Balaam – Part 4: Numbers 23. 13-26

Just as Balak was not a man to accept the answer ‘no’ when he first sent messengers to Balaam, neither was he a man to give up at the first disappointment. Balaam’s failure to curse the children of Israel at the first attempt did not deter. We might take a lesson from that for it is sadly not unknown for the enemies of God’s people to be more determined in pursuing their plans than many believers are in their devotion and service to the Lord.

The context is different but in the parable of the tares the Lord said, ‘while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat’, Matt. 13. 25. Undeterred by the initial setback, Balak said, ‘Come … with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them: thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence’, v. 13. A question is raised as to how much of Israel’s camp Balaam could see from the new vantage point. In the previous article, we suggested that Balaam saw but a fourth part of the camp at his first attempt to curse the people, v. 10. For the second attempt, while the language of verse 13 suggests Balaam still saw only part of the camp, Edersheim following Keil1 favours the reading, ‘Come I pray thee unto another place from whence thou mayest see them in their totality, only the end the uttermost part of them seest thou, but the whole of them thou seest not and from thence curse them me’. Did Balak consider that Balaam’s inability to curse the people thus far was due to the unfavourable location, and, to be successful, Balaam needed to see the whole camp? So Balak ‘brought him into the field of Zophim’, i.e., ‘the field of watchmen’s, a place where, in days of national unrest, sentries would stand watching over the land. It was located on the ‘top of Pisgah’; from that same mountain range Moses was later permitted to view the land, Israel’s promised inheritance, before he died. Moses saw the land, Deut. 34. 1; Balaam, the people to whom the land was promised. 

The sequence of events is repeated: the altars, the sacrifices, Balak standing by his burnt offering, Balaam going forth to seek enchantments against the people of God, and, once again, the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth, Num. 23. 14-16. There is, however, a significant difference. On the first occasion, ‘God (Elohim) met Balaam’, but on this second occasion, ‘the Lord (Jehovah) met Balaam’. Noting the difference, Tatford commented, ‘On the first occasion … the record describes the One who met Balaam as “Elohim”, although stating that “Jehovah” put a word in his mouth. In the second case it was as “Jehovah” the covenant-keeping God of Israel that He met the prophet’.2 In the first parable, Israel is viewed from the standpoint of divine purpose, a people separated from the nations, God’s exclusive possession. But in the second parable they are seen as a people justified before God, standing in covenant relationship with God. In the first parable a chosen people and in the second a cleansed people.

The second parable begins with a specific call to the king, ‘Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor’, v. 18. Since Balak was already standing ‘by his burnt offering’, this was a call to pay attention, to listen carefully, to understand. Why the emphasis? Clearly, Balak had not paid any attention to the first oracle; if he had he would surely have abandoned all further thought of seeking to curse those whom God had not cursed. The first oracle had been ignored, hence the two-fold call to hear with which the second parable begins. How is it with us? How attentive are we to the word of God? 

Three basic themes are developed in the second parable:

1. The infallible God

‘God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?’ In respect of His eternal counsel and purpose, God repents of nothing, ‘For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance’, Rom. 11. 29. ‘He cannot be manipulated by enchantments he cannot be dictated to by seers, even one with the reputation of Balaam’.3 Not one word He has spoken can fail, for He doesn’t lie. Nothing He has determined can be altered, and that is so whether we think of His word regarding blessing or His decrees concerning judgment.4 He is as faithful and sure in His judgements as in His grace.5 In Hebrews chapter 6 verses 13 to 18, the writer says, ‘when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, Saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee … Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things [i.e., His promise and His oath], in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us’. What God says He makes good. But what had He said regarding the nation Balak wanted to curse?

2. The immutable purpose 

Balaam says, ‘Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it’. They were a people blessed of God, and none could rob them of that. We know that since the days of Balak and Balaam the Jewish people have suffered a chequered history of persecutions and pogroms against them. Today, we see an increasing rise of anti-Semitism, and we know from the scriptures there are awesome days that yet lie ahead for that nation but, despite all, God’s purpose to bless them will be realized. In the opening verse of Romans chapter 11, the question is raised, ‘Hath God cast away his people?’ Paul hastens to add, ‘God forbid’, and he indicates in verse 5 that despite the current, judicial, setting aside of the nation there is a remnant today ‘according to the election of grace’. At verse 11, the apostle raises another question, ‘Have they stumbled that they should fall?’, that is, ‘fall irretrievably?’ Again, he says, ‘God forbid’, and looks forward to the day when, in fulfilment of divine purpose, ‘all Israel shall be saved’, v. 26. 

3. The indestructible people

Four things are noted about the people, each the result of divine blessing, Num. 23. 21-24.

a. The divine pronouncement, v. 21

‘He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel’. What a blessing, especially when we remember the bulk of their history thus far had been marked by iniquity and rebellion. Moses will later say, ‘Ye have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you’, Deut. 9. 24. We could think of the broken tables of the Law, the way they despised the manna or their rebellion against their divinely appointed leaders, and yet here ‘no iniquity’ beheld, ‘no perverseness seen’. It is suggested that ‘iniquity’ refers to what is inward, and ‘perverseness’ to what is outward. Remember, Balaam was beholding the whole camp when he said this, and observe that in all the parables he uttered there is not one mention of the people’s sins. How could that be? They were certainly not without sin, but God was looking at them from the standpoint of His covenant, and their standing on redemption ground, perfectly justified before Him. In the midst of the camp, there stood the tabernacle with its blood-stained mercy seat, graphic foreshadowing of the cross-work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only ground of their acceptance before God, the nation an object lesson of God’s abounding grace to cover all their sins. So it will be with the nation in a coming day. Regarding the regathered nation, the Lord has said, ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you’, and in respect of the New Covenant He will yet make with the nation, He said, ‘I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’, Ezek. 36. 25; Jer. 31. 34. What Israel will enjoy in that future day is the blessed portion of all believers in Christ in this present day of grace, ‘Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’, Rom. 3. 24. Well might David say, ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity’, Ps. 32. 1, 2.

b. The divine presence, v. 21

‘The Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them’. We can think again of the tabernacle with the cloud over the Holy of Holies, the visible symbol of God’s presence among them. On account of the abiding presence of God, ‘the shout of a king is among them’. The word for ‘shout’ often denotes the sound of a trumpet blown in time of war or a religious festival and there might be here the idea of the people, in worshipping the Lord, joyfully acclaiming His presence in their midst as their King. Looking on to the future, the prophet Ezekiel speaks of the millennial day when ‘the name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there’, Ezek. 48. 35. But consider the privilege that belongs to believers today, ‘Christ in you [i.e., you Gentiles], the hope of glory’, Col. 1. 27. 



Alfred Edersheim, Bible History, vol. 3, pg. 26; Keil, Bible Commentary, vol. 2, pg. 313.


F. A. Tatford, Prophet from the Euphrates, pg. 41.


G. J. Wenham, Numbers, pg. 175.


Num. 23. 19; 1 Sam. 15. 28, 29.


W. W. Fereday, Jonah and Balaam, pg. 59.


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