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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 24

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-9


Numbers 23:25 to Numbers 24:9

25And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all. 26But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do?

27And Balak said unto Balaam, Come, I pray thee, I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence. 28And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon. 29And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams. 30And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.

Numbers 24:1.And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for1 enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness. 2And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the Spirit of God came upon him.

3     And he took up his parable, and said,

Balaam the son of Beor hath said,
And the man whose eyes are2 open hath said:

4     He hath said, which heard the words of God,

Which saw the vision of the Almighty,
Falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:

5     How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob!

And thy tabernacles, O Israel!

6     As the valleys are they spread forth,

As gardens by the river’s side,
As the trees of lign-aloes which the Lord hath planted,

And as cedar trees beside the waters.

7     He shall pour the water out of his buckets,

And his seed shall be in many waters,

And his king shall be higher than Agag,
And his kingdom shall be exalted.

8     God brought him forth out of Egypt;

He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn:
He shall eat up the nations his enemies,
And shall break their bones,
And pierce them through with his arrows.

9     He couched, he lay down as a lion,

And as a great lion: who shall stir him up?
Blessed is he that blesseth thee,

And cursed is he that curseth thee.


[Numbers 24:1. Heb. as time after time.—A. G.].

[Numbers 24:3. נְאֻם a divine saying used ordinarily with Jehovah, found only here and Proverbs 30:1; 2 Samuel 23:1, with the genitive of the human bearer of the saying.—A. G.].

[Numbers 24:3. Rather closed שָהַם like סָהָם to close, the שׁ being later softened into שׂ or ס. See Hengst., pp. 136–139, and the authorities quoted.—A. G.].

[Numbers 24:4. Falling down—having his eyes open, i. e., the inward eye. The words are different from those in Numbers 24:3.—A. G.].

[Numbers 24:7. The dual form: “personifying the nation as a man carrying two pails overflowing with water.”—A. G.]

[Numbers 24:8. צָרְיו. Those who beset him round.—A. G.].

[Numbers 24:8. The suffix in חִאָיו refers to Israel, and the verb is without an expressed object. Hirsch meets the difficulty by making the singular suffix refer to God, as His arrows, the arrows of God, Israel wounds.—A. G.].


Balak is betrayed into the greatest confusion, utters things which are self-contradictory—a usual result of such cunningly-laid schemes. At first he says: Thou shalt neither curse them nor bless them, i. e. keep silence with respect to them. But immediately another superstitious idea occurs to him. He had erred perhaps in only letting the “curser” see the extreme limits of the Israelitish camp. Possibly the result might be entirely different if he should overlook the whole camp at one time and in one view. Then perchance his alarm at the sight of this great swarming host would overwhelm him, and so lead him to pronounce the curse. He leads him therefore at once to the top of Mount Peor. This mountain lay nearest the camp of Israel, one of the peaks of the Abarim range and overlooking the whole plain. It was probably not far from the city Beth-Peor. [It was north from Pisgah, and nearly opposite Jericho, six Roman miles higher than Libbias. The locality is important in connection with the prophetic utterances which follow, See Smith’s Bib. Dict., Art. Balaam, Stanley’s Hist. of Jewish Church, p. 213–217. “Behind him lay the vast expanse of desert extending to the shores of his native Assyrian river. On his left were the red mountains of Edom and Seir; opposite were the dwelling-places of the Kenite, in the rocky fastnesses of Engedi; further still was the dim outline of the Arabian wilderness, where ruled the then powerful tribe of Amalek; immediately below him lay the vast encampment of Israel, amongst the Acacia groves of Abel-Shittim—like the water-courses of the mountains—like the hanging gardens beside his own river Euphrates with their aromatic shrubs and their wide-spreading cedars. Beyond them, on the western side of Jordan, rose the hills of Palestine, with glimpses through their valleys of ancient cities towering on their crested heights. And beyond all, though he could not see it with his bodily vision, he knew well that there rolled the deep waters of the great sea, with the Isles of Greece, the Isle of Chittim—a world of which the first beginnings of life were just stirring, of which the very name here first breaks upon our ears.”—A. G.] The same costly sacrifice must be offered again. It could only have been in an ironical temper that Balaam, after his previous utterances, could start upon this new attempt or make these requisitions for it.

He knows now definitely the will of Jehovah, and does not go as before to meet or seek auguries, but turns his back directly towards the wilderness, and surveys the whole people of Israel encamped there. Then the Spirit of God came upon him in a new and higher way. The words are no longer put into his mouth, and uttered under constraint and legal fear; he speaks out now in his ecstatic condition winged words, although we cannot say that they came from the heart. [“He no longer attempted by any magic art to control the purpose of God, but became the organ which God used in the communication of His will. He spake now in the spirit of prophecy” Hirsch. “It was not the mere sight of the ordered camp which formed the subjective preparation for receiving the Spirit of God, but the sight in connection with the previous living conviction that Israel was the blessed people of God.” Hengstenberg.—A. G.]

Numbers 24:3-4. He begins with a description of his new higher and more exalted state. From his very opening words Balaam himself is conscious for the time of prophetic powers. From Balaam the son of Beor he has become the man who has his inward prophetic eyes opened, since he has passed now into prophetic ecstacy. He first heard the words of (the mighty) God—as hearing usually precedes vision in the miraculous revelation—and then saw the vision (face) of the Almighty, but was so overpowered that he fell down (as Saul, 1 Samuel 19:24; Daniel, Daniel 10:9; the Seer in the Apocalypse, Revelation 1:0; and as generally the prophets were prostrated in their calling); but with the fall, his spiritual eyes were unveiled, so that he can now make known the divine sayings. [Keil: “He calls his prediction a divine saying, a נְאֻם, for the purpose of designating it as a divine revelation received from the Spirit of God.” The falling to the ground was not necessarily or even generally an attendant upon the prophetic state and calling. There seems to be an intimation in the phrase, is Saul also among the prophets? that this condition was common. But that is a slight basis upon which to build a theory of the prophetic state. It is only in cases like Balaam and Saul, when the Spirit finds an alien condition of will and heart, that His coming is attended by these marks of violence, as if they were overcome and thrown down by a hostile power. As Hengstenberg well says, we are not justified in inferring from these cases that this was the condition with all the prophets. We could scarcely conceive it to have occurred with Samuel, as with Saul. To those whose ordinary states are pervaded by the Spirit He comes as to His own. The falling with David, Ezekiel, John, are not parallel; for in their case it was the splendor and glory of the manifestation which led them to prostrate themselves in reverence and fear. Whose eyes are open, not with the margin: who had his eyes shut, but now open, referring in both cases to his inward eye, but with most modern commentators, as now shut or closed. It is descriptive of his present ecstatic state. His bodily eyes and senses are closed to the external world, while his inner eye is open to the visions which the Spirit gave. The contrast between the third and fourth verses in the original favors this interpretation. It does not follow, however, that every prophet in his prophetic condition, had his bodily eyes closed, or the senses, as it were, suspended, “so far as self-conscious reflection is concerned.” With men like Balaam, whose inner eye was darkened by lusts and passions, it seems necessary; but with those who were spiritually-minded, who were not sunken in the world of the senses and of self, it was not necessary, and probably did not occur.—A. G.] But here again the blessing is richer in its pathetic form than in its contents. The figures used are massed, and sometimes obscure. We meet again not only the image of the swift-rushing buffalo, but of the lion in a modified form. He describes the goodly and splendid appearance of the tent-city, which may be regarded as an unconscious type of the theocracy or the church (Numbers 24:5-6). In the next place he describes the glorious development of this people (Numbers 24:7). Then thirdly he celebrates its power—and indeed its destructive power over the heathen (Numbers 24:8-9). Only a faint glimmer of hope for the nations shines through the closing words: Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.

Numbers 24:5. How goodly are thy tents, etc.—The word is typically significant, not only in reference to the theocracy, but to the Christian Church. [It is Israel which comes before his mental vision—“the people in its higher nature, in its relation to God,” and therefore all who are Israel, down to the most distant ages.—A. G.]

Numbers 24:6. From the dwellings to the land. Well-watered valleys spread themselves out in beautiful pictures, and to these the still more beautiful gardens by the river side. The conception of the aloe-groves breathing out their fragrance, and the cedar trees standing in their strength by the water courses, leads us away from the ordinary beauties of nature, to a higher paradisaic nature and culture. As an unconscious typical word, it foretells the Canaan to come, and the wider and succeeding glorification of the earth. [Bible Com. The aloe imported from China and the far distant east furnished to the ancients one of the most fragrant and precious of spices. Comp. Ps. 45:48. “All thy garments smell of myrrh, aloes and cassia,” Psalms 7:17. The images of the prophecy seem to have a basis or ground partly in the scene which lay before his natural eyes before the trance—the camp with its wide surroundings, and partly in those with which he was familiar along the banks of his own Euphrates.—A. G.]

Numbers 24:7. The people are presented under the image of a water carrier, whose two buckets (the dual form) which he carries, are overflowing with water. [He shall pour the water.—He shall not only prosper, have abundance of water, as water was so essential to all fertility, but he shall pour from his overflowing buckets, he shall distribute to others out of his fullness of blessings. In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed, Genesis 12:3.—A. G.] His seed, i. e., his progeny (not his sowing corn, as Bunsen), shall be in many waters, i. e., shall spread itself abroad, be cheered with great and varied blessing. His king shall be higher than Agag, i. e., the kings of his ancient enemies, the Amalekites, who were called Agag (the fiery). [Agag seems to have been the common name of the kings of the Amalekites, as Pharaoh of the kings of Egypt, and Abimelech of the kings of the Philistines. And Hengstenberg has shown clearly, from the immediate context, in which Balaam speaks only in general terms of the good which should come to Israel, and from the relation which this third saying has to those which precede it, and that which follows, forming as it were a middle member in the whole prophetic utterance, a transition from the general and ideal, to the particular or individual, that we cannot suppose a reference to any individual king as the Agag overthrown by Saul, 1 Samuel 15:8. It is only in the fourth saying, and even then in a general way, that he passes on to an individual application of the predictions to particular hostile nations. This is still further confirmed by the fact that his king is not any particular king, as Saul or David, nor even the Messiah exclusively, but his king generally, i.e., the king whom Israel should receive. His king here is equivalent to the kingdom which should be exalted—in and through which the power of Israel should be fully developed and established over all enemies. There is too an historical reason why the Amalekite kingdom should appear here as the representative of the enmity of the world to the kingdom of God (see Exodus 17:8). And they were still probably among the most mighty of Israel’s foes, which was not the case at the time of Saul. There is no valid ground therefore for the supposition that this passage indicates a later origin of the book of Numbers. On the contrary, it may be fairly urged as showing how deeply the idea of the kingdom lies imbedded in all conceptions of the people of God as a power in the world, as showing that it is not an idea of late growth, but one with which the people of God, and even Balaam was familiar.—A. G.] His kingdom shall be exalted, i. e., raise itself by its activity, vigor and growth. In the words his king he indicates the establishment of a royal dynasty in Israel, but that the kings of the Amalekites (and not Edom, Assyria, Babylon) are chosen as the type of heathen enmity proves the antiquity of the narrative. The singular greatness of the people corresponds to the singular greatness of the king. There is no verbal and conscious prophecy of the Messiah here (Keil: “The king was neither the Messiah exclusively, nor the earthly kingdom without the Messiah”); for with the conception of the ideal Messiah, which unfolds itself later, out of the natural and generic Messiah, the conception of salvation as extending to all assumes a definite form. The words, however, in a typical sense have an unmistakable significance: the great people of God with its great king overcoming and towering above all heathen kingdoms and kings. [Hengstenberg: “for as Israel only attains the complete realization of its idea in the erection of the kingdom, so the kingdom reaches completely its destination only, with the appearance of the Messiah. In Him first the king of Israel is truly higher than Agag, the representative of the hostile world-power.”—A. G.]

Numbers 24:8. The repeated reference to Egypt and the Exodus appears to be designed to bring out more vividly the contrast between this poor race of liberated slaves, and its destruction of the heathen nations as its enemies. We explain the latter and difficult clauses thus: he will crush (not gnaw) the bones of his enemies, and then break his own arrows, because the instruments of warfare have become useless. (See Isaiah 2:4.) It is a strange order surely to say that he will first gnaw the bones of his enemies, and then pierce them with his arrows. We would rather account for the change from the plural to the singular thus: as he will crush the hostile nations, so he will break his (the enemies’) arrows. [Keil renders: “he shall dash them in pieces with his arrows,” making the enemies the object of the verb. The violent alterations in the text suggested by J. D. Michaelis and Knobel are unnecessary. The order may be, from the crushing defeat of Israel’s enemies, to the instruments by which it is secured, arrows standing for the weapons of war. Hirsch: “And as the arrows of God, Israel wounds,” i.e., Israel is the weapon in the hand of God in His warfare with His malignant foes, the enemies of the dominion of His moral law upon the earth, and it is only as the arrow of God that Israel has victorious power over the nations.”—A. G.]

The figure of the lion has a deeper significance than in Numbers 23:22. There the lion goes in search of his prey; he has not yet lain down; here he appears as a triumphant lion, who has lain down in his majesty, and will injure no more. As to the typical meaning underlying this prediction of the kingdom of Israel conquering and destroying all heathen power, see Psalms 2, 110; Isaiah 9:11; Daniel 2:34-35.

Numbers 24:9. Comp. Genesis 12:3; Genesis 27:29; Genesis 49:9; Matthew 10:40-42.

The last words must lead to a rupture between Balak and Balaam, for their application to themselves, and their opposite purposes, was apparent. Balaam as the blesser felt himself blessed; and since Balak still wished to curse Israel, he was pursued already by the curse. [The future history will scarcely justify the supposition that Balaam felt himself blessed. He was conscious that he did not bless with the heart; it was not a blessing he desired which he utters, and hence he could not feel that he himself was heir to the blessing.—A. G.]


[1]Marg. To the meeting of enchantments.

[2]Marg. who had his eyes shut but now opened.

Verses 1-25


Numbers 22-36

Balak and Balaam, or the Curse as a Weapon against Israel Frustrated

Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25

Survey: a. Balak’s resort to Balaam, Numbers 22:2-7. b. Balaam’s formal, but heartless opposition, Numbers 22:8-14. c. Balak’s’s second attempt, Balaam’s irresolution, and the beginning of God’s judgment upon him in the permission of the journey, Numbers 22:15-21. d. Balaam’s journey and his speaking ass, Numbers 22:22-40. e. The first blessing by Balaam, Numbers 22:41 to Numbers 23:10. f. The second blessing by Balaam, Numbers 23:11-26. g. Balaam’s apparent victory over temptation. His third and greater blessing. And as an appendix his angry announcement of judgment upon Moab and other enemies of Israel, at last upon all heathen, Numbers 23:26 to Numbers 24:25.

Verses 10-25


Numbers 24:10-25

10And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times. 11Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the Lord hath kept thee back from honour. 12And Balaam said unto Balak, Spake I not also to thy messengers which thou sentest unto me, saying, 13If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the Lord saith, that will I speak? 14And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days. 15And he took up his parable and said,

Balaam the son of Beor hath said,
And the man whose eyes are open hath said:

16     He hath said, which heard the words of God,

And knew the knowledge of the Most High,

Which saw the vision of the Almighty,

Falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:

17     I shall see him—but not now:

I shall behold him—but not nigh:
There shall come a Star out of Jacob,
And a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel,
And shall smite the corners of Moab,3

And destroy all the children of Sheth.

18     And Edom shall be a possession,

Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies;
And Israel shall do valiantly.

19     Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion,

And shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.

20And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said,

Amalek was the first of the nations;4

But his latter end shall be5 that he perish for ever.

21And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable and said,

Strong is thy dwelling place,
And thou puttest thy nest in a rock.

22     Nevertheless the Kenite6 shall be wasted,

Until Asshur shall carry thee away captive.

23And he took up his parable and said,

Alas! who shall live
When God doeth this!

24     And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim,

And shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber,
And he also shall perish for ever.

25And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place: and Balak also went his went his way.


[Numbers 24:14. Heb. אִיעָצְךָ. I will give thee counsel or advice. It is not used for a simple announcement.—A. G.]

[Numbers 24:14. Better at the end of days, since that is the usual significance of the word אַחֲרִית.—A.G.]

[Numbers 24:17. The text is better than the margin here. פַּאֲהֵי, the two corners or sides of Moab, from side to side.—A.G.]

[Numbers 24:17. Children of Sheth, rather the sons of tumult or confusion. See Jeremiah 48:45; Amos 2:2. So most modern interpreters.—A. G.]

[Numbers 24:18. Increase in power and wealth.—A. G.]

[Numbers 24:22. The particles כִּי אִם—and עַד־מָה may be better rendered here with Ewald and Knobel. only then—when; or with Keil, Bible Com.: For surely is it that (giving the אִם a strong negative force) Kain shall be for destruction. He shall not be until, etc.—A. G.]

[Numbers 24:23. Sets, establishes him. מִשֻּׂמוֹ, since, or from his establishing. The suffix may refer to the general destruction which follows, or to the power by which it is wrought.—A. G.]


In his indignation Balak changes his courtly conduct towards Balaam. He does not indeed go further than a threatening movement of his hands. [The clapping of the hands together was not, however, designed to terrify Balaam. It was simply an expression of the disappointment and passion of the king.—A. G.] Still he describes the calling of Balaam as a royal command which he had thrice disregarded. But now he commands him to flee. He drives him away and with scorn. He had thought to promotehim to honor; but Jehovah (i. e. Balaam’s belief in Jehovah) has withheld him from this distinction. But his anger seems to have kindled also the anger of the proud seer. He reminds Balak of his declaration at the very outset that he was dependent upon Jehovah (Numbers 22:18). The breach between them is indicated in the expression: Since I am going hence to my people, come therefore I will teach you what this people will do to thy people at the end of days. [Kurtz: “ ‘The end of days’ denotes the horizon of a prophetic uttterance. It begins when the prophecy enters upon its actual fulfilment. For Jacob, whose hope and desire were limited largely to the dwelling of his descendants in the land of promise, the end began at the time of Joshua; but for Moses and Balaam, who saw that this possession of the promised land did not give perfect rest, ‘the end of days’ could only be when the strifes and hindrances should be removed, the enemies overcome. The end to them began with the line of David. The prophecy then received its preliminary and partial fulfilment. But that fulfilment was only relatively perfect, since the entire opposing powers to the people of God were not yet destroyed. There remained yet a future and wider fulfilment. ‘The end of days’ was not yet complete.”—A. G.]

Numbers 24:15. It is scarcely correct to say that the succeeding outburst of anger is to be viewed as the culminating point of his predictions, as perhaps we might be inclined to do from the striking figure of the star out of Jacob. The narrator lets him pour out his saying without any preliminary or preparatory announcement. His self-consciousness comes out clearly in the description he gives of himself. He is here as one having the knowledge of the Most High עֶלְיוֹן, in which respect he may be regarded as belonging to the primitive religion of Melchizedec. But as a worshipper of אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, he passes into the ranks of those who worship El-Shaddai and receives the vision which the Almighty discloses to him, with his eyes open and falling to the ground. The fundamental thought in his saying is now almost exclusively, the King who shall come forth out of Israel. We must distinguish here also between the conscious purpose of the seer, and the typical significance of his words, which grows out of the fact that he has a vision of the glory of Israel, and that the glory of Israel is in reality a type of the Messianic kingdom. I shall see him, but not now. What could this mean in the conscious thought of the man who was just about to pass by the tents of Israel on his way homeward? The thought: I see him now, but not as a man of the present, is not definitely and clearly expressed. It might be rendered: I shall see him; but He is not here. I shall look for him, but not nigh (not as one near at hand). The typical significance of the words extends to the time of the kings of Israel, and still further to the time of its ideal king. The declaration which follows: there shall come a star out of Jacob, is explained more fully by the sceptre of Israel, which should first smite Moab on every side, as he had already been smitten on the side of Heshbon. It is not in this way that the ideal Messiah would be announced. We call to mind also that it is not the purpose of the writer to include Balaam among the Messianic prophets; still less here when he burns with anger against Balak. That this prediction, as all that follows it here, must be fulfilled, is the result of the idea, that Israel is the people of Jehovah. And they were fulfilled. After Moab follow the sons of Sheth, not of Seth, nor of ‘the drinker,’ to wit, Lot, but of those rising up tumultuously against the dominant people of God (see Psalms 2:0). Then follows Edom first as to its people, then as to its land (Seir). By it as a possession will Israel grow strong. We translate the additional clause: One shall descend out of Jacob, and shall destroy all the fugitives out of the city, i. e. the captured cities.

The prophecy closes with single sentences foretelling the general destruction of all heathen powers. The first of the hostile heathen nations is Amalek; but his latter end shall be: to destruction. [First: Not as pre-eminent among the hostile nations in position and power, nor as the most ancient of these nations, but as the first who had entered into conflict with Israel, and had resisted successfully their entrance into the promised land, Exodus 17:8 and Numbers 14:45. The conflict began with Amalek. They were to experience early its necessary issue in subjection.—A. G.]

The second utterance brings to view a new feature, viz. that one nation perishes by the hand of another; the Kenites by Asshur. In the interpretation of the following obscure sentences, we agree with Keil: enduring is thy dwelling-place, and laid (past participle) upon the rock thy nest. For is it that Kain shall fall into destruction until, i. e. Kain shall not be destroyed until [see Text. Note.—A. G.]. The Sept. gives the remarkable interpretation which seems to imply that Balaam alludes to the destruction which he himself brought upon the Midianites. Knobel appears to have been guided by the passage in Judges 4:14; Judges 4:17. “A part of the Kenites had separated themselves from their tribe in the south, and had settled in Kadesh in Naphtali, and were doubtless carried away captive with others when Tiglath-Pileser wasted Galilee about 740 B. C. 2 Kings 15:29.” Thus this part of the Kenites, sons of the blacksmith (Kain), dwelt safely up to this time in their rocky nest in the northern mountains of Canaan. [The Kenites were probably of Midianitish extraction, as Moses’ father-in-law, who was a priest of Midian, was a Kenite. Kurtz holds that Balaam here refers to the Midianites, who as enemies of Israel must be involved in ruin, and who here receive the unusual name Kenites from the resemblance between קֵן, their rock-dwellings or fastnesses, and קֵינִי, the Kenites. He urges that as the Midianites were even now in covenant with Moab for the cursing and destruction of Israel, it is perfectly in place to regard them as the object of the curse directed against the Kenites; that it would be remarkable indeed if they had not been mentioned among the enemies of Israel who must perish, and that unless they are alluded to here, they are passed by entirely. But there is no sufficient evidence that the Midianites were ever called Kenites. Nor is it necessary to suppose that every enemy of Israel should be specifically mentioned; on the contrary those who are named appear in their representative character. It is very questionable too whether this view can be reconciled either with the text, or with the demands of the history. It seems on the whole better with Keil to regard the Kenites as the friends, and not the foes of Israel, who having laid their nest upon a rock, i. e. joined the true people of God, and thus a secure resting-place and refuge, were safe from destruction until Israel itself should fall under chastisement. Keil adds: “There is no prediction here of the captivity of Israel, because that was simply a transitory judgment, which served to refine the nation of God, and not destroy it, but which became a captivity of judgment to the Kenites, because they were not really in fellowship with Israel, though outwardly associated with them.” The outward association secured a strong dwelling-place, safety for a time. For should Kain be destroyed, until, i. e. Kain or Kenite shall not perish until Asshur shall carry thee captive. See Numbers 10:32; Deu 35:19.—A. G.]

In the next saying Balaam appears to have seen more than he may announce to Balak. Alas, who shall live when God appointeth him (Asshur to do this). In his present state and disposition, he bewails the future of Israel (Knobel, p. 147). Still he comforts himself with the thought that God appoints Asshur to execute His judicial sentence (Isaiah 10:5). From Mesopotamia, Balaam might well know Asshur’s martial strength and lust of conquest. Keil regards the lamentation as introductory to the prophecy concerning Asshur. Balaam bewails the sons of his people. [He renders also with our version: who sets, doeth this, making the suffix in מִשֻׁמוֹ neuter and referring to the substance of the following prophecy, and not to Asshur. What pained the heart of the seer was not merely that Israel and the associated Kenites should be carried captive, which seemed to “involve the ruin of all peace and safety upon earth,” but that the judgment should fall upon Asshur, upon his own people.—A. G.]

Numbers 24:23. A new saying truly begins here. But it does not follow that the saying must refer to Asshur, since the judgment upon Asshur opens with a disjunctive particle in Numbers 24:24. Why should not his woe apply to the unuttered future lot of Israel which appeared to be so directly in conflict with his previous blessing? Let it be noticed also, that the judgment upon the naval power from Chittim is not introduced with a new parable. At last the universal ruin of the nations appears in the vision. Hostile ships come from Chittim. “כִּתִּים is Cyprus with its capital Citium (Genesis 10:4) mentioned as intervening between Greece and Phœnicia, and the chief station for the maritime commerce of Phœnicia, so that all the fleets passing from the west to the east necessarily took Cyprus in their way.” Keil. These ships afflict Asshur and afflict (cast them to the ground) Eber. A mere vague glimpse of a great western empire, which overthrows the oriental power, limits his prophetic horizon, and his vision of judgment closes with this, that he sees even the shadowy and unknown one, the prince of the ships from Chittim going down unto destruction. And he shall perish forever. “These words cannot refer to Eber and Asshur, for their fate is already announced in the word afflict or press, but only to the new western power which was to come over the sea.” Keil. But when Keil says Eber “neither refers to the Israelites merely as Hebrews (Sept. and Vulg.), nor to the races beyond the Euphrates (Onkelos and others), but like ‘all the sons of Eber’ (Genesis 10:21), to all the posterity of Abraham, who descended from Eber through Peleg, and also to the descendants of Eber through Joktan,” his exposition lies aside from the actual and peculiar thought of Balaam. The strange vision meets him again, so in conflict with the whole scope of his prophecy, that with the posterity of Eber, not only the descendants of Abraham generally, but Israel itself should be visited with judgment; but he prefers to say Eber rather than Israel. And since he combines Eber with his native race Asshur, he chooses for them the mildest term. They shall be bowed, humbled; while of the unknown one, under whose power they shall be bowed, he says with apparent delight: he also shall perish forever. The shadowy nature of these last visions of judgment is a strong proof of the great antiquity of this prophecy. The look into the far distant future stretches beyond the Babylonian and Persian histories, and rests upon a faint vision of the Macedonian empire, behind which the Roman power lay hidden, or with which it was included. Punitive judgments and universal ruin form the last words of the heathen prophet; a picture unrelieved by any light background, more terrible even than the Scandinavian “twilight of the gods” Thus Balaam takes his departure from Balak, not only in anger, but in a kind of despair; the Spirit of God appears to have revealed nothing more encouraging, and in this state he may easily have offered himself to Moses, as Simon Magus to Peter. At all events this excessive spirit of judging and cursing is that very extreme which, according to ancient and modern experience, passes over into the region of impure and idolatrous fanaticism. For special treatises upon the narrative, see Tholuck, Hofmann, Keil [also Hengstenberg and Kurtz.—A. G.]. Above all things, we must guard against including Balaam in the class of the Messianic prophets, and the typical significance of his words must not be confounded with conscious prophecies.

[The question here, however, is not whether Balaam was conscious of the real import of his words. He was speaking under the influence of the Spirit of God. Lange’s view that he spake in anger, because reproached by Balak, has not sufficient ground, at least not in the sense and importance he gives it. How far in his condition he may have been subject to ordinary frames and passions, we cannot determine.

Whatever may have been true, these frames and passions were under the control of the Spirit who came upon him.—Neither is it possible to determine how far he may have been conscious of what his words meant. We are to deal with the words, not his inward consciousness or passions. The thing of moment is what his words really mean. Are they explained, or fairly explainable on any other supposition than that they are Messianic? Do they find their complete fulfilment in the immediate future, or at the time of David, or in Christ and His kingdom? It is not necessary to determine, further, whether on the supposition that the prophecy is Messianic, we are to regard it as pointing to Christ only as the ideal King, and under whom the ideal kingdom would come to completion, all its enemies be subdued and destroyed, as Hengstenberg, or with Kurtz, that Christ is referred to as the personal, concrete, real King—the Messiah Himself. Both views are consistent with the full Messianic interpretation of the prophecy while the latter seems on the whole preferable. It is here at the close of the prophecy that we may best consider what is its real character. If the words he shall perish forever refer as the tenor of the prophecy implies and the later history demands, to the western power which the prophet saw in the dim distance coming over the sea—to the Macedonian and Roman empire—then we have, as Kurtz well says, “a real prophecy of that which no human wit, no powers of penetration, either in the time of Moses or David, or even Malachi, could have foreseen.”7 The overthrow of this last power of the world connects this prophecy with those of Daniel, who takes up and describes more accurately these world powers in their nature and progress and decay. If this is so then the end of days in which Balaam’s prophecy falls, within which it all lies, must embrace the Messianic period, or at least the period of the kingdom, from its beginning through all its stages of progress, until its completion in the kingdom of God, and the destruction of all its foes, when in the widest sense of the words Even he shall perish forever. But if the end of days denotes the whole period of the kingdom, then the prophecy whose very core and substance is in the words, there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite all the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth, or tumult, finds its preliminary fulfillment in David in whom the kingdom was established, and by whose victories the power of Moab and Edom was broken, but its final and complete fulfillment only in Christ, in whom the kingdom reaches perfection, and who destroys all the enemies of Israel. Any other interpretation limits the “end of days,” so that it no longer affords scope for the very terms and exigencies of the later predictions. It would afford no room for the appearing and downfall of that power which the prophet sees coming from the west, triumphing over all its foes, but whose end is that “even he shall perish forever” We must either find some escape from the clear reference to the Macedonian and Roman empire, or we must recognize both the possibility of prophetic predictions, and that this prophecy speaks of Christ—or at least the Messianic kingdom. That Balaam’s prediction was not exhaustively fulfilled by the victories of David, is clear not only from the history, in which both Moab and Edom appear again and again in their hostile attitude, throwing off the yoke under which they had been brought—a history confirmed by the inscriptions upon the Moabitish stone—but from the repeated and explicit references in the prophets to those powers centuries after the time of David. See Isaiah 15:0 and Isaiah 16:1-5; Amos 2:1; Zephaniah 2:8-9; Isaiah 34:5; Ezekiel 12-14; Amos 9:11-12.

The Messianic view is so obviously implied in the terms of the prophecy, that it was universally held by the Jews from the most ancient times. They held indeed that it received its preliminary fulfillment in David, but always regarded it as pointing to the Messiah. See Hengst.: Christology, Vol. I. p. 105. So wide-spread was this explanation that the renowned pretender, or Pseudo-messiah in the reign of Hadrian styled himself Bar-Cochba (the son of the star) with a clear reference to this prophecy. From the Jews it passed into the Christian Church, and has been the prevalent view down to the present day. It is rejected of course by the extreme rationalists; but the attempt to find any adequate explanation of its terms in the person and triumphs of David, is so in the face of the facts of the history subsequent to the time of that monarch, that those who receive the history at all are conscious of failure. We must either reject the whole history, even that part which the critics regard as genuine, or admit that the star out of Jacob, the ruler who should smite through all the opposing powers of the world, is the Messiah.

It is no objection to this view that at the time of Christ Moab and Edom had disappeared from the history. For these nations appear here as the present enemies of Israel, but at the same time as the representatives of all the nations hostile to the kingdom of God. It is not as Moabites that they are to be smitten, but as the enemies of the people of God. It is not their national character, but their attitude and spirit in relation to the divine kingdom, which calls for judgment. The limits of their national existence cannot therefore be the limit of the prophecy or of its fulfillment. So that even if it could be maintained that Moab and Edom were completely destroyed by David, that the application of the prophecy to those particular enemies was thus final and complete, that would not change the fact that Moab in the wider prophetic sense still existed, and would exist, until all the enemies of the kingdom of God were subdued or destroyed. The eternal principles and ideas of prophecy run through infinite cycles. Where there are enemies, there are Moabites, and there the predictions of Balaam must be fulfilled.
When it is said that we can hardly suppose Balaam to have rejoiced in such a kingdom, which should in its onward progress crush all the powers which placed themselves in its path, it is enough to reply, that we are not told that he did. We do not know what were his personal feelings any more than we know how far he was conscious of the import of what he said. He was in a prophetic state. The Spirit of God came upon him; he was under the influence and control of that divine agent, and so spake his predictions. It is not probable that he did rejoice in what he saw, as we know that he remained in will and heart opposed to Israel. But this in no way affects the scope and meaning of his prophecy.

If we compare Balaam’s prophecy with the prediction of the dying Jacob, “that the sceptre should not depart from Judah until Shiloh came to whom the nations should gather,” we feel at once that they are closely connected, and yet that they are very different both in the definiteness of the predictions, and in the spirit they breathe. But this difference is to be accounted for partly from the nature of the Messianic prophecy, unfolding itself more and more fully in history, from the germ to the full bloom and fruit, and partly from the inward and outward circumstances which give rise to the prophecy. Balaam sees “the nation of Israel encamped, according to its tribes, in the face of its foes, the nations of the world.” “He looks only upon the external results of the Messianic kingdom, and these again in a one-sided limited aspect, to the heathen powers in their opposition to the kingdom of God and their consequent subjection. Of the spiritual and earthly blessings which the Messiah should bring, not only for Israel, but for the heathen who should voluntarily yield to His sway, he sees and describes nothing.” Kurtz. Still he does not lose sight of the blessed and the blessing nature of the Messianic kingdom, Numbers 24:5-9. “Balaam, the heathen seer, out of Mesopotamia, the centre of the national development of the ancient world, proclaims, first to the existing representatives of the nations hostile to Israel,” and through them to all hostile powers as they should rise in succession, that in their enmity to Israel they were struggling against the power of the Almighty, and must perish, “since life and salvation were found only in Israel whom God had blessed.”

The star which the wise men from the East saw, and which led them in the way to the newborn “king of the Jews,” refers clearly to the prophecy of Balaam. It was not the star which he foretold, which he saw but not nigh; that star was Christ. The star which appeared to them announced that the star which Balaam saw had now risen out of Jacob in the birth of the king of the Jews. These Magi were, like Balaam, from the east. They were engaged in similar pursuits, devoting their lives to the study of occult sciences; men whose whole disposition would lead them to study eagerly the revelation made to the people of God scattered widely throughout the known world. They would naturally be drawn to the predictions of Balaam, one of their own class, and from their own country. “Upon this natural enlightenment,” says Hengstenberg, “rests the supernatural revelation granted to them. God unfolded to their minds, which were already filled with a longing for the ‘Star out of Jacob’ foretold by Balaam, the meaning of the star which proclaimed the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy; He revealed to them, that is to say, the fact that it announced the birth of the ‘King of the Jews.’ And just as Balaam had joyously (?) exclaimed ‘I see Him,’ and ‘I behold Him,’ they also could say ‘We have seen his star.’ ”—A. G.].


On the whole section: Balaam is a type which is reflected a thousand-fold in art, poesy, science, in the pulpit, in ecclesiastical government, whose double face appears often in the contrast between a higher inspiration, or spiritual (enthusiastic) contemplation, and a lower tendency and final reprobation.
His history is important for the knowledge of prophetic psychology, for the distinction between verbal and typical prophecy, for that between belief and superstition regarding blessings and curses, as well as for hermeneutical science. Even the ass throws a light on the question of animal psychology, a question over which not only has rationalism fallen, but Apologetics has stumbled. See the exegesis.
[The history is impressive further as to the blinding power of sin when persisted in. Balaam’s love of gold blinds him to the light of that knowledge of God which he obviously possessed before Balak’s call—to the clearer light which shone from the angel who met him in the way—and lastly to the light of those revelations which shone around him so clearly. The person so blinded passes into deeper darkness from the very process through which he has passed. The light within becomes darkness, and how great is the darkness.
The history brings out clearly the Providence of God in the development and growth of the characters of bad men. The conditions under which that progress is made, the outward circumstances which furnish the occasion by which the character is tested and matured, these are a part of the divine plan. Balaam’s place in history is not accidental, nor are the circumstances in which he appears either the result of chance, or shaped merely by human agencies. But all through his history the divine providence works restraining the evil principles, then permitting the man to have his own way, until the final test is applied, when he must choose between conscience and sinful lusts, between God and self. The history of Balaam repeats itself more or less fully in a thousand cases. It is obvious further, how God shields and blesses His people.—A. G.].


The policy of Balak. He seeks by the curse to depress the courage of the Israelites and to stimulate the courage of the Moabites, and thus secure the power to destroy Israel. An old story, yet ever new. It is like a page from the latest contemporary history. The dark fame of Balaam—that as a curser or imprecator he was without a rival. The character of Balaam. This combination of great capacities for inspiration with low aims and passion, is of more frequent occurrence than we are apt to think (see the exegetical notes). Balaam’s struggle and apparent triumph. The signs of his defeat and the fearful depths of his fall. The self-contradiction in his nature grew into an irreconcilable breach. Balaam’s speaking ass, a mystery of the animal, and still more of the human soul-life. The prophecies of Balaam: examples of the overpowering rhetorical pathos of (enthusiastic) inbreathed spiritual discourse. The gradation in his prophecies. The core and heart of them. The typical star. The Balaam behind the scenes. Balaam and Balak. Balaam as presented in the Old Testament and in the New.

[Numbers 22:9-14. Balaam’s true state betrays itself at the outset. He knows to some extent the history of Israel, and that God had blessed them. Yet he inclines to go and pronounce the curse. He parleys with the temptation. He lays himself open to stronger temptation. The Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you.—1. He wishes to go. 2. He is restrained only by fear. 3. His reply invites a renewal of the proposals, and prepares the way for the overmastering temptation to come.

Numbers 24:15-21. Henry: “The enemies of the church are restless and unwearied in their attempts against it. How artfully Balak manages the temptation. 1. The messengers were more and more honorable. 2. The request was more urgent. 3. The rewards were greater.” Balaam’s seeming refusal, his real inclination and purpose. Wordsworth: “He adds hypocrisy to covetousness. Thus he tampers with his own conscience, and tempts God to change His mind whom he knew and declared to be immutable.” Go with them.—Henry: “As God sometimes denies the prayers of His people in love, so sometimes He grants the desires of the wicked in wrath. It is a fearful thing when God leaves a bad man to follow his own will, Isaiah 66:4; Jeremiah 2:19.

Numbers 24:22-25. God’s anger was kindled.—Henry: “The sin of sinners is not to be thought the less provoking to God because He permits it. We must not think that therefore He approves it. Nothing is more displeasing to God than malicious designs against His people; he that touches them touches the apple of His eye.” God stands as an adversary in the way of sinners. He restrains and checks them in their downward career; and yet He makes them the ministers of His purposes toward His own children.

Numbers 22:41. On the morrow.—A deliberate act. He goes after full reflection, and yet without delay, he is eager to fulfil the wish of Balak and secure the coveted wealth.

Numbers 23:1-10. Balaam covers his purpose to curse Israel with a show of devotion. His sacrifice not to honor God, but either to constrain Him or win His favor. It is characteristic of hypocrisy. I have prepared altars and offered sacrifices. Henry: “He pronounces God’s people happy in three things. 1. Happy in their peculiarity and distinction from the rest of the nations (Numbers 24:9). 2. Happy in their numbers (Numbers 24:10). 3. Happy in their last end. Let me die, etc. There are many who, like Balaam, desire to die the death of the righteous, but do not endeavor to live the life of the righteous. They would be saints in heaven, but not saints on earth. This is the desire of the slothful which kills him because his hands refuse to labor.”

Numbers 24:11-24. He hath blessed and I cannot reverse it.—The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. The security of Israel against all the machinations and power of their enemies. 1. In the unchanging purpose of God, who has made them blessed (Numbers 24:19-20). 2. In their moral character, as they are viewed by God, the objects of His choice (Numbers 24:21). 3. In their past experience of the saving power of God (Numbers 24:22). 4. God’s presence with them as their King. What hath God wrought.—Henry: “The defeating of the design of the church’s enemies ought to be had in everlasting remembrance to the glory of God.”

Numbers 24:1-9. Henry: “The blessing is in substance the same as before, yet he admires in Israel: 1. Their order and beauty (Numbers 24:5); 2. their fruitfulness and increase (Numbers 24:6-7); 3. their honor and advancement; 4. their power and history (Numbers 24:8); 5. their courage and security (Numbers 24:9); 6. Their interest and influence upon their neighbors (Numbers 24:9).” Numbers 24:6-7. Wordsworth: “A beautiful picture of the true Israel of God flowing forth from Christ, the divine fountain of grace, pouring out the living waters of salvation, the pure streams of the Spirit (Isaiah 12:3; John 3:5; John 4:10; John 7:38-39), and watering the wilderness of the world to rejoice and be glad, and to blossom as the rose.”

Numbers 24:10-14. Balaam loses the wages of unrighteousness and the favor and blessing of God. Seeking to gain both, he gains neither. We cannot serve God and Mammon. The double-minded man ordinarily loses all.

Numbers 24:15-24. Know the knowledge of the Most High.—Henry: “A man may be full of the knowledge of God, and yet utterly destitute of the grace of God.” Here is the prophecy of the kingdom which is carried on and completed in Daniel. It shall come in the latter (at the end of) days; it shall come out of Jacob; it shall come as a star and sceptre in splendor and with authority; it shall be irresistible in its progress; its enemies shall be destroyed or fall into its possession; it shall be universal in its extent, and endure through the end of days.—A. G.]


[3]Marg. or smite through the princes of Moab.

[4]Marg. The first of the nations that warred against Israel.

[5]Marg. shall be even to destruction.

[6]Heb. Kain.

[7]The effort of the rationalistic critics to find a basis for this prophecy in some transient landing of a few Greeks upon the coasts of Western Asia, who after inflicting some real damage were compelled to retreat; whose expedition scarcely left a trace or tradition behind it, is so absurd as not to require any refutation. The attempt to make this brief and comparatively harmless irruption an explanation of this prophecy of the wide and permanent ruin wrought by some western power, shows to what extremities they are reduced who start with the principle “that prophecy, strictly speaking, is impossible,” and to what shifts they will resort to escape conclusions which any fair exegesis involves, but which they rightly feel would be destructive to their principle.—A. G.].

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 24". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-24.html. 1857-84.
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