Numbers 23 – The Prophecies of Balaam
A. The first oracle – a prophetic word through Balaam.
1. (1-3) Sacrifice and preparation.
Then Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here, and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” And Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered a bull and a ram on each altar. Then Balaam said to Balak, “Stand by 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 desolate height.
a. Build seven altars for me here: These were many altars ready to receive many bulls and rams. King Balak of the Moabites was ready to do whatever Balaam asked for, so long as he would curse Israel.
i. Because Balaam sought to turn Yahweh against Israel, these seven altars and their sacrifices were intended to appease the LORD. But God never told Balaam to build an altar to Him, much less seven altars with seven sacrifices on seven different high places. These seven altars and burnt offerings were Balaam and Balak’s idea, not God’s.
b. Whatever He shows me I will tell you: In the Numbers account, Balaam was a corrupt prophet but not a false prophet. He was greedy and ready to receive riches for trying to curse Israel. At the same time, he could not or would not create his own prophecies. He could only say, whatever the LORD shows me, I will tell you.
i. We might imagine a conversation between Balak and Balaam:
“I want you to get the gods to curse Israel. Ask Baal or some other god to do it.”
“It doesn’t work like that. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is greater than all those gods. If Israel is going to be cursed, Yahweh has to do it.”
“Then let’s get the God of Israel to curse them.”
“We can try – but I can tell you only what the God of Israel tells me.”
c. So he went to a desolate height: Balak went to the top of a hill to stand beside one of the altars. Altars were often on the tops of hills, upon the high places (1 Kings 3:2, 12:31, 13:2).
2. (4-6) God meets Balaam and sends him back to Balak.
And God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered on each altar a bull and a ram.” Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” So he returned to him, and there he was, standing by his burnt offering, he and all the princes of Moab.
a. Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth: God spoke to and through someone as obviously corrupt as Balaam. This shows us that spiritual giftedness does not equal spiritual maturity or holiness of life. God spoke through a donkey in the previous chapter and now He put a word in Balaam’s mouth.
i. “Despite the pagan and unsavory actions of this ungodly man, the Lord deigns to meet with him and to speak through him. This is utterly remarkable. We often say that God will never use an unclean vessel. This is not quite accurate. God may use whatever vessel he wishes; the issue concerns what happens to an unclean vessel when God has finished using it for his purposes. It appears that such vessels are tossed aside, dashed on the road.” (Allen)
ii. “The words thus put into his mouth, do but pass from him; they are not polluted by him, because they are not his!…. Balaam did not ‘eat’ God’s word as Jeremiah did, (Jeremiah 15:16) nor believe what he had spoken, as David, and after him St Paul did. (Psalm 116:10, 2 Corinthians 4:13).” (Trapp)
b. So he returned to him, and there he was, standing by his burnt offering, he and all the princes of Moab: When Balaam returned, Balak and all the princes of Moab were ready. They were ready to learn what their money bought them from Balaam.
3. (7-10) Balaam’s first oracle – Israel can’t be cursed.
And he took up his oracle and said:
“Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram,
From the mountains of the east.
‘Come, curse Jacob for me,
And come, denounce Israel!’
“How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?
And how shall I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?
For from the top of the rocks I see him,
And from the hills I behold him;
There! A people dwelling alone,
Not reckoning itself among the nations.
“Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Or number one-fourth of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous,
And let my end be like his!”
a. And he took up his oracle and said: This begins the first of seven “oracles” or prophecies that Balaam spoke regarding the people of Israel. These start at Numbers 23:7, 18; Numbers 24:3, 15, 20, 21, 23.
b. Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel: This was what Balak asked for. He wanted a spiritual curse against Israel so that they could be defeated in battle.
i. “Cursing was a very solemn business in the ancient world and often thought to be automatically effective: the words themselves contained the power to affect those who heard them and disregarded them (cf. Deuteronomy 27:15ff.; 1 Samuel 14:24ff.).” (Wenham)
c. How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Yet, Balaam or any other prophet could not curse Israel if God had not cursed them. Balak could not bribe God to curse Israel.
i. “Balaam would have reversed the blessing into a curse, had he been able…. Is not this also the despair of Satan? God hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus, and he cannot reverse them.” (Meyer)
d. Not reckoning itself among the nations: Israel was different from all other nations, chosen by God for a special role in His unfolding plan of redemption for the world. Israel was different because their God was different.
i. A people dwelling alone: “They shall ever be preserved as a distinct nation. This prophecy has been literally fulfilled through a period of 3300 years to the present day. This is truly astonishing.” (Clarke)
e. Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number one-fourth of Israel? Through Balaam God promised to bless Israel by making them a singular nation and blessing them with great size. We sense that Balaam looked down upon Israel, saw their vast camp, and was amazed at their size and the blessing of their fruitfulness and prosperity.
i. The dust of Jacob is a clear reference to the promise God made to Abraham and his covenant descendants (Genesis 13:16).
f. Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his! Balaam concluded his oracle (another word for a prophecy) with this longing. Balaam was one of the many who long to die the death of the righteous yet have no desire to live the life of the righteous. The actual death of Balaam (Numbers 31:8) gives no hope for the fulfillment of this wish. His wish wasn’t wrong, but neither was it enough.
i. “They are not only happy above other nations in this life, as I have said, and therefore in vain should I curse them, but they have this peculiar privilege, that they are happy after death; their happiness begins where the happiness of other people ends; and therefore I heartily wish that my soul may have its portion with theirs when I die.” (Poole)
ii. Those who seek to separate living the life of the righteous and dying the death of the righteous hope to break an unbreakable chain: “They would break God’s chain, sunder happiness from holiness, salvation from sanctification, the end from the means; they would dance with the devil all day, and then sup with Christ at night; live all their lives long in Delilah’s lap, and then go to Abraham’s bosom when they die.” (Trapp)
iii. “Behold the vanity of mere desires. Balaam desired to die the death of the righteous, and yet was slain in battle fighting against those righteous men whom he envied.” (Spurgeon)
4. (11-12) Balak’s disappointment.
Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and look, you have blessed them bountifully!” So he answered and said, “Must I not take heed to speak what the LORD has put in my mouth?”
a. What have you done to me? The king of Moab was understandably disturbed. He paid good money for a curse against Israel, and the prophet blessed them instead.
b. Must I not take heed to speak what the LORD has put in my mouth? Balaam spoke as a true prophet, but a corrupt prophet. We sense that he was disappointed that he couldn’t please the king who promised him lots of money. Balaam had already told Balak that he could only speak what the LORD told him (Numbers 22:38).
B. The second oracle – a prophetic word through Balaam.
1. (13-17) Preparation before the prophecy.
Then Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place from which you may see them; you shall see only the outer part of them, and shall not see them all; curse them for me from there.” So he brought 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. And he said to Balak, “Stand here by your burnt offering while I meet the LORD over there.” Then the LORD met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, “Go back to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” So he came to him, and there he was, standing by his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab were with him. And Balak said to him, “What has the LORD spoken?”
a. Please come with me to another place…you shall see only the outer part of them: Balak wanted to change the word Balaam spoke over Israel from a blessing to a curse. Balak hoped that by changing the place where Balaam stood and changing the perspective he had as he looked out on Israel, then the prophecy would change. Because Balaam seemed so impressed by the size of Israel in the first oracle (Numbers 23:10), Balak thought it was better to put him in a place where he could only see a portion of Israel for the second oracle.
b. Built seven altars: Balak so badly wanted Israel to be cursed that he was willing to build seven more altars and supply sacrifices for each of those altars.
c. Then the LORD met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth: Once again, Balaam could only speak the word that God put in his mouth. Balaam either could not or would not create his own message and claim it was from the LORD simply to please King Balak.
2. (18-24) Balaam’s second oracle – the unchanging God blesses Israel.
Then he took up his oracle and said:
“Rise up, Balak, and hear!
Listen to me, son of Zippor!
“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?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
Behold, I have received a command to bless;
He has blessed, and I cannot reverse it.
“He has not observed iniquity in Jacob,
Nor has He seen wickedness in Israel.
The LORD his God is with him,
And the shout of a King is among them.
God brings them out of Egypt;
He has strength like a wild ox.
“For there is no sorcery against Jacob,
Nor any divination against Israel.
It now must be said of Jacob
And of Israel, ‘Oh, what God has done!’
Look, a people rises like a lioness,
And lifts itself up like a lion;
It shall not lie down until it devours the prey,
And drinks the blood of the slain.”
a. Rise up Balak, and hear: In this message, God rebuked Balak, and taught him about the Divine nature.
· God is not a man, and can’t be bribed or impressed with riches (as Balaam was).
· God does not lie, and He does not change His mind (that He should repent) as man does.
· God always performs His word. If God has spoken, He will perform it (Has He said, and will He not do?)
· God has all strength, and has the power to perform what He promises – He will make it good.
b. He has blessed, and I cannot reverse it: It was not within Balaam’s power to either bless or curse Israel. All Balaam could do was report what God said. If God said Israel was blessed, Balaam must say so, no matter how much money Balak gave him.
i. “God’s blessing is so powerful and irrevocable that even the most renowned divination expert of the day could not counter its effectiveness. Only God could rescind his blessing upon Israel.” (Cole)
c. He has not observed iniquity in Jacob nor has He seen wickedness in Israel: One reason that God declared Israel to be blessed was because they were, in their present season, not walking in obvious or significant iniquity or wickedness. Therefore, the LORD his God is with him and there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor any divination against Israel. To put it in the later language of Romans 8:31, if God is for Israel, then no one can be against them.
i. One important feature of the Mosaic covenant was its promise of blessing and cursing (as in Leviticus 26). God promised to bless a generally obedient Israel, and curse a generally or significantly disobedient Israel. When Balaam noted that God had not observed iniquity in Jacob nor has He seen wickedness in Israel, it was a way to say “Therefore, under God’s covenant with them, they will be blessed.”
ii. “At this time, when Balak hired Balaam, there was no peccatum flagrans, no foul sin of that people, flaming in the eyes of God, or stinking in his nostrils; and therefore there could be no enchantment against them.” (Trapp)
iii. This observation also hinted at a principle. If Israel could be enticed into general or significant sin, then perhaps they would – under the covenant they made with the LORD – bring a curse upon themselves.
iv. “For as Balaam knew that none but Israel’s God could curse or destroy Israel, so he knew that nothing but their sin could move him so to do; and therefore he took a right, though wicked, course afterwards to tempt them to sin, and thereby to expose them to ruin, Numbers 25.” (Poole)
v. The shout of a King is among them: This is the first specific mention of Yahweh as King among His people in the Bible. “Such joyful and triumphant shouts as those wherewith a people congratulate the approach and presence of their king when he appears among them upon some solemn occasion, or when he returns from battle with victory and spoils. The expression implies God’s being their King and Ruler, and their abundant security and just confidence in him as such.” (Poole)
d. God brings them out of Egypt: As Allen and others note, the verb tense here describes an ongoing action. God’s great power and favor for Israel is seen in that He delivered them out of Egypt and that He continues to deliver them, bringing them into Canaan as He promised to do.
e. He has strength like a wild ox: The phrase wild ox (Numbers 23:22 and Numbers 24:8) is translated “unicorn” in the King James Version. The Hebrew word here (reem) occurs nine times in the Old Testament. The idea behind the Hebrew word is either of one horn or a mighty horn. Some think it refers to a rhinoceros, others to a wild ox, or a strong goat.
i. “The KJV ‘unicorn’ was wrong from the beginning; the Hebrew expression speaks of two horns (dual), which the NIV paraphrases as ‘strength.’” (Allen)
ii. “The creature referred to is either the rhinoceros, some varieties of which have two horns on the nose, or the wild bull, urus, or buffalo; though some think the beast intended is a species of goat; but the rhinoceros seems the most likely.” (Clarke)
f. For there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor any divination against Israel: This was a strong and direct way for God to say to Balak (and Balaam), “You can’t curse Israel. Your sorcery can have no effect.” Instead of being defeated by sorcery or divination, Israel was like the lion that will devour its prey.
3. (25-26) Balak’s disappointment.
Then Balak said to Balaam, “Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all!” So Balaam answered and said to Balak, “Did I not tell you, saying, ‘All that the LORD speaks, that I must do’?”
a. Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all: Balak was very frustrated and essentially said, “If you can’t curse them, then at least don’t go and bless them!”
b. All that the LORD speaks, that I must do: Balaam is again presented as corrupt, but not a false messenger or prophet. Balaam’s greed and corruption were not a good example. Yet his commitment to faithfully report what God had said is an example that many modern Bible preachers and teachers should learn from. Balaam simply could not shape God’s message to please his audience.
The last four verses of Numbers 23 are considered in the commentary on Numbers 24.