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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 22

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-40


THE COMING OF BALAAM (Numbers 22:2-40).

Numbers 22:2

Balak the son of Zippor. The name Balak is connected with a word "to make waste," and "Zippor" is a small bird. Balak was, as is presently explained, the king of Moab at this time, but not the king from whom Sihon had wrested so much of his territory (Numbers 21:26). He seems to be mentioned by name on a papyrus in the British Museum (see Brugseh, ‘Geogr. Inschr.,' 2, page 32). The later Jews made him out to have been a Midianite, but this is nothing but the merest conjecture.

Numbers 22:3

Moab was sore afraid of the people. While the Israelites had moved along their eastern and north-eastern border, the Moabites supplied them with provisions (Deuteronomy 2:29), desiring, no doubt, to be rid of them, but not disdaining to make some profit by their presence. But after the sudden defeat and overthrow of their own Amorite conquerors, their terror and uneasiness forced them to take some action, although they dared not commence open hostilities.

Numbers 22:4

Moab said unto the elders of Midian. The Midianites were descended from Abraham and Keturah (Genesis 25:2, Genesis 25:4), and were thus more nearly of kin to Israel than to Moab. They lived a semi-nomadic life on the steppes to the east of Moab and Ammon (cf. Genesis 36:35), supporting themselves partly by grazing, and partly by the caravan trade (Genesis 37:28). Their institutions were no doubt patriarchal, like those of the modern Bedawin, and the "elders" were the sheiks of their tribes. As the ox licketh up the grass of the field. The strong, scythe-like sweep of the ox's tongue was a simile admirable in itself, and most suitable to pastoral Moab and Midian.

Numbers 22:5

He sent messengers therefore. It appears from Numbers 22:7 that Balak acted for Midian as well as for Moab; as the Midianites were but a weak people, they may have placed themselves more or less under the protection of Balak. Unto Balaam the son of Beer. בִּלְעָם is derived either from בָּלַע, to destroy or devour, and עָם, the people; or simply from בָּלַע, with the terminal syllable ־ָם, "the destroyer." The former derivation receives some support from Revelation 2:14, Revelation 2:15, where "Nicolaitans" are thought by many to be only a Greek form of" Balaamites" Νικόλαος, from νικάω and λαός). Beor (בְּעוּר) has a similar signification, from בָּעָר, to burn, or consume. Both names have probable reference to the supposed effect of their maledictions, for successful cursing was an hereditary profession in many. lands, as it still is in some. Beer appears in 2 Peter 2:15 as Bosor, which is called a Chaldeeism, but the origin of the change is really unknown. A "Bela son of Beer" is named in Genesis 36:32 as reigning in Edom, but the coincidence is of no importance: kings and magicians have always loved to give themselves names of fear, and their vocabulary was not extensive. To Pother, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people. Rather, "which is on the river," i.e; the great river Euphrates, "in the land of the children of his people," i.e; in his native land. The situation of Pethor is unknown. Here is a people come out of Egypt. Forty years had passed since their fathers had left Egypt. Yet Balak's words expressed a great truth, for this people was no wandering desert tribe, but for all intents the same great organized nation which had spoiled Egypt, and left Pharaoh's host dead behind them. They abide over against me מִמֻּלִי. Septuagint, ἐχόμενός μου. This would hardly have been said when Israel was encamped thirty miles north of Arnon, opposite to Jericho. The two embassies to Balaam must have occupied some time, and in the mean while Israel would have gone further on his way. We may naturally conclude that the first message was sent immediately after the defeat of Sihon, at a time when Israel was encamped very near the border of Moab.

Numbers 22:6

I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. This was the language of flattery intended to secure the prophet's services. No doubt, however, Balak, like other heathens, had a profound though capricious belief in the real effect of curses and anathemas pronounced by men who had private intercourse and influence with the unseen powers. That error, like most superstitions, was the perversion of a truth; there are both benedictions and censures which, uttered by human lips, carry with them the sanction and enforcement of Heaven. The error of antiquity lay in ignorance or forgetfulness that, as water cannot rise higher than its source, so neither blessing nor cursing can possibly take any effect beyond the will and purpose of the Father of our souls. Balaam knew this, but it was perhaps his misfortune to have been trained from childhood to maintain his position and his wealth by trading upon the superstitions of his neighbours.

Numbers 22:7

With the rewards of divination. קְסָמִים, "soothsayings." Septuagint, τὰ μαντεῖα. Here the soothsayer's wages, which St. Peter aptly calls the wages of unrighteousness. The ease with which, among ignorant and superstitious people, a prophet might become a hired soothsayer is apparent even from the case of Samuel (1 Samuel 9:6-8). That it should be thought proper to resort to the man of God for information about some lost property, and much more that it should be thought necessary to pay him a fee for the exercise of his supernatural powers, shows, not indeed that Samuel was a soothsayer, for he was a man of rare integrity and independence, but, that Samuel was but little distinguished from a soothsayer in the popular estimation. If Samuel had learnt to care more for money than for righteousness, he might very easily have become just what Balaam became.

Numbers 22:8

Lodge here this night. It was therefore in the night, in a dream or in a vision (cf. Genesis 20:3; Numbers 12:6; Job 4:15, Job 4:16), that Balaam expected to receive some communication from God. If he had received none he would no doubt have felt himself free to go.

Numbers 22:15

More, and more honourable than they. Balak rightly judged that Balaam was not really unwilling to come, and that it was only needful to ply him with more flattery and larger promises. The heathens united a firm belief in the powers of the seer with a very shrewd appreciation of the motives and character of the seer. Compare the saying of Sophocles, τὸ μαντικὸν γὰρ πᾶν φιλάργυρον γένος.

Numbers 22:18

I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God. Balaam's faith was paramount within its own sphere of operation. It did not control his wishes; it did not secure the heart obedience which God loves; but it did secure, and that absolutely, outward obedience to every positive command of God, however irksome; and Balaam never made any secret of this.

Numbers 22:22

And God's anger was kindled because he went, or, "that he was going." כִּי־הוֹלֵךְ הוּא. Septuagint, ὅτι ἐπορεύθη αὐτός. There can be no question that the ordinary translation is fight, and that God was angry with Balaam for going at all on such an errand. It is true that God had given him permission to go, but that very permission was a judicial act whereby God punished the covetous and disobedient longings of Balaam in allowing him to have his own way. God's anger is kindled by sin, and it was not less truly sin which prompted Balaam to go because he had succeeded in obtaining formal leave to go. The angel of the Lord stood in the way. The same angel of the covenant apparently of whom Moses had spoken to the Edomites (see on Numbers 20:16).

For an adversary against him. לְשָׂטָן לוֹ. Septuagint, διαβαλεῖν αὐτόν, Not so much because Balaam was rushing upon his own destruction as because he was going to fight with curses, if possible, against the Israel of God (cf. 2 Kings 6:17; Psalms 34:7).

Numbers 22:23

And the ass saw the angel of the Lord. This was clearly part of the miracle, the σήμειον which was to exhibit in such a striking manner the stupidity and blindness of the most brilliant and gifted intellect when clouded by greed and selfishness. It is nothing to the point that the lower animals have a quicker perception of some natural phenomena than men, for this was not a natural phenomenon; it is nothing to the point that the lower animals are credited by some with possessing "the second sight," for all that belongs to the fantastic and legendary. If the ass saw the angel, it was because the Lord opened her eyes then, as he did her mouth afterwards.

Numbers 22:25

She thrust herself unto the wall. Apparently in order to pass the angel beyond the reach of his sword; when this was clearly impossible she fell down.

Numbers 22:28

And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass. On the face of it this expression would seem decisive that an audible human voice proceeded from the ass's mouth, as St. Peter beyond doubt believed: ὑποζύγιον ἀφωνον ἐν ἀνθρώτου φωνῇ φθεγξάμενον. It is truly said, however, that a passing illusion of this kind, while it testifies that the Apostle understood the words, like all his contemporaries, in their most natural and simple sense, does not oblige us to hold the same view; if he was mistaken in this matter, it does not at all affect the inspired truth of his teaching. Two theories, therefore, have been proposed in order to avoid the difficulties of the ordinary belief, while vindicating the reality of the occurrence. It has been held by some that the whole affair took place in a trance, and resembled St. Peter's vision of the sheet let down from heaven (Acts 10:10), which we rightly conceive to have been purely subjective. This is open to the obvious and apparently fatal objection that no hint is given of any state of trance or ecstasy, and that, on the contrary, the wording of the narrative as given to us is inconsistent with such a thing. In Numbers 22:31 Balaam's eyes are said to have been opened so that he saw the angel; but to have the eyes open so that the (ordinarily) invisible became visible, and the (otherwise) inaudible became audible, was precisely the condition of which Balaam speaks (Numbers 24:3, Numbers 24:4) as that of trance. According to the narrative, therefore, Balaam was in an ecstasy, if at all, after the speaking of the ass, and not before. By others it has been put forward, somewhat confusedly, that although Balaam was in his ordinary senses, he did not really hear a human voice, but that the "cries" of the ass became intelligible to his mind; and it is noted that as an augur he had been accustomed to assign meanings to the cries of animals. If instead of "cries" we read "brayings," for the ass is endowed by nature with no other capacity of voice, being indeed one of the dumbest of "dumb" animals, we have the matter more fairly before us. To most people it would appear more incredible that the brayings of an ass should convey these rational questions to the mind of its rider than that the beast should have spoken outright with a man's voice. It would indeed seem much more satisfactory to regard the story, if we cannot accept it as literally true, as a parable which Balaam wrote against himself, and which Moses simply incorporated in the narrative; we should at least preserve in this way the immense moral and spiritual value of the story, without the necessity of placing non-natural constructions upon its simple statements. Supposing the miracle to have really occurred, it must always be observed that the words put into the ass's mouth do nothing more than express such feeling's as a docile and intelligent animal of her kind would have actually felt. That domestic animals, and especially such as have been long in the service of man, feel surprise, indignation, and grief in the presence of injustice and ill-treatment is abundantly certain. In many well-authenticated eases they have done things in order to express these feelings which seemed as much beyond their "irrational" nature as if they had spoken. We constantly say of a dog or a horse that he can do everything but speak, and why should it seem incredible that God, who has given the dumb beast so close an approximation to human feeling and reason, should for once have given it human voice? With respect to Balaam's companions, their presence need not cause any difficulty. The princes of Midian and Moab had probably gone on to announce the coming of Beldam; his servants would naturally follow him at some little distance, unless he summoned them to his side. It is very likely too that Balaam was wont to carry on conversations with himself, or with imaginary beings, as he rode along, and this circumstance would account for any sound of voices which reached the ears of others.

Numbers 22:29

And Balaam said unto the ass. That Beldam should answer the ass without expressing any astonishment is certainly more marvelous than that the ass should speak to him. It must, however, in fairness be considered—

1. That Balaam was a prophet. He was accustomed to hear Divine voices speaking to him when no man was near. He had a large and unquestioning faith, and a peculiar familiarity with the unseen.

2. Balaam was a sorcerer. It was part of his profession to show signs and wonders such as even now in those countries confound the most experienced and skeptical beholders. It is likely that he had often made dumb animals speak in order to bewilder others. He must indeed have been conscious to some extent of imposture, but he would not draw any sharp line in his own mind between the marvels which really happened to him and the marvels he displayed to others. Both as prophet and as sorcerer, he must have lived, more than any other even of that age, in an atmosphere of the supernatural. If, therefore, this portent was really given, it was certainly given to the very man of all that ever lived to whom it was most suitable. Just as one cannot imagine the miracle of the stater (Matthew 17:27) happening to any one of less simple and childlike faith than St. Peter, so one could not think of the ass as speaking to any one in the Bible but the wizard prophet, for whom—both on his good and on his bad side—the boundary lines between the natural and supernatural were almost obliterated.

3. Balaam was at this moment intensely angry; and nothing blunts the edge of natural surprise so much as rage. Things which afterwards, when calmly recollected, cause the utmost astonishment, notoriously produce no effect at the moment upon a mind which is thoroughly exasperated.

Numbers 22:31

The Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel. As on other occasions, the angel was not perceptible to ordinary sight, but only to eyes in some way quickened and purged by the Divine operation. This explains the fact that Balaam's companions would appear to have seen nothing (cf. Acts 9:7).

Numbers 22:32

Because thy way is perverse. יָרָט, an uncommon word, which seems to mean "leading headlong," 1.e. to destruction.

Numbers 22:33

Unless … surely. אוּלַי־־־כִּי. It is somewhat doubtful whether this phrase can be translated as in the Septuagint (εἰ μὴ … νῦν οὗν)and in all the versions; but even if the construction of the sentence be broken, this is no doubt the meaning of it. And saved her alive. Compare the case of the ass of the disobedient prophet in 1 Kings 13:24. It is plainly a righteous thing with God that obedience and faithfulness should be respected, and in some sense rewarded, even in an ass.

Numbers 22:35

Go with the men. It may be asked to what purpose the angel appeared, if Balaam was to proceed just the same. The answer is that the angel was not a warning, but a destroying, angel, a visible embodiment of the anger of God which burnt against Beldam for his perversity. The angel would have slain Balaam, as the lion slew the disobedient prophet, but that God in his mercy permitted the fidelity and wisdom of the ass to save her master from the immediate consequences of his folly. If Balaam had had a mind capable of instruction, he would indeed have gone on as he was bidden, but in a very different spirit and with very different designs.

Numbers 22:36

Unto a city of Moab, or, "unto Ir-Moab" (אֶל־עִיר מוֹאָב), probably the same as the Ar mentioned in Numbers 21:15 as the boundary town of Moab at that time.

Numbers 22:39

Kirjath-huzoth. "City of streets." Identified by some with the ruins of Shian, not far from the supposed site of Ai.

Numbers 22:40

Balak offered oxen and sheep. Probably these sacrifices were offered not to Chemosh, but to the Lord, in whose name Balaam always spoke. Indeed the known fact that Beldam was a prophet of the Lord was no doubt one of Balak's chief reasons for wishing to obtain his services. Balak shared the common opinion of antiquity, that the various national deities were enabled by circumstances past human understanding to do sometimes more, sometimes less, for their special votaries. He perceived that the God of Israel was likely, as things stood, to carry all before him; but he thought that he might by judicious management be won over, at least to some extent, to desert the cause of Israel and to favour that of Moab. To this end he "retained" at great cost the services of Balaam, the prophet of the Lord, and to this end he was willing to offer any number of sacrifices. Even the resolute and self-reliant Romans believed in the wisdom of such a policy. Thus Pliny quotes ancient authors as affirming "in oppugnationibus ante omnia solitum a Romanis sacrdotibus evocari Deum, cujus in tutela id oppidum esset, promittique illi eundem aut ampliorem apud Romanos cultum," and he adds, "durat in Pontificum disciplina id sacrum, constatque ideo occultatum, in cujus Dei tutela Roma esset, ne qui hostium simili modo agerent." And sent, i.e; portions of the sacrificial meats.


Numbers 22:2-40


In this section we have some of the profoundest and most subtle, as well as some of the most practical, moral and religious teachings of the Old Testament. In order to draw them out fully we may consider—

I. The character and position of Balaam with regard to God and man;

II. The policy of Balak in sending for Balaam;

III. The conduct of Balaam when asked and urged to come to Balak;

IV. The incidents, natural and supernatural, of Balaam's coming.


1. That Balaam had a true knowledge of the most high Cod. He was not in any sense a heathen as far as his intellectual perception of Divine things went. And it was not merely Elohim, the God of nature and creation, whom he knew and revered, but distinctly Jehovah, the God of Israel and of grace. Speculatively he knew as much of God as Abraham or Job.

2. That Balaam had an unquestioning faith in the one true God. Whatever difficulties it may create, it is obviously true that Balaam walked very much by faith, and not by sight. The invisible God, the will of God, the power of God, the direct concern of God with his doings, were all realities to Balaam, strong realities. God was not a name to him, nor a theological expression, but the daily companion of his daily life.

3. That Balaam had an undoubted prophetic gift from God. He was not an ordinary servant of the true God; he held as it were a very high official position in the service of God. He enjoyed frequent and direct intercourse with him; he expected to receive supernatural intimations of the Divine will; he professed to speak, and be did speak, words of inspired prophecy far beyond his own origination.

4. That at the same time Balaam's heart was given not to God, but to covetousness. He loved the wages of unrighteousness. Not perhaps in the lowest sense. He may have valued influence, power, consideration even more than mere money; but money was necessary to all these.

5. That Balaam was a soothsayer. He practiced magical arts and sought for auguries. He traded on the superstitions of the heathen, and even sought to prostitute his prophetic powers to excite astonishment, obtain power, and make money. He hired himself out to curse the enemies of those who employed him. And note that Balaam's fall in this respect was accountable enough; for we may naturally conclude

(1) that Balaam had an hereditary position as seer which it was his interest to keep up at any cost;

(2) that the ignorant people put strong pressure upon him to play the soothsayer. How easily Samuel might have become the same if he had been covetous! How constant is the temptation to abuse spiritual powers in order at once to gratify others and to exalt oneself! (cf. 1 Samuel 9:6-8; Jeremiah 5:31)

II. THE POLICY OF BALAK, AND HIS ERROR. Consider under this head—

1. That Balak was afraid of Israel, because he was mighty, and had overthrown the Amorites. Yet he had no cause to fear, for Israel had not touched him, and did not mean to. Men are afraid of the Church of God because it is a great power in the world, albeit it is a power for good, and not for evil.

2. That Balak was afraid of the God of Israel. He rightly judged that Israel's success was due to his God; but he wrongly thought that the Lord was but a national deity who was victorious at present, but might be turned aside or bought off.

3. That Balak put his trust in Balaam because he was a prophet of the Lord, and might be expected to use his influence to change the purposes of the Lord; perhaps even to counterwork those purposes. How often do people seek the aid of religion against God! How often do they seek for religious support and solace in doing what they must know is contrary to the moral law of God!

4. That Balak professed, and no doubt felt, a profound belief in the efficacy of Balaam's benedictions and maledictions, even as against the people of Balaam's God. Here was the very essence of superstition, to suppose that anything whatsoever can have any spiritual efficacy contrary to, or apart from, the will of God; most of all, that the word of God, as officially employed by his ministers, can be made to work counter to the declared mind of God. As though Peter could ban whom Christ hath blessed. Yet note that Balak's superstition was the depraving of a great truth. Balaam had no doubt authority to censure or to bless in the name of God; and his censures or blessings would have had validity if pronounced with a single eye to the glory of God and the good of souls, and in clear dependence upon the higher knowledge and necessary ratification of Heaven.

5. That Balak sought to obtain supernatural aid from Balaam by means of flatteries, gifts, and promises; and thought, no doubt, to buy over the powers of the world to come. He rightly gauged the character of the man; he was utterly deceived as to the worth of his alliance. How often do shrewd and worldly men make the same mistake! Because they see through the selfishness and worldliness of the human ministers of religion, they fancy they can command the services, and employ in their own behalf the powers, of religion itself.

III. THE COMING OF BALAAM. Consider under this head—

1. That Balaam was solicited to come for a purpose which he must have felt sure was wrong. To curse any people was an awful thing, and only to be done with sorrow if commanded by God. To curse Israel, of whose history Balaam was not ignorant, was on the face of it treason towards God. When men are invited to lend their aid in opposing or destroying others, how careful should they be to make sure that such hostile action is a matter of duty; for we are called unto blessing (1 Peter 3:9).

2. That Balaam was tempted through his love of money and of good things. A true-hearted prophet would have been ashamed to receive gifts and promises for the use of his spiritual powers, and he would have vehemently suspected such as offered them, even with flattery and deference. If anything appeals to our cupidity and promises advantage in this world, we ought all the more to turn against it, unless it is irresistibly proved to be right. With what just scorn does the world regard the universal propensity of religious people to exercise their gifts and throw their influence where and as it pays the best!

3. That Balaam was forbidden to go, for the plain and unalterable reason that he could not possibly do what he was wanted to do without flying in the face of God. If he went, he must either act dishonourably towards Balak by taking his money for nought, or he must act treasonably towards God by cursing his people. And this was perfectly clear to Balaam. The moral law of God is plain enough in its broad outlines, and if men loved righteousness more than gain they would have little practical difficulty.

4. That Balaam's outward conduct was consistently conscientious. He would not go without leave; he refused to go when forbidden; when allowed to go, he repeatedly protested that he could and would say nothing but what God told him to say. And no doubt his protestations were sincere. He had no intention of rebelling against God; it was a fixed principle with him that God must be obeyed.

5. That Balaam's inward desire was to go if possible, because it promised honour and gain to himself. He obeyed God, but he obeyed grudgingly; he obeyed God, but he gave him clearly to understand that he wished it might be otherwise; he respected the definite command not to go, but he paid no heed to the reason given—because Israel was not to be cursed. The only obedience which God really cares for is obedience from the heart (Romans 6:17; Ephesians 6:6). How many are strict in not violating the moral law (as they understand it), but not in order to please God, not because they love the will of God! To how many are the commandments of God formal barriers which they do not overleap only because they dare not! But for such these barriers are sooner or later done away, that they may have their own way.

6. That Balaam did not get credit for the conscientiousness he did possess. He said that God refused to give him leave, which was true, although not expressed in a proper spirit, whereas the messengers reported that he refused to come; and Balak believed that he only wanted more pressing. So it is with men who do what is right, yet not from the true motive; they do not get credit even for the good that is in them; they are always tempted afresh, because they are felt to be open to temptation; the world sees that their heart is with it, and puts their hesitation down to mere self-interest. There is no safety for the man whose heart is not on the side of God.

7. That Balaam, when he referred the matter again to God (as if it were still open), was allowed to go. This is the very essence of tempting God—to cast about for ways and means to follow our own will and compass our own ends without open disobedience. How many treat the rule of God as a disagreeable restraint which must indeed be respected, but may be thankfully avoided if possible! Such men find themselves able to go with a clear conscience into circumstances of temptation which are presently fatal to them. If thou hast once had a clear intimation of what is right, cleave to it with all thy heart, else shalt thou be led into a snare.

8. That Balaam's going, though permitted, was controlled; and this not in his own interest (for he should not have gone),but in the interest of Israel. When men will go into evil they are judicially permitted to go, and the law of God ceases so far to constrain their conscience; but the consequences of their inward disobedience are overruled that they may not be disastrous to God's own people.

IV. THE JOURNEY OF BALAAM. Consider under this head—

1. That God was angry with Balaam for going, although he had given him leave to go. For it was sin which made Balaam wish to go if possible; and it was his wish to go on an evil errand for gain which obtained him leave to go. Even so if men are inwardly desirous to do what is wrong, God will suffer them to persuade themselves that it is not actually wrong, and they will go on with a clear conscience; but God will be angry with them all the same. How many very religious people find it permissible to walk in very crooked ways for the sake of gain, and are yet resolute not to do a wrong thing! But God is angry with them, and they have forfeited his grace already.

2. That the destroying angel stood in the way as an adversary to him. Even so destruction awaits us in every way wherein greed leads us contrary to the will of God. God himself is an adversary to us (Matthew 5:25), and is ready at any moment to fall upon us and cut us asunder. It is useless to say that we have done nothing wrong; if our motives be corrupt, the sword of Divine justice is drawn against us.

3. That Balaam saw not the angel, but the ass did; and this although Balaam was a "seer," and prided himself on "having his eyes open," and on being familiar with the unseen things of God. Even so the "religious" and "spiritual" man, who has great "experiences," and yet is secretly led by greed and self-interest, is often much blinder than the most carnal and unenlightened to perceive that he is rushing upon destruction; the most stupid person has often a clearer perception of moral facts and situations than the most gifted, if this be blinded by sin.

4. That the ass by her fidelity and instinct of self-preservation saved her master. Even so are men, wise in their own eyes often indebted to the most despised and neglected agencies for preservation from the consequences of their blind folly.

5. That Balaam was enraged with the ass, and ill-treated her. Even so foolish men are often very angry with the very circumstances or persons which are really saving them from destruction.

6. That the ass was Divinely permitted to rebuke her master, and to teach him a lesson if he would learn it; for she had been faithful, and docile, and had never played him false ever since she had been his; while he had been and was unfaithful, obstinate, and disloyal to his Master in heaven. Even so do the very beasts teach us many a lesson by their conduct; and those whom we account in some sense worse than the beasts—the heathen, and men who have no religion at all—will often put us to shame by the strong virtues which they display where we perhaps fail.

7. That then Balaam saw and knew his danger. Even so do men complacently walk in the road which leads to destruction, and have not the least idea of it, but are angry with any that thwart them, until some sudden influence opens their eyes to their awful danger.

8. That he offered there to go back, if necessary, and acknowledged that he had done wrong (perhaps sincerely), but was not permitted to go back. Even so when men have, as it were, insisted upon taking a line which is unwise, dangerous, and wrong, it is often impossible for them to turn back. They are committed to it, and God's providence compels them to go on with it, even though it brings awful peril to their souls; for God is a jealous God, and the judicial consequences of our own (albeit inward and disguised) disobedience cannot be got rid of in a moment.

9. That he was met by Balak with honour and ceremony and religious rites; and no doubt all that happened by the way faded like a dream from his mind. Even so when men walk after their own covetousness they may receive the most solemn and (at the time) impressive warnings, but amidst the converse of the world, and the honour received of men, and the outward ceremonies even of religion, these warnings have no lasting effect, and are as though they had never happened.

Consider again, as to the broad lessons to be drawn from Balaam's character and history—

1. That there may be in a man high spiritual gifts without real goodness. Balaam was a veritable prophet, and had in a remarkable degree the faculty both of understanding' the hidden things of God and of announcing them to men. Yet, as in the case of Saul (1 Samuel 10:11; 1 Samuel 19:24) and Caiaphas (John 11:51), his prophetic gifts were not accompanied by sanctification of life. Even so many in all ages and lands have great spiritual gifts of understanding, of interpretation, of eloquence, &c; whereby others are greatly advantaged, but they remain evil themselves.

2. That a man may have a true and strong religious faith, and yet that faith shall not save him, because it does not affect his heart. That Balaam had a strong faith in the Lord God is evident; on the intellectual side it was as strong as Abraham's; he walked with God as truly as any in the sense of being constantly conscious and mindful of God's presence and concern with him. No definition of religious faith could be framed with honesty which should exclude Balaam and include Abraham. Yet he was not saved, because his faith, although it largely mingled with his thoughts and greatly influenced his actions, did not govern his affections. Even so it is useless, however usual and convenient, to deny that many men have strong religious convictions and persuasions—in a word, have religious faith—who are not saved by it, but fall into deadly sins and become castaway. This is not a matter of theology so much as of facts; the combination of strong religious feelings, and of power to realize the unseen, with deep moral alienation from God, is by no means uncommon.

3. That a man may do much and sacrifice much in order to obey God without receiving any reward. Balaam repeatedly crossed his own inclinations, and forewent much honour and emolument from Balak, from a conscientious motive; and yet he was all the time on the verge of destruction, and was miserably slain at last. Even so many men do much they do not like, and give up much they do like, because they feel they ought to; and yet they have no reward for it either here or hereafter, because their self-restraint is grounded on some lower motive than love of God and the desire to please him.

4. That a man's conduct may be to all appearance irreproachable, and yet be displeasing to God. No one could have found distinct fault with any one step in Balaam s proceedings; each could be singly justified as permissible; yet the whole provoked the Lord to anger, because it was secretly swayed by greed. Even so many men are careful, and to ordinary eyes irreproachable, in their doings, because no act is by itself without justification; yet their whole life is hateful because its governing motive is selfishness, not love. It is not enough to be able to justify each step as we take it, neither will a mere resolve to keep straight with God insure his favour.

5. That a man may have profound religious insight, and yet be very blind to his own state. Balaam justly prided himself upon his intelligent and spiritual religion as compared with the follies and mummeries of the heathen around, yet he was more blind than his own beast to the palpable destruction on which he was running. Even so many of those who are most enlightened, and most removed from ignorance and superstition, are most blind to their own entire moral failure, and to the terrible danger they are m. They, e.g; who most denounce idolatry are often utterly blind to the fact that their whole lives are dominated by covetousness, which is idolatry.

Consider again, with respect to the miracle of the dumb beast speaking with human voice—

1. That the lower animals, of which we reck so little, save as a matter of gain, have often great virtues by which they teach us many a lesson. How much more faithful are they to us than we to our Master! It is their pride and study to observe and follow, almost to anticipate, the least indication of our will. How inferior are we in that respect!

2. That God is not insensible to their virtues, as we very generally are, but at times at least gives them a certain recompense of reward (see on verse 33). Since they seem to have no future state, it is a duty laid upon us to remember and reward their fidelity in this world.

3. That to be enraged with dumb animals when their conduct vexes us is sin and folly. Sin, because we have no right to be angry except with sin (Jonah 4:4); folly, because they are less in the wrong with us than we are with God; sin and folly, because such anger surely blinds the mind and leaves us a prey to temptation.

4. That God delights to choose "the foolish things of the world to confound the wise," and "things which are despised" and "things which are not" (as the intelligible voice of an ass) "to bring to nought things that are. Even so are we often rebuked and reproved in our madness by things most contemned and familiar, by those whom we regard as brutish and senseless, and standing upon a lower level than ourselves.


Numbers 22:5, Numbers 22:6


Balaam's character and history have supplied materials for many theological and ethical studies. His character and conduct, though somewhat perplexing, are not more so than those of many around us, and are full of instruction and warning. At present we confine ourselves to two points:—



I. (1) He had a knowledge of the true God. Among the heathens of Mesopotamia he retains a knowledge of the God revealed "from the creation of the world." He was like the evening star, showing in which direction the sun of truth had set (Romans 1:21), and reflecting some of its light. His knowledge may be illustrated by his lofty utterances respecting God and his people; e.g; Numbers 23:10, Numbers 23:19; and according to some interpreters, Numbers 6:8.

(2) He enjoyed the gift of inspiration by God. Though there were no Scriptures, God was not left without witnesses, and among them was Balaam "the prophet" (2 Peter 2:16). He expected Divine communications, and was not disappointed. No wonder then that

(3) he enjoyed wide-spread fame. It extended hundreds of miles away, to Moab and Midian, whence more than once an embassy crossed the desert with such flattering words as those in Numbers 6:6. Yet we know that Balaam was a bad man who came to a bad end. Thus we have lessons of warning for ourselves, who have a fuller knowledge of God than Balaam, and may enjoy gifts, if not as brilliant, yet more useful than his. All of these may avail nothing for our salvation, but may be perverted to the worst ends. Illustrations:—Hymenoeus and Alexander, the companions of St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:19, 1 Timothy 1:20); Judas, the apostle of Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 7:21-23; Matthew 11:23; 1 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Corinthians 13:2).

II. Balaam's name mentioned in the New Testament only three times, and each time it is covered with reproach (2 Peter 2:15; Jud 2 Peter 1:11; Revelation 2:14). His root sin was the ancient, inveterate vice of human nature, selfishness. He knew God, but did not love him, for "he loved the wages of unrighteousness." He did not follow the Divine voice, but "followed after" reward. God taught him sublime truths; he "taught Balak" base arts of seduction. His selfishness was shown in—

(1) Ambition. There was nothing of the self-forgetfulness of such prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, or Balaam's contemporary, Moses. He is esteemed as a great man, and he takes good care he shall be so esteemed. He knows divination has no power with God, but to magnify himself among the heathens of Moab, he resorts to it. He constantly aspires to the "very great honour" to which Balak offers to promote him (cf. Psalms 131:1-3; Jeremiah 45:5).

(2) Covetousness. He would be rich, and therefore fell into temptation, &c. (1 Timothy 6:9; 2 Peter 2:15). His words were fair (verse 18), yet suspicious, like those of a venal voter boasting his incorruptibility. Balaam coveted the offered honour and wealth. How could be gain them while God was keeping him back? Two ways were possible. He might get God to change his mind. He wanted to get permission from God to do what was at present a sin. He might have known from the first, as he says (Numbers 23:19). But he struggles to conquer God, as though the fact was not that God cannot change, but that God will not change. Hence his repeated changes of place and new sacrifices. At length it was clear that this way was closed against him. He is constrained to bless Israel again and again. At the close of the narrative (Numbers 24:10-24) he seems to be taking his place boldly as an ally of the people of God. But it was only a temporary impulse, not a true conversion. Greedy for the wages of unrighteousness, he allies himself with hell. ("Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.") What a contrast between his fair promises (verse 18) and this wicked deed l The reason is that in trying to "bend" God he was miserably perverting himself (like a weak tool used to move a great weight), while seeking permission to sin he was growing less sensitive to sin (see next Homily). Learn then from the fall of this great and gifted prophet to what a depth of infamy selfishness, that mother of sins, and its offspring, ambition and covetousness, may lead us. Warned by the selfishness of Balaam, may we copy the unselfishness of Christ (Romans 15:3; Philippians 2:3-8).—P.

Numbers 22:13


The final fall of Balaam was not sudden. A process of deterioration had been going on, the first clear sign of which is in the text. In trying to change God's will he had been changing himself for the worse (see Homily on Numbers 22:5, Numbers 22:6). We can trace his resistance of conscience step by step.

1. When the first embassy came, his knowledge of God and of Israel's history should probably have led to a decisive refusal. But if we assume that he needed direction, it is clear that the rewards of divination made him anxious to go. Not that he had a desire to curse Israel; he would just as soon have blessed them for reward. Yet he had no intention then to disobey. If a prophet could have shown him that evening his future career, he might have shrunk in loathing from the self that was to be. The will of God is declared (Numbers 22:12), and the struggle between conscience and covetousness begins. At first conscience prevails, but the form of refusal (Numbers 22:13) indicates double-mindedness. In contrast to Joseph (Genesis 39:9), Balaam lays himself open to fresh temptations. If we give Satan a hesitating "No," instead of a "Get thee behind me," he will understand that we would like to sin, but dare not, and will try us with more honourable embassies and costlier gifts.

2. The ambassadors leave, but lingering regrets keep the fire of covetousness smouldering in Balaam's heart. It flames up afresh on the arrival of the second embassy (Numbers 22:16, Numbers 22:17). Fair professions (Numbers 22:18) reveal his weakness, for what "more" (Numbers 22:19) could he want God to say unless it was to give him permission to sin? God gives him leave not to sin, but to go. (Illustrate this act by similar Divine proceedings: e.g; allowing the Israelites, under protest, to elect a king; a wild youth receiving reluctantly permission to carry out his determination to go to sea.)

3. Balaam went, and God is angry, not because he went, but because he went with a wicked purpose. When he found the ways of transgressors hard, and offers to return (Numbers 22:34), God knows that he would only carry his body back to Pethor, and leave his heart hankering after the rewards of Balak. May we not suppose that if he had shown real repentance in the future, and heartily entered into the Divine purposes: though he lost Balak s rewards, he would have received God's blessing? But he ran greedily after reward, and found, as sinners still find, under God's providence, that it is hard to retrace false steps. Therefore, "enter not," &c. (Proverbs 4:15).

4. Balaam meets with a flattering reception, yet renews his good professions (Numbers 22:38). He means them, for he still hopes to gain God's consent to his purpose. His use of enchantments to impose on the heathen is one sign of unconscientiousness. His first attempt to curse is a failure (Numbers 23:7-10), but the struggle with conscience and God is not abandoned. ("No sun or star so bright," &c; Keble's ‘Christian Year,' Second Sunday after Easter.) Three times he persists in this "madness," trying to change or circumvent the will of God. At length he seems to give up the struggle, but is probably only "making a virtue of a necessity;" at the best it is but a passing impulse, followed by a relapse, and by the infamous act by which he clutched his wages and brought God's curse on Israel (Numbers 25:1-18). He thus shows that he has renounced God, has entered thoroughly into Balak's schemes, and even outstripped him in wickedness. His perverted conscience does not keep him even from such unutterable baseness. His triumph is brief, and his "end is destruction" (Numbers 31:8; Psalms 34:21). Learn from this the guilt and danger of resisting and thus corrupting conscience. (Explain process of this corruption, and note natural analogies to a conscience dulled by persistence in sin.) To try and bribe conscience is like seeking permission to sin. (Illustrate by story of Glaucus inquiring at the oracle of Delphi whether he might keep stolen money—Herodotus, 6:86.) Conscience, like a railway signal-lamp, is intended to warn against danger or direct in the path of safety. If through negligence the lamp is put out or shows a wrong light, the consequences may be fatal (Isaiah 5:20; Matthew 6:23). A healthy conscience accuses of sin and warns of danger only that it may be a minister to lead us to Christ.—P.

Numbers 22:15-17


Such appeals as Balak sent to Balaam are constantly addressed to us, in word or substance, by human tempters, and through them by the infernal tempter. The honour offered is represented as "very great," and as essential, and the promises are as vast as we can desire ("whatsoever," &c; Numbers 22:17; Luke 4:6, Luke 4:7). Though at first the tempter may be resisted, and may depart "for a season" (cf. Numbers 22:14), yet his solicitations may be renewed in a more alluring form than at first, with this appeal, "Let nothing," &c. (Numbers 22:16). Neither

(1) conscience. Away with childish scruples in a man of the world who has to see to his own interests. Nor

(2) considerations of mercy to others. Balaam was required to curse and, if possible, ruin a nation that had done him no harm. Selfishness is bidden to make any sacrifice at its shrine. E.g; ambitious rulers, dishonest traders or trustees, heartless seducers. Nor

(3) the will of God; for who can be sure whether God has really revealed his will, or will enforce it (Genesis 3:1-5). Nor

(4) the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in dying that he might save from the ruin of sin; for though you sin, grace will abound. Nor

(5) the fear of judgment; for after all the threats of judgment may be old wives' fables, or you may make all right before you die. Thus speaks the tempter, bidding us make riches and honour "the prize of our calling," and overleap or break down every barrier that God has set up to hinder us from ruining ourselves and others. (Illustrate from the case of Judas, and the barriers he broke through at the call of Satan, and contrast the impregnability of Jesus Christ when offered the wealth and honour of the world.) Christ himself, the motives supplied by his cross when applied by his Spirit, are the greatest hindrances to keep us from yielding to the tempter.—P.

Numbers 22:32


In Numbers 22:28 we are reminded of the silent protest of the brute creation against the cruelty of men. From Numbers 22:32 ("Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times?") we may learn that this protest is heeded and supported by God. Cruelty of all kinds is one of the foulest of the works of the flesh, opposed to the character of God and to the instincts of humanity. Cruelty to animals is especially hateful, because of



I. 1. They are our inferiors, therefore magnanimity and sympathy should protect them.

2. They are often helpless to defend themselves; cruelty is then unutterably mean.

3. Some of these animals are part of our property, and of great value to us, though absolutely within our power.

4. If they are not "wont to do so" when they provoke us, some good reason may exist which we should seek to discover. Therefore—

5. When tempted to harshness, short of cruelty, it is our duty to consider whether they need it, and in this sense deserve it. For—

6. Past misconduct of ourselves or of others may have occasioned their present obstinacy, through timidity or some other cause.

7. Animals suffer too much already, directly or indirectly, through men's sins (war, famines, &c.) without the addition of gratuitous cruelties.

8. No future life for them is revealed, so that we have the more reason for not making them miserable in this life.

II. 1. It fosters a despotic habit of mind, as though might and right were identical.

2. It hardens the heart and tends to nurture cruelty to men as well as brutes. E.g; the child Nero delighting in killing flies.

3. It still further alienates us from the mind of Christ, the character of "the Father of mercies."

4. It is a sign of unrighteousness (Proverbs 12:10), against which God's wrath is revealed, and from which we need to be saved by Christ (Romans 1:18; 1 John 1:9).—P.


Numbers 22:2-4


I. AN INTERESTED OBSERVER OF AN IMPORTANT ACTION. "Balak saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites." The thing was worth observing in itself, that this great host of people, coming with but little notice, having no land of its own, no visible basis of operations, no military renown, should yet have crushed into ruin such powerful kings as Sihon and Og. It was not merely the conquest of one army by another; there was something decisive and very significant about the conquest. Just as in profane history some battles, such as Marathon and Salamis, Waterloo and Trafalgar, stand out like towering mountains because of the great issues connected with them, so these victories of Israel over Sihon and Og are for all generations of God's people to consider. Balak of course was interested as a neighbour, but we, living thousands of miles from the scene of these events, and thousands of years after them, should be not less interested. They concern us just as much as they concerned Balak. Distant as they are from us in time, they have to do very practically with our interests and the yet unaccomplished purposes of the ever-living God. We are too observant of trifles, the gossip of the passing day, the mere froth on the waves of time. The thing also pressed for notice. The Amorites were Moab's neighbours, and Moab had been conquered by them. If Israel then had conquered the conqueror, there was need for prompt action. So long as Israel was far away, wandering in the wilderness, with no aim in its course that could be ascertained,—that course aimless rather, so far as others could make out,—there was no feeling of alarm. But now, with Israel in its very borders, Moab feels it must do something. Yet the pressure was not of the right sort. Moab was driven to consider its position not because of dangers within, not because of idolatry and unrighteousness (Numbers 25:1-18), nor that it might become a pure and noble-minded nation, but because of the selfish fear that another people close to its territory might prove hostile and destructive. Thus we allow considerations to press on us which should not have the slightest force. Where our minds should be well-nigh indifferent they are yielding and sensitive; and where they should be yielding and sensitive, indifference too often possesses them, When Jesus fed the multitude, the action pressed for notice not because the multitude appreciated the spiritual significance of the action, but they eat of the loaves and were filled. Balak did well when he noticed the victories of Israel, but very ill when he noticed them simply as bearing on the safety of his kingdom.

II. THE CONSEQUENT DISQUIETUDE OF MOAB. The Amorites had conquered Moab, but Israel had conquered the Amorites. The presumption then was that Israel, having the power, would as a matter of course advance to treat Moab in the same fashion; just as an Alexander or Napoleon goes from one conquered territory to conquer the next; just as a fire spreads from one burning house to its neighbour. It was therefore excusable for Moab to be sore afraid; but though excusable, it was not reasonable. The alarm came from knowledge of some things, mixed with ignorance of things more important. The alarm then was groundless. General as that alarm was, Moab had really nothing to fear. Its way of reasoning was utterly erroneous. If Moab had known the internal history of Israel half as well as it knew the present external appearance and recent triumphs, it would not have been alarmed because of the children of Israel, and because they were many. The children of Israel had been commanded to cherish other purposes than those of conquering Moab, and the mind of their leader was occupied with things far nobler than military success. Besides, as God had remembered the kinship of Israel and Edom, so he remembered that of Israel and Moab (Deuteronomy 2:9). Moab was afraid of the people because they were many. What a revelation of their craven and abject spirit in the past he would have had if he had seen them threatening to stone Caleb and Joshua (Joshua 14:1-15). And though they were many, he would have seen that all their numbers availed nothing for success when God was not with them (Numbers 14:40-45).

III. MOAB'S CONCLUSION WITH REGARD TO HIS OWN RESOURCES. He could no more resist Israel than the grass of the field resist the mouth of the ox. This expresses his complete distrust of his own resources, and was a prudent conclusion, even if humiliating, as far as it went, and always supposing that Israel wished to play the part of the ox. The fall of Sihon had taught nothing to Og, the self-confident giant, but the fall of Sihon, and next the fall of Og, had taught Moab this at least, that in the battlefield he could do nothing against Israel. If a man refuses to go in the right path, it is not, therefore, a matter of little consequence which of the wrong paths he chooses. One may take him swiftly in the dark to the precipice; another, also downward, may afford more time and occasions for retrieval. It was a wrong, blind, useless course to send for Balaam, but at all events it was not so immediately destructive, as to rush recklessly into the field of battle against Israel.—Y.

Numbers 22:5, Numbers 22:6


War being useless, what shall Balak do? In his mind there were only two alternatives, either to fight or to send for Balaam. And yet there was a better course, had he thought of it, viz; to approach Israel peacefully. But prejudice, a fixed persuasion that Israel was his enemy, dominated his mind. We do very foolish things through allowing traditional conceptions to rule us. That Israel was the enemy of Moab was an assumption with not the smallest basis of experience. Many of the oppositions and difficulties of life arise from assuming that those who have the opportunity to injure are likely to use the opportunity. He who will show himself friendly may find friends and allies where he least expects them. We must do our best in dubious positions to make sure that we have exhausted the possibilities of action. Balak then sends a message to Balaam. Notice—

I. A TESTIMONY TO THE POWER OF RELIGION. Balak cannot find sufficient resources in nature, therefore he seeks above nature. When men, who in their selfishness and unspirituality are furthest from God, find themselves in extremity, it is then precisely that they are seen turning to a power higher than their own (1 Samuel 28:1-25). Man has a clinging nature, and if he cannot lay hold of the truth as it is in Jesus, he must find some substitute. Balak did not know God as Moses knew him; he knew nothing of his spiritual perfections and holy purposes. But still he recognized the God of Israel as really existent, as a mighty potentate; he felt that Balaam had some power with him; and thus even in his ignorance he believes. It is a long, long way to pure atheism, and surely it must be a dreary and difficult one. May not the question be fairly raised whether there are any consistent atheists, those whose practice agrees even approximately with their theory? There are men without God in the world, i.e; lacking conscious and happy connection with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; but even so they may bear testimony unthinkingly to their need of him. The witnesses to the power of religion are not only many, but of all sorts, giving testimony often when they least suspect it.

II. A TESTIMONY TO THE EMPTINESS OF IDOLATRY. Balak had a god of his own, probably more than one, and doubtless he would have felt very uncomfortable in omitting the worship of them; but he did not trust in his gods. He may have sacrificed to them on this very occasion with great profusion and scrupulosity, but he did not trust them. Though they were near at hand, he felt more hope from Balaam far away; and yet if there was any good in his gods, this was the very time to prove it and receive it. There is a Nemesis for all idolatry. The idols of Moab were put to shame before the God of Israel, and that by the very man who was bound to be their champion. It does not need always for a Dagon to fall in the presence of the ark. There are other ways of dishonouring idols than casting them to the moles and the bats. They may have shame written across their brows, even while they stand on the pedestal of honour. Thus we see also an exposure of formalism. Balak's great need strips the mask off his religion, and underneath we see, not living organs, but dead machinery. And bear in mind, formalism in serving the true God is just as certain to come to shame as formalism in serving an idol. The principle is the same, Whatever deity be formally acknowledged.

III. AFTER ALL, THE RESORT TO BALAAM WAS A VERY PRECARIOUS ONE, even supposing Balaam had all the power with which Balak credited him. For Pethor was a long way off, and the dreaded, victorious Israelites were close at hand. Balaam did not live in the next street. While you are sending from Land's End for the celebrated London physician, the patient's life is steadily ebbing away. That is no sufficient help in our supreme necessities which has to be brought over land and sea. "Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead). The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart" (Romans 10:6-8). Go into thy closet; retreat into the seclusion and security of thine own heart, and meet the mighty Guide and Helper there. The God of Israel went about with his people. Jesus did not say, "Wheresoever I am, there my people are to gather together," but, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

"God attributes to place
No sanctity, if none be thither brought
By men who there frequent, or therein dwell."

IV. A MAN MAY BE IGNORANT OF THINGS LYING NEAREST HIM AND UNSPEAKABLY IMPORTANT, while he abounds in useless knowledge of things far away. Balak knew not the needs of his own heart, the real power of Israel, the disposition of Israel's God to him, the possibilities of friendship which lay within those tents on which he looked with so much apprehension. But somehow he had got to know concerning Balaam in far-away Pethor. How much useless, deceiving, pretentious knowledge we may accumulate with infinite labour, and at the time feeling great certainty, of its value. "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." It is of great moment in a world where so much is to be known, and yet so little can he acquired, not to miss acquiring the right things. Said Dr. Arnold, "If one might wish for impossibilities, I might then wish that my children might be well versed in physical science, hut in due subordination to the fullness and freshness of their knowledge on moral subjects. This, however, I believe cannot be; and physical science, if studied at all, seems too great to be studied ἐν παρεργῳ, Wherefore, rather than have it the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament." Thus also the great discoverer Faraday in his old age—"My worldly faculties are slipping away, day by day. Happy is it for all of us that the true good lies not in them. As they ebb, may they leave us as little children, trusting in the Father of mercies and accepting his unspeakable gift!"

V. THE MESSAGE WAS VERY FLATTERING TO BALAAM. Kings have much to do with courtiers, and all the delicate preparations of flattery must be well known to them. Balak made Balaam to understand that it was not for a trifle he had summoned him, for a service that could be rendered by a second-rate soothsayer. The people he so dreaded had come out from Egypt, that home of strength in those days, that populous and wealthy land, and by no means lacking in reputed wise men, sorcerers and magicians. They had come in great numbers: "behold, they cover the face of the earth;" and they were in close proximity and apparently settled condition: "they abide over against me." There is the willing confession by Balak of his own inability, and his evident faith in Balaam's power to cast a fatal paralysis over all the energy of Israel. Now all this must have been very pleasant for Balaam to hear, sweeter maybe than the jingle of the rewards of divination. Thus did the temptation to Balaam, already only too open to temptation, begin. His carnal mind was appealed to in many ways. The rewards of divination were only a part of the expected wages of unrighteousness. "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).

VI. BALAK HAD MORE FAITH IN FALSEHOOD THAN ISRAEL FOR A LONG TIME HAD shows TOWARDS TRUTH. The conduct of Balak in sending so far, in casting the fortunes of his kingdom with such simplicity on what was utterly false, should put us to shame, who have the opportunity of resorting at all times to well ascertained and established truth. Balak had only a Balaam to seek, such an ignoble and double- minded man as appears in the sequel; not a Moses, who could have told him truly, not only how the blessing and the curse really come, but how to secure the one and escape the other.—Y.

Numbers 22:7-14


I. BALAK'S NOTION OF WHAT WOULD BE MOST ACCEPTABLE TO BALAAM. It is all a matter of money, Balak thinks. "Every man has his price," and the poor man who cannot pay it must go to the wall. Not that we are to suppose Balaam a specially greedy man, but it has been the mark of false religions and all corruptions of the true service of God that priests and prophets have been greedy after money. They promise spiritual things and make large demands for carnal things; the more they get the more they promise, and the more they get the more they want. "The priests teach for hire, and the prophets divine for money" (Micah 3:11). Simon Magus must have known well the greed of his tribe when he offered money to Simon Peter. It is the mark of a true bishop that he is not greedy of filthy lucre (1 Timothy 3:3). Jesus sent forth his disciples to make a free gift in healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, and casting out devils. "Freely ye have received, freely give." "He, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isaiah 55:1).

II. BALAAM'S RECEPTION OF THE MESSENGERS. He cannot give a prompt answer. We are certainly very much in the dark concerning Balaam's past life and present position. If he knew anything of Israel's true character and God's purpose concerning Israel, then, of course, there was not the smallest excuse for delay. But even supposing him ignorant in this respect, was there any excuse for delay to an upright man? Did not Balak's wish at once suggest the answer an upright man would have given? Blessing and cursing are great realities, not mere priestly fictions (Deuteronomy 27:1-26, Deuteronomy 28:1-68), but they can never become mere matters of money. "The curse causeless shall not come." tie who deserves blessing cannot be cursed, nor he who deserves cursing, blessed. God's sovereignty, mysterious enough in its operations, is never arbitrary. An upright man would have felt it was no use pretending to consult God with a bribe in his hand. The bribe vitiated the spirit of his prayer, and prevented a proper reception of the answer. There are certain propositions which upright men do not need to sleep or deliberate over. The answer should follow the request like the instantaneous rebound of a ball. Balak did not send asking advice in general terms, or that Balaam should do the best he could, but he pointed out a certain, well-defined road which no upright man could possibly take. If we acquit the prophet of dishonesty and evasion in this plea of delay, we can only do it by convicting hint of great darkness in his own spirit and great ignorance of God.

III. THE INTERPOSITION OF GOD. God does not seem to have waited for any request from Balaam. While the prophet is considering all the honour and emolument that may come to him out of this affair, God comes to him with the prompt and sobering question, "What men are these with thee?" All the depths of this question we cannot penetrate, but at all events it was enough to prepare the prophet, one would think, for an unfavourable answer. And may we not also assume that it was expressive of a desire to extricate him when he had only taken one or two steps into temptation? As to Balak's request, God settles everything with a brief, a very brief, but sufficient utterance: "The people are blessed." And blessed beyond all doubt they had been of late, not in word only, but in deed. Note that God does not send any message of reassurance to Balak. There is guidance for Balaam, security for Israel, but for Balak only blank denial. If Balak had come in the right spirit to Balaam, and Balaam in the right spirit to God, then the messengers might have gone back cheerful, and welcome to their expectant master. But what begins badly ends worse. He who sets himself in opposition to God's people cannot expect to hear comfortable words from God. If we are to hear such words, we must approach him in the right spirit. We must not seek good for ourselves by a selfish infringement on the good of others. It was one thing for Israel, under the leadership of God, to attack the wicked Amorites; quite another for Moab, on a mere peradventure, to attack Israel.

IV. BALAAM'S ANSWER TO THE MESSENGERS. He does not repeat what the Lord said; thus advancing further in the revelation of his corrupt heart. Why not have told them plainly these words: "Thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed"? Simply because it was not pleasant to say such words with the flattering message of Balak still tickling his ears. It was not true then that whom he blessed was blessed, and whom he cursed was cursed; but to have told Moab so would have been to publish his humiliation far and wide, and hurt his repute as a great soothsayer. Yet how much better it would have been for Balaam as a man, and a man who had been brought in some respects so near to God, if he had told the whole truth. It would perhaps have saved a second embassy to him. Men are looking to the main chance even when among the solemn things of God, and fresh from hearing his voice. Balaam first of all, in speaking to God, omits from the message of Balak, saying nothing of his own reputation in the eyes of the Moabitish king, suspecting very shrewdly that this would be offensive to God. Then he omits again in his answer to the messengers, and, to make all complete, they omit still more in their report to Balak. There is nothing in their word to show that God had said anything in the matter. This is what is called diplomacy; not telling a lie, but only leaving out something of the truth, as being' of no practical importance. It is a great blessing that there are Scriptures for us all to read. Philosophers and preachers may leave out part of the truth, or colour and distort it to suit their own prejudices, but they cannot get over the written word. Out of their own mouths they may be contradicted when they read one thing out of the Scriptures and say another as the fruit of their own lips.—Y.

Numbers 22:15-21



1. As concerns Balak. Balaam does not tell the first messengers all that God had spoken to him; they do not tell Balak all that Balaam had spoken to them. The consequence is that he comes to a wrong conclusion, and really he had no information by which to come to a right one. His thoughts on the subject may be supposed to have run thus:—"All the difficulty lies with Balaam. He took the night to think the matter over, and concluded it was not worth his while on such poor considerations to undertake so serious a journey. My messengers and rewards have not sufficiently impressed him with the rank of Moab." In Balak's mind it is all a question of degree, and so he sends more princes, and more honourable than before. And possibly, if these had been unsuccessful, as a last resort he would have gone himself. Thus poor Balak, in the quagmire of misunderstanding already, was led still deeper into it. The great end was to get Balaam's curse into operation, and there was nothing to shake his faith in the possibility of this end being gained. Between God and Balak there were interposed a self-seeking Balaam, and, to say the least, messengers who were careless, if nothing more. Ours is a more secure position. We come to God through a Christ, not through a Balaam; enlightened by a Spirit who teaches us the proper needs of sinful men, and shows us our real danger.

2. As concerns Balaam. Whether he thought that by his first answer he had finally disposed of the request, or wanted time to consider if it should be preferred again, we cannot make sure. His first answer had to be given very much on the spur of the moment. If it had been a truthful answer, one not only with the lips, but with the whole countenance, and the whole man speaking all God had said, he would not have been troubled again. But now he has to deal with more princes, and more honourable than before. He sees precisely why they have been sent, and as he listens to their urgent and obsequious words and comprehensive promises, he understands exactly what is expected of him. His proper answer even now was to say that he could not go on any consideration. But there was no spirit and courage of repentance in him. His reply, with all its seeming emphasis, is very evasive and ambiguous. It looks strong to say, "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold," and to speak of God as "the Lord my God," but after all he leaves the messengers in the dark as to what the word of the Lord was, though he knew it well. He pretends that it is needful to wait another night for what the Lord might say. This time it is a mere pretence, beyond any doubt. Perhaps he reckons that he will have nothing to do but wait till the morning, and then repeat to the second messengers what he had said to the first. How startled then he must have been, not only to get another revelation of God, but a totally different direction! And yet, when we consider, we see that he could not get the same answer as before. Balaam does not stand where he did at the time of the previous answer. He is a worse man; he has yielded to temptation from which God would have preserved him, and now, with open and greedy heart, he is in the midst of greater temptation still. He had daringly neglected God's previous word, and would assuredly neglect it again if he got the opportunity. Why then should God repeat the word? Balaam will still suppress the fact that he cannot curse Israel, seeing they are blessed. What was the needful word yesterday may become useless today. The possible of one hour becomes the impossible of the next. Jesus says, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation;" but that does not prevent him saying very soon afterwards, "Sleep on now and take your rest.… Rise, let us be going." The father has not changed because the child whom he commands in one way today he commands in another tomorrow. Different actions outwardly may reveal the same character and advance the same purpose. The appearance of contradiction in God's dealing arises from our hasty thinking, not because there is any reality corresponding to the appearance. God was speaking, as we more and more clearly see, both for the real good of Balaam and the safety and blessedness of his own people.

II. THE WORLD'S CONFIDENCE IN THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF ITS REWARDS. The world never has any doubt but what it can make its possessions fascinating to every man, and appeal successfully to his affections and sympathies. Weak as the world is, it never loses its self-confidence. Though Balak's throne is in peril, he brags of the honours he can confer on Balaam; and when he sends the second message, he does not change the considerations, but simply increases them to the utmost. So, to take the other side, the world is equally confident in the terrifying power of its penalties. Nebuchadnezzar, sorely troubled about his forgotten dream, does not for all that forget to play the despot. He menaces the astrologers, threatening them with a dreadful death, in right royal style. It must be acknowledged also that the result only too often shows that the confidence is justified. We cannot guard too carefully against the world, alike in its attractions and its threats; and he does this best who is filled with a purer love and a worthier fear than anything in the world can inspire.

III. BALAK'S ALARM SAD NOT BEEN LOST NOR LESSENED BY THE LAPSE OF TIME. "These Israelites are not going to steal away my suspicions by their quietude. The less they look my way, the more sure I am they mean ultimate mischief." And yet what was Israel doing all this time of going to Balaam and returning and going again? Why, while Balak is in all this fret and stir, Israel is steadily preparing for the promised land. Whatever God's enemies may do in plot and counsel, let it not hinder our advance. Enemies outside cannot hinder, if only we, whom God has called and guided, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.—Y.

Numbers 22:22-35


I. WE MUST LOOK NOT ONLY AT THE LETTER OF GOD'S COMMANDS, BUT THE SPIRIT OF THEM. a If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them" (Numbers 22:20). "God's anger was kindled because he went" (Numbers 22:22). It has been said indeed that God was angry not because he went, but with something that happened on the journey; and to support this view grammatical considerations are urged, from the participle being used instead of the finite verb (‘Keil and Delitzsch on the Pentateuch,' 3:168. Clark's Translations). It is further urged, as a consequence of this construction, that the encounter with the angel took place not at the outset of the journey, but rather towards its close. All this may be true, but there is no distinct affirmation of it in the narrative and it is not necessary to assume it for reconciling purposes. There is no difficulty in admitting that God was displeased with Balaam because he went at all. We must not go by words simply. There is something, even in communications between men, which cannot be put into words. And just as the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered, so there are communications of the answering God which can be put in no human tongue. The obedient heart will distinguish between the permissive and the imperative, between the concession to human Weakness and the call to holy duty. Those who want to be right with God, to attend to his will rather than their own desires, will never lift a permission into a command Our interpretations of God's words are a searching test of our spiritual state. How many jump at them to excuse self-indulgence, but conveniently ignore equally prominent words that call for self-denial. The word telling Balaam that he might go to Balak was not like the call to Abram to get out of his country and away from his kindred to a land which the Lord would show him; nor like the sending of Moses to Pharaoh, and Jonah to Nineveh,

II. BALAAM WAS GOING ON THIS EXPEDITION EVIDENTLY FULL OF THE DESIRES OF HIS OWN HEART. All, so far as he could see, was pointing in the way he wanted. He could plead God's permission, which was a very comfortable, not to say a necessary, beginning to one who was a prophet. As he rode along, his heart filled with expectation of the future—riches, honours, fame, power—an ample share in the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. God's permission may have seemed to the infatuated man a clear indication of further favours. If he allowed Balaam to have his own way in one thing, why not in others? Thus he had in view the possibility of exercising an extraordinary power, one that would make him famed and dreaded far and wide. It is something to make a man's heart swell when he can wield the immense forces of nature, say in the strength of a disciplined army, or of some huge steam-engine. But Balaam had in view the possibility of wielding forces above nature, cursing Israel so that its strength might utterly melt away. What wonder God was angry with him, seeing he had desires in his heart which could only be satisfied by accomplishing the ruin of the chosen race! Not that he deliberately desired their destruction; but selfishness in its blind absorption destroys with little scruple all that comes in its way. There is some parallel between Balaam and Paul, all the more striking because it extends only a little way. Paul set out for Damascus, like Balaam for Moab, his fanatical heart brimful of darling projects. Hence in both instances we see special, extraordinary, and unfailing methods adopted to check the men and bring them to consideration. Men who are m the ordinary paths of sin may be dealt with by ordinary methods, peculiar indeed to each individual, yet never rising above the ordinary experiences of humanity. But Balaam and Paul, being extraordinary transgressors, were dealt with by extraordinary methods. We do not expect sinners to be met by angels now, or to hear human speech from brute beasts. Still we may have this much in common with Balaam and Paul, that we may be so absorbed in our own things, so utterly careless of God, Christ, salvation, and eternity, as to require sharp, sudden, accumulated agencies to stir up our attention. It takes a great deal to bring some men to themselves.


1. The presence of an angel in front. Why an angel? Why not communicate with Balaam as before? The answer is that Balaam did not appreciate such communications. He heard them indeed, but they did not lay hold of his conscience, they did not secure his obedience, they did not even make him think seriously of his danger. Hence the appearance of a visible sign in the angel—one who should equally speak the word of God and be seen as he spoke. We know that persons were greatly terrified and impressed by the visits of angels (Judges 13:1-25). Men can go about the world delighting in sin, unconscious that all the time they are in the presence of God himself, but let them see what seems an apparition from another world, and they tremble like the aspen. The disciples in their earlier, carnal-hearted days were not much affected by the holiness and spiritual beauty of their Master's life; but what an impression he made when they saw him walking on the sea! They thought it was an apparition. So soon as Balaam perceived the presence of the angel it brought him up at once. "He bowed down his head, and fell fiat on his face." God makes use of visible agents to prepare results in the sphere of the invisible. And not only did an angel appear, but he was right in front, signifying that he was there to meet with Balaam. He had also his sword drawn. There was significance in meeting a messenger bearing a sword, but the drawing of the sword, even without a single word spoken, was the clearest possible intimation of opposition. The way of transgressors may be hard in more senses than one. How many persevere in the ways of sin in spite of urgent, repeated warnings and entreaties, everything short of physical force, from those who love and pity them! Such at all events cannot say that no one has cared for their souls.

2. The extraordinary means by which God made Balaam to notice the angel. Balaam would not attend to the warnings of an invisible God presented to the eye within, therefore a visible angel was sent to appeal through the eye without to the eye within. But though the angel was in front with the drawn sword, Balaam did not see him. How then shall he be made to see him? God, as his custom is, takes the weak ,things of the world to confound the mighty. He opens the mouth of the prophet s ass. Ridiculous I say the men who will have no miracles, no admission of the supernatural; and ludicrous as well as ridiculous, seeing that it is an ass, of all animals, which is chosen to speak. But that is only because we associate Balaam with the despised and buffeted animal which the word "ass" recalls to us. We may be sure that a man of Balaam's dignity would have a beast to carry him such as became his dignity. And as to the absurdity of an animal uttering human speech, it is no harder to believe that God should here have opened the mouth of the ass, than that he should afterwards have opened the mouth of Balaam, being such a man as he was, to utter glorious predictions concerning the people whom it was in his heart to curse. If we were allowed to think of things as being either easy or difficult to God, we might say that it was more difficult for him to control the mouth of a carnal-minded man like Balaam than the mouth of a brute beast. It is not pretended that he changed the intellect and gave the ass human thoughts along with human speech. The words were the words of a man, but the thoughts were the thoughts of an ass. Balaam himself was not astonished to hear it speak. He was too much exasperated with the strange stubbornness of an animal hitherto so docile and serviceable, to notice the still stranger power with which it had been so suddenly endowed. Observe, again, how naturally all leads up to the speaking of the ass. The ass is not brought specially on the scene, as the angel was. Balaam saddles the ass, and takes the road on it in his customary way. At first there is nothing miraculous. The ass sees the angel, and turns aside into the field; there is nothing strange in that. Coming to the path of the vineyards, and still seeing the angel, it crushes Balaam's foot against the wall; there is nothing strange in that. Still advancing into the narrow place, and still seeing the angel, it sinks to the ground; there is nothing strange in that. The ass was in a strait before and behind, on the right side and on the left. Thus its speaking is prepared for as a climax. Accept the statement that the ass spoke, and all the previous narrative leads beautifully up to it. Deny the statement, and the chief virtue of the narrative is lost.

3. Let us not fail to notice this instance of the lower creation recognizing God's messenger. The question of course suggests itself, Who was this angel? one of the unnamed host, or the Son of God himself in his old covenant guise? If the latter, then he who while in human flesh signified his will to the stormy sea might well signify his warning presence to the ass. Not that the ass knew the angel as a human being could; but even as the lower creation is sensible in its own way of the presence of man, so the ass might be sensible in its own way of the presence of the angel. We argue concerning the lower animals far more from ignorance and carelessly-accepted tradition than from real and discerning knowledge. We know positively nothing as to what sort of consciousness underlies the phenomena of their existence. We know wherein they are not like us, but what they are in themselves we cannot know.

4. Every Balaam has his ass, i.e; every man who has the spirit and conduct of Balaam in him may expect to be pulled up at last in like manner. What God made the ass to his master, that God makes their consciences to many. For a long time the ass had only been of ordinary and commonly accepted use. Balaam had ridden on it ever since it was his, a long time we may conclude, and doubtless rejoiced in having so convenient and trustworthy a servant. And thus many find their consciences as little troublesome, as constantly agreeable, as the ass was to Balaam. Some sort of conscience they must have, but it amounts to nothing more than taking care to keep a reputation for honesty and respectability. They find such a conscience useful in its way, just as Balaam found his ass when out on soothsaying business. But even as the ass sees the angel, so conscience begins to waken to nobler uses. One gets out of the little world of mere give and take, business customs and local habits. Something suggests that we are in the wrong road, pulls us up for a moment, tries to turn us aside. In reality God is beginning to close with us for our own good. At first there is latitude, opportunity of evasion. We go a little further, and God comes closer. Onward still! and at last the soul cannot escape. Blessed is that man, blessed in his opportunity at all events, whose conscience, once the humble instrument of his baser self, is thoroughly roused so that it will not allow him further with its consent in his chosen and accustomed way. The crisis comes, and the question is, "Will you from the heart obey the Divine command, come in subjection to the angel of God, or go on greedily in the way of unrighteousness, which you have been so clearly shown is also the way of destruction?"


1. Balaam is enlightened at last, but after all only partially enlightened. At last, and only when forced to it, does he become aware of the angel's presence. And now he is quick enough and humble enough to recognize that presence, but not with the quickness and humility of a full repentance. The Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, even as he opened the eyes of the ass, but the opening left his disposition and wishes unchanged, even as it left the ass-nature unchanged. He saw the angel, the drawn sword, his danger at the moment, and the danger he had been in before; but his folly, his duplicity, his covetousness, his spiritual danger he did not see. Then when his eyes were opened, and at the same time his ears unstopped, the angel goes on to speak to him such words as might bring him to a right state of mind. Nothing was left undone that could be done. The angel shows him plainly in what danger he had been from the first swerving of the ass, and how the ass was perhaps more aware of the master's danger and solicitous for his safety than was the master himself. Nothing but the sagacity and fidelity of the ass had saved his life. The ass was more faithful to its master than the master had been to God.

2. Hence, the enlightenment being partial, the confession is inadequate, indeed worthless. "I have sinned." There are no more complaints against the ass; there is no extenuation with the lip; so far all is satisfactory. What is said is all right so far as it goes. The mischief is in what is left unsaid, because unthought. Balaam should have asked himself, "How is it that though my ass saw the angel, I did not?" His confession was lacking in that he did not say, "I have sinned because my heart has not been right. I have sinned in going on an expedition to glorify and enrich myself. I will turn back at once." The only thing of real use and worth in God's sight is a voluntary turning from the ways of sin. When the younger son came to himself, he did not say, "I will go back to my father if he wishes me to go, if he will not let me stop where I am," but definitely, "I will arise and go," &c. Therefore, in spite of the angel's presence, the drawn sword, the thrice intimation through the ass, in spite of all the words to make all plain, Balaam goes on. He may indeed plead God's permission, but this plea will avail him nothing. For himself it matters little now, seeing he is not one whit changed in heart, whether he goes forward or backward; any path that he takes is downward. If he returns to Pethor, it will not be to a life of true repentance. He is the same low-minded man wherever he is, and it matters little to himself whether he is destroyed in Pethor or in Moab. Let him then go forward into Moab, so that in his further descent and ultimate destruction he may at the same time be used for the glory of God. Even if he refuses a willing obedience, God may get gain out of him by an unwilling one.—Y.

Numbers 22:36-38


I. BALAK'S SOLICITUDE TO CONCILIATE BALAAM AND SHOW HIM HONOUR. Balak does not yet know what unhealed wounds may be in the prophet's pride, or whether that pride has been sufficiently pleased by the dignity of the second deputation and the extent of the promises it has made. He does all he can, therefore, to minister to Balaam's vanity. The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. They will leave nothing undone to gain their ends; they will creep to reach them, if they cannot reach them standing erect. Balak goes to meet the prophet at the utmost border of his land. It is a dangerous thing to offend the powerful ones of this world; they must be kept in good humour. How different from the spirit in which God would have us approach him or any one whom he may send! If he sends to bless us, it is because of our need; he is not a man, that he should be kept in a favourable disposition by our flatteries and fawnings. We need to remember this. Cornelius had a sincere desire to serve God, but very mistaken apprehensions in some respects of what God required, seeing how he fell before Peter's feet and worshipped him. Let us take heed lest in our anxiety to offer God what we think he wants we are found utterly insensible as to what he really wants. We cannot be too solicitous to please God, if only we are doing it according to his will; we cannot be too solicitous to conciliate men, if only we are doing it for their good. There is nothing degrading or unmanly, nothing that compels cringing or obsequiousness, in the service of God. When we bow before the grandees and plutocrats of the world and watch their wishes as a dog the eyes of its master, then we are reptiles, not men. We must be all things to all men only when it will save them, not simply to advantage ourselves.

II. BALAAM AND BALAK MEET, IN SPITE OF ALL THE HINDRANCES PUT IN THE WAY. Balak of course has his own notion of these hindrances; he thinks they lay in Balaam's waiting for a sufficient inducement; and very likely he congratulates himself on his insight, his knowledge of the world, his pertinacity, his choice of agents, and of the right sort of bait to attract Balaam. Yet after all Balak had not the slightest idea of what great hindrances he had overcome. If he had known of God's interferences, he might have been prouder than ever; that is, if the knowledge of these interferences had not changed his pride to alarm. Balak's earnest sending had been more potent and fascinating than, in his greeting to Balaam, he unwittingly supposed. It had outweighed the direct commands of God, the mission of the angel, the influence of a very peculiar miracle and a very narrow escape from death. How much there must have been in Balaam's greedy heart to draw him on when even mighty and unusual obstacles like these could only stay him for a moment! Balak drew him because in his heart there was something to be drawn; and they came together as streams that, rising miles apart, and winding much through intervening lands, yet meet at last because each pursues its natural course. All the obstacles put in our way to perdition will not save us if we are bent on the carnal attractions to be found in that way. Drawing is a mutual thing. There was nothing in Balaam's heart to be drawn towards God. The hugest magnet will do no more than the least to attract another body to it unless in that body there is something to be attracted.

III. THE MEETING, AFTER ALL, DOES NOT SEEM A SATISFACTORY ONE. One would have thought that, after overcoming so many hindrances, these two kindred spirits would have met each other with cordial congratulations. But instead of this being so, Balak must show himself a little hurt with what he thinks Balaam's want of confidence in his word and prerogative as king. And though Balaam's difficulty has not lain in these things, he cannot explain the misunderstanding; he has to hear that word "wherefore" as if he heard it not. "Lo, I am come unto thee." that must be sufficient. And as to Balak's expectations, he can only fall back upon the old misleading generalities; he cannot meet the king with the open, eager, joyous countenance of one who sees success within his grasp. Balak, he sees, has more confidence in him than he can possibly have in himself, considering the strange things he has experienced since he set out on his journey. It is not even the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip that he has to prepare for. It is not the probability of success with the possibility of failure, but the strong probability of failure with just the possibility of success. "Have I now any power at all to say anything? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak." Not that we are to suppose Balak was unduly taken aback by such a want of ardour and sympathy in Balaam. Very likely he thought it was nothing more than a proper professional deference to Jehovah, and that in the event all would be right; just as men say "God willing" and "please God" when they are in the midst of schemes where God's will and pleasure are never thought of at all.—Y.


Numbers 22:13, Numbers 22:14


The story of Balaam is full of contrarieties. The pure faith and worship of Jehovah is seen coming into strange contact with the superstitions of heathenism; and as regards the personal character of Balaam, utterly discordant moral elements are seen struggling together in the same breast. The chief interest of the story centers in the moral phenomenon presented by the man himself'' that strange mixture of a man," as Bishop Newton well calls him. He was a heathen soothsayer, and yet had some real knowledge of God. He was under the influence of sordid passions, and yet was in personal converse with the Spirit of truth, and received from him, at least for the time, a real prophetic gift. He had no part or lot with the chosen people, but rather with their worst enemies, and yet his "eyes were opened," and he had very lofty conceptions of Israel's dignity and blessedness. His history has its clearly-marked stages. In this first stage we have the summons that came to him from Balak, and the answer he was constrained to send back to it. Note here—

I. HEATHEN FAITH IN THE UNSEEN. Balak in the extremity of his fear sends beyond the limits of his own people, into distant Mesopotamia, to secure the help of one supposed to be endowed with supernatural gifts, in special relation to the invisible powers, able to "curse and to bless" (Numbers 22:6). A striking illustration of that blind instinct of human nature by virtue of which it believes ever in the interposition of Deity in the world's affairs. All idolatrous rites, oracles, divinations, incantations, sacerdotal benedictions and maledictions, rest ultimately on this basis. It is this makes the sway of the priest and the supposed "prophet of the Invisible" so mighty in every land and age. Christianity teaches us to lay hold on the substantial truth that underlies these distorted forms of superstition. It enlightens this blind instinct; reveals the righteous "God that judgeth in the earth;" leads humanity to Him who is at once its "Prophet, Priest, and King."

II. THE WITNESS FOR GOD THAT MAY BE FOUND IN THE SOUL OF A DEPRAVED MAN, even of one whose inward dispositions and whole habit of life are most opposed to his will. Balaam practiced an art that was "an abomination unto the Lord" (Deuteronomy 18:12), and his way was altogether "perverse" (Numbers 22:32), and yet God was near to him. God spoke to him, and put the spirit of prophecy into his heart, and a word into his mouth. He "heard the words and saw the vision of the Almighty." Whether his knowledge of God was the result of dim traditions of a purer faith handed down from his forefathers, or of influences that had spread in his own time into the land of his birth, we at least see how scattered rays of Divine light then penetrated the deep darkness of heathendom. So now God is often nearer to men than we or they themselves suppose. He does not leave himself without a witness, even in the most ignorant and vile. The light in them is never totally extinguished. They have their gleams of higher thought, their touches of nobler, purer feeling. Conscience rebukes their practical perversity, and the Spirit strives with them to lead them into a better way. When God is absolutely silent in a man's soul, all hope of guiding him by outward persuasions into the path of righteousness is gone.

III. THE PROSTITUTION OF NOBLE POWERS TO BASE USES. Here is a man whose widespread fame was the result, probably, to a great extent of real genius. His native capacity—mental insight, influence over men, poetic gift—was the secret of this fame. Like Simon Magus, he "bewitched the people," so that they all "gave heed to him, from the least unto the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God." But these extraordinary powers are perverted to the furtherance of an unhallowed cause; he makes them the servants of his own base ambition and desire for gain. "He loved the wages of unrighteousness." It was in his heart to obey the behest of Balak and secure the offered prize. There is a tone of disappointment in the words, "The Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you." He lets "I dare not" wait upon "I would." And notwithstanding all his poetic inspiration and his passing raptures of devout and pious feeling,

"Yet in the prophet's soul the dreams of avarice stay."

How full is all human history of examples of the waste of noble faculties, the prostitution to evil uses of God-given powers! The darkest deeds have ever been done and the deepest miseries inflicted on the world by those who were most fitted by nature to yield effective service to the cause of truth and righteousness, and to confer blessings on mankind. And it is generally some one base affection—the lust of the flesh, self-love, avarice, an imperious will, &c.—that turns the rich tide of their life in a false direction. As the spreading sails of a ship only hasten its destruction when the helm fails, so is it with the noblest faculties of a man when he has lost the guidance of a righteous purpose.

IV. THE DIVINE RESTRAINT OF MAN'S LIBERTY TO DO EVIL. "And God said, Thou shalt not go with them," &c. The spell of a higher Power is over him. In a sense contrary to that of Paul the Apostle, he "cannot do the thing that he would." So are wicked men often made to feel that there is after all a will stronger than their will; that, free as they seem to be, some invisible hand is holding them in check, limiting their range of action, thwarting their purposes, compelling them to do the very thing they would fain avoid, turning their curses into blessings, so that in the end they serve the cause they meant to destroy. The hope of the world lies in the absolute mastery of the Will that is "holy, and just, and good" over all conceivable opposing forms of human and Satanic power.—W.

Numbers 22:31-35


The secret willingness of Balaam to yield to the solicitations of Balak, seen at first in the tone of his answer, "The Lord refuseth," &c; was still more manifest in his parleying with the second appeal. Though he felt the resistless force of the Divine restraint, yet he delayed the return of the messengers for the night in hope of getting a reversal of the sentence (Numbers 22:18, Numbers 22:19). No wonder God's anger was kindled against him, and that, though permission was at last given him to go, he was made in this startling way to feel that he was in the hands of a Power that would not be mocked. Whatever view we take of the strange incidents of this narrative, whether as objective realities, or as the visions of a trance, the moral lessons remain substantially the same. Three features of Balaam's conduct are specially prominent.

I. His CRUEL ANGER. His rough treatment of the dumb ass is marked with reprobation. It was both itself evil and the symptom of a hidden evil.

1. We may believe that the secret unrest of his conscience had a great deal to do with this outburst of anger. Note the subtle connection that often exists between certain unusual phases of conduct and the hidden workings of the heart. Jonah's anger at the withering of the gourd was but one of the signs of his general want of sympathy with the Divine procedure. Balaam, perhaps, was not a cruel man, but the sense of wrong within and the feeling that he was doing wrong betrayed itself even in this form of behaviour. Conscience made him a coward, and cowardice is always cruel. If it had not been for the "madness" of his passion, he might have judged, as a diviner, that the unwillingness of the beast to pursue her journey counseled him to return; but when a man's heart is not right with God, resentment is often roused against that which is meant to turn him into a better way. "Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth?" (Galatians 4:16).

2. It illustrates the sad subjection of the inferior creatures to the curse of moral evil. "The creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly." "The whole creation groaneth," &c. We think it strange that the dumb ass should "speak with man's voice and rebuke the prophet's madness," but, to the ear that can hear it, such a voice is continually going forth from all the innocent creatures that suffer the cruel consequences of man's abuse. Well may St. Paul represent them as "waiting with earnest expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19, Romans 8:22).

II. HIS BLIND INFATUATION. It is deeply significant that he should not have seen the angel. Even the poor dumb creature that he rode saw more than he did. It was his moral perversity, the frenzy of his carnal ambition, that was the true cause of the dullness of his spiritual vision. Note—

1. Sin blinds men to the things that it is most needful for them to apprehend and know. Mental blindness often, not always, has a moral cause. "This people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing," &c. (Matthew 13:15). The highest spiritual truths, realities of the spirit world, tokens of the Divine presence and working, eternal moral laws, sacred responsibilities of life, &c.—all these are darkly hidden from him whose heart is "thoroughly set in him to do evil."

2. Even animal instinct is a safer guide than the moral sense of a bad man. It effectually warns of danger, and prompts to the pursuit of the good nature requires. It is to the animal a sufficient law. But when the "spirit in man, the inspiration of the Almighty that giveth him understanding," the sovereignty of reason and conscience, is overborne by base fleshly lust, man sinks lower than the brutes that perish. Their obedience to the law of their being puts him to shame. Though they "speak not with man's voice," their silent wisdom "rebukes him for his iniquity." "If the light that is in thee be darkness," &c. (Matthew 6:23).


1. In his abject submission. "He bowed down his head, and fell fiat on his face," saying, "I have sinned;" "now, therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again." He must have known from the beginning that his obstinate self-will was displeasing to God, but now that the consequences of it stare him in the face he is filled with alarm. There are those who grieve over their sin only when it is found out. It is not the evil itself they dread, but only its discovery and punishment. Fear often makes men repent and reform when there is no genuine abhorrence of wrong-doing.

2. In the Divine compulsion under which he is placed to pursue his journey. "Go with the men," &c. He would fain draw back, but it is too late now; he must do the work and bear the testimony that God has determined for him. When men are bent upon that which is evil, God often allows them to become entangled in circumstances of danger from which there is no escape, that "they may eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices" (Proverbs 1:31).—W.

Verse 41


BALAAM'S PROPHECIES (Numbers 22:41).

Numbers 22:41

The high places of Baal, or "Bamoth-Baal." Perhaps the Bamoth mentioned in Numbers 21:19, Numbers 21:20. This is, however, by no means certain, because high places were no doubt numerous, and that Bamoth would seem to have been too far from the present camp of Israel. In any case they crossed the Arnon, and ran some risk by adventuring themselves on hostile territory. That thence he might see the utmost part of the people. According to the quasi-sacramental character attributed to the cursing of a seer, it was held necessary that the subject of the curse should be in view. Balak desired to attain this object with as little risk as possible, and therefore he took Balaam first of all to these heights, whence a distant and partial view of Israel might be had.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 22". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-22.html. 1897.
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