The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:2-40 (Numbers 22:2-40)

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:23 (Numbers 22:23)

And the ass saw the angel of the Lord. This was clearly part of the miracle, the σήμειον which was to exhibit in such a striking manner the stupidity and blindness of the most brilliant and gifted intellect when clouded by greed and selfishness. It is nothing to the point that the lower animals have a quicker perception of some natural phenomena than men, for this was not a natural phenomenon; it is nothing to the point that the lower animals are credited by some with possessing "the second sight," for all that belongs to the fantastic and legendary. If the ass saw the angel, it was because the Lord opened her eyes then, as he did her mouth afterwards.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:2-40 (Numbers 22:2-40)

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

I. The character and position of Balaam with regard to God and man;

II. The policy of Balak in sending for Balaam;

III. The conduct of Balaam when asked and urged to come to Balak;

IV. The incidents, natural and supernatural, of Balaam's coming.

I. THE CHARACTER OF BALAAM , AND HIS POSITION WITH REGARD TO GOD AND MAN . Consider under this head—

1 . That Balaam had a true knowledge of the most high Cod. He was not in any sense a heathen as far as his intellectual perception of Divine things went. And it was not merely Elohim, the God of nature and creation, whom he knew and revered, but distinctly Jehovah, the God of Israel and of grace. Speculatively he knew as much of God as Abraham or Job.

2 . That Balaam had an unquestioning faith in the one true God. Whatever difficulties it may create, it is obviously true that Balaam walked very much by faith, and not by sight. The invisible God, the will of God, the power of God, the direct concern of God with his doings, were all realities to Balaam, strong realities. God was not a name to him, nor a theological expression, but the daily companion of his daily life.

3 . That Balaam had an undoubted prophetic gift from God. He was not an ordinary servant of the true God; he held as it were a very high official position in the service of God. He enjoyed frequent and direct intercourse with him; he expected to receive supernatural intimations of the Divine will; he professed to speak, and be did speak, words of inspired prophecy far beyond his own origination.

4 . That at the same time Balaam's heart was given not to God, but to covetousness. He loved the wages of unrighteousness. Not perhaps in the lowest sense. He may have valued influence, power, consideration even more than mere money; but money was necessary to all these.

5 . That Balaam was a soothsayer. He practiced magical arts and sought for auguries. He traded on the superstitions of the heathen, and even sought to prostitute his prophetic powers to excite astonishment, obtain power, and make money. He hired himself out to curse the enemies of those who employed him. And note that Balaam's fall in this respect was accountable enough; for we may naturally conclude

II. THE POLICY OF BALAK , AND HIS ERROR . Consider under this head—

1 . That Balak was afraid of Israel, because he was mighty, and had overthrown the Amorites. Yet he had no cause to fear, for Israel had not touched him, and did not mean to. Men are afraid of the Church of God because it is a great power in the world, albeit it is a power for good, and not for evil.

2 . That Balak was afraid of the God of Israel. He rightly judged that Israel's success was due to his God; but he wrongly thought that the Lord was but a national deity who was victorious at present, but might be turned aside or bought off.

3 . That Balak put his trust in Balaam because he was a prophet of the Lord, and might be expected to use his influence to change the purposes of the Lord; perhaps even to counterwork those purposes. How often do people seek the aid of religion against God! How often do they seek for religious support and solace in doing what they must know is contrary to the moral law of God!

4 . That Balak professed, and no doubt felt, a profound belief in the efficacy of Balaam's benedictions and maledictions, even as against the people of Balaam's God. Here was the very essence of superstition, to suppose that anything whatsoever can have any spiritual efficacy contrary to, or apart from, the will of God; most of all, that the word of God, as officially employed by his ministers, can be made to work counter to the declared mind of God. As though Peter could ban whom Christ hath blessed. Yet note that Balak's superstition was the depraving of a great truth. Balaam had no doubt authority to censure or to bless in the name of God; and his censures or blessings would have had validity if pronounced with a single eye to the glory of God and the good of souls, and in clear dependence upon the higher knowledge and necessary ratification of Heaven.

5 . That Balak sought to obtain supernatural aid from Balaam by means of flatteries, gifts, and promises; and thought, no doubt, to buy over the powers of the world to come. He rightly gauged the character of the man; he was utterly deceived as to the worth of his alliance. How often do shrewd and worldly men make the same mistake! Because they see through the selfishness and worldliness of the human ministers of religion, they fancy they can command the services, and employ in their own behalf the powers, of religion itself.

III. THE COMING OF BALAAM . Consider under this head—

1 . That Balaam was solicited to come for a purpose which he must have felt sure was wrong. To curse any people was an awful thing, and only to be done with sorrow if commanded by God. To curse Israel, of whose history Balaam was not ignorant, was on the face of it treason towards God. When men are invited to lend their aid in opposing or destroying others, how careful should they be to make sure that such hostile action is a matter of duty; for we are called unto blessing ( 1 Peter 3:9 ).

2 . That Balaam was tempted through his love of money and of good things. A true-hearted prophet would have been ashamed to receive gifts and promises for the use of his spiritual powers, and he would have vehemently suspected such as offered them, even with flattery and deference. If anything appeals to our cupidity and promises advantage in this world, we ought all the more to turn against it, unless it is irresistibly proved to be right. With what just scorn does the world regard the universal propensity of religious people to exercise their gifts and throw their influence where and as it pays the best!

3 . That Balaam was forbidden to go, for the plain and unalterable reason that he could not possibly do what he was wanted to do without flying in the face of God. If he went, he must either act dishonourably towards Balak by taking his money for nought, or he must act treasonably towards God by cursing his people. And this was perfectly clear to Balaam. The moral law of God is plain enough in its broad outlines, and if men loved righteousness more than gain they would have little practical difficulty.

4 . That Balaam's outward conduct was consistently conscientious. He would not go without leave; he refused to go when forbidden; when allowed to go, he repeatedly protested that he could and would say nothing but what God told him to say. And no doubt his protestations were sincere. He had no intention of rebelling against God; it was a fixed principle with him that God must be obeyed.

5 . That Balaam's inward desire was to go if possible, because it promised honour and gain to himself. He obeyed God, but he obeyed grudgingly; he obeyed God, but he gave him clearly to understand that he wished it might be otherwise; he respected the definite command not to go, but he paid no heed to the reason given—because Israel was not to be cursed. The only obedience which God really cares for is obedience from the heart ( Romans 6:17 ; Ephesians 6:6 ). How many are strict in not violating the moral law (as they understand it), but not in order to please God, not because they love the will of God! To how many are the commandments of God formal barriers which they do not overleap only because they dare not! But for such these barriers are sooner or later done away, that they may have their own way.

6 . That Balaam did not get credit for the conscientiousness he did possess. He said that God refused to give him leave, which was true, although not expressed in a proper spirit, whereas the messengers reported that he refused to come; and Balak believed that he only wanted more pressing. So it is with men who do what is right, yet not from the true motive; they do not get credit even for the good that is in them; they are always tempted afresh, because they are felt to be open to temptation; the world sees that their heart is with it, and puts their hesitation down to mere self-interest. There is no safety for the man whose heart is not on the side of God.

7 . That Balaam, when he referred the matter again to God ( as if it were still open ) , was allowed to go. This is the very essence of tempting God—to cast about for ways and means to follow our own will and compass our own ends without open disobedience. How many treat the rule of God as a disagreeable restraint which must indeed be respected, but may be thankfully avoided if possible! Such men find themselves able to go with a clear conscience into circumstances of temptation which are presently fatal to them. If thou hast once had a clear intimation of what is right, cleave to it with all thy heart, else shalt thou be led into a snare.

8 . That Balaam's going, though permitted, was controlled; and this not in his own interest (for he should not have gone),but in the interest of Israel. When men will go into evil they are judicially permitted to go, and the law of God ceases so far to constrain their conscience; but the consequences of their inward disobedience are overruled that they may not be disastrous to God's own people.

IV. THE JOURNEY OF BALAAM . Consider under this head—

1 . That God was angry with Balaam for going, although he had given him leave to go. For it was sin which made Balaam wish to go if possible; and it was his wish to go on an evil errand for gain which obtained him leave to go. Even so if men are inwardly desirous to do what is wrong, God will suffer them to persuade themselves that it is not actually wrong, and they will go on with a clear conscience; but God will be angry with them all the same. How many very religious people find it permissible to walk in very crooked ways for the sake of gain, and are yet resolute not to do a wrong thing! But God is angry with them, and they have forfeited his grace already.

2 . That the destroying angel stood in the way as an adversary to him. Even so destruction awaits us in every way wherein greed leads us contrary to the will of God. God himself is an adversary to us ( Matthew 5:25 ), and is ready at any moment to fall upon us and cut us asunder. It is useless to say that we have done nothing wrong; if our motives be corrupt, the sword of Divine justice is drawn against us.

3 . That Balaam saw not the angel, but the ass did; and this although Balaam was a "seer," and prided himself on "having his eyes open," and on being familiar with the unseen things of God. Even so the "religious" and "spiritual" man, who has great "experiences," and yet is secretly led by greed and self-interest, is often much blinder than the most carnal and unenlightened to perceive that he is rushing upon destruction; the most stupid person has often a clearer perception of moral facts and situations than the most gifted, if this be blinded by sin.

4 . That the ass by her fidelity and instinct of self-preservation saved her master. Even so are men, wise in their own eyes often indebted to the most despised and neglected agencies for preservation from the consequences of their blind folly.

5 . That Balaam was enraged with the ass, and ill-treated her. Even so foolish men are often very angry with the very circumstances or persons which are really saving them from destruction.

6 . That the ass was Divinely permitted to rebuke her master, and to teach him a lesson if he would learn it; for she had been faithful, and docile, and had never played him false ever since she had been his; while he had been and was unfaithful, obstinate, and disloyal to his Master in heaven. Even so do the very beasts teach us many a lesson by their conduct; and those whom we account in some sense worse than the beasts—the heathen, and men who have no religion at all—will often put us to shame by the strong virtues which they display where we perhaps fail.

7 . That then Balaam saw and knew his danger. Even so do men complacently walk in the road which leads to destruction, and have not the least idea of it, but are angry with any that thwart them, until some sudden influence opens their eyes to their awful danger.

8 . That he offered there to go back, if necessary, and acknowledged that he had done wrong ( perhaps sincerely ) , but was not permitted to go back. Even so when men have, as it were, insisted upon taking a line which is unwise, dangerous, and wrong, it is often impossible for them to turn back. They are committed to it, and God's providence compels them to go on with it, even though it brings awful peril to their souls; for God is a jealous God, and the judicial consequences of our own (albeit inward and disguised) disobedience cannot be got rid of in a moment.

9 . That he was met by Balak with honour and ceremony and religious rites; and no doubt all that happened by the way faded like a dream from his mind. Even so when men walk after their own covetousness they may receive the most solemn and (at the time) impressive warnings, but amidst the converse of the world, and the honour received of men, and the outward ceremonies even of religion, these warnings have no lasting effect, and are as though they had never happened.

Consider again, as to the broad lessons to be drawn from Balaam's character and history—

1 . That there may be in a man high spiritual gifts without real goodness. Balaam was a veritable prophet, and had in a remarkable degree the faculty both of understanding' the hidden things of God and of announcing them to men. Yet, as in the case of Saul ( 1 Samuel 10:11 ; 1 Samuel 19:24 ) and Caiaphas ( John 11:51 ), his prophetic gifts were not accompanied by sanctification of life. Even so many in all ages and lands have great spiritual gifts of understanding, of interpretation, of eloquence, &c; whereby others are greatly advantaged, but they remain evil themselves.

2 . That a man may have a true and strong religious faith, and yet that faith shall not save him, because it does not affect his heart. That Balaam had a strong faith in the Lord God is evident; on the intellectual side it was as strong as Abraham's; he walked with God as truly as any in the sense of being constantly conscious and mindful of God's presence and concern with him. No definition of religious faith could be framed with honesty which should exclude Balaam and include Abraham. Yet he was not saved, because his faith, although it largely mingled with his thoughts and greatly influenced his actions, did not govern his affections. Even so it is useless, however usual and convenient, to deny that many men have strong religious convictions and persuasions—in a word, have religious faith—who are not saved by it, but fall into deadly sins and become castaway. This is not a matter of theology so much as of facts; the combination of strong religious feelings, and of power to realize the unseen, with deep moral alienation from God, is by no means uncommon.

3 . That a man may do much and sacrifice much in order to obey God without receiving any reward. Balaam repeatedly crossed his own inclinations, and forewent much honour and emolument from Balak, from a conscientious motive; and yet he was all the time on the verge of destruction, and was miserably slain at last. Even so many men do much they do not like, and give up much they do like, because they feel they ought to; and yet they have no reward for it either here or hereafter, because their self-restraint is grounded on some lower motive than love of God and the desire to please him.

4 . That a man's conduct may be to all appearance irreproachable, and yet be displeasing to God. No one could have found distinct fault with any one step in Balaam s proceedings; each could be singly justified as permissible; yet the whole provoked the Lord to anger, because it was secretly swayed by greed. Even so many men are careful, and to ordinary eyes irreproachable, in their doings, because no act is by itself without justification; yet their whole life is hateful because its governing motive is selfishness, not love. It is not enough to be able to justify each step as we take it, neither will a mere resolve to keep straight with God insure his favour.

5 . That a man may have profound religious insight, and yet be very blind to his own state. Balaam justly prided himself upon his intelligent and spiritual religion as compared with the follies and mummeries of the heathen around, yet he was more blind than his own beast to the palpable destruction on which he was running. Even so many of those who are most enlightened, and most removed from ignorance and superstition, are most blind to their own entire moral failure, and to the terrible danger they are m. They, e.g; who most denounce idolatry are often utterly blind to the fact that their whole lives are dominated by covetousness, which is idolatry.

Consider again, with respect to the miracle of the dumb beast speaking with human voice—

1 . That the lower animals, of which we reck so little, save as a matter of gain, have often great virtues by which they teach us many a lesson. How much more faithful are they to us than we to our Master! It is their pride and study to observe and follow, almost to anticipate, the least indication of our will. How inferior are we in that respect!

2 . That God is not insensible to their virtues, as we very generally are, but at times at least gives them a certain recompense of reward (see on verse 33). Since they seem to have no future state, it is a duty laid upon us to remember and reward their fidelity in this world.

3 . That to be enraged with dumb animals when their conduct vexes us is sin and folly. Sin, because we have no right to be angry except with sin ( Jonah 4:4 ); folly, because they are less in the wrong with us than we are with God; sin and folly, because such anger surely blinds the mind and leaves us a prey to temptation.

4 . That God delights to choose "the foolish things of the world to confound the wise," and "things which are despised" and "things which are not" ( as the intelligible voice of an ass ) "to bring to nought things that are. Even so are we often rebuked and reproved in our madness by things most contemned and familiar, by those whom we regard as brutish and senseless, and standing upon a lower level than ourselves.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

I. BALAAM 'S LOFTY POSITION AND PRIVILEGES .

II. THE SECRET OF BALAAM 'S HUMILIATING FALL .

II. Balaam's name mentioned in the New Testament only three times, and each time it is covered with reproach ( 2 Peter 2:15 ; Jud 2 Peter 1:11 ; Revelation 2:14 ). His root sin was the ancient, inveterate vice of human nature, selfishness. He knew God, but did not love him, for "he loved the wages of unrighteousness." He did not follow the Divine voice, but "followed after" reward. God taught him sublime truths; he "taught Balak" base arts of seduction. His selfishness was shown in—

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

1 . When the first embassy came, his knowledge of God and of Israel's history should probably have led to a decisive refusal. But if we assume that he needed direction, it is clear that the rewards of divination made him anxious to go. Not that he had a desire to curse Israel; he would just as soon have blessed them for reward. Yet he had no intention then to disobey. If a prophet could have shown him that evening his future career, he might have shrunk in loathing from the self that was to be. The will of God is declared ( Numbers 22:12 ), and the struggle between conscience and covetousness begins. At first conscience prevails, but the form of refusal ( Numbers 22:13 ) indicates double-mindedness. In contrast to Joseph ( Genesis 39:9 ), Balaam lays himself open to fresh temptations. If we give Satan a hesitating "No," instead of a "Get thee behind me," he will understand that we would like to sin, but dare not, and will try us with more honourable embassies and costlier gifts.

2 . The ambassadors leave, but lingering regrets keep the fire of covetousness smouldering in Balaam's heart. It flames up afresh on the arrival of the second embassy ( Numbers 22:16 , Numbers 22:17 ). Fair professions ( Numbers 22:18 ) reveal his weakness, for what "more" ( Numbers 22:19 ) could he want God to say unless it was to give him permission to sin? God gives him leave not to sin, but to go. (Illustrate this act by similar Divine proceedings: e.g; allowing the Israelites, under protest, to elect a king; a wild youth receiving reluctantly permission to carry out his determination to go to sea.)

3 . Balaam went, and God is angry, not because he went, but because he went with a wicked purpose. When he found the ways of transgressors hard, and offers to return ( Numbers 22:34 ), God knows that he would only carry his body back to Pethor, and leave his heart hankering after the rewards of Balak. May we not suppose that if he had shown real repentance in the future, and heartily entered into the Divine purposes: though he lost Balak s rewards, he would have received God's blessing? But he ran greedily after reward, and found, as sinners still find, under God's providence, that it is hard to retrace false steps. Therefore, "enter not," &c.; ( Proverbs 4:15 ).

4 . Balaam meets with a flattering reception, yet renews his good professions ( Numbers 22:38 ). He means them, for he still hopes to gain God's consent to his purpose. His use of enchantments to impose on the heathen is one sign of unconscientiousness. His first attempt to curse is a failure ( Numbers 23:7-10 ), but the struggle with conscience and God is not abandoned. ("No sun or star so bright," &c; Keble's ‘Christian Year,' Second Sunday after Easter.) Three times he persists in this "madness," trying to change or circumvent the will of God. At length he seems to give up the struggle, but is probably only "making a virtue of a necessity;" at the best it is but a passing impulse, followed by a relapse, and by the infamous act by which he clutched his wages and brought God's curse on Israel ( Numbers 25:1-18 ). He thus shows that he has renounced God, has entered thoroughly into Balak's schemes, and even outstripped him in wickedness. His perverted conscience does not keep him even from such unutterable baseness. His triumph is brief, and his "end is destruction" ( Numbers 31:8 ; Psalms 34:21 ). Learn from this the guilt and danger of resisting and thus corrupting conscience. (Explain process of this corruption, and note natural analogies to a conscience dulled by persistence in sin.) To try and bribe conscience is like seeking permission to sin. (Illustrate by story of Glaucus inquiring at the oracle of Delphi whether he might keep stolen money—Herodotus, 6:86.) Conscience, like a railway signal-lamp, is intended to warn against danger or direct in the path of safety. If through negligence the lamp is put out or shows a wrong light, the consequences may be fatal ( Isaiah 5:20 ; Matthew 6:23 ). A healthy conscience accuses of sin and warns of danger only that it may be a minister to lead us to Christ.—P.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

I. THE WRONG DONE TO THE CREATURES

II. THE EFFECTS ON OURSELVES .

I. 1 . They are our inferiors, therefore magnanimity and sympathy should protect them.

2 . They are often helpless to defend themselves; cruelty is then unutterably mean.

3 . Some of these animals are part of our property, and of great value to us, though absolutely within our power.

4 . If they are not "wont to do so" when they provoke us, some good reason may exist which we should seek to discover. Therefore—

5 . When tempted to harshness, short of cruelty, it is our duty to consider whether they need it, and in this sense deserve it. For—

6 . Past misconduct of ourselves or of others may have occasioned their present obstinacy, through timidity or some other cause.

7 . Animals suffer too much already, directly or indirectly, through men's sins (war, famines, &c.;) without the addition of gratuitous cruelties.

8 . No future life for them is revealed, so that we have the more reason for not making them miserable in this life.

II. 1 . It fosters a despotic habit of mind, as though might and right were identical.

2 . It hardens the heart and tends to nurture cruelty to men as well as brutes. E.g; the child Nero delighting in killing flies.

3 . It still further alienates us from the mind of Christ, the character of "the Father of mercies."

4 . It is a sign of unrighteousness ( Proverbs 12:10 ), against which God's wrath is revealed, and from which we need to be saved by Christ ( Romans 1:18 ; 1 John 1:9 ).—P.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

II. THE CONSEQUENT DISQUIETUDE OF MOAB . The Amorites had conquered Moab, but Israel had conquered the Amorites. The presumption then was that Israel, having the power, would as a matter of course advance to treat Moab in the same fashion; just as an Alexander or Napoleon goes from one conquered territory to conquer the next; just as a fire spreads from one burning house to its neighbour. It was therefore excusable for Moab to be sore afraid; but though excusable, it was not reasonable. The alarm came from knowledge of some things, mixed with ignorance of things more important. The alarm then was groundless. General as that alarm was, Moab had really nothing to fear. Its way of reasoning was utterly erroneous. If Moab had known the internal history of Israel half as well as it knew the present external appearance and recent triumphs, it would not have been alarmed because of the children of Israel, and because they were many. The children of Israel had been commanded to cherish other purposes than those of conquering Moab, and the mind of their leader was occupied with things far nobler than military success. Besides, as God had remembered the kinship of Israel and Edom, so he remembered that of Israel and Moab ( Deuteronomy 2:9 ). Moab was afraid of the people because they were many. What a revelation of their craven and abject spirit in the past he would have had if he had seen them threatening to stone Caleb and Joshua ( Joshua 14:1-15 ). And though they were many, he would have seen that all their numbers availed nothing for success when God was not with them ( Numbers 14:40-45 ).

III. MOAB 'S CONCLUSION WITH REGARD TO HIS OWN RESOURCES . He could no more resist Israel than the grass of the field resist the mouth of the ox. This expresses his complete distrust of his own resources, and was a prudent conclusion, even if humiliating, as far as it went, and always supposing that Israel wished to play the part of the ox. The fall of Sihon had taught nothing to Og, the self-confident giant, but the fall of Sihon, and next the fall of Og, had taught Moab this at least, that in the battlefield he could do nothing against Israel. If a man refuses to go in the right path, it is not, therefore, a matter of little consequence which of the wrong paths he chooses. One may take him swiftly in the dark to the precipice; another, also downward, may afford more time and occasions for retrieval. It was a wrong, blind, useless course to send for Balaam, but at all events it was not so immediately destructive, as to rush recklessly into the field of battle against Israel.—Y.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

I. A TESTIMONY TO THE POWER OF RELIGION . Balak cannot find sufficient resources in nature, therefore he seeks above nature. When men, who in their selfishness and unspirituality are furthest from God, find themselves in extremity, it is then precisely that they are seen turning to a power higher than their own ( 1 Samuel 28:1-25 ). Man has a clinging nature, and if he cannot lay hold of the truth as it is in Jesus, he must find some substitute. Balak did not know God as Moses knew him; he knew nothing of his spiritual perfections and holy purposes. But still he recognized the God of Israel as really existent, as a mighty potentate; he felt that Balaam had some power with him; and thus even in his ignorance he believes. It is a long, long way to pure atheism, and surely it must be a dreary and difficult one. May not the question be fairly raised whether there are any consistent atheists, those whose practice agrees even approximately with their theory? There are men without God in the world, i.e; lacking conscious and happy connection with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; but even so they may bear testimony unthinkingly to their need of him. The witnesses to the power of religion are not only many, but of all sorts, giving testimony often when they least suspect it.

II. A TESTIMONY TO THE EMPTINESS OF IDOLATRY . Balak had a god of his own, probably more than one, and doubtless he would have felt very uncomfortable in omitting the worship of them; but he did not trust in his gods. He may have sacrificed to them on this very occasion with great profusion and scrupulosity, but he did not trust them. Though they were near at hand, he felt more hope from Balaam far away; and yet if there was any good in his gods, this was the very time to prove it and receive it. There is a Nemesis for all idolatry. The idols of Moab were put to shame before the God of Israel, and that by the very man who was bound to be their champion. It does not need always for a Dagon to fall in the presence of the ark. There are other ways of dishonouring idols than casting them to the moles and the bats. They may have shame written across their brows, even while they stand on the pedestal of honour. Thus we see also an exposure of formalism. Balak's great need strips the mask off his religion, and underneath we see, not living organs, but dead machinery. And bear in mind, formalism in serving the true God is just as certain to come to shame as formalism in serving an idol. The principle is the same, Whatever deity be formally acknowledged.

III. AFTER ALL , THE RESORT TO BALAAM WAS A VERY PRECARIOUS ONE , even supposing Balaam had all the power with which Balak credited him. For Pethor was a long way off, and the dreaded, victorious Israelites were close at hand. Balaam did not live in the next street. While you are sending from Land's End for the celebrated London physician, the patient's life is steadily ebbing away. That is no sufficient help in our supreme necessities which has to be brought over land and sea. "Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead). The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart" ( Romans 10:6-8 ). Go into thy closet; retreat into the seclusion and security of thine own heart, and meet the mighty Guide and Helper there. The God of Israel went about with his people. Jesus did not say, "Wheresoever I am, there my people are to gather together," but, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

"God attributes to place

No sanctity, if none be thither brought

By men who there frequent, or therein dwell."

IV. A MAN MAY BE IGNORANT OF THINGS LYING NEAREST HIM AND UNSPEAKABLY IMPORTANT , while he abounds in useless knowledge of things far away. Balak knew not the needs of his own heart, the real power of Israel, the disposition of Israel's God to him, the possibilities of friendship which lay within those tents on which he looked with so much apprehension. But somehow he had got to know concerning Balaam in far-away Pethor. How much useless, deceiving, pretentious knowledge we may accumulate with infinite labour, and at the time feeling great certainty, of its value. "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." It is of great moment in a world where so much is to be known, and yet so little can he acquired, not to miss acquiring the right things. Said Dr. Arnold, "If one might wish for impossibilities, I might then wish that my children might be well versed in physical science, hut in due subordination to the fullness and freshness of their knowledge on moral subjects. This, however, I believe cannot be; and physical science, if studied at all, seems too great to be studied ἐν παρεργῳ , Wherefore, rather than have it the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament." Thus also the great discoverer Faraday in his old age—"My worldly faculties are slipping away, day by day. Happy is it for all of us that the true good lies not in them. As they ebb, may they leave us as little children, trusting in the Father of mercies and accepting his unspeakable gift!"

V. THE MESSAGE WAS VERY FLATTERING TO BALAAM . Kings have much to do with courtiers, and all the delicate preparations of flattery must be well known to them. Balak made Balaam to understand that it was not for a trifle he had summoned him, for a service that could be rendered by a second-rate soothsayer. The people he so dreaded had come out from Egypt, that home of strength in those days, that populous and wealthy land, and by no means lacking in reputed wise men, sorcerers and magicians. They had come in great numbers: "behold, they cover the face of the earth;" and they were in close proximity and apparently settled condition: "they abide over against me." There is the willing confession by Balak of his own inability, and his evident faith in Balaam's power to cast a fatal paralysis over all the energy of Israel. Now all this must have been very pleasant for Balaam to hear, sweeter maybe than the jingle of the rewards of divination. Thus did the temptation to Balaam, already only too open to temptation, begin. His carnal mind was appealed to in many ways. The rewards of divination were only a part of the expected wages of unrighteousness. "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall ( Proverbs 16:18 ).

VI. BALAK HAD MORE FAITH IN FALSEHOOD THAN ISRAEL FOR A LONG TIME HAD shows TOWARDS TRUTH . The conduct of Balak in sending so far, in casting the fortunes of his kingdom with such simplicity on what was utterly false, should put us to shame, who have the opportunity of resorting at all times to well ascertained and established truth. Balak had only a Balaam to seek, such an ignoble and double- minded man as appears in the sequel; not a Moses, who could have told him truly, not only how the blessing and the curse really come, but how to secure the one and escape the other.—Y.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

II. BALAAM 'S RECEPTION OF THE MESSENGERS . He cannot give a prompt answer. We are certainly very much in the dark concerning Balaam's past life and present position. If he knew anything of Israel's true character and God's purpose concerning Israel, then, of course, there was not the smallest excuse for delay. But even supposing him ignorant in this respect, was there any excuse for delay to an upright man? Did not Balak's wish at once suggest the answer an upright man would have given? Blessing and cursing are great realities, not mere priestly fictions ( Deuteronomy 27:1-26 , Deuteronomy 28:1-68 ), but they can never become mere matters of money. "The curse causeless shall not come." tie who deserves blessing cannot be cursed, nor he who deserves cursing, blessed. God's sovereignty, mysterious enough in its operations, is never arbitrary. An upright man would have felt it was no use pretending to consult God with a bribe in his hand. The bribe vitiated the spirit of his prayer, and prevented a proper reception of the answer. There are certain propositions which upright men do not need to sleep or deliberate over. The answer should follow the request like the instantaneous rebound of a ball. Balak did not send asking advice in general terms, or that Balaam should do the best he could, but he pointed out a certain, well-defined road which no upright man could possibly take. If we acquit the prophet of dishonesty and evasion in this plea of delay, we can only do it by convicting hint of great darkness in his own spirit and great ignorance of God.

III. THE INTERPOSITION OF GOD . God does not seem to have waited for any request from Balaam. While the prophet is considering all the honour and emolument that may come to him out of this affair, God comes to him with the prompt and sobering question, "What men are these with thee?" All the depths of this question we cannot penetrate, but at all events it was enough to prepare the prophet, one would think, for an unfavourable answer. And may we not also assume that it was expressive of a desire to extricate him when he had only taken one or two steps into temptation? As to Balak's request, God settles everything with a brief, a very brief, but sufficient utterance: "The people are blessed." And blessed beyond all doubt they had been of late, not in word only, but in deed. Note that God does not send any message of reassurance to Balak. There is guidance for Balaam, security for Israel, but for Balak only blank denial. If Balak had come in the right spirit to Balaam, and Balaam in the right spirit to God, then the messengers might have gone back cheerful, and welcome to their expectant master. But what begins badly ends worse. He who sets himself in opposition to God's people cannot expect to hear comfortable words from God. If we are to hear such words, we must approach him in the right spirit. We must not seek good for ourselves by a selfish infringement on the good of others. It was one thing for Israel, under the leadership of God, to attack the wicked Amorites; quite another for Moab, on a mere peradventure, to attack Israel.

IV. BALAAM 'S ANSWER TO THE MESSENGERS . He does not repeat what the Lord said; thus advancing further in the revelation of his corrupt heart. Why not have told them plainly these words: "Thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed"? Simply because it was not pleasant to say such words with the flattering message of Balak still tickling his ears. It was not true then that whom he blessed was blessed, and whom he cursed was cursed; but to have told Moab so would have been to publish his humiliation far and wide, and hurt his repute as a great soothsayer. Yet how much better it would have been for Balaam as a man, and a man who had been brought in some respects so near to God, if he had told the whole truth. It would perhaps have saved a second embassy to him. Men are looking to the main chance even when among the solemn things of God, and fresh from hearing his voice. Balaam first of all, in speaking to God, omits from the message of Balak, saying nothing of his own reputation in the eyes of the Moabitish king, suspecting very shrewdly that this would be offensive to God. Then he omits again in his answer to the messengers, and, to make all complete, they omit still more in their report to Balak. There is nothing in their word to show that God had said anything in the matter. This is what is called diplomacy; not telling a lie, but only leaving out something of the truth, as being' of no practical importance. It is a great blessing that there are Scriptures for us all to read. Philosophers and preachers may leave out part of the truth, or colour and distort it to suit their own prejudices, but they cannot get over the written word. Out of their own mouths they may be contradicted when they read one thing out of the Scriptures and say another as the fruit of their own lips.—Y.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:22-35 (Numbers 22:22-35)

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

II. BALAAM WAS GOING ON THIS EXPEDITION EVIDENTLY FULL OF THE DESIRES OF HIS OWN HEART . All, so far as he could see, was pointing in the way he wanted. He could plead God's permission, which was a very comfortable, not to say a necessary, beginning to one who was a prophet. As he rode along, his heart filled with expectation of the future—riches, honours, fame, power—an ample share in the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. God's permission may have seemed to the infatuated man a clear indication of further favours. If he allowed Balaam to have his own way in one thing, why not in others? Thus he had in view the possibility of exercising an extraordinary power, one that would make him famed and dreaded far and wide. It is something to make a man's heart swell when he can wield the immense forces of nature, say in the strength of a disciplined army, or of some huge steam-engine. But Balaam had in view the possibility of wielding forces above nature, cursing Israel so that its strength might utterly melt away. What wonder God was angry with him, seeing he had desires in his heart which could only be satisfied by accomplishing the ruin of the chosen race! Not that he deliberately desired their destruction; but selfishness in its blind absorption destroys with little scruple all that comes in its way. There is some parallel between Balaam and Paul, all the more striking because it extends only a little way. Paul set out for Damascus, like Balaam for Moab, his fanatical heart brimful of darling projects. Hence in both instances we see special, extraordinary, and unfailing methods adopted to check the men and bring them to consideration. Men who are m the ordinary paths of sin may be dealt with by ordinary methods, peculiar indeed to each individual, yet never rising above the ordinary experiences of humanity. But Balaam and Paul, being extraordinary transgressors, were dealt with by extraordinary methods. We do not expect sinners to be met by angels now, or to hear human speech from brute beasts. Still we may have this much in common with Balaam and Paul, that we may be so absorbed in our own things, so utterly careless of God, Christ, salvation, and eternity, as to require sharp, sudden, accumulated agencies to stir up our attention. It takes a great deal to bring some men to themselves.

III. THE PROCESS ADOPTED TO MAKE BALAAM FULLY CONSCIOUS OF THE WRATH OF GOD .

1 . The presence of an angel in front. Why an angel? Why not communicate with Balaam as before? The answer is that Balaam did not appreciate such communications. He heard them indeed, but they did not lay hold of his conscience, they did not secure his obedience, they did not even make him think seriously of his danger. Hence the appearance of a visible sign in the angel—one who should equally speak the word of God and be seen as he spoke. We know that persons were greatly terrified and impressed by the visits of angels ( 13:1-25 ). Men can go about the world delighting in sin, unconscious that all the time they are in the presence of God himself, but let them see what seems an apparition from another world, and they tremble like the aspen. The disciples in their earlier, carnal-hearted days were not much affected by the holiness and spiritual beauty of their Master's life; but what an impression he made when they saw him walking on the sea! They thought it was an apparition. So soon as Balaam perceived the presence of the angel it brought him up at once. "He bowed down his head, and fell fiat on his face." God makes use of visible agents to prepare results in the sphere of the invisible. And not only did an angel appear, but he was right in front, signifying that he was there to meet with Balaam. He had also his sword drawn. There was significance in meeting a messenger bearing a sword, but the drawing of the sword, even without a single word spoken, was the clearest possible intimation of opposition. The way of transgressors may be hard in more senses than one. How many persevere in the ways of sin in spite of urgent, repeated warnings and entreaties, everything short of physical force, from those who love and pity them! Such at all events cannot say that no one has cared for their souls.

2 . The extraordinary means by which God made Balaam to notice the angel. Balaam would not attend to the warnings of an invisible God presented to the eye within, therefore a visible angel was sent to appeal through the eye without to the eye within. But though the angel was in front with the drawn sword, Balaam did not see him. How then shall he be made to see him? God, as his custom is, takes the weak ,things of the world to confound the mighty. He opens the mouth of the prophet s ass. Ridiculous I say the men who will have no miracles, no admission of the supernatural; and ludicrous as well as ridiculous, seeing that it is an ass, of all animals, which is chosen to speak. But that is only because we associate Balaam with the despised and buffeted animal which the word "ass" recalls to us. We may be sure that a man of Balaam's dignity would have a beast to carry him such as became his dignity. And as to the absurdity of an animal uttering human speech, it is no harder to believe that God should here have opened the mouth of the ass, than that he should afterwards have opened the mouth of Balaam, being such a man as he was, to utter glorious predictions concerning the people whom it was in his heart to curse. If we were allowed to think of things as being either easy or difficult to God, we might say that it was more difficult for him to control the mouth of a carnal-minded man like Balaam than the mouth of a brute beast. It is not pretended that he changed the intellect and gave the ass human thoughts along with human speech. The words were the words of a man, but the thoughts were the thoughts of an ass. Balaam himself was not astonished to hear it speak. He was too much exasperated with the strange stubbornness of an animal hitherto so docile and serviceable, to notice the still stranger power with which it had been so suddenly endowed. Observe, again, how naturally all leads up to the speaking of the ass. The ass is not brought specially on the scene, as the angel was. Balaam saddles the ass, and takes the road on it in his customary way. At first there is nothing miraculous. The ass sees the angel, and turns aside into the field; there is nothing strange in that. Coming to the path of the vineyards, and still seeing the angel, it crushes Balaam's foot against the wall; there is nothing strange in that. Still advancing into the narrow place, and still seeing the angel, it sinks to the ground; there is nothing strange in that. The ass was in a strait before and behind, on the right side and on the left. Thus its speaking is prepared for as a climax. Accept the statement that the ass spoke, and all the previous narrative leads beautifully up to it. Deny the statement, and the chief virtue of the narrative is lost.

3 . Let us not fail to notice this instance of the lower creation recognizing God's messenger. The question of course suggests itself, Who was this angel? one of the unnamed host, or the Son of God himself in his old covenant guise? If the latter, then he who while in human flesh signified his will to the stormy sea might well signify his warning presence to the ass. Not that the ass knew the angel as a human being could; but even as the lower creation is sensible in its own way of the presence of man, so the ass might be sensible in its own way of the presence of the angel. We argue concerning the lower animals far more from ignorance and carelessly-accepted tradition than from real and discerning knowledge. We know positively nothing as to what sort of consciousness underlies the phenomena of their existence. We know wherein they are not like us, but what they are in themselves we cannot know.

4 . Every Balaam has his ass, i.e; every man who has the spirit and conduct of Balaam in him may expect to be pulled up at last in like manner. What God made the ass to his master, that God makes their consciences to many. For a long time the ass had only been of ordinary and commonly accepted use. Balaam had ridden on it ever since it was his, a long time we may conclude, and doubtless rejoiced in having so convenient and trustworthy a servant. And thus many find their consciences as little troublesome, as constantly agreeable, as the ass was to Balaam. Some sort of conscience they must have, but it amounts to nothing more than taking care to keep a reputation for honesty and respectability. They find such a conscience useful in its way, just as Balaam found his ass when out on soothsaying business. But even as the ass sees the angel, so conscience begins to waken to nobler uses. One gets out of the little world of mere give and take, business customs and local habits. Something suggests that we are in the wrong road, pulls us up for a moment, tries to turn us aside. In reality God is beginning to close with us for our own good. At first there is latitude, opportunity of evasion. We go a little further, and God comes closer. Onward still! and at last the soul cannot escape. Blessed is that man, blessed in his opportunity at all events, whose conscience, once the humble instrument of his baser self, is thoroughly roused so that it will not allow him further with its consent in his chosen and accustomed way. The crisis comes, and the question is, "Will you from the heart obey the Divine command, come in subjection to the angel of God, or go on greedily in the way of unrighteousness, which you have been so clearly shown is also the way of destruction?"

IV. THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE PROCESS IS SUCCESSFUL .

1 . Balaam is enlightened at last, but after all only partially enlightened. At last, and only when forced to it, does he become aware of the angel's presence. And now he is quick enough and humble enough to recognize that presence, but not with the quickness and humility of a full repentance. The Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, even as he opened the eyes of the ass, but the opening left his disposition and wishes unchanged, even as it left the ass-nature unchanged. He saw the angel, the drawn sword, his danger at the moment, and the danger he had been in before; but his folly, his duplicity, his covetousness, his spiritual danger he did not see. Then when his eyes were opened, and at the same time his ears unstopped, the angel goes on to speak to him such words as might bring him to a right state of mind. Nothing was left undone that could be done. The angel shows him plainly in what danger he had been from the first swerving of the ass, and how the ass was perhaps more aware of the master's danger and solicitous for his safety than was the master himself. Nothing but the sagacity and fidelity of the ass had saved his life. The ass was more faithful to its master than the master had been to God.

2 . Hence, the enlightenment being partial, the confession is inadequate, indeed worthless. "I have sinned." There are no more complaints against the ass; there is no extenuation with the lip; so far all is satisfactory. What is said is all right so far as it goes. The mischief is in what is left unsaid, because unthought. Balaam should have asked himself, "How is it that though my ass saw the angel, I did not?" His confession was lacking in that he did not say, "I have sinned because my heart has not been right. I have sinned in going on an expedition to glorify and enrich myself. I will turn back at once." The only thing of real use and worth in God's sight is a voluntary turning from the ways of sin. When the younger son came to himself, he did not say, "I will go back to my father if he wishes me to go, if he will not let me stop where I am," but definitely, "I will arise and go," &c.; Therefore, in spite of the angel's presence, the drawn sword, the thrice intimation through the ass, in spite of all the words to make all plain, Balaam goes on. He may indeed plead God's permission, but this plea will avail him nothing. For himself it matters little now, seeing he is not one whit changed in heart, whether he goes forward or backward; any path that he takes is downward. If he returns to Pethor, it will not be to a life of true repentance. He is the same low-minded man wherever he is, and it matters little to himself whether he is destroyed in Pethor or in Moab. Let him then go forward into Moab, so that in his further descent and ultimate destruction he may at the same time be used for the glory of God. Even if he refuses a willing obedience, God may get gain out of him by an unwilling one.—Y.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

II. BALAAM AND BALAK MEET , IN SPITE OF ALL THE HINDRANCES PUT IN THE WAY . Balak of course has his own notion of these hindrances; he thinks they lay in Balaam's waiting for a sufficient inducement; and very likely he congratulates himself on his insight, his knowledge of the world, his pertinacity, his choice of agents, and of the right sort of bait to attract Balaam. Yet after all Balak had not the slightest idea of what great hindrances he had overcome. If he had known of God's interferences, he might have been prouder than ever; that is, if the knowledge of these interferences had not changed his pride to alarm. Balak's earnest sending had been more potent and fascinating than, in his greeting to Balaam, he unwittingly supposed. It had outweighed the direct commands of God, the mission of the angel, the influence of a very peculiar miracle and a very narrow escape from death. How much there must have been in Balaam's greedy heart to draw him on when even mighty and unusual obstacles like these could only stay him for a moment! Balak drew him because in his heart there was something to be drawn; and they came together as streams that, rising miles apart, and winding much through intervening lands, yet meet at last because each pursues its natural course. All the obstacles put in our way to perdition will not save us if we are bent on the carnal attractions to be found in that way. Drawing is a mutual thing. There was nothing in Balaam's heart to be drawn towards God. The hugest magnet will do no more than the least to attract another body to it unless in that body there is something to be attracted.

III. THE MEETING , AFTER ALL , DOES NOT SEEM A SATISFACTORY ONE . One would have thought that, after overcoming so many hindrances, these two kindred spirits would have met each other with cordial congratulations. But instead of this being so, Balak must show himself a little hurt with what he thinks Balaam's want of confidence in his word and prerogative as king. And though Balaam's difficulty has not lain in these things, he cannot explain the misunderstanding; he has to hear that word "wherefore" as if he heard it not. "Lo, I am come unto thee." that must be sufficient. And as to Balak's expectations, he can only fall back upon the old misleading generalities; he cannot meet the king with the open, eager, joyous countenance of one who sees success within his grasp. Balak, he sees, has more confidence in him than he can possibly have in himself, considering the strange things he has experienced since he set out on his journey. It is not even the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip that he has to prepare for. It is not the probability of success with the possibility of failure, but the strong probability of failure with just the possibility of success. "Have I now any power at all to say anything? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak." Not that we are to suppose Balak was unduly taken aback by such a want of ardour and sympathy in Balaam. Very likely he thought it was nothing more than a proper professional deference to Jehovah, and that in the event all would be right; just as men say "God willing" and "please God" when they are in the midst of schemes where God's will and pleasure are never thought of at all.—Y.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

I. HEATHEN FAITH IN THE UNSEEN . Balak in the extremity of his fear sends beyond the limits of his own people, into distant Mesopotamia, to secure the help of one supposed to be endowed with supernatural gifts, in special relation to the invisible powers, able to "curse and to bless" ( Numbers 22:6 ). A striking illustration of that blind instinct of human nature by virtue of which it believes ever in the interposition of Deity in the world's affairs. All idolatrous rites, oracles, divinations, incantations, sacerdotal benedictions and maledictions, rest ultimately on this basis. It is this makes the sway of the priest and the supposed "prophet of the Invisible" so mighty in every land and age. Christianity teaches us to lay hold on the substantial truth that underlies these distorted forms of superstition. It enlightens this blind instinct; reveals the righteous "God that judgeth in the earth;" leads humanity to Him who is at once its "Prophet, Priest, and King."

II. THE WITNESS FOR GOD THAT MAY BE FOUND IN THE SOUL OF A DEPRAVED MAN , even of one whose inward dispositions and whole habit of life are most opposed to his will. Balaam practiced an art that was "an abomination unto the Lord" ( Deuteronomy 18:12 ), and his way was altogether "perverse" ( Numbers 22:32 ), and yet God was near to him. God spoke to him, and put the spirit of prophecy into his heart, and a word into his mouth. He "heard the words and saw the vision of the Almighty." Whether his knowledge of God was the result of dim traditions of a purer faith handed down from his forefathers, or of influences that had spread in his own time into the land of his birth, we at least see how scattered rays of Divine light then penetrated the deep darkness of heathendom. So now God is often nearer to men than we or they themselves suppose. He does not leave himself without a witness, even in the most ignorant and vile. The light in them is never totally extinguished. They have their gleams of higher thought, their touches of nobler, purer feeling. Conscience rebukes their practical perversity, and the Spirit strives with them to lead them into a better way. When God is absolutely silent in a man's soul, all hope of guiding him by outward persuasions into the path of righteousness is gone.

III. THE PROSTITUTION OF NOBLE POWERS TO BASE USES . Here is a man whose widespread fame was the result, probably, to a great extent of real genius. His native capacity—mental insight, influence over men, poetic gift—was the secret of this fame. Like Simon Magus, he "bewitched the people," so that they all "gave heed to him, from the least unto the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God." But these extraordinary powers are perverted to the furtherance of an unhallowed cause; he makes them the servants of his own base ambition and desire for gain. "He loved the wages of unrighteousness." It was in his heart to obey the behest of Balak and secure the offered prize. There is a tone of disappointment in the words, "The Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you." He lets "I dare not" wait upon "I would." And notwithstanding all his poetic inspiration and his passing raptures of devout and pious feeling,

"Yet in the prophet's soul the dreams of avarice stay."

How full is all human history of examples of the waste of noble faculties, the prostitution to evil uses of God-given powers! The darkest deeds have ever been done and the deepest miseries inflicted on the world by those who were most fitted by nature to yield effective service to the cause of truth and righteousness, and to confer blessings on mankind. And it is generally some one base affection—the lust of the flesh, self-love, avarice, an imperious will, &c.;—that turns the rich tide of their life in a false direction. As the spreading sails of a ship only hasten its destruction when the helm fails, so is it with the noblest faculties of a man when he has lost the guidance of a righteous purpose.

IV. THE DIVINE RESTRAINT OF MAN 'S LIBERTY TO DO EVIL . "And God said, Thou shalt not go with them," &c.; The spell of a higher Power is over him. In a sense contrary to that of Paul the Apostle, he "cannot do the thing that he would." So are wicked men often made to feel that there is after all a will stronger than their will; that, free as they seem to be, some invisible hand is holding them in check, limiting their range of action, thwarting their purposes, compelling them to do the very thing they would fain avoid, turning their curses into blessings, so that in the end they serve the cause they meant to destroy. The hope of the world lies in the absolute mastery of the Will that is "holy, and just, and good" over all conceivable opposing forms of human and Satanic power.—W.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 22:1-40 (Numbers 22:1-40)

I. His CRUEL ANGER . His rough treatment of the dumb ass is marked with reprobation. It was both itself evil and the symptom of a hidden evil.

1 . We may believe that the secret unrest of his conscience had a great deal to do with this outburst of anger. Note the subtle connection that often exists between certain unusual phases of conduct and the hidden workings of the heart. Jonah's anger at the withering of the gourd was but one of the signs of his general want of sympathy with the Divine procedure. Balaam, perhaps, was not a cruel man, but the sense of wrong within and the feeling that he was doing wrong betrayed itself even in this form of behaviour. Conscience made him a coward, and cowardice is always cruel. If it had not been for the "madness" of his passion, he might have judged, as a diviner, that the unwillingness of the beast to pursue her journey counseled him to return; but when a man's heart is not right with God, resentment is often roused against that which is meant to turn him into a better way. "Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth?" ( Galatians 4:16 ).

2 . It illustrates the sad subjection of the inferior creatures to the curse of moral evil. "The creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly." "The whole creation groaneth," &c.; We think it strange that the dumb ass should "speak with man's voice and rebuke the prophet's madness," but, to the ear that can hear it, such a voice is continually going forth from all the innocent creatures that suffer the cruel consequences of man's abuse. Well may St. Paul represent them as "waiting with earnest expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God" ( Romans 8:19 , Romans 8:22 ).

II. HIS BLIND INFATUATION . It is deeply significant that he should not have seen the angel. Even the poor dumb creature that he rode saw more than he did. It was his moral perversity, the frenzy of his carnal ambition, that was the true cause of the dullness of his spiritual vision. Note—

1 . Sin blinds men to the things that it is most needful for them to apprehend and know. Mental blindness often, not always, has a moral cause. "This people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing," &c.; ( Matthew 13:15 ). The highest spiritual truths, realities of the spirit world, tokens of the Divine presence and working, eternal moral laws, sacred responsibilities of life, &c.;—all these are darkly hidden from him whose heart is "thoroughly set in him to do evil."

2 . Even animal instinct is a safer guide than the moral sense of a bad man. It effectually warns of danger, and prompts to the pursuit of the good nature requires. It is to the animal a sufficient law. But when the "spirit in man, the inspiration of the Almighty that giveth him understanding," the sovereignty of reason and conscience, is overborne by base fleshly lust, man sinks lower than the brutes that perish. Their obedience to the law of their being puts him to shame. Though they "speak not with man's voice," their silent wisdom "rebukes him for his iniquity." "If the light that is in thee be darkness," &c.; ( Matthew 6:23 ).

III. HIS HELPLESSNESS . This is seen—

1 . In his abject submission. "He bowed down his head, and fell fiat on his face," saying, "I have sinned;" "now, therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again." He must have known from the beginning that his obstinate self-will was displeasing to God, but now that the consequences of it stare him in the face he is filled with alarm. There are those who grieve over their sin only when it is found out. It is not the evil itself they dread, but only its discovery and punishment. Fear often makes men repent and reform when there is no genuine abhorrence of wrong-doing.

2 . In the Divine compulsion under which he is placed to pursue his journey. "Go with the men," &c.; He would fain draw back, but it is too late now; he must do the work and bear the testimony that God has determined for him. When men are bent upon that which is evil, God often allows them to become entangled in circumstances of danger from which there is no escape, that "they may eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices" ( Proverbs 1:31 ).—W.

- The Pulpit Commentary