said, “Am I not able to promote thee unto honour?” Herein, then, lies the first perversion of glorious gifts: that Balaam sought not God’s honour, but his own.
2. By making those gifts subservient to his own greed.
II. Perversion of conscience.
1. The first intimation we have of the fact that Balaam was tampering with his conscience, is in his second appeal to God. There is nothing like the first glance we get at duty, before there has been any special pleading of our affections or inclinations. Duty is never uncertain at first. It is only after we have got involved in the sophistries of wishing that things were otherwise than they are that it seems indistinct. Considering a duty is often only explaining it away. Deliberation is often only dishonesty. God’s guidance is plain, when we are true.
2. The second stage is a state of hideous contradictions: God permits Balaam to go, and then is angry with him for going. There is nothing here which cannot be interpreted by bitter experience. We must not explain it away by saying that these were only the alternations of Balaam’s own mind. They were; but they were the alternations of a mind with which God was expostulating, and to which God appeared differently at different times; the horrible mazes and inconsistencies of a spirit which contradicts itself, and strives to disobey the God whom yet it feels and acknowledges. To such a state of mind God becomes a contradiction. “With the forward”--oh, how true! - “Thou wilt show Thyself froward.”
3. We notice next the evidences in him of a disordered mind and heart. It is a strange, sad picture. The first man in the land, gifted beyond most others, conscious of great mental power, going on to splendid prospects, yet with hopelessness and misery working at his heart. Who would have envied Balaam if he could have seen all the hell that was working at his heart?
4. Lastly, let us consider the impossibility under such circumstances of going back. Balaam offers to go back. The angel says, “Go on.” There was yet one hope for him, to be true, to utter God’s wolds careless of the consequences; but he who had been false so long, how should he be true? It was too late. In the ardour of youth you have made perhaps a wrong choice, or chosen an unfit profession, or suffered yourself weakly and passively to be drifted into a false course of action, and now, in spite of yourself, you feel there is no going back. To many minds, such a lot comes as with the mysterious force of a destiny. They see themselves driven, and forget that they put themselves in the way of the stream that drives them. They excuse their own acts as if they were coerced. They struggle now and then faintly, as Balaam did--try to go back--cannot--and at last sink passively in the mighty current that floats them on to wrong. And thenceforth to them all God’s intimations will come unnaturally. His voice will sound as that of an angel against them in the way. Spectral lights will gleam, only to show a quagmire from which there is no path of extrication. (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
Obedience without love, as instanced in the character of Balaam
I. Balaam was blessed with God’s especial favour.
1. He had the grant of inspiration.
2. The knowledge of God’s will.
3. An insight into the truths of morality, clear and enlarged, such as we Christians even cannot surpass.
4. He was admitted to conscious intercourse with God, such as even Christians have not.
II. Balaam was a very conscientious man.
1. When sought by Balak he prayed to God for direction.
2. When forbidden to go, he refused to go.
3. Only when God gave him leave did he go.
4. And when he was come to Balak he strictly adhered to God’s orders. Balaam was certainly high-principled, honourable, conscientious. He said, and he did; he professed, and he acted according to his professions.
III. Yet, while in one sense in God’s favour, he was in another and higher sense under God’s displeasure. He was displeasing to God amid his many excellences. So that, in Balaam’s history, we seem to have the following remarkable case--i.e., remarkable according to our customary judgment of things--a man Divinely favoured, visited, influenced, guided, protected, eminently honoured, illuminated--a man possessed of an enlightened sense of duty, and of moral and religious acquirements, educated, high-minded, conscientious, honourable, firm; and yet on the side of God’s enemies, personally under God’s displeasure, and in the end (if we go on to that) the direct instrument of Satan, and having his portion with the unbelievers. This surely is most fearful to every one of us--the more fearful the more we are conscious to ourselves in the main of purity of intention in what we do, and conscientious adherence to our sense of duty.
IV. What is the meaning of this startling exhibition of God’s ways?
1. It is possible to be generally conscientious, or what the world calls honourable and high-principled, yet to be destitute of that religious fear and strictness which God calls conscientiousness, but which the world calls superstition or narrowness of mind.
2. God gave Balaam leave to go to Balak, and then was angry with him for going, because his asking twice was tempting God. God is a jealous God. We may not safely intrude upon Him, and make free with Him.
1. We see how little we can depend, in judging of right and wrong, on the apparent excellence and high character of individuals.
2. Observe the wonderful secret providence of God, while all things seem to go on according to the course of this world.
3. When we have begun an evil course we cannot retrace our steps.
4. God gives us warnings now and then, but does not repeat them. Balaam’s sin consisted in not acting upon what was told him once for all. Beware of trifling with conscience. May He give you grace so to hear as you will wish to have heard when life is over--to hear in a practical way, with a desire to profit--to learn God’s will and to do it! (J. H. Newman, D. D.)
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 his 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 knows the true God. More, be has the Spirit of God in him, and thereby utters wonderful prophecies; and yet he is a bad man. How can that be? Now bear in mind, first, theft 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. 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, and a perfect knowledge of human nature, which ought to teach us some of the secrets of our own hearts. But what may we learn from this ugly story? Recollect what I said at first, that we should find Balaam too like many people nowadays; 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 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. Aye, they are often more attentive than ever to religion, because their consciences pinch them at times, and have to be 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 missionary meetings, and charitable institutions, and everything that is good and pious. I must be right with God.” Deceiving their own selves, 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 tiled 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. (C. Kingsley, M. A.)
Trifling with conscience
What was Balaam’s prime mistake? I think it was this, that he trifled with his conscience. God speaks once to the human soul, and speaks loudly; but if you disobey His voice, it soon sinks to a whisper. “When I was a little boy,” said Theodore Parker, “in my fourth year, one fine day in spring my father led me by the hand to a distant part of the farm, but soon sent me home alone. On the way I had to pass a little pond, then spreading its waters wide; a rhodora in full bloom, a rare flower which grew only in that locality, attracted my attention, and drew me to the spot. I saw a little spotted tortoise sunning itself in the shallow water at the root of the flowering shrub. I lifted the stick I had in my hand to strike the harmless reptile; for though I had never killed any creature, yet I had seen other boys out of sport destroy birds and squirrels and the like, and I felt a disposition to follow their wicked example. But all at once something checked my little arm, and a voice within me said, clear and loud, ‘It is wrong.’ I held my uplifted stick in wonder at the new emotion, the consciousness of an involuntary but inward check upon my actions, till the tortoise and the rhodora both vanished from my sight. I hastened home, and told the tale to nay mother, and asked what it was that told me ‘it was wrong.’ She wiped a tear from her eye, and taking me in her arms said: ‘Some men call it conscience, but I prefer to call it the voice of God in the soul of man. If you listen and obey it, it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right; but if you turn a deaf ear and disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you in the dark and without a guide. Your life depends on heeding that little voice.’ “ This is the truth, let me say again, of Balaam’s history; and having so shown it to you, or tried to make you see it, I might almost leave it to your reflection without a word. But as I want you to realise what the human conscience is, and how responsible you all are for your mode of treating it, there are just two or three remarks which I will make.
1. Firstly, there are some people who make a boast, as it were, of having what I may call a loose or easy conscience. They think it a sign of intellectual light to be free from conscientious scruples. They say, “Oh, yes, no doubt there was a time when it was thought wrong to touch or to read newspapers and secular books on Sundays, or to go to a theatre, or to participate in dancing or card-playing or any such thing; but these were Puritan days, and we have outlived them, we have learned to laugh at them, we do nowadays pretty much as we like.” This is the sort of language which is often heard in the world. Now what I say to you about it shall be simple common sense. I agree to some extent with the people who so speak. It is a mistake, I think, to multiply the number of sins. There are so many things which are wrong in the world, and it is so hard for most of us to keep from doing them, that I should say we make a mistake if we involuntarily add to the number of things which we may not do. Only forgive my saying that, if one must make a mistake, then it is better to err on the side of abstaining from good than on the side of running heedlessly into wrong. It is better to have a weak conscience than a wicked one. Do not you think that for one person who violates the Sunday from a religious motive, there are twenty who violate it because they do not care for religion at all? And is it not likely--ah! how likely--that, if we are not careful to cherish the means of grace and of religious practice, if we do not go to church and to the Holy Communion, we shall gradually sink into a worldly way of looking at things, and our religion will die away altogether?
2. Again, let me impress upon you that your conscience is plastic; you are always forming it, always making it better or worse. If you listen to it when it speaks, it speaks more plainly; if you neglect it, it will simply cease to speak. Ought it not to be your prayer, your daily effort, to see good and evil as God sees them? For, believe me, I am telling you what I know, when you grow up and go out into the world, you will hear people saying of even the vilest sins, “What does it matter? I do not see the wrong of it.” There is a blindness of the soul as well as of the body; and although the blinded soul cannot behold the Sun of Righteousness, the Sun is shining in the heaven all the same.
3. Lastly, follow your conscience, and it shall lead you to God. Believe me, the only way to get more spiritual light is to live according to the light you have. It may be only a ray that breaks athwart the darkness; make the most of it, and some day you shall have more. There may be hereafter only one duty which is clear to you, only one friend or kinsman whom you can help, only one boy whom you can keep from evil, only one piece of work which you alone can do. Well, do that. Try to accomplish that one object. Try to save just that one human soul. Gradually, it may be after many a day, the clouds will break. You will know more of God’s will. He will seem nearer to you. His voice will sound more clearly in your soul. You shall enter into that Divine peace which the world may neither give nor take away. (J. E. C. Welldon, M. A.)
Balaam, an instance of moral perversion
How came it that Balaam acted so inconsistently with his knowledge and convictions, and succeeded for the time, as we may say, in juggling with his conscience? The answer is not hard to find. He loved money. His heart was set on gold. He had allowed the passion of covetousness to become the ruling principle of his nature. I have somewhere read of one who, having found a young leopard, petted it, and trained it to be his daily companion in his chamber. It grew up to maturity, but still it was kept beside him, and men wondered at his foolhardiness in permitting it to go unchained. But he would not be advised. One day, however, as it licked his hand with its rough tongue, it ruffled the skin, and tasted his blood; and then all the savage nature of the brute came out, and there was a fearful struggle between them, from which he escaped only by destroying it. So it was, in some respects, in this case. Balaam had nurtured his covetousness into strength; and now, at the offer of Balak’s rewards, its full force came out; but, instead of fighting with it and slaying it, he yielded to it and was destroyed. What a terrible passion is this of covetousness! and how dangerous it is, especially to those who wish to preserve a fair appearance! For in men’s estimation it is, at least in its beginnings, a respectable thing. Nor is its respectability its only danger, for in the minds of many it is associated only with large sums of money; whereas in reality it may be as strong in the heart of him whose dealings are carried on in cents as in that of one whose transactions are concerned with hundreds of thousands of dollars. No one of us, whether rich or poor, whether minister or layman, has a right to say that there is no fear of him in this matter; for if the love of money takes possession of the heart, it will blind the eyes, and harden the conscience, and become a root of evil, so that we shall “fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts that war against the soul.” But what is true of covetoushess is true also of every evil principle, so that we may generalise the lesson here, and say that if the heart be fixed on any object as its God, other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may expect in the end, whatever may be our knowledge, and whatever our scruples in other respects, that we shall act against our convictions, and make shipwreck not only of the faith, but also of ourselves, “ without possibility of salvage.” (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
Balaam the man of double mind
He was one of those unstable men whom the apostle calls doubleminded--an ambidexter in religion, like Redwald, king of the East Saxons, the first who was baptized, who, as Camden relates, had, in the same church, one chapel for the Christian religion, and another for sacrificing to devils. A loaf of the same leaven was our resolute Rufus, who painted God on one side of his shield and the devil on the other, with the desperate inscription in Latin--“I am ready for either.” (C. Ness.)
A brave speech, certainly! Yes, no doubt it was true that Balaam felt that even for a house full of silver and gold he could not go beyond the word of the Lord. But, in the first place, why protest so much concerning silver and gold? Balak’s message had not mentioned silver and gold--it spoke specially of honour. Surely it must have been because the mind of Balaam was so much preoccupied with thoughts of silver and gold that he thus spake; answering himself rather than others. And then, why does Balaam say, “I cannot” go beyond the word of the Lord? Why does he not roundly say, “I will not go beyond the word of the Lord”? As it is he only speaks of inability; he does not mention such a thing as personal disinclination. These flaws we notice in his words. But still, upon the whole, his speech was brave, just, perhaps, as one may say, one whit too bold. For if there be one thing that we have need to stand in doubt of, in moments of temptation, it is high sounding phrases of determination. For, as a rule, we may be sure the courage of the heart is in an inverse proportion to the valour of the lip. Balaam was conscious of an inward faltering in reference to that which lay before him, and he sought to veil the weakness of his purpose by the vigour of his protestations. (W. Roberts.)
Dallying with temptation
Balaam is very sure that he shall confine himself to the word of the Lord, but he, himself, out of his own heart, has begun to entertain the purpose of getting upon the scene of these glittering temptations. He proposes to remain a true man, but he enjoys the company of these honourable princes. He will remain a true man, but he would like to be near a king who can send such presents. He will remain a true man, but, once in Moab, his wit will stand him in hand better than in these dull regions where he dwells. It is the old, old story of humanity--dallying with temptation in the field of the imagination, bribing conscience with fair promises, yet all the while moving up to the forbidden thing. It is a history not seldom repeated. Oh, no! I shall never become a miser, but I propose to be exceedingly prudent. I shall never throw away my reputation, my character, but I will feed eye and ear and imagination with pictures of forbidden pleasure. I shall never become a drunkard, but I will drink in moderation. I shall never permit myself to be called a selfish man, but I will take good care of myself in this rough world. I shall never become dishonest, but I will keep a keen eye for good chances. Thus it is that men are passing to ruin over a path paved with double purposes. Balaam now gets a different answer. The first time he is honest and open, and is told to remain; the next time he takes into the interview his own desires, which are against his convictions, and a half-formed purpose, and he comes out of it with the answer he wants; desire has taken the lead of conscience. He starts on his ill-fated journey, meets with strange, confounding experiences--reflections of the moral confusion into which he has fallen--experiences, however, that serve to steady and buttress him on his professional side, but are not able to prevent his fall as a man. (T. T. Munger.)
On tampering with conscience
Is this conduct of Balaam’s strange or unusual? Have we none of us done exactly as Balaam did? I protest that men are doing precisely as Balaam did every day. Yes, and every day are meeting with the selfsame punishment, and braving the selfsame anger. Temptation to self-aggrandisement of various kinds comes before us, there is a prospect of a brilliant success, there is the hope of some tempting reward; the only condition is a course of action about the lawfulness of which we are in doubt. Then comes the trial--we ponder: on one side is the bait glittering--we long for so great a prize. But God comes to us--speaks to us in our consciences--speaks to us by His Word--speaks to us by His Spirit, saying, Forbear! there is sin in the doing of that which must be done ere the end you long for can be attained. And at first we acquiesce. Clearly it has been shown to us, that though ease and pleasure be sweet, duty is stern and may not be gainsaid; that though success be exquisite delight, unfairness is always vile and bad; that though fame and position be longed for never so eagerly, yet to depart from truth or honesty is to depart from God. But by and by the temptation is looked at again and again--the thing we long for is always before us, the thing we fear is far; and we begin to ask whether our first impression was really quite so unmistakably right as we believed it. We look to see if for some little swerving from the rigorous path of virtue some excuse may not be found. And we question whether the end may not be attained without quite using all the means. We seek to know if our consciences cannot allow us to grasp the thing we wish, and for its sake bear us blameless for once in doing the thing we shrink from; and, in short, little by little, we give ourselves to be deceived as Balaam did. We ask for guidance, perchance with a divided heart; we pray God to teach us how to act, when we have already more than half decided. We pretend to leave ourselves in His hands, and yet we are only pretending; and then if He speaks to us at all, it is a voice which speaks to a conscience that has become confused, and a judgment that has suffered itself only too willingly to be disjointed; and though the voice seems to be, and in some sense is the voice of God, yet it is, indeed, only a lie. (A. Jessopp, M. A.)
That was a bright suggestion of a little boy who made the following answer to the question of a passer-by. Seeing the little fellow patting his father’s horse, that was standing in front of his house, the man asked, “Can your horse go fast, my boy?” “No, not very,” he replied, “but he can stand fast.” That is a virtue not to be despised in a horse; a faithful animal that can be trusted to remain in his tracks without pulling down the hitching post or breaking his halter is to be coveted. Can it be said of you, boys, that you “can stand fast”? Are you firm when tempted to do wrong? Are you easily led astray? Put yourself on the right side, and when urged to step aside from it remember always to stand fast. (Juvenile Templar.)
Gold an ignoble motive for service
The noblest deeds which have been done on earth have not been done for gold. It was not for the sake of gold that our Lord came down and died, and the apostles went out to preach the good news in all lands. The Spartans looked for no reward in money when they fought and died at Thermopyhae; and Socrates the wise asked no pay from his countrymen, but lived poor and barefoot all his days, only caring to make men good. And there are heroes in our days also, who do noble deeds, but not for gold. Our discoverers did not go to make themselves rich when they sailed out one after another into the dreary frozen seas; nor did the ladies who went out to drudge in the hospitals of the East, making themselves poor, that they might be rich in noble works; and young men, too, did they say to themselves, “How much money shall I earn” when they went to the war, leaving wealth and comfort, and a pleasant home, to face hunger and thirst, and wounds and death, that they might fight for their country and their Queen? No, children, there is a better thing on earth than wealth, a better thing than life itself, and that is, to have done something before you die, for which good men may honour you, and God your Father smile upon your work. (C. Kingsley.)
“No” without any “Yes” in it
Many a promising youth has been ruined because he did not know how to say “No.” There are many people who say “No,” but so faintly that there seems a “Yes “ in it, so that it only invites further persuasion. Many a man, tempted by appetite within, and by companions without, says “No” feebly and faintly. His “No” has a “Yes” in it. A lad was coming along the street one day with a young man who lived near him who was somewhat excited by strong drink, and after walking along awhile with his companion he drew a bottle from his pocket, and said, “Have some? Well, hand it over,” replied the lad. The bottle was passed to him, and raising it aloft he hurled it with a crash against the stone wall, and turning to his astonished companion, he said, “Don’t you ever put a bottle to my lips again.” The young man was inclined to be irritated, but he had sense enough to retain his anger. The lad’s “No” had not any “Yes” in it There are scores of young men who need the decision which this lad had. (S. S. Chronicle.)
A rotting conscience
I think no man could have his arm rot and drop away, from wrist to shoulder, and not know it; but you shall find numberless men whose consciences have rotted, from circumference to core, and they know nothing about it, They are less concerned about themselves than when the corruption first began. This silence of the hollowing out of a man--this noiseless process of preparing him for destruction, is an element of very great fearfulness. It fills me with grief and sadness, as I look on men, to know that as the snow falls, flake by flake, and no sound tells of its accumulation--that as the dust sifts in, and no noise warns of its choking rise, so silently, so surely, man is heaping to himself wrath against the day of wrath, and does not know it. (H. W. Beecher.)
Something wrong with conscience
A steamboat going at full speed approached a bridge. The pilot saw that the draw was not open, and rang his bell to have the engines reversed. There was ample time to bring the vessel to a stand, if the signal had been obeyed. But, in spite of it, the boat went crashing through the bridge, causing great, damage and much peril, though, as it happened, no actual loss of life. It was found afterwards that the bell-wire was broken, so that the bell did not ring in the engineer’s room. Something like this often happens to that safeguard of our soul which we call conscience. It gets disordered in one way or another and doesn’t work. A danger is perceived. We see plainly the course we ought to take. Conscience warns us that we are on the wrong road. Why don’t we stop, and turn into the way we know is safe? Because conscience has lost its power. In the engine-room of our ship of life, where Will presides, the voice of conscience is unheard, or, if heard at all, is unheeded. Instead of being a recognised and regarded imperative, as it ought to be, it has become impotent. The instinct that tells us to do what is right and to shun what is wrong is one of the highest faculties of the human soul. Like all our powers, both of mind and body, it may be blunted and withered and deadened until it is practically lost. Youth is the time to watch against and avert this awful disaster. We cannot too carefully cherish the first and quick sensitiveness which gives to conscience its proper mastery, and causes it to be obeyed as God’s own voice speaking in the heart of man. (Christian Age.)
Parallels to the case of Balaam
Parallels to the case of Balaam are not difficult to find. Cardinal Wolsey, dispensing ecclesiastical ban and blessing, at the mandate of Henry the Eighth; Richelieu and Mazarin, each betraying his churchly trust for the sake of political power--are well-known instances. Contrast with these Ambrose’s stern arraignment of Theodosius, an account of which will be found in any good ecclesiastical history. The schoolboy who sneers at religion, hoping to gain thereby the favour of his companions, is unconsciously following in the footsteps of Balaam. The demons gave good testimony to Christ (Luke 8:28-29) and to His apostles (Acts 19:15), but that did not render them any the less demons. So Balaam, himself a wicked man, prophesied of the coming Messiah. Compare the case of Caiaphas the high priest (John 11:50-51). Recall Christ’s description of the judgment, where many who have prophesied the truth in His name will be told that they are none of His (Matthew 7:22-23). Balaam fell, though his eyes were open. (American S. S. Times.)
God’s anger was kindled because he went.
God permits Balaam to go, and yet is angry
“Go,” said the Voice; “but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.” Was this merely the echo of the Divine word in a hollow, bewildered conscience? That is not a full explanation of the fact, though it is one which we must not disregard. Balaam did go, and was intended to go. He would not have learned the lesson which he was to learn if he had not gone. And yet his going was a wilful act. It was the struggle of one determined to have his own way, claiming the privilege of a man, while he was reducing himself into the condition of an animal, one that mast be held in with bit and bridle, because he will not be guided and governed as a spiritual creature. You are puzzled at the language of Scripture about God’s permitting Balaam to go, and then being displeased at him for going. You may well be puzzled. For what are so utterly bewildering as the mazes and contradictions of a human will, confessing a Master, struggling to disobey Him? But would you rather that the Bible left this fact unnoticed? Would you rather that it described human actions and events without reference to it? Is that the proof which you demand that it was written by God and for men? You will not have that sign if you ask for it ever so much. Not here alone, but everywhere, you will be met with these contradictions; man striving with God, God dealing with him as a voluntary creature, such as He had made him to be, not crushing his will by an act of omnipotence, but teaching it to feel its own impotency and madness. (F. D. Maurice, M. A.)
The Divine permission of self-will
I do not see how any thoughtful man can consider this story without discovering why God allows men to enter on ways which are not good, and which are therefore full of peril, and why He nevertheless “withstands” them when they walk in them. He allows them to enter on such ways that they may come to know themselves as they are, in their weakness as well as in their strength, that they may see clearly what is evil in their nature as well as what is good; and He withstands them in order that they may become aware of the perils to which they are unconsciously exposing themselves, may feel their need of His guidance and help, and may suffer Him to save them from their sins, and out of weakness make them strong. (S. Cox, D. D.)
The cause of God’s anger with Balaam
God is not angry without cause; and the one cause which makes Him angry with men is some unrighteousness in them, or some inward leaning toward unrighteousness. And what could the unrighteous leaning of Balaam be but that, in the conflict between his own interests and desires and the will of God, he was permitting his interests and desires to prevail over his sense of duty, suffering the baser elements of his nature to override the promptings of that in him which was highest and best, giving way, in short, to the temptation which Balak had held out before him, and scheming how he might please man without altogether breaking with God. So absorbed is he in his schemes, so preoccupied, that this man, ordinarily so alert, so quick to discern omens, so sensitive to spiritual intimations, so proud of his open eye, actually does not see the angel who stands full in his path, with his sword drawn in his hand. This inward preoccupation and deterioration was “the madness” which the dumb ass forbad and rebuked. And how severe and humiliating, yet how merciful, the rebuke! How humiliating that he who prided himself on being “the man whose eyes are open, who heareth the words of God and seeth the vision of the Almighty,” should find himself outdone by the very beast he rode, blind to what even his ass could see; so insensate, so “transported from himself” as that he had sought to slay the very creature who had saved him! And yet what a wonder of mercy and grace was it that even while, as the angel told him, his way was rash, foolhardy, full of hidden perils which he ought never to have affronted, God had not forgotten or forsaken him, but had miraculously interposed to warn him that the course he was meditating could only lead him to destruction, to arrest him in his downward path, to quicken his attention, to open his eyes to the spiritual facts and omens of which he had lost ken, and to call him back to the allegiance he so loudly professed! (S. Cox, D. D.)
The opposition of God’s angel
Is not this opposition of the angel to Balaam a picture and a symbol of the way in which God is evermore withstanding evil courses? When Jacob was at Peniel, we read, “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24). That man, also, was the angel of the Lord (Hosea 12:4), come forth to withstand Jacob in his crooked ways, until Jacob should surrender them, and win a blessing from his adversary. And so God was, by His angel, opposing Balaam’s evil way, until he should abandon it, and thus be blessed of God (Numbers 22:32). And see, in this symbolic action of the angel of the Lord, how the resistances of God to evil thicken on us in our sinful paths. At first the ass swerves only from the beaten track; then she injures Balaam’s foot; then she falls down under him. And is not this a picture, to the very life, of things that happen every day to evil-doers? They find instruments and agencies, on which they have implicitly relied, betraying them or failing them. They find themselves injured or maimed in their endeavours to press forward in their mad career. And suddenly life perfectly breaks down with them, and leaves them prostrate on the earth. And is not Balaam’s blindness to the angel of the Lord a picture of the blindness to the course of Providence which evil-doers not unfrequently display? Things which one would think must cause reflection, come and go without exciting even notice. Bent on their own self-willed career, they are completely blind to all besides, till presently disaster overtakes them, and they narrowly escape destruction. And does not the insensate rage of Balaam fitly typify the wrath and anger that we feel at all the opposition we encounter in an evil way? What savage thoughts breed in our hearts, and cruel words breathe from our lips, in moments such as these! We are ready to destroy the very things that serve us; aye, the very things that save us! Balaam would have slain his ass, though she had served him many years, and though she now preserved his life by her sagacity. Brethren, let us rather be thankful for the oppositions of the angel of the Lord, when we are in an evil way; for these opposing providences are designed for our salvation and deliverance. (W. Roberts.)
God’s opposition to Balaam
We have here an account of the opposition God gave to Balaam in his journey towards Moab; probably the princes were gone before, or gone some other way, and Balaam had appointed where he would meet them, or where they would stay for him, for we read nothing of them in this encounter; only that Balaam, like a person of some quality, was attended with his two men;--honour enough, one would think, for such a man, he needed not be beholden to Balak for promotion.
1. Here is God’s displeasure against Balaam for undertaking this journey, God’s “anger was kindled because he went” (Numbers 22:22). Note--
2. The way God took to let Balaam know His displeasure against him. An angel stood in the way for an adversary. Now God fulfilled His promise to Israel, “I will be an enemy to thine enemies” (Exodus 23:22). The holy angels are adversaries to sin, and perhaps are employed more than we are aware of in preventing it, particularly in opposing those that have any ill designs against God’s Church and people, for whom Michael, our prince, stands up (Daniel 12:1; Daniel 10:21). What a comfort is this to all that wish well to the Israel of God, that He never suffers wicked men to form any attempt against them, but He sends His holy angels forth to break the attempts, and secure His little ones! This angel was an adversary to Balaam, because Balaam counted him his adversary; otherwise those are really our best friends, and we are so to reckon them that stop our progress in a sinful way. The angel stood with his sword drawn (Numbers 22:23), a flaming sword, like that in the hands of the cherub (Genesis 3:24), turning every way. Note, the holy angels are at war with those with whom God is angry, for they are the ministers of His justice. Balaam has notice given him of God’s displeasure--
3. By the ass, and that did not startle him. “The ass saw the angel” (Numbers 22:23). How vainly did Balaam boast that he was a man whose eyes were open, and that he saw “the vision of the Almighty” (Numbers 24:3-4), when the ass he rode on saw more than he did, his eyes being blinded with covetousness and ambition, and dazzled with the rewards of divination! Note, many have God against them, and His holy angels, but are not aware of it.
4. Balaam at length had notice of God’s displeasure by the angel, and that did startle him. When God opened his eyes he “saw the angel” (Numbers 22:31), and then he himself “fell flat upon his face,” in reverence of that glorious messenger, and in fear of the sword he saw in his hand. God has many ways of breaking and bringing down the hard and unhumbled heart.
5. The angel, however, continued his permission, “Go with the men” (Numbers 22:35). Go, if thou hast a mind to be made a fool of, and to be made ashamed before Balak, and all the princes of Moab. “Go, but the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak,” whether thou wilt or no. For this seems not to be a precept, but a prediction of the event, that he should not only not be able to curse Israel, but he should be forced to bless them; which would be more for the glory of God, and his own confusion, than if he had turned back. Thus God gave him fair warning, but he would not take it; he went with the princes of Balak. For the iniquity of Balaam’s covetousness God was “wroth and smote him,” but he “went on frowardly” (Isaiah 57:17). (Matthew Henry, D. D.)
Restraints from sin
I. The forms of restraint from sin.
1. They appear in external appliances. The revealed Word of God stands in the way as a hindrance to what is wrong, and a guide to good-will to man and obedience to the Lord, if only fairly consulted.
2. In addresses to the understanding. The remembrance of some words of God, or the words of some man, overheard or directly spoken to you, may be the means of placing in light some dark feature of thought, or some evil action.
3. In stirrings of conscience. These are graduated from an almost insuperable prohibition to the scarcely perceptible whisper of doubt.
4. In excite-merits of the emotions. Each pang of remorse, and each thrill of fear, utter, in different forms, “Keep back from sin.”
II. The characteristics of restraints from sin.
1. They are frequent.
2. They are progressive. If being turned aside will not induce a retreat, there will be a crushing of the foot.
3. They are near, though oft unnoticed. (D. G. Watt, M. A.)
God withstanding sinners
No longer are there miracles performed to intimate to the ungodly man that it shall not fare well with him, and that he shall but eat the fruit of what he sowed. But heaven and earth, the dead and those who live, nature and grace, appear as if they now and then combined in earnest supplication to exclaim, “Stop, sinner, stop!” Who has not some time, like Balaam, come face to face with God, upon the path of sin, when He made known His terrors and His threatening? And what man dares affirm that there has been too little effort made to lead him from the broad way to the narrow path of life? Nay, more; Balaam’s brief experience is, in a certain sense, as nothing when compared with that long labour of love which God in Christ has most unweariedly bestowed upon us, that we might be saved. Nay, God has no delight in any sinner’s death, but spares when He could smite; nor does He ever suffer us to hold on in the way to death, without affording us a last, loud warning, that not seldom comes on us as if it were an angel’s sword piercing our very bones. Blessed, thrice blessed he who, with a more unfeigned humility than that of Balaam, can acknowledge, “I have sinned,” and who does not grow hard in sin, but lets himself be led. Soon shall he learn, with deep astonishment, that God’s good angels round encircle him in all his ways; and that far more is to be gained in serving Him than the disgraceful pittance offered by the Balak-hand of a vain world. But if, like Balaam, you still kick against the pricks, the time is drawing nigh when you, like him, shall be cast from the presence of the God of everlasting righteousness, and given over to that death which you so obstinately choose before the life now offered you. (J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
1. In looking at this passage we must make every allowance for the difference between those times and ours. I do not know any valid reason why God in the accomplishment of His infinitely wise designs might not employ the means here described, and miraculously impart to the ass the organs of articulation, and a knowledge of their use.
2. After the most close and candid attention, however, which I have been able to give to the subject, I am led to the conclusion that the occurrence here related was a dream, or vision, which took place on the night previous to his journey. He knew that he was doing wrong; for, although he had permission to go, yet it was not permitted him to do so with the wicked design which he cherished in his heart--that of cursing the people. On this account his guilty conscience tormented him, and, in his sleep, vividly presented to his mind the scene here recorded. At the end of Numbers 22:35 (after the scene is finished) the words, “So Balaam went with the princes of Balak,” seem to refer to his setting out on his journey.
3. There is one objection which may be urged to this view. St. Peter says, “The dumb ass,” &c. To this it may be replied, that the occurrence, though happening only in a dream, appeared as real to the mind of the prophet as though it had actually taken place, and was designed to have all the force and effect of a real transaction.
4. In favour of the hypothesis the reasons are, I think, numerous and satisfactory.
I. The lessons it taught Balaam.
1. It convinced him of spiritual blindness.
2. It taught absolute submission to God.
II. Lessons to us.
1. We often go on wrong errands, or on right errands in a wrong spirit.
2. God cheeks us in His providence and in love to our souls. Illness; raising up of insuperable difficulties; falling off of friends; superior success to rivals, &c.
3. We are apt to fret and be angry at the instruments of our disappointment. We cast our spite and blame on second causes.
4. We should seek spiritual enlightenment to see that it is God’s doing. Be not angry and resentful, but give yourselves to prayer; else, like Balaam, you will not see it is God who opposes you (Numbers 22:34).
5. We can only be permitted to go forward when we are brought to a state of perfect subjection to God. Two things are here included--a perfect purity of motive and freedom from worldly self-seeking, and an entire acquiescence in whatever God appoints, desires, or does. (T. G. Horton.)
Balaam stopped by an angel
1. It lies quite within our experience that we do get our own way, and yet have a sense of burning and judgment, of opposition and anger all the time. Men forget that there is a time when they need not ask the Lord any questions. Never trouble the Lord to knew whether you cannot do just a little wrong; He is not to be called upon in relation to business of that kind. He does not pray who palters with moral distinctions, who wants to make compromises, who is anxious to find some little crevice or opening through which he can pass into the land of his own desire.
2. Men are stopped in certain courses without being able to tell the reason why. That also is matter of experience. The wind seems to be a wall before us; the road looks quite open, and yet we can make no progress in it. The business stands still; we have risen at the same hour in the morning, carried out the usual arrangements, been apparently on the alert all the time, and yet not one inch farther are we permitted to go. Suppose we have no God, no altar, no Church limitations, no ghostly ministry exerting itself upon our life and frightening us with superstition and spectre--we are healthy reasoners, downright robust rationalists--men who can take things up and set them down, square-headed men--yet there is the fact, that even we, such able-bodied rationalists, such healthy souls that any society would insure us on the slightest inquiry--there we are, puzzled, mystified, perplexed, distracted.
3. It also lies within the region of experience that men are rebuked by dumb animals. That is odd, but it is true. The whole Scripture is charged with that statement, and so charged with it as to amount to a practical philosophy in daily life: “But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee.” “The stork in heaven knoweth her appointed times.” “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.” “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Dumb creatures are continually teaching us. They keep law with wondrous obedience. The poorest brutes are really very faithful to the rude legislation under which they live. In temperance, in acceptance of discipline, in docility, I know not any beast that is ever used by man that may not teach some men, very distinctly, helpful and useful lessons.
4. Then, again, it does lie within our cognition that men do blame second causes for want of success. Balaam blamed the ass. That is what we are always doing. There is nothing exceptional in this conduct of the soothsayer. We want to get on--it is the beast that will not go. Who ever thought that an angel was confronting him--that a distinct ghostly purpose was against him?
5. Does it not also lie within the range of our experience that men do want to get back sometimes but are driven forward? Did not Balaam want to return when he said, “If it displease Thee, I will get me back again”? We cannot. Life is not a little trick, measurable by such terms, h man cannot make a fool of himself, and instantly turn round as if nothing had happened; we cannot drive a nail into a tree and take it out without leaving a wound behind. Conduct is of greater consequence than we imagine. Humanity is a sublime mystery, as well as God; and there is no way backward, unless it be in consent with the Mind that constructed and that rules creation.
6. But there is a difficulty about the dumb ass rebuking the perverse prophet. So there is. I would be dismayed by it if I were not overwhelmed by greater miracles still. This has come to be but a small thing--a very momentary wonder--as compared with more astounding circumstances. A. more wonderful thing than that an ass should speak is that a man should forget God. The miracles of a physical and historical kind may admit of postponement as to their consideration; but that men should have forgotten God, and insulted law, and done unrighteously--these are mysteries which must not be delayed in their explanation and settlement.
7. So we come again and again to the great practical inquiry--Being on the wrong road, how shall we get back? There is no answer in man. If Balaam could have retraced his steps, put up his ass in the stable and gone about his business as if nothing had occurred, it would have been but a paper universe. That he could not do so, that he was under the pressure of mightier forces, indicates that the universe is itself a tragedy, and that the explanation of every character, every incident, and every flush of colour, must be left for another time, when the light is stronger and the duration is assured. Meanwhile, we can pray, we can look up, we can say, each for himself, “I have sinned.” (J. Parker, D. D.)
I. The historic character of the miracle here recorded.
II. The miracle itself.
III. The object of the miracle.
1. It was calculated to humble him in relation to a gift of God upon which he probably prided himself. It is likely he was an eloquent man. He would now see that God could endow a brute with the gift of speech.
2. He would also see that an ass could discern a messenger from heaven, where he, blinded by his desire for gain, could see nothing but empty space.
3. He might also have learned that all speech was under Divine control, and that he would be able to utter only such words as God would permit. (W. Jones.)
Obstacles to vision
A revelation of the truth is not enough. There must be an inner sympathy with the truth. Light avails not where there are no eyes to see. Take a blind man into a tunnel, and you have a symbol of the natural man without a Divine revelation. There are two obstacles to vision; first, the darkness around him, and then his own blindness. Lead him forth under the open firmament of revealed truth. Still he does not see. You have done something towards his enlightenment, you have given him knowledge, doctrine, the form of truth. But that is not enough. He lacks spiritual understanding. The scales must fall from his eyes. The Divine Spirit alone can accomplish this. (J. Halsey.)
The way of the perverse
For the man who neglects salvation there is no rescue. Everything will plead against him. The waters will say, “We told him of the living stream where he might wash all his sins away, but he would not come.” The rocks will say, “We told him of a shelter and defence to which he might run.” The sun will say, “We told him of the Dayspring from on high, but he shut his eyes.” The Bible will say, “I called him by a thousand invitations, and warned him with a thousand alarms.” The throne of judgment will say, “I have but two sentences--that to the friends of God, and that to His rejecters.” “Escape he must not,” Jesus will say. “I called on him for many years, but he turned his back on My tears and blued.” Then God will speak; and with a voice that shall ring through the heights and depths and lengths of His universe, say, “Escape he shall not.” May the Lord God avert such a catastrophe! (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Balaam rebuked, but not checked
Balaam is doing what he knows he ought not to do; there is a great wrong in his heart sending up its protests to the brain. The man is at cross purposes, and vents his unrest and ill-feeling upon outward objects. How often it happens! One in ill-humour often curses the tools he is using--the dulness of a saw, the waywardness of a shuttle, the knife that wounds his hand; he beats his horse or dog; he scolds his children. Here we come nigh the very heart of the story. When, in some fit of ill-temper brought on by our own wrongdoing, we have beaten an animal, or spoken roughly to a child, and then have noticed the humble patience of the brute under our anger, or the meek undesert of the child reflected from its upturned eyes, there comes over us a sense of shame and an inward confession that the wrong is not in the brute or in the child, but in us. The beast or the child speaks back to us; its very bearing and looks become audible voices of rebuke. When a great man like Balaam gets involved in wrong-doing, all nature is changed to him, and from all things come rebuking voices. When Macbeth returns from the murder of the king, a simple knocking at the gate appals him and deepens the colour of his blood-stained hands; one sense runs into and does the office of another. To a harassed and guilty conscience the light comes with a condemnation; every true and orderly thing meets it with reproof--angels of God that confront it, but do not turn it from its fatal course. Balaam would have turned back, but he is told to go on. This is only another stage of the moral confusion into which he has fallen, lie would go back, but the spirit of sophistry again begins to work, and he goes forward, but he will speak only the true word-evil drawing him on, while he excuses it with the plea of right intentions--a daily history on every side! Why did Balaam not go back? He could not. When a man does wrong in a simple and impulsive way under the direct force of temptation, he can retrace his steps; but when he has found what seems to him a safe path to a coveted end, he seldom gives over. Many men with scrupulous consciences do not regret being yoked with partners who are less particular; and many men do, as a corporation, what not one of them would do as an individual. Balaam could not avail himself of these modern methods, and so made a partnership and corporation of his own divided nature; reaping speedily in himself the bitter consequences of such action that overtake the modern man slowly but no less surely. (T. T. Munger.)
The talking ass, and what it taught Balaam
The real difficulty of the incident to those who feel a special difficulty in it consists, I suppose, in the alleged fact that the ass spoke, spoke in apparently human words and with a human voice. And this difficulty has, to say the least of it, been very neatly turned by many of our ablest critics and commentators, some of whom have as little love for miracles as the veriest sceptic. They say, Balaam, the soothsayer and diviner, was trained to observe and interpret the motions and cries of beasts and birds, and especially anything that was exceptional in them; to draw auguries and portents from them, to see in them the workings of a Divine power, to infer from them indications of the Divine will. Here was a portent indeed, and he must interpret it. And to him it seemed that the ass was striving and remonstrating with him; that, conscious of a presence of which he himself was unaware, it was seeking to save him from a doom which he was heedlessly provoking. And so, with the dramatic instinct of an Oriental poet, either Balaam himself or the original writer of the chronicle translated these subjective impressions into external facts, and made the ass “speak” the meaning which he read in its motions and groans. For myself, indeed, I care very little what interpretation may be placed on this singular passage in Balaam’s story, and would as soon believe that the mouth of the dumb ass was really opened to utter articulate human words as that Balaam’s sensitive and practised ear heard these words into his groans and cries. Put what construction on the talking ass you will; call it fact, call it fable, or say that Balaam read an ominous rebuke into the natural cries of the beast on which he rode--whatever the construction you put upon it, you will be little the wiser for it, little the better, unless you listen to the appeal, to the rebuke, which Balaam heard from the mouth of the ass or put into it. That lesson may be, and is, a very simple one; but its very simplicity at once makes it the more valuable, and renders it the more probable that, much as we need to learn it, we may have overlooked it. What, then, was this lesson or rebuke? The ass said, or Balaam took her to say, “Wherefore smite me? Have I not served you faithfully ever since I was thine? Am I wont to rebel against you?” How could Balaam fail to look for an ethical meaning in this appeal, or fail either to find it, or to find how heavy a rebuke it carried for himself? He too had a Master, a Master in heaven, and was loud and frequent in his protestations of loyalty to Him. Yet could he look up to heaven and say to his Master, “Why hast Thou checked and rebuked me? Have not I served Thee faithfully ever since I was Thine unto this day? Am I wont to disobey Thy word?” Why, at that very moment he was untrue, disloyal, to his Master; he was plotting how he might speak other words than those which God had put into his mouth, and serve his own will rather than the Divine will! Might he not, then, well hear in the rebuke of the ass some such appeal as this: “Have you been as true to your Master as I to mine? Have you been as mindful of the heavenly vision as I of the heavenly apparition which I have seen? Has your service been as faithful, as patient, as disinterested as mine?” The lesson is simple enough, I admit; but is it not also most necessary and valuable? He is convicted--
1. Of having cruelly wronged the innocent creature who had saved him from the sword.
2. Of having failed at his strongest point and lost the “open eye “ of which he was wont to boast; and--
3. Of not being as true to his Master in heaven, despite his loud professions of loyalty and obedience, as she had been to her master on earth. If no rebuke could be more severe and humbling, none surely could have been more kind and merciful. For if men are not to be held back from evil by an angel, is it not well that they should be held back even by an ass? If the gentler strokes of correction fail, is it not well that they should be followed by severer and more effectual strokes? If appeals to our higher nature do not suffice to arrest us, is it not well that we should be arrested by appeals to our lower nature? (S. Cox, D. D.)
Balaam’s ass, or cruelty rebuked
How many just and good men have been remarkable for their tenderness to animals! Tradition tells us of the partridge of St. John, the tame lion of St. Jerome; we find in St. Francis an enthusiastic love of birds; and to come to modern days, in the letters of Bishop Thirlwall, thought to be a man of giant intellect, we read that often he could not sleep at night, because he was haunted by some story of cruelty to animals which he had heard, whilst the writings of Sir Arthur Helps, the most charming essayist of our age, tells us that he would not live his life over again, if the chance was offered, for he had suffered so much from indignation and sympathy with the sufferings of animals. Often cruelty arises from thoughtlessness. Children do not reflect on what they are doing, and it is the duty of all persons to teach, in every way, humanity and kind feeling to the animals around us. A disposition which practises cruelty towards animals will not stop there, for it is only a training for the bad treatment of human beings. It was remarked of Domitian, the cruel Emperor of Rome, that he spent his leisure moments in killing flies. Who can doubt but that it was the horrible taste for wild beast fights that led to the still more horrible conflicts of gladiators in the Roman amphitheatres? And so, too, in Spain, the savage excitement of the populace in the bull fights led even religious men to witness unmoved the auto-da-es of the Inquisition. Ever should we recollect that these creatures belong to God, constructed by His wondrous skill, watched over by His gracious care, and not to be ill-treated or tormented without incurring His vengeance. A boy was once teasing a poor kitten. “Don’t!” said his little sister, “it is God’s kitten.” Her remark fell upon the ear of her father, a careless drunkard, as he was turning out of the door, and like an arrow from a bow there struck into his conscience the thought, “If this little creature belongs to God, how much more a soul like mine!” And the arrow of conviction lodged in his heart, and gave him no rest till he entered on a better life, as belonging to God. Let us, then, strive to make all God’s creatures around us as happy as we can, find in them loving friends and companions, and thank God for giving us the animals as our humble friends and loyal servants; ever remembering, as a forcible preacher has said, “There is no sin that will sink a soul so low in hell as cruelty to helpless creatures.” (J. W. Hardman, LL. D.)
That Balaam answered the ass when he heard her speak, and rather stood not amazed at the strange work of God, note earnestly with yourself what a strong possession covetousness had taken of his heart, so holding of him captive that he was not able to observe this strange thing, but blind and besotted with hope of worldly honour and gain, feedeth still upon that, and admitteth no stop nor stay of this journey by his good will. Such is the power of any sin if it once rule in a man or woman, it bereaveth them of all judgment to see their estate, or the love of them that persuade them otherwise. How blockish was Pharaoh till he was overthrown! How senseless the Jews till Jerusalem and they tasted of extremity! Swearers and swaggerers, drunkards and whoremongers, liars and libellers, railers and slanderers, with all the rest, are as blind and blockish as Balaam here, doting upon their own course tilt they smart for it, or the Lord open their eyes to see Him against them as at last here He did Balaam’s eyes to see the angel with drawn sword against him. When the ass saith, “Did I ever serve thee thus before?” it may admonish us not to be too rash with our neighbours and brethren, who have never been noted to be such offenders, but ever of good and virtuous behaviour. (Bp. Babington.)
I have sinned.--
Balaam’s “I have sinned”
Balaam was a man who had frequent and extraordinary communications with God. Balaam was undoubtedly a man of great light; and his gifts were rare and transcendent. If you ask, “Were they from God or from the Evil One?” I do not know. I should say both. If God endowed him, certainly Satan occupied him: if Satan taught him, as certainly God used him. The light and the darkness were in tremendous nearness and antagonism in that one breast. The restraining power was very large; the determination of will was stronger still. He had very soft seasons: but they passed like April gleams! His convictions were real and deep; but they proved quite barren. His aspirations were beautiful and holy: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” but his faith never grasped, and his life never followed, those high desires. He acknowledged fully the blessedness of the people of God: “God hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob”: “Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee”; but he never tried to be one of those happy ones. Israel’s future was clear and bright to him--in all its safety and its joy--but it was never more than a confession, which played before his fancy! He saw the Lord Jesus Himself--as in a vista--but ii was a Jesus seen, but not known; admired, but never felt. See, then, the exact position of Balaam. On his lips, “I have sinned”; probably in his heart a condemning sense that he was wrong; a conviction that he had made a great mistake; but his passions high wrought; a resolute will and purpose in direct antagonism to the known will of God; one sin, all the while, tightly grasped; and a worldly, covetous affection in the ascendant! This was Balaam, as he went out at Pethor that early morning, through the vineyards of the city. I need not follow him further. You remember how his gifts grew greater, and his prescience grew clearer, and his language grew lovelier, and his pretensions grew loftier--just in the same proportion as his determination grew sterner, and his desires more grovelling--till the sure end came at last, and he became carnal, his counsel was gross, his wisdom diabolical, and he laid, with his own hand, the scheme to his own destruction; and his unsanctified and debased talent was his own scourge, and his own ruin! Reduce the picture to the scale of ordinary life, and it is the life of many. A man of religious knowledge--very impulsive and feeling--a clever man, with strong inward conflict--conversant with God--with the language of piety on his lips--speaking, not without some reality, the words of true penitence, and yet, at the very same time, with a direct hostility to God--harbouring a secret, evil appetite in his heart--and bent only upon selfishness! Draw near, and say whether you see yourself anywhere in the portrait? There is an acknowledgment of sin, under sorrow, which often clothes itself in very strong expressions, even to tears, and which is little else than a passion. It is not altogether an hypocrisy. At the moment it is sincere, very earnest. But it is an emotion--only an emotion. There is no real love to God in it, no true sense of sin, no relation to Christ. It does not go on to action. I have known a person--whose wonder and regret was that his penitence never seemed to deepen or increase; yet he said, and said often, and said truly, “I have sinned.” The reason was, he never put the “I have sinned” upon the right thing. He said it about his sins generally, or he said it about some particular sin; but, all the while, there was another sin behind, about which he did not say it. The sin he willingly forgot--he connived at it--he allowed it I All the rest he was willing to give up, but not that. And that was his sin. And that sin reserved and in the background, poisoned and deadened the repentance of all other sins! The “I have sinned” fell to the ground impotent--like a withered blossom. That was Balaam--and that may be you! Or is it thus? You have an object in life very dear. You know that the object is not after God’s will, but still you pursue it. You recur to it again and again--after voices-after providences--which have all told you that it is wrong. But you will have your darling object at any cost--even though it forfeit peace of mind, and though you lose God’s favour. This, again, is Balaam. Can you wonder if the “I have sinned” goes for nothing at all, and if you are left to your own rash, reckless way? There is many a man who says, in his own room, very often, and at church, “I have sinned”; but throughout the week, every day, and all the day, he is grasping in his business, he is anxious in his home, he is occupied in his thoughts about money. It is money, money everywhere. Money gives its tone and colour to his whole life. That is Balaam to the very letter. (James Vaughan, M. A.)
Balaam went with Balak.
The meeting between Balak and Balaam
We have here the meeting between Balak and Balaam, confederate enemies to God’s Israel; but here they seem to differ in their expectations of the success.
1. Balak speaks of it with confidence, not doubting but to gain his point now Balaam was come. In expectation of this he went out to meet him, even to the utmost border of his country (Numbers 22:36); partly to gratify his own impatient desire to see one he had such great expectations from, and partly to do honour to Balaam, and so to engage him with his utmost power to serve him. See what respect heathen princes paid to those that had but the name of prophets, and how welcome one was that came with his mouth full of curses. What a shame is it, then, that the ambassadors of Christ are so little respected by most, and that they are so coldly entertained who bring tidings of peace and blessing! Note, promotion to honour is a very tempting bait to many people; and it were well if we would be drawn into the service of God by the honour He sets before us. Why do we delay to come unto, Him? Is not He able to promote us to honour?
2. Balaam speaks doubtfully of the issue, and bids Balak not depend too much upon him. “Have I now any power at all to say anything?” (Numbers 22:38). I am come, but what the nearer am I? Gladly would I curse Israel; but I must not, I cannot, God will not suffer me. He seems to speak with vexation at the hook in his nose, and the bridle in his jaws; such as Sennacherib was tied up with (Isaiah 37:29).
3. They address themselves with all speed to the business; Balaam is nobly entertained overnight, a sacrifice of thanksgiving is offered to the gods of Moab for the safe arrival of this welcome guest, and he is treated with a feast upon the sacrifice (Numbers 22:40); and the next morning, that no time might be lost, Balak takes Balaam in his chariot to the high places of his kingdom, not only because their holiness (such as it was), he thought, might give some advantage to his divinations, but their height might give him a convenient prospect of the camp of Israel, which was to be the mark at which he must shoot his envenomed arrows. And now Balaam is really as solicitous to please Balak as ever he pretended to be to please God. See what need we have to pray every day, “Our Father in heaven, lead us not into temptation.” (Matthew Henry, D. D.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 22". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24