« PreviousContinue »
ces; and ignorance, superstition and credulity easily admitted the insolent claim, and resorted to it. This was apparently the profession of Balaam, for in the book of Joshua he is expressly termed “the soothsayer.” It was probably to his skill and power as an astrologer, that Balak had recourse for assistance against Israel, and when we come to his prophecy itself, shall meet with some, and these not obscure, allusions to that art.
The messages put into the mouths of these ambassadors, is strongly expressive of terror and con-, sternation, “ There is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me,” Verse 5. The dreadful plagues inficted on Egypt, in effecting Israel's deliverance, had been heard at the distance of Moab; and though forty · years have elapsed, they are neither forgotten, nor have lost their impression. Fear ever magnifies its object; “they cover the face of the earth:” the word is, the eye or sight of the earth; their tents extend so far, that the earth and they seem to have one limit, and they are marshalled so close, that no ground can be seen.
Another image, strongly expressive of the same passion, is that in the fourth verse. “Now shall
all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.” it is the same word which is used 1 Kings xviii. 38, to express the action of devouring fire. “ Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench,” i Kings xviii. 38. The ox, as he feeds calmly and stately along, employs his tongue only, and the grass perisheth without pushing with the horn, or stamping with the foot, actions that denote strength and exertion, but by the easy motion of a soft and pliant film of flesh, he sweeps away all before him; thus easily and certainly, Balak
66 Lick up
apprehends, was Israel advancing to his and his
And how was this approaching plague to be resisted or averted? “ Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: perad. venture I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed," Verse 6. We have here an assemblage of all the baser and more contemptible passions of the human mind, called forth and led on by the predominant one of fear: a low, grovelling superstition, expecting from magical spells, what ought to have been sought for from wisdom and valor: unprovoked violence and cruelty, in seeking the destruction of a people, who were dwelling peaceably by him, and who had given such strong and recent proof of their moderation, in submitting to a tedious and difficult march round the whole land of Edom, rather than offend an unkind brother, who had refused a passage through his land, which they could easily have cut with the sword: and unmanly, abject adulation of a vile wizard, whom he supposed capable of serving his turn. On the other hand, the two great leading passions of Balaam's soul, vanity and covetousness, were likely to be gratified to the full. How would his heart exult, to see a train of princes standing at his gate, sents worthy of kings to bestow, poured down at his feet! A prophet indeed, would have known from the beginning, that the application was nugatory, and that it must come to nothing; and an honest man would have rejected it with firmness, and persevered in that rejection. But we see his heart is won from the first moment, and all that follows is a wretched struggle between inclination and conscience, in which the former, at length, carries off the victory.
He receives the messengers with great courtesy, and
accommodates them in his house; for even a miser can be hospitable, if he be sure of gaining by it. Abraham's servant, followed by a camel loaded with the good things of Canaan, can easily force open the doors of such a man as Laban, or Balaam. He affects an air of great mystery; he cannot give his response immediately. Night, the season of incantation and dreams, must intervene; and, horrible to think, the great and dreadful name of Jehovah is interposed, to sanction and conceal the wicked purposes of a heart hunting after its covetousness; and he promises to report in the morning the result of his consultation. How faithfully the report was made, the sequel will show.
It appears, on the face of the history, that God wait. ed not for an application from Balaam, concerning this business, but whether in a dream, a vision, or by a voice, prevented him, with an inquiry concerning the deputation from Moab. In many instances, Jehovah is represented as drawing information from men's own mouths, of what evidently lay revealed to his all-see. ing eye, and thus making their folly and wickedness to expose, reprove, and condemn themselves. “And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?” Verse 9. This question must have put the prophet into great agitation. Awful is the voice of the Eternal, at whatever season, in whatever form, and on whatever occasion it is heard! How awful then to a bad man, harbouring an ill design, shutting wilfully his own eyes, and yet Aattering himself, and saying, Doth God see, and is there knowledge with the Most High? That he considered the very question as ominous, and fatal to the cause of his avarice and vainglory, is evident from the circumstantiality of his answer. It discovers a soul tremblingly alive to the voice of interest: it is minute and particular, as if, by a parade of words, he could deceive his Maker into an approbation of his purpose and desire. What then must have been his chagrin and disappointment, when
a prohibition, so peremptory and positive, in a moment blasted all his prospects of gain and preferment!
“ And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed,” Verse 12. The application had two objects in view, permission to go into the land of Moab, and liberty to curse the children of Israel, and both meet with a flat denial. He must not accompany the ambassadors to him who sent them; neither must he, either at home or abroad, in this place or in that, presume to curse, or in any shape whatever to molest that people. And, as if the sternness of interdiction had not been sufficient, a reason is assigned, " for they are blessed.” The commandments of God, in general, are so clear, that it is impossible to misunderstand them; it is not ignorance, but presumption, that ruins mankind.
Balaam, however reluctant, must next morning deliver an account of the night's success; and we find he does it in a very partial and imperfect manner. When he reported the message of Balak to God, having to do with the great Searcher of hearts, with whom disguise avails nothing, he is accurate and distinct; but in carrying back the answer of God, having to do with men, who know no more than he had a mind to communicate to them, he delivers it in terms calculated only to stimulate the eagerness of the king of Moab, by encouraging a hope that something might be extorted, by dint of importunity and preseverance; or, that perhaps he might be allowed to do that at a distance, which he might not do by a nearer approach. The command was clear and full, “ Thou shalt not go with them;" but in the mouth of Balaam it is mutilated and perverted: “ the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you,” Verse 13. This satisfies Balak at once, that the prophet's good will was with him; that it was not from want of inclination that the messengers Feturned without him; and, he justly concludes, that
with such a proportion of the man on his side, it would not be difficult to make the rest to follow.
The father of lies himself will speak truth, when it makes for his purpose; and Satan will quote scripture, if he can but deceive by it; as in his temptation of our Saviour in the wilderness. But then there is always some material circumstance disguised, perverted or suppressed: and thereby a different meaning is conveyed from what was intended. The word of God, then, is handled deceitfully, not only when it is wrested, and made to speak a language not its own, but when any part of the truth is purposely, artfully and wilfully concealed; and he “who shuns to declare the whole counsel of God,” is equally criminal with him who presumes to deliver, as the word of God, what wants the stamp of his authority. Balaam simply relates, that he is not permitted to go; not a syllable of the prohibition to curse Israel, nor of the reason assigned for that prohibition.
As the message lost much by the way between God and the princes of Moab, from Balaam's manner of rehearsing it; so it looses still more between Balaam and their master, from their mutilated and partial report: so that by the time it reaches Balak, an entirely different turn and meaning is given to it. The words of the oracle are, “ Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed,” Verse 12, rehearsed by Balaam, “ the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you,” Verse 13, reported by the ambassadors, “ Balaam refuseth to come with us.” Verse 14. Thus, by the alteration of a few circumstances, even without a direct violation of truth, by passing through a very few hands, a proposition is made to contradict itself: and if we add to the easiness of varying facts, by varying phrases, and modes of expression; the difference still more easily made, by the infinite diversity of tones, looks and gesture, we shall not be surprised to find, what fre