Balak's sacrifice, Balaam pronounces a blessing instead of a curse. (1-10) Balak's disappointment, and second sacrifice, Balaam again blesses Israel. (11-30)
Verses 1-10 With the camps of Israel full in view, Balaam ordered seven altars to be built, and a bullock and a ram to be offered on each. Oh the sottishness of superstition, to imagine that God will be at man's beck! The curse is turned into a blessing, by the overruling power of God, in love to Israel. God designed to serve his own glory by Balaam, and therefore met him. If God put a word into the mouth of Balaam, who would have defied God and Israel, surely he will not be wanting to those who desire to glorify God, and to edify his people; it shall be given what they should speak. He who opened the mouth of the ass, caused the mouth of this wicked man to speak words as contrary to the desire of his heart, as those of the ass were to the powers of the brute. The miracle was as great in the one case as in the other. Balaam pronounces Israel safe. He owns he could do no more than God suffered him to do. He pronounces them happy in their distinction from the rest of the nations. Happy in their numbers, which made them both honourable and formidable. Happy in their last end. Death is the end of all men; even the righteous must die, and it is good for us to think of this with regard to ourselves, as Balaam does here, speaking of his own death. He pronounces the righteous truly blessed, not only while they live, but when they die; which makes their death even more desirable than life itself. But there are many who desire to die the death of the righteous, but do not endeavour to live the life of the righteous; gladly would they have an end like theirs, but not a way like theirs. They would be saints in heaven, but not saints on earth. This saying of Balaam's is only a wish, not a prayer; it is a vain wish, being only a wish for the end, without any care for the means. Many seek to quiet their consciences with the promise of future amendment, or take up with some false hope, while they neglect the only way of salvation, by which a sinner can be righteous before God.
Verses 11-30 Balak was angry with Balaam. Thus a confession of God's overruling power is extorted from a wicked prophet, to the confusion of a wicked prince. A second time the curse is turned into a blessing; and this blessing is both larger and stronger than the former. Men change their minds, and break their words; but God never changes his mind, and therefore never recalls his promise. And when in Scripture he is said to repent, it does not mean any change of his mind; but only a change of his way. There was sin in Jacob, and God saw it; but there was not such as might provoke him to give them up to ruin. If the Lord sees that we trust in his mercy, and accept of his salvation; that we indulge no secret lust, and continue not in rebellion, but endeavour to serve and glorify him; we may be sure that he looks upon us as accepted in Christ, that our sins are all pardoned. Oh the wonders of providence and grace, the wonders of redeeming love, of pardoning mercy, of the new-creating Spirit! Balak had no hope of ruining Israel, and Balaam showed that he had more reason to fear being ruined by them. Since Balaam cannot say what he would have him, Balak wished him to say nothing. But though there are many devices in man's heart, God's counsels shall stand. Yet they resolve to make another attempt, though they had no promise on which to build their hopes. Let us, who have a promise that the vision at the end shall speak and not lie, continue earnest in prayer, ( Luke 18:1 ) .
Numbers 23:1-30 . BALAK'S SACRIFICES.
1. Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars--Balak, being a heathen, would naturally suppose these altars were erected in honor of Baal, the patron deity of his country. It is evident, from Numbers 23:4 that they were prepared for the worship of the true God; although in choosing the high places of Baal as their site and rearing a number of altars ( 2 Kings 18:22 , Isaiah 17:8 , Jeremiah 11:13 , Hosea 8:11 , 10:1 ), instead of one only, as God had appointed, Balaam blended his own superstitions with the divine worship. The heathen, both in ancient and modern times, attached a mysterious virtue to the number seven; and Balaam, in ordering the preparation of so many altars, designed to mystify and delude the king.
3. Stand by thy burnt offering--as one in expectation of an important favor.
peradventure the Lord will come to meet me: and whatsoever he showeth me--that is, makes known to me by word or sign.
he went to an high place--apart by himself, where he might practise rites and ceremonies, with a view to obtain a response of the oracle.
4-6. God met Balaam--not in compliance with his incantations, but to frustrate his wicked designs and compel him, contrary to his desires and interests, to pronounce the following benediction ( Numbers 23:8-10 ).
7. took up his parable--that is, spoke under the influence of inspiration, and in the highly poetical, figurative, and oracular style of a prophet.
brought me from Aram--This word joined with "the mountains of the East," denotes the upper portion of Mesopotamia, lying on the east of Moab. The East enjoyed an infamous notoriety for magicians and soothsayers ( Isaiah 2:6 ).
8. How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?--A divine blessing has been pronounced over the posterity of Jacob; and therefore, whatever prodigies can be achieved by my charms, all magical skill, all human power, is utterly impotent to counteract the decree of God.
9. from the top--literally, "a bare place" on the rocks, to which Balak had taken him, for it was deemed necessary to see the people who were to be devoted to destruction. But that commanding prospect could contribute nothing to the accomplishment of the king's object, for the destiny of Israel was to be a distinct, peculiar people, separated from the rest of the nations in government, religion, customs, and divine protection ( Deuteronomy 33:28 ). So that although I might be able to gratify your wishes against other people, I can do nothing against them ( Exodus 19:5 , Leviticus 20:24 ).
10. Who can count the dust of Jacob?--an Oriental hyperbole for a very populous nation, as Jacob's posterity was promised to be ( Genesis 13:16 , 28:14 ).
the number of the fourth part of Israel--that is, the camp consisted of four divisions; every one of these parts was formidable in numbers.
Let me die the death of the righteous--Hebrew, "of Jeshurun"; or, the Israelites. The meaning is: they are a people happy, above all others, not only in life, but at death, from their knowledge of the true God, and their hope through His grace. Balaam is a representative of a large class in the world, who express a wish for the blessedness which Christ has promised to His people but are averse to imitate the mind that was in Him.
13-15. Come, . . . with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them--Surprised and disappointed at this unexpected eulogy on Israel, Balak hoped that, if seen from a different point of observation, the prophet would give utterance to different feelings; and so, having made the same solemn preparations, Balaam retired, as before, to wait the divine afflatus.
14. he brought him into the field of Zophim . . . top of Pisgah--a flat surface on the summit of the mountain range, which was cultivated land. Others render it "the field of sentinels," an eminence where some of Balak's guards were posted to give signals [CALMET].
18, 19. Rise up--As Balak was already standing ( Numbers 23:17 ), this expression is equivalent to "now attend to me." The counsels and promises of God respecting Israel are unchangeable; and no attempt to prevail on Him to reverse them will succeed, as they may with a man.
21. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob--Many sins were observed and punished in this people. But no such universal and hopeless apostasy had as yet appeared, to induce God to abandon or destroy them.
the Lord his God is with him--has a favor for them.
and the shout of a king is among them--such joyful acclamations as of a people rejoicing in the presence of a victorious prince.
22. he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn--Israel is not as they were at the Exodus, a horde of poor, feeble, spiritless people, but powerful and invincible as a reem--that is, a rhinoceros ( Job 39:9 , Psalms 22:21 , 92:10 ).
23. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob--No art can ever prevail against a people who are under the shield of Omnipotence, and for whom miracles have been and yet shall be performed, which will be a theme of admiration in succeeding ages.
26. All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do--a remarkable confession that he was divinely constrained to give utterances different from what it was his purpose and inclination to do.
28. Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor--or, Beth-peor ( Deuteronomy 3:29 ), the eminence on which a temple of Baal stood.
that looketh toward Jeshimon--the desert tract in the south of Palestine, on both sides of the Dead Sea.