Verses 1–9

The blessing itself which Balaam here pronounces upon Israel is much the same with the two we had in the foregoing chapter; but the introduction to it is different.

I. The method of proceeding here varies much in several instances. 1. Balaam laid aside the enchantments which he had hitherto depended on, used no spells, or charms, or magic arts, finding they did him no service; it was to no purpose to deal with the devil for a curse, when it was plain that God was determined immovably to bless, Num. 24:1. Sooner or later God will convince men of their folly in seeking after lying vanities, which cannot profit. To what purpose should he seek for enchantment? He knew that God was out of the reach of them. 2. He did not now retire into a solitary place as before, but set his face directly towards the wilderness where Israel lay encamped; and, since there is no remedy, but they must be blessed, he will design nothing else, but will submit by compulsion. 3. Now the Spirit of God came upon him, that is, the Spirit of prophecy, as upon Saul to prevent him from taking David, 1 Sam. 19:23. He spoke not his own sense, but the language of the Spirit that came upon him. 4. He used a different preface now from what he had used before (Num. 24:3; 4), much like that of David (2 Sam. 23:1-3), yet savouring very much (as some think) of pride and vain-glory, taking all the praise of this prophecy to himself, and magnifying himself as one of the cabinet-council of heaven. Two things he boasts of:—(1.) The favour God did him in making known himself to him. He heard the words of God, and saw the vision of the Almighty. God himself had met him and spoken to him (Num. 23:16), and with this he was greatly puffed up. Paul speaks with humility of his visions and revelations (2 Cor. 12:1), but Balaam speaks of his with pride. (2.) His own power to receive and bear those revelations. He fell into a trance indeed, as other prophets did, but he had his eyes open. This he mentions twice; but the words in the original are not the same. The man whose eyes were shut, some think it may be read so (Num. 24:3-9), but now having his eyes open, Num. 24:4. When he attempted to curse Israel, he owns, he was in a mistake, but now he began to see his error, and yet still he remained blinded by covetousness and ambition, those foolish and hurtful lusts. Note, [1.] Those that oppose God and his people will sooner or later be made to see themselves wretchedly deceived. [2.] Many have their eyes open that have not their hearts open, are enlightened, but not sanctified; and that knowledge which puffs men up with pride will but serve to light them to hell, whither many go with their eyes open.

II. Yet the blessing is for substance the same with those before. Several things he admires in Israel:—

1. Their beauty (Num. 24:5): How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! Though they dwelt not in stately palaces, but in coarse and homely tents, and these, no doubt, sadly weather-beaten, yet Balaam sees a beauty in those tents, because of their admirable order, according to their tribes, Num. 24:2. Nothing recommends religion more to the good opinion of those that look upon it at a distance than the unity and harmony of its professors, Ps. 133:1. The amiableness of this people, and the great reputation they should gain among their neighbours, are compared (Num. 24:6) to the beauty and sweetness of fruitful valleys and fine gardens, flourishing trees and fragrant spices. Note, Those whose eyes are open see the saints on the earth to be excellent ones, and their delight is accordingly in them. The righteous, doubtless, is more excellent than his neighbour. They are trees which the Lord has planted; that is their excellency. The branches of righteousness are the planting of the Lord. See Hos. 14:5-7.

2. Their fruitfulness and increase. This may be intended by those similitudes (Num. 24:6) of the valleys, gardens, and trees, as well as by those expressions (Num. 24:7), He shall pour the water out of his buckets; that is, God shall water them with his blessing like rain from heaven, and then his seed shall be in many waters. Compare Hos. 2:23; I will sow her unto me in the earth. And waters are in scripture put for peoples, and multitudes, and nations. This has been fulfilled in the wonderful increase of that nation and their vast multitude even in their dispersion.

3. Their honour and advancement. As the multitude of the people is the honour of the prince, so the magnificence of the prince is the honour of the people; Balaam therefore foretells that their king shall be higher than Agag. Agag, it is probable, was the most potent monarch in those parts; Balaam knew of none more considerable than he was; he rose above the rest of his neighbours. But Balaam foretells that Israel’s chief commander, who, after Moses, was Joshua, should be more great and honourable than ever Agag was, and make a far better figure in history. Saul, their first king, triumphed over Agag, though, it is said, he came delicately.

4. Their power and victory, Num. 24:8. (1.) He looks back upon what they had done, or rather what had been done for them: God brought them forth out of Egypt; this he had spoken of before, Num. 23:22. The wonders that attended their deliverance out of Egypt contributed more to their honour, and the terror of their adversaries, than any thing else, Josh. 2:10. He that brought them out of Egypt will not fail to bring them into Canaan, for, as for God, his work is perfect. (2.) He looks down upon their present strength. Israel hath, as it were, the strength of a unicorn, of which creature it is said (Job 39:9; 10), Will he be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind him with his band in the furrow? “No, Israel is too powerful to be checked or held in by my curses or thy armies.” (3.) He looks forward to their future conquests: He shall eat up the nations his enemies; that is, “he shall not only destroy and devour them as easily and irresistibly as a lion does his prey, but he shall himself be strengthened, and fattened, and enriched, by their spoils.”

5. Their courage and security: He lay down as a lion, as a great lion, Num. 24:9. Now he does so in the plains of Moab, and asks no leave of the king of Moab, nor is he in fear of him; shortly will he do so in Canaan. When he has torn his prey, he will take his repose, quiet from the fear of evil, and bid defiance to all his neighbours; for who shall stir up a sleeping lion? It is observed of lions (as the learned bishop Patrick takes notice here) that they do not retire into places of shelter to sleep, but lie down any where, knowing that none dares meddle with them: thus secure were Israel in Canaan, chiefly in the days of David and Solomon; and thus is the righteous bold as a lion (Prov. 28:1), not to assault others, but to repose themselves, because God maketh them to dwell in safety, Ps. 4:8.

6. Their interest, and influence upon their neighbours. Their friends, and those in alliance with them, were happy: Blessed is he that blesseth thee; those that do them any kindness will certainly fare the better for it. But their enemies, and those in arms against them, were certainly miserable: Cursed is he that curseth thee; those that do them any injury do it at their peril; for God takes what is done to them, whether good or evil, as done to himself. Thus he confirms the blessing of Abraham (Gen. 12:3), and speaks as if therefore he did at this time bless Israel, and not curse them, because he desired to share in the blessing of Israel’s friends and dreaded the curse on Israel’s enemies.