Balaam’s First Oracle (23:1–12)
1–2 The offering of seven bulls and rams was part of Balaam’s pagan ritual; perhaps he thought by these offerings to get God to change His mind and let him curse Israel.
3–6 The LORD put a message in Balaam’s mouth (verse 5). It is sometimes thought that God never uses an unbelieving or unclean person to carry out His will, but that is of course untrue. God uses any means He chooses. However, just because an unclean person is used by God doesn’t mean he will escape eventual punishment (Numbers 31:8).
We Christians are often privileged to be “used by God” in His service. But when this happens to us, we are sometimes tempted to think that we must be “special,” or particularly holy or gifted. If we are tempted in this way, we need to remember that God once used an unholy man named Balaam. He evenusedhis donkey! (Numbers 22:28).
7–10 Although Balaam spoke at God’s direction, he was not a true prophet of God; thus his speech here is called an oracle, not a PROPHECY79 (verse 7). However, we must understand that these oracles were indeed from God; they were God’s words, not Balaam’s. Therefore, we must heed them.
This first oracle clearly shows that Israel was under the blessing of God and that Balaam could not undo that blessing (verse 8); God’s blessing was irrevocable.
Because of God’s blessing, Israel was not like other nations (verse 9). Jacob was as numerous as dust (see Genesis 13:16; 28:14); even a fourth part of Israel80 could hardly be numbered (verse 10). At the end of the oracle—and these must be Balaam’s words, not God’s—Balaam wishes he could share in Israel’s blessings and die the death of the righteous. This wish, of course, did not come true; one cannot die the “death of the righteous” if one is unwilling to live the life of the righteous.
11–12 Balak was taken aback; instead of cursing Israel, Balaam had confirmed God’s blessing on Israel. Balaam was no doubt frustrated himself; he wasn’t going to get paid for blessing Balak’s enemy!
Balaam’s Second Oracle (23:13–30)
13–17 Balak thought that a change of location might help Balaam pronounce a curse; but in this second oracle, Balaam went even further in blessing Israel than he had the first time.
18–20 In this oracle God (through Balaam) gives the reasons why Israel is unique: it is because God has made a covenant with Israel which cannot be broken. God is not like men (or other gods); He doesn’t lie, He doesn’t change his mind;81 His words, His promises, are always fulfilled (verse 19).
21 No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. At first these words seem untrue: Israel had had all kinds of “misfortune” and “misery” for forty years in the desert and for four hundred years in Egypt before that! But in spite of the Israelites’ sins and difficulties, God’s covenant with them remained firm; their standing with God had not changed, and the present generation of Israelites was now about to see the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises (see Exodus 19:5–6 and comment).
Because of His covenant relationship with the Israelites, God was with them; He was their King.82 This reaffirmed another of God’s original covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants: namely, that He would be their God and they would be His people (Genesis 17:7–8; Exodus 6:7).
22–24 Because God was with them, no sorcery or divination would work against the Israelites (verse 23); Israel was protected.83 only that, Israel was actively being empowered by God. The Israelites were rising up like lions to devour their prey. Such words were surely not very comforting to Balak.
25–26 Balak told Balaam, in effect: “If you can’t curse Israel, stop talking!” But Balaam said he couldn’t simply stop talking; he had to do whatever the Lord said.
27–30 Balak then decided to try a third location for Balaam’s pronouncements; he still hoped that a change of place might produce a change of words!