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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
THE ERROR OF BALAAM
I SHALL take it for granted that you all have the Balaam chapters in the Book of Numbers by heart. You certainly ought to have those chapters by heart; for, taken together, they make up a narrative which Ewald pronounces to be unparalleled in effectiveness and unsurpassable in artistic finish. I shall assume, then, that you all have that artistic and effective narrative by heart, and I shall enter at once on some of the lessons I have been enabled to gather out of Balaam's awful history.
In the first place, then, that True Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world kindled up in Balaam to an extraordinary brilliance and beauty. Balaam stands out in the selectest rank of those patriarchs and princes, those prophets and priests, who were raised up outside of the house of Israel in order that men might nowhere be left to live without a divine witness. To keep to the Old Testament-Melchizedek, and Jethro, and Balaam, and Job were all such divine witnesses to the profane lands in which they lived. Balaam, then, in his place, and to begin with, was a true and a greatly gifted prophet of Almighty God. Just listen to some passages out of Balaam's prayers and prophecies and exhortations, and judge for yourselves whether he was a man of divine gifts or no. 'And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more. And he took up his parable and said, Balak hath brought me out of Aram, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come defy Israel. But how shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? Or how shall I defy, whom God hath not defied? Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!' And, again, on the top of Pisgah, he takes up his parable in a way not unworthy of the place of Moses' grave: 'God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent. Hath He said, and shall He not do it? Or, hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good? He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel; according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!' And on the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon, Balaam positively saw the day of Christ Himself afar off. 'I shall see Him, but not now; I shall behold Him, but not nigh. There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and out of Jacob shall come He that shall have the dominion.' And, to crown all. When Balak consulted Balaam, 'Wherewith shall I come unto the Lord, and bow down myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased,' inquired Balak, 'with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?' 'He,' answered Balaam-'He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.' Could Moses, could Isaiah, could Paul himself have answered Balak better? No. The Great Prophet Himself never answered Balak better than that. Calvin is the prince of commentators, and Calvin has this on this passage: 'Certain it is that though Balaam was an impostor and full of deceits, yet he was endued with the gift of prophecy. This was the case, no doubt. God has often so distributed the gifts of His Spirit that He has honoured with the prophetic power even the ungodly and the unbelieving. The prophetic office was at that time a special gift, quite distinct from the grace of regeneration. Balaam, then, was a prophet.' A thing terrible to any man to think about; but terrible to a minister above all men to read and to think, and to take home to his heart. For the gift of preaching, too, is a special and an official gift, altogether distinct from the gift of a new heart or a holy life. A man may be an impostor, as Calvin says; he may be full of deceit, and yet may be an eloquent preacher. Moses, as we have seen, could not preach at all, as our fault-finding people would have said. And even Aaron, who was Moses' mouth, never came within sight of the sacred eloquence of Balaam. In fact, I have a remorseful feeling within myself that Balaam's pulpit eloquence, and the dust that his pulpit eloquence cast in his own and other men's eyes, largely helped him to bis ruin. Some eloquent preachers put all their religion into their eloquence. Some impressive preachers put all their tears into their pulpit voice, and all their repentance and reformation into those powerful appeals they periodically make to their own and to other flocks. That burning passage in the Book of Numbers should be appointed to all divinity students to make an exegesis and a homily upon it before they receive licence. They should have to bring out and exhibit from Balaam, and from other instances in church history, how fine natural gifts, and great learning, and great eloquence in the pulpit may all lie like so much far-shining whitening on the surface of a sepulchre. One of their points should be that official excellence often consists in a preacher with much secret corruption, and that a minister may have a great name, and may make a great income, who has no name at all, and no reward at all with God. Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name have cast out devils‚ and in Thy name have done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you. What we ministers are in our closets, says John Owen, and not in our pulpits, just that we are in the scales of God: just that, and no more. Let us, then, who are ministers, or who are looking to be ministers, so live, lest, by any means, when we have preached to others, we ourselves should be cast away as reprobate Balaam was cast away.
Balaam's importunity in prayer: Balaam on his knees all night to know God's will, when he knew it all the time-a great deal of our own anxiety, and perplexity, and prayer, and importunity in prayer is made up out of the same self-deceit. 'I am afraid I cannot go; but tarry over the night till I see.' And Balaam actually went all night to God again about going to Balak. He was up a great while before day about going to Balak. Had God been a man, as Balaam in a fine sermon warned Balak He was not, then we would have said that Balaam was imposing upon God, and was laughing at Him behind His back. Had Balaam been a sincere and an honest man, he would have refused so much as to see Balak's second deputation of princes. He would have said to his servants that he was engaged and could not come down. He would have said to his servants to see that the princes of Moab and their companions and their camels had proper supper and lodging, as became a king's embassy; but that Balak had his last answer from him already. Had Balaam not been given over to making a great name for himself and a great fortune; had this prophet been working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, instead of making beautiful pictures of salvation, and astonishing people with his eloquence on salvation, then Balaam would have put on strength when he saw that long string of camels on their way to his house. Now is my time! Balaam would have said to himself-Now is my accepted time! Now is the day of my salvation! A thorough honest man, as Butler says in his celebrated sermon on Balaam-a thorough honest man would have known how set upon the praises of men and the wages of unrighteousness his own heart was, and had all along been; and he would have acted that day accordingly. But Balaam, with all his talents and with all his opportunities, was a thorough dishonest man.
With all his fine sermons Balaam has his price, said Balak to himself when his first princes came back without Balaam. And Balak sent again princes, more, and more honourable than they. And with a profanity and an impudence that might well have made Balaam blush and become a new man, Balak said to Balaam, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming to me. Neither thy God nor anything else. For I will promote thee to very great honour, and I will do for thee whatsoever thou askest of me. Come, therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people. The salmon is the king of fish; but, all the time, he is ridiculously easily taken. Ridiculously. Two or three inches of a sufficiently red rag drawn over a sufficiently sharp hook, and, with half an hour of a sufficiently strong and supple wrist, the fool is in your basket. In that self-same, bare-faced, and rag-hooked way did Balak angle for Balaam, ay, and took him too. And in that self-same, bare-faced, and rag-hooked way are men and women being angled for and taken every day. A ribbon, a tassel, a shoulder-knot, a rosette, a garter, a feather, two or three empty letters before or after an equally empty name, and the fish is yours.
Yes, surely; go, if you would so much like to go, God said to Balaam as the day broke. At any rate, you may go so far. As you would have Me go against you, if you go all the way, take care what you say and do when you go. Beholding Balaam's insincerity, and being angry at it, says Philo, God said, By all means go. And Balaam's God is our God. And thus it is that as often as Balaam's insincerity, hesitation, sleepless anxiety about duty, prayer, and importunity in prayer are seen in us, He who gave way to Balaam gives way to us also, and says, Yes, surely. Our Maker does not place us under lock and key. He does not tie up our hands. He does not strike us lame or blind to make us obedient. He made us in His own image. He endowed us with free will. He did not intend us to be so many stocks and stones in His hands. Yes, certainly, He says; choose for yourself. What would you like best? Where is your treasure? Well, you are your own master. You are in this matter entirely in your own hands. There it stands in Holy Writ for all you who are in hesitation,-If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them.
But the angel of the Lord stood in a path in the vineyard, a wall being on this side and a wall on that side. And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord she thrust herself into the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall. The dumb ass was doing her best to arrest and to save her eloquent master. And, had he not preached himself long past all hope of salvation, he would have divined the accident and interpreted the providence. Had he not been bereft of all sense and honesty, he would have turned his ass's head in that narrow lane, and would have carried his crushed foot home to rest it and to heal it, and to begin a new life after it. And ever after he would have caparisoned that ass with gold and silver, and would all but have made her his household god. And she would have deserved it all; for she did all she could do to save her devoted master, who had ridden her without a single swerve or stumble of hers to that day. But Balaam was too far gone for a bruised foot to bring him back. And, besides, the prevaricating angel practised upon the prophet, and perplexed the prophet's intellect and judgment, till he did not know what to do. We would never have taken that angel for an angel of the Lord had he not been so named of the sacred writer. For it is surely not usual with such angels at once to oppose a man and to push him on. I pity Balaam-what with his ass; what with that angel of the Lord; what with his crushed foot; and then with all his other bones out of joint, since his ass fell down under him. If it displease thee, said the so pious and so perplexed prophet to the two-faced angel-if it displease thee for me to go on, then I will turn and get me back again. By no means, said the angel. By no means. Having come so far, you are not to lose all your travel and go back. No; go with the men. They are waiting till you mount. Come, and I will help you to your seat. And Balaam mounted his ass with the help of the angel and came to Balak. Have any of you a crushed foot tonight? I have. I can scarcely stand before you to finish for pain and for loss of blood. And, as the Lord liveth, all His angels, with all their irony and all their evil help, shall not sophisticate me out of my soul tonight. I, for one, am to turn tonight in the path between the vineyards. I shall not ask any angel, from heaven or from hell, whether it displeases him or no. I am determined to turn tonight. I have gone far too far already. I bless God for my crushed foot. Indeed I do. I know what I am saying, if you do not know. But, if you do, then come with me. Come, let us return to the Lord our God; for He hath torn, hut He will heal us; He hath smitten, but He will bind us up. Only, Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
And then, look and learn how Balak, once he had got a hold of Balaam, cadged the prophet about from one hill-top to another to get the proper place from which to curse Israel. The first point of view to which Balak took Balaam was to one of the high places of Baal. But, when Balaam saw Israel shining in her tents below, his curses all stuck in his throat. He could not do it. Come, then, said Balak, to a better place. I will take thee this time to a hill where thou shalt not see all their tents, and thou shalt curse them from thence. And Balak, not knowing what he was doing, brought Balaam to the top of Pisgah, till Moses' mantle fell on Balaam, and till Balaam was carried on in the Spirit to prophesy good things, and better things than ever, concerning Israel. Let us try the top of Peor this time, suggested Balak in his discomfiture. Build me then three altars there, said Balaam, and I will see what I can do. But, no. The sight of Israel lying below made the spirit of blessing to come upon Balaam again, till Balak smote his hands together, and in his anger dismissed Balaam to his home without his wages, since he had not done his work. Yes, truly, this narrative is unparalleled in its effectiveness. For, with what sure effect it discovers Balaam's seed to this day. Do you know Balaam's seed when you see them, or when you are yourself one of them? That is one of Balaam's seed in the ministry, that preacher who does his best to tune his pulpit to please the king. He cannot do it; but, as Davison says of Balaam, the will is not wanting. Do you remember how James Stuart dragged Robert Bruce about, seeking a place and a point of view from which that great preacher and great patriot might be got to preach and to pray to the king's dictation? If our young ministers would have a life-long lesson and illustration in fearlessness, in fidelity, and in a good conscience to the end of a life of bribes on the one hand, and of persecution and banishment on the other, let them read themselves deeply into those two narratives so unsurpassable in effectiveness for a minister, the Life of Balaam in the history of Israel, and the Life of Bruce in the history of Scotland and of England. That church member also who changes his minister in the interests of his business, he is of the offspring of Balaam. And that other who changes his minister for the peace of his conscience, he also is Balak and Balaam seeking a spot where they can get at their sin without that restraint. You can live a life of uttermost selfishness, and worldliness, and wicked tempers, and idleness, and vanity, and vice, and total and absolute neglect of prayer in one church, and under one minister, that you could not long live under another. We cannot shut our eyes to men and women choosing their hill-tops and building and kindling their altars all around us every day, exactly as Balak and Balaam chose their hilltops and built and kindled their altars in their day. And some of you may be strongly tempted sometimes to try a change of church or a change of minister for liberty of action and for peace of mind. But you cannot do it. Like Balaam, you know too much, and you have seen too many of the tents of Israel. You may try to shut your eyes, and you may let Balak lead you about promising you your wages, but you shall never see the place where you can give your whole heart to evil, or where you can sin on without an inward rebuke.
But, Balaam,-ass, and angel, and crushed foot, and Almighty God Himself notwithstanding, he would have the wages of unrighteousness. He would have Balak's gold. After his foot was whole again,-Balaam was a very clever man,-and he somehow got expectation and hope kindled again in Balak that Balaam might have changed his mind by this time. And, after some underground management, they met once again, Balak and Balaam, in the dark. You who know your Milton have there the identical advice that Balaam gave to Balak. It was the very same advice, to the letter, that Belial, the dissolutest spirit that fell, gave to the old serpent. Set women in their eye, counselled the old reprobate. And for his so late but so successful counsel Balaam got his house filled with Balak's silver and gold when Israel sinned and fell in the wilderness.
Let me die the death of the righteous! That was Balaam's noble peroration on the high place of Baal. But as we pass on from the Book of Numbers, with its unparalleled effectiveness, to the end of the history in the Book of Joshua, we find in that book this: Balaam also, the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword among them that were slain by them. And then, the apostle Jude, in denouncing certain evil men who had crept into the ministry and into the membership of the church of his day, says, Woe unto them! For they have run greedily after the error of Balaam. They are spots in your feasts of charity, feeding themselves without fear; clouds they are without water; trees without fruit; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever. Such are some of the lessons of Balaam's lost life.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Balaam'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/b/balaam.html. 1901.