The people of Israel, after their victory on the east of the Jordan, fell back to the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho. And here the journeyings of the Israelites may be said to have terminated. From this point, in the following spring, they crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land.

The near approach of the people of Israel to Moab and Midian greatly alarmed the kings of these peoples, and, not daring to engage them in battle, they sent messengers to Balaam, a celebrated Chaldean diviner, begging that he would come and curse Israel for them. Balaam took counsel of God on the matter; for he had knowledge of the true God, and had evidently received at times divine revelations. But God would not suffer him to go and curse Israel. When Balaam’s refusal was made known to the king of Moab, he sent other and more honorable messengers, with a promise of still richer rewards. Balaam longed to go; for “he loved the wages of unrighteousness.’’ Still, he again asks counsel of God. And God now ordered him to go—in agreement with his desire. Nevertheless, what the Lord should say to him, that only shall he speak.

So Balaam went with the princes of Moab. It was on this journey that the angel of the Lord withstood him twice, and threatened to destroy him. It was at this time that the very ass on which he rode reproved him with a man’s voice, and “forbade the madness of the prophet.” Still, he was told to finish his journey; but under a strict injunction that he should speak that, and that only, which the Lord should say. Arrived among the Moabites, he was taken by Balak, the king of Moab unto the latter’s high places, where he might have a view of the camp of Israel, and, in repeated instances offered up costly sacrifices, while he went aside to ask counsel of God, But in every instance and contrary to his inmost desire to curse the people of Israel, he blessed them. “How shall I curse those who God has not cursed? And how shall I defy those whom the Lord has not defied? Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the forth part of Israel? Behold, I have received commandment to bless Israel; and he is blessed, and I cannot reverse it.”

It is this man Balaam that forms the subject of this essay. We arrange our materials under the two points: (1) The man as such; (2) the significance of his prophetic activity for the people of Israel.

(1) Balaam is a very remarkable personage. He could therefore not fail to occasion many dissertations. Opinions have always been divided as to the character of this man. To some he was a wizard and a false prophet and as such a thoroughly profligate character, a child of darkness, wholly given over to the worship of idols, who was destitute of any susceptibility for the true religion, and was compelled by God, against his conscious will, to give utterance to blessing upon Israel instead of curses,. By others he was held to be a child of (special) grace, and a genuine and true prophet, who simply fell through covetousness and ambition. A third group of interpreters reject both these views as untenable in this exclusive form. It is most important to bear in mind, they say, that we are not considering a fixed character, but one passing through a change, and engaged in a serious conflict. There was a contrast between the man Balaam in the ordinary state of his mind, or his habitual tendency, and the same man in his quickened state, in his striving after ideal heights; between the man in his everyday and in his Sunday life. There was in Balaam, so runs the reasoning, two tendencies, an evil and a good or ideal. But a fissure opened between these two states of the man’s soul, which widened at last into a broad chasm, a permanent contradiction, with the result that finally the evil tendency and nature in him triumphed over the ideal.

According to this view, Balaam, at least at the outset, was neither wholly bad nor wholly good but a mixture of both good and bad, a combination of two spiritually diverse selves or natures, involved in a mortal combat from which the one self—the evil self—finally emerged triumphant to the ruin and everlasting doom of Balaam.

Now if the theory of common grace were fact and truth, this view would be meriting some careful consideration. For according to this theory, the totally depraved sinner is not totally depraved at all. He cannot be. He must necessarily be, according to this theory a combination of two such natures or selves, the one inclined to all evil and the other inclined to all that is holy.

Balaam was no true child of God. Nor was he a combination of two such natures as just described. If he were, he would be a true child of God.

Balaam was a child of Satan, thus a thoroughly bad man. There was no grace in him of any sort. (There is, assuredly, but one kind of grace). This is the conclusion to which we are driven by what the sacred narrator tells us of the man. To begin with, he lusted after material riches, after what the scriptures call “wages of unrighteousness”. He was a man with affections set wholly upon the things below. But this is not all. So bent was he to gain possession of these things that he stood ready to curse a people of whom he knew that it was the blessed of the Lord. Nor is this all. Vexed because he had been prevented from bringing himself to curse Israel, he counseled the Moabites and Midianites to send their daughters into the camp of Israel to debauch the young men, and draw them into idolatry; feeling assured that this would be the most likely way to bring down upon them the curses of Heaven. And his artifice succeeded entirely. The very next account we have of the Israelites is, that many of them had been drawn away by these outlandish women, not only to commit whoredom in the literal physical sense, but to be present at their pagan sacrifices, and worship their devil gods. To say that Balaam was thoroughly unscrupulous is putting it mild. Fact is that he recoiled from nothing to achieve his objective. Nothing was to low for him to stoop to, if only he might come into the actual possession of the coveted prize.

How powerful his lusting was after the proffered riches—so powerful that it paralyzed his faculty of reasoning—may be seen from the treatment that he afforded the beast upon (which he rode, when the latter reproved him with the voice of a man. Three times the ass starts back affrighted at the sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way with a drawn sword in His hand, threatening death. And as many times it is beaten by its rider on account of its failure to proceed. Thus at first it starts aside into the field; then when the angel bars the path between the vineyard walls, it presses closely against the wall, thereby crushing the foot of the prophet; and then at last when it must pass through a narrow path, in which there was no room to turn either to the right hand or to the left, with the dread form right before it, the ass falls upon his knees under the rider. Balaam is now the more angry. He wants to be on his way and to reach his destination. The coveted riches might otherwise elude his grasp. It doesn’t occur to him that the strange behavior of the beast is of the Lord and bespeaks the perverseness of his way before Him. Balaam’s greed has rendered him insensible to the speech of God’s signs. As to the speaking of the ass with the voice of a man, “What have I done unto thee that thou hast smitten me these three times?”—so far is this speaking from bringing Balaam to his senses, that he is now beside himself with rage. He would that there were a sword in his hand, for now would he kill it. Only after he is told by the faithful animal that it has never before behaved in this strange way, does it seem to dawn upon him, that some very unusual circumstances must be at work. So low has this man sunk, to that extent has he been given over to a mind devoid of judgment, through his lust of filthy gain, to do things that are wicked, that the very beast upon which he rides is made to rebuke him. That he might be enriched, he would consign a whole people—the very people of God—to the place of eternal desolation.

On the other hand, it seems that there is much to say in favor of the man Balaam.

“Come now therefore, I pray thee.” Such is the request of the king of Moab to Balaam,” Come now, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them…” Balaam replies, “Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me.” Balaam brings the request before the Lord. The Lord tells him that he shall not go with them; and this is precisely what he tells the princes of Moab.

But Balak will not be put off. He sends princes more honorable and with promises of greater riches. The king is persistent. “Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming to me: for I will promote thee unto very great honor. . .” Attend now to Balaam’s answer, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of my God, to do less or more.” Once in the king’s presence, Balaam says to Him, “Lo, I am come unto thee. Have I any power at all to say anything? The word that God putteth in my mouth that shall I speak.” Sorely provoked at hearing Balaam bless the people of Israel instead of cursing them, Balak says to him, “What hast thou done unto me?” Balaam replies, “must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord putteth into my mouth?” I have sinned,” says he to the angel of the Lord, who obstructs his way, “I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it pleases thee, I will get me back again.” He calls the Lord his God, Nu. 22:18. He closes his first discourse with the remarkable statement, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his,.” In his prophetic trances, there proceeds from his lips utterances such as these:

“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.”

“How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!”

Balaam predicts the crushing of the power of all Israel’s approximate and immediate enemies: the Edomites, the Amelekites, the Kenites, and the Moabites, Nu. 24:17-21. He proceeds even further than this and predicts the victory over the Assyrians and the conquest of Assyria by some western power. At length, his prophetic vision reaches to the utmost bounds—to Christ whose coming he foretells and to the final consumption of all things. Nu. 24:22, 25.

Verily, these reactions, doings, and sublime sentences seem to compel this conclusion: Balaam is prepared to speak the word that God puts into his mouth and this at all costs even. He declares that if Balak would give him his house full of silver and gold He cannot go beyond the word of the Lord his God. So does he subordinate his own interests to those of God and is thus a man wholly consecrated to his divine calling. His courage is great. He over and over blesses a race of men that a king—mark you, a king—wants cursed. These blessings are pronounced in the very hearing of the king. This, assuredly, takes courage. “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,” is one of his sentences, and another, “Let me die the death of the righteous”. Balaam it would seem, loves God’s people; and, despite his greed, his soul thirsts after God. He joys in Israel’s salvation; and proclaims his blessedness. He is a man of keen insight, having broad glimpses of the truth, and a conscience awakened and his convictions of right and wrong are strong.

But let us not be deceived. Balaam, despite all these ostentations of piety, is a thoroughly bad man, a child of darkness. This is plain enough. His settled and abiding desire is to curse God’s people that he might be enriched. Not being able to act upon his desire, and still craving the “reward of unrighteousness”, he resorts to the satanic artifice of bringing down upon Israel” the curse of God through his counseling the adversary to send his daughters into the camp of Israel, to debauch the young men, and draw them into idolatry. To say that Balaam is a child of grace is preposterous. Such craving and doings are simply inconsistent with grace. He thirsts not after God but solely after gold and worldly honor and position. He loves not God’s people at all but thoroughly hates them. How otherwise could he even for a moment entertain the thought of putting this people under the ban of God. This is precisely what he would have done, if God had not turned his curses into a blessing. Deut. 23:5. In the true sense, he cares nothing at all about God’s will but is bent on following solely his own corrupt inclinations. He wants his own way, not God’s. This certainly is plainly evident. Though he knows that God blesses Israel and that therefore this people is blessed indeed, in that, according to his—Balaam’s—own declaration (Nu. 23:19), “God is not a man, that he should lie,” he yet, in the madness of his lust, invites the messengers of Balak to remain overnight, assuring them that in the night he will receive instructions from Jehovah, as if God, being, as He is, for His people, could possibly instruct Balaam to curse them. Even his very making known his request to God, is a terrible insult to God. Balaam thus presents in doubt, what he knows to be certain. What is more, he plainly indicates to the messengers that, as far as he, Balaam, is concerned, there is nothing that he would rather do than to curse Israel. He thus deliberately encourages Balak to send other messengers, and this though the Lord has now told him, “Thou shalt not go with them; thou shall not curse this people: for they are blessed.” Nu. 22:12.

The other messengers arrive and now Balaam has the amazing audacity to repeat his request to God. His deceitful heart allows him to hope that Jehovah will at last grant him his wish. Gold is the supreme good with him. He asks the messengers to tarry another night and thus intimates that he deems it possible that Jehovah will decide differently this time. The Lord does not now permit but commands Balaam to go with them. Thus the irony of divine providence goes on, giving him over to a mind devoid of judgment through the lust of his heart that the measure of his iniquity might be filled. There is thus no actual discrepancy between the command to go and the previous prohibition to remain. The prohibition was to go and curse Israel and in the command to go he is still forbidden to curse. Yet, even in his going he hopes against hope that his wish to curse will be granted him. His way therefore continues in increasing measure to be perverse before the Lord. And so the Lord goes forth to withstand him that he may be wholly without excuse. At the sight of the angel of the Lord, terror and dread overwhelm him. In his fear for his life, he confesses that he has sinned and expresses a willingness to go back again. But God says to him, “Go—with the men. Once in Balak’s presence, he affirms that he will speak the word that the Lord puts into his mouth. But this cannot be cited in his favor. Realizing that in himself he has no power to say anything at all, and fearing that the Lord will turn his cursing into a blessing, he only means to warn Balak beforehand for his, Balaam’s very own safety. Balak must not become angry with him, should he presently hear him blessing Israel, for “have I now any power at all to say anything?” Nu. 22:38. Always Balaam’s sole concern is what he considers to be his own well-being and safety. He thinks only of himself.

Balaam continues to go from bad to worse. He now attempts by magical art, (Nu. 24:1), to control the purpose of God and to induce the Lord by his enchantments to put into his mouth the desired word of cursing, and this in connection with thrice seven altars and thrice seven oxen and seven rams which he, on as many different occasions and in as many different places, orders Balak to build and to prepare him.. He thus tries to win God over for his diabolical designs through gifts, nay worse, through mock penitence and. contrition and praise of God and a mock confession of all the truths symbolized by the burnt-offering. This, he thinks, ought to carry weight with God. “I have prepared”, says he to the Lord, “’seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram.” But the Lord puts a word into his mouth, and says, “Return unto Balak and thus shalt thou speak”. Nu. 23:4-6.

“And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness”. With what purpose is not stated. Perhaps this new move represents an attempt on his part to shake off the influence of the Spirit in order that he may speak as he pleases and curse Israel. It certainly can betoken no true change of heart. Whatever the reason, Balaam now knows definitely the will of Jehovah. If in the beginning he had hoped that Jehovah might allow Himself to be induced to curse His people, he now sees that this hope is utterly vain. The statement, “And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel,” indicates that what he all along had attempted is not merely to get the Lord to allow him, Balaam, to curse Israel, but to induce the Lord to curse Israel through Balaam. Yet He would have had no objection to the Lord’s blessing Israel, if, in doing so, the Lord would only have instructed Balaam to speak the word of his choice—the word of cursing. This is all that he at first may have requested. It is all that Balak had asked of him, to wit, that he, Balaam, curse Israel. The pagan king seemed to think that this would be sufficient. But the request had not been granted. “Thou shalt not curse this people: for it is blessed” i.e., ‘I have, am, blessing it.’ Balaam now must have reasoned that if he was to succeed in inducing the Lord to instruct him to curse Israel, it was necessary that he turn the Lord against His people. This he subsequently tried to do through his enchantments.

Assuredly, Balaam is perhaps the most despicable personage to appear upon the pages of Holy Writ. He is the kind of a man whom we read about at Heb. 6:4-6, a man once enlightened, having tasted of the heavenly gift, made partaker of the Holy Ghost, having tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, and yet reprobated. Assuredly, we need not resort to the theory of common grace to explain Balaam. His prayer, and sacrificing, his penitence and contrition, his confession and praise—in a word, all the so-called good works of the man were—and who will have the courage to deny this—glittering sins and thus an abomination in the sight of God.

But if reprobation can go hand in hand in a man with so much that is seemingly good and admirable, what believer then can be assured of his salvation. Let us not be confused by our study of Balaam. True, Balaam was a man of keen insight into the truth; he was a true prophet of God in the sense that God spake His word through him; he was contrite, he praised and prayed, he sacrificed and counseled with God; but one thing he would not do, that is, forsake his sin—mark you—forsake his sins. He continued to walk in his abominations, adding insult to injury, until finally, overtaken by the judgment of God, he was destroyed. His whole religion was vain, an abomination. There was not an atom of grace—of holiness—in it. To this man Balaam there was but one self—the wicked self.

But this is not written to deject the truly penitent. And it won’t. But we can take warning here. That a man prays and sacrifices, goes to church and builds churches, is yet no sign that he is true believer. But his bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance is. The ungodly will go to church but they will not forsake their sins. Balaam would even go to heaven, if the Lord would have him there. “Let me die the death of the righteous.” Indeed! But he wouldn’t put away his abominations.

Whether a man’s religion—his prayers and sacrificing, his praise and confession—is good or bad, depends upon the motives—the kind of heart—from which it springs. The element of motive and purpose enters in here.

In a following writing we will explain the significance of Balaam for the people of Israel and for the church in general.