Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, by John Nelson Darby, [1857-62], at sacred-texts.com
The following commentary covers Chapters 22, 23, 24, and 25.
Moab also opposes in vain. Now they are in the plains of Moab, having only Jordan between them and the land of their rest. But had they a right to enter there? If the enemy cannot oppose by force, he will try another way, by putting under the curse the people who well deserved it. Balak sends for Balaam. The grand question in this touching scene is this, "Can Satan succeed in cursing the people of God, so as to prevent their entrance into the land of promise?" [See Note #1] It is not merely a question of redemption and of the joy of redemption at the beginning of their course, but in the end, when all their unfaithfulness has been manifested-their unfaithfulness even after the Lord has brought them to Himself. Can Satan succeed then? No.
When Moses, in those same plains, has to say, with regard to their conduct towards God, "Ye have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you," (and indeed, they had been excessively froward, a most stiff-necked people; do we not know this well?), God says by the mouth of Balaam, the involuntary witness of the truth, "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel." What a testimony! What wonderful grace! What perfection in the ways of God! God sees aright; He makes no mistakes. He speaks the truth according to the perfectness of His infinite intelligence; and it is because it is infinite, that He can see no iniquity in the redeemed people. How could He see any in those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb? Nor is it His mind to see it.
In His own dealings with the people He will see everything, take knowledge of everything; but with the accuser it is a question of righteousness. God only sees this, that, according to the counsels of His grace, He has given a ransom; the sins of His people have been atoned for. He could not in justice see those sins. The mouth of the accuser is therefore obliged to confess that there are none, and that there is no power of the enemy against Jacob. And the ground is clearly taught: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, what hath God wrought? Not said of God, but of Israel; and not what hath Israel wrought, but what hath God wrought? Israel had the place, but the work was God's work. This is very perfect. What is peculiarly blessed and comforting in this is, that God acts and judges from His own thoughts. From beginning to end He has had thoughts about us; He has done what was needed to reconcile all His ways, in the accomplishment of them, with eternal righteousness; but He has these thoughts, and acts towards us according to them. It is these faith apprehends, accepts, and builds on. Hence joy and peace; while the presence of God in the midst of an accepted people to whom a new nature has been given, and His judging all there secures practically the holiness which He cannot dispense with, or judges departure from it, so as to vindicate His name. But here it is God acting, judging, in spite of all, according to His own thoughts.
Balaam was a sad character. Forced to see from afar off the blessing of God upon His people, when he is near, and actuated by his own heart and will, he sees nothing but the way of error, into which he wishes to drag them that they might forfeit that blessing (if this were possible), reasoning upon this ground, that the righteous God could not bless a sinful people. One cannot think of any iniquity worse than that.
We shall say a few words as to his typical character. Let us pursue the history. Balak seeks him. Balaam wishes to inquire of Jehovah either from instinctive fear, or to attach, in the sight of others, the importance of the name of Jehovah to what he does. Effectively God does interfere, and even goes first to Balaam. He takes the matter in hand, and has power over the unjust mind of Balaam against his will; for Balaam has no understanding of the mind of God. God said, "Thou shalt not go: they are blessed." What is his answer? "Jehovah refuseth to give me leave to go." He would gladly have gone; his heart was set upon the reward of Balak; but he fears before God. The blessing of the people does not come into his mind; he is a complete stranger to the generosity of grace-insensible to the thought of their being blessed of God, of delight in His blessing on His people. Consequently, when there is a renewal of the temptation, he says that he cannot transgress the commandment of Jehovah his God: he puts on piety, and, in reality, he was not entirely without sincerity, for God held him close, and, indeed, allowed all this. But, at the same time, Balaam induces the messengers of Balak to tarry and see what God would say further. What did he want to know more about an invitation to curse that people, who, God had told him, were blessed? He had no sympathy whatever with the thoughts of the heart of God, none with Himself; he was governed by the fear of consequences. Otherwise, he would have been so happy in the blessing of the people, that he would have shuddered at the idea of cursing what God had blessed. God, however, will use him, to give a glorious testimony on behalf of His people, whilst, at the same time, condemning the crooked ways of the prophet, for they were indeed crooked. He shews him his perverseness, his folly, to be more stupid than the ass he was riding; but, at the same time, He makes him go on his way. This meeting in the way does serve to force him, through fear, to utter faithfully what God should put into his mouth. Balaam goes to meet-he does not say what. It is plain (Num 24:1) that he had mixed enchantments with the profession of the name of Jehovah, and that he had thus been the enemy's instrument, with the credit of Jehovah's name-a deeply solemn case. He was thus going to meet the mysterious power which came there, and Elohim came to meet him. God restrains and hinders on the behalf of His people all power of the enemy, and causes Balaam to say what He wishes to be said. Balaam looks upon Israel from above, and utters his prophecy.
This prophecy is divided into four parts. It has Israel for its object; but, as to the principle of it, it applies also to the assembly. The first prophecy announces the separation of the people from the world. "The people shall dwell alone," separated unto God, a people not reckoned among the nations.
The second prophecy declares that God does not repent. God has blessed them; shall He not confirm what He has just said? The people are justified, and without sin in the eyes of God. God it was who had brought them out of Egypt. This people had "the strength of the unicorn," and the enemy, whom he had sought (in his enchantments), had no power against them.
Balaam, seeing at last that God was bent upon blessing, yields to the power of God, goes no longer to the meeting of enchantments, and the Spirit of God comes upon him. The justification of the people being now declared, the Spirit of God can bear testimony to them, instead of confining His testimony to the thoughts and intentions of God. Balaam sees them from above; seeing the vision of the Almighty, he sees the people according to the thoughts of the Spirit of God, as seen in the mind of God from above. The eyes of the prophet are open. And remark, here, that it is neither the anticipation of Canaan, nor Israel in their permanent habitations: Balaam turns his face towards the wilderness and sees Israel abiding in their tents. There the Spirit sees them, and declares the beauty and the order of the people in the eyes of God. The water of the refreshing of God was also always with them there; they were as trees that Jehovah had planted, therefore will they be great amongst the nations, a source of power and joy. They drink from the sources of God, and pour out from them abundantly for others. God had brought them out of Egypt, they were the work of God? and the power of God was to go with them against their enemies. We get here, thirdly, then, beauty, a freshness the sources of which do not dry up, and power (what the Spirit does for the assembly).
Then, in the fourth place is the coming of Christ, the Star of Jacob, who crowns the glory of the people. Only, as it comes in the midst of Israel, it is in judgment. With regard to us, it will be to take us hence, in order to make us participate in the joy of His presence, to the marriage of the Lamb. In a word, we see the separation of the people from the world; their justification; their order, their beauty, as planted by God near the everlasting sources of the river of God; and then the coming of Christ. The prophecy is perfectly beautiful. Remark, too, the prophecies, in the renewed effort to bring a curse on them, are not repetitions. Each such effort brings out something more of what God had in His mind for His people! for blessing. It is not without interest to see how Balak uses all human and superstitious means to bring the curse on them. He had no idea of God, and it was with God he had to do.
It is very important for us to see sometimes the church from above, in the wilderness, but in the beauty of the thoughts of God, a pearl without price. In the midst of the camp below, in the desert, what murmurings, complainings; how much indifference, what carnal motives, would have been witnessed and heard! From above, for him who has the vision of God, who has his eyes open, everything is beautiful. "I stand in doubt of you," says the apostle; and immediately after, "I have confidence in you, through the Lord." We must get up to Him, and we shall have His thoughts of grace, who sees the beauty of His people, of His assembly, through everything else, for it is beautiful. But for this, one would be either entirely discouraged or satisfied with evil. This vision of God removes these two thoughts at once.
We see the final judgment of the ships of Chittim (that is, of the west, north of the Mediterranean), and that of their chief, after he has afflicted Asshur and Eber also. It will be the terrible judgment of God at the end of this age.
A few words more on the position of Balaam. At the end of a dispensation based on any knowledge whatever of God, when faith is lost and profession retained, this last obtains a renown of which men glory (as now, of the name of Christianity). Satan uses it: power is sought from him. They go to meet enchantments; because, whilst glorying in the revealed name of God, they seek to satisfy their own lusts; and the importance of the name of God is tacked on to the work of the devil. However, God is acknowledged up to a certain point. They fear Him, and He may interfere; but the system is diabolical, under the name of the Lord, with a partial fear of the Lord, and a dread which recognises Him as an object of fear. The people of God are preserved; but it is a very solemn thought, and it is truly the history of the christian system. At last, the unhappy Balaam, whose heart was in the bond of iniquity, seeing that he cannot curse by the power of Satan, seeks to frustrate the blessing of God by leading the people into sin and idolatry. As regards the people, he is but too successful. God sends chastisement; and, while the people are humbling themselves, the enormity of the evil excites the indignation of Phinehas, who, acting with an energy suitable to the circumstances, stops the plague and acquires a perpetual priesthood in his family.
It is of the highest interest to see the special character of this prophecy. It is God who, of His own will, interferes to take the part of His people against the enemy, and that even without their knowing it, or asking for it. It is not, as almost all prophecies are, an appeal to the conscience of the people, accompanied by promises calculated to sustain the faith of the remnant in the midst of the gainsayers. The people know nothing about it; they are perhaps still murmuring in their tents (so beautiful in the eyes of him who had the vision of the Almighty) against the ways of God with them. It is God declaring His own thoughts and confounding the malice of Satan, the enemy He has to do with. That is the reason why this prophecy is so complete; presenting to us, in spirit, our whole portion (literally it is that of Israel, as in the fourth prophecy is evident), separation, justification, beauty in the eyes of God (all that corresponds with the presence of the Spirit of God), and the crown of glory in the coming of the Star of Jacob, of Christ Himself, in glory.