George C. Lubbers is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The LORD, the high and lofty God, continues to speak in His controversy with His people, whom He addresses as “my people”. Let us continue to listen attentively to the LORD’S earnest plea as established in justice and mercy.
The verse reads: “O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness of the LORD,” Micah 6:5. When we study this text, we notice that the following elements call for our believing consideration.
First, the manner of God’s address to Israel. It is a serious address, a loving call carefully to read the sacred Scriptures and to take to heart the manner of Jehovah’s mighty dealings. We really have the truth expressed here in verse 5 which John writes when he says, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not,” I John 3:1.
Secondly, the particular matter for Israel to remember is how the enemies of God and of His people consulted together, “against the LORD and his anointed.” It is an attempt to drive a wedge between God and His people. Would that God would curse Israel, and not bless them, as He had promised to Abraham and to his seed!
Thirdly, there is the lesson which Israel must learn from this saving history, which elapsed between Shittim and Gilgal, that we may know the righteousnesses of the Lord.
Lastly, we must not overlook that the remembrance of God’s dealings with Israel is really the fine point in God’s controversy in court. The question at issue is really: God’s covenant dealings and faithfulness!
God proves beyond all contradiction that He has never wearied Israel with arbitrary dealings with them. He has kept His word!
Let us look at these propositions seriatim.
Let us notice, first of all, the seriousness of God’s address here. God has made His covenant with Abraham of old, and this covenant is that He will save them completely from all their sins in the blood of the Lamb. And Balaam, the soothsayer, must answer Balak that he cannot curse Israel, because God maintains His covenant promise. Balaam does this in the form of parables. He tells Balak in the most lofty and poetic strains that God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man that He should repent. He asks Balak in rhetorical form: “Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?”
Now Israel, and we with them as the Israel of God, must never forget these words of God through Balaam’s mouth!
True, Balaam is not a believer; he did not at all have faith that works by love. He is really in the service of the arch-foe, the devil. But God had put these words in Balaam’s mouth without putting them in his heart. That makes these words all the more remarkable. It is the same as when God uses the dumb ass to speak God’s word, and that, too, to convey a message of hope of the greatness of Israel throughout the entire history of the world.
“From Shittim to Gilgal” is a striking reference to God’s faithfulness to a very sinful people who are saved by sovereign grace!
Secondly, we should observe that God calls Israel’s attention to an episode in Israel’s history when God’s faithfulness was called in question. The issue really was God or other gods. There is a vain attempt made by Balaam to marshal1 the powers of darkness against the Lord of hosts. Yes, Balak, in his fear and desperation, calls the assistance of a soothsayer, a man who divined by his gods. However, the Lord had not given Balaam the remotest inkling that He would allow Israel to be cursed. Israel need have no fear. Had the Lord not demonstrated at the drowning of Pharaoh and all his hosts in the Red Sea that He is a man of war? Moses surely did not sing amiss, “The LORD is the strength of my song, he is become my salvation . . . . The Lord is a man of war: the LORD is his name!” The Lord was ever such that fear and dread fell upon the mighty dukes of Edom and the mighty men, and all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away. Did not Rahab tell the spies of Israel, “I know the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you,” Joshua 2:9. The Lord Himself remembers His own mighty deeds. He would have His people do the same.
Thirdly, we should notice that the LORD singles out the great deeds of His saving grace from Shittim to Gilgal. The distance from Shittim to Gilgal is very short. The meaning of this crossing of Jordan, as a wonder of God, looms very large. It is a brief history and a merciful display of what we might call sin and grace. It was a bringing of Israel into the typical rest. It was a giving them the land of promise, which God had sworn unto Abraham by oath. (Gen. 13:14-18; Gen. 15:12-18)
When this history is studied, we notice that Balaam answered Balak that the great deliverance and glorious future of Israel belonged solely to the LORD. It also shows that there is no power to stay God’s hand. God tells Israel very solemnly that they must remember, and never forget this little important piece of history, They must not merely remember a few details of this history, but they must study what God performed there in His covenant faithfulness to a people who were in themselves worthy of being destroyed in the righteous judgments of God. Does not the text say, “so that you may know the righteousnesses of Jehovah?” The Hebrew text here is very explicit and significant. There are two elements here which are set forth in bold relief. These are the verb “know” and the term “righteousnesses.” The term “righteousnesses” is called in Hebrew tsedagoth Jaweh. The Dutch translation is correct here. It translates it in the plural number. That is the way in which the Hebrew has it too. This righteousness belongs peculiarly to Jehovah in His covenant relationship to His people. That the term is used here in the plural seems significant to me. When Scripture speaks of the abundance of God’s mercy, we read of the mercies of the LORD. Thus we read in Psalm 89:1: “I will sing of the mercies of the LORD forever.” Thus also in Scripture we often read of God’s wonders in the plural, to indicate their great number and magnitude. We read in Psalm 89:5: “The heavens shall praise thy wonders, O LORD; thy faithfulness to all the congregation of the saints.” Thus also here the Lord speaks of these righteousnesses, indicating the multiformity of the graces of Jehovah to His people. Upon each of these manifestations of God’s righteousness we see stamped indelibly what the LORD has wrought in covenant faithfulness and love.
Let us look at this history between Shittim and Gilgal.
In this history we can know the ways of the LORD. The verb in the Hebrew means to know with spiritual-experiential knowledge. The Hebrew tense used refers to a constantly knowing. Yes, Israel, by studying this history, while believing, will know once and for all Jehovah’s righteousness. Interestingly, the Septuagint translation has the verb gnoosthee. Also this verb in the Greek refers often to experiential knowledge. The aorist tense used refers to a knowing of the Lord’s righteousnesses as an accomplished fact. It is important for faith and life to see this. But it is equally important for us so that we may grasp and understand the fine point in the Lord’s controversy with His people. It touches the very heart of God’s covenant dealings, as He opens His heart to us, His people.
And we ought to notice well that in this all the bottom line is that Jehovah is our righteousness. This He demonstrated from Shittim to Gilgal. That is why the LORD refers in His controversy to what Balaam answered from Shittim to Gilgal. For here in Israel’s crossing of Jordan, He fulfills majestically what Balaam answered Balak from Shittim to Gilgal (Numbers 23, 24).
He did this in a twofold sense in the midst of Israel.
Not every one in Israel went abhorring after the idols and the abominations of Moab-Midian as recorded inNumbers 25. Those who committed the twofold whoredom, physical and spiritual adultery, were all destroyed at Baal-Peor. The fierce anger of the LORD had to be appeased. Yet even here the judgment of the Lord was the expression of a righteous and holy will. God is no sadist; he metes out justice so that each receives his due, and so that has its pedagogical effect in the church. Wherefore He sent a plague in the camp of Israel which resulted in the death of 24,000 people. However, He never allows the righteous to perish with the wicked. The truth of Psalm 91:7-10 stands: “a thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.” It is of this righteous dealing of God with Israel that Moses speaks in Deuteronomy 4:2: “but ye that cleaved to the LORD our God are alive every one of you this day.”
Furthermore, the LORD had a different righteousness with the heads of the houses of Israel. These had to be killed and hung up before the LORD against the sun. Thus the fierce wrath of God was turned away from Israel. It was an act of putting away sin and folly out of Israel. This was particularly striking in the case of Zimri, a prince in the tribe of Simeon, who was slain by the javelin of Phinehas, the high priest, son of Aaron.
Such was church-excommunication under Moses.
Yes, it is true, according to the parable of Balsam, as he says, “The LORD hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel,”Numbers 23:21. We must never overlook that this is not because of our righteousness of works before the LORD, but that it is due to the gospel-truth: “The shout of the king is in their midst.” It is all of grace. By grace are ye saved through faith. Not of works, lest any man should boast!
Notice that when Israel crossed over Jordan, they followed the ark of the covenant from a distance. Upon this ark was the mercy-seat on which the blood of sprinkling was sprinkled. Yes, Israel entered into the land as a righteous people in Jehovah, their righteousness. They did not really enter into the land as the final rest under Joshua the son of Nun. This must wait until Jesus comes, Who out of God became for us wisdom of God, righteousness, sanctification, and complete redemption.
This Jesus is called in Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16 “Jehovah our Righteousness.” Here is a God Who never wearies us, but who cries in Jesus: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are weary, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Such is the lesson which we learn when we study Israel’s history from Shittim to Gilgal.