1 - 6 Preparations for the Curse
1 Then Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.” 2 Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. 3 Then Balaam said to Balak, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the LORD will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.” So he went to a bare hill. 4 Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.” 5 Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.” 6 So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab.
As a starting point for the curse, burnt offerings are made. Perhaps Balak heard of the sacrifices Israel makes to their God. He wants to imitate this and thereby appease God with regard to his wish to curse God’s people. He is completely blind to what the burnt offering represents. It reminds God, as it were, that the people are not pleasant to Him in themselves, but that He accepts them on the basis of the value of the burnt offering.
The burnt offering speaks of the Lord Jesus in His complete surrender to the glory of God. For this reason God does not see the believers in their failure, but sees them in the Lord Jesus. They are “made pleasant in the Beloved” (Eph 1:6). Thus God thinks of His people at the end of the wilderness journey. This is also evident from the blessing He lets Balaam pronounce.
Before Balaam pronounces his words, he first wants to meet the LORD. That is, as usual, he wants to meet a demon to consult him. For him the LORD is no more than one of the demons with whom he usually communicates to consult them (Num 24:1). We do not read that he meets God, but that God meets him. The initiative comes from God again (Num 22:9,20). There is no discussion either. God does not respond to what Balaam says about the sacrifices, but gives him a word in his mouth and sends him back to Balak.
7 - 10 First Discourse
7 He took up his discourse and said,
“From Aram Balak has brought me,
Moab’s king from the mountains of the East,
‘Come curse Jacob for me,
And come, denounce Israel!’
8 “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?
And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?
9 “As I see him from the top of the rocks,
And I look at him from the hills;
Behold, a people [who] dwells apart,
And will not be reckoned among the nations.
10 “Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Or number the fourth part of Israel?
Let me die the death of the upright,
And let my end be like his!”
Balaam pronounces four, or better seven, blessing discourses, for the fourth blessing discourse contains four discourses. In each of the four both Jacob and Israel is mentioned. Each prophecy has a different content. Each time something more is brought forward of what God has in His heart as a blessing for His people. Each discourse also emphasizes a certain name of God:
1. God and the LORD (Num 23:8);
2. God and the LORD, his God (Num 23:21):
3. God, the Almighty (Num 24:4);
4. God, the Most High and the Almighty (Num 24:16).
The discourses that Balaam will pronounce are the first great prophetic utterances in the Bible. The prophecies are spoken by a false prophet, but he is forced to proclaim true prophecy. Balaam does not speak to the people. Moses did not hear it. Yet Moses writes down everything that Balaam said because he was inspired by the Spirit. God can have a man write things down that are truth, without that man himself having been there. For example, the account of the creation in Genesis 1-2 is done in the same way.
The people know nothing of all the splendid things that Balaam mentions about them. Maybe it’s grumbling in their tents at the same time. The practice of this people is in any case in stark contrast to what we successively see in the four prophecies that Israel is before God:
1. is a people who dwells apart (Num 23:9),
2. a justified people (Num 23:21),
3. a people full of beauty and freshness (Num 24:5-7) and
4. a people to whom the coming of Christ in His glory is promised (Num 24:17).
These discourses are primarily about God’s earthly people, Israel. But they are also instructive for the church of God. Like Israel, Scripture presents the church of God in two ways. On the one hand we see the church in its ‘wilderness life’ and on the other hand as the object of God’s counsels. In the church we see grumble and unbelief, deviation and failure. But when we see the church from above, from God’s perspective, we see its value to Him. Therefore Balaam is always in a high place (Num 23:9,14,28).
The first discourse manifests what Balaam notices when he looks at that people from the top of the rocks. If he had walked between the tents, he would have seen and heard something totally different. He starts by stating where he comes from, who has let him come and what his mission is. He has been told that he must come to curse Jacob and to denounce Israel. And he has come.
Under the power of God, however, no curse comes out of his mouth, but blessing. First he justifies that he cannot curse whom God does not curse, and cannot denounce whom the LORD does not denounce. By this he connects the name “God” to Jacob and the name “LORD” to Israel. The almighty God is on the side of the weak, stumbling, willful Jacob. God calls Himself the God of Jacob. He will never disengage Himself from Jacob. LORD is the name that recalls the covenant between Him and His people. He will never give up the promises contained in the covenant, of which Israel, the people of God’s counsel, is the center.
The first characteristic of the people is that they are a people who live apart among all nations. This also applies to Christians. They are in the world, but not of the world (Jn 17:16). God has taken a people from the nations for Himself, for His Name (Acts 15:14). Separation is not negative, it is not just about being separated from something, but separation is positive, separated for a purpose, namely to be there for God.
That God does not reckon His people – Israel formerly, the church now – among the nations, is His side. In practice, the church has not remained apart. Yet this does not detract from the truth that God does not reckon His people among the nations. Similarly, the believer can be unfaithful and connect with the world, something that is explicitly against the will of God (2Cor 6:14). But the new life of the believer has no part in the world.
While Balak did his best to bring the people of God to the attention of Balaam as meaningless as possible (Num 22:41), he speaks of a people who cannot be counted as the dust of the earth cannot be counted (verse 10; Gen 13:16; 28:14). Balaam only sees a part of it, “the fourth part”, which could be one of the four standards in which the people are divided (Numbers 2). Nevertheless, he speaks of the fact that this fourth part cannot be counted. How great must the whole people be then!
When he sees these people, he thinks about their future. He sees as it were the end, the ultimate goal. Then he thinks of his own end. He wants to die the death of a righteous one, but at the same time wants to live as a wicked one. He will die the death of the wicked one because he did not want to live as a righteous man and did not want to belong to a people who God has separated for Himself.
11 - 12 Reaction of Balak; Reply of Balaam
11 Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!” 12 He replied, “Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”
In his reaction, Balak does not say, ‘What have you done?’, but, “What have you doing to me?” He feels personally betrayed. Balaam has blessed his personal enemies instead of cursing them. Balak speaks of the people of God as “my enemies”. Balaam answers that he is under the power of a higher Someone.
13 - 17 Preparations for the Second Attempt
13 Then Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there.” 14 So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on [each] altar. 15 And he said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt offering while I myself meet [the LORD] over there.” 16 Then the LORD met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” 17 He came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the leaders of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, “What has the LORD spoken?”
Balak wants to take Balaam to a place from where he will only see a part of the people again. Again it is about the extreme part of it (Num 22:41), but here it is obviously about people who live on the edge. Balak thinks that God will give permission to curse if His attention is drawn to those peripheral figures who live far from His residence, far away from the tabernacle in the center of the people.
Again seven altars are built and a bull and a ram are offered on each altar. Balak acts as Balaam commands him. He saves neither costs nor effort. If we desire the blessing of God as fervently as Balak desires the curse, we too will spare no effort to serve and honor God.
Balaam goes back first to meet a demon. It is significant that he does not mention a name in verse 15. ‘The LORD’ is put in brackets, which means the words are not in the original. The first verse of Numbers 24 shows that he wants to get his inspiration from evil spirits (Num 24:1). Again the LORD meets him. Again He puts in Balaam’s mouth the word that he must speak.
Balak’s question to Balaam “what has the LORD spoken?” must always be present with us. Balak of course hopes for a curse. His question has a false starting point. Whoever really loves the Lord will ask the same question because he would like to know the will of the Lord (Jer 23:35).
18 - 24 Second Discourse
18 Then he took up his discourse and said,
“Arise, O Balak, and hear;
Give ear to me, O son of Zippor!
19 “God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent;
Has He said, and will He not do it?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
20 “Behold, I have received [a command] to bless;
When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it.
21 “He has not observed misfortune in Jacob;
Nor has He seen trouble in Israel;
The LORD his God is with him,
And the shout of a king is among them.
22 “God brings them out of Egypt,
He is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
23 “For there is no omen against Jacob,
Nor is there any divination against Israel;
At the proper time it shall be said to Jacob
And to Israel, what God has done!
24 “Behold, a people rises like a lioness,
And as a lion it lifts itself;
It will not lie down until it devours the prey,
And drinks the blood of the slain.”
Balak would like to know what the LORD has said. That is why Balaam now addresses the word especially to him. It is a message from God and that is why Balaam calls on Balak, even though he is a king, to stand up out of respect for God and to hear (cf. Jdg 3:20). He also calls on Balak to hear him, for he is the means through whom God will speak.
The second discourse is not a revocation of the first. It is not a repetition either. It is a confirmation of the first and an extension of it. The first words of this second discourse justify God, Who cannot be compared with a man who is changeable and fickle. He does not break His word. He cannot be moved to other thoughts when it comes to His intention to bless (1Sam 15:29; Rom 11:29).
Balaam sees the people who live furthest from God. In those surroundings the fire of God’s judgment burned because of the complaints of the people (Num 11:1). When we think of the weakest believers, we see reasons to sue them before God. The language of God from the mouth of Balaam is different. God has not observed misfortune in Jacob, that weak, failing believer (verse 21). Nor has He seen trouble in Israel, that has so often shown a way of doing things that is contrary to the name that speaks of their privileged place. In Numbers there has been revealed so much misfortune and trouble with the people as a result of the sin, but here God ignores it.
There is no question of sin or guilt in any prophecy of Balaam. How is that possible? God can do that because of the work the Lord Jesus accomplished. By that work everyone to whom that work is accounted has been declared righteous. What cannot exist before God has been removed by the work of Christ before God. What can only exist before God is the work of Christ. Whereby the guilt is proven, which is apparent from the necessity of the work of Christ, thereby the guilt is also removed. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
Justification goes beyond forgiveness. A righteous man is one of whom God declares that he has never sinned. So great is the value of the work of the Lord Jesus. The truth of being declared righteous is explained in detail in the letter to the Romans. That is why it is so important to study that letter over and over again.
“The LORD his God” can be with this justified people. Without Him, this people have no possibility to exist. A zero is nothing, six zeros is nothing. But if you place a one at the head of six zeros, you suddenly have a million. So it is with the people of God. Without God there is no people, but with God there is a multitude of people. About that people the King according to God’s heart can reign under the jubilation of His people. That is also his shielding.
God has guided His people by His power out of the bondage of Egypt (verse 22). That is where the beginning of righteousness lies. That justification resists any attack that may occur during the journey through the wilderness.
Against Jacob and Israel there is no evil power capable of bringing in any accusation (verse 23a). God has blessed His people. Who will be able to change that? We hear the language of the letter to the Romans: “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?” (Rom 8:33-34a). Any attempt to separate God from those whom He has justified is futile. Nothing and no one is able to separate from God what is connected to Him through the work of Christ (Rom 8:38-39).
If we can say this, there is nothing of us involved therein. It is God’s work in His people that can be spoken about “the proper time”, which is at the end of the wilderness journey (verse 23b). Now we see what God has done, just as we are reminded of what God has done at the beginning of the journey: the redemption of His people from Egypt.
God has not only had thoughts of blessing about His people, He has also given that blessing to His people through the work of Christ. What God has committed Himself to, He also works out (Rom 8:29-30). His work we now see in saving souls, forming His own in the image of His Son and helping them go through the world. Also in the realm of peace, glorious results will be seen and He will be honored for what He has done (Psa 22:30-31). At the beginning of eternity it will be possible to say of all that God has resolved to do: “It is done” (Rev 21:6a). The result of this remains forever: “I know that everything God does will remain forever” (Ecc 3:14).
The people are not only a blessed people, but also a victorious people (verse 24). This people, justified by God, can go on in His power. The letter to the Romans not only indicates how someone can become a righteous person, but also how he can live as a righteous person. The righteous person cannot be overcome by just one enemy. In Christ “we overwhelmingly conquer” (Rom 8:37). This victorious life that becomes visible in the wilderness of this world will become fully visible when God has put all the enemies under the feet of the Lord Jesus (1Cor 15:25; Rom 16:20).
25 - 26 Reaction of Balak; Reply of Balaam
25 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!” 26 But Balaam replied to Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the LORD speaks, that I must do’?”
Balak reacts to this second blessing by saying that, if there is no curse for the people, then at least Balaam will not pronounce a blessing on that people. But Balaam refers to what he said before. He can only bless.
27 - 30 Preparations for the Third Attempt
27 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Please come, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will be agreeable with God that you curse them for me from there.” 28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooks the wasteland. 29 Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.” 30 Balak did just as Balaam had said, and offered up a bull and a ram on [each] altar.
Yet Balak makes a third attempt to curse. To do so, Balak takes Balaam to a place overlooking the wilderness. He wants Balaam to see those people in their wilderness conditions. We often look different in our daily circumstances than on Sundays. Then we often show more of our sins and weaknesses.