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J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson XIX

Balaam—A Study of Conscience

Part I

Read Numbers XXII.
Micah VI. 5-8.

THESE two lessons on Balaam require a great deal of study by the teacher, and careful preparation to condense them into required time.

§ 1. Conscience

After Moses had sinned, and been sentenced to exclusion from the Land, he went on still, like a brave man, to do his duties just as if no sorrow had fallen on him at all. He led on his people nearer to Palestine, and in so doing had to fight with Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, the giant king of Bashan. At last he approaches the borders of Moab.

And here comes in one of the most interesting incidents in the whole history—the story of the King of Moab and the prophet Balaam. I wonder if Moses knew anything about it at the time? Indeed, I wonder how he ever came to know of it? There are parts of it that no one but Balaam could have told. I have sometimes thought that perhaps Balaam, when expelled in disgrace from the Moabite camp for refusing to curse Israel, may have come to the Israelite encampment, and told Moses, or told somebody. Or perhaps the Balaam story remained as a separate story, and only got used up afterwards in the composition of the Pentateuch. Many people, you know, think that Moses did not complete the whole Pentateuch as we have it, but only left the documents which were the foundation or kernel from which it was afterwards written in the finished form as we have it to-day. We do not really know.

But at any rate here is a most wonderful and most interesting story. Also, in some ways, a difficult story. It will require your hardest thinking and deepest attention. But I don't think it is too hard for you if you do your best. And if you can understand it, it will be for you full of interest and instruction.

Before we talk of it, I want to ask you some questions. Have you ever shut your eyes and turned your thoughts in on your conscience—the part of you where God's Holy Spirit dwells, and through which He speaks to you? Ever felt it saying within you, "You ought,"  "You ought not," when you were thinking of doing something? Who put it in you? Why? As a guide like the Pillar of cloud. But if it is your guide, what do we want Bible for? To teach about God. To educate and enlighten the conscience, which is only given to us in a weak, imperfect, uneducated stage. We have to educate and enlighten it. The Bible does that. It can guide us a little even without the Bible or Christian teaching. But not much.

You have felt conscience saying, "You ought,"  "You ought not." Now, if, when conscience says, "You ought," you reply, "I will not," what happens? Do you remember? Does conscience begin to hurt you, and accuse you, and drag you up before its bar and judge you? Did you ever feel that? And sometimes in the night, when you have been bad, have you felt conscience frightening you, and pointing out into the Unseen World, to tell of Someone behind who is noticing your badness? I want you to get the habit of watching and studying that conscience in yourselves, the most wonderful and interesting study. It makes one solemn and serious, for it is the voice of God in us. Through it the Holy Spirit speaks.

Now this story is in the Bible, like all its other stories, to educate and enlighten our conscience. But this has in it a special warning. It tells of a man who played tricks with his conscience instead of obeying it, and shows the great danger of doing this.

For example. Here is a clear duty lying before you. What does conscience say? "You ought." But you greatly dislike doing it. So you may bluntly say, "I will not," and thus openly disobey, or you may try to play tricks with conscience, and persuade yourself that conscience is not saying that, or that there are special reasons in your case which make your refusal not real wrong-doing, etc. This latter is the sort of thing that Balaam did, and this story is to warn us against it.

§ 2. Balaam

How does Balaam come into the Israelites' story? Yes; heathen people have great belief in magic and in cursing enemies. We had instances in India where the natives brought their heathen prophets and magicians to curse British troops. Don't you think Balaam a very remarkable man? Why? (1) He was a man of great fame and reputation, whom powerful kings far away would send for to help them. (2) He seems to have been a teacher and prophet of God, in some degree like Moses himself, though very different in character. Read his wonderful words in Micah (vi. 5-8), "What doth the Lord require of thee," etc. (3) More remarkable still, he was a prophet of God in the midst of heathen people, outside the Jewish race.

What does that teach us? That God's care and teaching was not confined to Israel, though He was specially training Israel as a teacher of the world. You remember the other instances before? Melchizedek in Canaan, Job in Arabia, Jethro in Midian, Jonah in Nineveh, etc. So even in China and India the false religions of to-day are corruptions of higher, nobler teaching of long ago, and all high, noble teaching must come from God. So we find God was not neglecting all the rest of the world for Israel. Balaam seems to have come from Abraham's native land in Mesopotamia. Perhaps some knowledge of God had remained through Abraham's family.

Balaam, then, was no mere magician or juggler, but a man called by God to very high things, who spoiled all his life through playing tricks with his conscience.

What specially concerns us, then, is his character. Not merely because he was a man of high religious belief  (such as expressed in Micah vi. 8), sinking to shameful conduct,  but also that he was able to deceive himself and persuade himself that he was not opposing God, when all the time he was moving fast towards one of the most horrible crimes in history. His is a very mournful story, one of the many mournful stories in the world—of men called to high things who have chosen low, of men who through their own evil and self-deceiving have wrecked their lives.

§ 3. Playing Tricks with Conscience

Now for the story. The great prophet is one day in his tent in far Mesopotamia, when a procession arrives of chieftains and princes of Moab, with their tall, lumbering camels and their gaudy, barbaric trappings. Who sent them? What for? How did he receive their message? Then he inquired of God, and learned God's will, perhaps in a dream, perhaps as Moses learned it. I don't know how. What did he reply to the messengers? (v.  13). Was not that a perfectly right answer? Do you see anything doubtful or suspicious in it? Does he say out straight, "God's will is my will, I will not go"? No. What? "The Lord refuseth to give me leave."  Does it not suggest that he wished God would give him leave, and let him win these rich bribes of Moab? Don't you think it means, "I would like to go,  but I dare not."

There are people like that, seeing clearly the right, the will of God, and obeying, not  because they love the right, but because they are afraid to go against it. Of course, that is a great deal better than disobeying. But it is not the best thing. The best thing is to feel sure that God's will is best, and to want to do it because it is the right. When one obeys unwillingly because he fears to disobey, there is danger of a fall like Balaam's.

At any rate, Balaam refused to do the wrong this time. Good for him if the temptation were over. But we are never safe from outside temptation. Our only safety is to make our hearts safe against yielding by giving them entirely to God. What was the next temptation? (vv.  15-17). A more honourable embassy, more tempting rewards. Then the evil of his heart shows itself. Did he not already know God's will? Would not a thoroughly honest-hearted man have promptly repeated his former answer? Did Balaam? No. He bade them tarry that night too, and for the sake of the high bribes for which he longed, he would try again if he could get leave to go with them.

What result? (v.  20). God gave him leave. That is a most puzzling verse. Do you think God's will had changed? I don't. I don't know how God's will was revealed to him. If through his conscience, I think I understand it. It is a thing that often happens to people. When they know the right, and are not satisfied to do it, they consider it all over again, dally with the temptation, look at its pleasant side, try if they cannot some way reconcile it with conscience. They try to wring the consent of conscience to force God, as it were, to give them leave to go.

Do you notice anything very puzzling in v.  22? That God was angry at Balaam for going, while Balaam felt that he had got leave to go. That used to puzzle me when I was a child. I know better now by experience of my own conscience and that of others. I know you may wish something to be your duty, till you actually persuade yourself that it is. You can even kneel down and pray for guidance, and if your heart is firmly set on getting your own way, you may actually rise up almost believing that wrong is right, that God gives you leave to do it. What is the security against this? When you have to make a decision about duty, try to be honest with yourselves. Don't try to get your own way. Say, "Father, I am willing to do the thing I don't like if it be right." Remember our Lord's prayer, "Father, not My will, but Thine be done!"

§ 4. Further Tricks with Conscience

We continue the story. How grand and important Balaam felt with all this splendid cavalcade of chiefs and princes travelling as his escort. "What a superior person I am! how they all look up to me for guidance!" From v.  22 to 35 there is a very curious part of the story about Balaam's ass. It puzzles me. Some great scholars think it was a dream by which God spoke to him on the way. And in some ways it looks like it, for Balaam seems alone without the brilliant procession of princes that had started with him, and he does not seem in the least surprised at this startling incident of the ass speaking. He takes it quite as a matter of course.

Did you ever notice how we all do that in dreaming? The most improbable things seem to us quite natural. So this incident looks very like what would happen in a dream. Some scholars think this whole section was inserted afterwards from another account. All through it the Divine name is Jehovah (THE LORD), whereas in all the rest of the narrative, except when repeating Balaam's own words, the historian uses the name "God" (Elohim). Other people say that this incident is as much part of the story as any other part, and there is no word in the chapter to hint that the narrator thought otherwise. And certainly there is no reason for doubting God's power to perform this miracle any more than all the other miracles. As the incident is so puzzling, and there is not time to deal with the whole chapter—we omit this section. The story pieces together quite smoothly without it if we pass from v.  21 to v.  36.

What an honourable reception Balaam got! Fancy a king coming to meet him to do him honour at the frontier city of his kingdom. No wonder he should feel proud and elated. But I don't think his conscience was quite easy, in spite of all his cleverness. Do you? Why not? Tell me exactly what he says to the king? (v.  38). "I have come, but  I will not speak one word except what God allows." Does not it look like excusing himself to his conscience? It is a great soothing to one's conscience, when one is doing something wrong, to keep on reiterating and insisting that he will most certainly not  do something else that is wrong. "I am going with bad companions, but I shall certainly not join them in their naughtiness and bad conduct."  "It is true I am very careless about religion, but you will never find any hypocrisy about me." Oh, these tricks of conscience! Did you ever try them yourself? They are so easily learned, and they are so soothing and comforting on the evil road. Balaam had no business at all to be in the camp of Balak, except that he hoped something would enable him to earn his bribe. What a comfort to keep saying to himself that he certainly would not go beyond the word of the Lord!

What do you think is the lesson of this chapter? To beware of playing tricks with your conscience. Reverence conscience as God's messenger to you. Do everything you can to enlighten and educate it, by Bible-reading and prayer and right doing. Get the habit of listening to it and obeying. Every time you listen to its still small voice it will be plainer and clearer next time. Every time you shut your ears to its commands it will be lower and duller and more easily silenced next time.

Next chapter we continue the story, and find out the terrible result of Balaam's playing tricks with conscience.


Vv.  20, 22. Would bear the rendering, "Since the men have come to call thee," and might mean, "Since through your own fault you have let them come back, have your own way; you may go with them, but beware what you say!" V.  22 clearly shows that the words imply no real willing permission for him to go.

V.  23, etc. I think the story of Balaam's ass is best dealt with as in the lesson. Let the pupil see the difficulty of the question, and that it is a perfectly legitimate position to say, "I do not know."

The teacher who has access to Bishop Butler's sermons should study his famous "Balaam" sermon.

Questions for Lesson XIX

Who were (1) Balaam, (2) Balak?

How does Balaam come into this story?

This is a study of conscience. How much do you know about conscience?

Show how Balaam played tricks with his conscience. Do people do that still? Give examples.

Was Balaam an entirely bad man? What was his fault?

What do you think of the story about Balaam's ass?