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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 1–12
Verses 1–12

Here is, I. Great preparation made for the cursing of Israel. That which was aimed at was to engage the God of Israel to forsake them, and either to be on Moab’s side or to stand neuter. O the sottishness of superstition, to imagine that God will be at men’s beck! Balaam and Balak think to bribe him with altars and sacrifices, offered without any warrant or institution of his: as if he would eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats. Ridiculous nonsense, to think that these would please God, and gain his favour, when there could be in them no exercise either of faith or obedience! Yet, it should seem, they offered these sacrifices to the God of heaven the supreme Numen—Divinity, and not to any of their local deities. But the multiplying of altars was an instance of their degeneracy from the religion of their ancestors, and their apostasy to idolatry; for those that multiplied altars multiplied gods. Ephraim made many altars to sin, Hos. 8:11. Thus they liked not to retain God in their knowledge, but became vain in their imaginations; and yet presumptuously expected hereby to gain God over to them from Israel, who had his sanctuary among them, and his anointed altar. Observe here, 1. How very imperious Balaam was, proud to have the command of a king and to give law to princes. Such is the spirit of that wicked one who exalts himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped. With what authority does Balaam give orders! Build me here (in the place I have pitched upon) seven altars, of stone or turf. Thus he covers his malice against Israel with a show of devotion, but his sacrifice was an abomination, being brought with such a wicked mind, Prov. 21:27. That which he aimed at was not to honour God with the sacrifices of righteousness, but to enrich himself with the wages of unrighteousness. 2. How very obsequious Balak was. The altars were presently built, and the sacrifices prepared, the best of the sort, seven bullocks and seven rams. Balak makes no objection to the charge, nor does he snuff at it, or think it either a weariness or a disparagement to stand by his burnt-offering as Balaam ordered him.

II. The turning of the curse into a blessing, by the overruling power of God, in love to Israel, which is the account Moses gives of it, Deut. 23:5.

1. God puts the blessing into the mouth of Balaam. While the sacrifices were burning, Balaam retired; he went solitary, into some dark grove on the top of the high place, Num. 23:3; marg. Thus much he knew, that solitude gives a good opportunity for communion with God; those that would meet with him must retire from the world, and the business and conversation of it, and love to be private, reckoning themselves never less alone than when alone, because the Father is with them. Enter therefore into thy closet, and shut the door, and be assured that God will meet thee if thou seek him in the due order. But Balaam retired with a peradventure only, having some thoughts that God might meet him; but being conscious to himself of guilt, and knowing that God had lately met him in anger, he had reason to speak doubtfully: Peradventure the Lord will come to meet me, Num. 23:3. But let not such a man think that he shall receive any favour from God. Nay, it should seem, though he pretended to go and meet with God, he really designed to use enchantments; see Num. 24:1. But, whatever he intended. God designed to serve his own glory by him, and therefore met Balaam, Num. 23:4. What communion has light with darkness? No friendly communion, we may be sure. Balaam’s way was still perverse, and God was still an adversary to him; but, Balak having chosen him for his oracle, God would constrain him to utter such a confession, to the honour of god and Israel, as should render those for ever inexcusable who should appear in arms against them. When Balaam was aware that God met him, probably by an angel, he boasted of his performances: I have prepared seven altars, and offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram. How had he done it? It cost him nothing; it was done at Balak’s expense; yet, (1.) He boasts of it, as if he had done some mighty thing. The acts of devotion which are done in hypocrisy are commonly reflected upon with pride and vain glory. Thus the Pharisee went up to the temple to boast of his religion, Luke 18:11; 12. (2.) He insists upon it as a reason why God should gratify him in his desire to curse Israel, as if now he had made God his debtor, and might draw upon him for what he pleased. He thinks God is so much beholden to him for these sacrifices that the least he can do in recompense for them is to sacrifice his Israel to the malice of the king of Moab. Note, It is a common cheat that wicked people put upon themselves, to think that by the shows of piety they may prevail with God to countenance them, and connive at them, in their greatest immoralities, especially in persecution, Isa. 66:5. However, thought the sacrifice was an abomination, God took the occasion of Balaam’s expectation to put a word into his mouth (Num. 23:5); for the answer of the tongue if from the Lord, and thus he would show how much those are mistaken who say, With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are our own, Ps. 12:4. He that made man’s mouth knows how to manage it, and to serve his own purposes by it. This speaks terror to daring sinners, that set their mouth against the heavens. God can make their own tongues to fall upon them, Ps. 64:8. And it speaks comfort to God’s witnesses, whom at any time he calls out to appear for him; if God put a word into the mouth of Balaam, who would have defied God and Israel, surely he will not be wanting to those who desire to glorify God and edify his people by their testimony, but it shall be given them in that same hour what they should speak.

2. Balaam pronounces the blessing in the ears of Balak. He found him standing by his burnt-sacrifice (Num. 23:6), closely attending it, and earnestly expecting the success. Those that wold have an answer of peace from God must abide by the sacrifice, and attend on the Lord without distraction, not weary in well doing. Balaam, having fixed himself in the place appointed for his denouncing curses against Israel, which perhaps he had drawn up in form ready to deliver, takes up his parable, and it proves a blessing, Num. 23:7. He pronounces Israel safe and happy, and so blesses them.

(1.) He pronounces them safe, and out of the reach of his envenomed darts. [1.] He owns that the design was to curse them, that Balak sent for him out of his own country, and that he came, with that intent, Num. 23:7. The message sent to him was, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel. Balak intended to make war upon them, and he would have Balaam to bless his arms, and to prophesy and pray for the ruin of Israel. [2.] He owns the design defeated, and his own inability to accomplish it. He could not so much as give them an ill word or an ill wish: How shall I curse those whom God has not cursed? Num. 23:8. Not that therefore he would not do it, but therefore he could not do it. This is a fair confession, First, Of the weakness and impotency of his own magic skill, for which others valued him so much, and doubtless he valued himself no less. He was the most celebrated man of that profession, and yet owns himself baffled. God had warned the Israelites not to use divination (Lev. 19:31), and this providence gave them a reason for that law, by showing them the weakness and folly of it. As they had seen the magicians of Egypt befooled, so, here, the great conjurer of the east. See Isa. 47:12-14. Secondly, It is a confession of the sovereignty and dominion of the divine power. He owns that he could do no more than God would suffer him to do, for God could overrule all his purposes, and turn his counsels headlong. Thirdly, It is a confession of the inviolable security of the people of God. Note, 1. God’s Israel are owned and blessed of him. He has not cursed them, for they are delivered from the curse of the law; he has not defied them, nor rejected or abandoned them, though mean and vile. 2. Those that have the good-will of Heaven have the ill-will of hell; the serpent and this seed have an enmity to them. 3. Though the enemies of God’s people may prevail far against them, yet they cannot curse them; that is, they cannot do them any real mischief, much less a ruining mischief, for they cannot separate them from the love of God, Rom. 8:39.

(2.) He pronounces them happy in three things:—

[1.] Happy in their peculiarity, and distinction from the rest of the nations: From the top of the rock I see him, Num. 23:9. And it seems to have been a great surprise to him that whereas, it is probable, they were represented to him as a rude and disorderly rabble, that infested the countries round about in rambling parties, he was them a regular incorporated camp, in which appeared all the marks of discipline and good order; he saw them a people dwelling alone, and foresaw they would continue so, and their singularity would be their unspeakable honour. Persons of quality we call person of distinction; this was Israel’s praise, though their enemies turned it to their reproach, that they differed from all the neighbouring nations, not only in their religion and sacred rites, but in their diet, and dress, and common usages, as a people called out of the world, and not to be conformed to it. They never lost their reputation till they mingled among the heathen, Ps. 106:35. Note, It is the duty and honour of those that are dedicated to God to be separated from the world, and not to walk according to the course and custom of it. Those who make conscience of peculiar duties may take the comfort of peculiar privileges, which it is probable Balaam has an eye to here. God’s Israel shall not stand upon a level with other nations, but be dignified above them all, as a people near to God, and set apart for him.

[2.] Happy in their numbers, not so few and despicable as they were represented to him, but an innumerable company, which made them both honourable and formidable (Num. 23:10): Who can count the dust of Jacob? The number of the people was the thing that Balak was vexed at (Num. 22:3): Moab was afraid of them, because they were many; and God does here by Balaam promote that fear and vexation, foretelling their further increase. Balak would have him see the utmost part of the people (Num. 22:41), hoping the more he saw of them the more he would be exasperated against them, and throw about his curses with the more keenness and rage; but it proved quite contrary: instead of being angry at their numbers, he admired them. The better acquainted we are with God’s people the better opinion we have of them. He takes notice of the number, First, Of the dust of Jacob; that is, the people of Jacob, concerning whom it was foretold that they should be as the dust for number, Gen. 28:14. Thus he owns the fulfilling of the promise made to the fathers, and expects that it should be yet further accomplished. Perhaps it was part of David’s fault in numbering the people that he offered to count the dust of Jacob, which God had said should be innumerable. Secondly, Of the fourth part of Israel, alluding to the form of their camp, which was cast into four squadrons, under four standards. Note, God’s Israel are a very great body, his spiritual Israel are so, and they will appear to be so when they shall all be gathered together unto him in the great day, Rev. 7:9.

[3.] Happy in their end: Let me die the death of the righteous Israelites, that are in covenant with God, and let my last end, or future state, be like theirs, or my recompence, namely, in the other world. Here, First, It is taken for granted that death is the end of all men; the righteous themselves must die: and it is good for us to think of this with application, as Balaam himself does here, speaking of his own death. Secondly, he goes upon the supposition of the soul’s immortality, and a different state on the other side death, to which this is a noble testimony, and an evidence of its being anciently known and believed. For how could the death of the righteous be more desirable than the death of the wicked upon any other account than as it involved happiness in another world, since in the manner and circumstances of dying we see all things come alike to all? Thirdly, He pronounces the righteous truly blessed, not only while they live, but when they die, which makes their death not only more desirable than the death of others, but even more desirable than life itself; for in that sense his wish may be taken. Not only, “When I do die, let me die the death of the righteous;” but, “I could even now be willing to die, on condition that I might die the death of the righteous, and reach my end this moment, provided it might be like his.” Very near the place where Balaam now was, on one of the mountains of Moab, not long after this, Moses died, and to that perhaps God, who put this word into his mouth, designed it should have a reference, that by it Moses might be encouraged to go up and die such a death as Balaam himself wished to die. Fourthly, He shows his opinion of religion to be better than his resolution; there are many who desire to die the death of the righteous, but do not endeavour to live the life of the righteous. Gladly would they have their end like theirs, but not their way. They would be saints in heaven, but not saints on earth. This is the desire of the slothful, which kills him, because his hands refuse to labour. This of Balaam’s is only a wish, not a prayer, and it is a vain wish, being only a wish for the end, without any care for the means. Thus far this blessing goes, even to death, and beyond it, as far as the last end. Now,

III. We are told, 1. How Balak fretted at it, Num. 23:11. He pretended to honour the Lord with his sacrifices, and to wait for the answer God would send him; and yet, when it did not prove according to his mind, he forgot God, and flew into a great passion against Balaam, as if it had been purely his doing: “What hast thou done unto me! How hast thou disappointed me!” Sometimes God makes the enemies of his church a vexation one to another, while he that sits in heaven laughs at them, and the efforts of their impotent malice. 2. How Balaam was forced to acquiesce in it. He submits because he cannot help it, and yet humours the thing with no small address, as if he had been peculiarly conscientious, answering Balak with the gravity of a prophet: Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord has put in my mouth? Num. 23:12. Thus a confession of God’s overruling power is extorted from a wicked prophet, to the further confusion of a wicked prince.