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Numbers 23:1-24:25

We considered last time the wonderfully interesting and entertaining account of Balaam and his donkey and pointed out that the donkey could be made a spokesman for the Lord even against his nature and the same would be the case for Balaam. He would say what the Lord put into his mouth to say.

Text Comment

What is important about these particular preparations is that they amount to the standard technique of ANE (ancient Near Eastern) diviners. Balaam, in other words, is practicing his craft. A Babylonian tablet describes such a procedure:

“At dawn, in the presence of Ea, Shamash, and Marduk [Babylonian gods] you must set up seven altars, place seven incense burners of cypress and pour out the blood of seven sheep.” [Wenham, 172]

When this had been done the diviner presented himself before the god and reminded him of his offerings. The idea was that the god, thus pleased with the gifts given to him, would provide the diviner with the specific knowledge of the future that he was seeking on behalf of his client. Balak and Balaam are here seen to have been going all out: offering the most valuable animals (bulls and rams). They were doing their best to secure a favorable response from God.

As with his donkey before him, “The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth.”

“Who can count the dust of Jacob” is an allusion to what the Lord said about Israel in Genesis 13:16: “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.”

Zophim literally means “watchmen,” so the location may have been a spot from which the movement of troops in the plains of Moab could be observed.

Undeterred by the initial setback, Balak insists on trying again. Perhaps a different location will yield a better result. The whole rigmarole is repeated and again the Lord meets Balaam and put a word in his mouth. [cf. Wenham, 175]

This statement amounts to a repudiation of Balak’s entire theological understanding. God is not someone who can be manipulated by offerings or dictated to by hired diviners.

God has not only chosen Israel, he is with her.

A nation that bested the vaunted might of Egypt by the power of God will not be deterred by some hired sorcerer. In fact, Balaam declares that what Balak feared is precisely what will happen: Israel will conquer her enemies and take possession of their territory.

A pagan worldview is not so easily overcome. Balak is sure that the third time will be the charm.

The bill is adding up. Balak has spent a lot of money on this project so far, sending diplomats twice to Balaam at his home and now three times over these expensive sacrifices. Balak was what is called in the trade a highly motivated buyer!

Up to this point Balaam had still been practicing his trade, seeking knowledge of the future through omens. The Lord had either ignored the silly practices or made use of them.

From Peor – a location now impossible precisely to identify – Balaam could see not just a part of the Israelite camp but its entirety. Here, instead of the Lord putting a word in Balaam’s mouth, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. That suggests that in this case he fell into a trance and saw a vision. That is what Balaam himself says in v. 4.

Cedars do not grow by watercourses so why should Balaam liken Israel to a cedar by a river? Cedars are very strong trees even growing away from flowing water. So a cedar tree by the water would be strength upon strength.

Three times in Genesis the Lord had promised the patriarchs that “kings would come from them” (17:6, 16; 35:11).

The oracle concludes with another allusion to the promise that God made to Abraham (Gen. 12:3): “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Before Balak can get rid of Balaam his hired prophet falls into a trance again and picks up where he left off in his oracle describing the vision he sees of Israel’s future.

The prophecy is of the distant future, as we read in v. 14. The NIV’s “in days to come” in v. 14 is literally “in the latter days,” a phrase that often refers to the days that are on the far horizon of the prophet’s perspective. Here he speaks of someone who is not yet, not near.

This prophecy of a future king could be taken as a reference to David, but no king ever matched the profile of the king Israel was told to expect. Rightly then later Jewish and Christian writers saw in such prophesies a forecast of the greater triumphs of the Messiah.

Jesus is referred to as the “bright morning star” in Rev. 22:16.

Edom and Seir are names for the same people and nation. “City” in the last line could be the proper name of some Moabite town. In any case, the prophecy is of Edom’s total defeat at the hands of Israel’s future prince.

Balaam’s last few oracles concern other countries and their inclusion here has always been something of a puzzle. Perhaps the idea is the same as the oracles against other nations in the later prophets: the certain judgment of the pagan nations around her assures Israel of her future safety. The Amalekites were bitter foes of Israel; both Saul and David defeated them and they were finally destroyed in Hezekiah’s time. The Kenites who lived in the Sinai were subdued by the nearby tribe of Asshur and then destroyed by the Philistines. The reference to those who come from Kittim is probably to the Philistines who migrated to and gave their name to Palestine. They conquered peoples but were, in turn, conquered themselves, by David especially.

What is interesting and important about Balaam’s last prophesies – that is, those against the nations – is that many of the later prophets also delivered oracles against these same peoples. You find prophesies against Moab, Edom, and Philistia in Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Sometimes the later prophets even quote the oracles of Balaam (Jer. 48:45; Dan. 11:30). This indicates that those later prophets realized that these prophesies had been, at most, only partially fulfilled. [Wenham, 183]

The NT does not explicitly cite Balaam’s oracles but virtually all Christian commentators take Balaam’s oracle in 24:17-19 as a reference to Christ (just as Jewish commentators took it as a reference to the Messiah or Israel’s future king).

People have always desperately wanted to know the future beforehand but have always found it impossible to predict it with any reliability. The psychic hotlines still make millions for their owners, but in small type on the screen they acknowledge that they actually provide only entertainment lest they be sued when their predictions do not come to pass.

“In 1929 Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics at Yale…, carved out a niche for himself in history when he said, ‘Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau,’ mere months before Wall Street crashed. Decca Records turned down the opportunity to sign the Beatles in 1962 with the words, ‘We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.’ Ken Olson, founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation, declared in 1977, ‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.’” [Duguid, 281]

If trying to predict the future is difficult, trying to control it is even more so, as the previous presidential administration learned to its dismay and as the present administration is already learning.

But predicting and controlling the future is precisely what the Lord can and does do. It is something that sets him apart from all the pretend gods and from every human being.

“Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” [Isa. 46:9]

“Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods.” [41:22-23]

So it was and so it is and so it will always be. Counterfeits can always make a buck off people’s desire to know the future – a desire based on the assumption that if one knows the future one can, at least to some extent, control the future – but the counterfeits will always fail really to predict what is going to happen. Only God knows the future and only he can control it. That is what it means to be the one living and true God: to have that kind of knowledge and that kind of power. The recognition of this fact has often had life-changing power. Do you remember the name Richard Ganz? Some of you will. He was a psychoanalyst, a PhD, a psychiatrist; he is now a pastor in the Reformed Church of North America (the Covenanters). They were atheists when, on a trip to Europe, chance acquaintances steered him and his wife to L’Abri. Here is his own account of what happened.

The next few days were interesting. They were full of religious discussion. But as a man with no sense of God, seeing myself as a chance accumulation of molecules in an absurd and meaningless world, I listened and talked to these people, questioning and mocking their beliefs. Then one day a man asked me if he could read something from the Bible to me. I consented, and this is what he read. [I should say that Richard Ganz was a Jew and this may have had something to do with the choice of text.]

“Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” [The fellow was reading, of course, Isaiah 53 and its prophecy of the coming of the Servant of the Lord.]

I’d heard that expression “Man of sorrows” and “acquainted with grief” before, though I wasn’t sure where. But at that point I suddenly understood what was happening: they were reading to me about Jesus. I thought, “Do they know what they are doing, reading this Christian stuff to a Jew?” But I told myself to be patient.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions.”

Images of Renaissance paintings leapt to my mind. I wasn’t an ordinary Jewish guy; I had a doctorate; I was cultured; I’d seen paintings with crosses; I knew that their guy had been pierced. They were trying to read me stories about Jesus and I felt the anger rising in me.

“He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus just bore your sins! I couldn’t stand it. That was just a cheap way out of long term psychoanalysis. What they were telling me was “the Catholic way.” From the age of seven, when I had walked into a Catholic church, I thought Jesus was a Catholic; Scandinavian, perhaps, very delicate, tall, thin, slightly anorexic, with long silken blond hair and piercing blue eyes. I had got as far as the vestibule of the church, looked at one of the statues and thought that the ground was going to open up and swallow me; that I was unalterably damned for having done that, and I ran eight blocks home to get away from what I considered an unpardonable sin.

“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgement, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked but with the rich at His death.”

I remembered pictures of Jesus on the cross and the two thieves, one on either side of him. Three crosses. I knew that stuff; they weren’t going to fool me with their rhetoric.

“Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days.”

There was the myth about the resurrection. They get it into all their literature, don’t they? They can’t accept the fact that once a person is dead, he’s dead. Grow up! Put away your infantile neuroses and realize that when you’re dead, you’re dead; that’s it.

When he finished reading, he looked at me and said, “What do you think?” I was, of course, keen to give [him] the benefit of my insights. They were obviously quoting to me from their New Testament and I responded without a moment’s hesitation: “Anyone who was there at that cross could have written that stuff! What does that prove?”

He handed me the Bible and in a millisecond of receiving it, my life was changed. The name that I saw at the top of the page was Isaiah! They had been reading from my Bible, my Hebrew Scriptures, and I felt as though someone had taken a sword and cut me to pieces. When the man who read it told me it was written 700 years before Jesus was born, I felt dead. Why couldn’t it be Krishna? Why couldn’t it be Buddha? Why does it have to be him? I knew at that instant that if Jesus wrote history about himself in my Bible, if the Gentile God was the Jewish God and he was truly God, then I had to submit everything to him for the rest of my life.

In other words, in Richard Ganz’ case it was the proof of prophecy, that the future had been predicted in the Scriptures, and those events in the distant future had come to pass as the ancient prophets had said they would: it was this demonstration that was the complete undoing of his unbelief. It should be for many more people. I think, we all should think, about biblical prophecy the same way many of us think about the grip that the theory of evolution has upon so many minds. To maintain that this world, in all of its wonder, in all of its fabulous perfection of design, that human personality and morality and consciousness could have come unbidden by accident out of jostling chemicals is an act of a supreme credulity, a proposition so preposterous that only someone utterly detached from reality could possibly believe it. But, in the same way, to fail to see the fulfillment of biblical prophecy will one day also be seen to be what it is: a willful refusal to face facts so plain, so irrefutable that only the Devil’s delusion can account for it.

What we have prophesied here, of course, is the historical imperishability of the people of God and their eventual victory under their king. Anticipations of that victory have occurred many times in history between Balaam’s time and ours and, in a way, no outcome, humanly speaking, was as unlikely as this. No other people of the ancient world have maintained themselves throughout history and in such an important way as the Jews, they are unique.

Voltaire once asked: “Why should the world be made to rotate around the insignificant pimple of Jewry?” He was giving vent to his anti-Semitism, but he was, however unwittingly, also acknowledging the extraordinarily peculiar and unique position of the Jewish people in the history of the world. And how many times has that acknowledgement had to be made! In his magnificent account of the history of the 20th century, the English historian and journalist, Paul Johnson, narrating the events that led to the foundation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, as the strange result of the unusual coincidence of Russian, British, and American foreign policy, wrote: “Israel slipped into existence through a crack in the time continuum.” [485] Somehow they have survived and even prospered through all the ages since that day Balaam looked down upon them from the heights of Peor.

Fredrick the Great is said to have asked his court chaplain in a cynical moment: “Herr Professor, give me a proof of the Bible, but briefly, for I have little time.” The chaplain replied, “Majesty, the Jews.”

And we are right, I think, to consider Jewish history part of the story that Balaam foretold, insofar as Paul in Romans 11 teaches us to consider the Jews still today, even in their unbelief, as a people with a future in the kingdom of God, still heirs of the ancient promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the very promises that Balaam repeated in his prophecies.

But the same thing could be said of the Christian church. They too are the Israel of God as Paul reminds us, indeed, presently more authentically the Israel of God because they have believed in and followed God’s Son, the Messiah, the King whose reign Balaam here prophesied.. They too are the circumcision. It was the forefathers of every believer in Jesus Christ, who came out of bondage in Egypt on eagles’ wings. So says Paul to a largely Gentile church in 1 Cor. 10.

Of the Jews as Jews in one way, as Christians in an even deeper way, it may be said of them and us, as Balaam says in 23:9:

“I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.”

I remember talking with Christian believers in Greece and being struck by the way they spoke of the citizens of their own national homeland. “The Greeks,” they would say, “think this, or do such and such” as if they were not Greeks because they were Christians. And in an important way this must be true of any and every Christian. He knows he has more in common and a deep and abiding brotherhood with a Russian Christian or a Chinese Christian or a Ugandan Christian or an Indian Christian than he could ever have with an American who lives across the street but who does not confess Jesus Christ as Lord. We don’t belong to our nation like other Americans do. We are a people apart.

Why? Divine election, that is why. God has chosen us to be his people. He has chosen us out of every tongue, tribe and nation on the earth and he has given to us his presence and power and his blessing. He dwells with us and protects us by his power from every conceivable danger or enemy. We have been thinking about that in our study of the Book of Revelation. And the result is that here we are these thousands of years later – both Jew and Christian alike in their different way – and the prophecy of Balaam continues to hold true and all the prophecies that came before those and all that would come after.

History is unfolding according to a script written in heaven. That thought, too, we encountered in Revelation. In a few particulars that script has been revealed beforehand and nothing that has happened in history has falsified a word of it and a great many things that have happened – including an especially the appearance, the incarnation, the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God and the spread of the gospel through the world – have happened, I say, precisely as it was said they would happen long centuries before and those very things, humanly speaking, are the most unlikely things to have ever happened in the world.

Here Yahweh used a professional sorcerer to predict the future. Balaam, of course, entered the picture only because Balak hired him to curse Israel. Had his path not crossed Israel’s in that way he would have gone on doing what he did to make a living – making predictions on the basis of omens and being right as often as any other bright fellow diviner might be – but we would never have heard of him. He had a fifty-fifty chance in any event as many of the answers people would have sought from him were “yes or no.” But here Yahweh put a word in Balaam’s mouth about the future of his people Israel. It was not a detailed word. The Lord rarely gave details about the future. Sometimes but rarely. His point was not to prove that he knew the future down to the least detail. He did prove that from time to time, but ordinarily the purpose of his disclosure of the future was to confirm in the hearts of his people their understanding of the world and their place in the world. For example, the presence of the name Agag in 24:7 is more often than not taken not to be a prediction of the Agag, king of the Amalekites, that Saul would later defeat as we read in 1 Sam. 15. Many conservative Bible believing commentators take it not as a precise prediction of a king’s name centuries beforehand but understand Agag to be more likely a dynastic title for the Amalekite king, such as Pharaoh for the king of Egypt. One of the reasons for this is precisely because most biblical prophesies of the future are not so specific as to mention a man’s name centuries beforehand. [Ashley, 492-493]

In any case, God does not predict the future simply because he can, or to amaze us with his powers. He foretells the future to remind his people that he knows how the story is going to proceed and finally come to its end. He is in control of history and so can bless his people as he has promised. It is to encourage their faith and give them hope and help them, in that way, to remain faithful to him. Biblical prophecy is mostly a broad-brush account of the future such as we have here. And in these accounts the great interest is to confirm the gospel, the Lord’s promises, and his people’s election, their special place in his plan and purpose, something we are often tempted to forget: to begin to think as if we are just like everybody else and as if our life, our future, is the same as the life and the future of the people around us. It is not always easy to be a people apart. We want to be the same, not different!

But it was when Israel forgot her election, her belonging to the Lord, the unique future he had promised her, that she ran into her worst trouble, betrayed the covenant God had made with her, and brought his judgment down upon herself. It was when she remembered her election that she belonged to God as no other people did or could, and that he had said very specific things about what was going to happen to her and become of her as the years and ages passed. When she remembered that she walked on the heights of the land.

If you know you belong to the Lord, and you do if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, if you remember that you are a people who live apart and have a glorious future guaranteed to you by the Word of God and proved over and over again in the accuracy and the faithfulness of Biblical prophecy; I say, if you know and remember these things, the fact that your enemies, the fact that the rest of the world has a better reputation, as the Amalekites did, or a better location, as the Kenites did, or a better record of recent success as the Philistines did, matters not at all.

And if at any point you doubt the place and position in the world of the people of God, you have only to remember that the star did arise out of Jacob, the scepter did rise out of Israel and now shines that star and rules that scepter over the entire earth. And he who made these promises and has proved them again and again will not, cannot fail to fulfill them finally and completely in due time.

It is a greater thing than we often remember it to be, and a matter of greater consequence, that God predicted events long before they came to pass, that he proved himself the master of the future, that many of the things he said would happen and did happen were utterly unpredictable and unlikely things – such as the salvation of the world by the death of a Jewish man of no worldly consequence – and that the great story of the future is the story of the preservation and then finally the triumph of the people God has chosen, among whom are you and I.

“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”

Why? Because you are a people beloved of God, the one true God. Because he has chosen you for great things. Because he is with you always. And because he has promised you a glorious future and he has proved, over and over again, that he not only knows the future, but controls the present so as to guarantee the future! You are, after all – Balaam is reminding us and we must never forget this – you are the people of that King who is infinitely greater than every other King the world has ever seen!