Balaam knew God. He had insight into God’s character. As appears from his prophetic ebullitions, he was aware that Jehovah is the God, unchangeable, almighty, wise, just and good, that, in Balaam’s own words, God is not a man, that He should lie, neither the son of man that He should repent: that, hath He said, He shall do it.. There was present to Balaam’s consciousness the election of God’s people, its blessed and immeasurable extension, and the salvation in life and in death prepared for the righteous,
Yet Balaam did not belong to the Israelitish people. His dwelling place was Pethor, situated on “the river of the land of his people—the Euphrates” (). He speaks of himself as having been brought by Balak “from Aram out of the mountains of the east”. And at , it is asserted that he was of “Pethor of Mesopotamia”, which is Aram.
Pethor, if it may be identified with Pitru, was about 400 miles from Moab. This meant for Balaam a three or four weeks’ journey.
Balaam was thus a Mesopotamian, as was Abraham. This goes far in explaining Balaam’s acquaintance with Jehovah and with the blessed prospects of the righteous, During the time that intervened between the flood and the calling of Abraham, Mesopotamia was the home of the true church. For, not far to the east of this land, in Armenia, where lie the mountains of Ararat—the mountains upon which the ark had rested—Noah, the father of the new humanity, lived out his life to spread among his descendants the knowledge of the special revelations from Heaven that had been given to God’s people. It is these revelations, or at least the remnant of these revelations, present also in Balaam’s heart and mind, that formed the foundation of his prophetic discourses. Balaam was thus, through the years, prepared for this final task of blessing Israel—blessing him as the inspired agent of God, who proclaimed the word that the Lord put into his mouth.
But there must have been also another source from which Balaam derived his knowledge of the God of salvation, namely, the report of the great things which God had done in the deliverance and leading of His people, which had spread far and wide and which God had made to produce a deep impression on all the neighboring tribes. Balaam was prepared to welcome the report and turn it to his own selfish ends, if possible. Thus, there were two sources of Balaam’s knowledge, to wit, these primeval revelations which were preserved more fully and clearly in his native region than elsewhere and these reports.
Balaam thus lies within the primitive revelations, the religious light which Melchizedek also represents. Yet he was a wizard. He sought enchantments (). He appears, so far as his intentions are concerned, as a devourer of God’s people. The inclination to curse Israel was mighty in him. He was entirely without true fear of God. His heart was not with God but with his idols, Gold was his god. He is thus to be regarded as a representative not of the primitive church but of heathendom, in particular of Balak, the king of Moab, by whom he was brought from Aram to defy Israel, He is a representative, is Balaam, of the world, i.e., of that antichristian power, that is pitted against God and His anointed and that through the ages makes war upon the saints. In Balaam this power was brought forward to bless Israel. And bless Israel it did and this contrary to its character and deep-seated and abiding inclination.
Herewith has been answered the question how Balaam is to be regarded, as a true seer or as a wizard and a false prophet. In common with all the true prophets of God, Balaam spoke only God’s Word, at least on the one occasion of his being summoned by Balak to curse Israel, But, being a thoroughly profligate personage, one who, had he been made to follow his own inclination, would have cursed Israel, it will not do to classify him with the true prophets of God. The latter loved God’s people, delighted to bless them, and were thus, as to their inclinations, in hearty agreement with the word of blessing that God spake through them.
But if Balaam was a child of darkness, and he was this assuredly, why did he trouble himself about God at all? Is it characteristic of the ungodly, whose every thought is that there is no God, to inquire after His will? Balaam did so, Instead of coming to Balak at once, he had his messengers remain over night, that he might receive instructions from the Lord. The Lord subsequently forbids him to go. Balaam is obedient. “Get you unto your land,” said he, in the morning to the princes of Moab, “for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you.” Over and over, as we have seen, did he say to Balak, that he could not go beyond the Word of the Lord his God, to do more or less. When the Lord stood in his way, he expressed a willingness to return, if his going displeases the Lord. Why should he be concerned whether, in his going, he is pleasing to God, if he hates God, if every impulse under which he acts is thoroughly wicked? To be sure, the explanation is not that God, by a general operation of His Spirit (common grace) and without changing Balaam’s sinful nature, created and sustained in him a holy principle of well-doing and that it was from this principle that he acted in ascertaining God’s pleasure. There was no such operation of the Spirit of God in Balaam.
But we are still confronted by the question why, if Balaam cared nothing about God, he yet allowed himself to be deterred by the prohibition to curse. The answer is Balaam’s reply to Balak. “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more (). Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord hath put into my mouth (23:12)? All that the Lord speaketh, that must I do (23:26). If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the Lord sayeth, that will I speak (24:13).”
Conspicuous in these replies are the sentence elements, “I cannot….I have no power. . .I must take heed. . .I must do….I cannot go. . .” In a word, Balaam feels that he cannot curse. He is aware that he cannot do otherwise but bless Israel. What may have been restraining him to curse and constraining him to bless? If Balaam were a child of the light, the answer would be: His love of God and of His command. But Balaam was a child of darkness. So the answer to the question just put is: With the power, i.e., the Spirit of God upon him, Balaam could will not to do otherwise than bless Israel and this in his carnal dread of God. But we also detect in Balaam’s discourses the fervent language of rapturous inspiration, a soul borne away as it were in spiritual vision. Balaam, in a word, was carnally fascinated, charmed, by certain aspects of Israel’s blessedness. This is not to be regarded as something unusual. Christ in one of His parables speaks of persons who, though they be devoid of the life of regeneration, yet, hearing the word, anon with joy receive it. It was also through Balaam’s carnal elation of soul, awakened by the Spirit through the truth, that the Spirit rendered him wholly subservient to the will of God that he speaks God’s Word. Balaam could not will to curse. He had to bless. It is plain however that it is incorrect to say that God compelled Balaam to utter blessings, though he willed to curse at the very moment of his speaking. That he cursed went contrary not to what he willed to do at the moment of his speaking but to his fervent and abiding desire. With the power of God upon him, he could not will to follow his corrupt inclination to curse, so that, in blessing Israel, he remained a free agent.
The reason, then, of Balaam turning to God is plain. Aware of his being God’s power he turns to God not because he is interested in God’s will but because he knows that he cannot curse unless God put into his mouth the word of cursing.
What then is the significance of Balaam’s blessing Israel. This is plain. Consider that, as was shown, there is nothing that Balaam would rather have done than (to curse Israel. Balaam craves the “reward of unrighteousness.” He lusts after gold. To what horrible extremes he goes in his attempt to induce God to give him his way with Israel! And when all his efforts to tempt God, to carry out his evil plans by superstitious practices, prove unsuccessful, how he aids the heathen king and his subjects in their destructive hostility to the people of God, that the gold that he had thus far failed to gain, might still be his. Yet this wicked man, this son of perdition, blesses Israel over and over in fervent language of rapturous inspiration. What can be the explanation of this? The only possible explanation is God. End with Balaam in Balaam, and the man remains an unanswerable question. The power of God was upon Balaam. Verily, it is God who blessed Israel through Balaam. Balaam, in blessing Israel, is not his own; he is God’s. This can be the only reason of his blessing Israel, being, as he is, a son of perdition, one who would place the very elect under the everlasting ban of God, that he might have his gold. Balaam, therefore, his blessing God’s people, forms the conclusive, the most astounding evidence, that Israel is blessed of God indeed! If a man, who is a prophet, and who loves God’s people, blesses them, this people might still question whether they are blessed of God. But how can Israel now doubt that he is the blessed of the Lord, seeing that he is blessed by Balaam?
So does God, now that his people are about to address themselves to the task of warring His warfare for the possession of the promised land, provide His people with the indisputable evidence that He is for them and that in Him they have the victory. This is the significance of Balaam’s blessing Israel.
The report of Balaam’s blessing Israel was spread far and wide. Thus also for Israel’s enemies, Balaam formed the conclusive evidence that God was for this people.
One more remark. Improve upon Balaam, say that in blessing Israel he acts upon impulses that are noble, and this by virtue of a common grace operative also in him, and you completely destroy his significance for the Israel encamped in the plains of Moab in particular and for the church of God in general. Balaam’s significance is exactly his being a man altogether devoid of noble impulses, his being devoid of grace, and his blessing Israel notwithstanding.
But did God then not restrain in Balaam sin? Did God not make it impossible for him to follow his own corrupt inclinations to curse? God did so indeed, but through Balaam’s own carnal dread of God and his sinful joying in certain aspects of Israel’s blessedness and thus not through certain noble impulses worked in him by God’s Spirit.
But wasn’t Balaam’s blessing Israel a good work? As an act of Balaam it was an abominable work, as it sprang from carnal fear and a wicked elation. But why put the question thus? Why not bring to the fore the real issue by putting the question thus. Was not Balaam’s blessing Israel a holy work on his part? We can play hocus pocus with the term good but not with the term holy. I wonder if any of the exponents of common grace would answer the question, so formulated, in the affirmative? Let me put the question thus: Is there to be found either in the natural man (the reprobated) himself or in any of his works an element of holiness, sinfulness, however small?
But we have not yet fully explained the significance of Balaam. Certainly the speech that rises from Balaam’s doing is also this: that God “watches over his people with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under His power, that not a hair of their head can fall to the ground without His will”.
But there is more. The doing of Balaam, his blessing God’s people despite his strong inclination to curse them is also prophetic of certain last things. At the appearing of the glorified Christ every tongue, thus also the tongue of the wicked—of that anti-christian power, now pitted in the ethical sense against God and His Son and His people, shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and also that His people are the blessed of God. Of this Balaam’s doing is prophetic.