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UPON THE CHARACTER OF BALAAM.
Preached the second Sunday after Easter.
NUMB. Xxiii. 10.
Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.
THESE words, taken alone, and without respect to him who spoke them, lead our thoughts immediately to the different ends of good and bad men. For, though the comparison is not expressed, yet it is manifestly implied; as is also the preference of one of these characters to the other in that last circumstance, death. And, since dying the death of the righteous, or of the wicked necessarily implies men's being righteous or wicked, i. e. having lived righteously or wickedly; a comparison of them in their lives also might come into consideration from such a single view of the words themselves. But my present design is, to consider them with a particular reference or respect to him who spoke them; which reference, if you please to attend, you will see. And if what shall be offered to your consideration at this time, be
thought a discourse upon the whole history of this man, rather than upon the particular words I have read, this is of no consequence; it is sufficient if it afford reflections of use and service to ourselves.
But, in order to avoid cavils respecting this remarkable relation in Scripture, either that part of it which you have heard in the first lesson for the day, or any other, let me just observe, that as this is not the place for answering them, so they no way affect the following discourse; since the character there given is plainly a real one in life, and such as there are parallels to.
The occasion of Balaam's coming out of his own country into the land of Moab, where he pronounced this solemn prayer or wish, he himself relates in the first parable or prophetic speech, of which it is the conclusion: In which is a custom referred to, proper to be taken notice of,-that of devoting enemies to destruction, before the entrance upon a war with them. This custom appears to have prevailed over a great part of the world, for we find it amongst the most distant nations. The Romans had public officers, to whom it belonged as a stated part of their office. But there was somewhat more particular in the case now before us; Balaam being looked upon as an extraordinary person, whose blessing or curse was thought to be always effectual.
In order to engage the reader's attention to this passage, the sacred historian has enumerated the preparatory circumstances, which are these. Balaam requires the king of Moab to build him seven altars, and to prepare him the same number of oxen and of rams. The sacrifice being over, he retires alone to a solitude sacred to these occasions, there to await the divine inspiration or answer, for which the foregoing rites were the preparation. "And God met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth : "* upon receiving which, he returns back to the altars, where was the king, who had all this while attended the sacrifice, as
* Ver. 4, 5.
appointed, he and all the princes of Moab standing, big with expectations of the prophet's reply. "And he took up his parable, and said, Balak the King of Moab hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel. How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? Or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: Lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”*
It is necessary, as you will see in the progress of this discourse, particularly to observe what he understood by righteous. And he himself is introduced in the book of Micaht explaining it; if by righteous is meant good, as to be sure it is. "O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal."From the mention of Shittim it is manifest, that it is this very story which is here referred to, though another part of it, the account of which is not now extant; as there are many quotations in Scripture out of books which are not come down to us. "Remember what Balaam answered, that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord," i. e. the righteousness which God will accept. Balak demands, "Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" Balaam answers him, "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good: And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk
* Ver. 6.
↑ Micah vi.
humbly with thy God?" Here is a good man expressly characterized, as distinct from a dishonest and a superstitious man. No words can more strongly exclude dishonesty and falseness of heart, than doing justice and loving mercy: And both these as well as walking humbly with God, are put in opposition to those ceremonial methods of recommendation, which Balak hoped might have served the turn. From hence appears what he meant by righteous whose death he desires to die.
Whether it was his own character shall now be inquired and in order to determine it, we must take a view of his whole behaviour upon this occasion. When the elders of Moab came to him, though he appears to have been much allured with the rewards offered, yet he had such regard to the authority of God, as to keep the messengers in suspense until he had consulted his will. "And God said to him, Thou shalt not go with them, thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed."* Upon this he dismisses the ambassadors, with an absolute refusal of accompanying them back to their king. Thus far his regard to his duty prevailed; neither does there any thing appear as yet amiss in his conduct. His answer being reported to the king of Moab, a more honorable embassy is immediately dispatched, and greater rewards proposed. Then the iniquity of his heart began to disclose itself. A thorough honest man would without hesitation have repeated his former answer, that he could not be guilty of so infamous a prostitution of the sacred character with which he was invested, as, in the name of a prophet, to curse those whom he knew to be blessed. But instead of this, which was the only honest part in these circumstances that lay before him, he desired the princes of Moab to tarry that night with him also; and, for the sake of the reward, deliberates, whether, by some means or other, he might not be able to obtain leave to curse Israel: to do that, which had been before revealed
* Chap. xxii. 12.
to him to be contrary to the will of God, which yet he resolves not to do without that permission. Upon which, as when this nation afterwards rejected God from reigning over them, he gave them a king in his anger; in the same way, as appears from other parts of the narration, he gives Balaam the permission he desired: For this is the most natural sense of the words. Arriving in the territories of Moab, and being received with particular distinction by the king, and he repeating in person the promise of the rewards he had before made to him by his ambassadors, he seeks, the text says, by sacrifices and enchantments, (what these were is not to our purpose,) to obtain leave of God to curse the people; keeping still his resolution, not to do it without that permission: Which not being able to obtain, he had such regard to the command of God, as to keep this resolution to the last. The supposition of his being under a supernatural restraint, is a mere fiction of Philo: He is plainly represented to be under no other force or restraint, than the fear of God. However, he goes on persevering in that endeavor, after he had declared, that "God had not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither had he seen perverseness in Israel; "* i. e. they were a people of virtue and piety, so far as not to have drawn down, by their iniquity, that curse which he was soliciting leave to pronounce upon them. So that the state of Balaam's mind was this he wanted to do what he knew to be very wicked, and contrary to the express command of God; he had inward checks and restraints, which he could not entirely get over; he therefore casts about for ways to reconcile this wickedness with his duty. How great a paradox soever this may appear, as it is indeed a contradiction in terms, it is the very account which the Scripture gives us of him.
But there is a more surprising piece of iniquity yet behind. Not daring in his religious character, as a pro
* Ver. 21.