Balaam—A Study of Conscience
Read Numbers XXIII., XXIV. 1-20.
§ 1. Knowing Right and Doing Wrong
R ECAPITULATE. Conscience. The tricks of conscience. What was Balaam's sin?
Last chapter ended with what scene? The meeting of the king and prophet at the frontier city. The stately royal procession waiting to welcome Balaam to Moab. How his heart would swell with pride at the sight of it, and at the sense of his own power. Yet do you think he was quite happy? Wonderful what a power conscience has of giving torment even in the midst of prosperity! I think the man was sad in the midst of all this grandeur. A much lower type of man would have been happier? Why? Would have thrown over all thought of God and Right, which Balaam could not. A much higher type of man, such as Moses, would have been happier. Why? Because in his complete unselfishness and devotion to God he would have obeyed the promptings of conscience regardless of any consequences, and so have been quite happy. What was the great difference between the prophets Moses and Balaam? Moses lived for his people, his duty, his God; he was not proud of his gifts or power, nor ambitious of wealth and distinction for himself. Had he temptations and struggles like Balaam? Yes, and sometimes he fell, but his heart was so set on God and Right that he could not turn away from God—it would break his heart. Balaam had enough religion to make him miserable at his disobedience, not enough to make him glad and obedient. Have you ever known any one like that? Have you felt thus yourself?
There is a bit of the story not told here. I wonder if, after the grand procession, King Balak took the prophet aside to talk to him about his troubles. I wonder if this was the time when Balaam spoke the grand words which the prophet Micah tells of. (Read Micah vi. 5-8.) They are very grand words for Old Testament days—remind one of the words of our Lord Himself. Repeat them. "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" If we are right in reading these as Balaam's teaching to Balak, does it make his case still more sad, showing his high religious knowledge and his very low conduct? What lesson does it teach? That people may know and even feel deeply about religious truth without really carrying it into active exercise. They may know all the teaching of the Bible, and even at times be touched with the beauty and tenderness and unselfishness of our Lord's life, and yet be lazy and selfish and uncharitable and unloving. We must not mistake admiration of religion for religion itself.
§ 2. Wishing Right and Doing Wrong
Go on with story. Balaam, with his promptings of good and his longing after evil, is trying to win the Moabite reward—trying, in spite of his conscience again and again, to get God's permission to curse Israel. What is first done? Yes. Altars, sacrifices, Balaam prostrate alone before God on the mountain.
Ah! I think the wretched man's conscience and his guardian angel were struggling hard with him then. Oh, if he would but give up his evil worldly desires and yield gladly to God's will! The king is waiting by the altar, waiting impatiently for the prophet's return. He returns. What happens? Yes. The conscience and the guardian angel had nearly won that time. The Spirit of God within was too strong for his evil desires. I think the sight of that great host of God's people touched his heart. Perhaps the knowledge he had of Moses, the holy, righteous prophet of the Lord, made him long for better things himself. So—he can't resist the impulse—he lifts up his hands in blessing instead of cursing, and his poor, miserable heart goes out in that great craving—What? V. 10, "Let me die the death of the righteous," etc.
Ah, poor Balaam! He might have improved that wish. How? "Let me live the life of the righteous"; that is the only way to die their death. Did he want to live that life? Ah! no. At least he is not willing to lose anything for it. He will try again with Balak and the altars, and try if he can't satisfy the king (v. 13).
What is the lesson? That mere wishing right is only a very little step forward. "Hell is paved with lazy wishes." Sometimes in novels one reads of worldly, self-indulgent, selfish people, with their pathetic sentiments and wishes after better things, and the author seems to think that this nearly makes up for their wrong-doing. Does it? Ah! no. These wishes come from God's Spirit, and may be the beginning of better things, but are utterly useless unless they rise up to do. The Prodigal might have sat for ever wishing among the pig-troughs if he had not said, "I will arise and go." Balaam wished to die the death of the righteous. We shall see by-and-by the death that he did die. Not the wish, but the will, not feeling, but doing, is what God looks for.
§ 3. Victory of Conscience
What is next effort? (xxiii. 14). Does it succeed? No. Blessing again. How angry and disappointed King Balak was! What does he ask now? (v. 25). "Neither curse them nor bless them." And still Balaam tries on to see if he can change God's will. You hear the same cry from him still: "I would not do wrong for the whole world, but am I quite sure that it is wrong?" Many outwardly religious people go on like that. Has God really forbidden it? Why should not I get on in the world? Why should not I get things I like? So they go on like Balaam, trying how far they can go. And over them all the time is the great, holy, unchanging God, with His eternal, unchanging laws of Right and Wrong.
So Balaam goes on. Again and again new altars are erected as he tried to change the Almighty's will. And now the final climax has come. He stands in the watcher's field at the top of Pisgah. Behind him lay the broad desert, stretching back to his Assyrian home. On his left the red mountains of Edom and Seir. Opposite, the rocky fortress of the Kenites, with the dim outline of the Arabian wilderness in the distance. And right below, the vast encampment of Israel—the nation whom he had come to curse.
And there as he stood, with his covetous desires and his struggling conscience, he felt like a whirlwind the prophetic power come upon him; he "heard the word of God, he saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open." He seemed to see marvellous visions of the future. He saw Israel victorious over all its foes. And then in the far-away future he saw—but not now—he beheld, but not nigh, a Star rising out of Jacob, and a Sceptre out of the border of Israel, a vision, it may be, in that far-back age, of the coming of the Son of God to men. The Divine power within had, for the moment, overcome the sordid spirit of the man. "Blessed shalt thou be, Israel! Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee!"
§ 4. Kept Back from Honour
So it seems as if the good in Balaam had conquered after all, spite of all his deceiving and tricking with conscience. Ah! good for Balaam if that were the end of the story. Can't you imagine the fierce anger of the king? Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together. "I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, lo, thou hast blessed them altogether! Therefore now flee thou to thy place. I thought to promote thee to great honour; but, lo, Jehovah hath kept thee back from honour."
Well for Balaam if it were true. Well for us all if it were true, whenever honour depends on the sacrifice of principle, that we could say, "God and my conscience have kept me back from such honour." Can you give instances of such being true to-day? e.g. business man who refuses to get rich by tricks of trade. Statesman who for Right's sake is on unpopular side. Young man or woman who could have gay companions and frivolous amusements and be highly honoured amongst a set of godless companions. Boy or girl who might be a popular ringleader at school. But they have determined to live the true life. The Lord God has kept them back from honour—such honour as that.
§ 5. Utter Defeat
The story seems ended here. I wish it were. One feels so glad for poor Balaam just then, with the good side of his nature conquering—glad to see him bear to be turned disgracefully out of Balak's camp—perhaps turning in his downfall to Moses and telling him all his story. Perhaps that was when Moses learned it all.
But men who have lived most of their lives like Balaam, alas! do not quickly turn permanently to good. The next chapter tells of a terrible calamity and a terrible sin of Israel, which brought down on them the curse that all Balaam's divinations had failed to bring. They got tempted to join in the filthy idolatry of the Moabites, with all the horrible sin that followed in its train. And again, as before, God's punishment fell. "The chiefs of the people were hung up before the Lord, and a plague came out from the presence of the Lord that slew 24,000." What an awful punishment! What an awful sin! What an awful responsibility on those who tempted them to sin! But what has it all to do with Balaam, who had so conscientiously refused to curse them? Nothing, it would seem at first. Not a word about him in this chapter. But turn to chapter xxxi., after the punishment of the Moabites and Midianites who had seduced Israel into this terrible sin in order that God might curse them. There is just a passing mention of his name in the stern speech of Moses; but what an awful mention! (v. 16). These caused the children of Israel to trespass against the Lord through the counsel of Balaam. What a devilish thing! He could not go against God, but his soul was hankering still after the rewards of Moab. So when he had been turned out of Balak's camp, and his enthusiasm for righteousness had died away, he must have skulked back to the king one day: "I cannot disobey God, but I want to do what you wish. You want God's curse on them. I will counsel you how to draw them into a sin that will certainly curse them." And he did, and for that his name is held up to eternal shame wherever the Bible has reached. What does St. Peter call him? (2 Peter ii. 15). What does Book of Revelation say? (ii. 14).
You remember his wish, "Let me die the death of the righteous." What death did he die? (Numbers xxxi. 8). Slashed down amid the shrieking hordes of polluted Midian. That is the end. An awful, awful, miserable end.
§ 6. Lesson for Us
What is the great safeguard against such a life as Balaam's? The love of God and Right. The honest surrender of your heart to Christ. If Balaam had loved God he could not have asked for leave again and again to do wrong.
There are people still, conscientious people, too, whose rule of duty is the minimizing rule like Salaam's. "How little of God's will need I do—how much of self-pleasing may I practise without actually disobeying God and conscience?" Ah! it is a dangerous, dishonouring way—a poor, miserable, ungrateful way to treat God. Remember the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, "though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor" (2 Corinthians viii. 9). For our sakes was scoffed and beaten and spitted on and murdered, because He loved us. Let us pray for real love to Him in return. Thus shall we escape the danger of Balaam. Thus shall our conscience be kept undisturbed. Thus shall our service be loyal and true. Thus shall we "die the death of the righteous," and our last end be like his.
V. 9, The people shall dwell alone. Point out how, while so many ancient peoples have been swept away and absorbed in the general mass of humanity, Israel still everywhere stands apart and "is not reckoned amongst the nations."
V. 14, Field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah. Probably they were traversing the very ground that Moses traversed on that day when he went up to the top of Pisgah to die.
V. 24. Cf. Genesis xlix. 9.
Ch. xxiv. 14. Well for him if he had gone home "unto his people" and not stayed for his ruin. Some think that it was here, while "advertising" Balak of what should be, that he gave him the villainous advice about tempting Israel to fornication. One of the chief Jewish Targums, or commentaries, inserts that advice here. But I think it is very unlikely just when the man's conscience had, for the moment at least, been stirred to its depths.
V. 17, There shall come a Star, etc. The great Jewish Targums, or commentaries, interpret this as a prophecy of the Messiah. And this was evidently the reason why the false Messiah who appeared in the reign of the Emperor Adrian took the title Bar-Cochab , "the son of a star." See Ellicott's Commentary. I have not dealt with this subject, as I feared to distract attention from my central lesson on "Conscience."
Questions for Lesson XX
The prophet Micah records a fine saying of Balaam. What?
Tell me Balaam's wish about his death.
How only can a man die the death of the righteous?
Did Balaam live thus?
Now tell of the awful sin which ruined him.
What death did he die?
What does his story teach us?