Balaam and Balak


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

Numbers xxiv. 15.

Third Sunday after Easter, 1873.

Each went his own way. Each returned to his own place. This strange intercourse between men so different in position and character has come to an end. Despite the eager desire on both sides to arrive at some mutual understanding, to agree on some common policy, they could find no meeting-point. Again and again, at the very moment when they seemed to be realising their common hope, an invisible power rose up, like a spectre, between them, and beckoned them asunder. They shifted their position: they framed and reframed their plans. It was all in vain. Still this unseen presence haunted the ground—a purpose, a will, which, however much they desired it, they 1 S. P. S. I

could not put aside. The conspiracy against God's chosen people, and God's eternal design, had come to nought. The worldly diplomacy of Balak, and the spiritual diplomacy of Balaam, had alike been futile. Their negociations were ended.

And so they parted. Each went on his own way, to his own place. Their careers hitherto had been separate: their destinies henceforth will be distinct. How then had they been affected by this crisis? They had found themselves—both the one and the other —face to face with a revelation from heaven, a visitation of God, in the prosecution of a common design. How had it left them?

A revelation from heaven! The words suggest to our minds some striking manifestation, which appals the outward senses, dazzling the eye and stunning the ear, as when Jehovah descended amid the thunders and the lightnings of Sinai, and the mountain trembled under the tread of the Almighty Presence. A visitation of God! When we hear this phrase, we think of some sudden and terrible physical catastrophe; as when the vessel strikes on the coral reef, and plunges its whole cargo of living souls into eternity without time even to breathe a hurried prayer: or when a plague suddenly appears, smites down one and another, then scours a whole region, sweeping thousands into an unforeseen and premature grave: or when the falling timber singles out the chance passer by, and widows the wife and orphans the household without a moment's warning. We are awe-stricken with revelations like this; we count such visitations as these fearful and solemn indeed. And so they are. But it is not in the mighty and strong wind which rends the mountains, nor in the shuddering of the earthquake, nor in the devouring flame of fire, nor by any outward demonstrations of majesty and awe, that God most commonly and most fearfully reveals Himself to the individual soul; but in the still small voice, which speaks to the conscience in some passing opportunity, some sudden temptation, some moral crisis, when the whole man is tried, is sifted, is saved or is lost. These moments will pass unnoticed by others. The voice is so low, that it penetrates one ear alone. The man will go about his daily task, will pursue his daily amusements once more, as if nothing had happened. To others he will appear just the same as he ever was. There is no outward sign of the moral catastrophe which has overtaken him. But he himself knows—he cannot help knowing—that God has visited him, that he has stood face to face with the Eternal One, that he is morally a changed man— changed for better, or for worse, by the awe and the glory of that presence.

And just in proportion to his endowments and his advantages will be the effects of such a visitation on his character. Greater gifts carry with them greater capacities of evil as well as of good. The man of the world cannot sin so deeply, cannot fall so low, as the man of the Spirit. For the latter, everything is cast in a grander scale—his temptations, his lessons, his triumphs, his defeats. The same event is not the same to one man, and to another. The magnitude of the opportunity is measured, not by the magnitude of the actual occurrence, but by the magnitude of the inward capacity.

Of these two types of character—the man of the world, and the man of the Spirit: the man of vulgar capacities and vulgar aims, and the man of high insight and keen moral sensibilities—we have examples in Balak and Balaam.

Balak is essentially a man of the world. He desires to compass common ends by common means. He does not trouble himself about the morality of his actions one way or the other. Here is an enemy to be conquered, and he will use every effort to conquer him. Here is a people to be cursed, and he will leave no stone unturned to get them cursed. He does not at all understand Balaam's scruples. He takes that low, depreciatory view of man's nature, which the worldling always takes. He has no belief in human integrity, or human honour. His maxim is the worldling's maxim, that every man has his price. So he feels confident that, if he will only bid high enough, Balaam's services will be secured. He offers him honour, offers him wealth. He tries the bribe, which is the most insidious and most efficacious, when offered by the prince to the subject—the bribe of personal deference and respect. Then, when he is frustrated, he loses all patience. 'Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together.' It is so unreasonable, so discourteous, so stupid, to refuse a request, preferred with this studied respect and backed by these tempting offers.

And, again, his idea of God's purpose is just on a par with his idea of man's integrity. He has a vague notion that religion cannot be dispensed with. He pays all outward respect to its representatives. But, by some means or other, religion must be made to bend to the political situation. He will have religion on his side, cost what effort it may. Of God, as an Eternal, Invincible Will, as One Who cannot change and cannot lie, he knows nothing. Religion is, in his eyes, as pliable as state-craft. He trusts to the arts of diplomacy in dealing with God, just as he would trust to them in dealing with a rival prince. He will increase the number of his victims ; he will change the position of his altars. He will bribe God; or, if bribes fail, he will coax Him into compliance; and then all will be well. Balak is the very type of the man of the world.

Of Balak's future nothing is told. It is not probable that this crisis made any strong impression on his character. He 'went his way.' He had been thwarted in his design. He had failed, and there was an end of it . He returned to his ordinary pursuits—to his wars, to his diplomacy, to his feasting. He was a worldling before, and he remained a worldling still. Of him no terrible fall is recorded in the sequel. God's visitation had passed away, leaving him not indeed any better, but probably not much worse, than it found him.

But with Balaam the case was wholly different. Balaam was a man of high capacities, both moral and spiritual. And, in the face of a great emergency, such a man must gain or must lose appreciably.

Can we doubt his moral capacities, or even his moral attainments? Read his repeated refusal to abandon his convictions, or to tamper with the truth, under each repeated temptation. Have we not here, we are disposed to ask, a man of strictly conscientious principles? Does not his whole language bespeak the very soul of honour ?' I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.' 'The word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.' 'He hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it.'

And, corresponding to his moral elevation, was his spiritual intuition also. He it was who 'heard the words of God' and 'saw the vision of the Almighty.' He, a child of an alien stock, beheld spread out as a map before him, like that wide landscape on which he was even then gazing from Peor's height, the glorious history of the race, whom wishing to curse he was constrained to bless; and in that remote age, to that obscure tribe, foretold the advent of a Star, which should rise and glorify a whole world, the domination of a Sceptre, whose kingdom should have no end. Truly it was no empty vaunt, when he described himself as 'the man whose eyes are open.' Here was a seer, if seer there ever was.

And so he parts from Balak, having shown himself, as we might think, a man of unblemished honour, a man of far-sighted prescience. 'He rose up, and went and returned to his place.' Then there is an interruption, a pause, an interval of silence: and Balaam reappears on the scene. We find just one passing reference to his after career, to his sin, to his fate. Can it be the same man—so changed, so fallen, so vile and profligate? The man, who foretold Israel's glory, has conspired for Israel's shame. Balaam and Balak have changed places. Balaam is the tempter and Balak the tempted now. Balaam's name becomes a byword and a proverb for almost fiendish profligacy. Balak could not have sinned so deeply. The man of the Spirit has fallen lower, incomparably lower, than the man of the world.

A strange and perplexing transmutation; and yet is it after all so very far removed from the common experiences of life, that we are at a loss either to understand, or to appropriate, the lesson? Have we known no instance in which the man of the highest endowments, of the keenest insight, of the loftiest moral perceptions, has sunk below the level of the common worldling, even of the common criminal; and thus all confidence in human integrity, and honour and purity, in all that is best and most precious in heaven or earth, is shaken by that one man's act? The prophet of God casts the stumbling-block in the way of the people of God.

Is it not so, when the poet, whose divine gift of imagination has enabled us to realise with a keener zest, and to acknowledge with a deeper thanksgiving, the manifold glories of nature, whose insight into the workings of the human heart has stirred our sluggish sensibilities, lifting us above ourselves and inspiring us with larger and more generous sympathies, then uses the ascendency, which he has gained, to corrupt the wells of his country's literature with the poison of sensuality? Is it not so, when some representative of the majesty and power of the law, whose legal decisions are admired for their acuteness and their breadth, and on whose professional integrity no breath of suspicion has passed, is suddenly detected in acts of mean and petty dishonesty, to which even men of not very scrupulous honour would never have stooped; as when once the judicial ermine was sullied in the person of its chief representative, and over the memory of the most illustrious Chancellor of England, and the most famous philosopher of modern times, whose writings for originality of thought and aptness of illustration and dignity of sentiment stand unrivalled in the prose literature of our country, the cruel epitaph was inscribed, 'The greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind'? Is it not so, when one who has taken a chief part in every philanthropic movement, and occupied the foremost seat on every religious platform, suffers a felon's punishment for some gigantic fraud, which has spread a panic far and wide, and involved whole families in ruin? Is it not so, when a minister of religion, whose soul-stirring eloquence has stung the conscience and moved the hearts of awestricken thousands, is detected in some shameful act, and he that has preached so often and so forcibly to others has himself been found a castaway?

These things have been. Keen insight, refined imagination, generous sympathies, a profound intuition into abstract truth, a lofty sense of moral obligations, even a high appreciation of spiritual mysteries, have not saved a man from ruin; when the discipline of the life has been relaxed. We carelessly set down such painful inconsistencies to hypocrisy. We are sure that the man did not mean what he said, because his base actions have belied his noble words. It is an easy and ready solution; but it is utterly false. O there is a much more profound and subtle lesson underlying such frailties than this! Balaam was not a hypocrite. There is a ring of sincerity in his every word. He spoke, we cannot doubt, from the inmost convictions of his heart, when he said : ' I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind.' It was not in his utterances, but in his actions, that he was untrue to himself.

And how came he to be untrue to himself?

Follow the narrative of his successive negociations with Balak. Analyse the conflict of motives—God's purpose here, his own aggrandisement there. Why it is the very history—perhaps on a grander scale, but still the very history—of your own temptation, your own weakness, your own vacillation, which you seem to be reading. And as you trace each alternation in his mind—the resolute resistance, the feeble concession: the conscientious scruple, the eager desire: the triumph, the defeat—the voice of conscience within you points the moral of the parable, reminding you of some great crisis in your own inner life, and startling you with the direct home-thrust, 'Thou art the man.'

Observe, first, that the conflict between the higher and the lower motives is unmistakeable. There could be no doubt on which side Balaam's worldly interests lay. He would secure wealth and honour; he would indulge his antipathy to an unfriendly people; he would confer a personal service on a friendly prince —if he could only bring himself to act in one way. Here was an accumulation of inducements, beckoning him in one direction. On the other hand, the will of God is clear and explicit, forbidding him to take this path. Has this never happened to any one here?

And, if so, have you dealt with your conflict and your temptation as Balaam dealt with his? His worldly interests could not be made to change. That was clear. So he took these as his starting point, and set himself to manipulate God's eternal purpose. He would not defy, would not confront and oppose it . Conscience was too strong for this. But he would circumvent it by some means or other. 'Peradventure the Lord would come to meet him.' Is this the first or the last time, when reliance has been placed upon a 'peradventure' to tamper with the inviolable and to change the unchangeable? Is this the only instance, where a man, eager to escape from an obvious duty, has thought to silence or to convert God's protest within him by shifting his position or by multiplying his sacrifices? He hastens from height to height, hiding some features in the scene here and revealing others there; and, having thus altered the relative position of the objects, he fondly hopes that a curse may after all be pronounced on some part at least of this duty which is so imperative and yet so hateful to him. He has changed his own point of view, and he vainly imagines that God will change His also. He multiplies his religious services; he increases his charitable gifts; as if these forsooth could purchase immunity, or could make that right which is not right.

Thus Balaam lingers over his temptation; he dallies with it; he familiarises himself with it. These things are an allegory. 'What men are these with thee?' You too have heard at the outset the divine voice asking within you in no uncertain tones; 'This design which thou art lodging in thy heart, this temptation with which thou art courting familiarity— what manner of thing is this?' You were at no loss for an answer. The question was its own answer. And yet you thought that you might entertain the project, that you might at least turn it over in your mind, that you might just see whether ' peradventure' it would assume some brighter aspect as you got to know more of it . And so you involved yourself deeper and deeper. If you had only spurned it at first, your path would have been easy. Your character would have been strengthened; your temptation would have passed away. But this you would not do. You fortified yourself by strong asseverations to yourself that under no circumstances would you do wrong; but you would reconsider the matter, and just see whether, somehow or other, the blessing and the curse could not be made to change places. Do not suppose that Balaam's repeated professions of integrity and obedience were intended to overawe Balak. It needs no deep penetration into man's heart to see a different motive from this. Their object was to quiet and to reassure Balaam's own conscience, when he felt that his footsteps were tottering.

And then comes the apparent contradiction in terms. God bade Balaam go with the messengers, and yet God was angry with Balaam because he went. A strange moral paradox, it will be said. Yes: but, like all moral paradoxes in the Bible, instinct with the deepest meaning. It is a law which regulates our probation here, that each concession to temptation involves us still further, and increases the difficulty of resistance. The law itself is God's ordinance, is God's will; but the frailty on our part, which brings us under the operation of the law, is hateful in His sight . Thus it was the inevitable consequence of Balaam's fingering the temptation in the first instance, that he should be drawn into closer proximity with it afterwards. And so he went forward, entangling himself more and more in the meshes of the tempter.

But Balaam escaped. Balaam was true to his word. Balaam did not transpose the blessing and the curse. Balaam did declare God's will neither more nor less without reservation and without stint. His integrity was saved. Yes: it was saved this once, but saved only 'as by fire.' Herein lies the solemnity of the lesson. He escaped this once. But the next incident recorded of him is a shameful, irretrievable fall. How this came about, we are not told. Yet was not his yielding to the later temptation the only too obvious consequence of his tampering with the earlier? He had overcome once. God's voice within him was still too strong for his own baser desire. But he had caressed and fondled the temptation; he had suffered himself to be fascinated by it. A man cannot do this without moral deterioration. His sense of right and wrong is blunted by such trifling. His power of resistance is diminished. He may escape once, but he will not escape again.

If to any one here the history of Balaam's temptation, of Balaam's weakness, of Balaam's escape, has seemed like a parable of some past crisis in his own inner life, let him take the warning to heart in time; lest the last scene also be only too faithfully reproduced in him, when the prophetic voice of conscience shall be once more heard—no longer in warning, but now in condemnation—bringing the parallel home to him, and stinging him with the conviction: 'Thou art the man.' Let him that standeth, but even now is tottering,' take heed lest he fall.'