9. For from the top of the rocks I see him. Unless I am mistaken, the meaning is that, although he only beheld the people from afar, so that he could not accurately perceive their power from so high and distant a spot, still they portended to him something great and formidable. A closer view generally intimidates men; besides, a body of twenty thousand men then dazzles our sight, as if the number were five times as great: whilst the real extent of a thing is also more accurately ascertained. But Balaam declares, in the spirit of prophecy, that he sees far more in the people of God than their distance from him would allow; for, posted as he was on a high eminence, he would have only belleld them as dwarfs with the ordinary vision of men. He says, that “thepeople shall dwell alone,” as being by no means in want of external support: for ddbl, lebadad, is equivalent to solitarily or separately. It is said of the people, therefore, that they shall dwell in such a manner as to be content with their own condition, neither desiring the wealth or power of others, nor seeking their aid. The fact that the people had recourse at one time to the Egyptians, at another to the Assyrians, and entangled themselves in improper alliances, is not repugnant to this prophecy, in which the question is not as to the virtue of the people, but only as to the blessing of God, which is again celebrated in the same words in <053328>Deuteronomy 33:28.
What follows, that “theyshall not be reckoned among the nations,” must not be understood in depreciation of them, as if it were said that they should be of no credit or position; but the elect people is exalted above all others in dignity and excellence, as though he had said that there should be no nation under heaven equal to or comparable with them. And, although there were other kingdoms more illustrious for the flourishing condition of their people, and superior both in the number of their inhabitants, and in all kinds of prosperity, still this people never forfeited their pre-eminence, since they were distinguished, not so much by wealth and external endowments, as by the adoption of God. Thus, Mount Sion is called noble above all other mountains, because God had there chosen to make His abode. Others explain it that the people should be alone, so as not to be brought into comparison with the Gentiles, inasmuch as its religion should be separate from the whole world, and unmingled with heathen corruptions. The exposition which I have given is, however, more simple.
10.Who can count the dust of Jacob? Hence it is plain that what Balaam was to say was suggested to him by God, since he quotes the words of God’s solemn promise, wherein the seed of Abraham is compared to the dust of the earth. Still, we must bear in mind what I have just adverted to, that, although that multitude was reduced to a small number by the sin of the people, nevertheless this was not declared in vain, inasmuch as that little body at length expanded itself so as to fill the whole world. Speaking by hyperbole, then, he says that their offspring would be infinite, since the fourth part will bealmost innumerable. His aspiration at the conclusion is more emphatic than a simple affirmation. “I would (he says) that I might share with them their last end!” f157 For, in the first place, every one longs for what is most for his good; and again, Balaam confesses himself unworthy to be reckoned among the elect people of God. Hence it might be easily inferred how foolishly Balak trusted to his curse. Further, in these words he refers to everlasting felicity; as much as to say that (Israel) would be blessed in death as in life. At the same time he is a witness to our future immortality; not that he had reflectedin himself wherefore the death of the righteous would be desirable, but God extorted this confession from an unholy man, so that, either unwillingly or thoughtlessly, he exclaimed that God so persevered in the extension of His paternal favor towards His people, that He did not cease to be gracious to them even in their death. Hence it follows, that the grace of God extends beyond the bounds of this perishing life. Wherefore this declaration contains a remarkable testimony to our future immortality. For although Balaam, perhaps, did not thoroughly consider what he desired, still, there is no doubt but that he truly professed that he wished it for himself. Nevertheless, as hypocrites are wont to do, he did but conceive an evanescentwish, for it was in no real seriousness that he sought what he was convinced was best. f158
The Israelites are called righteous (recti,) as also in other places, not on account of their own righteousness, but in accordance with God’s good pleasure, who had deigned to separate them from the unclean nations.
11. And Balak said unto Balaam. The proud man again reproaches the false prophet, as if he had fairly purchased of him the right of prophecy. f159 Behold how the reprobate seek God by crooked paths, and desire to have nothing to do with Him, unless He yields to their improper wishes — in a word, unless they render Him submissive to them. Balaam, therefore, is compelled to repress this stupid arrogance, by pleading God’s command, and declaring that nothing more was allowed him than to announce what God prescribed. But we must remember that this was only spoken in reference to a particular act, when, as far as his words went, he acted the part of a true prophet, although his feelings were altogether on the other side.
13.And Balac said unto him. Balak did, as almost all superstitious persons usually do; for, because with them nothing is certain or established, they are carried about from one speculation to another, and try now this and now that expedient. But especially do they imagine that there is some magical power in the sight, as if the eyes contributed partly to the efficacy of their incantations. It appears from profane writers that this was formerly a commonly received opinion, that the gaze of the enchanter had much effect upon his art. Balak, therefore, removes his sorcerer to another place, that there he might the better exercise his divinations. There is some ambiguity in the words. Some render them thus, “Cometo another place, that thou mayest see from thence, f160 mayest see a part, and not the whole,” as if Balak feared that the multitude itself frightened Balaam, or diminished the power of his incantations. Their opinion, however, is the more probable, who take the verb see, where it is used the second time, in the perfect tense, so that the sense is, “Come to a place where thou mayest behold them; for as yet thou hast not seen the whole, but only a part;” for we know how common a thing with the Hebrews is such an employment of one tense for another. With respect to the place to which Balaam was taken, it little matters whether we believe µypx hdç, sedeh tzophim and hgsp pis’gah, to be nouns proper or appellative, since it is sufficiently clear that, if they were given to the place, it was on account of its position; for it is very likely that there was a level place upon the hill, which might justly be called “Thehill of the spies.”
17. And when he came to him. Balak inquires what God had answered, although he had rejected the previous revelation. Thus do hypocrites profess anxious solicitude in inquiring the will of God, whilst the knowledge of it is intolerable to them. Therefore their extreme earnestness in inquiry is nothing but mere dissimulation. Besides, Balak hunts, as it were, for the answer of God by a distant divination, whereas a testimony to God’s will was all the time engraven upon his heart. But this is the just punishment of perverse curiosity, when the wicked endeavor to impose a law upon God, that he may submit to their wishes. Balak omits nothing in regard to outward ceremonies; he humbly attends upon the altars for the purpose of propitiating God; but in the meantime he would have Him obedient to himself, and cannot endure to listen to Him, unless He speaks to him in flattering and deceptive terms.
18.And he took up his parable and said. We have already explained the meaning of this expression, namely, to make use of glowing and elevated language, in order the more to awaken the attention of the hearer. The same also is the object of the preface, “Riseup, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor;” for such repetitions are mostly emphatic, and indicate something uncommon.
When he declares that “Godcannot lie, because he is not like men,” it is a severe kind of censure, as much as to say, “Wouldyou make God a liar? “ for it became requisite that the frantic eagerness of Balak should be repressed, and prevented from proceeding any further. Hence, however, a lesson of supreme utility may be extracted, namely, that men are altogether wrong when they form their estimate of God from their own disposition and habits. Still, almost all men labor under this mistake. For how comes it that we are so prone to waver, except because we weigh God’s promises in our own scale? In order, therefore, that we may learn to lift up our minds above the world, whenever the faithfulness and certainty of God’s word are in question, it is well for us to reflect how great the distance is between ourselves and God. Men are wont to lie, because they are fickle and changeable in their plans, or because sometimes they are unable to aceomplish what they have promised; but change of purpose arises either from levity or bad faith, or because we repent of what we have spoken foolishly and inconsiderately. But to God nothing of this sort occurs; for He is neither deceived, nor does He deceitfully promise anything, nor, as James says, is there with Him any “shadowof turning.” (<590107>James 1:7.) We now understand to what this dissimilitude between God and men refers, namely, that we should not travesty God according to our own notions, but, in our consideration of His nature, should remember that he is liable to no changes, since He is far above all heavens. As to the meaning of the repentance of God, of which mention is often made, let my readers seek it elsewhere in its proper place. We must, however, at the same time, observe the application of the lesson; for the words “Godis true,” would have no efficacy in themselves, unless they are applied to their appropriate use, i.e., that we should with unhesitating faith acquiesce in His promises, and seriously tremble at His threats. For with the same object it is said that the word of God is pure and perfect, and is compared with gold refined seven times in the fire; and this also is the tendency of the conclusion, which is presently added: “ShallHe not fulfill what He has spoken?” Balak desired to have the people cursed, whom God had adopted: Balaam declares that this is impossible, because God is unchangeable in that which he has decreed. In a word, he teaches us the same truth as Paul does, that the election of his people is “without repentance,” because it is founded on the gratuitous liberality of God. (<451129>Romans 11:29.) If, then, this saying was extorted from the hireling false prophet, how inexcusable will be our stupidity, if our minds vary and waver in embracing God’s word, as if He Himself were variable.
20.Behold I have received commandment to bless. Hesignifies that a command to bless had been given him, antl a positive law laid down for him. For, as has been said, he was not free and independent in this matter; but God had bound him to exercise the prophetic office, even against his own will. Hence he declares that it is not in his power to alter the revelation, of which he is the minister and witness. But there is a remarkable expression introduced in the midst of his declaration, viz., that God himself had blessed; whereby he intimates that the lot of men, whether adverse or prosperous, depends on the authority of God alone; and that no other commission is given to the prophets, except to promulgate what God has appointed; as if he had said, It belongs to God alone to decreewhat the condition of men is to be; He has chosen me to proclaim His blessing; it is not in my power either to reverse or withdraw it. Now, since Balaam here sustains the character of a true Prophet, we may gather from his words that no other power of binding or loosing is given to the ministers of the Word, except that they should faithfully bring forward what they may have received from God.
21.He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob. Some understand by ˆwa, aven, lm[, gnamal, idols, f161 which bring nothing but deadly labor and trouble to their worshippers; as if it were said that Israel was pure and untainted by such offenses, in that they duly served the one true God. But how will it be correct to say that God saw not idolatry in the people, when they had so openly fallen into it? For, although the golden calf was only made on one occasion, still their manifold and almost constant rebellions were such as to forbid these wicked and perverse men from being thus absolved. Since, however, these two words in connection signify all sorts of iniquities, which tend to men’s hurt, or to the infliction of harm and loss, a more proper meaning will be, that such iniquity is not seen in Jacob as to include him with the nations that are given to violence and crime. Nevertheless, even if we take it thus, the former question still arises; for we know that the Israelites were scarcely better than the worst of mankind. Some reply feebly, that it was not seen, because God did not impute it; but, in my opinion, nothing else is meant by these words but that the people were pleasing to God, because He had sanctified them. If any object, that they were not therefore any the more just or innocent, the answer is easy — that it is not here declared what they were, but only God’s grace is magnified, who deigned to exalt them as a holy nation. In this way Jerusalem was the holy city and the royal abode of God, though it was a den of thieves. On this ground Paul says that the children of Abraham were “holybranches,” (<451116>Romans 11:16,) because they sprang from a holy root. In the same sense they are everywhere called God’s Children, however degenerate they might be. God, therefore, is said to have seen no iniquity in them, with reference to His adoption; not that they were worthy of such exalted praise, as if a distinction were drawn between them and the other nations — not on account of their deserts, but from the mere good pleasure of God. Thus Paul elsewhere, after he has compared them with the Gentiles, and has shewn that they are their superiors in no respect, at length adds, “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much (he says) every way; “and adduces a mark of distinction which does not proceed from themselves, f162 (<450301>Romans 3:1.) In a word, because it had pleased God to choose that people, He rather manifested His love towards Himself and His own grace, than towards their life and conduct.
Others take this passage otherwise, viz., that God did not behold iniquity, nor see perverseness in Jacob, because He was not willing that he should be unrighteously grieved or afflicted; as if it were said, If any one should wish unjustly to injure this people, God will permit no violence or injustice to be done to them, but will rather defend them as their shield. But if this sense be preferred, I should rather be disposed to take the vero indefinitely, as if it were said, Perverseness shall not be seen in Jacob; for when the Hebrews use the verb without a nominative, they extend the matter in question into a general proposition, and then the verb in the active voice may be suitably resolved into the passive. And thus the context will run better, since it is added immediately afterwards, “The Lord his God is with him,” whereby the reason seems to be given why perverseness (molestia) should not be seen against Jacob, viz., because God would be at hand to render him aid. For we know that His infinite power suffices to defend the safety of His Church, so that not even the gates of hell should prevail against it.
What follows directly afterwards, “The shout or the rejoicing of a king is among them,” I understand to be that God will always give them cause for triumph; for the word which the old interpreter elsewhere renders rejoicing (jubilationem,) seems here to be used for songs of rejoicing; but, since it also signifies the sound of a trumpet, it will not be inappropriate to take it as that the people shall be terrible to their enemies, because they shall boldly rush forward, or go down to the battle, as if God sounded the trumpet.
22.God brouqht them out of Egypt. He assigns a reason for their constant success, i.e., because God has once redeemed this people, He will not forsake the work which He has begun. The argument is drawn from the continued course of God’s blessings; for, since they flow from an inexhaustible fountain, their progress is incessant. This, however, specially refers to the state of the Church, for He will never cease to be gracious to His children, until He has led them to the very end of their course. Rightly, therefore, does Balaam conclude that, because God has once redeemed His people, He will be the perpetual guardian of their welfare. He afterwards teaches that the power wherewith God defends His people shall be invincible, for this is the meaning of the similitude of the unicorn.
23.Surely there is no enchantment. This passage is commonly expounded as an encomium on the people, because they are not given to enchantments and magical superstitions, as God also had strictly enjoined upon them in His law that they should not pollute themselves by such defilements. Others thus explain it, The Israelites shall not want enchanters, because by the Urim and Thummim, or by the Prophets, God would reveal to them whatever should be profitable for them. Their opinion is more correct who thus interpret it, No enchantment and no divination avails against the Israelites. Let us now proceed to explain this more clearly. Balaam, in my judgment, confesses that there is no room for His enchantments, or that his customary arts fail him now, because their efficacy and power cannot affect the Israelites. And this confession harmonizes with the words of Pharaoh’s magicians, when they said, “Thisis the finger of God,”(<020819>Exodus 8:19;) after they had pertinaciously contended, until God compelled them to yield. Thus now Balaam declares that the elect people were defended from on high, so that his divinations were ineffectual, and his enchantments vain.
The other clause of the verse appears to me to be simply to this effect, that God would henceforth perform mighty works for the defense of His people which should be related with admiration. The translation which some give is constrained and far-fetched, “Asat this time it shall be said, What has God wrought in Israel?” for Balaam rather would say, that great should be the progress of God’s grace, the beginnings only of which then appeared; and in short, he declares that henceforth memorable should be the performances of God in behalf of His people, which should supply abundant subjects for history.
24. Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion. This comparison is not in every respect accurate; for it does not signify that the Israelites should be cruel or rapacious, but merely bold and strong, and prompt in their resistance if any should provoke them. In the next chapter, it will occur again with a slight change in the words. What Balaam here predicates generally of the whole people, is applied in the blessings of Jacob to the tribe of Judah alone, (<014909>Genesis 49:9,) because it especially excelled in bravery. The sum is, that however the people of Israel might be attacked on every side, it should be endued with invincible fortitude, to overcome all assaults, or to repel them vigorously. Let us, finally, remember that this courage, wherewith Israel was to defend itself against all its enemies, was counted amongst the gifts of God; as: if Balaam had said that they should be preserved by the help of God.
25. And Balak said unto Balaam. Here we may behold as in a mirror how wretchedly unbelievers are driven to and fro, so as to alternate between vain hopes and fears, though by their changes of purpose they are still brought back to the same errors, as if their blind passion led them through a labyrinth. When Balak sees that he is deceived in his opinion, he seeks at least that the hireling prophet should neither profit nor injure. This, however, is exactly as if he would have God to lie idle; but presently he recovers his spirits, and endeavors to repurchase the curse, which in his penitence he had abandoned. For this cause he drags Balaam to another place, although he had already discovered that this was in vain. But thus pertinaciously do unbelievers prosecute their wicked efforts: whilst, at the same time, the disquietude which agitates them with doubts is the just reward of their temerity.
26.But Balaam answered and said. The mercenary prophet here confesses that he has no more power of himself to be silent than to speak. Nor is there any doubt but that he would excuse himself with servility to the proud king, to whom he would willingly have sold himself; as if, in his desire to avert the odium and blame from himself, he would state that he was carried away against his will by the Divine afflatus. At the same time he throws back the blame on Balak himself, who, though warned in time, had still foolishly sent to fetch him. The rest I have already expounded.