Numbers 23 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Numbers 23
Pulpit Commentary
And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams.
Chapter 23:1. - Build me here seven altars. According to the common opinion of the heathen, it was necessary to propitiate with sacrifices the God with whom they had to do, and if possible to secure his favourable consideration on their side. The number seven was especially connected with the revelation of the tree God, the Creator of the world, and was probably observed here for this reason. The sacrifices were offered no doubt to Jehovah.
And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram.
And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go: peradventure the LORD will come to meet me: and whatsoever he sheweth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place.
Verse 3. - Peradventure the Lord will come to meet me. It might be concluded from Numbers 24:1 that Balaam went only to look for "auguries," i.e., for such natural signs in the flight of birds and the like as the heathen were wont to observe as manifestations of the favour or disfavour of God, the success or failure of enterprises. It seems clear that it was his practice to do so, either as having some faith himself in such uncertainties, or as stooping to usual heathen arts which he inwardly despised. But from the fact that God met him (we know not how), and that such supernatural communication was not unexpected, we may conclude that Balaam's words meant more for himself than the mere observance of auguries, whatever they may have meant for Balak. To an high place. Rather, "to a bald place" (שֶׁפִי - compare the meaning of "Calvary"), from which the immediate prospect was uninterrupted.
And God met Balaam: and he said unto him, I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram.
Verse 4. - I have prepared seven altars. Balaam, acting for the king of Moab, his heathen patron, in this difficult business, points out to God that he had given him the full quota of sacrifices to begin with. It was implied in this reminder that God would naturally feel disposed to do something for Balaam in return.
And the LORD put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak.
And he returned unto him, and, lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab.
And he took up his parable, and said, Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel.
Verse 7. - Took up his parable. מָשָׁל (cf. Numbers 21:27). Balaam's utterances were in the highest degree poetical, according to the antithetic form of the poetry of that day, which delighted in sustained parallelisms, in lofty figures, and in abrupt turns. The "mashal" of Balaam resembled the "burden" of the later prophets in this, that it was not a discourse uttered to men, but a thing revealed in him of which he had to deliver himself as best he might in such words as came to him. His inward eye was fixed on this revelation, and he gave utterance to it without consideration of those who heard. Aram, i.e., Aram-Naharaim, or Mesopotamia (cf. Genesis 29:1; Deuteronomy 23:4). Defy, or "threaten,' i.e., with the wrath of Heaven. Jacob. The use of this name as the poetical equivalent of Israel shows that Balaam was familiar with the story of the patriarch, and understood his relation to the people before him.
How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?
For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.
Verse 9. - The people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned. Rather, "It is a people that dwelleth apart, and is not numbered." It was not the outward isolation on which his eye was fixed, for that indeed was only temporary and accidental, but the religious and moral separateness of Israel as the chosen people of God, which was the very secret of their national greatness.
Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!
Verse 10. - The fourth part of Israel. אֶת־רבַע is so rendered by the Targums, as alluding to the four great camps into which the host was divided. The Septuagint has δήμους, apparently from an incorrect reading. The Samaritan and the older versions, followed by the Vulgate, render it "progeny,'" but this meaning is conjectural, and there seems no sufficient reason to depart from the common translation. Let me die the death of the righteous. The word "righteous" is in the plural (יְשָׁרִים, δικαίων): it may refer either to the Israelites as a holy nation, living and dying in the favour of God; or to the patriarchs, such as Abraham, the promises made to whom, in faith of which they died, were already so gloriously fulfilled. If the former reference was intended, Balaam must have had a much fuller and happier knowledge of "life and immortality" than the Israelites themselves, to whom death was dreadful, all the more that it ended a life protected and blessed by God (cf. e.g., Psalm 88:10-12; Isaiah 38:18, 19). It is hardly credible that so singular an anticipation of purely Christian feeling should really be found in the mouth of a prophet of that day, for it is clear that the words, however much inspired, did express the actual emotion of Balaam at the moment. It is therefore more consistent with the facts and probabilities of the case to suppose that Balaam referred to righteous Abraham (cf. Isaiah 41:2) and his immediate descendants, and wished that when he came to die he might have as sure a hope as they had enjoyed that God would bless and multiply their seed, and make their name to be glorious in the earth. Let my last end be like his. אַחַרִית (last end) is the same word translated "latter days" and "latter end" in Numbers 24:14, 20. It means the last state of a people or of a man as represented in his offspring; the sense is not incorrectly expressed by the Septuagint, γένοιτο τὸ σπέρμα μου ὡς τὸ σπέρμα τούτων.
And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.
And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the LORD hath put in my mouth?
And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them: thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence.
Verse 13. - Come... unto another place. Balak attributed the miscarriage of his enterprise thus far to something inauspicious in the locality. Thou shalt see but the utmost part of them. אֶפֶס קָצֶהוּ תִרְאֶה. Both the meaning of the nouns and the tense of the verb are disputed. By some "e ephes katsehu" (the end of the last of them) is held equivalent to "the whole of them," which seems to contradict the next clause even if defensible in itself. The ordinary rendering is favoured by the Septuagint (ἀλλ η} μέρος τι αὐτοῦ ὄψει) and by the Targums. On the other hand, some would read the verb in the present tense, and understand Balak's words to refer to the place they were leaving. This is in accordance with the statement in Numbers 22:41, and it would certainly seem as if Balak and Balaam moved each time nearer to that encampment which was for different masons the center of attraction to them both.
And he brought him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.
Verse 14. - The field of Zophim, i.e., of the watchers. Probably a well-known outlook. To the top of Pisgah. They followed apparently on the track of their enemies (see on Numbers 21:20).
And he said unto Balak, Stand here by thy burnt offering, while I meet the LORD yonder.
Verse 15. - While I meet the Lord yonder. Rather, "and I will go and meet thus." וְאָנֹכִי אִקָּרֶה כֹּה. Balaam does not say whom or what he is going to meet, but from the use of the same term in chapter 24. I it is evident that he employed the language of soothsayers looking for auguries. He may have spoken vaguely on purpose, because he was in truth acting a part with Balak.
And the LORD met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Go again unto Balak, and say thus.
And when he came to him, behold, he stood by his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath the LORD spoken?
And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor:
God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.
Verse 20. - I have received commandment to bless. The word "commandment "is not wanted here. Balaam had received, not instructions, but an inward revelation of the Divine will which he could not contravene.
He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
Verse 21. - He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob. The subject of this and the parallel clause is left indefinite. If it is God, according to the A.V., then it means that God in his mercy shut his eyes to the evil which did exist in individuals, and for his own sake would not impute it to the chosen nation. If it be impersonal, according to the Septuagint and the Targums, "one does not behold iniquity," &c., then it means that the iniquity was not flagrant, was not left to gather head and volume until it brought down destruction. Perverseness. Rather, "suffering" (עָמָל. Septuagint, πόνος), the natural consequence of sin. Compare the use of the two words in Psalm 10:7; Psalm 90:10. The shout of a king is among them. The "shout" (תִּרוּעָה) is the jubilation of the nation with which it acclaims its victor king (cf. 1 Samuel 4:5, 6). In Leviticus 23:24; Psalm 47:5 it is used of the sounding of the sacred trumpets.
God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
Verse 22. - God. אֵל, and also at the end of the next verse, and four times in the next chapter (verses 4, 8, 16, 23). The use seems to be poetic, and no particular signification can be attached to it. Brought them, or, perhaps, "is leading them." So the Septuagint: Θεὸς ὁ ἐξαγαγὼν αὐτόν. Unicorn. Hebrew, רְאֵם. It is uniformly rendered μονοκέρως by the Septuagint, under the mistaken notion that the rhinoceros was intended. It is evident, however, from Deuteronomy 33:17 and other passages that the teem had two hems, and that its horns were its most prominent feature. It would also appear from Job 39:9-12 and Isaiah 34:7 that, while itself untameable, it was allied to species employed in husbandry. The reem may therefore have been the aurochs or urus, now extinct, but which formerly had so large a range in the forests of the old world. There is some doubt, however, whether the urns existed in those days in Syria, and it may have been a wild buffalo, or some kindred animal of the bovine genus, whose size, fierceness, and length of horn made it a wonder and a fear.
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!
Verse 23. - Enchantment, נָחַשׁ. Rather, "augury." Septuagint, οἰωνισμός. See on Leviticus 19:26, where the practice is forbidden to Israel. Against Jacob, or, "in Jacob," as the marginal reading, and this is favoured by the Septuagint and the Targums, and is equally true and striking. It was the proud peculiarity of Israel that he trusted not to any magic arts or superstitious rites, uncertain in themselves, and always leading to imposture, but to the direction and favour of the Almighty. Divination. קֶסֶם. Septuagint, μαντεία. The art of the soothsayer. According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel. Rather, "in season," i.e., in God's good time, "it shall be said to Jacob and to Israel. What hath God wrought! or, "what God doeth." The meaning seems to be that augury and divination were useless and vain in the case of Israel, because God himself declared and would declare his mighty acts in behalf of his people, and that by no uncertain vaticination, but by open declaration.
Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.
Verse 24. - As a great lion. לָבִיא, generally translated "old lion," as in Genesis 49:9. By some it is rendered lioness (cf. Job 4:11; Nahum 2:12). As a young lion. אַרִי, the ordinary term for a lion without further distinction. It is altogether fantastic to suppose that Balaam had just seen a lieu coming up from the ghor of Jordan, and that this "omen" inspired his "mashal." The rising of a lion from its covert was one of the most common of the more striking phenomena of nature in those regions, and the imagery it afforded was in constant use; but in truth it is evident that these similes are borrowed from Jacob's dying prophecy concerning Judah (Genesis 49:9), in which the word "prey" (Hebrew, טֶרֶפ, a torn thing) is also found. Balaam was acquainted with that prophecy, as he was with the promises made to Abraham (cf. verse 10 with Genesis 13:16; Genesis 28:14).
And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all.
But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that the LORD speaketh, that I must do?
And Balak said unto Balaam, Come, I pray thee, I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence.
Verse 27. - I will bring thee unto another place. At first (verse 25) Balak had in his vexation desired to stop the mouth of Balaam, but afterwards he thought it wiser to make yet another attempt to change the mind of God; as a heathen, he still thought that this might be done by dint of importunity and renewed sacrifices.
And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon.
Verse 28. - Unto the top of Peer. On the meaning of Peer see on chapter Numbers 25:3. This Peer was a summit of the Abarim ranges northwards from Pisgah, and nearer to the Israelites. The adjacent village, Beth-Peer, was near the place of Moses' burial (Deuteronomy 34:6). From the phrase used in Deuteronomy 3:29; Deuteronomy 4:46, with which the testimony of Eusebius agrees, it must have lain almost opposite Jericho on the heights behind the Arboth Moab. From Peer, therefore, the whole encampment, in all its length and breadth, would lie beneath their gaze. Jeshi-men. See on Numbers 21:20.
And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams.
And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.
Courtesy of Open Bible