The Israelites moved forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab, on this side of Jordan, by Jericho. Balak, the king of the Moabites, saw that the Israelites were a powerful people, and as they learned that they had destroyed the Amorites, and had taken possession of their land, they were exceedingly terrified. All Moab was in trouble. “And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. He sent messengers, therefore, unto Balaam, the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt. Behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me. Come now, therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me; peradventure, I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.”
Balaam had been a prophet of God, and a good man. But he apostatized, and gave himself up to covetousness, so that he loved the wages of unrighteousness. At the time Balak sent messengers for him, he was double-minded, pursuing a course to gain and retain the favor and honor of the enemies of the Lord, for the sake of rewards he received from them. At the same time he was professing to be a prophet of God. Idolatrous nations believed that curses might be uttered which would affect individuals, and even whole nations. As the messengers related their message to Balaam, he very well knew what answer to give them. But he asked them to tarry that night, and he would bring them word as the Lord should speak unto him. The presents in the hands of the men excited his covetous disposition. God came to Balaam in the night, through one of his angels, and inquired for him, What men are these with thee? And Balaam said unto God, Balak, the “son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me saying, Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth. Come, now, curse me them, peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out. And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them. Thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.” The angel tells Balaam that the children of Israel are conducted under the banner of the God of Heaven, and no curse from man could retard their progress. In the morning he arose, and reluctantly told the men to return to Balak, for the Lord would not suffer him to go with them. Then Balak sent other princes, more of them in number, and more honorable, or occupying a more exalted position than the former messengers; and this time Balak’s call was more urgent. “Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee [from] coming unto me, for I will promote thee unto very great honor, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me. Come, therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people. And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.”
His fear of God’s power holds the ascendency over his covetous disposition. Yet his course of conduct shows that his love of honor and gain was striving hard for the mastery, and he did not subdue it. He would have gratified his covetousness, if he had dared to do it. After God had said that he should not go, he was anxious to be granted the privilege of going. He urged them to remain that night, that he might make inquiry again of God. An angel was sent to Balaam to say unto him, “If the men come to call thee, rise up and go with them; yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.” The Lord suffered Balaam to follow his own inclinations, and try, if he chose so to do, to please both God and man.
The messengers of Balak did not call upon him in the morning to have him go with them. They were annoyed with his delay, and expected a second refusal. Balaam could have excused himself, and easily avoided going. But he thought that because the Lord the second time did not forbid his going, he would go and overtake the ambassadors of Balak. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Balaam because he went, and he sent his angel to stand in the way, and to slay him for his presumptuous folly. The beast saw the angel of the Lord, and turned aside. Balaam was beside himself with rage. The speaking of the beast was unnoticed by him as anything remarkable, for he was blinded by passion. As the angel revealed himself to Balaam he was terrified, and left his beast and bowed in humility before the angel. He related to Balaam the word of the Lord, and said, “I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me.” It was important to Israel to overcome the Moabites, in order to overcome the inhabitants of Canaan. After the angel had impressively warned Balaam against gratifying the Moabites, he gave him permission to pursue his journey. God would glorify his name, even through the presumptuous Balaam, before the enemies of Israel. This could not be done in a more effectual manner than by showing them that a man of Balaam’s covetous disposition dared not, for any promises of promotion or rewards, pronounce a curse against Israel.
Balak met Balaam, and inquired of why he thus delayed to come when he sent for him, and told him that he had power to promote him to honor. Balaam answered, Lo, I am come unto thee. He then told him he had no power to say anything. The word that God should give him that could he speak, and could go no further. Balaam ordered the sacrifices according to the religious rites. God sent his angel to meet with Balaam, to give him words of utterance, as he had done on occasions when Balaam was wholly devoted to the service of God. “And the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak. And he returned unto him, and lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab. And he took up his parable, and said, Balak, the king of Moab, hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel. How shall I curse whom God hath not cursed? Or how shall I defy whom the Lord hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him. Lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!”
Balaam spoke in a solemn, prophetic style. How shall I defy, or devote to destruction, those whom God hath promised to prosper? He declared in prophetic words that Israel should remain a distinct people; that they should not be united with, swallowed up by, or lost in, any other nation; that they would become far more numerous than they then were; and he related their prosperity and strength. He saw that the end of the righteous was truly desirable, and prophetically expressed his desire that his life might end like theirs.
Balak was disappointed and angry. He exclaims, “What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.” Balak thinks it is the grand appearance of the Israelites in their tents, which Balaam views from a high mount, that keeps him from cursing them. He thinks if he takes him to another place, where Israel will not appear to such advantage, he can obtain a curse from Balaam. Again, at Zophim, at the top of Pisgah, Balaam offered burnt-offerings, and then went by himself to commune with the angel of God. And the angel told Balaam what to say. When he returned, Balak inquired anxiously, “What hath the Lord spoken?”“And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear. Hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor. God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent. Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? Behold, I have received commandment to bless, and he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it. 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. God brought them out of Egypt. He hath as it were the strength of a unicorn. Surely, there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel. According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion. He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.”
Balak still flattered himself with the vain hope that God was subject to variation, like man. Balaam informs him that God will never be induced to break his word, or alter his purpose concerning Israel, and that it is in vain for him to hope to obtain a curse for his people, or to expect him to reverse the blessing he has promised to them. And no enchantment or curse uttered by a diviner could have the least influence upon that nation that has the protection of Omnipotence.
Balaam had wished to appear to be favorable to Balak, and had permitted him to be deceived, and think that he used superstitious ceremonies and enchantments when he besought the Lord. But as he followed out the command given him of God, he grew bolder in proportion as he obeyed the divine impulse, and he laid aside his pretended conjuration, and, looking toward the encampment of the Israelites, he beholds them all encamped in perfect order, under their respective standards, at a distance from the tabernacle. Balaam was permitted to behold the glorious manifestation of God’s presence, overshadowing, protecting and guiding the tabernacle. He was filled with admiration at the sublime scene. He opened his parable with all the dignity of a true prophet of God. His prophetic words are these: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt. He hath as it were the strength of a unicorn. He shall eat up the nations, his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion Who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee. And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together. And Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.”
The Moabites understood the import of the prophetic words of Balaam—that the Israelites after conquering the Canaanites, should settle in their land, and all attempts to subdue them would be of no more avail than for a feeble beast to arouse the lion out of his den. Balaam told Balak that he would inform him what the Israelites should do to his people at a later period. The Lord unfolded the future before Balaam, and permitted events which would occur, to pass before his sight, that the Moabites should understand that Israel should finally triumph. As Balaam prophetically rehearsed the future to Balak and his princes, he was struck with amazement at the future display of God’s power.
After Balaam had returned to his place, and the controlling influence of God’s Spirit had left him, his covetousness, which had not been overcome, but merely held in check, prevailed. He could think of nothing but the reward, and promotion to honor, which he might have received of Balak, until he was willing to resort to any means to obtain that which he desired. Balaam knew that the prosperity of Israel depended upon their observance of the law of God, and that there was no way to bring a curse upon them but by seducing them to transgression. He decided to secure to himself Balak’s reward, and the promotion he desired, by advising the Moabites what course to pursue to bring the curse upon Israel. He counseled Balak to proclaim an idolatrous feast in honor of their idol gods, and he would persuade the Israelites to attend, that they might be delighted with the music, and then the most beautiful Midianitish women should entice the Israelites to transgress the law of God, and corrupt themselves, and also influence them to offer sacrifice to idols. This Satanic counsel succeeded too well. Many of the Israelites were persuaded by Balaam, because they regarded him as a prophet of God, to join him, and mix with that idolatrous people, and engage with him in idolatry and fornication.
“And Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord, against the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel. And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baal-peor.” Moses commanded the judges of the people to execute the punishment of God against those who had transgressed, and hang the heads of the transgressors up before the Lord, to cause Israel to fear to follow their example. The Lord commanded Moses to vex the Midianites, and smite them, because they had vexed Israel with their wiles, wherewith they had beguiled them to transgress the commandments of God.
The Lord commanded Moses to avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites, and then he should be gathered to his people. Moses commanded the men of war to prepare for battle against the Midianites. And they warred against them as the Lord commanded, and slew all the males, but they took the women and children captives. Balaam was slain with the Midianites. “And Moses, and Eleazar, the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp. And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle. And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.”
Moses commanded the men of war to destroy the women and male children. Balaam had sold the children of Israel for a reward, and he perished with the people whose favor he had obtained at the sacrifice of twenty-four thousand of the Israelites. The Lord is regarded as cruel by many in requiring his people to make war with other nations. They say that it is contrary to his benevolent character. But he who made the world, and formed man to dwell upon the earth, has unlimited control over all the works of his hands, and it is his right to do as he pleases, and what he pleases with the work of his hands. Man has no right to say to his Maker, Why doest thou thus? There is no injustice in his character. He is the Ruler of the world, and a large portion of his subjects have rebelled against his authority, and have trampled upon his law. He has bestowed upon them liberal blessings, and surrounded them with everything needful, yet they have bowed to images of wood and stone, silver and gold, which their own hands have made. They teach their children that these are the gods that give them life and health, and make their lands fruitful, and give them riches and honor. They scorn the God of Israel. They despise his people, because their works are righteous.“ The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt. They have done abominable works.” God has borne with them until they filled up the measure of their iniquity, and then he has brought upon them swift destruction. He has used his people as instruments of his wrath, to punish wicked nations, who have vexed them, and seduced them into idolatry.
A family picture was presented before me. A part of the children seem anxious to learn and obey the requirements of the father, while the others trample upon his authority, and seem to exult in showing contempt of his family government. They share the benefits of their father’s house, and are constantly receiving of his bounty. They are wholly dependent upon him for all they receive, yet are not grateful, but conduct themselves proudly, as though all the favors they received of their indulgent parent were supplied by themselves. The father notices all the disrespectful acts of his disobedient, ungrateful children, yet he bears with them.
At length, these rebellious children go still further, and seek to influence and lead to rebellion those members of their father’s family who have hitherto been faithful. Then all the dignity and authority of the father is called into action, and he expels from his house the rebellious children, who have not only abused his love and blessings themselves, but tried to subvert the remaining few who had submitted to the wise and judicious laws of their father’s household.
For the sake of the few who are loyal, whose happiness was exposed to the seditious influence of the rebellious members of his household, he separates from his family his undutiful children, while at the same time he labors to bring closer to himself the remaining faithful and loyal ones. All would honor the wise and just course of such a parent, in punishing most severely his undutiful, rebellious children.
God has dealt thus with his children. But man, in his blindness, will overlook the abominations of the ungodly, and pass by unnoticed the continual ingratitude and rebellion, and heaven-daring sins of those who trample upon God’s law and defy his authority. They do not stop here, but exult in subverting his people, and influencing them by their wiles to transgress, and show open contempt for the wise requirements of Jehovah.
Some can see only the destruction of God’s enemies, which looks to them unmerciful and severe. They do not look upon the other side. But let everlasting thanks be given, that impulsive, changeable man, with all his boasted benevolence, is not the disposer and controller of events. “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”