Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentNUMBERS 24
This great chapter is the climax of the Balaam narrative, culminating in glorious prophecy of the Star that in "the last days" would rise out of Jacob, a manifest reference prophetically to Him who is called the Bright and Morning Star. Critical denials that there is any prophecy here should disturb no one. How can people who do not believe there is any such thing as predictive prophecy be expected to see even the plainest prophecy? The tragedy of this age is that "scholars" who have first been intellectually castrated in some unbelieving seminary are by the thoughtless being consulted for their opinions on such Scriptures as this chapter. Even in the dim light of pre-Christian gloom the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls enthusiastically accepted the Messianic import of this chapter. Also, the Jewish scholars of all ages read the passage as a promise of the blessed Messiah. The proof of this lies in the behavior of a false messiah, Bar Kochba, who led a Jewish revolt against Rome (132-133 B.C.). The name assumed by this imposter was Bar Kochba, meaning "Son of the Star."F1 It was the general understanding of the Hebrew people that the holy Messiah would be "the Star" of this chapter, and Bar Kochba called himself "Son of the Star" to take advantage of this widespread conviction. Like so many prophecies, this one also is fulfilled twice. King David of Israel who defeated and subjugated Moab was the first fulfillment, but David himself was an eloquent type of the Greater David, the Christ, who is the ultimate and glorious fulfillment of it.
This chapter contains the remaining five of the seven oracles making up the prophecies of Balaam: Oracle III (Numbers 24:2-9), Oracle IV (Numbers 24:15-19), Oracle V (Numbers 24:20), Oracle VI (Numbers 24:21,22), and Oracle VII (Numbers 24:23,24). There is no solid evidence of any kind that the shorter oracles at the end were added subsequent to the times of Moses. After the usual manner of all the holy prophets, God's judgment upon other nations besides Israel were included along with prophecies of the Chosen People.
Verses 1, 2
And when Balaam saw that it pleased Jehovah to bless Israel, he went not, as at the other times, to meet with enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes; and the Spirit of God came upon him.
These lines are merely an introduction to Oracle III, but several things of particular importance are revealed. The mention of the Spirit of God coming upon Balaam attributes a higher value to the remaining five oracles than that which belongs to the first two, in which it was merely stated that God "put a word" in Balaam's mouth. Also, the omission by Balaam of the usual pagan procedure of going to some appropriate place to look for "signs," enchantments, or omens, shows that Balaam recognized the utter uselessness of such customs. God, of old, gave to the prophets clear and unequivocal statements which depended in no way whatever upon the deductions, conclusions, and assumptions of the prophets. We are indebted to Keil for providing the following quotation from Hengstenberg:
"The Church of God knows from the Word what God does, and what the church must do in consequence. The wisdom of the world resembles augury and divination, but the Church of God which is in possession of His word has no need of it, and it only leads its followers to destruction, from inability to discern the will of God. To discover this with certainty is the great privilege of the Church of God."F2
And he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes
(Numbers 24:2). This means that the tents of Israel were arranged according to the orderly distribution of the camp, as set forth in Num. 2,F3 thus identifying the time of this episode as being within the period of the wilderness journeyings. It appears to us as a picayune objection indeed that finds in the word dwelling (Numbers 24:2) the picture of an Israel firmly settled in the land.F4 One wonders just what word Noth would have chosen to describe Israel's tenure in that wilderness for some forty years! Of course, there is absolutely nothing inappropriate in the use of the word dwelling in this reference. One finds exactly the same use of tabernacles (also translated dwellings) and tents synonymously in Num. 24:5 below.
Balaam the son of Beor saith,
And the man whose eye was closed saith;
He saith, who heareth the words of God,
Who seeth the vision of the Almighty,
Falling down, and having his eyes open:
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,
Thy tabernacles, O Israel!
As valleys are they spread forth,
As gardens by the river-side,
As lign-aloes which Jehovah hath planted,
As cedar-trees beside the waters.
Water shall flow from his buckets,
And his seed shall be in many waters,
And his king shall be higher that Agag,
And his kingdom shall be exalted.
God bringeth him forth out of Egypt;
He hath as it were the strength of the wild-ox:
He shall eat up the nations his adversaries,
And shall break their bones in pieces,
And smite them through with his arrows.
He couched, he lay down as a lion,
And as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?
Blessed be every one that blesseth thee,
And cursed be every one that curseth thee."
Balak evidently had hoped that this third effort to curse Israel would be successful, but Balaam's words here went further than ever in the opposite direction, going so far as to pronounce blessings upon all who blessed Israel, and curses upon all who cursed them! Balak's patience was exhausted, and his anger kindled against Balaam, as indicated by his clapping his hands after the oracle was spoken.
And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor saith, And the man whose eye was closed saith; He saith, who heareth the words of God, Who seeth the vision of the Almighty, Falling down, and having his eyes open: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, Thy tabernacles, O Israel! As valleys are they spread forth, As gardens by the river-side, As lign-aloes which Jehovah hath planted, As cedar-trees beside the waters. Water shall flow from 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 bringeth him forth out of Egypt; He hath as it were the strength of the wild-ox: He shall eat up the nations his adversaries, And shall break their bones in pieces, And smite [them] through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, And as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be every one that blesseth thee, And cursed be every one that curseth thee.
(Numbers 24:4). Well, which was it? Jewish interpreters came up with the amazing postulation that Balaam was blind in one eye and could see with the other!F5 Others, including such scholars as Albright, give another translation of the clause in Num. 24:3, rendering it, Whose eye is true.F6 If this is received, the apparent contradiction is removed. Traditionally, it has been believed for ages that God's revelation to his prophets sometimes came during a kind of trance in which the prophet's eyes remained open. Dummelow tells us that the word rendered closed in Num. 24:3 is of uncertain meaning, and that if it does mean `closed,' the true meaning is that Balaam's eyes were closed to earthly sights but open to heavenly.F7 The word for open in Num. 24:4 is the ordinary one, indicating quite surely that when Balaam received the oracle his eyes were open.F8
It is also significant that in Num. 24:4 we have two names for God. [~'Elohiym] rendered "God," and [~'El] [~Shadday] translated "Almighty." Well, why don't the critical commentators postulate plural sources for this verse? The simple answer, so often avoided in other passages of the Pentateuch, is that various names for God are used as synonyms, for the purpose of more fluent speech, there being no way to deny that such is the usage of the two names here. "Here [~Shadday] is used simply as a synonym for [~'Elohiym]."F9 Amen! And our own conviction is that this is by far and away the principal reason for the various names of God in the Pentateuch.
Note in Num. 24:5 the use of tabernacles and tents as complementary synonyms in parallel lines. Gray commented thus: "Thy dwellings is merely a synonym for thy tents in the parallel line."F10 All of that "tension" supposed by Noth to have been produced by the use of these wordsF11 is merely due to his imagination.
The valleys, gardens, beautiful trees, and water buckets overflowing, etc., which are mentioned in Num. 24:6 and Num. 24:7 are merely symbols of the blessings of God which will accompany Israel.
In Num. 24:7, we encounter the "piece de resistance" for the late-daters of the Balaam narrative who gleefully affirm:
"The name Agag can scarcely refer to any other than Agag the king of the Amalekites known from the Saul story (1 Sam. 15:8ff. On this account, this discourse must be dated in the time of Saul."F12
Even the great critical commentator Gray rejected the bald, unproved conclusions such as that, saying "But Amalek (in the days of that Agag) was scarcely so formidable a kingdom as to justify such an allusion."F13 The true explanation of that which at first appears to be an anachronism is given by Whitelaw:
"It may safely be assumed that Agag was the official title of all the kings of Amalek, resembling in this Abimelech, and Pharaoh. Here the word stands for the dynasty and the nation of Amalek; and there is no need to suppose that there is any reference to any particular individual or event in the distant future. The `king of Israel' here spoken of is certainly not Saul. The very idea of Israel's having an earthly monarch like the nations around them was alien to the mind of God."F14
Jamieson also concurred in this explanation: "The Amalekites were then the most powerful of all the desert tribes; Agag was a title common to all their kings."F15
In Num. 24:9, Orlinsky and some translators would substitute "king of beasts" or "great lion" for the word "lioness" as given here and in Num. 23:24, and in Gen. 49:9, which Orlinsky called the "traditional rendition."F16 We are by no means certain that this change should be allowed. A lioness aroused in defense of her young could be intended, indicating a strength and fury by no means any less than that of "king of beasts" or "great lion."
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. Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honor; but, lo, Jehovah hath kept thee back from honor. And Balaam said unto Balak, Spake I not also to thy messengers that thou sentest unto me, saying, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Jehovah, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; what Jehovah speaketh, that will I speak? And now, behold, I go unto my people: come, [and] I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.
Despite Balak's very justifiable anger against Balaam and the threatening manner of his abrupt dismissal, it appears that Balaam did not actually return to his "own people" at all, for it was not long until he died in the defeat of the Midianites (Numbers 31:8). One wonders why this change on Balaam's part. It was likely due to the fact that Balaam probably offered to mollify the anger of Balak by counseling him with regard to the seduction of the Israelites by the Moabite women, a seduction surely carried out on Balaam's advice, and we are apparently justified in supposing that it came about from Balaam's further seeking to win the approval of Balak (Numbers 31:16).
Spake I not also unto thy messengers.?
(Numbers 24:12). Balaam's defense of his duplicity here was only partially true. Yes, he had indeed spoken to Balak's messengers as he here indicated, but he omitted to tell them that God would bless Israel and not curse them at all. That partial answer coupled with his continuance in keeping the matter before him for consideration very effectively deceived Balak into believing that Balaam would indeed actually curse Israel. Balak's frustration and anger were justified. Despite this, however, his implacable hatred of the people of God was not justified.
Balaam the son of Beor saith,
And the man whose eye was closed saith;
He saith, who heareth the words of God,
And knoweth the knowledge of the Most High,
Who seeth the vision of the Almighty,
Falling down, and having his eyes open:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
There shall come forth a star out of Jacob,
And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel,
And shall smite through the corners of Moab,
And bring down all the sons of tumult.
And Edom shall be a possession,
Seir also shall be a possession, who were his enemies;
While Israel doeth valiantly.
And out of Jacob shall one have dominion,
And shall destroy the remnant from the city.
And he looked on Amalek, and took up his parable, and said,
Amalek was the first of the nations;
But his latter end shall come to destruction
And he looked on the Kenite, and took up his parable, and said,
Strong is thy dwelling-place,
And thy nest is set in the rock.
Nevertheless Kain shall be wasted,
Until Asshur shall carry thee away captive.
And he took up his parable and said,
Alas, who shall live when God doeth this?
But ships shall come from the coast of Kittim,
And they shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber;
And he also shall come to destruction.
And Balaam rose up and went and returned to his place; and Balak also went his way."
Num. 24:15-16 are an introduction to the fourth oracle almost the same as that which is given for the third (Numbers 24:3,4). (See under those verses for comment.)
The fourth oracle, of course, is the outstanding prophecy of the whole Balaam narrative. The focal point is that mysterious person who rises out of Jacob/Israel, called a Star, then a Sceptre, and in Num. 24:19, "One who shall have dominion." Interpreters of all ages, races, and persuasions of mankind have invariably found in these verses a prophecy of the Messiah. "Even the men of the Dead Sea Scrolls community regarded this passage as Messianic."F17 The whole Jewish people also so received it. Even a pretended Messiah built up his claims by assuming a name (Bar Kochba) which means "son of a star."F18 Efforts of critical writers to restrict the prophecy to a partial fulfillment of it in the times of David the king, and then to deny the prophetic element completely by alleging a date subsequent to the events prophesied, making the whole narrative a pretended prophecy must be rejected. Such postulations of arrogant ignorance can deceive no one who receives the Bible as the Word of God.
As for the times when this remarkable Person was to be expected, the answer is given in Num. 24:14, i.e., "in the latter days," an expression always associated with the times of the Messiah and the New Israel in the prophecies. It has the same meaning here. Wade also observed that the expressions "not now ... not nigh" (Numbers 24:17) have the meaning of, "in the distant future."F19 The same writer also affirmed that "This prophecy possibly influenced the belief that the birth of the Messiah would be heralded by a star (Matthew 2:2)."F20 However that might have been, "Christ himself and not the star that was seen at his birth is the true fulfillment of the prophecy."F21
We must not limit the scope of this remarkable prophecy to the history of Israel as recorded in the O.T. To do so is to misunderstand it. Gray, who accepted such limitations of it, stated the meaning thus: "It contemplates the worldwide dominion of Israel and the violent destruction of all who oppose it."F22 The Scriptures never taught any such thing as that. The glories of the worldwide dominion of "Israel" which surely occur in the O.T. do not refer to physical, secular Israel at all, but to the New Israel in Christ Jesus, and the "violent destruction" mentioned by Gray as applicable to all who oppose the historical secular Israel actually applies to all the sons of Adam who at last refuse to accept salvation in Christ and shall be violently overthrown by God Himself in the final judgment. Thus, we have the certain and unmistakable emergence of the final judgment in these verses, making them also a positive and absolutely certain reference to the Christ in his incarnation, kingdom, and Second Advent!
This view is further corroborated by a glance at the KJV where we have in Num. 24:17, "And destroy all the children of Sheth ..." Most current commentators have missed the meaning of this altogether by following more recent translations which give "sons of tumult," or "sons of pride," neither of which renditions has any essential meaning. "Children of Sheth" here means "children of Seth," that is, "children of men," "sons of Adam," "the race of mankind," all of them!"F23 (see the margin in the ASV). Plaut's full explanation for this meaning is as follows:
Children of Seth. This means "children of men." Seth was Adam's third son (Genesis 4:25), from whom all men are descended. Noah was of his line.F24
This view of the passage reveals it to be in absolute harmony with all that the Holy Scriptures reveal with reference to the final judgment, the occasion when God "will wipe this Adam off the face of the earth," the sole exceptions being the redeemed of God.
Now, just a word of reference to the reason why very brilliant and learned men, such as Gray, for example, miss the meaning of the passage altogether. That writer revealed the secret of his error as follows, where he applied the meaning of this prophecy to, "The final period of the future, so far as it falls within the range of the speaker's perspective!"F25 Here is the germ of that error which negates the conclusions of all scholars who have permitted themselves to be entrapped and handicapped by the "a priori" assumptions received in many theological seminaries throughout current times. The limitations underscored in Gray's quotation means that Balaam could not have prophesied anything that did not fall within the purview of Balaam's own mind, or perspective. Ridiculous! Balaam was not the author of this prophecy. If there is a word of truth in the Holy Bible, this prophecy came from GOD, not from Balaam. The shibboleth received in some seminaries to the effect that no prophecy could exceed the dimensions of the mind of the human instrument through whom God spoke is rejected here out of hand. It is a sheer falsehood! An apostle of Christ, no less than Peter, revealed the very opposite end of this seminarian booby trap as Divine truth in 1 Pet. 1:10-12. (See the exegesis and comment on that passage in this series. We might refer to this as the Higher Criticism of the so-called "higher criticism.")
This glorious prophecy of Jesus Christ, coming here in the mouth of an evil man like Balaam raises the question of just why God might have done such a thing. The situation demanded it. There was no Hebrew prophet at this time in whom the pagan world would have had the slightest confidence; and, therefore, God gave them a witness after their own hearts, one whom they were prepared to pay and to trust. That witness and his message must have had an incredibly strong impact upon the people of that era, at the precise moment when God was about to send the hosts of Israel across the Jordan with a commission to destroy the Canaanites. That this was the case cannot be doubted, as witness the words of Rahab (Joshua 2:9), and the abject fear of the Amalekites (Joshua 5:1). Some commentators cannot imagine why the Balaam narrative is found just here, but anyone who discerns the total purpose of God in moving Israel into Canaan cannot fail to see the very crucial importance of these events and why the record of them belongs exactly where it is in the sacred text.
Num. 24:19 is held to be unintelligible by some, due to alleged damage to the Hebrew text. Noth, for example, said: "The text of Num. 24:19 has been transmitted so defectively that its original wording can no longer be determined."F26 This writer is not qualified to determine the accuracy of such a view, but the lines as they appear in our version make excellent sense when properly understood.
"Out of Jacob shall one have dominion,
And shall destroy the remnant from the city ..." (Numbers 24:19).
"City," as used here, is not any particular city, but as Leon Morris identified it, "It is urban civilization in organized rebellion against God." It is the City of Mankind, that entire organization of rebellious Adam against his God, referred to in the plural in Revelation as "the cities of the Gentiles." (Revelation 16:19). It is called "Mystery, Babylon the Great." The message of Num. 24:19 is simple enough. Even the remnant of Adam's rebellious race shall at last perish in the final holocaust that shall terminate God's Operation Adam, that occasion being depicted frequently in Holy Writ as the Judgment. Men might wish to ponder this question: How can there be any future for any species of life in open rebellion against the Creator and launched on a collision course with disaster? The disastrous results of what Balaam prophesied were evidently discerned by him in some degree at least, for he exclaimed, "Alas, who shall live when God doeth this ...?" (Numbers 24:23).
We shall pass over the remaining three oracles with little comment. There is no evidence whatever that they were "added at a later time," there being nothing of such significance in them as to have justified such an action. The principal thrust of all three is that the destruction prophesied was to be universal and extend to all nations, not merely to Israel. The interpretation of any of these last three is uncertain, as Gray said, "Due to their brevity, and to certain defects in the text, anything approaching certainty in the interpretation is out of the question."F27 Despite this, there are a few points of very great significance.
The mention of the Kenites here as an important, independent nation marks the times of Moses as the date of the narrative. The status and importance of the Kenites surfaces in Num. 24:21,22. W. F. Albright, commenting on this, declared that, "The only time when these people were an autonomous people was in the Mosaic age, so the oracle could not have come from the tenth century, as suggested by many."F28
Another item of interest in these final three oracles is the mention of Amalek in Num. 24:20, calling him the "first of the nations." Keil interpreted this to mean that Amalek was, "The first of the heathen nations to open conflict against God's people, Israel."F29 Keil is usually quite dependable, and this might indeed be the true meaning of this place; but it should be pointed out that strong opinion to the contrary has been registered. Carson called this, "A doubtful interpretation";F30 and there appears to be some Biblical support for the view that the Amalekites were indeed a formidable and mighty race of people. It will be remembered that when the Ten Spies brought back their report, the principal ground of the fears they cited was based on the fact that Amalek dwelt there (Num. 13:28ff).
Due to the appearance of Balaam at a later time in this narrative and the account of his death indicating that he was fighting with Midian against Israel when he was killed with the sword, we supposed (in the comment on Num. 24:11) that Balaam might indeed have stayed awhile after this in order to continue his efforts to please Balak, but Num. 24:25 states flatly that Balaam rose up and went and returned to his place. If the meaning of this is that Balaam indeed returned to his residence in Mesopotamia, then it would indicate a somewhat longer time-lapse between the prophecy and his death, allowing long enough for such a journey and his subsequent return as an ally of Midian. If, on the other hand, "his place" refers to a temporary residence provided by the Midianites for Balaam, the time-lapse between prophecy and the death of Balaam could have been much shorter. The Bible does not enable us to know certainly whether "his place" means such a temporary dwelling in the land of Midian, or if it refers to Balaam's residence in Mesopotamia.
Footnotes for Numbers 24
1: W. Gunther Plaut, Torah, A Modern Commentary (Philadelphia: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1979), p. 235.
2: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 185.
3: Robert Jamieson, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), p. 113.
4: Martin Noth, Numbers, A Commentary, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), p. 188.
5: Rishfei Esh, Wellsprings of Torah, Vol. 2, Numbers (New York: The Judaic Press, 1969), p. 332.
6: Harry M. Orlinsky, Notes on the New Translation of the Torah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), p. 237.
7: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 115.
8: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 315.
9: George Buchanan Gray, International Critical Commentary, Numbers (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1903), p. 362.
11: Martin Noth, op. cit., p. 188.
12: Ibid, p. 191.
13: George Buchanan Gray, op. cit., p. 366.
14: Thomas Whitelaw, op. cit., p. 316.
15: Rebert Jamieson, op. cit., p. 113.
16: Harry M. Orlinksy, op. cit., p. 237.
17: J. A. Thompson, New Bible Commentary, Revised, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 192.
18: George Woosung Wade, Peake's Commentary on the Bible, Numbers (London: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 226.
21: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 116.
22: George Buchanan Gray, op. cit., p. 372.
23: W. Gunther Plaut, op. cit., p. 235.
25: George Buchanan Gray, op. cit., p. 368.
26: Martin Noth, op. cit., p. 193.
27: George Buchanan Gray, op. cit., p. 372.
28: W. F. Albright, The Journal of Biblical Literature, an article: "The Oracles of Balaam" (Vol. 63), p. 227.
29: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 195.
30: T. Carson, New Layman's Bible Commentary, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 272.