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Song of Solomon
Numbers 24 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)
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And when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness.
As at other times,
or, "as (he had done) time after time."
κατὰ τὸ εἰωθός
To seek for enchantments.
Rather, "for the meeting with aunties."
. Septuagint, to
συνάντησιν τοῖς οἰωνοῖς
, as in
, is not enchantments in the sense of magical practices, but definitely auguries, i.e. omens and signs in the natural world observed and interpreted according to an artificial system as manifesting the purposes of God. As one of the commonest and worst of heathen practices, it was forbidden to Israel (
) and held up to reprobation, as in
2 Kings 17:17
2 Kings 21:6
2 Chronicles 33:6
Toward the wilderness.
. Not "Jeshimon," but apparently the Arboth Moab in which Israel was encamped, and which were for the most part desert as compared with the country around.
And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding
in his tents
according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.
The spirit of God came upon him.
This seems to intimate a higher state of inspiration than the expression, "God put a word into his mouth" (
Numbers 23:5, 16
And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:
Balaam... hath said.
Rather, "the utterance of Balaam."
is constantly used, as in
, for a Divine utterance,
, but it does not by itself, apart from the context, claim a superhuman origin.
The man whose eyes are open.
הַגֶּבֶר שְׁתֻם הָעָיִן
. The authorities are divided between the rendering in the text and the opposite rendering given in the margin.
is used in
, in the sense of "shut;" but, on the other hand, a passage in the Mishnah distinctly uses
in opposite senses. The Vulgate, on the one hand, has
; the Septuagint, on the other, has
ὁ ἀληθινῶς ὁρῶν
, and this is the sense given by the Targums. Strange to say, it makes no real difference whether we read "open" or "shut," because in any case it was the inward vision that was quickened, while the outward senses were closed.
He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling
into a trance
, but having his eyes open:
Falling into a trance.
Rather, "falling down."
, Vulgate. The case of Saul, who "fell down naked all that day" (
1 Samuel 19:24
), overcome by the illapse of the Spirit, affords the best comparison. Physically, it would seem to have been a kind of catalepsy, in which the senses were closed to outward things, and the eyes open but unseeing. The word for "open" in this verse is the ordinary one, not that used in verse 3.
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,
thy tabernacles, O Israel!
As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted,
as cedar trees beside the waters.
As the valleys,
"as the torrents" (
), which pour down in parallel courses from the upper slopes. As gardens by the river's side.
), as in
) means the Euphrates. Balaam combines the pleasant imagery of his own cultivated land with that of the wilder scene amidst which he now stood.
the trees of lign aloes.
. Aloe trees, such as grew in the further east, where Balaam had perhaps seen them.
Which the Lord hath planted,
or, "the Lord's planting," a poetical way of describing their beauty and rarity (cf.
He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed
in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
He shall pour the water,
or, "the water shall overflow."
Out of his buckets.
is the dual, "his two buckets." The image, familiar enough to one who lived in an irrigated land, is of one carrying two buckets on the ends of a pole which are so full as to run over as he goes.
And his seed... in many waters.
It is uncertain in what sense the word "seed" issued. It may be an image as simple as the last, of seed sown either by or actually upon many waters (cf.
), and so securing a plentiful and safe return; or it may stand for the seed, i.e., the posterity, of Israel, which should grow up amidst many blessings (
). The former seems most in keeping here. His king shall be higher than Agag. Rather, "let his king be higher than Agag." The name Agag (
, the fiery one) does not occur again except as the name of the king of Amalek whom Saul conquered and Samuel slew (
1 Samuel 15
.); yet it may safely be assumed that it was the official title of all the kings of Amalek, resembling in this "Abimelech" and "Pharaoh." Here it seems to stand for the dynasty and the nation of the Amalekites, and there is no reason to suppose that any reference was intended to any particular individual or event in the distant future. The "king" of Israel here spoken of is certainly not Saul or any other of the kings, but God himself in his character as temporal Ruler of Israel; and the "kingdom" is the kingdom of heaven as set forth by way of anticipation in the polity and order of the chosen race. As a fact, Israel had afterwards a visible king who overthrew Agag, but their having such a king was alien to the mind of God, and due to a distinct falling away from national faith, and therefore could find no place in this prophecy.
God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce
through with his arrows.
And shall break their bones.
) seems to mean "crush" or "smash." The Septuagint has
, "shall suck out,"
, the marrow, but the word does not seem to bear this meaning.
Pierce them through with his arrows,
or, "dash in pieces his arrows,"
, the arrows shot at him.
. The difficulty is the possessive suffix to "arrows," which is in the singular; otherwise this rendering gives a much better sense, and more in keeping with the rest of the passage The image in Balaam's mind is evidently that of a terrible wild beast devouring his enemies, stamping them underfoot, and dashing to pieces in his fury the arrows or darts which they vainly launch against him (compare the imagery in
He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed
he that blesseth thee, and cursed
he that curseth thee.
A great lion.
. See on Numbers 23:24, and
Blessed is he that blesseth thee,
&c. In these words Balaam seems to refer to the terms of Balak's first message (
). Far from being affected by blessings and cursings from without, Israel was itself a source of blessing or cursing to others according as they treated him.
And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed
these three times.
Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the LORD hath kept thee back from honour.
And Balaam said unto Balak, Spake I not also to thy messengers which thou sentest unto me, saying,
Spake I not also.
This was altogether true. Balaam had enough of the true prophet about him not only to act with strict fidelity, as far as the letter of the command went, but also to behave with great dignity towards Balak.
If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD, to do
good or bad of mine own mind;
what the LORD saith, that will I speak?
And now, behold, I go unto my people: come
I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.
I will advertise thee.
has properly the meaning "advise" (Septuagint,
), but it seems to have here the same subordinate sense of giving information which "advise" has with us. The Vulgate here has followed the surmise of the Jewish commentators, who saw nothing in Balaam but the arch-enemy of their race, and has actually altered the text into "dabo consilium quid populus tuus populo huic faciat" (cf.
And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:
He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High,
saw the vision of the Almighty, falling
into a trance
, but having his eyes open:
Knew the knowledge of the Most High.
ἐπιστήμην παρὰ Υψίστου
. This expression alone distinguishes this introduction of Balaam's mashal from the former one (verses 3, 4), but it is difficult to say that it really adds anything to our understanding of his mental state. If we ask when Balaam had received the revelation which he now proceeds to communicate, it would seem most natural to reply that it was made known to him when "the Spirit of God came upon him," and that Balak's anger had interrupted him in the midst of his mashal, or possibly he had kept it back, as too distasteful to his patron, until he saw that he had nothing more to expect from that quarter.
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh.
Rather, "I see him, but not now: I behold him, but not near" (
exactly as in
). Balaam does not mean to say that he expected himself to see at any future time the mysterious Being of whom he speaks, who is identical with the "Star" and the "Scepter" of the following clauses; he speaks wholly as a prophet, and means that his inner gaze is fixed upon such an one, with full assurance that he exists in the counsels of God, but with clear recognition of the fact that his actual coming is yet in the far future.
There shall come a Star out
. It may quite as well be rendered by the present; Balaam simply utters what passes before his inward vision. The star is a natural and common poetic symbol of an illustrious, or, as we say, "brilliant," personage, and as such recurs many times in Scripture (cf.
). The celebrated Jewish fanatic called himself Barcochab, "son of the Star," in allusion to this prophecy.
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.
This further defines the "star ' as a ruler of men, for the scepter is Used in that sense in the dying prophecy of Jacob (
), with which Balaam was evidently acquainted. Accordingly the Septuagint has here
Shall smite the corners of Moab.
Rather, "the two corners" (dual), or "the two sides of Moab," i.e., shall crush Moab on either side.
And destroy all the children of Sheth.
, where this prophecy is in a manner quoted, the word
, destroy) is altered into
, crown of the head). This raises a very curious and interesting question as to the use made by the prophets of the earlier Scriptures, but it gives no authority for an alteration of the text. The expression
has been variously rendered. The Jewish commentators, followed by the Septuagint (
) and the older versions, understand it to mean the sons of Seth, the son of Adam, i.e., all mankind. Many modern commentators, however, take
as a contraction of
- "desolation"), and read "sons of confusion," as equivalent to the unruly neighbours and relations of Israel. This, however, is extremely dubious in itself, for
nowhere occurs in this sense, and derives no sup. port from
. It is true that
is there replaced by
, "sons of tumult," but then this very verse affords the clearest evidence that the prophet felt no hesitation in altering the text of Scripture to suit his own inspired purpose. If it be true that
will not bear the meaning given to it in the Targums of "reign over," still there is no insuperable difficulty in the common rendering. Jewish prophecy, from beginning to end, contemplated the Messiah as the Conqueror, the Subduer, and even the Destroyer of all the heathen, i.e., of all who were not Jews. It is only in the New Testament that the iron scepter with which he was to dash in pieces the heathen (
) becomes the pastoral staff wherewith he shepherds them (
after the Septuagint, which has here misread the text). The prophecy was that Messiah should destroy the heathen; the fulfillment that he destroyed not them, but their heathenism (cf.
And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly.
Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies.
), or Mount Seir (
), was the old name, still retained as an alternative, of Edom. It is uncertain whether the rendering "for his (
, Edom's) enemies" is correct. The Hebrew is simply
, which may stand in apposition to Edom and Seir, "his enemies,"
, the enemies of Israel. So the Septuagint,
Ησαῦ ὁ ἐχθρὸς αὐτοῦ
. Shall do valiantly, or, "shall be prosperous" (cf.
Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.
Shall come he that shall have dominion.
Literally, "one shall rule," the subject being indefinite. Of the city.
; not apparently out of any city in particular, but "out of any hostile city." The expression implies not only conquest, but total destruction of the foe.
And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek
the first of the nations; but his latter end
that he perish for ever.
He looked on Amalek.
This looking must have been an inward vision, because the haunts of the Amalekites were far away (see on Genesis 36:12; Exodus 17:8; Numbers 14:25, 45). The first of the nations. Amalek was in no sense a leading nation, nor was it a very ancient nation. It was indeed the very first of the nations to attack Israel, but it is a most arbitrary treatment of the words to understand them in that sense. The prophet Amos (
) uses the same expression of the Jewish aristocracy of his day. As it was in no better position than Amalek to claim it in any true sense, we can but suppose that in either case there is a reference to the vainglorious vauntings of the people threatened; it would be quite in keeping with the Bedawin character if Amalek gave himself out be "the first of nations."
And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock.
He looked on the Kenites.
is excessively obscure, for both the subject of it and the drift of it are disputed. On the one hand, the Kenites are mentioned among the Canaanitish tribes that were to be dispossessed, in Gem 15:19; on the other, they are identified with the Midianitish tribe to which Hobab and Raguel belonged, in
, and apparently in
1 Samuel 15:6
(see on Numbers 10:29). It has been supposed that the friendly Kenites had by this time loft the camp of Israel and established themselves by conquest in the south of Canaan, and even that they had occupied the territory and taken the name of the original Kenites of
. This, however, is a mere conjecture, and a very improbable one. That a weak tribe like that of Hobab should have done what Israel had not dared to do, and settled themselves by force of arms in Southern Palestine, and, further, that they should be already known by the name of those whom they had destroyed, is extremely unlikely, and is inconsistent with the statement in
And thou puttest thy nest in a rock.
Rather, "and thy nest laid (
) upon a rock." We do not know where the Kenites dwelt, and therefore we cannot tell whether this expression is to be understood literally or figuratively. If the Canaanitish tribe is here spoken of, it is very likely they had their residence in some strong mountain fastness, but if the Midianitish tribe, then there is no reason to suppose that they had crossed the Jordan at all In that case the "nest" must be wholly figurative, and must refer to that strong confidence which they placed in the protection of the God of Israel.
Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive.
Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted.
כִּי אִם־יִהְיֶה לְבָעֵר קָיִן
. Rather, "Kain shall surely not be wasted."
is of doubtful meaning, but it seems here to have the force of a negative question equivalent to a negation. Kain is mentioned in
as one of the towns of Judah, but there is little reason to suppose that an insignificant village is here mentioned by name. Probably "Kain" stands for the tribe-father, and is simply the poetical equivalent of Kenite. Until
. There is some uncertainty about these two particles, which are sometimes rendered "how long?" In the sense of "until" they are said to be an Aramaism, but this is doubtful.
And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!
When God doeth this.
Literally, "from the settling of it by God."
, i.e., when God shall bring these terrible things to pass. Septuagint,
ταῦτα ὁ θεός
. This exclamation refers to the woe which he is about to pronounce, which involved his own people also.
from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever.
Cyprus (see on Genesis 10:4). The "isles of Chittim are mentioned by Jeremiah (
) and by Ezekiel (
) in the sense apparently of the western islands generally while in
"the ships of Chittim, may have an even wider reference. Indeed the Targum of Palestine makes mention of Italy here, and the Vulgate actually translates "venient in trieribus de Italia." There is, however, no reason to suppose that Balaam knew or spoke of anything further than Cyprus. It was "from the side of" (
) Cyprus that the ships of his vision came down upon the Phoenician coasts, wherever their original starting-point may have been. Shall afflict, or, "shall bring low." The same word is used of the oppression of Israel in Egypt (
The Septuagint has here '
, and is followed by the Peschito and the Vulgate. It is not likely, however, that Balaam would have substituted "Eber" for the "Jacob" and "Israel" which he had previously used. The Targum of Onkelos paraphrases "Eber" by "beyond the Euphrates," and that of Palestine has "all the sons of Eber." From Gem 10:21 it would appear that "the children of Eber" were the same as the Shemites; Asshur, therefore, was himself included in Eber, but is separately mentioned on account of his fame and power.
And he also shall perish forever.
The subject of this prophecy is left in obscurity. It is difficult on grammatical grounds to refer it to Asshur, and it does not seem appropriate to "Eber." It may mean that the unnamed conquering race which should overthrow the Asian monarchies should itself come to an end for evermore; or it may be that Balaam added these words while he beheld with dismay the coming destruction of his own Shemitic race, and their final subjugation by more warlike powers. It must be remembered that the Greek empire, although overthrown, did not by any means "perish for ever" in the same sense as the previous empires of the East.
And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place: and Balak also went his way.
returned to his place.
יָשֹׁב לִמְקֹ ו
. It is doubtful whether this expression, which is used in
and in other places, implies that Balaam returned to his home on the Euphrates. If he did he must have retraced his steps almost immediately, because he was slain among the Midianites shortly after (chapter 31:8). The phrase, however, may merely mean that he set off homewards, and is not inconsistent with the supposition that he went no further on his way than the headquarters of the Midianites. It is not difficult to understand the infatuation which would keep him within reach of a people so strange and terrible.
NOTE ON THE PROPHECIES OF BALAAM.
That the prophecies of Balaam have a Messianic character, and are only to be fully understood in a Christian sense, seems to lie upon the face of them. The Targums of Onkelos and Palestine make mention of King Meshiba here, and the great mass of Christian interpretation has uniformly followed in the track of Jewish tradition. It is of course possible to get rid of the prophetic element altogether by assuming that the utterances of Balaam were either composed or largely interpolated after the events to which they seem to refer. It would be necessary in this case to bring their real date down to the period of the Macedonian conquests, and much later still if the Greek empire also was to "perish for ever." The difficulty and arbitrary character of such an assumption becomes the more evident the more it is considered; nor does it seem consistent with the form into which the predictions are cast. A patriotic Jew looking
from the days of Alexander or his successors would not call the great Eastern power by the name of Asshur, because two subsequent empires had arisen in the place of Assyria proper. But that Balaam,
down the dim vista of the future, should see Asshur, and only Asshur, is in perfect keeping with what we know of prophetic perspective, - the further off the events descried by inward vision, the more extreme the foreshortening, - according to which law it is well known that the first and second advents of Christ are inextricably blended in almost every case. If we accept the prophecies as genuine, it is, again, only possible to reject the Messianic element by assuming that no Jewish prophecy overleaps the narrow limits of Jewish history. The mysterious Being whom Balaam descries in the undated future, who is the King of Israel, and whom he identifies with the Shiloh of Jacob's dying prophecy, and who is to bring to nought all nations of the world, cannot be David, although David may anticipate him in many ways; still less, as the reference to Agag, Amalek, and the Kenites might for a moment incline us to believe, can it be Saul. At the same time, while the Messianic element in the prophecy cannot reasonably be ignored, it is obvious that it does not by any means exist by itself; it is so mixed up with what is purely local and temporal in the relations between Israel and the petty tribes which surrounded and envied him, that it is impossible to isolate it or to exhibit it in any clear and definite form. The Messiah indeed appears, as it were, upon the stage in a mysterious and remote grandeur; but he appears with a slaughter weapon in his hand, crushing such enemies of Israel as were then and there formidable, and exterminating the very fugitives from the overthrow. Even where the vision loses for once its local colouring in one way, so that the King of Israel deals with all the sons of men, yet it retains it in another, for he deals with them in wrath and destruction, not in love and blessing. There is here so little akin to the true ideal, that we are readily tempted to say that Christ is not here at all, but only Saul or David, or the Jewish monarchy personified in the ruthlessness of its consolidated power. But if we know anything of the genius of prophecy, it is exactly this, that the future and the grand and the heavenly is seen through a medium of the present and the paltry and the earthly. The Messianic element almost always occurs in connection with some crisis in the outward history of the chosen people; it is inextricably mixed up with what is purely local in interest, and often with what is distinctly imperfect in morality. To the Jew - and to Balaam also, however unwillingly, as the servant of Jehovah - the cause of Israel was the cause of God; he could not discern between them. "Our country, right or wrong," was an impossible sentiment to him, because he could not conceive of his country being wrong; he knew nothing of moral victories, or the triumphs of defeat or of suffering; he could not think of God's kingdom as asserting itself in any other way than in the overthrow, or (better still) the annihilation, of Moab, Edom, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, the whole world which was not Israel. The sufferings of the vanquished, the horrors of sacked cities, the agonies of desolated homes, were nothing to him; nothing, unless it were joy - joy that the kingdom of God should be exalted in the earth, joy that the reign of wickedness should be broken. All these feelings belonged to a most imperfect morality and we rightly look upon them with horror, because we have (albeit as yet very imperfectly) conformed our sentiments to a higher standard. But it was the very condition of the old dispensation that God adopted the then moral code, such as it was, and hallowed it with religious sanctions, and gave it a strong direction God-ward, and so educated his own for something higher. Hence it is wholly natural and consistent to find this early vision of the Messiah, the heaven-sent King of Israel, introduced in connection with the fall of the petty pastoral state of Moab. To Balaam, standing where he did in time and place, and all the more because his personal desires went with Moab as against Israel, Moab stood forth as the representative kingdom of darkness, Israel as the kingdom of light, Through that strong, definite, narrow, and essentially imperfect, but not untrue, conviction of his he saw the Messiah, and he saw him crushing Moab first, and then trampling down all the rest of a hostile world. That no one would have been more utterly astonished if he had beheld the Messiah as he was, is certain; but that is not at all inconsistent with the belief that he really prophesied concerning him. That he should put all enemies under his feet was what Balaam truly saw; but he saw it and gave utterance to it according to the ideas and imagery of which his mind was full. God ever reveals the supernatural through the natural, the heavenly through the earthly, the future through the present. It remains to consider briefly the temporal fulfillments of Balaam's prophecies. Moab was not apparently seriously attacked until the time of David, when it was vanquished, and a great part of the inhabitants slaughtered (
2 Samuel 8:2
). In the division of the kingdom it fell to the share of Israel, with the other lands beyond Jordan, but the vicissitudes of the northern monarchy gave it opportunities to rebel, of which it successfully availed itself after the death of Ahab (
2 Kings 1:1
). Only in the time of John Hyrcanus (
) was it finally subdued, and ceased to have an independent existence. Edom was also conquered for the first time by David, and the people as far as possible exterminated (
1 Kings 11:15, 16
). Nevertheless, it was able to shake off the yoke under Joram (
2 Kings 8:20
), and, although defeated, was never again subdued (see on Genesis 27:40). The prophecies against Edom were indeed taken up again and again by the prophets (
, Obadiah), but we must hold that they were never adequately fulfilled, unless we look for a spiritual realization not in wrath, but in mercy. The later Jews themselves came to regard "Edom" as a Scriptural synonym for all who hated and oppressed them. Amalek was very thoroughly overthrown by Saul, acting under the directions of Samuel (
1 Samuel 15:7, 8
), and never appears to have regained any national existence. Certain bands of Amalekites were smitten by David, and others at a later period in the reign of Hezekiah by the men of Simeon (
1 Chronicles 4:39-43
). The prophecy concerning the Kenites presents, as noted above, great difficulty, because it is impossible to know certainly whether the older Kenites of Genesis or the later Kenites of 1 Samuel are intended. In either case, however, it must be acknowledged that sacred history throws no light whatever on the fulfillment of the prophecy; we know nothing at all as to the fate of this small clan. No doubt it ultimately shared the lot of all the inhabitants of Palestine, with the exception of Judah and Jerusalem, and was transplanted by one of the Assyrian generals to some far-off spot, where its very existence as a separate people was lost. The "ships from the side of Cyprus" clearly enough represent in the vision of Balaam invaders from over the western seas, as opposed to previous conquerors from over the eastern deserts and mountains. That the invasion of Alexander the Great was not actually made by the way of Cyprus is nothing to the point. It was never any part of spiritual illumination to extend geographical knowledge. To Balaam's mind the only open way from the remote and unknown western lands was the waterway by the sides of Cyprus, and accordingly he saw the hostile fleets gliding down beneath the lee of those sheltering coasts towards the harbours of Phoenicia. Doubtless the ships which Balaam saw were rigged as ships were rigged in Balaam's time, and not as in the time of Alexander. But the rigging, like the route, belonged to the local and personal medium through which the prophecy came, not to the prophecy itself. As a fact it remains true that a maritime power from the West, whose home was beyond Cyprus, did overwhelm the older power which stood in the place and inherited the empire of Assyria. Whether the subsequent ruin of this maritime power also is part of the prophecy must remain doubtful.
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