Balaam and His Parables.
by W.W. Fereday
THE episode of Balaam and Balak is by far the most interesting in the whole wilderness history of Israel. It occurred at the close of their long pilgrimage. The forty years of perverseness and unbelief were almost ended, and God was about to lead His people across the Jordan, and put them in possession of the land of promise. At this point, Satan roused himself for his last grand effort against them. He would hinder, if possible, the consummation of God's grace concerning them, and transform their blessing into a curse. His chosen instruments for this evil business were Balak, King of Moab, and Balaam, the soothsayer. These enemies foreshadow in some measure, the Beast and the False Prophet who will conspire together for the destruction of Israel just before the Son of Man appears.
It is of the utmost importance to us to observe how God acted in the hour of His people's peril. Israel's God is our God also. Can His mind be influenced against His elect, so as to induce Him to hand them over to the cruel devices of the enemy? The question is the more serious when we remember the ingratitude of Israel during the forty years of wilderness sojourn. Could this annul, or even modify, the purposes of God? The divine answer is found in Num. xxii.-xxiv. Centuries afterwards, Jehovah reminded His people of this time in the following terms: "O My people, remember now what Balak, King of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness (i.e., the faithfulness) of Jehovah" (Micah vi. 5). Without being appealed to by Israel (who apparently knew nothing of what was going on), Jehovah took the matter into His Own blessed hands, and constrained the would-be destroyer of His people to pronounce blessing after blessing upon them. The more persistent the enemy's efforts to harm them, the fuller the opportunity of proclaiming God's thoughts concerning them, until in the four parables, the whole story of divine grace was told out.
Let us look at the circumstances a little further. Israel was encamped, as we have said, in the plains of Moab. "And Balak, the son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel" (Num. xxii. 2, 3). Had Balak known it, he had nothing to fear from Israel. God had forbidden them to touch the territory of either Moab or Ammon; the children of Lot were to be left in undisturbed possession of their inheritance, while Israel pressed on to the better portion selected for them by Jehovah (Deut. ii. 9). But Balak was alarmed. Israel had but recently destroyed three Amorite powers—Arad, Heshbon and Bashan (Num. xxi). Sihon, King of Heshbon, had once been a terror to Moab, but he had succumbed utterly before Israel. In order to guard against possible trouble for his own kingdom, Balak took two steps: (1) he formed a political alliance with Midian, and (2) he summoned from Mesopotamia, Balaam the soothsayer. He hired Balaam because of his known influence with the invisible world. The King rightly felt that Israel's miraculous deliverance from Egypt, and all the wonders of their wilderness history argued the presence with them of a supernatural power. He desired, therefore, to interest supernatural power on his own behalf. But it was the power of hell that he invoked!
Balaam furnishes us with a character-study of a remarkable kind. Unlike Balak, who was just an ignorant heathen, Balaam had considerable knowledge of God. No one ever spoke more piously than he, yet his heart had never been touched by divine grace. He dealt in enchantments and divinations. In this polished day, when it is customary to call ancient abominations by new and more refined names, Balaam would be called a Spiritualist. "Spirit—ist" would be a more suitable title; the word "spiritual" being used in Scripture in a totally opposite connection. The Mesopotamian soothsayer is quoted in Jude ii. as the type of ministerial corruption for the sake of gain; now, as for centuries past, one of the public evils of Christendom (compare Micah iii. 11). Balaam was prepared to preach to the order of those who employed him. He had no objection to bless Israel, if blessing would secure reward for himself, but on the other hand, he had no scruple about cursing them for the sake of "the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. ii. 15). In his heartlessness, he was willing to damn a whole nation in cold blood; for he had no personal quarrel with Israel. But if God be for us, who can be against us? Such is the absoluteness of divine grace, that all the power of the enemy is impotent against God's elect. Balaam was soon constrained to publicly proclaim this. Those who seek to frustrate God's purposes of grace only dash themselves to pieces in the vain effort. This both Balaam and Moab proved in the sequel (Num. xxxi. 8; Deut. xxiii. 3-6).
When the messengers of Balak first approached the soothsayer, he proposed to refer the matter to Jehovah, for guidance. Instead of going to God, he went to bed, and God came to him, forbidding him to curse His people. For a man born of the Spirit, this would have settled the matter once for all. Balaam, however, consented to receive a second deputation from the Moabite King. God then bade him go with them, thus dealing with a fool according to his folly. The Spirit speaks elsewhere of "the madness of the prophet" (2 Pet. ii. 16). Let none entertain the smallest doubt that Balaam's [donkey] really spoke with a human voice. The certainty of it is vouched for in both the Old and New Testaments. Unbelief may sneer incredulously at such a record, and give utterance to one of its scornful "How's," but faith trusts God, knowing both His wisdom and His power. He Who gave the power of speech to man is quite able to grant the same power to a beast, if it pleases Him so to do.
Arriving in Balak's camp, Balaam was conducted by him to "the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people" (Num. xxii. 41). The oracle was thus to speak from a point distinctly Satanic. Oh, the blindness of the enemy! He thus prepared the way for the marvellous spectacle of the Gospel being proclaimed from the devil's own platform. What triumph for God; what confusion for the foe!
I.----ISRAEL, A SANCTIFIED PEOPLE.
Balaam now goes aside to consult his oracle. In his wickedness, he says, "Peradventure, Jehovah will come to meet me," all the while really seeking for enchantments (Num. xxiii. 3, xxiv. 1). "Peradventure" has no place with a man of God; for God is ever ready to meet those who seek after Him, and faith knows this right well, and delights in it. "And God met Balaam." Hell could not be permitted to supervene here, for the elect of God were in question. Accordingly, a message was divinely put into the mouth of the prophet, which he was constrained, however unwillingly, to deliver.
His message—his first parable—was as follows:—"Balak, the King of Moab, hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the East, saying, 'Come, curse [for] me Jacob, and come, defy (or denounce) Israel.' "How shall I curse whom God hath not cursed? Or how shall I defy (or denounce) whom Jehovah hath not defied (or denounced)? For from the top of the rocks I see Him, and from the hills I behold Him; lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone (R.V.), and shall not be reckoned among the nations. 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." (Num. xxiii. 7-10).
The prophet thus opens with a clear statement of the object for which he had been fetched from his distant home; it was to curse Jacob and denounce Israel. But he acknowledges at once that the thing was impossible. God had not cursed; how then could he? This is truly magnificent. After well-nigh forty years of perversity and unbelief in the wilderness, Israel could not be cursed, let the enemy desire it ever so fervently. Let our souls drink this in. The purposes of divine grace stand forever. Neither Satanic malice, nor human unfaithfulness can affect them one iota; though the latter must needs bring down God's holy hand in governmental discipline upon the offenders. Balaam really settled the whole business in his opening words. He declared that if God be for His people, none can be against them. But matters could not be suffered to rest there. This was God's opportunity to unfold the whole story of His grace, and so the thing must go on to its appointed end. Accordingly, the prophet says: "From the top of the rocks I see Him, and from the hills I behold Him." Everything depends upon the point of view from which we contemplate the people of God as to how we feel towards, or speak of them. Had Balaam descended into the plains, and walked through Israel's camp, and then given public utterance to what he saw and heard, what a humiliating tale it would have been! But upon the hills, nothing presented itself to him as to the people's condition. From that elevated standpoint, he could be occupied with God's thoughts alone. The apostle takes us, as it were, to the hill-top in Eph. i., and there shows us what the saints are in Christ according to the purpose of the Father's love; in 1 Cor., he leads us through the camp, and shows us all the evil of which even "The sanctified in Christ Jesus" are capable. Let us beware of occupation with evil. Nothing is more desolating to the spirit; nothing more completely unfits the soul for true service to the people of God. If from the high altitude of faith, we enter into the divine thoughts and feeling concerning them, we shall be enabled, in the exhilaration of it, to labour zealously for the removal of every blot and stain. What the saints are in God's sight, we shall long to make them in the sight of all who behold them. We shall "Warn every man, and teach every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Col. i. 28). It was in this spirit, the devoted apostle travailed in birth the second time for the brethren in Galatia (Gal. iv. 19).
Now we come to the grand distinguishing statement of Balaam's first parable: "Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." Israel was thus a sanctified people—a people set apart for God alone." "I, Jehovah, am holy, and have severed you from the peoples, that ye should be Mine" (Lev. xx. 26). The faith of Solomon recognized this unique position when he prayed at the dedication of the temple: "Thou didst separate them from among all the peoples of the earth to be Thine inheritance, as Thou spakest by the hand of Moses Thy servant, when Thou broughtest our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God" (1 Kings viii. 53). Israel was in the mind of God for blessing before the nation began to be. As far back as the Babel scattering, they were before Him, as Deut. xxxii. 7-8 testifies unmistakably. "But we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love" (Eph. i. 4). The whole Christian company are "The sanctified" of Heb. ii. 11, whom Christ is not ashamed to call His brethren. State does not affect standing, nor does condition annul position; accordingly, even the deeply failing Corinthians were addressed as "the sanctified in Christ Jesus," and were proclaimed to be washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. i. 2, vi. 11). O that the power of such a position dominated our souls! But as with Israel, so with the Church of God; there has been failure, deep, shameful and continuous, in the realization and practical carrying out of the wonderful grace of God.
With fervor, Balaam concluded thus: "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his." But this could not be. One who loved "the wages of unrighteousness" could only expect to receive "the wages of sin." Accordingly, he perished amongst the enemies of the people of God (Num. xxxi. 8; Josh, xiii. 22). His words were pious enough, but his heart was never right with God.
II.—ISRAEL, A JUSTIFIED PEOPLE.
Balak was disappointed and angry. To have been at such pains and expense in order to procure a curse upon his enemies, and then to hear a blessing pronounced upon them was more than flesh could bear. To the king's rebuke, the prophet could only reply, "Must I not take heed to speak that which Jehovah hath put in my mouth?" In reality, the one was as disappointed as the other. Balaam was perfectly willing to curse Israel for reward. Not of his own will, but by divine constraint, he had proclaimed them Jehovah's sanctified people.
Balak now proposed a change of position. "Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place from whence thou mayest see them; thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all, and curse [for] me, them from thence." The absurdity of such a proposition must be apparent. Were the counsels of God to be influenced in this way? Could a change of prospect really make all the difference between blessing and cursing? We are reminded of the words of the Syrian captains in 1 Kings xx. 23. Seeing their king dismayed because Israel had defeated him, they approached him thus: "Their Gods are Gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they." This made the matter one for Jehovah to deal with. Accordingly, a man of God was sent to Ahab with the message: "Thus saith Jehovah, 'Because the Syrians have said Jehovah is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand, and ye shall know that I am Jehovah.'" Neither hills nor valleys make any difference to our God; and no change of position can affect His purposes of Grace concerning His people. Only a man utterly destitute of the knowledge of God could think otherwise.
Arrived at the field of Zophim, on the top of Pisgah, Balaam turned aside from Balak and his retinue in order to consult his oracle. "The Lord" is printed in italics in Num. xxiii. 15, and should be scored out of our Bibles. He went to seek enchantments (Num. xxiv. 1); but Jehovah interposed again, and put a word into his mouth.
"And he took up his parable and said, 'Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor; God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent; hath He not said, and shall He not do it? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?' " Num. xxiii. 18, 19). Here we have God's answer to man's folly. Balaam had the temerity in ch. xxii. 19 to consult Him afresh after receiving His distinct Word, ''Thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed"; Balak had ignorantly proposed a change of prospect in the hope that in this way an anathema might be secured; to both these adversaries of His people, Jehovah now declares that He is absolutely without falsehood or change. His Word must stand forever. This fact was an immense comfort to David in a later day. ''For Thy Word's sake, and according to Thine Own heart, hast Thou done all these great things, to make Thy servant know them" (2 Sam. vii. 21). And when years afterwards, he had to mourn over the unfaithfulness of his house, he was enabled to say: ''Yet He hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure; for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although He makes it not to grow" (2 Sam. xxiii. 5). David and his sons had played sadly false; nevertheless, God and His Word remained true. The absolute reliability of God's Word is a fact of which we need to remind ourselves continually at the present time. Christendom reeks with religious infidelity. Questions of every kind fill the air, and shake the faith of those who entertain them. Confidence in the Word of God is at a low ebb, and yet it should be apparent to everybody, that if we let the divine revelation slip through our fingers, there are but two courses open to us:—refuge in ecclesiastical authority, or blank despair. It imparts robustness to the soul to hear God declare as in the verse before us, "God is not a man that He should lie," etc. We may well confide in peace in such a God.
"Behold, I have received commandment to bless; and He hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it." Here the prophet goes beyond what he said in his first parable. There we have a negative statement, "God hath not cursed"; here we have what is positive, "He hath blessed." (Compare Num. xxiii. 8, 20). On top of this, the foe is forced to confess, "and I cannot reverse it." Let us delight our souls in this. The would-be destroyer of God's elect is constrained to publicly acknowledge his impotence. Fear not, beloved child of God; in Christ the Lord, every blessing is secured for evermore. Let Satan do and say what he may please; it will only result in confusion and shame for himself and all those whom he may employ.
Now we come to the central verse of the second parable. Verse 21 gives us its distinguishing statement. "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel." God's sanctified people are thus His justified people. "Ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. vi. 11). It was not that Israel was without either iniquity or perverseness. Indeed, Moses, who loved them well, had to say, "Ye have been rebellious against Jehovah from the day that I knew you" (Deut. ix. 24). In Jeremiah's time, it was solemnly declared that Jerusalem's entire history had been one of provocation from first to last (Jer. xxxii. 31-32). This could not, and did not, go unpunished. But from the top of Pisgah, it was no question of the principles of God's government, but of His purposes of grace. It was not condition that was being discussed, but position. Israel had been brought out from Egypt under the shelter of the blood of the lamb. Could God ever forget this? In like manner, has Israel's God saved and blessed us on the ground of Christ's redemption. The fact that He is risen again and accepted in the glory of God, secures us for evermore. He Who came down in grace, has gone up in righteousness, and we have become "the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. v. 21).
But while we triumph in the absoluteness of the Grace of God towards us, the government of God (to which all are subject) is a very serious thing. God can never treat lightly the evil ways of those whom He has brought near to Himself. To Israel, it was said: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities" (Amos iii. 2). We have only to turn over one page in the Book of Numbers to find this solemnly exemplified. If in ch. xxiii. 21, we hear God speaking in Grace; in ch. xxv. 4, we hear Him speaking in government. "Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before Jehovah against the sun, that the fierce anger of Jehovah may be turned away from Israel." The New Testament parallel to this may be found in 1 Cor. xi. 30 as compared with 1 Cor. vi. 11. After rebuking the evil ways of "the washed, the sanctified, and the justified," the apostle says, "For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep." It would be folly to raise questions here as to the salvation of the soul. The point is this:—these Corinthians were fit for heaven, but unfit for Corinth. The blood of Christ fitted them for heaven; their scandalous ways unfitted them for Corinth. God will have true witnesses or none to represent Him amongst men.
Israel being God's justified people, God was righteously able to dwell amongst them. This also the adversary told out in the ears of his Moabite audience. "Jehovah, his God, is with him, and the shout of a King is among them." God's presence is power. "God brought them out of Egypt; He hath as it were, the strength of an unicorn." Israel had but the glory-cloud dwelling in their midst, but each individual Christian, and also the Church of God collectively has received the Holy Spirit of God. Referring again to the first epistle to the Corinthians, ch. vi. 19 tells us of the individual blessing, and ch. iii. 16 of the collective. Oh, that we heard more frequently the "shout" of triumphant realization of this! One of the saddest phases of Christendom's unbelief is its long continued indifference to the abiding presence of the Spirit of God. There is nothing to ask for in this connection, no fresh baptism of the Spirit, no new endowment of any kind; what is needed—sorely needed—is simple faith in the grand reality that the Spirit of God is indeed amongst us.
Balaam had earnestly invoked the power of hell against Israel, but he is now constrained to own that it was altogether in vain. "Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there divination against Israel." Such a people, blessed and shielded by the power of God, must ultimately be triumphant as a lion over all their foes. Unbelief in the people themselves might speak with dismay of "giants" and of "walls reaching unto heaven"; here the very foe declares that everything must fall before the people of God's election.
"According to this time (or, "at the due season"—see R.V. margin), it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, 'What hath God wrought!' " Israel's "due season" will be when the Son of Man appears. Then all Israel's miserable doings under the Sinai covenant will be swept into eternal oblivion, and God's grace towards them will be seen in its full and mighty effects. As far as the earth is concerned, Israel will be the great outstanding triumph of divine workmanship. The Christian's "due season" will be when the Lord Jesus descends into the air to summon all His heavenly ones home. Then "in the ages to come, He (God) will shew the exceeding riches of His Grace in His kindness towards us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. ii. 7).
III.—ISRAEL, A GOODLY PEOPLE.
Balak had heard enough and would now close the matter. "Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all." But to this the prophet replied: "Told not I thee, saying, 'All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do?' " (Num. xxiii. 25, 26). Perceiving that Balaam's sympathies were really with him, the king proposed yet another change of view, adding: "Peradventure, it will please God that thou mayest curse them from thence." His previous proposal may charitably be imputed to ignorance; no such leniency may be permitted here. This was wickedness—a deliberate attempt to reverse the Word of God, and this after the decisive declaration of Num. xxiii. 19! "Balak took Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh down upon the desert"
The prophet did not again turn aside to consult his oracle. "When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness." From Zophim, he had proclaimed the powerlessness of such hellish devices against the people of God; now he recognizes it practically by seeking them no more. Acknowledging that God was stronger than himself, he abandoned the hopeless struggle, and yielded himself up to the divine influence.
"And the Spirit came upon him." Does this come as a surprise to some? It is a clear hint as to the sovereignty of the Spirit of God, in that He speaks through whomsoever He will. It could not have been said to Balaam, as to the Corinthians later: "Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you?' (1 Cor. vi. 19). The indwelling of the Spirit of God is one of the great blessings distinctive of Christianity, and it is true of none save genuine believers in the Lord Jesus. But when it is simply a question of an oracle, the Spirit uses whomsoever He pleases—the instrument that will best serve His purpose. Accordingly, we have Pharaoh Necho speaking warningly to Josiah, "by the mouth of God," though the one was a heathen, and the other a distinguished servant of Jehovah (2 Chr. xxxv. 21, 22). In the same remarkable way, we read of the Spirit coming upon Saul's three batches of messengers, and afterwards upon Saul himself, in 1 Sam. xix. In Balaam's case, it suited the purpose of God better to give utterance to His thoughts of grace by means of an enemy than by means of one who ardently loved His people, as Moses. Every word comes with the greater force as emanating from one who would fain have said the very opposite of all that he did say.
Balaam now opens his third parable. "Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said; he hath said, which heard the Words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!" (Num. xxiv. 1-9). The people of God are thus not only sanctified and justified; they are also a goodly people—beautiful in the eyes of God, whatever they may be in the jaundiced eyes of men. Ezek. xvi. 9 comes to mind here. Under the symbol of a helpless babe, once perishing, but picked up in mercy and tenderly cared for, is shown the exceeding grace of God to Israel. The babe developed into a lovely woman. "Thy renown went forth among the nations for thy beauty; for it was perfect through my comeliness which I had put upon thee, said the Lord God." "Thy beautiful flock" expresses a kindred thought in Jer. xiii. 20.
Everything that is lovely is suggested by the figures used by Balaam in this parable. "Valleys," "Gardens by the river's side"; what can be imagined more charming? "Cedar trees" speak of stateliness. "Aloes" were used for purposes of fumigation and incense, the wood having a sweet smell. As one has said, the aloe is "the image of all that is lovely, fragrant, flourishing, and incorruptible." It is remarkable that all this is said, not exactly of the people themselves, but of that which covered them—"their tents." The Christian's covering is Christ. "In Christ" describes my whole standing and position as a believer. The eye of God sees no longer my natural evil as a child of the first man; He sees me instead, covered with all the perfections of the Second Man.
The cedar trees were planted beside the waters. In like manner is the Christian in touch with the source of all blessing. "In Christ dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and we are complete in Him. From Him, the whole body, by joints and bands having nourishment ministered and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God" (Col. ii. 9, 10, 19). Those who are thus richly blessed are responsible to dispense blessing to others. Thus Balaam said of Israel: "He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters." Not yet has this been realized in Israel. In the past, cold conservatism has characterized the nation. The very mention of blessing for Gentiles caused them to shout: "Away with such a fellow from the earth," in the days of Paul (Acts xxii. 22). But in the coming age "the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples as a dew from the Lord, as the showers upon the grass, that tarrieth not for man, nor waiteth for the sons of men" (Micah v. 7). The world's blessing awaits Israel's reconciliation to God.
Meanwhile, "Freely ye have received, freely give" (Matt. x. 8), is a great principle for all who believe in the name of the Lord Jesus. If a spring of living water has been put within us, it is that rivers of living water may flow forth from us for the refreshment of the needy on every hand. "Many waters" is suggestive of many peoples. Compare Rev. xviii. 1-15.
Let us carefully note that all that was declared by Balaam concerning the people of God, was said while they were yet in the wilderness. It was not a Canaan city but a desert camp, of which the prophet said: "how goodly!" Many Christians fully expect to be wonderfully blessed when they reach heaven at last who yet find it difficult to realize that fulness of blessing is theirs even now in Christ the risen Lord. My capacity for enjoyment will doubtless be largely increased in the glorified condition; but I shall not be one whit more richly blessed then, than I am now in the present world. What can even our God add to "all"? (Eph. i. 3; 1 Cor. iii. 21).
A people so fully blessed must necessarily be clothed with power. Accordingly, the prophet proceeds to say: "His King shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath, as it were, the strength of an unicorn; he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows." The elect of God are unconquerable, let Satan rage ever so wildly. The bruising of Satan, however, is not yet; when that comes, the victory of God's people will be final and complete. But this cannot be, either for Israel or for Christians, while Christ remains seated in His present glory.
Balaam concludes with a striking confirmation of two ancient prophecies. "He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness (i.e., defending her young); who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is e that curseth thee." Gen. xlix. 9; xii. 3, are naturally brought to our minds by these words. What is it therefore but the enemy constrained to say that God will be altogether faithful to every Word of His promise? There are two things here:—power and blessing. Power first, blessing after. Blessing for all the earth is indeed and ever has been in the mind of God, but it stands connected with Israel's return to power and supremacy. This will be when the King comes, He Whom we know as Lord and Head.
IV.—ISRAEL, A TRIUMPHANT PEOPLE.
Balak would now be rid of the prophet. He would fain silence the oracle which he had invoked. But Jehovah could not permit this. The enemy having seen fit to raise a serious question in regard to His people, the answer must be rendered in full, and all had not yet been told. Both king and prophet were agreed as to this—that Jehovah had upset their whole arrangement. Accordingly, Balak said to Balaam: "I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but lo, Jehovah hath kept thee back from honour" (Num. xxiv. 11; compare xxii. 13). After repeating in his reply the hypocritical statement that no amount of silver and gold would suffer him to go beyond the commandment of Jehovah, the prophet said: "And now, behold, I go unto my people; come, therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days." This fixes beyond controversy the scope of Balaam's fourth and last parable—it looks on to the world's last great crisis.
The opening words are inexpressibly solemn as concerning the man that uttered them: "Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said; he hath said, which heareth the Words of God, and knoweth the knowledge of the Most High, which seeth the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open." "Heareth, knoweth, seeth"; for so the Revised Version more expressively reads. Balaam enumerates thus his privileges as one peculiarly favoured of God. Privileged, yet lost! We are reminded of Heb. vi. 4-5, where the apostle names five great privileges which men might possess even in Christianity, and yet perish after all. No man could take his place amongst Christians without becoming "enlightened," and "tasting of the heavenly gift"; no one could have to do with the assembly of God, which is the very temple of the Holy Ghost, without thereby (and in that way) becoming a "partaker of the Holy Ghost"; no one could listen to the sweet Gospel message without "tasting the good Word of God;" nor could anyone witness the miracles which characterized the early days of Christianity, and which were samples before-hand of kingdom triumphs, without tasting "the power of the age to come." Yet a man might thus be favoured of God, and be outside forever, not one of these privileges necessitating the presence of divine life in the soul, without which everything else is vain.
Having enumerated his privileges (alas! worse than wasted upon his perverse heart), Balaam sees a glorious Person rising up, as it were, before his vision. "I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not nigh; there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of tumult" (compare R.V.). It is not unusual, in the writings of the prophets, to find them speaking of the distant future as though it were being enacted before their eyes. Examples of this may be found in Isa. liii., where the sufferings of Christ are spoken of as though they were then accomplished, or accomplishing; and in Ps. xlv., where the kingdom-power of Christ is described as though it were already being displayed upon the earth.
So in the vision of Balaam. Christ is in view, and that in both His first and second comings. He came as the Star in the day of Matt, ii., and He will come forth as the Sceptre in the day of Rev. xix. Between the two events, intervenes the whole period of the Church of God, but this is never noticed in the prophecies of the Old Testament. Thus Isa. xl. 3-5 speaks of Christ's two comings as though they were in reality one; Isa. lxi. 2, speaks similarly; and other instances of the same kind could easily be cited.
Christ's appearing means triumph for Israel over every foe. Moab is first named, as being the power then opposing itself to God's elect; Edom is spoken of next. These two powers are to be judged together at the end; both, with Ammon also, are to meet their doom at Israel's hands. When the last King of the North is ravaging all the neighbouring kingdoms, these three, though menaced by him, will escape his hand. Jehovah, thousands of years earlier, having settled for them punishment by other means (Dan. xi. 41). Israel, led on to victory by the Lord Jesus Himself, is destined to lay hands upon these ancient foes (Isa xi. 14; xxv. 10; Ezek. xxv. 14; Zeph. ii. 8-11). But not these only; "all the children of tumult" (Sheth) will be judged at the same epoch. In Rev. xi. 17-18, where all the results of Christ's appearing are stated right on to the judgment of the dead, among other things we find that Thou "shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth." Every disturber of the world's peace will be silenced forever. When the Lord thus arises to shake terribly the earth, nothing will shield his foes from His wrath. Neither ancient prestige, as in the case of Amalek ("first of the nations"), nor strength of position, as in the case of the Kenites, will avail in the smallest degree. Before Him, every proud foe will be laid low.
"Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!" So Balaam wailed. It was not joyous to him, but rather grievous, to be constrained to proclaim the ultimate triumph of the people of God. In his second and third parables, he had spoken of Israel's King; now he describes His mighty victories on behalf of His chosen. When David sang of the same glorious Person and His achievements (Ps. Ixxii), he added exultingly, "Amen and Amen." David's heart was in it, as taught by the Spirit of God; Balaam, on the contrary, had never yielded his heart to the sweet influences of divine grace.
The prophet concludes with the clang of war. "Ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish forever." It is the battle of Armageddon, the last dread conflict between East and West. "Asshur" and "Eber" are Eastern foes of Israel; "Chittim" is used in Jer. ii. 10 as a general term for the West in contrast with the East, while in Dan. xi. 30, it is unmistakably Rome. "The ships of Chittim" thus represent the last meddling with Israel of the revived fourth Empire. The "he also" who "shall perish forever," is the last of the Caesars, "the little horn" of Dan. vii. 8, "the beast" of Rev. xix. 20; who, with his coadjutor, the false prophet is destined to be dismissed from the field of battle to the lake of fire. Permitted by God to scourge other offenders at the end, the last proud enemy of His Son must then meet his own doom at His holy and righteous hands.
Then will the God of heaven be known as "the most High." (Num. xxiv. 16). His supremacy will be established before the universe, and His name will be excellent in all the earth. Israel's troubles cannot end until that day; the tribulations of the heavenly people will come to an earlier termination—when the Lord Jesus descends into the air to call them home. Our deliverance from, and triumph over every foe will in that moment of moments be complete. What a God is ours!
All the parables having been delivered, with their marvellous unfolding of the grace of God towards His redeemed people, "Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way" (Num. xxiv. 25). But this did not end the matter. Before his departure for Mesopotamia, or more probably as the fruit of reflection after his return thither, Balaam preferred a vile suggestion to the King of Moab, which had the most disastrous consequences for the people of Israel. No movement of the enemy, whether covert or open, could affect the grace of God towards them, for His purposes stand forever, as we have seen; but the enemy, through the unwatchfulness of the people, was well able to arouse the government of God against them. Accordingly, we read in Rev. ii. 14: "Balaam taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." Num. xxxi. 16 speaks similarly of "the counsel of Balaam."
The people of God in all ages have had far more to fear from the craft of Satan than from his hostility, open and avowed. Hence the warning in Eph. vi. 11 as to "the wiles of the devil." It would seem that Balaam, having proved by experience that nothing could turn God away from His people, suggested to Balak that possibly the people might be turned away from God. Diabolical conspiracy! Alas, it succeeded only too well. The women of Moab laid snares for the men of Israel, into which they readily fell. Fornication and idolatry soon became rampant among them. The people who were to dwell alone, and not be reckoned amongst the nations, were presently found participating in the high festivals of heathen gods. Oh, the pitifulness of such a spectacle!
Let us not forget that it was to the angel of the Church in Pergamos the words in Rev. ii. 13 were addressed. "The doctrine of Balaam" has there been preached in Christianity! This it is that accounts for the utterly worldly character of the bulk of what calls itself "the Christian Church." The world and the Church have joined hands, to the incalculable injury of the latter. The heavenly calling has become obscured, and the blessed hope has been lost as the result of it. Reader, let us, with all the energy of our spiritual being, reject the doctrine of Balaam." Let us shake ourselves free from even the smallest taint of worldliness, that our hearts may have full leisure to be occupied with Christ, and the glory into which He has gone.
"The anger of Jehovah was kindled against Israel." Why? They were doing no worse than others! True, but Israel was a people in special relationship with God; hence God in His governmental dealings would not tolerate for a moment in them what He would pass by for the time being in others. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities" (Amos iii. 2). Nothing is more blessed than to be near to God, but nothing is more solemn, if our ways are evil.
The Corinthians proved the truth of this to their cost. They were indeed the "sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling," but such was their disgraceful behaviour that the hand of God lay heavily upon them when Paul addressed to them his first epistle. With the full light of Christianity blazing upon them, they were guilty of the very sins that were committed by Israel at Baal-Peor. Thus many were weak and sickly among them, and many slept (1 Cor. xi. 30). Divine judgment begins, not with the heathen, but at the house of God (1 Pet. iv. 17). "This is it that Jehovah spake, saying, 'I will be sanctified in them that come nigh Me, and before all the people I will be glorified' " (Lev. x. 3). "God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him" (Psalm lxxxix. 7).
Let us walk humbly before our God. Our hearts may be well assured that nothing will ever cause Him to change in His affection to us; but our hearts know only too sadly how easy it is for us to change in our attitude towards Him. The knowledge of these things should deliver us from all confidence in the flesh (our own especially), and should serve to cast us in simple-hearted confidence upon God. All the purposes of His love concerning us rest upon the immutable foundation of the precious blood of Christ, and are thus stable for evermore.