25. Surrexit itaque Balaam, et abiit, reversusque est in locum suum: atque etiam Balacabiit in viam suam.
1. And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord. It is evident that Balaam, in order to gratify the wicked king for the sake of the reward, endeavored by various shifts and expedients to obtain an answer in accordance with his wishes. Thus do the wicked seek to propitiate God by delusive means, just as we soothe children by coaxing. And God for some time allowed him f163 to gloat upon his fallacious oracle. He now, however, lays closer constraint upon him, and, breaking off all delay, dictates an answer, which He compels him to deliver. For his obedience is not here praised as if, when he understood the will of God, he yielded voluntarily and abandoned his monstrous cupidity; but, because now there was no more room for subterfuge, he dared not stir his foot, as if God had put forth His hand to retain him in his place.
When it is said that “the Spirit of God was upon him,” f164 after he turned his eyes “toward the wilderness” and beheld the camp of Israel, how they were marshalled “according to their tribes,” we must understand it thus: not that he was influenced by a sincere feeling of good-will, so that the sight itself suggested grounds for blessing; but that he was induced by the inspiration of the same Spirit, who afterwards put forth His influence in the prophecy itself. It is said, then, that the Spirit of God was upon him, not as if it had begun to inspire him at that particular moment when he cast his eyes upon the camp of Israel; but because it prompted him to look in that direction, in order that the impulse of prophecy might be stronger in him, as respecting a thing actually before his eyes. But after the Spirit had thus affected his senses, or at any rate had prepared them to be fit instruments for the execution of his office, it then also directed his tongue to prophesy; but in an extraordinary manner, so that a divine majesty shone forth in the sudden change, as if he were transformed into a new man. In a word, “theSpirit of God was upon him,” shewing by manifest token that He was the author of his address, and that he did not speak of his own natural intelligence. To the same intent it is said that “hetook up his parable,” because f165 the character of his address was marked with unusual grandeur and magnificent brilliancy.
3. And the man whose eyes are open,f166 hath said. This preface has no other object than to prove that he is a true prophet of God, and that he has received the blessing, which he pronounces, from divine revelation; and indeed his boast was true as regarded this special act, though it might be the case that pride and ambition impelled him thus to vaunt. It is, however, probable that he prefaced his prophecy in this way by the inspiration of the Spirit, in order to demand more credit for what he said. From a consideration of this purpose we may the better gather the meaning of his words. Balaam dignifies himself with titles, by which he may claim for himself the prophetic office; whatever, therefore, he predicates of himself, we may know to be the attributes of true prophets, whose marks and distinctions he borrows. To this end he says that he is “hidden in his eye,” by which he means that he does not see in the ordinary manner, but that he is endued with the power of secret vision. Interpreters agree that µtç shethum, isequivalent to µts sethum, which is closed or hidden. Thus some render it in the pluperfect tense: The man who had his eyes closed; and this they refer to the blindness of Balaam, since his ass saw more clearly than himself. Others, who perceive this gloss to be too poor, expound it by anti-phrasis, Whose eye was open; but, since this interpretation, too, is unnatural, I have no doubt but that he says his eyes were hidden, because in their secret vision they have more than human power. f167 For David makes use of the word to signify mysteries, when he says:
“Thouhast manifested to me the hidden things f168 of wisdom.” (<195106>Psalm 51:6.)
Unless, perhaps, we may prefer that he was called the man with hidden eyes, as despising all human things, and as one with whom there is no respect of persons; the former interpretation, however, is the more suitable. And assuredly, when he adds immediately afterwards, the hearer of “the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty,” it must be taken expositively. To the same effect is what is added in conclusion: “Hewho falls f169 and his eyes are opened;”for the exposition which some give, that his mind was awake whilst he was asleep as regarded his body, is far-fetched; and there is a tameness in the opinion of those who refer it to the previous history, where it is recorded that, after Balaam had fallen under the ass, his eyes were opened to see the angel (chap. 22:31.) Comparing himself, therefore, to the prophets, he says that he fell down in order to receive his visions; for we often read that the prophets were prostrated, or lost their strength, and lay almost lifeless, when God revealed Himself to them; for thus did it please God to cast down His servants as to the flesh, in order to lift them up above the world, and to empty them of their own strength, in order to replenish them with heavenly virtue.
5. How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! The internal condition of prosperity enjoyed by the people is described by various similitudes akin to each other, and expressive of the same thing. He compares them to valleys and well-watered gardens, and then to trees which were rendered succulent by abundance of moisture, and finally to fields whose seeds imbibe fatness from the waters. The word we translate “valleys spread forth,” some prefer to render “streams;”and the Hebrew word signifies both; but the course of the metaphors requires that valleys should be rather understood. For the same reason I have given the translation “aloe-trees;” for, although the word µylha ohelim, often means “tabernacles,”I have no doubt but that it here refers to trees, so as to correspond with what follows as to the cedars. They are called trees “which the Lord hath planted,” as surpassing the ordinary growth of nature in their peculiar excellency, and exhibiting something more noble than the effect of human labor and skill.
In the concluding similitude the interpreters have erred, in nay opinion. Some translate it, “Hisseed (is) many waters;”others, “on many waters;” but f170 the literal translation which I have given runs far better, viz., that he is like a rich and fertile field, whose seed is steeped in much water.
Thus far Balaam has been speaking of God’s blessing, which shall enrich the people with an abundance of all good things.
7. And his king shall be higher than Agag. He now begins to enlarge on their outward prosperity, viz., that the people of Israel shall be powerful and flourishing, and endowed with a warlike spirit to resist the assaults of their enemies; for it would not be sufficient that they should abound with all blessings, unless the ability to defend them should also be superadded. It is by no means a probable conjecture that he speaks of Saul who made prisoner of their king, Agag, in the battle with the Amalekites; but their opinion is the more correct one, who suppose that this was a name common to all the kings of that nation. It was, therefore, God’s intention to declare the superiority of His chosen people to the Amalekites; nor need we be surprised that they should be thus brought into especial antagonism with them, not only because they were the constant enemies of Israel, but because their power was then excessively great, as we shall very soon see: “Amalek was the first of nations,” etc. (verse 20.)
Although for a long time afterwards, there was no king in Israel, still there is no absurdity in the fact that the commonwealth should be designated by the name of “king,” and “kingdom;” especially since God had postponed the full accomplishment of His grace until the time of the establishment of the kingdom. Hence, in this prophecy, Balaam, however little he might have been aware of it, embraced the time of David; and consequently he predicted things which were only accomplished in Christ, on whom the adoption was founded.
What follows has been already expounded, viz, that God, in delivering His people, had made it plain that He would have them remain in safety and perpetuity; and that He was able to bring this to pass.
9. Blessed is he that blesseth thee. This mode of expression signifies that the Israelites were elected by God, on these terms, that He would account as conferred upon Himself whatever injury or benefit they might receive. Nor is there anything new in this, that God should declare that He would be an enemy to the enemies of His Church; and, on the other hand, a friend to her friends, which is a token of the high favor with which He regards her. Hence, however, we are taught, that whatever good offices are performed towards the Church, are conferred upon God Himself, who will recompense them faithfully: and, at the same time, that believers cannot be injured, without His avenging them: even as He says; “Hethat toucheth you toucheth the apple of my eye.” (<380208>Zechariah 2:8.) If any should object that Balaam himself went unrewarded, although he blessed the people, the reply is an easy one, that he was unworthy of any praise, who was by no means disposed in the people’s favor of his own accord, and out of pure and generous feeling; but who was forcibly drawn in a direction whither he was unwilling to go. Meanwhile, this point remains unshaken, that whosoever have contributed their labors for the Chureh’s welfare, and have been her faithful helpers, shall be sure partakers of the blessing which is here promised.
10. And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam. Inasmuch as the obstinacy of the wicked is not overcome, so that they should submit themselves to God, when He would bring their lusts under the yoke, it must needs be that, when they are still further pressed, they are carried away into passion. Thus now, Balak, after murmurings and expostulations, bursts forth into impetuous wrath, and rejects, and drives away with reproaches from his presence Balaam, whom he had hitherto been endeavoring to cajole. For, when he smites his hands together, it is because he can no longer restrain himself. He is especially indignant, because Balaam had not hesitated freely and openly to bear witness to the blessing of the children of Israel, against whom he was so full of hatred. For nothing is more galling to kings than when they see private individuals regarding their presence at least without alarm. Since he determines to give no reward to the untoward and ill-starred prophet, he throws the blame upon God, lest he should himself incur discredit from this, as if he were illiberal. And, indeed, what he says is true, that God had kept back Balaam from honor; yet impiously, and, as it were, reproachfully, does he lay the blame upon God, and, in fact, accuses Him of being the cause of the non-fulfillment of his promise.
12. And Balaam said unto Balak. Balaam speaks the truth, indeed, yet in a bad spirit, as we have seen: for he excuses himself with servility f171 to Balak, that it did not depend on himself that he did not comply with his wishes, but that God had stood in the way. For he grieves at the loss of his reward; and however grandly he may declaim on the supremacy of God, he still signifies that he has rather acted upon compulsion than willingly executed what was enjoined upon him. By “the word (sermonem) of Jehovah,” f172he means not only His decree, but what had been dictated to him, and which he would have still greatly desired to alter; but he indicates that he was bound by the power of the Spirit to declare, even against his own will, whatever revelation he received. Thus the word “do”refers to his tongue, or his charge as a prophet; since he had not been hired by Balak to perform any manual act, but only to injure the people by his words. The word “heart” f173 is contrasted with the revelation of the Spirit; for impostors are said to speak out of their own heart, when they falsely make use of God’s name to cover their own inventions. He, therefore, declares that he was not at liberty to speak “of his own heart,” because he was the minister of the Spirit.
14. And now, behold, I go unto my people. Since the counsel which he gave is not here expressly mentioned, f174 it is the opinion of some that his address is unfinished, and they suppose that he referred to the cunning advice so destructive to the people, which will be presently related; i.e., that the Moabitish women should prostitute themselves. Others rather imagine that Balaam counselled Balak to rest quiet, since the prosperity of the Israelites would do no harm to the Moabites in his lifetime. I, however, take it simply for to teach, or to admonish what would be for his advantage. Thus he commends his prophecy, in order that Balaam may willingly submit to it. Still, when he speaks of the “latter days,” he signifies that there was no cause for Balak himself to fear or be anxious; since the punishment of his nation would be deferred for a long time. In the meantime we see what Balak had gained by his trouble; for, whereas he had hitherto only heard the people of Israel blessed, he is not compelled to listen to what is more painful still, viz., the ruin of his own nation. This is the reward of those who strive against God.
15. Balaam the son of Beor hath said. Inasmuch as he was preparing to treat of most important matters, it is not without reason that he renews his preface, in order to obtain more authority for his prophecy: and although it was not without ambition that he proclaimed these magnificent titles, still we cannot doubt but that God would ratify by them what he had determined to deliver through the mouth of the prophet. It was requisite that this worthless man, whose doctrine would otherwise have been contemptible: should be marked out by Divine indications; and thus it was that he assumed a character that he did not possess, and attributed to himself what only belongs to true prophets. I have before explained how the open and the closed eye are spoken of in the same sense, though for different reasons: forhe calls the eye “hidden,”as perceiving the secret things of darkness, which are incomprehensible to the human sense; but he claims for himself “open eyes,” in that he beholds, by prophetic vision, what he is about to say, as if he would deny that he was going to speak of things which were obscure, and scarcely intelligible to himself.
17. I shall see him, but not now.f175Though the verbs are in the future tense, they are used for the present; and again, the pronoun him designates some one who has not yet been mentioned; and this is a tolerably common usage with the Hebrew, especially when referring to Jerusalem, or God, or some very distinguished man. The relative is, therefore, here put kat ejxoch for the antecedent: and although there can be no doubt but that he alluded to the people of Israel, it is still a question whether he designates the head or the whole body; on which point I do not make much contention, since it is substantially the same thing.
The reason why Balaam postpones his prophecies to a distant period, is in order to afford consolation to Balak, for, as much as he possibly can, he seeks to avoid his ill-will, and therefore assures him that, although he denounces evil, it was not to be feared at an early period, since he treats of things which were as yet far off.
The second clause must be unquestionably restricted to the head of the people, called metaphorically “aStar,” and then expressly referred to without a figure; for this repetition is common with the Hebrews, by which they particularize the same thing twice over. Assuredly he means nothing else by “theSceptre,” except what he had indicated by the “Star;” and thus he connects the prosperity of the people with the kingdom. Hence we gather that its state was not perfect until it began to be governed by the hand of a king. For, inasmuch as the adoption of the family of Abraham was founded on Christ, only sparks of God’s blessing shone forth until its completed brightness was manifested in Christ. It must be observed, therefore, that when Balaam begins to prophesy of God’s grace towards the people of Israel, he directs us at once to the scepter, as if it were the true and certain mirror of God’s favor. And, in fact, God never manifested Himself as the Father of this people except by Christ. I admit, indeed, that some beginnings existed in the person of David, but they were very far from exhibiting the fullness of the reality: for the glory of his kingdom was not lasting, nay, its chief dignity was speedily impaired by the rebellion of the ten tribes, and was finally altogether extinguished; and when David’s power was at its height, his dominion never extended beyond the neighboring nations. The coming forth of the Star and the Sceptre, therefore, of which Balaam speaks explicitly, refers to Christ; and what we read in the Psalm corresponds with this prophecy;
“The Lord shall send the sceptre f176 of thy strength out of Sion.” (<19B002>Psalm 110:2.)
Hence it follows that the blessing, of which Balaam speaks, descends even to us; for, if the prosperity of the ancient people, their rest, their well-ordered government, their dignity, safety, and glory, proceeded from the scepter as its unmixed source, there is no doubt but that Christ by His coming accomplished all these things more fully for us.
The destruction of the nation of Moab is added as an adjunct of the kingdom. And first, indeed, Balaam declares that “its princes shall be transfixed.” If any prefer to read its “corners,” f177 the expression is metaphorical, implying that the Sceptre will break through its munitions, or destroy what may seem to be strongest. I do not doubt but that the same thing is confirmed in what is said of the children of Sheth;” for those who take it generally for the whole human race, f178 violently wrest the text by their gloss. Balaam is speaking of the neighboring nations; and, when in the next verse he goes on to specify Edom, he adds Mount Seir by way of explanation. Since the form of the two sentences is identical, it is probable that none others than the Moabites are meant by the children of Sheth. Still the question arises why Balaam attributes to a single nation what was common to all, for all who were of the descendants of Sheth equally derived their origin from Noah. Some think that they boasted of this descent in order to conceal their shame, for we know that the founder of this nation sprang from an incestuous connection. But another more satisfactory reason occurs to me, viz., that they boasted, like the Amalekites, of the extreme antiquity of their race;since, therefore, they desired to be reckoned amongst the most ancient nations, it will not be improbable that by this ironical appellation their vain-glory was reproved. It may, however, have been the case that some one amongst the descendants of Moab was distinguished by this name. Still, as I have lately said, the Moabites as well as the Edomites were subdued by David, for David thus justly celebrates his triumphs over them,
“Moab is my wash-pot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe,”
but then was merely typified, what Christ at length fulfilled, in that He reduced under His sway all adverse and hostile nations. Therefore it is said, he “shall destroy him that remaineth of the cities,” i.e., all enemies whom He shall find to be incorrigible.
20. And when he looked on Amalek. This people had already been destined to destruction by a Divine decree; but what God had before declared, is here again ratified by Moses. Although the vengeance, which God was about to take, lay dormant for many ages, it was at length experimentally proved that God had not threatened in vain. But, whilst it is true that they were destroyed by Saul, still we learn from the history that some still survived, and again inhabited their land. In order, therefore, to arrive at the entire accomplishment of this prophecy, we must come to Christ, whose kingdom is the eternal destruction of all the wicked. Poor and unsatisfactory is the view of some commentators f179 who think that Amalek is called “thefirst of the nations,” because they first took up arms against Israel, and encountered them in order to prevent their advance. Rather is the pride of Amalek indirectly rebuked, because they claimed superiority for themselves over other nations, and this on the score of their antiquity, as if they had been created together with the sun and moon. There is then a pointed comparison between this noble origin, and the slaughter which awaited them at their end.
21.And he looked on the Kenites. I have not yet referred to the sense in which Balaam is said to have seen the Kenites, as well as the other nations; and now, also, I should refrain from doing so, if some did not attribute it to prophetical vision, in which opinion I cannot agree: for Moses relates as a matter of history that Balaam turned his face in the directions in which they respectively lived: and, although he did not actually see the people themselves, the sight of the place in which they dwelt was sufficient for the purpose of prophecy.
By the Kenites I understand the Midianites, who were contiguous to the Amalekites; for it is altogether unreasonable to refer the name to the descendants of Jethro. Forty years had not yet elapsed since Jethro had left his son with Moses; and his was only one small family in the wilderness of Midian, whereas mention is here made of a people already celebrated. Balaam, therefore, designates by synecdoche the Midianites, and devotes them also to the punishment they well deserved. Of this Gideon was in some measure the minister and executioner, when he routed their immense army with three hundred men; and his victory is celebrated in <198311>Psalm 83:11, and <230904>Isaiah 9:4. It is probable that their power was broken at that time.
22.Until Asshur shall carry thee away captive. It is a harsh and unnatural construction to apply this to the Kenites; and the majority, indeed, consent that it should be referred to the Israelites; yet they differ as to the meaning of it, for some take it affirmatively, that the Kenites should be wasted, until the Assyrians should conquer the Israelites and carry them away captive; some, however, take it interrogatlvely, f180 as if it were an abrupt exclamation, How long shall Asshur hold thee captive? Thus they conceive the prolonged exile of the people is indicated. Undoubtedly it was the purpose of the Spirit to shew, by way of correction, that their prosperity, which had been previously mentioned, should be mixed with heavy afflictions: for slavery is a bitter thing, and exile even worse. Hence we gather that, though the Church is blessed by God, it is still in such a way as that it shall not cease to be exposed to various calamities. The interrogation, therefore, will be most appropriate.
24. And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim. It is unquestionable that the word Chittim is sometimes used for the Greeks. Some, indeed, imagine that the Macedonians alone are strictly called by this name; it is, however, plain that it is applied generally to the whole of Greece. But since the countries beyond the sea were not so well known to the Jews as to allow of their distinguishing them, Scripture sometimes transfers this same name to Italy. Without doubt in Daniel, (<271130>Daniel 11:30,) “the ships of Chittim” must be taken for those of Italy or Rome; f181 because the angel there predicts that the ships of Chittim would come, which should overcome, and render frustrate the efforts of Antiochus; which was plainly brought to pass by the mission of Popilius. With regard to the present passage, first of all the Greeks under Alexander afflicted both Judea and Assyria; and then another affliction followed at the hands of the Romans. Since, however, Balaam has begun to prophesy of the kingdom of Christ, it is probable that the Romans are included together with the Greeks. But from hence we more clearly perceive, what I have lately adverted to, that the children of God are not so exempted from common evils as not to be often involved in them promiscuously with unelievers, as if their conditions were precisely identical. Although the Hebrews are placed on a par with the Assyrians as their companions in misfortune, still a consolation is added, i.e., that the Assyrians also shall perish like Chittim, when they have persecuted the Church.
What Moses adds in conclusion, viz., that Balaam returned to his people, and Balak also went to his place, tends to the commendation of God’s grace, since He dissipates the evil counsels of the wicked like clouds, and overthrows their machinations; even as Moses commemorates elsewhere this peculiar blessing of God. f182 Micah, too, celebratesthis amongst other Divine mercies:
“Omy people, (he says,) remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,” etc. (<330605>Micah 6:5.)
The sum is, that the enemies of the chosen people departed in dishonor without accomplishing their purpose, since God put them to confusion.